The Death Camps

Nazi concentration camps served several distinct purposes. Some were transition points that held people en route to other camps. Others were labor camps designed to rely on free labor to produce goods for the war effort. While tens of thousands of Jews died in these transit and labor camps, six camps had the sole function of extermination: Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Chelmno.

All six death camps were in Poland. The first one to open was Chelmno, near Lodz. It began its gruesome work in December 1941. Between 150,000 and 340,000 Jews were gassed in mobile vans until the camp closed in the spring of 1943 (estimates vary).

The second camp placed in operation was Belzec, where 600,000 Jews were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning between March 1942 and the spring of 1943. A quarter million Jews died in Sobibor between May 1942 and October 1943. During the year Majdanek was functioning (1942–1943), 170,000 Jews were gassed. At Treblinka, 800,000 Jews were killed by gas between July 1942 and October 1943.


The largest and most infamous of the death camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp that expanded its operations in January 1942 and continued its grisly work until November 1944. While most of the victims at other death camps were Eastern European Jews, Auschwitz became the graveyard of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Western Europe as well. At the height of Auschwitz-Birkenau's operation, four gas chambers gassed 8,000 Jews a day with a gas known as Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide). The total number of Jewish victims of Auschwitz is estimated to be one million.

Disposing of three million corpses was no easy task. Special units of prisoners, called Sonderkommandos, removed the bodies from the gas chambers and cremated them. In many of the death camps, the only prisoners to survive did so because they belonged to a Sonderkommando.

The German Involvement

After the war was over and the world learned about the death camps, the German citizenry expressed shock and insisted that they knew nothing about the systematic murder of the Jews, but it is hard to accept their assertions. About 900,000 Germans served in the SS and were directly involved in the execution of the Final Solution, and many of them were proud of their service to their country. In fact, some even bragged of their exploits to friends and family, sending photographs of the murders taking place at the killing pits. And soldiers in the German army also knew what was going on—many of the troops were in close proximity to the Einsatzgruppen as it was conducting mass executions of 1.5 million Jews.

Well over 1 million Germans were employed in the rail system that transported the Jews to their deaths. Without the efficient operation of the transport trains, death camps such as Auschwitz would never have admitted so many victims. German citizens also received the belongings of the Jews—jewelry, watches, and other valuables—as they entered the camps.

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