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Extermination camp (German Vernichtungslager) was the term applied to a group of camps set up by Nazi Germany during World War II for the express purpose of killing the Jews of Europe, although members of some other groups whom the Nazis wished to exterminate, such as Roma (Gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war, as well as many Poles and others, were also killed in these camps. This was part of what has become known as the Holocaust. These camps are also known as death camps.
Extermination camps should be distinguished from concentration camps (such as Dachau and Belsen), which were mostly located in Germany and intended as places of incarceration and forced labor for a variety of "enemies of the state" or Nazi regime (such as Communists and homosexuals). In the early years of the Nazi regime, many Jews were sent to these camps, but after 1942 all Jews were deported to the extermination camps.
They should also be distinguished from slave labor camps, which were set up in all German-occupied countries to exploit the labor of prisoners of various kinds, including prisoners of war. Many Jews were worked to death in these camps, but eventually the Jewish labor force, no matter how useful to the German war effort, was destined for extermination. In all Nazi camps there were very high death rates as a result of starvation, disease and exhaustion, but only the extermination camps were designed specifically for mass killing.
The method of killing at these camps was by poison gas, usually in "gas chambers", although many prisoners were killed in mass shootings and by other means. The bodies of those killed were destroyed in crematoria (except at Sobibór where they were cremated on outdoor pyres), and the ashes buried or scattered.
Most accounts of the Holocaust recognise six extermination camps, all located in occupied Poland. These were:
- Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) (Auschwitz I was a concentration camp and Auschwitz III a labor camp)
- Chelmno (German: Kulmhof an der Nehr, Polish: Chelmno nad Nerem)
Of these, Auschwitz II and Chelmno were located within areas of western Poland annexed by Germany - the other four were located within the General Government area.
Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibór were constructed during Operation Reinhard, the code name for the systematic killing of the Jews of Europe, widely known under the euphemism, the "final solution of the Jewish question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). The operation was decided at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 and carried out under the administrative control of Adolf Eichmann.
These camps, plus Chelmno, which had been built earlier, were pure extermination camps, built solely to kill vast numbers of Jews within hours of arrival. In addition, many non-Jews were also killed in these camps, mostly (non-Jewish) Poles and Soviet prisoners of war.
The number of people killed at the seven major camps has been estimated as follows:
- Auschwitz II: about 1,100,000
- Belzec: 436,000
- Chelmno: 340,000
- Majdanek: 300,000 to 350,000
- Sobibór: 260,000
- Treblinka: at least 700,000, possibly over 1,000,000
- Maly Trostenets: at least 200,000, possibly over 500,000
This gives a total of at least 3,200,000, and possibly 3,800,000. Of these, over 90% were Jews. These seven camps thus accounted for about half the total number of Jews killed in the entire Nazi Holocaust. Virtually the whole Jewish population of Poland died in these camps.
As the Soviet armed forces advanced into Poland in 1944, the camps were closed and partly or completely dismantled to conceal what had taken place in them. The postwar Polish Communist government further partly dismantled the campsites, and generally allowed them to decay. Monuments of various kinds were erected at the camps, although these usually did not mention that the people killed in them were nearly all Jews.
After the fall of Communism in 1991, the camp sites became more accessible and have become centres of tourism, particularly at Auschwitz, the best-known of them. There has been a series of disputes between the Polish government and Jewish organisations about what is appropriate at these sites. Some Jewish groups have objected strongly to the erection of Christian memorials at the camps.
Controversy: Holocaust denial
As part of an ongoing phenomenon of Holocaust denial, Robert Faurisson claimed in 1979 that "the Nazis did not have gas chambers and did not attempt a genocide of Jews. He contended that the 'myth' of the gas chambers had been promoted by Zionists...for the benefit of the state of Israel and to the detriment of Germans and Palestinians."
These contentions have led some to conclude that the Holocaust was fabricated. For instance, revisionist Ernst Zündel issued pamphlets such as Did Six Million Really Die?.
However this is generally considered to be an example of revisionist history that is contradicted by ongoing research, as well as by the Nazis' own meticulous record-keeping. Efforts such as the Nizkor Project, Deborah Lipstadt, John Keegan, Raul Hilberg who published The Destruction of the European Jews, Lucy Davidowicz published The War Against the Jews, Norman Davies, Primo Levi, Simon Wiesenthal and his Simon Wiesenthal Center, and more at Holocaust resources, all track and explain Holocaust denial.
- Holocaust Journey: Travelling in Search of the Past, Martin Gilbert, Phoenix 1997, gives a good account of the sites of the extermination camps as they are today, plus a great deal of historical information about them and about the fate of the Jews of Poland.
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