Ruins of the Auschwitz Gas Chambers

Krema II and Krema III

Ruins of Crematorium II at Birkenau, February 1945

At the end of the main camp road, which runs east and west through the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau, one can see the ruins of Crematorium II on the left and to the right, the ruins of Crematorium III. The photograph above, taken in February 1945, shows the ruins of Crematorium II. Today, these buildings are commonly known by their German names: Krema II and Krema III.

A model of Crematorium III is on display in one of the museum buildings at the Auschwitz main camp.

Below is an old picture of Crematorium III just after the building was put into operation in the Summer of 1943. All four of the Crematoria buildings in Birkenau were designed by Walter Dejaco, the same architect who designed the administration building at the entrance to the Auschwitz I camp, and also the Central Sauna building near Crematorium IV where the prisoners took showers.

Crematorium III at Birkenau, as it looked in 1943

In May 1944, the railroad tracks at Auschwitz were extended from the station into the Birkeanu camp so that the trains carrying the Hungarian Jews could be brought inside the camp. The old photo above shows the tracks a few feet from the 10-foot barbed wire fence around Krema III.

According to a book from the Auschwitz Museum, Crematorium III was blown up by the Nazis on Jan. 20, 1945, the same day that Crematorium II was destroyed. A book from the U.S. Holocaust Museum entitled "The World Must Know" by Michael Berenbaum says that "Soviet troops entered Birkenau on January 18, 1945." January 18th was the day that 60,000 prisoners were death-marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Krema II and Krema III were T-shaped brick buildings which were mirror images. Each of the buildings had an underground gas chamber where Jews were murdered with Zyklon-B, a poison gas that was also used for delousing the clothing at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Both buildings are now nothing but ruins; they were blown up by the fleeing Nazis on Jan. 20, 1945, two days after the camp was abandoned.

Ruins of Crematorium II at Birkenau, February 1945

On the ground floor of both crematoria buildings were 5 large ovens where the bodies were cremated after being brought up on an elevator. Each of the ovens had 3 openings, called muffles or retorts, which means that there were actually 15 ovens which could each handle up to 3 bodies at a time.

The underground gas chambers in Krema II and Krema III were not directly underneath the oven room, which was the part of the building that was above ground. The gas chamber rooms were covered only by a reinforced concrete roof and a layer of dirt, so that Zyklon-B, which was in the form of pellets, could be poured into the room through holes in the roof.

In May 1944, the railroad tracks were extended from the Auschwitz train station into the Birkenau camp just before the Hungarian Jews began to arrive. The railroad tracks went all the way to the western end of the Birkenau camp, so that the Hungarian Jews could be brought directly to the gas chambers in Krema II and Krema III, which were located near the end of the main camp road.

The photo below shows Hungarian men, women and children resting in the birch tree grove at the western end of the Birkenau camp, while they wait to enter one of the gas chambers at Birkenau.

Hungarian women and children in Birkenau camp, May 1944

This photo is from the Auschwitz Album, a book of photographs that was found by Lili Jacob in a concentration camp in Germany at the end of the war. The album consists of around 200 photos taken by an SS man at Birkenau when a transport of 3,500 Hungarian Jews arrived in May 1944 from Carpatho-Ruthenia, a region annexed to Hungary from the former country of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Jacob was on this transport; she survived because she was selected to work.

Famous photo shows a mother and her children walking to the gas chamber

The famous photo above was taken on the road that runs north and south through the center of the Birkenau camp. The woman and her children are walking to the north side of the camp where two more gas chambers, called Krema V and Krema IV, were located. The tracks in the photo are narrow gauge tracks used to carry building materials to the new section of the camp, called "Mexico," where barracks were being built for 50,000 more inmates at Birkenau.

One of the survivors of Auschwitz was Samuel Pisar, who was first sent, at the age of 13, to the Majdanek death camp, in August 1943, when the Bialystok ghetto in Poland was liquidated. A few months later, he was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was put to work.

In an article in the Washington Post, published on January 23, 2005, Samuel Pisar wrote the following about his experience at Birkenau:

My labor commando was assigned to remove garbage from a ramp near the Crematoria. From there I observed the peak of human extermination and heard the blood-curdling cries of innocents as they were herded into the gas chambers. Once the doors were locked, they had only three minutes to live, yet they found enough strength to dig their fingernails into the walls and scratch in the words "Never Forget."

One of the Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners, who loaded the corpses of the murdered Jews into the Crematoria ovens after they were killed in the gas chambers with Zyklon-B, was Schlomo Venezia who described his work in an interview with Adam L. Freeman, a reporter with the Bloomberg News, on December 17, 2007. According to Freeman's article, posted on the web site, Schlomo worked for eight months at Birkenau in 1944, "...12 hours a day, seven days a week, cadaver after cadaver until it became a mechanical task, like feeding a heating furnace with cords of wood."

Schlomo Venezia wrote a memoir entitled "Sonderkommando Auschwitz," which was originally published in French; a new Italian version was published in 2007.

The following quote about Schlomo's story is from Adam L. Freeman's article in the Bloomberg News on December 17, 2007:

He recalls, for example, the day he met his father's emaciated cousin in an undressing room at the gas chambers. Venezia offered him the only solace possible, he writes -- some sardines and a lie that the Zyklon B would kill him quickly.

"It was just terrible to have to lie, but there was no way around it,'' Venezia explains. "I tried in some way to make the horrible situation easier.''

The Sonderkommandos, as the prisoners working at the gas chambers were known, were privy to how the Nazis went about their butchery. Determined to keep their methods secret, the Nazis killed members of these units at regular intervals, making Venezia's memoir rare.

He was 20 years old at the time; he will turn 84 on Dec. 29. His own mother was murdered at the camp while he worked at the ovens -- one of more than 1 million Jews killed there.

As we talk over a table of ties in his one-room shop near the Trevi Fountain, Venezia remains almost motionless. His Hungarian-born wife, Marika, tends to shoppers entering through the glass door. At one point, she places a box of coffee-filled chocolates between us.

The descendant of an old Jewish family from Spain and Italy, Venezia was born in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, where he grew up fatherless and poor, speaking Greek, Italian and Ladino, a Spanish-Jewish dialect.

Poverty sharpened his wits, he says. Working the black market in Nazi-occupied Greece, Venezia learned some German, which may have saved his life. In the camp, he escaped beatings by understanding when guards shouted out the number tattooed on his arm: 182727.

Cutting the hair off cadavers, pulling their gold teeth and dragging them to the furnaces became mechanical, Venezia says, because it was the only way to stay sane. The routine broke down only once, he recalls, when the prisoners were confronted with the lifeless body of a woman possessing "the absolute beauty of an ancient statue.''

She looked like "a woman in a painting,'' Venezia says, pausing for a moment in reflection. "Like Mona Lisa.'' Yet there was nothing to do but cremate her.

Another day, his unit found a live baby trying to suck its dead mother's breast among a heap of corpses in a gas chamber. The prisoners watched without protest as a Nazi guard unloaded his pistol into the infant.

"There were so many terrible things that happened,'' he says. "Every day it was something else.''

Venezia also witnessed the sometimes absurd machinations of the Nazi bureaucracy. When one prisoner attempted suicide, he recalls, a doctor treated his self-inflicted wounds, making him fit to be gassed.

As the Soviet Army neared Auschwitz, confusion swept through the camp, allowing Sonderkommandos like Venezia and his brother to mix with other prisoners. German soldiers marched some 5,000 survivors for days through the freezing Polish winter until they were out of reach of Soviet troops. Then they herded the prisoners onto trains bound for Austria, where they were eventually freed by U.S. forces.

Venezia never talked about Auschwitz -- even with his wife and children -- until he visited the camp in 1992. At the time, Italy was experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and he decided to tell his story.

Since then, he has returned to Auschwitz 46 times, often accompanying groups. He gives talks at schools across Italy, and he spoke to Rome soccer team Lazio after striker Paolo Di Canio was suspended for making Fascist salutes.

Another member of the Sonderkommando who survived was Henryk Mandelbaum who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944.

The following quote is from The Toronto Star on June 21, 2008:

Soon after a 21-year-old Henryk Mandelbaum arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944, he was taken to a gas chamber filled with the lifeless bodies of fellow Jews.

He would become accustomed to the sight. During more than nine months as a member of the Sonderkommando, the group of prisoners the Nazis forced to assist in the disposal of the gassed, Mandelbaum "saw everything from beginning to end," said Auschwitz-Birkenau museum historian Igor Bartosik ­ "people going into the changing rooms, he saw people changing, he saw the moment of the gassing, the throwing of the Zyklon into the gas chambers, he heard the screams."

Mandelbaum's daily routine: help remove hair, gold teeth and hidden jewelry from the dead; carry them to the crematoria; load them into the ovens.

"I thought," he said in 2006, "I was in hell. Fire and smoke were everywhere. I had to clean the gas chambers and put the bodies in the crematoria, or burn them outside when the extermination was in full swing and the crematoria were not enough ... we then had to crush the bones into powder and throw it in the river."

Sonderkommando members were habitually executed. Fewer than 150 of more than 2,000 who served in the group at Auschwitz-Birkenau survived. But Mandelbaum escaped during a January 1945 "death march," then spent decades speaking about his experience and leading group tours of the camp.

Although Krema II was blown up by the Nazis two days after they abandoned the camp, the underground gas chamber is still intact and can be entered by crawling through a hole in the roof, which was created when the building was dynamited.

The underground gas chambers were held up by concrete columns, and originally there were also wire-mesh columns designed to hold the Zyklon-B pellets so that they could be retrieved after the gassing. These wire-mesh columns were removed by the Nazis, prior to blowing up the buildings, and can no longer be seen. The holes through which the gas was poured are shown on aerial photos taken of the camp when the gas chambers were in operation. The roof of the Krema III gas chamber was completely destroyed when the building was blown up and the holes cannot be seen today. The roof of the Krema II building was badly damaged and the location of the holes for pouring Zyklon-B pellets into the gas chamber cannot be found.

An aerial photo taken by the Allies in December 1944 shows that the Germans had removed the roofs over Crematoria II and III, as they began dismantling the interior of the facilities in preparation for abandoning the death factory at Birkenau.

In 1946, Rudolf Höss, the Camp Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1940 to 1943, was captured in northern Germany by a British army unit called the Jewish Brigade. He signed a confession, written in English, in which he admitted that 9,000 Jews were gassed each day at Birkenau. After a trial in Poland, he was hanged in front of the gas chamber building in the Auschwitz main camp on April 16, 1947.

Here is an excerpt from the confession of Rudolph Höss, as printed in the book entitled "Auschwitz," sold at the Museum. This is a description of the gassing procedure in Krema II and Krema III.

"Those Jews selected for extermination were brought as quietly as possible, men and women separately, to the [buildings housing the gas chambers and] crematoria. In the undressing room, the Sonderkommando prisoners who worked there would tell them in their native language that they were now going for a shower and delousing. They were instructed to fold their clothes tidily and to make sure they remembered precisely where they had left them so that they would be able to find them quickly afterwards...

After undressing, the Jews were sent into the gas chamber: it had shower installations and water pipes so that it would look just like a shower room, but in fact it was a gas chamber. The women and children were sent in first, then the men, always fewer in number...

The levers locking the door were then quickly shut tight. Fumigators who were on stand-by outside then immediately emptied the Zyklon B down through special shafts that opened into outlets in the ceiling...

Through a peep-hole in the door one could see that the people standing nearest the outlets dropped dead immediately....

Half an hour after the gas had been introduced, the door was opened, the ventilation system was switched on, and removal of the corpses began right away... The Sonderkommando extracted any gold teeth, cut off the women's hair, and then loaded the corpses on to lifts to take them up to the incinerators, which had been stoked up in advance. Depending on the size of the corpses, up to three could be put into an incinerator at the same time."

Scale model of Krema II at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a scale model of Crematorium II on display; it is shown in the photo above.

The following quote is from a book which I purchased at USHMM:

"Victims arrived in Crematorium II through a stairway leading down to the undressing room. Here, SS guards told them to surrender their valuables and undress for delousing showers. Victims were told to remember where they had left their clothing. Posters bearing slogans such as Cleanliness Brings Freedom and One Louse Can Kill were designed to misrepresent the showers as hygienic. Most victims were deceived. The undressing room in Crematorium II could accommodate about a thousand people. Once the victims had stripped nude, the guards herded them into an underground gas chamber. Women and children - who were normally the majority - always went in first. Fake shower heads in the ceiling were intended to fool victims into believing that they were about to shower. As soon as the chamber had been filled, sealed and locked, SS guards poured in Zyklon B pellets through special vents in the roof. The pellets fell to the floor, releasing their deadly gas. Most victims died quickly. After about twenty minutes, ventilating machines sucked out the poisonous air. When all were dead, their bodies were pillaged and burned. Under SS guard, prisoners hauled the corpses into an adjacent room, where gold teeth and fillings were removed and hair was shaved off the heads of dead women. Finally, a freight elevator lifted the corpses to an incineration room on the ground floor. The bodies were stuffed into ovens, three or four at a time. Crematorium II had fifteen ovens, which could burn between forty-five and seventy-five corpses at once, and about one thousand people in one day."

Near Crematorium II is a low spot in the ground which is filled with water covered by green algae. In 1998, my guide told me that this was not the pond where the ashes of the Jews were scattered, although some books show a picture of this area with a caption saying that this is the site of the ashes. When I visited again in 2005, there were four black marble stones at the pond, which said in four languages that this is a site where ashes from the crematorium were dumped. On my visit in October 2005, I saw another pond near Crematorium III with four black marble markers indicating that this was another spot containing the ashes of the murdered Jews.

The actual pond where the ashes were placed, according to my 1998 tour guide, was near Crematorium IV; we passed it on the way back on another main camp road, which ends at the former SS administration building at Birkenau. This pond is very shallow and, when I was there in 1998, it had what appeared to be a piece of rusted machinery sticking up in the middle of it. When I saw the pond again in October 2005, the rusted machinery was no longer there, but there was a similar object in the ruins of Krema V. The water in the pond was murky and there were no identifiable ashes around the perimeter of it. Across the road from the pond is a low area almost as large as the pond, which is now a bog filled with plants unlike any others in the camp. This spot, which is near Krema V, is now also marked as a site where ashes were dumped. According to the book "Auschwitz," the Nazis also scattered ashes of the gassing victims in the nearby Sola and Vistula rivers.

In a book entitled "Secretaries of Death," a survivor named Irka Anis wrote that one night in the middle of January 1945, she and several other female prisoners were ordered to work for three days removing about 6,000 huge urns containing ashes from a crematorium at Birkenau; the ashes were loaded onto trucks and removed from the camp just before the Nazis fled.

Gas Chambers in Krema IV and V

Gas Chambers in Bunkers 1 and 2

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This page was last updated on February 2, 2008