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The difference between concentration camps and extermination camps

Concentration camps and extermination camps belonged to two widely different camp systems:

Extermination camps were only constructed with one purpose: to mass murder Jews and other “unwanted”.

Concentration camps, on the other hand, had a number of purposes, among these to work as reformatory facilities, “punishment camps”, POW camps, transit camps, etc. But the concentration camps did not work directly as extermination sites!

Concentration camps
Extermination camps

Concentration camps

Inmates contructing a Krupp factory near Auschwitz, USHMM # 11069.

The concentration camps formed an important part of the Nazi regime’s systematic suppression of Jews, gypsies, political dissident, homosexuals and other groups that were viewed as socially and racially “undesirable” in the Nazi state.

The concentration camps were established with different purposes. For instance, there existed “ordinary” concentration camps, forced labour camps, work- and reformatory camps, POW camps and transit camps.

Their common denominator was the fact that the living conditions were extremely horrible and cruel for the inmates. With very insufficient food, the terrible conditions resulted in the deaths of an enormous amount of prisoners, especially in the work camps.

There were at least 22 main camps distributed all over Germany and Europe, more than 1,200 affiliate camps and Aussenkommandos, and tens of thousands of smaller camps. Many hundreds of thousands of non-Jews and tens of thousands of Jews perished in these camps.

> Concentration camps

Extermination camps

Women and children waiting to be gassed in Crematorium IV, Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. “The Auschwitz Album”, ©Yad Vashem.

Unlike the concentration camps, six extermination camps were established between 1941 and 1943 with only one purpose: to exterminate the Jews. A total of three million Jews were murdered in these camps.

The extermination camps can be divided into two groups: the “pure” extermination camps and the combined extermination- and concentration camps.

“Pure" extermination camps: Chelmno and the Operation Reinhard camps.

Four camps, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka (the Operation Reinhard camps) and Chelmno were all “pure” extermination facilities. Only a few hundred Jews survived their encounter with these four extermination camps.

Combined camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek

Both of these camps were originally concentration camps. In time, however, they were included in the organised mass murder of the Jews, following the construction of gas chambers. Only one in every fourth of the Jews that arrived in these camps was selected for forced labour – the rest were gassed to death immediately upon arrival.

At least one million Jews were killed in Auschwitz and between 60,000 and 80,000 Jews in Majdanek.

> Extermination camps

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