22 March 1943: Large gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau come into operation

On 22 March 1943 the first gas chamber, used to murder Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis, became operational at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazi’s ‘final solution’ gave rise to the murder of European Jews on an industrialised scale. They used gas chambers at killing camps across Europe to murder hundreds of men, women and children at once. At the largest of the Nazi killing camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1.1 million Jews, Roma people and others were murdered.

Arrival and selection at Auschwitz. © Wiener Library

The construction of the four large gas chambers and crematoria used at Birkenau began in 1942. These buildings, called ‘crematorium’ by the Nazis, included an area for the victims to undress, gas chambers, and incinerators for burning the bodies. The first chamber – Crematorium IV – became operational on 22 March 1943, with the other three chambers following in March, April and June 1943. The gas chambers at crematoria II and III, as well as the undressing rooms, were located underground, but crematoria IV and V were above ground.

There were piles of bodies everywhere. We really thought we had entered hell… There was this terrible smell of the burning crematorium, and the grey ash.

– Mindu Hornick, survivor of the Holocaust, describing her arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The chemical Zyklon-B had been tested in Auschwitz I on 3 September 1941 and was then used to kill those who were forced into the gas chambers. The Nazis calculated that the crematoria could burn up to 4,416 corpses per day, but prisoners who worked there estimated that the figure may have been almost double that.

Many Jews who were declared unfit to work were sent for immediate extermination upon arrival at the camp. Many Soviet POWs, Poles and Roma and Sinti people were also killed in the gas chambers.

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Nazi persecution of other groups

Nazi persecution of other groups

In addition to singling out Jews for complete annihilation, the Nazis targeted anyone they believed threatened their ideal of a ‘pure Aryan race’. Learn about which groups the Nazi's persecuted.

Learn more