A mobile gas van used to murder Jews at the Chełmno death camp being examined by reporters, Poland, ca. 1945. Photograph by Nachman Zonabend. (YIVO)

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Killing Centers

Camps created by the Nazis (at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Chełmno) to murder Jews. As the slaughter of Jews in the Soviet Union got underway in the summer of 1941, primarily by firing squads, Nazi officials began to entertain different methods of murder for Polish Jewry and the remainder of European Jews. Firing squads were too slow, public, and costly, and took an emotional toll on some of the shooters. The initial planning of elements of Aktion Reinhard—a scheme to murder most of Polish Jewry—began during the summer of 1941, and construction of the Bełżec installations began in late October.

The first experimental gassing at Auschwitz using the pesticide Zyklon-B was conducted in September 1941. Plans for constructing the killing center at Birkenau began a few months later. Construction of the Chełmno camp, where gas vans were employed, began in October. Planning and construction of the Majdanek center began in the summer of 1941; construction began at Sobibór in March 1942 and in Treblinka in late May or early June of that year, with both camps based on the Bełżec model. Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka (Operation Reinhard camps), and Birkenau also met two important criteria—they were remote yet were along or near a central rail line—that facilitated secrecy and efficient transportation of the victims.

Memorial at Treblinka death camp designed by Franciszek and Adam Haupt, Treblinka, Poland. Photograph by Monika Krajewska. (Courtesy of the photographer)

The centers, except for Majdanek, were given regional responsibilities, as reflected by their geographic locations. Chełmno, in the Warthegau (part of western Poland annexed by Germany), was set up to murder the Jews of Łódź and German-annexed western Poland. Bełżec, situated on the southern edge of the Lublin district, was constructed to murder Jews of eastern and western Galicia and the southern part of the Lublin district. Sobibór, situated near the Bug River, was assigned to murder Jews from parts of the Lublin and Radom districts. Treblinka was located in the northern part of the Warsaw district and was designated to murder the Jews there and from parts of the Radom, Lublin, and Białystok districts.

Jews from the Reich, Bohemia-Moravia, Slovakia, France, Holland, Yugoslavia, and Greece were also murdered in Treblinka and Sobibór. Auschwitz-Birkenau, like Chełmno, was located in a part of western Poland annexed by Germany and was used for killing the remaining Jews of Poland who had not been sent to other camps, as well as most of the Jews of central, western, and southern Europe. Majdanek, just south of Lublin, was not authorized to murder Jews of one particular region; Jews from Poland and from other parts of Europe were killed there.

It is estimated that more than 3 million Jews were murdered in these camps: 1,100,000 in Auschwitz-Birkenau; 870,000 in Treblinka; more than 500,000 in Bełżec; 300,000 in Chełmno; 250,000 in Sobibór; and 60,000–80,000 in Majdanek. There were many attempts to escape and a number of prisoner revolts, but in the end, only a tiny percentage survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. Very few Jews survived the Aktion Reinhard and Chełmno camps.

Suggested Reading

Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Bloomington, Ind., 1987); Michael Berenbaum and Yisrael Gutman, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington, Ind., 1994); Shemu’el Krakovski, Kefar nidaḥ be-Eropah: Ḥelmno (Kulmhof); Maḥaneh ha-hashmadah ha-Natsi ha-rishon (Jerusalem, 2001).