Brandenburg was the second of six killing centers established to murder patients with disabilities under the auspices of Operation T4, the so-called “euthanasia” program.

Site History

Located in the city of Brandenburg on the Havel, 87 kilometers (54 miles) from the German capital Berlin, the site had a diverse history. Brandenburg was established as a poorhouse in 1790. In 1820, municipal authorities expanded the complex and converted it into a prison. It remained a detention center until the completion of a new penitentiary in 1931.

In 1933, the Nazi regime used the deserted prison to house one of its first concentration camps. As a camp, the site held political prisoners under abysmal conditions until February 1934.

Establishment of the T4 Killing Center

In 1939, the T4 organization took possession of the vacant compound. Prior to the establishment of a killing center at the site, the old prison served as the setting for a trial gassing in the early winter of 1939–1940. The event was attended by Philipp Bouhler and Dr. Karl Brandt, who were tasked with co-leading the euthanasia program, as well as many high-ranking T4 officials.

Chemists August Becker and Albert Widmann from the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA) and the Technical Institute of the German Criminal Police (Kriminaltechnisches Institut der Sicherheitspolizei, KTI), respectively, conducted the experimental gassing. They used pure, chemically produced carbon monoxide gas to murder a number of unknown “test subjects.” Widmann and Becker would ultimately establish the protocols for the gassing technique used in Operation T4. They would also later help to develop the gas vans deployed in the German-occupied Soviet Union and the gas chambers used at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, the three killing centers of Operation Reinhard.

The Brandenburg experiments confirmed to euthanasia organizers that carbon monoxide gas released in an air-tight chamber represented the most efficient method of killing on a large scale. Systematic gassing began at Brandenburg in February 1940. Although the site had never served as a nursing facility, it was renamed the Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Brandenburg (Brandenburg Sanatorium and Care Facility) for purposes of camouflage. 

Benno Müller-Hill, Antje Kosemund, Paul Eggert, and Elvira Manthey describe the Euthanasia Program

T4 Personnel at Brandenburg

Austrian physician Dr. Irmfried Eberl became Brandenburg’s first acting director. Drs. Aquillin Ulrich and Heinrich Bunke subsequently joined Eberl and served as his deputies. Under Eberl’s direction stood approximately several dozen personnel. These included male and female nurses, transport personnel, administrative staff, and police and security officials. Also among the staff were the so-called Brenner (“burners” or “stokers”) who cremated victims’ corpses in the facility’s crematoria.

Brandenburg Victims

Helene Melanie LebelAccording to internal statistics amassed by T4 operatives, at least 9,772 people were murdered in the gas chamber at Brandenburg between February and October of 1940.

Among Brandenburg’s first victims were mentally ill criminals, of whom 500 were gassed in the facility’s gas chamber. T4 operatives transported disabled patients in the notorious gray buses from their home institutions in northern and central Germany to the killing center. Upon arrival, nursing staff led them to the barn area of the former prison. There, patients undressed and were divided by gender. After a brief examination by one of the physicians, who noted a plausible fictive cause of death for each individual’s death certificate, the patients were led to the gas chamber. The gassing physician then introduced carbon monoxide gas into the gas chamber, observing the killing through a small window in the gas chamber door. After ensuring that the patients were dead, he summoned the stokers. The stokers then removed the victims’ dental gold and cremated them in adjacent crematory ovens. 

The majority of Brandenburg’s victims were adult German “Aryans” diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses or mental or physical disabilities. Historians, however, have established that ten percent of those patients killed at the facility were children and adolescents, a victim group not usually murdered in large numbers at the six gassing installations of Operation T4. Many of the children murdered at Brandenburg were especially chosen for killing because physicians wished to use their brains for research on diseases and disorders of the brain. 

Jewish patients represented another disproportionately large number of Brandenburg’s victims. In the early stages of the T4 action, Jewish patients were transferred and murdered like their “Aryan” counterparts. But in the summer of 1940, the Reich Interior Ministry ordered that Jewish patients resident in non-Jewish institutions be concentrated in a number of specifically designated facilities throughout Germany. In August and September of 1940, T4 operatives gathered Jewish patients from these collection sites and transported them to T4 killing installations, principally to Brandenburg, where they shared the fate of other euthanasia victims. The elaborate registration criteria which marked the selection process for “German” victims did not apply to Jewish patients. Unlike their Aryan counterparts, all Jewish patients caught in the dragnet were murdered, regardless of physical or mental condition or their capacity to work.  

End of Operations at Brandenburg

By summer 1940, it was apparent to T4 administrators that the Brandenburg gassing site had become a liability. The crematoria designed to incinerate the corpses of Brandenburg victims suffered from faulty construction, and flames often shot from the three smokestacks. Worse still, the facility’s close proximity to the city of Brandenburg on the Havel—initially considered an asset—now represented a serious impediment, for smoke rising from the crematorium engulfed the area with the smell of burning flesh. At first, planners tried to correct the problem by transporting the corpses each night to a set of mobile ovens three miles outside the city limits. This procedure, however, proved clumsy and inefficient. The last gassing at Brandenburg took place on October 28, 1940. 

With the site’s closure, much of its staff transferred to Bernburg, a new T4 installation on the Saale River near Magdeburg. Among those who transferred were medical director Irmfried Eberl and his deputy Heinrich Bunke.  

Brandenburg Staff and Operation Reinhard

Several T4 operatives at Brandenburg later served as German personnel in the three killing centers of Operation Reinhard: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Among them were Johann Neimann, who became deputy commandant of Sobibor; and Kurt Bolender, who was charged with directing Sobibor’s Camp III, the site of gassing operations. Kurt Franz, who had worked as a cook at Brandenburg, became a guard at Treblinka. Franz’s cruelty at Treblinka made him universally feared among Jewish prisoners. 

The most significant figure to transfer from Operation T4 to the camps of Operation Reinhard was Brandenburg’s chief physician, Irmfried Eberl, who became the first commandant of Treblinka. Eberl found himself in American custody in 1948 on charges for directing the euthanasia murders at Bernburg. When he discovered that he was about to be identified as the commandant of Treblinka, he hanged himself in his cell.

Collections Highlight: The Sobibor Perpetrator Collection

In 2020, the descendants of Johann Niemann donated what is called The Sobibor Perpetrator Collection to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In addition to rare photographs of the Sobibor killing center, this collection contains over 360 black and white photographs and dozens of documents that chronicle Niemann's social background, his family, and his SS career. 

The collection also traces Niemann’s career in the Nazi concentration camp system. Niemann worked at Esterwegen and Sachsenhausen. Also part of the T4 “euthanasia” program, he left behind several photographs of his time at Brandenberg, Bernburg, and Grafeneck. Niemann eventually rose in the ranks and worked at two Operation Reinhard killing centers: Belzec and Sobibor. In Sobibor, Niemann worked as the deputy commandant. He was killed during the Sobibor prisoner revolt on October 14, 1943.

Images of Sobibor from deputy camp commandant Johann Niemann's album