The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Operation Reinhard
The Extermination Camps
Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka

The Construction of Larger Gas Chambers

The first period of operation in Belzec and Sobibor lasted about three months, in Treblinka five weeks. After this initial phase, those holding key positions in Operation Reinhard decided to introduce "improvements" into the camps so as to increase their extermination capacity. This decision was brought on by Himmler's order of July 19,1942 that all the Jews in the General Government, with a few exceptions, were to be eradicated by the end of that year.

The main problem was finding a way to speed up the extermination procedure, i.e., increasing the absorption capacity of the gas chambers.

Belzec was the first camp in which large gas chambers were built. The old wooden structure containing the three gas chambers was demolished, and on the same spot a larger, strong building was erected, which was 24 m. Iong and 10 m. wide. It contained six gas chambers. Statements differ as to their size; they fluctuate between 4 x 4 m. and 4 x 8 m. The new gas chambers were completed in mid July. (StA Munich 1, AZ: 22 Js 68/61, pp. 2602, 2613.)

Rudolf Reder was the only one to have survived the Belzec extermination camp. He described the new gas chambers:

The building was low, long, and broad. It was built of grey concrete and had a flat roof made of roofing felt, with a net over it which was covered with branches. Three steps without bar isters led into the building. They were ca. 1 m. wide. In front of the building stood a large flowerpot with colorful flowers and a clearly written placard: "Bath- and inhalation Rooms. " The steps led into a dark, empty corridor which was very long, but only 1.5 m. wide. To the left and right of it were the doors to the gas chambers. They were wooden doors, 1 m. wide... The corridor ant the chambers were lower than normal rooms, no higher than 2 m. In the opposite wall of every chamber was a removable door through which the bodies of the gassed were thrown out. Outside the building was a 2 x 2 m. shed which housed the gas machine. The chambers were 1.5 m. above the ground... (Rudolf Reder, Berzcc, Cracow, 1946, pp. 42 ff.)

These new gas chambers were able to take in 1,500 persons at one and the same time, i.e., a transport of about 15 freight cars. (Verdict of LG Munich 1, AZ: 110 Ks 3/64, p10.)

After he had completed the rebuilding of the Belzec gas chambers, Christian Wirth was appointed inspector of all three extermination camps. He was replaced in Belzec by SS-Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering. Wirth's new headquarters was now in Lublin.

The most urgent need for an increase in the absorption capacity was felt in Treblinka already in the first months of operation, because the small gas chambers there constantly led to chaos in the extermination process. Newly appointed Commandant Stangl therefore ordered the construction of a new building next to the old one. At the same time, the old gas chambers continued to function. Within the framework of this reorganization, he also put an end to the chaotic conditions that had prevailed when the deportees arrived, and he introduced soothing means of deception.

Wirth, in his role as Inspector of the Extermination Camps, sent SS-Unterscharführer Erwin Lambert and Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, who was responsible for the gas chambers in Belzec, to Treblinka to assist in the construction of the new gas chambers.

The new building comprised 10 gas chambers. In place of the three old ones which together measured 48 sq.m., the area now covered was 320 sq.m. The new rooms were 2 m. high, i.e., ca. 60 cm. lower than the old ones. A low ceiling reduced the volume of the room and hence also the amount of gas needed for killing the victims. In addition, it shortened the asphyxiation time.

The new building was rectangular. A dark curtain from a synagogue hung at the entrance to the passage. It had written on it in Hebrew: "This is the gate, through which the righteous may enter."

The pediment above the entrance door bore a Shield of David. Five steps led up to it, both sides of which were decorated with pot plants. The new building, with its idyllic flight of stairs, plants and curtain, stood at the end of the "tube. " The victims who had been chased through the "tube," ran up the stairs to the entrance and into the passage. The engine producing the gas was located at the end of the building, near the old gas chambers.

In order to speed up the construction, a group of Jewish masons was brought from Warsaw. They had been selected from a transport intended for the beginning of September 1942. A total of 40 Jewish prisoners worked on the gas chambers. Jankiel Wiernik described their feelings: The construction of the new building took five weeks. To us it seemed like eternity. The work continued from sunrise to sunset, accompanied by lashes from whips and blows from rifle butts. Woronikow, one of the guards, beat and ill-treated us mercilessly. Every day several workers were murdered. The extent of our physical fatigue was beyond human imagination, hut our mental agony was still greater. New transports arrived daily; the deportees were ordered to undress, then they were taken to the three old gas chambers. They were led past the building site. Several of us recognized our children, wives or relatives among the victims. If, in his agony, someone ran to his family, he was shot on the spot. Thus we built the death chambers for ourselves and for our brothers! (Jankiel Wiernik, 'Rok w Treblmce', Warsaw, l944.)

The new gas chambers were able to accommodate 4,000 persons at a time, the old ones only 600.

Sobibor was the last camp to be provided with larger gas chambers. This construction program was carried out in September 1942 under the supervision of SS-Unterscharfu'hrer Erwin Lambert, who had erected the new gas chambers in Treblinka, and SS-Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, who was in charge of the gas chambers in Belzec. They had both been posted to Sobibor by Christian Wirth.

The new building had six gas chambers, three rooms on each side. Its layout was similar to that in Belzec and Treblinka, where the entrances to the gas chambers branched off from a central passage. The new rooms here were not larger than the old ones, i.e., 4 x 4 m., but the extermination capacity was increased to 1,200-1,300 persons.

Another important technical change in Sobibor was a narrow-gauge mine-track which ran from the railroad platform to the mass graves in Camp III. It was to replace the trolleys pulled by prisoners or horses, which had transported the dead, the sick, and the invalids from the train to the ditches. According to Oberscharführer Hubert Gomerski, who was responsible for Camp III, the narrow-gauge track was about 300 400 m. long. It had 5 or 6 wagons and a small diesel locomotive. (StA Dortmund AZ:45 Js 27/61 <AZ. ZSL: 208 AR-Z 251/59, vol. 7, p. 1)

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