Not many people know that the poisonous gas Zyklon B was first used on Russian Prisoners of War, long before the Nazi’s had decided on the ‘final solution’ at the Wannsee conference.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the first mass killing by Zyklon B.
SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch (10 July 1903 – reported missing 2 May 1945), was a German SS Captain and Auschwitz concentration camp Deputy who first suggested using poisonous gas Zyklon B for the purpose of mass murder according to Rudolf Höss and experimented with the first gassings himself.
Karl Fritzsch was born in Bohemia into the family of a stove builder. His father moved constantly on work assignments, and therefore Fritzsch never received formal education. For some years he worked as labourer on river ships along Danube. His marriage in 1928 to Franziska Stich produced three children, but ended in divorce in 1942.Fritzsch joined the Nazi Party and the SS (NSDAP # 261135 SS # 7287) in 1930 at the age of 27. He became a career SS man. Almost as soon as it opened, he acquired a position at the Dachau concentration camp in 1934.
Due to his camp experience, several months after the German invasion of Poland, in May 1940 he became deputy to Rudolf Höss and the head of the economic operation of Auschwitz (Schutzhaftlagerführer). Fritzsch quickly obtained a reputation as the Auschwitz horror. He used to select prisoners to die of starvation in reprisal for the escape attempts among prisoners. Together with Höss, he was responsible for the torture death of victims locked inside standing cells in the basement of the Bunker, i.e. the Block 11 or 13 prison until they died.
On 29 July 1941, a camp count found that three prisoners were missing and Fritzsch sentenced 10 remaining prisoners to immurement(walling in). One of the condemned, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was reprieved when a fellow prisoner, the Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe, offered to take his place. After over 2 weeks starvation, only Kolbe remained alive and the priest was killed in the underground bunker by lethal injection. Kolbe was later canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Fritzsch was also fond of psychological torture. Former Auschwitz prisoner Karol Świętorzecki recalled the first Christmas Eve behind the camp barbed wire, on 24 December 1940, was also one of the most tragic. “The Nazis set up a Christmas tree, with electric lights, on the roll-call square. Beneath it, they placed the bodies of prisoners who had died while working or frozen to death at roll call. Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch referred to the corpses beneath the tree as “a present” for the living, and forbade the singing of Polish Christmas carols.”
According to testimony of his superior Rudolf Höss, it was also Fritzsch who first came up with the idea of using poison gas Zyklon B for the purpose of mass murder. Fritzsch ordered the killing of Soviet POWs locked in cells in the basement of the Bunker while Höss went away on an official trip in late August 1941. Fritzsch tried out the effect of Zyklon B inside cells which were not air-tight, subjecting the victims to even more torturous death. Fritzsch repeated the test-killing of additional victims using Zyklon B soon thereafter in the presence of Höss. According to Höss the preferred method for the mass murders in Auschwitz using Zyklon B was devised on site.
The first tests using Zyklon-B had been done in August 1941 in one of the basement cells
The Nazis conducted the first mass killing of people using Zyklon-B in prison cell number 27 in Block 11 on September 3 1941.Adolf Eichmann was visiting the Auschwitz camp on that day, although Commandant Rudolf Höss was away on business, Adolf Eichmann had been the head of Department IV, B4 in the Reich Central Security Office (RSHA); Eichmann’s department was in charge of getting rid of the Jews in Europe. Karl Fritzsch, the camp commander and the deputy of Rudolf Höss, took it upon himself to carry out this first gassing, while his superior officer, Rudolf Höss, was away.
The subjects of this first mass killing on September 3, 1941 were 600 Russian POWs and 250 sick prisoners,test conducted in the previous months had determined the right amount of Zyklon-B needed to kill a room full of people.
On 15 January 1942, Fritzsch was transferred to KZ Flossenbürg as Schutzhaftlagerführer. From early August until October 1942 he was temporary substitute commander of the camp. In October 1943, he was arrested as a part of an internal SS investigation into corruption. An SS court charged him with murder. As a punishment he was transferred to front line duty (SS-Panzergrenadier-Ersatzbatallion 18). It is assumed that he fell during the battle of Berlin in May 1945.
It is commonly believed that Fritzsch perished in the Battle for Berlin but his final fate remained long unknown. Soviet sources claimed that MI-6 caught him in Norway. In his 2007 memoirs, For He Is an Englishman, Memoirs of a Prussian Nobleman, Captain Charles Arnold-Baker recorded that as an MI6 officer in Oslo he arrested Fritzsch: “We picked up, for example, the deputy commandant of Auschwitz, a little runt of a man called Fritzsch whom we naturally put in the custody of a Jewish guard – with strict instructions not to damage him, of course.”
On 4 May 2015 Dutch journalist Wierd Duk published an article on his investigation of Fritzsch’s disappearance. In it he cites a report from 1966 by the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in which Berlin inhabitant Gertrud Berendes claims that Fritzsch had shot himself on 2 May 1945 in the basement of a house at Sächsische Strasse 42 in Berlin. She mentioned that her father and a neighbour had buried Fritzsch in the Preussenpark and she had sent his personal belongings to his wife. In a separate report from 1966 by the Kriminalpolizei Regensburg Fritzsch’s wife states that she had no reason to doubt her husband’s death and that she had received his wedding ring and personal letters.