einsatzgruppen and gas vans in the easter territories

The Einsatzgruppen and Gas Vans in the Eastern Territories

Einsatzgruppe A operated in the Baltic states, EG B in Byelorussia and Smolensk. They were under the control of the chief of the Security Police and the SD of the Eastern Territories, * which had its headquarters in Riga and was commonly referred to by the initials BdS.

In the middle of December 1941, three gas vans were brought from Berlin to Riga and put at the disposal of the BdS of the Eastern Territories. There were two small Diamond vans and one large Saurer van. Two drivers, Karl Gebl and Erich Gnewuch, arrived from Berlin before Christmas 1941. At the beginning of 1942 they were dispatched with two gas vans to the commander of the BdS regional office for Byelorussia, located in Minsk and known, like the other regional offices, by the initials KdS. Gnewuch said in his deposition, "On orders from my department, I too drove a gas van from Berlin to Minsk. These vans had been constructed with a lockable cargo compartment, like a moving van. It could hold about fifty to sixty Jews. I personally gassed Jews in this gas can." (11)

Some time later the KdS of Byelorussia found that it needed more gas vans. It applied to the BdS in Riga, and an official named Trühe, who was head of the supply section there, telegraphed to the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin:

A transport of Jews, which is to be subjected to special treatment, arrives weekly at the office of the commandant of the Security Police and Security Service of White Ruthenia.

The three S-vans there are not sufficient for that purpose. I request assignment of another S-van (five tons). At the same time, I request the shipment of twenty gas hoses for the three S-vans on hand (two Diamond, one Saurer), because the ones on hand are already leaky. (12)

Trühe declared in his deposition: "I am aware of the use of the so-called gas vans. It was considered a state secret, and I was informed of it only after some time." (13)

He remembered that the gas vans - six in all - had been sent by the Reich Security Main Office from Berlin to Riga. He apparently did not know to which of the regional services they had been attached. The KdS in Riga was supposed to have received one or two of them. (14)

Dr. August Becker, who was charged by the Reich Security Main Office with supervising the use of the gas vans in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, saw on of these vehicles in Riga in June 1941 at the end of a tour of inspection. Another eyewitness, a Jew from Riga named Mendel Vulfovich, testified on 9 December 1944 before a Soviet commission investigating Nazi war crimes: "In February 1942, I saw with my own eyes two thousand elderly Jews from Germany, men and women, being loaded into special gas vans. These vans were painted gray-green and had a large closed cargo compartment with hermetically sealed doors. All those inside were killed by gas." (15)

It is probable that gas vans were also used in the Einsatzgruppe A sector, in Estonia, Latvia, and the region of Leningrad, (16) because a reply dated 22 June 1942 from Rauff's department at the Reich Security Main Office reads: "The delivery of a five-ton Saurer can be expected in the middle of next month. The vehicle is at the Reich Security Main Office for repairs and minor alterations. One hundred meters of hose will be supplied." (17)

A letter dated 13 July announced, "The gas van Pol 71463 is ready. It will be sent to Riga with its driver." (18)

According to Trühe's testimony, the Reichkommissariat for the Eastern Territories had five or six gas vans at its disposal in 1942 and 1943. One or two remained in Einsatzgruppe A's sector - that is, in Riga and the area between Latvia and Leningrad. Four operated in the Minsk KdS sector, where Einsatzkommados 7b, 8, and 9 each had its own van. The fourth was probably stationed in Minsk itself.

One of the drivers, Johann Hassler, said that he was sent to Orel with a gas van and placed under the orders of Commander Ott of EK 7b. He admitted having driven the vehicle to gas Jews at least four times in 1942 and once in the autumn of 1943. The victims of the last trip were members of a work detail Borisov (19) whose job it was to remove all traces of the mass graves.

Adolf Rübe, from Division IVb of the Minsk KdS, revealed the fate of the Jewish auxiliary work detail in Minsk: "One day, at the beginning of October 1943, he [Herder] had a hundred Russian Jews taken in the two Minsk KdS gas vans to the first ditch southeast of Minsk and gassed."

The same fate awaited the Russian prisoners of war who had been working at the mass graves. (20)

A second driver, Heinz Schlechte, was dispatched to Einsatzkommando 8, which was under the command of Sturbannführer Heinz Richter, and in the summer of 1942 he was stationed in Moghilev, where he drove a Saurer. According to his statements, he had been assigned with his van to help evacuate a prison that was full of Jewish prisoners, among them women and children. Once or twice a week, groups of prisoners were taken at night in two or three convoys to a site outside the town where ditches had already been dug. Schlechte drove his van right up to a ditch and turned on the gas. About ten minutes later the vans were emptied by other Jews, who had been brought in a special truck. These Jews were shot shortly afterward. (21) According to Schlechte's estimates, about five thousand to six thousand people had been killed in Einsatzkommando 8's gas vans by the autumn of 1942.

The third gas van, stationed in Vitebsk with Einsatzkommando 9, was also a Saurer. Three drivers confirmed its existence. They were present during the loading of men and women into the trucks. (22)

For major operations, the vans belonging to EG B worked together, as Gnewuch testified: "I was detailed with the gas van to about twelve convoys of arriving Jews. It was in 1942. There were about a thousand Jews in each convoy. With each arrival I made five or six trips with my van. Some of the Jews were shot. I myself never shot a single Jew; I only gassed them." (23)

On 31 July 1942, a convoy of about one thousand Jews arrived at the Minsk station from Theresienstadt. Because an operation was being carried out against the ghetto in Minsk at the time, the convoy was diverted to Baranovichi, where two gas vans were waiting. A member of the local SD office, named Dittrich, later testified that the Jews had been exterminated by the Baranovichi commando. Two gas vans had been used, one driven by Gebl, who, according to Dittrich, came from Minsk or from Berlin, and another driver whose name he did not remember (it was Johann Hassler). He said that both vehicles made seven to nine trips that day. Dittrich estimated the number of victims gassed at between five hundred and seven hundred. Both vans were crammed full, so that when the doors were opened the bodies fell out. (24)

During his interrogation, Hassler admitted having participated in the gassing operations at Baranovichi. One of the survivors of the town's ghetto, Dr. Zalman Levinbuck, mentioned this operation in his testimony. He spoke of a convoy of Czech Jews who were taken from the station by truck: "Among the trucks were huge vans with doors that could be sealed hermetically....We called these airtight vans dushegubky, which means 'soul killer' in Russian. They transported people who were already dead and didn't need to be shot. They were poisoned on the way with gas and exhaust fumes, which resulted from the combustion of gasoline in the engine. These exhaust fumes were introduced into the van through a special hose, instead of being released into the air as is normal, and so people were killed by the carbon monoxide." (25)

At the end of October 1943, the Byelorussian gas vans were concentrated in Minsk for the liquidation of the ghetto there. The operation lasted ten days. Thousands of Jews were killed. The driver, Gnewuch, confirmed that "a ghetto operation took place in the autumn of 1943. I was put into action only once with the gas van. I made three trips with it to the execution site. I gassed about 150 to 180 people. Adolf Rübe and someone called Göbel also drove gas vans. We had been assigned to this operation with three vehicles. Whenever I was gassing Jews, Göbel and Rübe were gassing Jews, too.". (26) The platoon from the Second Police Battalion of the SD was detailed to this killing operation. Its leader, a Russian named Ramasan Sabitovitch Tchugunov, stated during his interrogation: " We shoved them into the gas vans. These vans were packed full of people from the ghetto, the doors were hermetically sealed, and they left the ghetto....We transported men, women, old people, and children. They were not allowed to bring anything at all with them. There were about 50 people in each van....About a thousand people were transported that day." (27)

Boris Dobin, a Jew from the Minsk ghetto, also testified to the use of gas vans in the town. He saw these vans in action on several occasions: "The brutal guards took away van loads of peaceable Soviet citizens who had been interned in the camps. They were loaded into trucks and also onto vehicles equipped to kill by means of exhaust fumes. These vehicles had all-metal cargo compartments. The prisoners from the ghetto called these vehicles 'gas vans.' " (28)

Concerning the liquidation of the ghetto, the witness added: "As I ran past the gate, I noticed some canvas-covered trucks and some gas vans. The guards who wore green uniforms of the German military, were leading groups of prisoners to these vehicles." (29)

On 15 May 1943 representatives of the Italian Fascist party visited Minsk. The general commissioner for Byelorussia, whose name was Kube, showed them a church that was being used as a warehouse. A diplomat named von Thadden, who held the rank of legation counselor, first class, and was then stationed at the Foreign Office in Berlin, heard about this visit from another legation counselor, von Rademacher, and made the following note in his diary on 15 May 1943: "The Italians asked about the little packages and suitcases that were piled up in the church. Kube explained that that 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." (30)

In 1942 the gas vans were also temporarily put into service at the Maly Trostinec camp in the region of Minsk. (30a)

* The Eastern Territories (Reichskommissariat Ostland) included Byelorussia, Ruthenia, and the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), all occupied by Hitler. (Editor's note.)

11. StA Munich I AZ:22 Js 104/61 (ZSL:AZ:2 AR-Z94/59, vol. 5 fol. 1013). See also the deposition by the driver Gebl, StA Hanover AZ:2Js299/60, vol. 10, fols. 48ff., and special vol. 2, fols. 66ff.

12. Nuremb. Doc. 501-PS.

13. StA Koblenz AZ:9Js716/59 (criminal proceedins against Heuser and others). Extracts of transcripts in ZSL:AZ:415 AR-Z:220/59, vol. 1, fol 163).

14. StA Hanover AZ: 9 Js 299/60, vol. 6, fols. 199ff., and ZSL: AZ: 415 AR-Z 220/59, vol. 1, fols. 36ff., 46.

15. Central State Archives of the October Revolution, Fond (Record Group) no. 7021 (ref. opis NO93, od chr. no. 13S. 356; copy in ZSL, USSR file 427/XV/4, and in Yad Vashem archives, ref. O-53/18).

16. With the consolidation of the front in the sector of the northern armies toward the end of October 1941, Einsatzgruppe A was subdivided, and its Einsatzkommandos were placed under the command of the local headquarters of the Security Police and the SD.

17. Nuremb. Doc. 501-PS.

18. Ibid.

19. StA Hanover AZ:2Js299/60, vol. 9, fols. 177ff. These gassings operations were confirmed by the head of Einsatzkommando 7b, Ott, and by the convoy leader, Müller; ibid., vol. 9, fol. 187, vol. 10, fol. 236

20. StA Koblenz AZ:9 Js 716/59 (ZSL: AZ:2 AR-Z 284/59, fol. 854).

21. StA Hanover AZ: 2 Js 299/60, vol. 12, fol. 236.

22. Idid., vol. 12, fols. 77-81, 102-105.

23. StA Munich I AZ: 22 Js 104/61 (ZSL: AZ:2 AR-Z 94/59, vol. 5, fols. 1012f.

24. StA Hanover AZ: 2 Js 299/60, vol. 8, fols. 66ff., vol. 11, fols. 176ff.

25. Baranovichi, Sefer Zikaron (book of remembrance), Tel Aviv, pp. 562ff.

26. See n. 21.

27. StA Essen AZ: 29 Ks 1/64 (ZSL: AZ: 202 AR-Z 96/60, vol. 18, fol. 5780, and other depositions of an eyewitness, vol. 16, fol. 5407).

28. Ibid., vol. 17, fol. 5514.

29. Ibid.

30. Archiv des Auswäetigen Amtes, ref. K-206919 (Archives of the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany).

30a. Vorläufiges Verzeichnis der Konzentrationslager, 1933-1945 (Arolsen, February 1969), p. 483.

Kogon, Eugen, Hermann Langbein and Adalbert Ruckerl, ed. Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993. pp. 56 - 60

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Ken Lewis
May 13, 1998
Rev. 1.1