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Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Stories of Berga What Would You Do? Timeline & Maps Berga and Beyond War Crimes
Intro Prisoners of War Civillian Prisoners
Civilian Prisoners
Intro The Civilian Camp System Extermination Camps Labor Camps Transit Camps The Berga Camp

Prisoners; an oven

Nazi political prisoners and an example of the ovens in which their remains were cremated.
Extermination Camps

From 1941 to mid-1942, six permanent extermination camps were established in occupied Poland, all part of the "SS State" under the command of Heinrich Himmler. Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek were originally concentration and P.O.W. camps; Chelmno, Sobibor, Teblinka, and Belzec were specifically designed as death camps to carry out Operation Reinhard, the official code-name for the Final Solution, the Nazis' systematic mass murder of Jews. The beginning of the Final Solution is often said to have corresponded with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

There were 12 extermination camps in Germany and Poland durning World War II.

SS guards

S.S. Guards at the Belzec extermination camp stand at attention.
Yet the Nazi practice of organized execution can be traced back to its Euthanasia program, developed to exterminate citizens -- often mental patients and the physically disabled -- who were deemed unfit for life. As part of this program, the Nazis began experimenting with poison gas in 1939. After the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, the German Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing units, murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians, often Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and the mentally ill. As an alternative to mass shootings, the Einsatzgruppen turned to gas vans, hermetically sealed trucks that diverted engine exhaust into an interior compartment. Gas proved more efficient, less expensive, and less psychologically taxing on the executioners.

From 1941 to mid-1942, six permanent extermination camps were established in occupied Poland.
Gas vans took the place of firing squads at Chelmno, the first camp built solely for the purpose of extermination. Belzec was the first camp to be installed with permanent gas chambers, allowing for the possibility to kill 15,000 people a day; eventually, 600,000 Jews were murdered at Belzec. Majdanek employed various forms of execution in addition to gassing, including hanging, drowning, strangling, beating, trampling, and mass shootings. Auschwitz-Birkenau, which began as a concentration camp for Polish civilians and Soviet P.O.W.s, became the largest of the extermination centers after it installed permanent gas chambers in 1943. There, the first experiments were performed with Zyklon B, a poisonous gas composed of hydrocyanic acid, which would become the preferred agent for Nazi gassings. Scholars believe between 1 and 1.5 million Jews lost their lives at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazi extermination camps were designed to convince victims they were on their way to labor or transit camps, unaware of their fate until the moment of their deaths. After their arrival, prisoners were forced to run from their trains, so that they would not have an opportunity to stop and think about what they were being forced to do. In each camp, a few hundred prisoners were removed to perform physical labor. Called Sonderkommandos, these special work teams were forced to perform service jobs around the camp, to sort through confiscated Jewish possessions, to remove gold fillings from the teeth of executed prisoners, and to remove corpses from gas chambers and cremate them. Members of these teams usually worked for a month or two before they were executed.

In 1944, Jewish Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz-Birkenau revolted, and other camps saw rebellions as well. The overwhelming majority of those who tried to flee during such outbreaks were eventually caught and killed, but a number did escape. In 1943, four hundred prisoners escaped during an uprising at Sobibor led by a Soviet P.O.W. named Alexander Percherski. Half of the prisoners were killed by land mines outside the camp; 100 reached freedom, and 35 survived through the war. That same year, a revolt took place at Treblinka in which several hundred managed to escape, no more than 60 of whom survived through the war.

Nevertheless, the extermination camps were just what their name implies. Nearly every single one of the millions of individuals sent to these camps was murdered.

-- John Uhl

© 2003 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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