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Concentration Camps and Death Camps: Typological Differences

In the literature about the Holocaust, one often encounters two different terms: "concentration camp" and "death camp". Often, these two terms are used interchangeably, which gives the impression that they are in fact one and the same.

In Poland, the blurring of these two terms was sanctioned by the events of 1968, when the editors of Wielka Encyklopedia Powszechna (The Great Universal Encylopedia) were accused of "nationalism" and "singling out the tragedy of the Jews" for having made this differentiation. This was because, as the authorities alleged, the editors believed that the tragedy of the Jews during the Holocaust was unique.

In the German policy of exterminating the Jews, however, there were two separate kinds of camps, with different roles.

Concentration camps, which were first created in Germany and Austria, were originally penal labor camps where people were sent for specific periods of time on the basis of court sentences. Examples of this type of camp were Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen. When the war broke out, however, political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, prisoners of conscience and people caught during round ups were all sent there as well.

These people did slave labor for the Third Reich in factories and armaments factories, and, towards the end of the war, they also cleared bombed cities in Germany proper. Time spent in a concentration camp usually ended in death, whether due to hunger (at Auschwitz the food ration was about 700 calories per day), beating, torture, liquidation of the sick by an injection of phenol into the heart, execution or disease, including infectious diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis and dysentery. The hope of surviving nevertheless always remained-by working in a "better commando", or by being appointed to any kind of position in the camp.

The organization of death camps was different. As a result of Wannsee, where it was decided "to solve the Jewish question" completely, four camps were created: Chelmno nad Nerem (Kulmhof), Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, whose function was to kill the people who arrived there as quickly as possible.

For this reason, in contrast to the concentration camps, which included large areas with barracks holding many thousands of people, the death camps were small. Located in forests in sparsely populated areas, next to railroad lines built leading up to them, they had only one role-to be the site of immediate death for the thousands of Jews who would arrive there. One of the main differences between concentration camps and death camps was that the latter had few prisoners working there. There were generally about 1,000 who would be chosen during selections as needed to replace members of the previous crew. They lived in several barracks, and their only tasks were to service the death machine (the gas chambers and crematoria), prepare the corpses for burning (by cutting off their hair and pulling out gold teeth), segregate the clothing and property that had been brought by the victims, melt down the gold into bars and ready them to be sent to the Bank of the Third Reich.

The death camps were comprised of two parts. One was the Totenlager (Death Camp), with a building where the prisoners would get undressed, connected by a narrow passageway to the gas chamber. In Treblinka, this part was known as the "way to heaven". The other was made up of the gas chambers and cremation pits. It is worth noting that in all four death camps, carbon monoxide from gas engines was used to kill the victims. In Chelmno, exhaust from trucks was connected to the gas chamber; in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, Soviet diesel engines from T-34 tanks were used with a special filter to remove the smell of the exhaust, which left odorless, colorless carbon monoxide that killed victims in twenty minutes. In the Totenlager there were also racks constructed of railroad rails suspended over a cremation pit and places to crush the bones that had not burnt completely. The ashes were either put into pits that had been specially prepared beforehand, or ones that had previously held corpses; alternatively, they were thrown into rivers.

Birkenau was another type of "mixed" concentration-death camp, where the concentration camp was comprised of a large area having various sections. This could hold up to 30,000 prisoners who would work within the camp itself on construction, repair, cleaning, hospital or kitchen commandos, or outside it in nearby factories (Monowice, DAW, Buna-Werke) or farms (Rajsko, Harmenze). There was also a camp in which death would take place immediately, which was comprised of a selection ramp, gas chambers (where Zyklon B [hydrocyanic acid] was used) and four brick crematoria that were put into use in late 1942 and early 1943.

It is estimated that in a relatively short time (approximately a year to a year and a half, until the autumn of 1943) approximately 1,787,200 people were killed in the four death camps. In the Birkenau death camp, one and a half million Jews were killed between 1942 and 1944. The total of those killed as part of the "Aktion Reinhard" is 3,287,200.
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Concentration Camps and Death Camps: Typological Differences
Former Nazi Camps
 - Auschwitz
 - Belzec
 - Gross Rosen
 - Majdanek
 - Stutthof
 - Treblinka
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