A gas van or gas wagon (Russian: душегубка, dushegubka, literally "soul killer"; German: Gaswagen) was a truck reequipped as a mobile gas chamber. The gas vans were first used by the Soviet NKVD in 1930s. During World War II Nazi Germany developed and used gas vans on a large scale as a extermination method to murder inmates of asylums, Romani people, Jews, and prisoners in occupied Belarus, Poland, Yugoslavia, and other areas of the Nazi-occupied USSR.
Starting in 1937, Soviet NKVD officer Isai D. Berg reportedly supervised execution of prisoners by gassing them in trucks. Providing testimony of this when he was himself arrested by the NKVD in August 1938, Berg stated that he and a team of secret police officers suffocated batches of prisoners with engine fumes in camouflaged cars while transporting them from the Taganka or Butyrka prisons in Moscow to the mass graves at the Butovo firing range, where the prisoners were subsequently buried. Examining documents related to Berg, Kommersant reported that Berg had led of the administrative and economic department of the Moscow Oblast NKVD; Berg stated that he acted on orders from the higher NKVD administration.
FSB officers Alexander Mikhailov and Mikhail Kirillin, and historian Lydia Golovkova, recounted the testimony of one witness at a mass execution site outside Moscow. As many as 50 prisoners were loaded into trucks whose exhaust pipes were turned into the trucks, which Muscovites called "soul killers" and which were said to have been invented by Berg. Prisoners were "half dead" when they arrived at the site, where most were subsequently executed.
Marek Hałaburda has written that the gas vans were introduced to increase the rate of executions. In the book KGB: The State Within a State Yevgenia Albats and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick wrote that: "Owing to the shortage of executioners, Chekists used trucks that were camouflaged as bread vans as mobile death chambers. Yes, the very same machinery made notorious by the Nazis - yes, these trucks were originally a Soviet invention, in use years before the ovens of the Auschwitz were built" According to Robert Gellately, "The Soviets sometimes used a gas van (dushegubka), as in Moscow during the 1930s, but how extensive that was needs further investigation. They used crematoriums to dispose of thousands of bodies, but had no gas chambers."
Gas vans were reportedly used also in the cities of Omsk and Ivanovo in the Soviet Union. According to high-ranking NKVD officer Mikhail Schreder, they were used in the city of Ivanovo similar to that in Moscow: "When a closed truck arrived at the place of execution, all convicts were dragged out of cars in an unconscious state. On the way, they were almost killed by exhaust fumes redirected through a special tube into the closed cargo compartment of the truck." Soviet dissident Petro Grigorenko described in his memoirs a story told by his close friend and former prisoner of Gulag Vasil Teslia. He described killings of "kulaks" in a prison in Omsk. According to him, more than 27 people were loaded to a truck, which moved away from the prison, but soon returned. "When the doors were opened, black smoke poured out and corpses of people rained down." The corpses were then placed into the basement. Teslia watched such executions during whole week.
The use of gas vans by the Nazis to murder Jews, mentally ill people, Romani people and prisoners in occupied territories during World War II originated with the Nazi Euthanasia Program in 1939. Ordered to find a suitable method of killing, the Technical Institute for the Detection of Crime ("Kriminaltechnisches Institut der Sicherheitspolizei", abbreviated KTI) of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) decided to gas victims with Carbon monoxide. In October 1939 the Nazis started gassing prisoners in Fort VII near Posen. The first victims were Polish and Jewish inmates of asylums for the mentally ill. Witnesses report that since December 1939, mobile gas chambers were used to kill the inmates of asylums in Pomerania, Eastern Prussia and Poland. The vans were built for the Sonderkommando Lange and their use was supposed to speed up the killings. Instead of transporting the victims to the gas chambers, the gas chambers were transported to the victims. They were most likely devised by specialists from the Referat II D of the RSHA. These mobile gas chambers worked under the same principles as the stationary gas chambers: through a rubber hose the driver released pure CO from steel cylinders into the air tight special construction that was shaped like a box and placed on the carrier. The vans resembled moving vans or delivery lorries and they were labelled Kaiser’s Kaffee Geschäft (de) (“Kaiser's Coffee Shop”) for camouflage. They were not called "gas vans" at the time, but “Sonder-Wagen”, “Spezialwagen” (special vans) and “Entlausungswagen” (delousing vans). The Lange commando killed patients in numerous hospitals in the Wartheland in 1940. They drove to the hospitals, collected patients, loaded them into the vans and gassed them while they were driving them away. From 21 May to 8 June 1940 the Sonderkommando Lange killed 1558 sick people from Soldau concentration camp alone.
In August 1941, SS chief Heinrich Himmler attended a demonstration of a mass-shooting of Jews in Minsk that was arranged by Arthur Nebe, after which he vomited. Regaining his composure, Himmler decided that alternative methods of killing should be found. He ordered Nebe to explore more "convenient" ways of killing that were less stressful for the killers. Nebe decided to conduct his experiments by murdering Soviet mental patients, first with explosives near Minsk, and then with automobile exhaust at Mogilev. Nebe's experiments led to the utilization of the gas van. This vehicle had already been used in 1940 for the gassing of East Prussian and Pomeranian mental patients in the Soldau concentration camp.
Gas vans were used, particularly at the Chełmno extermination camp, until gas chambers were developed as a more efficient method for killing large numbers of people. Two types of gas vans were in operation, and they were used by the Einsatzgruppen in the East. The Opel-Blitz, which weighed 3.5 tons, and the larger Saurerwagen, which weighed 7 tons. In Belgrade, the gas van was known as "Dušegupka" and in the occupied parts of the USSR similarly as "душегубка" (dushegubka, literally (feminine) soul killer/exterminator). The SS used the euphemisms Sonderwagen, Spezialwagen or S-wagen ("special vehicle") for the vans. The gas vans were specifically designed to direct deadly exhaust fumes via metal pipes into the airtight cargo compartments, where the intended victims had been forcibly stuffed to capacity. In most cases the victims were suffocated and poisoned from carbon monoxide and other toxins in the exhaust as the vans were transporting them to fresh pits or ravines for mass burial.
The use of gas vans had two disadvantages:
- It was slow — some victims took twenty minutes to die.
- It was not quiet — the drivers could hear the victims' screams, which they found distracting and disturbing.
By June 1942 the main producer of gas vans, Gaubschat Fahrzeugwerke GmbH, had delivered 20 gas vans in two models (for 30–50 and 70–100 individuals) to Einsatzgruppen, out of 30 that were ordered from that company. Not one gas van was extant at the end of the war. The existence of gas vans first came to light in 1943 during the trial of Nazi collaborators who had been involved in the gassing of 6,700 civilians in Krasnodar. The total number of gas van gassings is unknown.
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