A gas van or gas wagon (Russian: душегубка (dushegubka); German: Gaswagen) was a vehicle reequipped as a mobile gas chamber. The vehicle had an air-tight compartment for victims, into which exhaust fumes were transmitted while the engine was running. The victims were gassed with carbon monoxide, resulting in death by carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation. The gas van was used by the Soviet secret police in 1930s. During World War II Nazi Germany used gas vans on a large scale as an extermination method to kill inmates of asylums, Romani people, Jews, and prisoners in occupied Poland, Belarus, and Yugoslavia.
The first case of gas van usage was documented by the Soviet Union in the 1930s. A team of secret police officers was suffocating batches of prisoners with engine fumes in a camouflaged bread van while driving out to the mass graves at Butovo, where the prisoners were subsequently buried. The use of gas vans was supervised by Isay Berg, the head of the administrative and economic department of the NKVD of Moscow Oblast. Berg himself was arrested and convicted by the NKVD in 1937.
In August 1941, SS chief Heinrich Himmler attended a demonstration of a mass-shooting of Jews in Minsk arranged by Arthur Nebe, after which he vomited. Regaining his composure, Himmler decided that alternative methods of killing should be found. He turned to Nebe to explore more "convenient" ways of killing that were less stressful for the killers. Nebe decided to try experimenting 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. Another source states that the vans were first tested on Soviet prisoners in Sachsenhausen.
One application of the Nazis' gas vans became known in 1943 after the trial of members of crimes against humanity committed in the territory of the Krasnodar Krai of the USSR, where about 7,000 civilians were killed by gas poisoning. It was a vehicle with an airtight compartment for victims, into which exhaust gas was piped while the engine was running. As a result, the victims were gassed with carbon monoxide, resulting in death by the combined effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation. The suffocations usually occurred as the gas van was carrying the victims to a freshly dug pit or ravine for mass burial.
Gas vans were used, particularly at Chełmno extermination camp, until gas chambers were developed as a more efficient method for killing large numbers of people. There were two types of gas vans in operation, used by the Einsatzgruppen in the East. The Opel-Blitz, weighing 3.5 tons, and the larger Saurerwagen, weighing 7 tonnes. 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 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 ordered. 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 involved in the gassing of 6,700 civilians in Krasnodar. The total number of gas van gassings is unknown.
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