The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes

An Attempt at a Literary Analysis
of the Holocaust Gassing Claim

by Samuel Crowell



"In Memoriam!"









December 22, 1997

Copyright 1997,1998 by Samuel Crowell










Analytical Table of Contents


1. -- Introduction

Original nature of the gassing claim in 1945-1946.-- Criticism of the claim since then.-- Current calls for censorship. -- The need for free speech and free expression in this domain. -- Methodology: Literary analysis, or a chronological and comparative method.

2. -- The First Reports

The first reports emanate from Polish Jewish underground newspapers in the winter and spring of 1942. -- Conveyed to England, widely publicized from the summer of 1942. -- The first BBC broadcasts. -- Concept of a feedback loop for developing and legitimizing rumors. -- Nature of rumors. Extermination in a bathhouse by: steam, electricity, a vacuum, a hammer, or poison gas. -- Evolution of the typical shower-gas-burning sequence. -- The Katyn Forest Massacre: a model of forensic investigation. -- Soviet response: gas vans in Krasnodar, massacre at Babi Yar. -- Possible origins of rumors: German secret weapons technology, German experiments with cyanide gas after discovery of Soviet plans to use it in 1941, analogy with Western execution techniques (electrocution, gas), and disinfection procedures.

3. -- German Disinfection Procedures

Western disinfection procedures developed in 19th Century to combat cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and typhus. -- German methods very systematic, constant exposure to cholera and typhus because of Eastern European immigrants fleeing persecution. -- Hamburg epidemic in 1892. -- Mary Antin's passage in 1893. -- American procedures, 1892, and the fear these evoked in Jewish community. -- German disinfection procedures in World War One in Turkey. -- In Poland. -- English procedures in Poland in 1919. -- American procedures in Poland. -- German technological developments in the 1920's and 1930's. -- The mechanics of disinfection: shaving, showering, and fumigating. Zyklon B. -- Double-doored Apparate for disinfection. -- Railway car gassing tunnels. -- Typical responses among Eastern Jews and others: non-comprehension, fear, anxiety, evasion, and destructive rumors of extermination.

4. -- The First Reports from Auschwitz and Majdanek

First claims of mass gassing at Auschwitz sandwiched around Soviet occupation of Majdanek camp. -- The first inaccurate Auschwitz memo, July, 1944. -- Soviet guided tour of Majdanek, August 1944, and Special Commission. Gassing motifs emerge. -- Double doored disinfection Apparate identified as gas chamber. -- Fascination with the peephole on the door: fundamental proof of the gassing claim. -- Peephole then figures in Auschwitz claim, in War Refugee Board Report, November, 1945. -- An apparent convergence of fact is perhaps merely a convergence of rumor.

5. -- The Eastern Camps, Polevoi's Report, and the Gerstein Statement

Soviet propagandists begin gathering gassing stories in August, 1944, these are published in Yiddish. -- Soviet Special Commissions in fall. -- Deposition of Leleko, February, 1945, summarizes these claims. Close linkage of Leleko deposition with descriptions for Majdanek, therefore probable derivation. -- Gerstein statement from April of 1945. -- Contains many fantastic elements, gassing elements in turn derivative of Leleko, Majdanek, and initial Pravda reports on Auschwitz. -- Gerstein illustrates absolute identity of Zyklon B with an extermination program in allied thinking. Gerstein's story widely publicized in France in July, 1945. -- His suicide follows.

6. -- The Canonical Holocaust

The gassing claim as we understand it today is double-rooted: first, in the photographs and newsreels of the dead at Belsen, who perished from typhoid, typhus, and tuberculosis, and second from the Soviet Special Commission on Auschwitz, which concluded four million dead with no direct documentary evidence. -- Analysis of the Soviet claim. -- Influence of Soviet report on allied interrogators. -- Influence of Soviet report on eyewitnesses: Bendel and Bimko. -- Influence of Soviet report on German confessions: Maximillian Grabner and others.

7. -- The Nuremberg Trials

The aim of the Nuremberg Trials to discredit National Socialism and German militarism: the future pacification of Germany. -- Evidence provided for incriminating value. -- No attempt at putting documents in context. Soviet Union oversees most of the gassing claim presentation. -- Soviet record in 1930's show trials indicates mass hysteria, conspiratorial thinking, forced confessions. -- Hysterical atmosphere at Nuremberg: Judges, who privately doubt, fail to maintain a rational atmosphere. 

8. -- The Confessions of Rudolf Höß

Höß captured and interrogated by British after Soviets conclude gassing claim presentation. -- Höß' confessions clearly coerced. Analysis of April 5, 1946 affidavit. -- Content of that affidavit derives from Soviet presentation. -- Errors in that affidavit.

9. -- Interpreting Documents and the Postwar Literature

Quality of documents offered at Nuremberg. -- Documents offered as indicative of gassing actually indicate something else. -- The Wetzel-Lohse correspondence. -- The Diary of Dr. Kremer. -- Post-war literature emerging in this period: Olga Lengyel, Miklos Nyiszli. -- Clear influence of claims in Soviet report. -- Inaccuracy of details and unreliability of descriptions. The main conduit for cultural awareness of the gassing claim. -- The absence of evidence is considered the proof of the gassing claim: the conspiratorial nature of the gassing claim.

10. -- Retrofitting the Euthanasia Campaign

Euthanasia program begins 1939, evidence indicates lethal injections were used. -- German people began to rumor poison gas and death ray usage because the bodies were cremated, by 1940. -- Strong opposition of German people. -- In summer, 1946, narratives of euthanasia killings emerge, these use the same materials (Double-doored Apparate) and procedure for the now familiar shower-gas-burning sequence. -- Shower element does not fit the euthanasia procedure. -- Confusion of deceptions. -- Concept transference, compare World War One. -- Conclusion is that Euthanasia gassing narratives derived from extermination gassing narratives, but rumors of gas usage came first. -- Demonstrated German fear of poison gas and cremation.

11. -- The Fear of Cremation and Poison Gas

Cremation still relatively modern in the 1930's and 1940's. Resistance by many social elements, gives rise to bizarre ideas of concealing crimes and corpse recycling. -- National Socialism advocates cremation because of over-crowding and disease control. -- Cremation fears mirrored in many instances of Allied fear about German secret weapons, technological abilities -- Fear of poison gas and its disfiguring effects common in Interwar culture. -- Vicki Baum. -- Pabst's Kameradschaft. Poison gas and mass hysteria: Israel, 1991; Florida, 1971; D-Day, 1944; The "War of the Worlds" panic of 1938. -- Disfigured bodies, from fire or putrefaction, are conceived as victims of poison gas: Germany, Cassell bombing raid, 1943, concentration camps, 1945. -- Poison gas often conceived as air-borne: German civil defense.

12. -- German Civil Defense

German air raid shelters meant to serve also as anti-gas shelters. -- Therefore equipped with gastight doors. -- Air raid shelter doors also equipped with peepholes, to allow inspection without breaking the gastight seal. -- The doors at Majdanek are air raid shelter doors, the bathing facility meant to double as a decontamination center. -- The main fear is from disfiguring mustard gases, therefore Germans equipped laundries and public baths to serve as decontamination centers in the event of a gas attack. -- Bombing assault on Germany killed perhaps 3/4 million people, most perished from gas poisoning (CO) and were at least partially cremated by dry heat. -- But this event would be inverted into an accusation against the German people after the war.

13. -- Civil Defense in the Concentration Camps

Concentration camps important to war industry. -- Therefore require air raid and anti-gas protection, according to German guidelines. Review of evidence for air raid shelters and gas protection in the concentration camp system. -- Himmler Order of February 8, 1943, directly precedes flood of work orders for gastight fixtures at Auschwitz Birkenau.

14. -- Pressac's "Criminal Traces" 

Material or documentary evidence in the present day rests almost entirely on the "criminal traces" of J. C. Pressac, developed by the Polish communists for their Auschwitz trials in 1946 and 1947. -- But this evidence, when viewed in the light of civil defense literature, does not indicate gas chambers, but rather gastight bomb shelters and delousing chambers. -- Since most of this evidence clearly argues for gastight bomb shelters, but was developed, and has been presented, as proof of gas chambers, it follows that there is no material or documentary evidence for gas chambers at all, and it follows further that there is a strong likelihood of a Polish and Soviet communist hoax in developing this particular evidence.

15. -- The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes

Gassing narratives from World War Two reflected in literature prior to the war, including Sinclair Lewis (1936), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1924). -- Analysis of the shower-gas-burning concept in its parts: disinfection procedures (Mayakovsky), poison gas usage (H.G. Wells, Sax Rohmer, E. R. Burroughs). -- Elements of the gassing claim directly pertinent to Jewish traditions: longstanding conceptions of "extermination" and its meanings, "six million", and the concept of a secret central conspiracy to destroy the Jewish people. -- The conclusion is that the cultural script for the shower-gas-burning sequence as well as the extermination-six million-central conspiracy concepts are all very old and deeply rooted.

16. -- Conclusions

There is no material or documentary evidence that unambiguously supports the gassing claim. -- The evidence put forward overwhelmingly refers to either disinfection or civil air defense, including gas protection. -- Furthermore, fictional accounts of gassing antedate the gassing claim by many years. -- The gassing claim as a mass delusion. -- As a rumor. -- As a legend. -- As a hoax. -- Analogy to UFO abductions. -- The gassing claim as a cultural construct. The need for nationalities to perceive their history as unique. -- The general nature of 20th Century history in Eastern Europe. -- The Jewish ordeal along the continuum of war, revolution, collectivization, dekulakization, and the German expulsions. -- The gassing claim created by, and reinforced by, delusional pressures of social and cultural change as well as by censorship.



1. Introduction



A COMMON BELIEF is that in World War Two the National Socialist government of Germany carried out a secret policy of mass exterminations, chiefly using extermination gas chambers. The policy is said to have been ordered by Adolf Hitler, and involved the gassing of millions of human beings, who subsequently were burned either in crematoria or in huge pits so that scarcely a trace of their bodies remained.

The claim of mass gas extermination has been questioned ever since the late 1940's, but only by a few people, and very much on the fringe of public discourse.2 In the early 1970's several new critics of the gas extermination claim emerged, and over the past two decades they have been joined by many others, so that now there are at least several dozen who have written on the subject.3 These researchers consider themselves heir to the tradition of those historians who sought in the 1920's to revise, and de-politicize, our understanding of the First World War, and so consider themselves historical revisionists. But the skepticism of these researchers towards mass gassing is usually accompanied by a desire to reevaluate the Holocaust in its entirety, and as a result they are more normally called "Holocaust revisionists" or "Holocaust deniers".4

The response of traditional historiography to the challenge of the revisionists has not been what one would expect. Normally, when someone challenges a historical orthodoxy, a minute analysis of the material and documentary record ensues, and the record is correspondingly revised. But nothing of the sort has happened here: instead, the arguments of the revisionists have been ignored and they have been reviled.5

In recent years, the expression of revisionist skepticism has been criminalized in several European countries, leading to heavy fines and prison terms, particularly in Germany and France.6 In Canada, two major trials have been held with the intention of silencing a gas chamber critic.7 Most recently the Prime Minister of Great Britain, during his candidacy, repeatedly promised to ban revisionist writings about the Holocaust.8

The further erosion of free speech on this matter must be considered intolerable to anyone who takes the intellectual life seriously. Therefore the purpose of this essay will be to deliberately review the gassing claim, with the object, not to prove that gassings did or did not take place, but rather to investigate whether there is a plausible basis for revisionist doubt. If we find that the traditional gassing narrative contains sufficient errors or lacunae to justify doubt, then we must allow doubt. On the other hand, if we find that the traditional gassing narrative has an irrefutable documentary or material base, then we must note this also. The result should be, in the first case, due recognition of revisionist contributions to the ongoing process of modern historiography, or, in the second case, a further marginalization of revisionist thinking, which should render their influence harmless and thus unobjectionable. But in any case we cannot continue the current situation where revisionists are dismissed as not serious even while many of them are punished with quite serious fines and prison terms.

The method we shall use is largely determined by the inherent problems of the subject, specifically the problems concerning text and source criticism. Even if charitably inclined, anyone with minimal historical training cannot fail to notice how traditional Holocaust scholars take a generally uncritical, selective, and anachronistic position with regards to their evidence. From a mass of materials that support, or seem to support, their position, they simply select heavily edited excerpts here and there.9 Rarely is an attempt made to explain the theoretical underpinnings of the selection or verification process for testimonies or affidavits. Rarer still are attempts to place the frequently ambiguous evidence in a wider documentary context. When the original sources contain errors or data inconsistent with the traditional interpretation, no attempt is made to explain the source or significance of these errors and inconsistencies.

Finally, traditional Holocaust scholars pay no attention to the chronological evolution or even the circumstances of gassing claims, even though it should be obvious that earlier statements, widely publicized, have a strong potential for influencing later permutations of a claim. This last is a particularly glaring omission, since the vast majority of Holocaust evidence is gleaned from testimonial or affidavit narratives. In short, the overall impression created by the traditional school's method is one of simply selecting data that supports what everyone already knows.

The revisionist approach has its own strengths and weaknesses. Its greatest strength has been its willingness to subject the standard evidentiary texts to rigorous criticism. But even here, there has been a tendency to confuse debunking with historical explanation. It is not enough to say that this or that affidavit contains several errors and is therefore suspect, nor, for that matter, is it enough to carry out forensic studies and show the extreme unlikelihood of specific gassing claims. There have been enormous contributions in this latter area in the past decade, and the researches of Faurisson, Berg, Rudolf and Mattogno have gone a long way to define the physical limits against which testimonies and affidavits must be tested.10 Nevertheless, to show with a fair degree of probability that the mass gassings were impossible is not the same thing as explaining why everyone believes they took place.

Therefore we begin at the beginning with the simple proposition that the gassing claims are either true or not true. If they are true, then the historian should be able to establish how the claims came to be known, and at what point the fugitive claims of wartime crossed the threshold of fact. On the other hand, if the claims are false it should be possible to explain how they emerged, how they were constituted, and why they were believed. In short, the problem requires a chronological method.

In general the tendency in most writings on the Holocaust has been to ignore the difference between rumor and fact: the traditional school considers all rumors fact, the revisionists consider all facts rumor.11 It is precisely at this juncture, then, that we seem to have a promising point of departure, since all parties, traditional or revisionist, agree that the gassing claims began as vague, anonymous, and unverifiable reports, that is, as rumors.

Fact is a reflection of empirical reality; but rumor expresses a reality all its own, however difficult it is to define, since the real world of rumor is simply that world of unspoken assumptions, associations, and projections that characterize a human culture at a specific moment of historic time. Attempts to describe the parameters and nature of that unspoken world, which in some ways is more real than the real world, at least in terms of determining our perception and our judgment, has been a main project among intellectual historians and literary critics at least since the early 1960's.

By way of a simple example: in 1976 a literary detective named Samuel Rosenberg wrote a book entitled Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. Rosenberg closely analyzed the Holmes stories in order to argue that Conan Doyle was expressing in his work a great number of late Victorian concerns: Evolution, Nietzsche's theories, German secret societies and bellicose nationalism, the White Man's Burden, and so forth. While we can debate his success is mapping out Conan Doyle's specific intellectual concerns, his book did succeed in placing the stories firmly within a specific cultural context, thus helping to explain their content.

We want to pursue a similar path here, and hence propose a literary analysis in a chronological format. That is, while skeptical of the gassing claims, we are not setting as our primary objective to prove or disprove any specific gassing claim. Instead we will have a simple narration of the gassing claims, from the spring of 1942 through the end of the Nuremberg and Auschwitz Trials in 1947. The analysis shall be "literary" because it will focus on the themes, motifs, tropes, and story elements that comprise the gassing claims. To put it another way, the gassing claims will be laid out, viewed as narratives or as "texts", arranged in order, and analyzed separately and in combination.

Literary analyses usually involve several different steps. One is simply the breakdown of a text into its parts along with a discussion of these. In the present case this will involve the isolation and tracking of some of the gassing claim story elements. A second step involves a textual analysis, in which the text is arrayed with similar texts that may have influenced it or which may have been influenced by it. Precisely for this reason, judgment on the veracity of claims will be suspended, in favor of investigating whether a given narrative shows textual links with prior or later texts. A third approach places the text in a broader social and cultural context, in order to see how it relates to, or expresses, its culture. In the present case the emerging story elements will be placed in the context of known historical and cultural crosscurrents, most of which have been undervalued or ignored by traditional historians of this subject. By putting these materials in context, it will be possible to see the extent to which the gassing claim was, or was not, peculiar to its time.

After discussing the various story elements of the emerging gassing claim three facts should become clear. First, the mass gassing narratives have a strong family resemblance among them and even to texts that predated the supposed gas exterminations by 20 years or more. Second, the unique characteristics of the gassing process can be traced, in the broader context of European social and cultural history, to completely ordinary procedures, albeit procedures which were the source of significant social and cultural anxiety. Finally, it should become plain that there is no documentary or material evidence that unambiguously supports the mass gassing claim: those documents that are said to bear even remotely on the gassing claim are, in context, completely benign, and for the most part refer back to the anxiety-producing procedures just discussed. These conclusions will not prove that there were no mass gassings. They will, however, vindicate revisionist doubt.

It will of course be impossible to indefinitely withhold a final judgment on the source or character of the gassing claims. But we can take guidance from two cautionary remarks of Conan Doyle's Baker Street sage. "How often have I said to you that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" said Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in The Sign of Four. To be sure, the historian must always be willing to face uncomfortable truths. "I should have more faith," Holmes remarked in A Study in Scarlet, "I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears opposed to a long train of deductions it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation." Indeed, it is precisely to the reasonable possibility of "some other interpretation" that all historical investigation must be dedicated.

Yet no one can authoritatively deny the existence of something that most everyone else accepts as true. Therefore categorical denials of mass gassing are not possible. One can, however, try to explain how the gassing claim could have arisen quite naturally given the characteristics and concerns of early 20th Century social and cultural life. It will be shown that the gassing claim, as a form of the more general extermination claim, comprises elements of specific concern to East European Jews since the early 19th Century. It will also be shown that the traditional extermination scenario, featuring a shower-gas-burning sequence, is rooted in profound European and American concerns over disease and disease prevention, the use of poison gas and other mysterious weapons of mass destruction, and finally anxiety and fear over the recent reappearance of cremation as a means of disposal of the dead.

In short, it will be possible to see that the generation of a delusion of mass gas extermination did not require a conspiracy, or a hoax, nor much conscious effort at all, but only a social and cultural climate that would facilitate the generation of such claims, at a time of war, hatred, and social anomie. We will see that such claims, facilitated here and there by a little helpful fraud, but above all by a simple willingness to believe the worst about one's enemies, would allow these rumors to be stated as fact and become themselves part of that social and cultural landscape of which we are only half-consciously aware.

A few caveats are probably in order. Many people still feel that to question the mass gassing claim, or for that matter, any other aspect of the Holocaust, is tantamount to dismissing the enormous suffering and loss of life experienced by the Jewish people in World War Two, and that it is even "wicked" to pose questions that may cause survivors any further suffering.12

As to the first point, it is only because of the emphases of recent historiography that the mass gassing claim has come to be so exclusively associated with the Jewish people and the Holocaust. In 1945, it was commonly claimed that ten million or more had been exterminated at the same half dozen camps where today three million Jews alone are said to have been gassed,13 the implication is clear that at the time it was believed that more non-Jews than Jews had in fact been exterminated with poison gas.14 Moreover, mass gassing has been reconstructed as having been applied first to insane and disabled non-Jewish Germans in the course of the Euthanasia campaign. Therefore, skepticism of the mass gassing claim intersects, but does not embrace, the totality of the Holocaust.

As to the second point: the argument that we must spare the feelings of survivors is essentially an appeal to compassion. For many years, we were swayed, and even troubled, by this argument, but we have seen in recent times that this compassion has been invoked to justify persecution and censorship. So now the value of compassion has been placed at odds to the free reason of the individual. But in fact all compassion, and all human action, can only flow from the reasoned choice of free human beings. We conclude, therefore, that the most positive end is served by insisting on the right of free people to speak their minds.


2. The First Reports


MOST HOLOCAUST RESEARCHERS begin their analysis of the gassing claims in the spring of 1942, so we shall follow that custom here.15 We are not concerned with recording every single enumeration of a gassing claim; we are concerned above all with recording characteristic changes in how the story is reported. Throughout 1942, 1943, and well into the summer of 1944, all claims of mass gassing must be considered as uncorroborated rumors: therefore, after briefly covering the evolution of the story we must pause and attempt to provide other possible explanations for these rumors that are not keyed to the assumption that they reflect reality. To that end, we will have to duly note a few other rumors pertaining to alleged German National Socialist activities that are generally conceded to be untrue today, that is, rumors that assumed a life of their own in the Second World War.

It should be pointed out here that in the spring of 1942 the National Socialist government of Germany began to systematically deport all Jewish persons in Europe to Poland, and, according to their claims, to points farther east. There is no denying that these deportations were cruel, or that they involved the unjust seizure of wealth and belongings, or that many Jews were done to death one way or another during this process. Virtually everyone, revisionist and non-revisionist, agrees about this aspect of the National Socialist persecution of the Jewish people.

There is also agreement that in the subsequent course of the war hundreds of thousands of Jews were dragooned into the German labor system, particularly into the armaments industry, working largely out of concentration camps, and several types of labor camps, and that the death rate in these camps was very high, particularly at the end of the war when disease control measures and provisioning completely broke down. The question is whether in the course of these concentrations in Poland and subsequent deportations farther east the German National Socialists were also carrying out a policy of deliberate extermination of Jewish people, specifically using poison gas.

The first claim of mass gassing pertaining to Jewish people that received wide circulation was contained in the so-called Bund Report that was smuggled to the Polish Government in exile, located in London, in the third week of May, 1942.16 The report contained two gassing rumors: first that a special automobile (a gas chamber) was being used to gas 90 persons at one time.17 Since the victims were supposed to have dug their graves before being gassed, it follows that this was more a gas chamber that could be moved from place to place than a gas van (normally conceived as a vehicle that would drive victims to a grave while they died from gas inhalation on the way).18 The second rumor pertains to actions in Warsaw: it is said that Jews were being experimented upon with poison gases.19

The Bund Report, in turn, appears to be a composite of at least two documents that had come from Warsaw during the spring of 1942. The first of these was an underground communication from the Jewish Labor Bund, in Warsaw, dated March 16, 1942, which described German activities in Western Poland as follows:

"In a number of villages the Jews were put to death by gas poisoning. They were herded in a horrible way into hermetically sealed trucks transformed into gas chambers, in groups of fifty, entire families, completely nude ...."20

and further alleged that "gas poisoning" was being carried out in Lodz.21 The second document that contributed to the Bund Report was a lead article in Der Veker, April 30, 1942, at a time of internecine struggle between Jewish resisters and collaborators in the Warsaw ghetto.22 That article is the source of most of the numerical totals in the Bund Report, but it is interesting that neither of these documents indicate 700,000 total dead.23 The April 30, 1942 Der Veker article also specifies Chelmno as the site of poison gassings, without giving details, but it is worth noting that from the March 16 communication there is an implied connection of bathing (the enforced nudity) and gassing, although, as we shall see, it will be some months before either element become dominant in the recitation of atrocities.

Two of the members of the Polish National Council in exile were Jewish: Zygielbojm and Szwarcbart, and they could be expected to be particularly interested in what was being alleged about their co-religionists several hundred miles away under German military occupation, and, in spreading these allegations as a means of getting support for their people.24 The Bund Report was thus extensively publicized in the media.  

Already on June 24, 1942, the Bund Report was summarized on the BBC.25 The following day, the Daily Telegraph ran a major story on the Report, with two headlines of note: "Germans murder 700,000 in Poland," and "Traveling Gas Chambers".26 The following day, Zygielbojm delivered a broadcast over the BBC, summarizing the Bund Report, in Yiddish, and hence obviously directed to the Jewish population in Poland.27 Within a week, the BBC had made an arrangement with the Polish National Council giving the BBC priority in the reporting of all future atrocity stories.28 

On July 1, 1942, the Polish Fortnightly Review published a report, based on the allegations made in the Bund Report, and now also mentioning specific camps: Sobibor, and Majdanek, near Lublin.29 It also made a reference to atrocities at Auschwitz, described as a labor camp, where about a thousand Soviet and Polish POW's were supposed to have been gassed the previous September, as well as to another camp nearby, called 'Paradisal' -- the name, so the report alleged, because "from it there is only one road, leading to Paradise."30 It further alleges that the crematoria in the Paradisal camp were five times larger than at Auschwitz, and that experiments with poison gas were conducted there.31 It should be emphasized that the remarks in the Polish Fortnightly Review concerning Auschwitz were not in the Bund Report; they appear to have come from earlier reports that were sent to London.32

Looking over these initial claims it is clear that the claim of gassing is but one of a number of extermination claims being made. It is furthermore true that the claims of gassing focus more on the allegation of experiments rather than a systematic extermination procedure. On the Auschwitz claims, there are some startling inaccuracies: Paradisal is clearly a reference to Birkenau, but Birkenau had no crematoria until the following spring, and the term Paradisal itself, as a road to paradise, is obviously the origin of the "Himmelfahrt" that will later figure so prominently in the folklore of Sobibor and Treblinka but which has no place in the history of Birkenau.33

The other thing that is important to note in this first rush of stories about gassings is that the BBC has already begun to play a major role in recycling these rumors back to their point of origin in Poland.34 These broadcasts in effect create a feedback loop that repeats and gives authority to Polish rumors, which are then re-injected back into Poland, where they may be expected to multiply and burgeon. There will be more to say of these broadcasts shortly, but the role of radio in disseminating and universalizing the rumors of mass gassing is something that deserves a very thorough accounting.

By July 16, 1942, the allegations of gassing were repeated in the News Review, here with the claim that the Germans were preparing "large gas stations" where the Polish Jewish population would be murdered.35 The report claims that Jews were to be given "no sleeping drugs"... "they were just trussed up and finished off."36 This report is getting us closer to the claim as we understand it today, but the reference to drugs and trussing up the victims suggests more a reference to gassing as a form of execution than for mass extermination: in other words, it appears that the author was attempting to compare the gassing procedure alleged in Poland with that used for executions in the United States.37

Later on that same summer, two rumors were passed on to Gerhart Riegner, the Geneva representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva.38 Both of these came from Germans, private citizens hostile to Nazism, and both claimed that the National Socialist government was preparing to use poison gas: the one claim would mutate into the formulation of "lighting the gas ovens"39 the other made a specific reference to the use of prussic acid, or cyanide gas (Blausäure).40 Both of these rumors are considered important because they stem from German sources and secondly because cyanide gas would later be considered to be a basic "murder weapon" in the extermination process.41 But it should be clear that rumors heard by even prominent Germans in the context of the established BBC gassing claim feedback loop are no more valid than any others. In this respect it is interesting to note that when two "eyewitnesses" from Poland were interviewed in Geneva at about the same time neither one said a word about gas exterminations, although they described many other hardships endured by Polish Jews. 42

A BBC broadcast on September 27th featured the exiled German author Thomas Mann, who repeated the gassing claim, saying that 16,000 French Jews had been gassed on a train after it had been "hermetically sealed" and that 11,000 Polish Jews had been put to death in the same way.43 It is known that such rumors were heard in Europe at the time.44 It follows that among the French and Dutch Jews being deported in the fall of 1942 there would be some who would be quite anxious about what awaited them in the concentration camps.

The next important development in the mass gassing claims comes again from Polish sources, and in particular the testimony of Jan Karski, a Polish intelligence operative who claimed to have been an eyewitness at Belzec, indeed, his report also mentions Sobibor and Treblinka.45 These various reports were compiled by the Geneva Zionists, and then publicized in London and New York at the same time.46 There were two apparently new elements to these materials. The first is the description of the loading of deported Jews into trucks covered with lime and chlorine -- this apparently the origin of the later claim of extermination with chlorine gas.47 The second was the description of extermination at Belzec -- the victims were told to strip, as if for a shower, were led into a room, and then electrocuted via a metal plate on the floor.48 The elaboration of these materials in the New York Times on November 26, 1942, would include allegations by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise that the Germans were also turning the bodies of dead Jews into "fats and soaps and lubricants" and that the Germans were now "injecting bubbles into their veins" because "prussic acid had been found to be too expensive."49

This particular cycle of extermination claims seems especially rich. Lime and chlorine were standard materials used to combat epidemics -- we will discuss this in more detail shortly. The extermination description at Belzec is noteworthy for two reasons: first, because it is apparently the first time that "showering" is explicitly described as an element in pre-extermination deception, although as we have seen the connection appears have preceded this statement,50 and second because the electrocution claim is no longer made today (although it must be said that it would later undergo significant elaboration.)51

The last element that is interesting is in regard to the soap claim, which has quietly been abandoned by all responsible researchers in recent decades.52 The claim of corpse utilization seems obviously related to a similar false claim made about the Germans in World War One, and indeed it was recognized as such in some quarters even in 1942.53 Another point is that there are two documents that indicate that the Germans were attempting to squelch such rumors in Slovakia and Lublin in July and October of 1942.54 Indeed, we know that "soap making" originally arose among ethnic Poles in 1942, who, along with the Jews, were being resettled on the right bank of the Bug River.55

The accumulation of extermination claims made in 1942 would lead the allied leaders to make a declaration on December 17, 1942, condemning German practices, without, on the other hand, specifying procedures.56

In April, 1943, an interesting memo of atrocities was drafted in London but was never issued. It claimed to describe extermination activities at Auschwitz- Birkenau. Three types of extermination were alleged in this anonymous document besides shooting. They were:

  1. Gas Chambers, the victims were undressed and put into those chambers where they suffocated. 

  2. Electric Chambers, these chambers had metal walls, the victims were brought in and high tension electric current was introduced. 

  3. The so-called Hammerluft system. This is a hammer of air. These were special chambers where the hammer fell from the ceiling and by means of a special installation victims found death under air pressure.57

Needless to say neither method b. nor c. form part of the current extermination narrative. However these two story elements are good examples of how Holocaust claims are later elaborated and developed. The description of the electric chambers is almost certainly derived from the Karski report, and will surface again. The Hammerluft system appears even more interesting. The crux of this rumor appears to be the idea of a falling hammer: it is probably here that one has for the first time a claimed method of execution that will later emerge as a prime form of death at Mauthausen (where it was supposed to be the "Kugel Decree"), Buchenwald, and also Sachsenhausen, where in the form of what Carlos Porter sarcastically called the "pedal-driven brain-bashing machine" it was supposed to have been used to exterminate 840,000 Russian POWs.58 On the other hand, the element in the claim that touches on air pressure is probably the grandfather of the so-called "vacuum chambers" at Treblinka that would make a brief appearance in 1945.59

For all of the subsequent development of the Hammerluft claim, it seems odd how this rumor could have arisen in the first place, since there is no material or physical evidence to support it (indeed, there is no such evidence for any of the claims we have reviewed so far). We are tempted to think that someone took the term "Hammerluft", which might conceivably refer to a pneumatic hammer, and this led to some grisly speculation. On the other hand it is interesting to note that during the war the Germans attempted to develop a secret weapon that involved high pressure jets of gases that would penetrate the fuselage of low flying aircraft, and, as a military project, POW's and Jewish forced laborers were no doubt involved.60 Perhaps rumors of this project also mutated into this particular extermination claim.

The abovementioned memo, drafted April 18, 1943, was never issued, probably because the main atrocity story at the time was the massacre of the Polish officers in Katyn forest which had just been revealed by the Germans.61 The story is simply this. Over ten thousand Polish officers fell into Soviet hands in 1939 and were never heard from again. In February, 1943, shortly after the fall of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, Germans stationed outside of Smolensk discovered mass graves of Polish officers. The Germans spent two months exhuming and analyzing the remains, accounting for 4,400 bodies in all. Several non-German forensic experts, including an independent Polish commission, were called in to investigate and carry out autopsies. The results in the subsequent German report, which was more than 300 pages in length, concluded that the officers had been systematically butchered in the spring of 1940. It was, in other words, an atrocity carried out by the Soviet Union.62

The Katyn episode is interesting for a few reasons. In the first place, confronted with well nigh irrefutable evidence of the criminality of their main ally, both Britain and the United States took the position that it was a German crime.63 Second, the German conduct of the exhumations and autopsies was thorough and meticulous: the international specialists, including the Poles, were allowed to conduct their researches with the minimum of interference.64 Third, the German forensic report is probably the most detailed analysis of any atrocity that ever occurred in the Second World War, nothing even remotely comparable has ever been produced for the many allegations of German atrocity.

In the midst of now typical gas chamber claims in May and June, and perhaps as a response to the Katyn accusation, the Soviets conducted a trial in Krasnodar in July of 1943, featuring German POW's who confessed to the gassing of people by use of "gas vans" or as the Russians called them, "Dushegubki" or "murder vans".65 It is worth mentioning here that no "gassing van" has ever been located.66 In August of 1943 a periodical entitled Polish Labor Fights! repeated extermination claims for Treblinka once more, now referring to rooms that are filled with people, sealed, and then filled with steam that kills the victims.67 Aside from the novel use of steam, later abandoned, one notes here again the use of the "showering" motif in the extermination process.

In late November, 1943, the Soviets, upon the liberation of Kiev, would allege that several tens of thousands had been shot at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of the city.68 The absence of forensic evidence was explained by claiming the Germans had somehow managed to dig up all of the remains a few weeks before retreating from the Red Army and burned all of the bodies without leaving a trace. What is at issue here is not the reality of shooting claims, per se, for there certainly is much evidence to corroborate the notion that the Germans and their East European auxiliaries massacred many people, including Jews, in the course of carrying out the Commissar Order to kill communists and communist sympathizers, as well as in the context of anti-partisan warfare.69 Rather, what is interesting about the Soviet claim is the assertion that all of the remains were completely destroyed. This is a very prominent feature of all atrocity claims made against the Germans in World War Two.

In December, 1943, the Soviets held another atrocity trial, this time in Kharkov, a city in the Eastern Ukraine that had changed hands several times during the war. Again, there were repetitions of the same gas van testimony given at the Krasnodar trial, and, on December 16, 1943, an interesting description of Auschwitz given by an SS officer, Heinisch:

Prosecutor: Tell the court about your talk with Somann.

Heinisch: Somann told me that death caused by gas poisoning was painless and more humane. He said that in the gas van death was very quick, but actually death came not in twelve seconds but much more slowly and was accompanied by great pain.

Somann told me about the camp in Auschwitz in Germany where the gassing of prisoners was carried out. The people were told that they were to be transferred elsewhere, and foreign workers were told that they would be repatriated and were sent under this pretext to bath-houses. Those who were to be executed first entered a place with a signboard with "Disinfection" on it and there they were undressed -- the men separately from the women and children. Then they were ordered to proceed to another place with a signboard "Bath." While the people were washing themselves special valves were opened to let in the gas which caused their death. Then the dead people were burned in special furnaces in which about 200 bodies could be burned simultaneously.70

Heinisch went on to say that Somann was the Chief of the Security Service in the Breslau area, which is the general area where Auschwitz is located, that gas executions took place only in camps on German soil, and further revealed that the decision to carry out executions "by means of gas poisoning" was made at a conference in the Summer of 1942 which Hitler, Himmler, and Kaltenbrunner attended.71

Heinisch's testimony is remarkable in several respects. First of all, we have by December, 1943, at a trial under Soviet auspices, a clear albeit erroneous narrative of the gassing claim at Auschwitz, in a form more or less similar to the standard narrative and in a publication that received wide distribution. It is also notable that Heinisch does not specify the ethnicity of the victims, but rather prefers to speak of foreign workers and their families: this at a time when large numbers of Ukrainians were being evacuated to the Reich for labor and were being subjected to the indignities of communal showers.72

The description of the gassing process provided by Heinisch is erroneous and therefore in attempting to account for it we could conceive of a link back to the unpublished narrative concerning Auschwitz in May or to other rumors that may have been circulating at the time. But it is important to note that the narrative contains details about bathing and disinfection that we have not encountered prior to this point. It is also important to reflect on how it would be possible for Heinisch, a district commissar at Melitopol in occupied Russia, and Somann, an SS chief in Breslau, to be informed of a process that the postwar trials have assured us were carried out in the greatest secrecy.73

In early 1944, in February, the Belzec electrocution story once more emerged.74 Finally, at the beginning of May, the New York Times repeated a story in which the Germans were planning to construct "special baths" which were in fact gas chambers, and in which the Hungarian Jews were to be exterminated.75 By this time, then, the gassing claim had become cemented its most typical form.

It should be emphasized at the end of this brief review of gassing and other extermination claims that to this point not a hint of what we would normally call evidence had been brought forward. Nevertheless we can see emerging over time a kind of model for extermination procedures, what we will call the shower-gas-burning sequence. The idea that victims would be led into a bathing facility of some kind, and then be executed (the method of execution focusing on gas more and more as time went by), and then burned so that no trace would remain was already a very common idea by the summer of 1944.

In fairness it should also be kept in mind that the shower-gas-burning concept still coexisted with other methods of extermination, including steam, vacuums, hammers of air, and electrocution, which have not been alleged in many years. We should expect therefore a heightened level of material and documentary proof in support of the gassing allegations as opposed to the others. We will find out the extent to which this is true in subsequent sections.

In reviewing these gassing claims we find that virtually all of them came from anonymous sources in Poland, and that all of them were publicized and propagated by Jewish agencies in Switzerland, London, and America.76 The conclusion that many revisionists have drawn is that these gassing claims were therefore developed by Jewish groups as part of a hoax.77 We would dissent from this interpretation: it is too great a leap to suggest that these Jewish agencies, in publicizing these claims, knew them to be false, or were publicizing them to some nefarious purpose. On the contrary, all of the internal evidence -- letters, diaries, stray conversations -- indicate that the Western Jews most responsible for the spread of these claims actually believed them.78 Whether these stories were then used to pursue political ends, and specifically Zionist ends, does not by itself discount the apparent sincerity of what these Jewish leaders were writing and saying at the time. To put the matter simply, they were in no position to know what was really going on: all they knew, or thought they knew, was that their co-religionists were undergoing a terrific ordeal of persecution, and needed help.

Having surveyed the claims, we must now attempt to interpret the nature of these various story elements. In other words, if these rumors are not a reflection of reality, then where did the rumors come from? It is clear that the use of gas was expressed in three ways before settling on the shower-gas scenario. One of these involved the idea of gas as a means of execution, in which the victims were not sedated, another involved the use of gas in experiments, which tied to the allegation of prussic acid use, and finally there was the variant that featured the "lighting of the gas ovens."79

The "gas oven" motif is clearly a garbled association between crematoria, almost all of which are gas operated, and the basic gassing claim. This perhaps innocent association, which corresponds to the known gas ovens that existed in many homes, tended to create an absolute linkage between gas chambers and crematoria: that is, wherever a crematorium was, there also was a gas chamber.

The "lack of sedation" motif, as already discussed, was probably an extension of the use of poison gas for execution purposes in the United States. The electrocution motif, prominent at about the same time, was a probable extension of the same idea, since electrocution was even more widely used for executions in America.80

Since the poison gas used for American executions was also cyanide, that could account for the rumors of cyanide gas usage. But there are other contexts in which cyanide gas could have emerged in official German documents or discussions during this period, and these usages could have led to garbled understanding which would account for the rumors as well, particularly those concerning experiments.

Soon after the invasion of Russia, the Wehrmacht obtained materials indicating that the Red Army had contingency plans for spraying German troops with cyanide gas from low-flying aircraft. As a result, in January, 1942, the Germans conducted experiments on farm animals using this gas, with generally fatal effect. This in turn led to the development of the FE 42 gas mask filter, which provided protection against cyanide gas. But the Germans, for reasons of security, attempted to keep these developments secret.81 So we have here at the beginning of 1942 secret experiments with prussic acid and the development of a device to protect against it, all of this before or roughly simultaneous with the emergence of rumors that the Germans were experimenting with this gas on human beings. A far more potent association in which prussic acid would emerge concerned the use of this material for delousing and disinfecting communities in Eastern Europe. Therefore we must make a detour to discuss these German delousing and disinfection procedures.



3. German Disinfection Procedures


DISEASE HAS MOVED hand-in-hand with warfare and migrations throughout history, and has brought more than one army to its knees. Eastern Europe was a particularly dreaded location for such epidemics: the Allies in the Crimean War, and the Napoleonic Army in 1812 were decimated by diseases, above all typhus and cholera, but also typhoid and dysentery.82 For a long time the cause of these diseases was unknown, only towards the end of the 19th Century was it understood that cholera, typhoid, and dysentery were transmitted by microbes usually in contaminated water.83 The vector of typhus -- the body louse -- was not identified until shortly before World War One.84

This lack of understanding did not prevent Europeans from attempting to control these diseases, since the general understanding was that filth and poor hygiene had something to do with their transmission.85

Towards the end of the 19th Century Germany developed a number of procedures for the delousing and disinfection of people and their clothing. These involved showering, smearing the body with petroleum or other substances to kill bugs, and steaming or boiling belongings.86 The application of the these procedures soon came to a test in the 1880's.

Typhus was endemic in Eastern Europe, and cholera had swept through the region on several occasions in the 19th Century.87 The constant saturation, particularly with typhus, conferred a certain immunity on the inhabitants.88 Someone transplanted to these regions could easily catch these diseases.89 Someone leaving the area might carry them.90 The population of the area, comprising roughly the Western Russian Empire and the Eastern provinces of Austria Hungary, Jewish and gentile, were uniformly impoverished, hungry, and, by then current Western hygienic standards, filthy.91 It is no exaggeration to state that most of the people in this region were but one crop failure away from death.92

In 1881, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, anti-Semitic riots became characteristic in the region.93 That was the last straw for many Jews, who had borne impoverishment, hunger and filth as stoically as their gentile counterparts, in addition to government interference in their traditional way of life. As a result, many Jews chose to emigrate, and this led them in many cases through Germany.94 In Germany, they were subjected to the standard disinfection procedures, of which Mary Antin gave a much quoted account in her memoirs 95

In a great and lonely field, opposite a solitary house within a large yard, our train pulled up at last, and the conductor commanded the passengers to make haste and get out. [...] [The conductor] hurried us into the one large room that made up the house, and then into the yard. Here a great many men and women, dressed in white, received us, the women attending the women and girls of the passengers, and the men the others. This was another scene of bewildering confusion, parents losing their children, and little ones crying; baggage being thrown together in one corner of the yard, heedless of contents, which suffered in consequence; those white-clad Germans shouting commands, always accompanied with "Quick! Quick!" -- the confused passengers obeying all orders like meek children, only questioning now and then what was to be done with them. And no wonder if in some minds stories arose of people being captured by robbers, murderers, and the like. Here we had been taken to a lonely place where only that house was to be seen; our things were taken away, our friends separated from us; a man came to inspect us, as if to ascertain our full value; strange-looking people driving us about like dumb animals, helpless and unresisting; children we could not see crying in a way that suggested terrible things; ourselves driven into a little room where a great kettle was boiling on a little stove; our clothes taken off, our bodies rubbed with a slippery substance that could be any bad thing; a shower of warm water let down on us without warning; again driven together to another little room where we sit, wrapped in woolen blankets till large, coarse bags are brought in, their contents turned out, and we see only a cloud of steam, and hear a woman's voice to dress ourselves, -- "Quick! Quick!" -- or else we'll miss -- something we cannot hear. We are forced to pick out our clothes from among the others, with the steam blinding us; we choke, cough, entreat the women to give us time; they persist, "Quick! Quick! -- or you'll miss the train!" Oh, so we really won't be murdered! They are only making us ready for the continuing of our journey, cleaning us of all suspicions of dangerous illness. Thank God!

Mary Antin's bewilderment at disinfection and quarantine, arising from disorientation and novelty, is understandable, so too are the wild rumors that would come from incomprehension and anxiety. But it must be said that such measures were necessary: the year before Mary Antin made her passage in 1893, Hamburg had been hard hit by a cholera epidemic, and New York City had been hit with both a cholera and typhus epidemic.96

In the case of the New York epidemics we find many themes that would repeat themselves over subsequent decades. The immigrants, particularly Jews, feared the process of disinfection and quarantine, believing in some cases that their loved ones were being taken to a slaughterhouse.97 They distrusted the health authorities, and sought to hide instances of typhus, never realizing of course that such opposition and concealment merely spread the disease further.98 In addition, there were problems with the quarantine. By regulation, those dead of typhus had to be cremated, but this was a violation of Jewish law.99 The quarantine stations did not make provision for kosher food, and, as a result, several pious Jews starved themselves.100 The intereactions between the New York health authorities and the immigrant Jews could almost be characterized as culture shock, so deep the chasm of non-comprehension and non-accommodation that divided them.  

The same pattern emerged in World War One, and not only among Jewish people. The Germans, in the context of reorganizing the Turkish army, spent a great deal of effort in controlling typhus and other diseases.101 The two main tools of this effort were the Dampfdesinfektionwagens (mobile steam disinfection trucks) and the Turkish baths, which were converted for disinfection purposes.102 The Germans used primarily sulfur gas, which required a generator (Vergaser) that would burn the sulfur and provide the gas.103 Already at the beginning of 1914 the Germans were using vergasen (gasify, gas) as a synonym for begasen (fumigate). 104 

Cooperation among the local populations varied: the Turks did not understand why lice had to be killed, because Allah forbade it, the Greek Orthodox and Jewish subjects objected on religious grounds to the bathing and shaving that was part of the treatment.105

A severe typhus epidemic in Serbia in the winter of 1914-15 led to international intervention, including an American Relief Expedition that did much to control the disease in its early stages.106 In 1915-1916, as Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, she was given large chunks of Serbian territory and this in turn required heightened vigilance on the part of the disinfection squads.107 In this context a story appeared in the London Daily Telegraph in March, 1916, that alleged that 700,000 Serbians had been asphyxiated.108 Robert Faurisson has successfully shown that this rumor or atrocity claim was directly related to the application of disinfection measures in the region.109 Surely it is no coincidence that the first claim of mass exterminations in 1942, as we recall, also featured gassings, the Daily Telegraph, and 700,000 victims. The story also reminds us that a mobile steam disinfection truck could easily be converted in a frightened and ignorant mind into a traveling gas chamber.110

The reactions to disinfection procedures in Turkey and the Balkans were also apparent in Poland, whether the disease control was being administered by Germans, Americans, or the British.111 The Germans went to extensive lengths to control diseases, and particularly typhus throughout Poland.112 This involved carrot and stick methods: on the one hand, the Germans painstakingly wrote a brochure, that was published in the Yiddish language, trying to explain, with appropriate references to the Torah, the importance of personal hygiene, and the necessity of controlling lice.113 On the other hand, the Germans would sometimes be required to force the local inhabitants to bathe and shower at bayonet point.114 When the war was over, a terrible typhus epidemic swept through Poland and the Western Russian provinces.115 American and British specialists went to Poland with a view to controlling the disease. They also sought to delouse and disinfect the residents.116 But they too ran into resistance and non-compliance, particularly on the part of the Jewish population.117 One feature of the American treatment that would soon become typical was the use of bottled cyanide gas as a means of destroying vermin.118

In the 1920's the Germans developed media for using cyanide gas that would be safer than the use of bottles or the so-called barrel system.119 One substance developed, called Zyklon B, used clay-like pellets into which the gas was absorbed as liquid under pressure and then sealed in a can.120 When the can was opened, the pellets would be strewn and the gas would slowly develop.121 By the Second World War, through the addition of gypsum, Zyklon B had now achieved a stability such that three hours were required for the full evolution of the gas at room temperature,122 which was ideal for its purpose as an insecticide.

Also during this period the Germans developed fumigation chambers or Entwesungskammern.123 These were usually constructed out of steel, although brick and concrete could also be used.124 About 10 meters square, the rooms would be filled with clothes and then the Zyklon pellets would be strewn among them. Such chambers, or Apparate, typically had two doors: the dirty clothes would go in one door, the disinfected clothes would be taken out of the other door.125 The Germans also developed a complicated machinery whereby forced air at or near the boiling point of hydrogen cyanide would be blown through the pellets to speed up the evolution time.126 The same air circulation technology (Kreislauf) would be used in large railroad tunnels, which by means of the air circulation gas generating apparatus (Kreislaufvergasungsapparaturen) could fumigate an entire passenger train at one time.127

Although Zyklon B was widely used for disinfection, it is important to note that throughout the '30's and during the war many other gases and substances were employed to combat vermin.128 One gas which was widely substituted for Zyklon was "T-Gas" a mixture of ethylene oxide and carbon dioxide which came in steel tanks and would be piped into the disinfection chamber.129 Other gases included Tritox, Ventox, and Areginal.130

Delousing and disinfection procedures were also a major component of German municipal disinfection centers, temporary huts of the German Labor Service, and transit camps (Durchgangslagern) for POW's or deported populations. All three featured a division into a dirty and clean side (reine und unreine Seite), and all three featured undressing rooms, shower rooms, and standard size fumigation chambers with double doors.131 There were some variations of course. The municipal disinfection center at Darmstadt for example, was enlarged in World War Two to make room for the influx of laborers from the East, which we assume to have comprised Poles, Soviet POW's, and Jews.132 Its cellars were also adapted to air raid shelters.133 The standard huts (Unterkünfte) for the German labor service were equipped with a diesel room, since diesels were expected to provide electricity in the absence of a power net for these outlying structures: these structures were also meant to be temporary and were designed to be put up and taken down in a minimum of man hours.134

In World War Two, the Germans aggressively pursued the containment of disease using all of these methods. As the concentrations of Jews in the ghettos increased, epidemics would break out, and the Germans would attempt to get the local Jewish authorities to implement disinfection procedures.135 Sadly, concealment, non-compliance, and resistance were characteristic in many ghettos, on the other hand, the records indicate that the ghetto in Vilna (Vilnius) was able to successfully control epidemics throughout the war.136  

The experience of the Wehrmacht in the field also suggests a successful effort at controlling epidemics, including the use of decontamination vehicles and mobile showering units, many of which were improvised by the men of the German Medical Corps (Sanitatsdienst).137

Of course, the most notorious example of the application of these procedures came in the concentration camps. Upon arrival, inmates were routinely stripped, searched for valuables, showered, and then given clothes that had been previously disinfected.138 In fact, the most common procedure involved disinfecting the clothing in one part of the "bath and disinfection complex" while the arrivals showered in another part. Kurt Vonnegut's description shows how even American prisoners of war entering German custody could become anxious and fearful at the strangeness of the ritual:

The naked Americans took their places under many showerheads along a white-tiled wall. There were no faucets they could control. They could only wait for whatever was coming. Their penises were shriveled and their balls were retracted. Reproduction was not the main business of the evening.

An unseen hand turned a master valve. Out of the showerheads gushed scalding rain. The rain was a blowtorch that did not warm. It jazzed and jangled Billy's skin without thawing the ice in the marrow of his long bones.

The Americans' clothes were meanwhile passing through poison gas. Body lice and bacteria and fleas were dying by the billions. So it goes.139

There seems little reason to doubt that the level of disorientation and fear had changed since the time of Mary Antin 50 years before, to say nothing of the humiliation: indeed, there are witness testimonies that support the idea of such continuity.140

In recounting these aspects of German disinfection procedures, as well as Jewish responses, which ranged from sullen non-compliance and avoidance to paranoid fear, one finds a remarkable similarity and a probable point of contact for virtually all of the gassing claims from 1942 into the summer of 1944.

Sobibor, for example, was described in German documents as a transit camp [Durchgangslager].141 Yet a transit camp would require facilities for showering arrivals and disinfecting their belongings before sending them further on their journey.142 And indeed we find in survivor testimonies that that is exactly what happened to them there.143 Yet at the same time, we have rumors reported in the West, and later we will have testimonies, that assure us that Sobibor was a camp where arrivals were simply exterminated via the familiar shower-gas-burning sequence.144 The same situation applies to Treblinka testimonies, for the Malkinia disinfection establishment was only a few kilometers away.145

For Majdanek the situation is even more remarkable. As we shall see later, the Bath and Disinfection Complex II would be earmarked as an extermination center by the Soviets: but in its construction it is virtually identical to the standard hut for delousing incoming members of the Labor Service and disinfecting their belongings.146

In summarizing the gassing rumors for the period 1942 through the spring of 1944 we encountered several references to prussic acid, showers and baths, and mobile gas chambers that led us into a discussion of German disinfection procedures. We have found that over six decades before World War Two the Germans had devised, for purposes of disease control, procedures that called for the use of mobile delousing and disinfection chambers, baths and disinfection complexes, and fumigation chambers that would utilize a common pesticide, Zyklon B, whose active ingredient was cyanide gas.

But above and beyond the German procedures we have found characteristic reactions to such diseases control measures, among many ignorant or traditional religious communities, and also among Jews, particularly those from the traditional and insulated East European communities.147 The reactions have ranged from avoidance and non-compliance, to anxiety, fear, and rumor-mongering of a particularly destructive sort. Finally, we note a haunting similarity between the delousing procedures known to have been applied and the rumors of mass gassing that were current at the time.

Therefore the most likely explanation for the evolution of the mass gas extermination legend, to this point in our analysis, is that the application of delousing measures on the populations of Eastern Europe, and particularly on the Jewish people who were being resettled to the East, or dragooned into the Labor Service, conjured up the typical rumors of extermination and slaughter as they had in the past. These rumors, in turn, were conveyed to Jewish parties in Western Europe and the United States, who appear to have all too readily believed them, the rumors in turn were propagated by the British in radio broadcasts back to Europe, including Yiddish language broadcasts, such that the rumors were already widely known, if not widely credited, throughout Europe by the end of 1942. We are now prepared to engage the next evolution of the mass gassing claim.



4. The First Reports on Auschwitz and Majdanek


IN THE SUMMER of 1944 the legend of mass gas extermination became solidified through a series of reports that were published by the Soviet government, and, at the end of the year, by a report issued by an agency of the United States government. At this point the gassing claims assumed authoritative status, so much so that by the end of the year the Germans would explicitly deny them. The issuance of official reports cannot be overstressed: a rumor of any kind repeated over an official medium, such as the radio, and particularly in print, gives enormous weight to the claim. Nevertheless, as we shall see, these claims were not accompanied by hard evidence. 

The first document that is important is a communication that seems to have come from a Jewish circle in Slovakia at the beginning of July, 1944, which we will call the July Report. This report is noteworthy because it contains the first full series of allegations about the Auschwitz Birkenau camp. Gilbert reproduces the document in full.148 In the context of the gassing claim, the report contains some data that may be considered accurate, in the sense that they do not contradict the current version. Thus we have a garbled reference to the Zyklon B issued by Tesch and Stabenow, and we have a reference to a bathing establishment, and holes in the ceiling where the gas drops down.149 But there are other elements in the report that are clearly false, for example, the reference to the number of holes (three), the time required for execution (one minute), the rails that are said to have led to the cremation ovens, which are also incorrectly described and counted, and so on.150

While we can grant that different observers might incorrectly estimate the time of execution, or the number of victims, because of the shock of what they were observing, it is another matter entirely that an observer would lose track of his or her ability to count or perceive. Therefore, while we may be inclined to dismiss the differences in the time of gassing, or the number of victims, the errors of physical detail are much more serious, and strongly suggest that whoever described these processes was never anywhere near a gas chamber or a crematorium. Therefore it must be conceded that the witnesses who wrote the report were repeating rumor, and, even if the witnesses believed it, the existence of a rumor is certainly not proof of the facts which the rumor alleges. The only thing the July report really shows is that gassing rumors were current in Auschwitz at the time.

The actual elements of the July report combine old and new features. The communiqué represents the first time that Zyklon B was specifically described as the source of poison gas. On the other hand, as we have seen, rumors about cyanide usage sprang up in the summer of 1942 and were abandoned late that year from the propaganda. The showering motif appears, which had been a common feature ever since late 1942. It seems that the association of poison entering through the actual holes in the shower nozzle was an easy inference -- we note that already in the previous year, in discussing the steam exterminations at Treblinka, the steam was described as emerging from holes in the pipes. This conceptualization of the gas dropping down on the inmates may also account for the idea of overhead openings needed for introducing the gas: obviously, Zyklon could not pass through a shower-head and would require a larger opening.  

Another explanation, and a possible clue to another motif, involves the dusting with chlorine and lime which frequently accompanied the deportations, which goes back to the Karski report. That description had already led to some descriptions of chlorine gassing.151 In the July Report, however, we have a situation in which the bathers are led into a room, allowed to stand for several minutes so that an optimum temperature is achieved, and then the gas in the form of powder is thrown on them. Of course the problem with this description is that it is false, Zyklon B does not act in this fashion.152

The next event in the evolution of the gassing legend is crucial, because it involves the first allied exposure to a German concentration camp. Majdanek was liberated at the end of July, 1944, during a massive Soviet offensive that destroyed Army Group Center.153 For a month, the Soviets did not allow any visitors, then, at the end of August, they gave Western journalists a brief tour.154 This tour, in turn, generated wide press reportage by the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and was accompanied by an official report of the Soviet Special Commission on Majdanek.155

The gassing sequence at Majdanek is different from that described at Auschwitz in July or at any other camp to this point. Previous accounts had always stressed that the victims were disrobed and met their end in the shower or bath itself. But at Majdanek it was now alleged that the shower was a preliminary step to the gassing process, which occurred at the other end of the building.156 This is a major divergence and we must inquire why.

The reason appears to lie in the physical layout that presented itself to the Russians. Most of the gassings were supposed to have taken place in the building labeled "Bath and Disinfection Complex II." This is a long narrow building that featured a series of rooms, including a dressing room, a shower room, a drying room (Trockenraum -- that is a heated room for drying inmates after showering) and, at the far end, three small squarish rooms (approx. 4 x 4 meters, but one larger), two of which had outside attachments with boilers that piped air into the rooms (the third was connected to the Trockenraum).157 The showers in the building actually worked, therefore the gassings could not have happened there. The smaller rooms and the Trockenraum, brick faced on the outside and roofed with reinforced concrete, thus became the gas chambers.  

There were other features present at the site. The Trockenraum (sometimes called Room "A") had two wooden openings carved into the concrete ceiling: the same room contained several wooden struts, apparently with some wire reinforcing.158 It was also equipped with wooden doors with three sets of bidirectional handles.159 The smaller rooms at the far end had heavy steel doors, gastight doors with peepholes, also with bidirectional handles.160 In addition, two of the rooms had still extant piping running along the wall, about 30 cm above the floor, that appeared to be connected to five steel tanks located outside of the rooms.161 At first glance the gastight doors and the ceiling openings seem to be peculiar additions for a bath and disinfection complex, but they do not necessarily support a gassing claim, beyond that the structure corresponds to typical bath and disinfection complexes.

The Soviet scenario that was presented to the world's press went like this: the people were told to strip, leave their clothes in one room, then pass into another room where they would shower.162 After the shower, they would be led into one of the "gas chambers" where the Zyklon B would be dropped down on them after a waiting period. The three boiler rooms, on the other hand, would generate carbon monoxide gas that would be piped into the rooms, or else hot air to heat the rooms, or finally carbon monoxide would be piped in through the tanks.163 Meanwhile, the Germans were supposed to watch the death throes of the victims through the peepholes.164

There are some problems with this scenario. Of four rooms designated as gas chambers, only one (Room "A") had openings in the ceiling for the Zyklon to be introduced, two of the other rooms had crudely cut holes in the reinforced concrete.165 One of the rooms had no ceiling opening at all. Three of the rooms had boilers attached outside (hence, perhaps, the origin of the "three gas chambers"), the fourth room had no opening of any kind except the door.166 Graf and Mattogno have noted that of the five tanks found, only two remain, and they are marked not CO, but CO2, that is, carbon dioxide, necessary for the generation of disinfection gases (T-Gas), but with no claimed extermination potential.167 These, along with the boilers, would suggest that the rooms were used over time with a variety of disinfestation substances, including Zyklon B, T-Gas, and hot air. The gastight doors with peepholes, on the other hand, with bi-directional handles could be opened from inside or outside.168 Finally, the idea that showering ahead of time would facilitate the evolution of Zyklon B is simply wrong.169 What we have here is a clear case of forcing the facts to fit the theory.

Furthermore, while we continue to maintain that most of the elements in the gassing story arose more or less spontaneously and were just as spontaneously believed, at Majdanek we are confronted with grim evidence of a deliberate Soviet hoax. This is because while Room "A" of the complex features two carefully crafted and well dressed openings of wood in the ceiling, someone had attempted to replicate the openings in Rooms "B" and "C" by clumsily hacking small, squarish holes through the reinforced concrete roof and not even bothering to remove the rebar.170 It is simply unbelievable that the workmanship that created the apertures in the ceiling of Room "A" created the hole in the roof in Room "B" and "C", and moreover the opening in Rooms "B" and "C" could never have been gas tight. To the extent that these latter openings are claimed as contemporaneous opening devised for introducing poison gas, to that extent we are looking at clear cut case of Soviet fraud.

The reverberations of the Majdanek Special Commission were extremely broad, many of the symbols of the Holocaust have their beginning here. Among these one may note the huge piles of clothes, shoes, and hair, which were taken as prima facie evidence of exterminations of a million and a half human beings, although we now know that these piles of belongings indicate no such thing, and the current evaluation holds that less than 100,000 perished at Majdanek.171 Other elements include the red-brick facing of the gas chambers, the flat concrete roofs, the piping above the floor, and similar elements. But the most notorious element of the Majdanek report were the gas tight doors with peepholes. The first place this would become apparent was in the War Relief Board report.

It is not known exactly how long and in what form the War Refugee Board (WRB) report circulated in the late summer and early fall of 1944.172 It is known that repetition of some of its claims called forth a German rejection of the allegation in October.173 Finally, on November 26, 1944, the WRB Report was issued, and was summarized in the world press.174 The contents of the report, with respect to the gassing claim we are investigating, for the most part recapitulated material from the July Report, however there is one reference to the peephole not present in that earlier report that strongly suggests the influence of the Majdanek Special Commission:

Prominent guests from Berlin were present at the inauguration of the first crematorium in March, 1943. The "program" consisted of the gassing and burning of 8,000 Cracow Jews. The guests, both officers and civilians, were extremely satisfied with the results and the special peephole fitted into the door of the gas chamber was in constant use. They were lavish in their praise of this newly erected installation.175

The WRB report contains what would be considered many errors by the standards of today's knowledge of the subject.176 Nevertheless it was for some months the most important document in propagandizing not only the shower-gas-burning sequence but also the alleged unique status of Auschwitz Birkenau as a slaughterhouse of vast proportions. But as we have seen, it contained enough errors that it could not be a reliable source for the mass gassings it alleged, and, in fact, it appears to have both influenced, and been influenced by, the Soviet Special Commission on Majdanek.177 In the panicked atmosphere of the time, no doubt the similarities of the reports would have caused more than one sincere individual to feel that they were slowly piercing a veil of truth; 50 years later, however, it seems less likely that that was the case.



5. The Eastern Camps, Polevoi's Report, and the Gerstein Statement


ALREADY IN THE SUMMER of 1944, the Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg began acquiring testimonies from the Aktion Reinhardt Camps. Some of these were collected and published in Merder fun Folker in 1945.178 Looking over some of these testaments today, one finds that while gassing claims are repeated, they are not usually presented with much detail.179 We should keep in mind however that for these Aktion Reinhardt camps (Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec) the buildings had been dismantled and there were no physical traces of gas chambers.180 No orders, correspondence, or documents concerning gas chambers were presented at the time, nor has there been any such documentation since.181 Our knowledge of these three camps -- in which today it is said that close to two million were killed -- rested then, as now, solely on witness depositions and SS confessions.182 The only corroboration for the actions alleged at these camps are some mass graves, which by normal estimation of grave mass, contain perhaps a few tens of thousands of bodies altogether.183 This may indicate murders and mass executions of some type, but they do not indicate mass exterminations, let alone by poison gas.  

At the end of January, Auschwitz was liberated, and the Red Army found about six thousand prisoners who were considered too ill by the Germans to march back to Germany.184 Photographs of the liberated inmates, that included several hundred children, indicate old age, even infirmity, but neither starvation nor epidemics.185 Obviously the fact that such inmates were alive tended to contradict the already reigning conception; later, an SS man would confess that Himmler had ordered all exterminations to cease the previous November, in fact, precisely on November 26, 1944, the day the WRB report was issued.186 Needless to say no documentary evidence in support of this confession has ever surfaced.187

At the same time, the Soviets made reference ot the liberated Auschwitz camp in their national propaganda organ, Pravda. After a brief reference on February 1, a full report, by correspondent Boris Polevoi, was published on Friday, February 2, 1945, less than a week after the camp had been liberated, and a full three months before the official Soviet report on Auschwitz.

Polevoi's indebtedness to the Majdanek reportage is explicit, but at the same time there are some differences:

Last year, when the Red Army revealed to the world the terrible and abominable secrets of Majdanek, the Germans in Auschwitz began to wipe out the traces of their crimes. They leveled the mounds of the so-called "old" graves in the Eastern part of the camp, tore up and destroyed the traces of the electric conveyor belt, on which hundreds of people were simultaneously electrocuted, their bodies falling onto the slow moving conveyor belt which carried them to the top of the blast furnace where they fell in, were completely burned, their bones converted to meal in the rolling mills, and then sent to the surrounding fields.

In retreat were taken the special transportable apparatuses for killing children. The stationary gas chambers in the eastern part of the camp were restructured, even little turrets and other architectural embellishments were added so that they would look like innocent garages.

There is one major surprise to this narrative: first, it is completely different from the report of the Soviet Special Commission on Auschwitz. That report, in turn, would show the influence of the War Refugee Board (WRB) Report of November 26, 1945. An obvious inference is that the Soviet Auschwitz narrative was revised subsequent to this report to make it harmonize with the various anonymous messages which comprised the WRB report. Nevertheless, Polevoi's report shows other influences and connections.

For example, the concept of the "factory of death" is today well-known in the Holocaust literature, but appears to have its beginnings here. That concept in turn seems clearly linked to Russian, Soviet, and Western symbolism rejecting the industrial factory system, compare the short stories of Anton Chekhov or various writings of Maxim Gorky, or further the angst of German Expressionism. Meanwhile, the concept of the Germans "wiping out the traces of their crimes" goes back, as we have seen, to the Katyn Forest revelations of 1943.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the "electric conveyor belt" has no place in any subsequent Auschwitz narratives, this story element is probably linked to the reports concerning the large electric chambers at Belzec and elsewhere. The "special transportable apparatuses for killing children" are probably references to gas vans, their special utilization for that purpose first attested at the Krasnodar-Kharkov trials. The description of "stationary gas chambers" is apparently a reference to either the delousing stations BW 5/A and 5/B at Birkenau, or else Crematoria IV and V. The reference to the "gas chambers" as "garages" ("garazhi") was a characterization first made of the "gas chambers" at Majdanek.

What is most striking about this press report is not its derivative nature or that it is totally at variance with the version of Auschwitz that we have come to know, substituting the traditional atrocity record with another, completely imaginary one. Rather, that the first non-anonymous observer at the Auschwitz camp could be so far from the current narrative speaks not only to the inaccuracy of this initial report, but also to the artifice of subsequent ones.

Shortly after Polevoi's report was published, Soviet interrogators developed affidavits from Pavel Leleko, who had been a police guard at Treblinka.188 Coincidentally, Leleko's interrogations are supposed to have begun on the same day that the WRB Report was issued, three months before. On the following February 20 and 21, 1945, Leleko contributed two affidavits, and these rehearse the structure of the Treblinka mass gassing claim, and indeed, the gassing claim for all the Aktion Reinhard camps.189

The Leleko depositions contain the following details of the gassing process:

  1. The victims were detrained, asked to turn in all valuables, were separated by sex, and stripped. Then the victims were walked to a separate area that housed the gas chambers.

  2. The gas chambers had flowers growing alongside in boxes. Instead of a door the victims entered through a heavy hanging made from a rug.

  3. A long passage moved through the length of the building, five rooms on each side (10 in all).  

  4. Four rooms on each side comprised gas chambers, 6 meters square in size, 2.5/3 meters high.

  5. The center of the ceiling had a light fixture with no wiring and two showerheads whereby the gas was let into the chamber.

  6. The walls, floor, and ceiling were of cement.

  7. Each gas chamber had two doors, one opening to the outside whereby the bodies were removed.

  8. 500 people per chamber (500 people in 36 square meters).

  9. Eight rooms out of the 10 used for gas chambers, the other two contained "powerful German engines" that fed the gas into the chambers.

  10. After being filled, the gas chambers were sealed "by hermetically closing doors."

  11. Progress of the gassing was observed by looking through a "porthole" "near each door."

  12. The gassing took 15 minutes.  

  13. About 20 meters distant was the old gas chamber building, which had only three gas chambers.

  14. The bodies were disposed in a concrete incineration pit about 20 meters long and 1 meter deep.190

The interrogation of Leleko is valuable because it is one of the most detailed description of a gassing at one of the Aktion Reinhardt camps.191 All other confessions, to the extent that they describe the gassing process at all, show clear traces of harmony with Leleko's testimony.192

The problem is that Leleko's testimony offers nothing new. The entire shower-gas-burning sequence was already well known by this time, so Leleko's remarks are not revelatory and could have been derivative. More interesting are his comments on the unwired lightbulbs in each room, and the two showerheads through which the gas was supposed to have filled the chamber. Such details tends to confirm our surmise that the association of showers and gas would inevitably lead to the conception of the gas actually coming down through the nozzle: although this method does not seem that it would be particularly effective, given that carbon monoxide is lighter than air.

More serious is the fact that the description of the building sounds remarkably similar to the Bath and Disinfection Complex at Majdanek. Again, we have a long corridor. Again, medium sized rooms into which hundreds of people are forced in the nude. Again, the chambers are constructed with cement, or more likely reinforced concrete. Again, each chamber has two doors. Again, the doors are hermetically sealed, and again, the dying are observed through a porthole or peephole. Even the number of "gas chambers" of the old style (three) corresponds to the number alleged at Majdanek.  

Finally there is the detail that is almost decisive in linking Leleko's account with Majdanek: the engines. As we recall, three rooms at the bathing complex were equipped with outside boilers that forced hot air into the rooms. This is entirely consistent with the idea of hot air delousing, disinfection with Zyklon or other cyanide products, or combinations of the two. But the Soviet Special Commission on Majdanek had suggested that these boiler rooms instead generated carbon monoxide gas that was led into the rooms in order to kill the people inside. (The Soviets also alleged that carbon monoxide was led into another room through a pipe.193) Leleko's description of powerful German engines that generated enough carbon monoxide to kill 500 people in 15 minutes seems clearly derivative of the Majdanek concept. Leleko's confession does not specify the type of engine; that would be left to Kurt Gerstein two months later, with even more problematic implications for the mass gassing claim.

Kurt Gerstein was a minor officer in the SS who was apparently involved in some anti-Nazi activities before and during the war.194 He was, however, an engineer, and was apparently involved in the use of cyanide gas for disinfection purposes.  

He fled the approaching Red Army and surrendered to allied custody in late April, 1945, and on May 6 was turned over to the French authorities.195 During this period he wrote several versions of an affidavit or statement, which differ in small details, but which generally provide a picture of a gassing at Belzec concentration camp and a confirmation of gassing operations at the other Aktion Reinhardt camps.196

The Gerstein Statement, as the various drafts are known, is probably the most widely quoted document for those who claim that mass gassings took place.197 The problem is that it is almost never quoted in full, because the entire document contains a number of errors and improbabilities.198  

The Gerstein Statement, concerning gassing, and a few other matters, may be summarized as follows:  

  1. Gerstein visits Belzec and Treblinka,

  2. Belzec has a capacity 15,000 per day,

  3. Sobibor (not seen), has a capacity of 20,000 per day,

  4. Treblinka, a capacity of 25,000 per day.

  5. Globocnik, who controls the camps, instructs Gerstein to disinfect clothes and also increase efficiency of the gas chambers which are using old diesel engines.

  6. Globocnik informs Gerstein that Hitler and Himmler had been to the camp August 15, 1942: Gerstein records an utterly incredible conversation between Hitler and Globocnik. 

  7. At Belzec the next day, Gerstein describes the bathhouse,

  8. with flowers growing outside,

  9. and a sign "To the baths and inhalations" 

  10. The building is accessed by a small stairway, 

  11. there are three rooms on either side, 4 x 5 meters, 1.9 meters high, "like garages" (the wording in one version appears to describe two doors per chamber, viz. "on return") 

  12. A transport arrives and everyone is forced to strip and turn in valuables in sequence,

  13. the hair is shorn, someone tells Gerstein, "to make of it something special for the submarines, linings, etc." 

  14. The people are crowded into the gas chambers, 700-800 in 25 square meters.

  15. The diesel engine fails to work, Gerstein times the delay, two hours and 49 minutes on his stopwatch.

  16. One can see that many are still alive through a little window and the electric light in the room.

  17. After 32 minutes of the gassing all are dead.

  18. The next day he goes to Treblinka, there are 8 gas chambers,

  19. mounds of clothes and underwear 35-40 meters high. and

  20. The numbers reported on the BBC are too low: 25 million have been gassed.

  21. that on June 8, 1942, Gerstein had spread rumors that the cyanide he was picking up at Kollin, in Czechoslovakia was for killing people

  22. that the cyanide in his transport consisted of bottles which he later poured out,  

  23. that another method of murder consisted of leading people up staircases and throwing them into blast furnaces.199

The material or documentary evidence for any of these claims is nil.200 It is not normally claimed that anyone was killed with bottled cyanide, when that claim is made, as for example, in postwar testimony by former SS, it is arbitrarily corrected by historians.201 It is established that Hitler and Himmler were never at these camps in August, 1942.202 The crowding elements and the piles of clothing are impossible exaggerations. Therefore we are not bound to analyze the document as fact but are rather entitled to move immediately to the question of the source of the statement's elements.

The diesel gas reference is probably connected either to Soviet revelations of gas vans, or else to Soviet discussions of Treblinka.203 Other tropes can be identified, for example, the description of the gas chambers as appearing "like garages" is almost certainly indebted to Werth's description of Majdanek the previous summer, or Polevoi's description of Auschwitz two months previous.204 It is interesting to note that if Gerstein really was involved in the spreading of rumors about cyanide use for human beings, then the timing of these rumors (June 8, 1942) would coincide with the rumor of cyanide use that reached Switzerland the following August.

Another element: The 25 million victims goes back to a usage manual on Zyklon.205 The heaps of piled clothes are a reference to Majdanek.206 Above all, the statement shows the influence of Leleko's February interrogations and probably other testimonies concerning Treblinka and Sobibor made at the same time or before. In particular, the use of the "blast furnace" motif shows the clear influence of Polevoi. But many other elements, including the number of rooms, the arrangement of the building, the engines, the peepholes, even the flowers in front of the building, also appear derivative.

The main problem with the Gerstein statement is that one does not pick and choose from a document. Many elements of Gerstein's statement are simply false, if we reject these, we must legitimately ask why we should give credence to the other elements.207 As it turns out the only part of the statement which is quoted, and considered unambiguously true, relates to its repetition of the now conventional shower-gas-burning concept. Yet this simply means that we are using a part of Gerstein to confirm what we already know.

The gravest structural difficulty with the Gerstein statement is that it insists on the use of diesel engines in the generation of carbon monoxide gas for the gas chambers. Since 1983, Friedrich Paul Berg, a professional engineer and former environmental expert, has demonstrated that this would be a most improbable method for mass exterminations: diesel engines emit virtually no carbon monoxide.208 These analyses, in turn, cast grave doubts on the alleged gassings at all of the Aktion Reinhardt camps, because, following Gerstein, diesel engines -- usually from Soviet tanks but sometimes from submarines -- are nowadays always alleged as the means of the gas production at these three camps.209  

Another point with Gerstein's statement is not that it can be shown as derivative of contemporary Aktion Reinhardt testimonies, or that it contains many absurdities, or that its description of the supposed 600,000 mass murders at Belzec remains essentially uncorroborated. It is rather that Gerstein, a Zyklon technician, was attempting by his confession to deflect guilt away from himself, which in turn proves the extent to which Zyklon was perceived solely as a death dealing mass murder weapon at the time.210 In this regard he was unsuccessful: after his claims were widely publicized in the press in July, 1945, the French indicated their intention to try him as a war criminal, and Gerstein committed suicide.211



6. The Canonical Holocaust


IF WE WERE TO PINPOINT the time when the gassing claim assumed its present shape, it would be in the three-week period from April 15 to May 6, 1945. During this period the Western Allies liberated a number of concentration camps, and at the end of this period the Soviets issued their Special Commission report on Auschwitz Birkenau.  

On April 15, the British Army took over the Bergen Belsen complex, which at this point contained tens of thousands of prisoners.212 The images of Belsen, cultivated by British military photographers, left an indelible impression: stacks of nude, discolored and disfigured corpses, many in advanced stages of putrefaction, lined like cordwood outside of buildings. Overcrowded barracks full of dead and dying inmates. Large mass graves full of contorted and twisted bodies. The universal reaction was one of shock, horror and disbelief: a common remark was that words could not describe what the liberators had seen.213

Also in April, the United States Army liberated Dachau and Buchenwald.214 These camps too provided their own images: at Dachau, a group of open train cars containing the bodies of a few hundred dead prisoners, at Buchenwald, a handful of strips of human skin which had apparently been lifted from the corpses of tattooed inmates.215 The American reaction to such death and destruction transcended shock in at least one instance: an American officer, confronted with the bodies at Dachau, lined up several hundred German soldiers (mostly youths) who had ended up in the camp at its liberation and machine gunned them in cold blood.216

The allied soldiers, confronted with these scenes of horror, interpreted them in terms of what they knew. And what they knew after three years of unchecked propaganda was that the Germans had been engaged in the systematic murder of millions of human beings in the camps by means of the shower-gas-burning sequence. The presence of a shower, or a crematorium, or a delousing chamber became prima facie evidence of the well-known gas extermination claim.217 The nude, discolored, and disfigured bodies were no doubt victims who had been gassed just before the allied arrival.218 Again and again one finds the sentiment that the corpses were the proof of the totality of the accusation which had been made for years, and that the Germans had been stopped, as one American put it, "before they had time to get their act together."219

The problem is that these perceptions were wrong. What the Allies had found in the Western camps was simply the result of the "last major epidemic of typhus in world history."220 The epidemic had been precipitated by the complete breakdown of sanitation, transportation, and provisioning for the concentration camp system in the last weeks and months of the war.221 The bodies were discolored and disfigured by the process of putrefaction, they were nude because whenever a prisoner died the other prisoners would strip their clothing and burn the lice-infested garments.222 Although widely publicized descriptions and photographs of gas chambers were proffered at the time for the western camps, these turned out to be nothing but standard delousing chambers.223 In 1960, it was established that there were no gassings in the Western camps.224 But none of this penetrated the western consciousness of the time which could not see beyond the piles of dead bodies, and saw in them proof of German evil and Nazi Kultur.225 The imagery of the western camps, and above all Belsen, would remain for decades the proof of the Holocaust, and by extension, of the gas extermination claim.

Just before the end of the war, the Soviets issued a report which would authoritatively establish the nature of the extermination program. The Soviet Special Commission on Auschwitz., like most Soviet reports, was relatively brief, about 30 pages, and published in brochure format.226 Given the emphasis given to the gassing claim there is very little descriptive material contained in the report, only two documents are cited: one, a reference to the construction of crematoria, second, a document that refers to baths for special purposes for either Crematorium IV or V.227 We should note that this evidence is not only considered incriminating but sufficient proof of the crime: this shows the extent to which the shower-gas-burning sequence was fundamental to thinking at the time, any one of the elements was considered decisive for the others. The substance of the report, with respect to the gassing claim, can be summarized in the following extract:

  1. Twelve crematory ovens with 46 retorts were available in four new crematoria.
  2. Every retort could take three to five corpses.
  3. The cremation procedure took approximately 20 to 30 minutes.
  4. The baths for special purposes, that is, the gas chambers for the killing of human beings were located in the cellars of special buildings next to the crematoria.
  5. There were also another two separate "baths", the bodies of people killed here were burnt in separate fires in the open.
  6. Dogs helped to drive the men intended for death into the baths.
  7. On the way, they were driven with blows from clubs and rifle butts.
  8. The doors to the chambers were hermetically sealed, and the people in them were poisoned with Zyklon.
  9. Death occurred within 3-5 minutes;
  10. after 20-30 minutes, the bodies were removed and taken to the crematory ovens in the crematoria.
  11. Before cremation, cremation dentists removed all gold teeth from the bodies.
  12. The "production" of the "baths" and gas chambers by far exceeded the capacity of the crematory ovens; therefore the Germans used gigantic fires in the open to burn the bodies.
  13. Ditches 4 - 6 m wide, 25 - 30 m long, and 2 m deep were dug for these fires.
  14. Channels ran along the floor of the ditches and were used for air supply.
  15. The bodies were brought to the fires by narrow-gauge railway, and placed in layers crossways in the ditches.
  16. Oil was poured over them and that is how they were burnt.228

At the end of the report, the Soviets calculated the number of bodies that could be burned in each of the five crematorium, this totaled 279,000 per month, from which they concluded that the maximum capacity of the crematoria was over five million.229 Nevertheless, their conclusion stated that "the technical commission established that the German hangmen killed not less than 4,000,000 citizens of the USSR, Poland, France, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Holland, Belgium, and other countries during the period of the existence of Auschwitz camp.230

Hence was born the Auschwitz four million.

The Soviet Special Commission on Auschwitz is probably the most important document ever issued on the gas extermination claim. Indeed, it is somewhat shocking to see the extent to which the claim is traced back to this slim and insubstantial brochure. But at the time it established not only the fact of the gas extermination claim but also the implementation of that alleged policy at the largest of all of the concentration camps. On the other hand, the report offers no proof of the claims which it makes, only two documents in circumstantial support, an assertion of the number of victims based merely on arbitrary multiplication of cremation rates, and is buttressed only with large amounts of eyewitness testimony that fail to even come close to providing details of the gassing procedure.

The importance of the document immediately became apparent in the interrogations, confessions, and immediate postwar trials. The first of these was at Belsen in the fall of 1945.231 Although the purpose of the trial was ostensibly to try the SS personnel who had been captured at that camp, it turned out that many of the SS and many of the prisoners had been transferred to Belsen from Auschwitz in late 1944 and early 1945.232 As a result, the Belsen trial was also a trial about the reality of what happened at Auschwitz: indeed, the proceedings included the showing of a Soviet film on Auschwitz.233  

The German defendants were almost all former Auschwitz guards. The Belsen commandant, Josef Kramer, had formerly served briefly as commandant at Birkenau. Hößler had been the head of the women's camp. Irma Grese had been a warder at Birkenau. All of them were accused of participating in selections for the gassing process and all of them eventually admitted their participation. The extent to which the Soviet commission colored their confessions can be readily seen.  

On May 22, 1945, the day after Heinrich Himmler was taken into British custody, Josef Kramer gave a lengthy statement describing the conditions in all the camps where he served, including Belsen, Birkenau, and Natzweiler Struthof. He explicitly denied the existence of "a gas chamber" at Auschwitz.234 The next day, Himmler was dead, an apparent suicide.235 In a later interrogation, Kramer admitted to the existence of "a gas chamber" at Birkenau over which he had no jurisdiction.236 From the stand, he would declare that his initial denial was motivated by an oath of silence to which he was no longer bound by the death of Hitler and Himmler.237 Unfortunately we do not have the date of the second statement by Kramer, but it seems likely that the revelations of the Soviet Special Commission were instrumental in getting him to admit to the gassing claim. The idea that he would beremoved all gold teeth from the bodies.

  • The "production" of the "baths" and gas chambers by far exceeded the capacity of the crematory ovens; therefore the Germans used gigantic fires in the open to burn the bodies.
  • Ditches 4 - 6 m wide, 25 - 30 m long, and 2 m deep were dug for these fires.
  • Channels ran along the floor of the ditches and were used for air supply.
  • The bodies were brought to the fires by narrow-gauge railway, and placed in layers crossways in the ditches.
  • Oil was poured over them and that is how they were burnt.228
  • At the end of the report, the Soviets calculated the number of bodies that could be burned in each of the five crematorium, this totaled 279,000 per month, from which they concluded that the maximum capacity of the crematoria was over five million.229 Nevertheless, their conclusion stated that "the technical commission established that the German hangmen killed not less than 4,000,000 citizens of the USSR, Poland, France, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Holland, Belgium, and other countries during the period of the existence of Auschwitz camp.230

    Hence was born the Auschwitz four million.

    The Soviet Special Commission on Auschwitz is probably the most important document ever issued on the gas extermination claim. Indeed, it is somewhat shocking to see the extent to which the claim is traced back to this slim and insubstantial brochure. But at the time it established not only the fact of the gas extermination claim but also the implementation of that alleged policy at the largest of all of the concentration camps. On the other hand, the report offers no proof of the claims which it makes, only two documents in circumstantial support, an assertion of the number of victims based merely on arbitrary multiplication of cremation rates, and is buttressed only with large amounts of eyewitness testimony that fail to even come close to providing details of the gassing procedure.

    The importance of the document immediately became apparent in the interrogations, confessions, and immediate postwar trials. The first of these was at Belsen in the fall of 1945.231 Although the purpose of the trial was ostensibly to try the SS personnel who had been captured at that camp, it turned out that many of the SS and many of the prisoners had been transferred to Belsen from Auschwitz in late 1944 and early 1945.232 As a result, the Belsen trial was also a trial about the reality of what happened at Auschwitz: indeed, the proceedings included the showing of a Soviet film on Auschwitz.233  

    The German defendants were almost all former Auschwitz guards. The Belsen commandant, Josef Kramer, had formerly served briefly as commandant at Birkenau. Hößler had been the head of the women's camp. Irma Grese had been a warder at Birkenau. All of them were accused of participating in selections for the gassing process and all of them eventually admitted their participation. The extent to which the Soviet commission colored their confessions can be readily seen.  

    On May 22, 1945, the day after Heinrich Himmler was taken into British custody, Josef Kramer gave a lengthy statement describing the conditions in all the camps where he served, including Belsen, Birkenau, and Natzweiler Struthof. He explicitly denied the existence of "a gas chamber" at Auschwitz.234 The next day, Himmler was dead, an apparent suicide.235 In a later interrogation, Kramer admitted to the existence of "a gas chamber" at Birkenau over which he had no jurisdiction.236 From the stand, he would declare that his initial denial was motivated by an oath of silence to which he was no longer bound by the death of Hitler and Himmler.237 Unfortunately we do not have the date of the second statement by Kramer, but it seems likely that the revelations of the Soviet Special Commission were instrumental in getting him to admit to the gassing claim. The idea that he would be