A gas van or gas wagon (Russian: душегубка (dushegubka); German: Gaswagen) was a vehicle reequipped as a mobile gas chamber. The gas van was invented in the Soviet Union in 1936, by Isay Berg, the head of the administrative and economic department of the NKVD of Moscow Oblast. The vehicle had an air-tight compartment for the intended 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 the 1930s. During World War II Nazi Germany used gas vans on a large scale as a extermination method to murder inmates of asylums, Romani people, Jews, and prisoners in occupied Poland, Belarus, and Yugoslavia.
One case of gas van usage was documented in the 1930s in the Soviet Union, according to the data of the tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. According to this publication, a team of secret police officers were 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. According to this source 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.
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 SS used the euphemisms Sonderwagen, Spezialwagen or S-wagen ("special vehicle") for the vans.
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 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 involved in the gassing of 6,700 civilians in Krasnodar. The total number of gas van gassings is unknown.
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