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Gas Vans

Last Update 22 August 2006

Horrified by his observations during an execution conducted by Einsatzgruppe B in Minsk, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the development of a different method for the mass murder of Jews and other groups considered as sub-human by the Nazis. Albert Widmann from the KTI (Kriminaltechnisches Institut / Institute for Criminal Technology) at the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt / Main Security Office of the Reich) and Arthur Nebe, chief of the Reichskriminalpolizeiamt (C.I.D. office of the Reich) developed the method of using exhaust fumes, to kill people by gassing in mobile gas chambers: Gas trailers and Gaswagen (gas vans).

First experiences took place in Poland from late 1939 until June 1940. The special command Sonderkommando Lange used at least one trailer with the advertising inscription "Kaiser's Kaffee". Within this mobile gas chamber mentally ill persons from Warthegau, Danzig, Ostpreußen, and Pommern were gassed. The killers used carbon monoxide gas from gas cylinders. The same method was used later in the gas chambers of the Nazi euthanasia Aktion T4.
Gas vans had also been used on a trial basis at the concentration camps Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen.

Diamond 38 Reo
Opel Blitz
The RSHA office II D 3a was responsible for construction, employment, drivers and the provision of spare parts for the gas vans. During WW2 two types were used: small versions with about 3.5t payload for about 50 persons (Diamond, Opel Blitz, and Renault) and bigger ones with approximately 5t payload for around 70 victims (Saurer). The wagons had an air-sealed car-body and looked like furniture vans. With a removable tube the exhaust fumes could be led into the car body. A barred lamp could be used to illuminate the interior.

SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff was in charge of all Gestapo vehicles, including gas vans. Rauff (chief of section II D3., Technical Service of the Sipo) ordered SS-Hauptsturmführer Friedrich Pradel (section II D3., chief of the Technical Service of the Reichskriminalpolizeiamt) and Harry Wentritt (section II D3.a, chief of the repair shop of the Reichskriminalpolizeiamt) to visit the Gaubschat Fahrzeugwerke GmbH, Willi-Walter Straße 32-38, Berlin. This company produced superstructures for lorries and buses. At the factory both men pretended, that the vans would be used to transport the corpses of epidemic victims. The chassis (probably Renault) were to be delivered by the RSHA. Ultimately the complete delivery failed and the RSHA could not fulfil the intended supply and only delivered 5 or 6 chassis [2 February 1961, StA Hannover, Az. 2 Js 299/60 / Zentrale Stelle Ludwigsburg, Az. 415 AR-Z 220/59, Bl.260b]. However, according to Pradels statements, about 20 gas vans had been delivered by 23 June 1942 out of the initial 30 vans ordered from Gaubschat. Rauff proposed certain amendments to the remaining 10 vehicles, but Gaubschat said it was unable to carry out these alterations because of a lack of labour and materials. Consideration was given to diverting the order to the firm of Sodomka at Hohenmauth (Vysoké Mýto, Czech Republik), but was discarded since Sodomka was a Czech firm in a Czech area with a Czech workforce and was thus believed to constitute a security risk. In the event, only one of the 10 remaining vehicles was modified by Gaubschat. Pradel reported:
"Those alterations that Gaubschat cannot make because of their secret nature will be done in our own shop. The vans were finally changed to gas vans at Wentritt's KTI repair shop.
According to Jewish forced labourers were imprisoned in the factory complex.

Prior to gassing, the victims were ordered to hand over their valuables. They then had to undress and finally entered the gas vans. The two doors at the back of the wagons were closed, and the tube then locked to the exhaust. To calm down the naked victims a lamp was switched on for some minutes. The driver then started the motor, which ran in neutral gear for about ten minutes. During this time the motor produced enough carbon monoxide to suffocate the victims. As they were so crowded together there was lack of air anyway. When the screaming and pounding had stopped, the driver started the drive to the cremation site. There Jewish men, who would not be permitted to remain alive, were forced to unload the corpses and cremate them.
Sometimes the victims were gassed at the site of their mass grave; e.g. in Stalino where on Easter Monday 1942 200 - 300 Jews were killed in gas vans and their corpses pushed into the shaft of a coal mine.

Gas Trailer
Gas Trailer
Gas vans were used on a large scale by the Einsatzgruppen in Byelorussia and the Ukraine. Here thousands of persons, mainly Jews, were killed by the use of these wagons. For example, thousands of Jews from the Minsk Ghetto lost their lives in gas vans which were stationed at the extermination site Maly Trostinec, 12 km southwest of Minsk.
Eberhard von Thadden, a Foreign Office official who succeeded Franz Rademacher as head of the Jewish desk, noted in his diary a visit by representatives of the Italian Fascist Party to Generalkommissar Wilhelm Kube in Minsk on 15 May 1943. Kube showed the visitors a church that was being used as a warehouse. The diary entry continues:
"The Italians asked about the little packages and suitcases that were piled up in the church. Kube explained that this was all that was left of the Jews who had been deported from Minsk. Then he showed them a gas chamber in which he said Jews had been gassed. The Fascists were severely shaken."

At least 152,000 people were gassed by the use of gas vans at the Chelmno extermination camp near Lodz.

In addition there were also experimental trials at the Belzec extermination camp. SS-Oberscharführer Lorenz Hackenholt and Siegfried Graetschus, under the supervision of Christian Wirth, converted a grey painted Post Office parcels delivery van into a mobile gassing van.
In the internment camp Sajmiste (Semlin) at Zemun on the Danube 6,280 Jews were killed by a special command using gas vans.

The well-known photos of the Magirus van which was found in Kolo (near Chelmno) after the war, probably do not show a gas van. See this correspondence:

Enquires on the Killing of the Gombin Jews

Leon Zamosc
Date: 25 August 1995
Subject: Gas vans, Chelmno
From: Leon Zamosc
I am trying to find a photograph or any other graphic illustration of the gas vans used at Chelmno and other places. Has anyone seen anything in books or elsewhere? I am also interested in pictures of the Chelmno camp. Will welcome any reference.
Leon Zamosc
University of California, San Diego

Date: 11 October 1995
Subject: Re: Gas vans in Chelmno
From: Jerzy Halbersztadt

Dr. Leon Zamosc was interested few weeks ago in finding a graphic illustration of the gas vans used at Chelmno.
I made some survey (with an assistance of Marek Jannasz) and here are the results:

Magirus Wreck #1
Magirus Wreck #1
Magirus Wreck #2
Magirus Wreck #2
The case of Chelmno death camp was investigated by the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (it was the commission's name at the beginning of it's existence) starting from May 1945. The commission received the information that in the town KOLO (ca. 12 km from Chelmno) in the former factory of Ostrowski there was a van which, according to the witnesses, was used in the death center at Chelmno. The van was found, photographed and researched.
The photos taken then are available in the Main Commission's Archives in Warsaw (signatures 47398, 47396, 47397, 47399; the best one is 47398). The captions of these photographs are till today: "a car for killing people by the exhaust fumes at Chelmno". One of these photos was reproduced in Fleming's book "Hitler and the Final Solution" with the information that it is a photograph of a "gaswagon" used in Chelmno.

Magirus Wreck #3
Magirus Wreck #3
Magirus Wreck #4
Magirus Wreck #4
Despite of their captions, the photographs do not show the gas van used in the Chelmno death camp. It is clear from the testimonies of Polish witnesses kept in the same archives of the Main Commission (collection "Ob", file 271 and others). Witnesses to whom the van photographed in Kolo was shown did not confirm that it was one of those used in Chelmno for killing people. Some of them only said that it was similar to those described in their testimonies, but not the same. The most common answer was: "I didn't see this one".
The inspection of the van in Ostrowski factory, done on 13 November 1945 by the judge J.Bronowski, did not confirm the existence of any elements of system of gassing of the van's closed platform. The witnesses called this van "a pantechnicon van" (a van to transport furniture). It was produced by Magirus-Werke with a diesel type engine of Deutz. The plate on the engine stated: Humboldt-Deutz A.G. Magirus-Werke Ulm (Donau) Baujahr 1939 Lieferdat 739 Abn-Stempel. Fahrgestell Nr. 9282/38 Nutzlast kg 2700 Fahrgestell-Baumuster 023. Eigengewicht 4980 kg. Motor Baumuster FoM 513 zul. Gesamtgew. 7900 Leistung P.S. 105 cm3 7412. Zulässige Achsendrücke vorn kg 2400 hinten 5500."
The thickness of the car's wooden body was 7 cm, of the door - 8 cm. The walls, door, ceiling and floor were covered from the inside with the 2 mm sheet iron. The car was painted in grey- lead color. Under this paint the inscription was seen on the door of the cab: Otto Koehn Spedition Ruf 516 Zeulen .....da i.TH".

I cite all these details to make possible the further comments to the story of this van. It is my feeling that there are some unclear points in this story. Nobody explained for what purpose this van was used? Its door was tightened with an impregnated canvas. What for? Some witnesses had seen this car in the area of the forest of Chelmno starting from the spring of 1942. It is possible that it belonged to the SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof, too. I came across a version that this van was used for a disinfection of victims' clothes but there are no grounds for it.
In 1945 the prosecutors came to the conclusion that this van was not a gas van of Chelmno. The van was left incomplete and not serviceable in Ostrowski's factory at least till 1950. The last known documents (a correspondence between the Association of Combatants "ZBoWiD" in Kolo and the Main Commission) of April 1950 inform that there was an idea to move this van to the museum in Auschwitz or Majdanek. (till 1990 there was no museum in the Chelmno forest; first monument was erected there in 1964). Those plans were not accomplished and the van was scrapped, probably.
Thus, there is no reliable graphic illustration of the gas vans used in Chelmno. However, the testimonies of witnesses contain many important data on these vehicles. In 1945 and later Polish authorities examined some Poles who stayed in the area of Chelmno after the removal of the vast majority of the Polish population to the GG in 1939-1940. The witnesses were able to identify gas vans very well. They declared that there were three or four gas vans, one of them was a bit bigger. All of them were black. The cars' bodies were boxes made of boards. The length of a biggest vehicle was 5.5-6 m. It was ca. 2.5 m high and 2.5 m wide. Each vehicle was guarded all the time (even during the repair in the local factories) by two watchmen, who did not give anybody the access to the van and, especially, to the chassis and the closed box (platform).

However, at least three witnesses were able to see the vehicles from the short distance. Mr. Jozef Piaskowski (b. 1908) was employed in the Reichsstraßenbauamt in Kolo (former Ostrowski factory). In the winter 1941/42 he was ordered to repair the damaged cooler in the biggest of Chelmno vans. Piaskowski was an experienced driver. He declared later that he has never seen the motor of this type. "The motor was a bit odd". "It was enormous". The most interesting in his report is the description of the exhaust system. He has noticed that the exhaust pipe was divided into three parts. First and third were done of metal as in normal cars. But, the central part was done of the elastic, "hydraulic" pipe which could joint both standard tubes or could be screwed to the holen the van's floor. After the repair of the cooler, when the motor was tested, so much exhaust fumes were produced that the air in the garage (size 30 m x 12 m) started immediately to be blue. The German bosses ordered to open all windows and doors. The workers who spent a very short time in the polluted air have got headache. The witness heard later their comments that the motor of this car uses 75 liters of petrol per 100 km, so twice more than normal motors do. Piaskowski stated that he had seen two military type gas-masks in the driver's cab. Piaskowski's colleague, Mr. Bronislaw Mankowski (b. 1882), confirmed his story and added that he had seen the van when the middle part of the exhaust tube was joint to the hole in the car's floor. Mankowski declared that he looked inside the box when the watchmen left their posts for a while. He had seen a hole covered with a perforated sheet iron in the middle of the wooden floor.
Another witness, Mr. Bronislaw Falborski (b. 1910), was employed in the Kraft company in Kolo where the vehicles of the SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof were repaired starting from 1942. In the summer of 1942 he received the order to repair one of the gas vans. His description of the exhaust pipe is in general the same as done by witnesses cited above. The only (but important) difference is the description of the connection of elastic pipe with the hole in the car's floor. According to Falborski (who made even a picture) they were joint by two fasteners tightened by four screws. It seems that this connection was permanent, quite difficult to change and only optionally substituted by the standard connection of both metal parts of the exhaust pipe as in normal cars. Falborski's report seems reliable as his task was to make this connection air-tight by the change of the packing between two fasteners.
The cases of the repair of gas vans in the local workshops of Kolo seem to be rare and exceptional. Probably it happened only in necessity when it was impossible to use military - or SS-motor services.
The Chelmno death center stopped to operate many months before the liberation of this site. The gas vans were very easy to move from the area of Chelmno-Kolo and to change into standard vans with very little signs of their previous function. It is very difficult to think that SS murders (who tried to destroy all evidences of genocide, like crematoria, camps, corpses, etc.) could simply forget a gas van near to Chelmno or elsewhere.

Jerzy Halbersztadt
University of Warsaw and US Holocaust Museum, Washington, DC.

The pictures of the Diamond, Opel, Saurer, and gas trailer are not original. They just show their possible appearance.

Kogon, Eugen; Langbein, Hermann; Rückerl, Adalbert; eds. Nazi Mass Murder, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993

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