By Rob Arndt

During WWII, the German SS invented new device for murdering civilians, by gassing them in specially altered vans, called gas vans. The Nazis used poison gas to murder millions of human beings whom they deemed undesirable.

One of several methods used was the gas van. Such vans were first deployed in 1940 in “Euthanasia” operations. Hitler delegated the “Euthanasia” operation to Reichsleiter Philip Bouhler, Dr. Karl Brandt, and several doctors of their choice. The targets were several German population groups: the mentally ill or retarded, the chronically ill, and criminals. At first, the murders were carried out in fixed, sealed chambers, into which carbon monoxide gas was pumped from metal canisters. In addition, some were killed by lethal injections and by shooting. Gas vans were first used in 1940, when Polish mentally ill children were locked in a sealed van and killed by carbon monoxide.

The RSHA office II D 3a was responsible for construction, employment, drivers and provision with spare parts for the gas vans. During WW2 two types were used: small gas vans with more than 3 ton payload for about 50 persons (Diamond Reo, Opel Blitz and a Renault type) and larger ones with approximately 5 ton payload for around 70 victims (Saurer and Magirus). The wagons had an air sealed car-body and looked externally like ordinary furniture vans. With a removable tube, the exhaust fumes could be lead into the van body. A barred lamp could light up the interior.

SS Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff was in charge of all Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) vehicles, including gas vans.

Jewish men at Chelmno await gassing by
“Black Raven” gas van

Prior to gassing, the victims were ordered to hand over all of their valuables. They then had to undress themselves and finally entered the gas vans. The two doors at the back of the wagons were closed, the tube then locked to the exhaust. To calm down the naked victims a lamp was switched on for some minutes. The driver then started the motor, which ran in neutral gear for about ten minutes. During this time the motor produced enough carbon monoxide to suffocate the victims. As they were so crowded together there was lack of air anyway. When the screaming and pounding had stopped, the driver started the drive to the cremation site. There, Jewish men who would not be permitted to remain alive, were forced to unload the corpses and cremate them.

On a large scale gas vans were used by the Einsatzgruppen in Byelorussia and the Ukraine. Here, between 250,000 and 300,000 persons (mainly Jews) were killed by the employment of these wagons. For example, thousands of Jews from the Minsk ghetto lost their lives in gas vans which were stationed at the extermination site Maly Trostinec, 12 km southwest of Minsk. Approximately the same number of victims were gassed by the use of gas vans at the Chelmno extermination camp near Lodz.

In addition there were also experimental trials at the Belzec extermination camp. SS-Oberscharführer Lorenz Hackenholt and Siegfried Graetschus under the supervision of Christian Wirth , converted a gray painted Post Office parcels delivery van into a mobile gassing van. In the internment camp Zemun near Belgrade 6,280 Jews were killed by a special command using gas vans.

About 500,000 - 600,000 persons had been killed in gas vans.




Damaged Magirus “Black Raven” death van supposedly used in the Chelmno extermination camp near Lodz. The photo is controversial as no positively identified gas vans show up in the photographic record of Nazi war crimes. It is speculated that the photo shows the gas van AFTER re-conversion to hide war crime activity.


Rear side view of box structure of the Magirus van. They were painted black during extermination tasks and became known as “Black Ravens”. Photo by Yad Vashem.


The case of the Chelmno death camp was investigated by the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (it was the commission's name at the beginning of its existence) starting from May 1945. The commission received the information that in the town Kolo (approx.12 km from Chelmno) in the former factory of Ostrowski there was a van which, according to the witnesses, was used in the death center at Chelmno. The van was found, photographed and researched.

The photos taken are now available in the Main Commission's Archives in Warsaw (signatures 47398, 47396, 47397, 47399; the best one is 47398). The captions of these photographs are still today: "a car for killing people by the exhaust fumes at Chelmno". One of these photos was reproduced in the Fleming book "Hitler and the Final Solution" with the information that it is a photograph of a "gas wagon" used in Chelmno.

Despite use of their captions, the photographs do not show the gas van used in the Chelmno death camp. It is clear from the testimonies of Polish witnesses kept in the same archives of the Main Commission (collection "Ob", file 271 and others).

Witnesses to whom the van photographed in Kolo was shown did not confirm that it was one of those used in Chelmno for killing people. Some of them only said that it was similar to those described in their testimonies, but not the same. The most common answer was: "I didn't see this one".

The inspection of the van in Ostrowski factory, performed on November 13, 1945 by Judge J.Bronowski, did not confirm the existence of any elements of system of gassing of the van's closed platform. The witnesses called this van "a pantechnicon van" (a van to transport furniture). It was produced by "Magirus-Werke" with a Deutz-type diesel engine. The plate on the engine stated: "Humboldt-Deutz A.G. "Magirus-Werke" Ulm (Donau) Baujahr 1939 Lieferdat739 Abn-Stempel. Fahrgestell Nr. 9282/38 Nutzlast kg 2700 Fahgestell-Baumuster 023. Eingewicht 4980 kg. Motor Baumuster FoM 513 zul. Gesamt gew. 7900 Leistung P.S. 105 cm3 7412. Zulässige Achsendrücke vorn kg 2400 hinten 5500." The thickness of the car's wooden body was 7 cm, of the door - 8 cm. The walls, door, ceiling and floor were covered from the inside with the 2mm sheet iron. The car was painted in gray- lead color. Under this paint the inscription was seen on the door of the cab: "Otto Köhn Spedition Ruf 516 Zeulen.....da i.TH".

All of these details are presented to make possible further comments on the story of this particular van. Many feel that there are some unclear points in this story. Nobody explained for what purpose this van was used? Its door was tightened with an impregnated canvas. What for? Some witnesses had seen this car in the area of the forest of Chelmno starting from the spring of 1942. It is possible that it belonged to the SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof, too. Another possible explanation for this van was for disinfection of victims' clothes, but there are no substantial  grounds for it.

In 1945, the prosecutors came to the conclusion that this van was not a gas van of Chelmno. The van was left incomplete and not serviceable in Ostrowski's factory at least until 1950. The last known documents (a correspondence between the Association of Combatants "ZBoWiD" in Kolo and the Main Commission) of April 1950 reveal that there were plans to move this van to the museum in Auschwitz or Majdanek (until 1990 there was no museum in the Chelmno forest, the first monument erected there in 1964). Those plans were not accomplished and the van was scrapped, probably.

Thus, there is no reliable graphic illustration of the gas vans used in Chelmno. However, the testimonies of witnesses contain many important data on these vehicles. In 1945 and later, Polish authorities examined some Poles who stayed in the area of Chelmno after the removal of the vast majority of the Polish population to the GG in 1939-1940.

The witnesses were able to identify gas vans very well. They declared that there were three or four gas vans, and one of them was a slightly bigger. All of them were black. The vans' bodies were boxes made of boards. The length of the biggest vehicle was 5.5-6 meters long. It was approximately 2.5 meters high and 2.5 meters wide. Each vehicle was guarded all the time (even during the repair in the local factories) by two watchmen, who did not give anybody the access to the van and, especially, to the chassis and the closed box (platform).

However, at least three witnesses were able to see the vehicles from the short distance. Mr. Jozef Piaskowski (b.1908) was employed in the Reichsstrassenbauamt in Kolo (former Ostrowski factory). In the winter 1941/42 he was ordered to repair the damaged cooler in the biggest of Chelmno vans. Piaskowski was an experienced driver. He declared later that he had never seen a motor of this type. "The motor was a bit odd". "It was enormous". The most interesting in his report is the description of the exhaust system. He had noticed that the exhaust pipe was divided into three parts. First and third were done of metal as in normal cars. But, the central part was done of the elastic, "hydraulic" pipe which could joint both standard tubes or could be screwed to the hole in the van's floor. After the repair of the cooler, when the motor was tested, so much exhaust fumes were produced that the air in the garage (size 30 m x 12 m) started immediately to be blue. The German bosses ordered all windows and doors opened. The workers who had spent a very short time in the polluted air got headaches. The witness heard later their comments that the motor of this car used 75 liters of petrol per 100 km, so twice more than normal motors do. Piaskowski stated that he had seen two military type gas-masks in the driver's cab.

Piaskowski's colleague, Mr. Bronislaw Mankowski (b.1882) confirmed his story and added that he had seen the van when the middle part of the exhaust tube was joint to the hole in the car's floor. Mankowski declared that he looked inside the box when the watchmen left their posts for a while. He had seen a hole covered with a perforated sheet iron in the middle of the wooden floor.

Another witness Mr. Bronislaw Falborski (b.1910) was employed in the "Kraft" company in Kolo where the vehicles of the SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof were repaired starting from 1942. In summer 1942 he received the order to repair one of the gas vans. His description of the exhaust pipe is in general the same as described by the witnesses cited above. The only (but important) difference is the description of the connection of elastic pipe with the hole in the car's floor. According to Falborski (who even made a picture) they were jointed by two fasteners tightened by four screws.

It seems that this connection was permanent, quite difficult to change and only optionally substituted by the standard connection of both metal parts of the exhaust pipe as in normal vans. Falborski's report seems reliable as his task was to make this connection air-tight by the change of the packing between two fasteners.

The cases of the repair of gas vans in the local workshops of Kolo seem to be rare and exceptional. Probably it happened only in necessity when it was impossible to use military- or SS-motor services.

The Chelmno death center stopped to operating many months before the liberation of this site. The gas vans were very easy to move from the area of Chelmno-Kolo and to change into standard vans with very little signs of their previous function. It is very difficult to think that SS murderers (who tried to destroy all evidences of genocide, like crematoria, camps, corpses, etc.) could simply forget a gas van near to Chelmno or anywhere else.

~Rob Arndt


A typical gaswagon which had originally been a conventional bus but which was subsequently retro-fitted with a gas-generator and a Saurer engine.

German war-time producer gas coach.


Due to critical fuel shortages more than 500,000 vehicles in German-occupied Europe were fitted with producer gas generators that ran on wood chips and produced a fuel gas containing as much as 35% deadly carbon monoxide. Yet despite their availability and occasional use for fumigations, we're told that German technical genius instead used the exhaust of a 500 HP diesel engine from a Russian tank to kill hundreds of thousands (or millions, depending on your source) at Treblinka. This in ignorance of the fact that a diesel will not, in all but the most extreme conditions, produce toxic exhaust.

Saurer BT 4500 with producer gas generator. A Saurer truck similar to this type allegedly was used for mass murder in Kulmhof/Chelmno - not with producer gas, but incredibly with its exhaust gas/

A German war-time producer gas truck form Saurer (Type 5 BHw)

Austro-Fiat 4 D 90 A, producer gas generator as standard fitting.




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