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The first crematoria in the concentration camps were installed in late 1939/ 1940. Prior to this date the rate of deaths in the camps was relatively low. Up to late 1939 dead bodies and the registration of bodies followed the normal procedures used in the district in which the camp was located.

As the rate of deaths in the camps increased use was made of local municipal crematoria for which the SS paid a fee to the crematoria as per any normal civil cremation. Burial urns of ashes were also delivered to the camp for purchase by relatives if they so wished.  In some camps eg Gross Rosen the local municipal crematorium came to collect the bodies from the camp. The cremation of the camp prisoners was registered in the municipal crematorium record book as for any other person.

By 1940 this system had became too public for Himmler. 

So finally in 1940 Himmler issued a decree (to Sachsenhausen. we are checking whether this applied to all the camps) that all dead prisoners from the camps should a) be cremated and b) be cremated in a crematorium in the camp. Also each concentration camp became an official registrar for the purposes of recording deaths to avoid any disclosure issues from using district registrars

Initially municipal crematoria were used for cremating prisoner bodies as each camp worked on installing its own crematoria. So for example Buchenwald used the local Weimar municipal crematorium. 

The First Crematoria

The first crematoria installed in the camps were oil fuelled Heinrich Kori single muffle mobile ovens and Topf & Sohne oil fuelled mobile double muffle ovens.  These types of ovens had been in manufacture for a number of years and used in for example agriculture for burning debris, animal carcasses etc.  They were relatively easy to produce and install.  Mobile crematoria of these types were installed in Sachsenhausen (Kori) in 1940  and Dachau and (Topf) in 1940.

These ovens were not built for mass incinerations and as the body count in the camps grew after 1941 became totally inadequate.  The camps looked for larger and more efficient capacity. They therefore asked Kori and Topf to design more permanent structures with greater capacity that could also use a less expensive fuel than the oil.

These companies designed cheaper and more cost effective ovens from the existing designs of the more expensive ovens used in the municipal crematoria.

Any semblance of a correct cremation as defined in law was designed out of the process to achieve maximum efficiency (speed to cremation) and lowest cost.

Permanent Crematoria

Thus Kori produced a permanent bricked in single muffle oven that used coal as fuel. Topf produced a a permanent bricked in double and then triple and eight muffle ovens using coal as fuel (they also had a design for a single muffle for which there is no evidence of one being installed in any of the camps). These were designed specifically for the concentration camp market. 

In most camps the crematorium building was one of the few permanent brick built  structures. So for example in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, structures were built that encompassed in a single building gassing and cremation facilities.  The ultimate expression of this phase was the massive building program at Birkenau  in 1942 and 1943 with four huge gas, cremation facilities capability of gassing and cremating thousands per day.

Typically the crematorium building was just outside the prisoner compound but not too far so as to allow easy access for the body gatherers.

These large permanent crematoria buildings also became the location of executions in the camp. In Mauthausen prisoners were shot in an ante chamber of the crematoria building.  Similarly in Buchenwald there was a room in the crematorium building for hanging prisoners on hooks attached to the wall.

Facilities also existed in these buildings for dissecting bodies and removing gold teeth. The typical crematorium building also included a cellar or mortuary for storing bodies until they could be cremated. 

Cremation in the Sub Camps

After 1943 a significant sub camp system grew up around the main camps. Auschwitz had for example over 40 sub camps. These ranged from camps of less than 100 prisoners all the way up to camps with upwards of 5000 prisoners. Initially, in order to comply with the regulation that all dead prisoners be cremated, lorries trundled around Greater Germany delivering dead bodies back to the main camp for cremation. As the body counts rose the larger sub camps got their own crematoriums and also use was made of local municipal crematoriums nearest to the sub camps. In the end, as the body counts rose, the fuel for lorries and crematorium ran out and the Third Reich descended into chaos increasing use was made of burials and open air cremation.

In general apart from the last  two months before the end of the war comparatively few prisoners died in the sub camps. This is because many sub camps had no hospital facilities, and thus all ill or dying prisoners (other than minor illnesses) were sent back to the main camp where they were either cured or died. They were thus cremated in the main camp. In the last two months of the war this system of transfer broke down and local  SS camp comanders had to look for local solutions for hospital treatment if any and for disposing of the dead.

The End of the Third Reich

Towards late 1944 and into 1945 as the Third Reich began to collapse and the body count began to rise the crematoria in the camps became incapable of keeping up with the number of bodies. There was also a lack of fuel to power the crematoria.  In some camps resort was made to mass burial as in Mauthausen. In other camps e.g. Birkenau in the summer of 1944 when gassing the Hungarian Jews, resort was made to mass open air cremation pits.  In camps such as Mauthausen where resort was made to mass burial, some bodies were still cremated typically those of important prisoners or prisoners who had been executed.

Belsen at liberation became the ultimate expression of this as the British found tens of thousand of dead prisoners strewn across the camp.  Belsen had one single muffle portable Kori oven that could possibly cremate 100 bodies a day. Just prior to liberation thousands were dying every day.

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