Gassing Soviet POWs

Inspired by the “euthanasia” killings, the Auschwitz SS built its own gas chamber to murder Soviet POWs. Following a trial around late August 1941, Commandant Höss ordered a first mass gassing in September 1941, killing hundreds of Soviet soldiers (and sick prisoners from the Auschwitz infirmary). More gassings followed. Looking back at the invention of the Auschwitz gas chamber, not long before his own execution in April 1947, the former commandant Rudolf Höss recalled his sense of relief: gassing prisoners proved less difficult for the perpetrators than shooting them. Höss also claimed that it was a gentler death for the victims, blanking out the dreadful death struggle inside the sealed chamber.

072 – Former commandant Rudolf Höss on the first gassings in Auschwitz

Before the mass extermination of the Jews began, however, Russian political commissars were liquidated in 1941/42 in almost all the concentration camps […]. The first small transports [to Auschwitz] were shot by execution squads. While I was away on SS business my deputy [Karl] Fritzsch, the head of the protective custody camp, had used gas instead, in fact Zyklon B, the prussic acid preparation that was constantly in use in the camp to control vermin and so was readily available. He reported this to me when I returned, and when the next transport arrived this gas was used again. The gassing was carried out in the Block 11 punishment cells. I witnessed the killings using a gasmask for protection. The cells were crammed full and people died as soon as the gas was introduced. A few brief cries, already almost choked, and then it was over. […]

I must admit that I was relieved by this gassing

At that time I had no second thoughts about the killing as such of Russian POWs, for I had my orders and had to carry them out. Yet I must admit that I was relieved by this gassing […]. I always had a horror of the shootings […]. I was now relieved that we were all to be spared these bloodbaths and that the victims themselves could be treated more humanely right up to the last moment.

Source: M. Broszat (ed.), Kommandant in Auschwitz (Munich, 1994), pp. 187–90

Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes