After deportation trains arrived at the killing centers, guards ordered the deportees to get out and form a line. The victims then went through a selection process. Men were separated from women and children. A Nazi, usually an SS physician, looked quickly at each person to decide if he or she was healthy and strong enough for forced labor. This SS officer then pointed to the left or the right; victims did not know that individuals were being selected to live or die. Babies and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with disabilities, and the sick had little chance of surviving this first selection.

At the Killing Centers 

Those who had been selected to die were forced into gas vans or gas chambers. In order to prevent panic, camp guards told the victims that they were going to take showers to rid themselves of lice. The guards instructed them to turn over all their valuables and to undress. Then they were driven naked into the "showers." A guard closed and locked the doors. In some killing centers, carbon monoxide was piped into the chamber. In others, camp guards threw "Zyklon B" pellets down an air shaft. Zyklon B was a highly poisonous insecticide also used to kill rats and insects.

Usually within minutes after entering the gas chambers, everyone inside was dead from lack of oxygen. Under guard, prisoners were forced to haul the corpses to a nearby room, where they removed hair, gold teeth, and fillings. The bodies were burned in ovens in the crematoria or buried in mass graves.

Many people profited from the pillage of corpses. Camp guards stole some of the gold. The rest was melted down and deposited in an SS bank account. Private business firms bought and used the hair to make many products, including ship rope and mattresses.

Key Dates

October 1939
Germans begin killing of people with disabilities
The systematic killing begins of those Germans whom the Nazis deem "unworthy of life." Groups of "consultants" visit hospitals and nursing homes and decide who is to die. Selected patients are sent to one of six gassing installations established as part of the "Euthanasia" Program: Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim, and Sonnenstein. These patients are killed in gas chambers using carbon monoxide gas. The experts who participated in the "Euthanasia" Program are later instrumental in establishing and operating the killing centers established for the mass murder of Jews.

December 8, 1941
First killing center begins operation
The Chelmno killing center begins operation. The Nazis later establish four other such camps: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz camp complex). Victims at Chelmno are killed in gas vans (hermetically sealed trucks with engine exhaust diverted to the interior compartment). The Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka camps use carbon monoxide gas generated by stationary engines attached to gas chambers. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the killing centers, has four large gas chambers using Zyklon B (crystalline hydrogen cyanide) as the killing agent. Nearly 2,700,000 Jews are killed in the gas chambers in the killing centers as part of the "Final Solution."

June 22, 1944
First gassing at Ravensbrück concentration camp
The first documented gassing at the women's camp at Ravensbrück occurs. The gas chambers at Ravensbrück and at other camps that were not designed specifically as killing centers—including Stutthof, Mauthausen, and Sachsenhausen—are relatively small. These gas chambers were constructed to kill those prisoners the Nazis deemed "unfit" for work. Most of these camps used Zyklon B in the gas chambers.