John C Zimmerman. Journal of Genocide Research. Volume 6, Issue 2. June 2004.
For decades following World War II the number of Auschwitz murder victims was generally believed to be as high as three million. More conservative estimates had placed the number at one million (Hilberg, pp 893-894) and as low as 850,000 (Reitlinger, 1961, pp 460-461). In 1991 the number was finally determined to be 1.1 million (Piper, pp 92, 98). However, in the May 2002 issue (Vol 52, No 5) of the German journal Osteuropa (hereafter cited in this text) Fritjof Meyer, a well known European journalist, wrote an article entitled “The number of auschwitz victims: new discoveries from new archival sources” (“Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz: Neue Erkentnisse durch neue Archivfunde“), where he argued that the actual number of Auschwitz murder victims was 500,000. Ordinarily, this type of claim would be ignored. However, Meyer is a highly respected journalist who was an editor of Der Spiegel, Germany’s equivalent of America’s Time magazine, and Osteuropa a highly respected and influential academic publication. Therefore, the claim received attention in the German press and was greeted with a great deal of controversy. An examination of Meyer’s methodology and conclusions is warranted because his number has the potential of entering the mainstream and (1) being cited by writers and historians not familiar with Auschwitz demographics and (2) accepted as one of a number of possible death totals by such individuals.
Meyer’s arguments center on three basic propositions. First, that the total number of deportees to Auschwitz, not counting Hungarian Jews, was 735,000 (p 637). The actual number is around 865,000 non‐Hungarian deportees. Second, that only 180,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz (p 638). The actual number is 437,000 deportees. Third, that the aforementioned numbers are validated because, according to Meyer, the crematoria ovens did not have sufficient capacity to burn the number of victims who are known to have perished. Although he places the total number of victims at 500,000 (p 631), the actual detail he gives is 40,500 for Hungarian Jews (p 638) and 433,000 for all other fatalities (pp 636, 637).
Upon reading Meyer’s essay it became obvious that because of the problems extant in his thesis and his misunderstanding of the sources he used that it could not have been peer reviewed. Manfred Sapper, the editor of Osteuropa, confirmed in an e‐mail to the author dated March 17, 2003 that Meyer’s article indeed had not gone through a peer review process because he “had already extensively published articles in our academic monthly Osteuropa … [so] we didn’t see any reason for peer reviewing his essay.”
Meyer does not deny Auschwitz’s function as an extermination camp. Rather, he argues that the figures of those murdered is greatly exaggerated. The leading study on the number of Auschwitz victims was undertaken by Polish historian Dr. Franciszek Piper, who spent 10 years researching the issue. He found that about 400,000 prisoners were registered in Auschwitz-Birkenau over its four and a half year existence. Additionally, 900,000 unregistered prisoners were brought to the camp, most of whom were killed immediately upon arrival. Piper concluded that of the 1.3 million brought into the camp, a minimum of 1.1 million were killed there (Piper, pp 92,98). This number has now been accepted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, p 97). It should be emphasized that while Meyer is aware of Piper’s study—and indeed cites it when it serves his purposes—he never attempts to dispute Piper’s findings. Nor does Meyer ever attempt to reconcile his claims with Piper’s numbers.
Meyer claims (pp 636-638) that only 915,000 prisoners were brought into Auschwitz (405,000 registered plus 510,000 unregistered) and that about 400,000 were transferred to other camps. He begins to run into trouble with his interpretation of some of the data concerning these transfers. He cites (p 637) the number of 225,000 prisoners transferred (the actual number was 213,000 transferred and 10,000 other survivors). However, he adds to this number 58,000 prisoners who were transferred at Auschwitz’s dissolution in January 1945. The problem is that this 58,000 is actually a part of the 223,000 transferred, not a separate category (Strzelecki, p 242). Therefore, he believes that 283,000 were transferred from the camp. As a result, he understated prisoner deaths from this error by 58,000.
He made the same error with Hungarian Jewish deportees. The actual 188,000 prisoners who were transferred out of the camp in 1944 and 1945 includes 29,000 Hungarians—to be discussed in more detail later. However, as will be seen, he increased his 283,000 by an additional 110,000 Hungarians, thus bringing what he believed to be the total transfers to nearly 400,000. Therefore, Meyer completely misunderstood the data concerning those who were transferred from Auschwitz to other camps. The actual 223,000 survivors includes all prisoners transferred or who otherwise survived.
Meyer’s most controversial claim concerns the number of unregistered prisoners who entered the camp. Historians unanimously agree that almost all of these were killed upon arrival. In some instances we have nearly exact data on the unregistered. For example, of the approximately 60,000 Jews who were transported from the Netherlands to Auschwitz, about 17,000 received a registration number while an additional 6,000 were seized for labor before reaching Auschwitz. The remainder were killed in the camp (Zimmerman). More confirmation on the fate of the unregistered comes from the diary of Johann Kremer, a doctor with the SS in Auschwitz. In his entries for October 12 and 18, 1942, he mentions “special actions” against transports from Holland (Bezwinska and Czech, pp 223, 225). These “special actions” were gassings (Zimmerman).
Similarly, we have nearly exact data on the French Jews deported to Auschwitz. There are lists showing the names and transport dates of approximately 69,000 Jews shipped from Drancy, France, to Auschwitz from March 1942 to August 1944. Over 25,000 were registered (Klarsfeld). This data receive further support from the memoirs of a Sonderkommando (one who disposed of the bodies of murdered Auschwitz victims), which describes the mass murder. It was secretly buried on the camp’s grounds while the exterminations were occurring and discovered after the war’s end. Chaim Herman’s memoirs are dated November 6, 1944. He writes that he was part of a transport that left Drancy on March 2, 1943, and arrived at Auschwitz on March 4. He states that there were a total of 1,132 people on the transport of whom 100 were registered. The remainder were gassed (Bezwinska and Czech, pp 182, 184). The transport and registration data show that one Chaim Herman was on a transport that left Drancy on March 2, 1943, and arrived at Auschwitz on March 4. A total of 1,000 named Jews were on the transport but only 119 were registered. Herman received registration number 106, 113 (Klarsfeld).
There is also nearly exact data on Belgian transports: approximately 70% of the more than 25,000 who arrived at Auschwitz were not registered (Klarsfeld and Steinberg). Similarly, only about 25% of the 46,700 Jews from Salonika, Greece were registered (Zimmerman, pp 66, 258).
Unfortunately, not all of the information on the transports arriving at Auschwitz is as detailed as that for the above mentioned countries. Meyer relies on Danuta Czech’s Auschwitz Chronicle (German language edition) for the number of unregistered arriving at the camp. The problem is that Czech never claimed to have all of the information on unregistered prisoners. She specifically stated in her introduction: “In view of the deliberate destruction of documents by the SS, it is impossible to reconstruct the entire past of Auschwitz Concentration Camp” (Czech, p 13; p xiv). Meyer either ignored or was unaware of Czech’s disclaimer on the lack of complete documentation. Her information was only complete as to registered prisoners arriving in Auschwitz and prisoners transferred from Auschwitz to other camps.
There are a number of instances where Czech lacked data on the number gassed from the transports. For example, in1942, 1943 and 1944 there were transports that arrived at Auschwitz with unregistered prisoners who were gassed but for which there was no information. This was especially the case with the Jews from the Lodz Ghetto in Poland who were sent to Auschwitz in August and September 1944. Piper was able to establish that between 60,000 and 70,000 Lodz Jews were shipped to Auschwitz (Piper, p 76). There were 68,000 Jews in Lodz on the eve of the deportations (Dobroszycki, p 536). However, Czech had no information about the numbers on these transports. She had information on about 2,700 Jews registered from Lodz, but lacked information on the number of deportees in these transports. This could have been the situation if a transport was totally liquidated upon arrival, or in 1944 when thousands of non‐registered Jews from Hungary and Poland were placed in a transit camp to be transferred out of Auschwitz (discussed below). In either case, there would not be any registration numbers that would allow one to see that the transport actually arrived.
Meyer never addressed any of these issues. However, his greatest omission concerned the Hungarian transports.
The transports of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, which began in mid‐May 1944 and ended in mid‐July, brought the death camp to world attention. These transports were widely reported on in the media as they occurred. Meyer claims (p 638) that only 180,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz in 60 transports. In fact, it is known that the number of train transports leaving Hungary was 147 or 148 (Braham, p 674). He bases this assertion on the number of Hungarian Jewish registrations in Danuta Czech’s Auschwitz Chronicle. There are two problems with Meyer’s claim. First, he assumes that if only one or two sets of registrations occurred in a day this meant that only one or two train transports arrived in Auschwitz on that day. In fact, these registrations could have easily reflected arrivals from four train transports since this is how many were leaving Hungary daily (see below). Second, many Hungarian Jews were placed in a transit camp and did not receive a registration number. Therefore, if the only surviving Jews from a transport were placed in the transit camp, there would not be any registration number that would allow us to see that the transport had actually arrived (Piper). It can be established that about 26,300 Hungarian Jews were registered and 29,000 placed in the transit camp and transferred to other camps for labor (Czech, pp 618-719; Strzelecki, pp 353-364)
A memo at the conclusion of the deportations by Edmund Veesenmayer, Germany’s Plenipotentiary to Hungary, stated that over 437,000 Jews were deported from Hungary (Braham, p 443). On April 23, three weeks prior to the beginning of the deportations, Veesenmayer identified Auschwitz as the destination for the deportees (Braham, p 356; NG, 1997, p 348). Veesenmayer also wrote 12 memos from May 24 to July 8 while the deportations were taking place stating how many Jews had been deported to date. All of these memos identified the “Reich” as the destination of the transports (Braham). On October 28 he wrote a memo stating that about 430,000 Hungarian Jews had been transported to the “area of the Reich” (Reichsgebiet) (Braham, p 520). Auschwitz was in that part of Poland that Germany designated as the Reich.
Similarly, Laszlo Ferenczy, the Hungarian official in charge of the deportations, kept a list of the transports. His list showed over 434,000 Jews deported from Hungary in 147 transports (Braham, p 674). Contemporaneous British reports gave a similar number (Kramer, p 283) as did Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Levai, p 141). These Jews could not have been sent to Germany because foreign labor figures for Germany for September 30, 1944 show only 24,000 Hungarians there, none Jewish (Herbert, p 462).
Two Auschwitz prisoners who escaped on May 27 issued a report stating that 14,000 or 15,000 Hungarian Jews were arriving daily and that only 10% were admitted to the camp while “the balance were immediately gassed and burned” (Berenbaum, pp 281-283). Their daily numbers correspond closely to two memos (May 4 and 11) issued by Veesenmayer before the deportations began that four train transports daily, each carrying 3000 Jews, would leave Hungary (Braham, pp 366, 373). On May 29, 1944, Ferenczy wrote a memo stating that as of the previous day over 184,000 Jews in 58 trains had been deported. He relates that Security Police wanted the Jews to bring food for five days because “after their arrival in Auschwitz, following the selections [szelakttalas], they will be immediately transported by train to various labor camps” (T/1163). However, at the time fewer than 2,000 Jews had been transported from Auschwitz to Buchenwald (May 23) and Mauthausen (May 28) and an unspecified number to Gross‐Rosen on May 25 (Czech).
Meyer simply ignored all of this evidence. But even worse was his treatment of the evidence he did use. He based his claim that 110,000 Hungarian Jews were transferred from Auschwitz to other camps on a recent book by Christian Gerlach and Götz Aly. They based their conclusion on a document from the Yad Vashem Archives (Gerlach and Aly, pp 295-296). The author also obtained a copy of this document from Yad Vashem. It does not support their contention. The six page document was prepared after the war and lists over 55,000 Hungarian male Jews arriving at Auschwitz in addition to other arrivals. Gerlach and Aly doubled the number for female Jews since none were listed in the report. However, the document says nothing about those Jews being transferred from Auschwitz to other camps or that the Jews listed in the document even survived after entering the camp. Rather, it is merely an incomplete report by an unfamiliar individual, apparently not associated with Auschwitz, based on very limited information available to him on prisoner arrivals into the camp (Glaser).
On the basis of their interpretation of this document, Gerlach and Aly concluded that 320,000 Hungarian Jews perished at Auschwitz (Gerlach and Aly, p 375). This is probably about 50,000 lower than the actual amount. However, Meyer ignored this number. He gave no explanation as to what he thought happened to the unaccounted for Jews. Moreover, he never so much as acknowledged that the total the number of Jewish deportees from Hungary was higher than 180,000. Therefore, Meyer was very selective in the way he used Gerlach’s and Aly’s research and conclusions.
In addition to the claim that 110,000 Hungarian Jews were transferred, Meyer also claimed (p 638) that 40,500 Hungarian Jews were killed and 29,000 registered—thus accounting for his total of 180,000. However, he claims that the murdered Jews were killed in October 1944. He says nothing about the period of their arrival from mid‐May to mid‐July 1944. How did he arrive at this number? Czech lists about 43,000 Jews killed in October 1944. However, they were not Hungarians (Czech, pp 719-742). Meyer appears to have confused those killed in October with the 40,000 he was attempting to account for since the numbers are similar. In this respect, he attempted to connect his October 1944 theory to meetings of German anti‐Hitler military officers where the term “special treatment”—a term which meant murder (Zimmerman, pp 21-23, 85, 86, 202-204)—was mentioned concerning 40,000 Hungarian Jews. In fact, the meetings took place in June and July 1944, not October (Zeller, p 219).
In summary, Meyer claims that only 915,000 prisoners entered the camp. He has omitted 257,000 unregistered Hungarian Jews, 63,000 unregistered Polish Jews from the Lodz transports, and Jews from other transports for which we have no information because the relevant documentation was destroyed. When these omissions are added to Meyer’s 915,000, we begin to quickly reach Piper’s total of 1.3 million brought into Auschwitz.
Moreover, the 320,000 Hungarian and Lodz Jews—80% of the 400,000 that Meyer is disputing—were brought into the camp from mid‐May through September 1944: the Hungarian Jews from May through mid‐July and the Lodz Jews beginning in August. These 320,000 are in addition to other Jews brought into the camp for registration and extermination listed in Czech for this period and not disputed by Meyer.
There is very strong evidence on the fate of most of the Jews brought into Auschwitz from mid‐May onwards from a dramatic increase in the number of Sonderkommado personnel assigned to the crematoria during this period. Sonderkommandos were responsible for burning the bodies of gassed victims. A list of these personnel from April 20, 1944 shows 214 assigned to the Birkenau crematoria. On May 14, two days before day the Hungarian transports began to arrive into the camp en masse, the number was 87. However, the number increased to 315 on May 15. We have no information for the number past May 17 for the period of Hungarian Jewish deportations. However, the next available list on July 28 shows 900 personnel. There were 870 “stokers” (Heizer) evenly divided between the four Birkenau crematoria in two 12 hour shifts and 30 “wood unloaders” (Holzablader) (APMO, D‐Aul 3a/11). We can safely conclude that the dramatic increase to 900 occurred sometime during the Hungarian deportations. On August 29 the number was 874 (Czech, p 699).
A further examination of these lists reveals more incriminating data. The April and May lists show 10 body bearers (Leichenkommando) assigned to Birkenau. These individuals were responsible for removing dead prisoners from the camp to the crematoria. There are six body bearers listed on July 28. Therefore, while the number of personnel assigned to the crematoria increased by more than four times from 214 in April (more than 10 times if the 87 Sonderkommandos from May 14 is the yardstick), the number responsible for removing dead victims from the camp decreased by 40%. Thus, the ratio of those who cremated the bodies compared to those who removed the bodies from the camp was 150 to 1. This shows that while deaths occurring inside the camp barracks—those not gassed—was relatively low, there was a dramatic increase in the deaths occurring in the crematoria where homicidal gas chambers were located. This issue will be dealt with more fully in the next part of this study dealing with Meyer’s claims on the crematoria.
Moreover, a report from the Auschwitz Central Construction Agency from June 20, 1944 mentions that in Birkenau Sectors I and II, which were in an area separate from the crematoria, three barracks for the “Jewish Action” were being built along with “six rooms for corpses” (Aktenvermark, p 2; Gerlach and Aly, p 294; Zimmerman, p 249). What would be the purpose of having to store corpses in areas of the camp separate from the crematoria when there was so much crematoria space in Birkenau (discussed below)? These additional facilities could only have been used to store those who died in the camp—as opposed to those killed in the crematoria—because the crematoria and open‐air cremation installations were being fully utilized. There would hardly have been a need for such additional body storage facilities if Meyer’s theory that no Hungarian Jews were killed during this period of time was correct.
The Cremation Issue
The centerpiece of Meyer’s thesis on the number of Auschwitz victims being 500,000 is that there was not enough cremation capacity in the camp to dispose of the 1.1 million who died there. He claims (pp 631, 634) to have made two significant discoveries, on the basis of a recent book (Van Pelt), regarding cremation that allegedly prove that the number of commonly accepted victims is too high. He argues (pp 634-636) that the crematoria did not have sufficient capacity to cremate all of the victims because (1) the ovens could not function quickly enough to burn all of these bodies and (2) not enough of the crematoria ovens were operational during the time the exterminations were occurring. Predictably, he ignored the extensive open‐air cremations for which ovens were not needed.
The Auschwitz main camp, known as Auschwitz I, had three double muffle furnaces—six furnaces. In the late summer of 1942 the authorities began to build four large crematoria in the Birkenau area of the camp, also known as Auschwitz II. The crematoria in the main camp was known as Krema I while the four crematoria in Birkenau were called Kremas II, III, IV and V. However, some of the literature refers to the Birkenau kremas as I-IV. Since Meyer also uses this approach, the I-IV numbering system for the Birkenau kremas will be used here while the traditional number placed in parenthesis. Kremas I (II) and II (III) each had five three‐muffle furnaces for a total of 15 furnaces in each. Kremas III (IV) and IV (V) each had an eight‐muffle furnace. Thus, there were 46 furnaces for the four Birkenau kremas. However, the Krema III (IV) furnaces broke down in early April shortly after they were placed into operation while the crematoria in the main camp was withdrawn in late June 1943. Subsequently, the krema in the main camp was converted into an air raid shelter.
It cannot be determined if the eight‐muffle furnace of Krema III (IV) was reactivated. Camp commandant Hoess wrote that Krema III (IV) was not reactivated (Hoess, p 36). The two escapees of May 27, 1944, discussed earlier, stated that an unspecified krema was being repaired when they escaped while three kremas “worked day and night” (Berenbaum, p 282). However, the July and August 1944 lists of Sonderkommandos assigned to the crematoria referred to earlier show over 200 assigned to Krema III (IV) divided into two 12 hour shifts.
There is no “official” camp information on how these furnaces actually functioned for any particular extermination action even though Auschwitz had a “Registry Office and Crematoria Administration” (Standesamt und Krematorium—Verwaltung). Camp commandant Rudolf Hoess, SS guard Pery Broad, Sonderkommando Henryk Tauber, who disposed of the bodies in the crematoria, and Tadeusz Paczula, a prisoner who recorded the deaths of registered prisoners, have all stated that it was the camp administration’s policy to destroy the records on the real number of prisoners murdered (Zimmerman, p 233).
We know in general that it was German policy to destroy this type of information. A report issued from the individual who was responsible for Operation Reinhard—the roundup and deportation to the Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka death camps of about 1.7 million Polish Jews and some other Jews—wrote a “Top Secret” memo at the end of that operation which stated that “with regard to the complete final accounts of ‘Operation Reinhard’ I must add that all vouchers should be destroyed as soon as possible, as has been done in the case of all other documents pertaining to this operation” (NO‐064, p 715; italics added). The most revealing document in this respect was issued by Gauleiter and Commissioner for Reich Defense, Jakob Sprenger, on March 15, 1945:
All files, particularly the secret ones are to be destroyed completely. The secret files about … the installation and deterring work in the concentration camps must be destroyed at all costs. Also, the extermination of some families, etc. These files must under no circumstances fall into the hands of the enemy, since they were after all secret orders by the Fuhrer. (D‐728, p 175)
The one significant piece of information that has survived is a report issued by Karl Bischoff, head of the Auschwitz Central Construction Agency, dated June 28, 1943. According to this report the six furnaces in the crematoria of the main camp could dispose of 340 bodies in a 24 hour period while the 46 ovens in the four Birkenau crematoria could dispose of 4,416 bodies in a 24 hour period (Van Pelt, p 343). Although a furnace would usually not run indefinitely without being shut down for several hours a day, the important point about this report is that it stated that a Birkenau furnace could incinerate four bodies per hour.
Meyer disputes this number. He points (p 634) to a document discovered by Robert Jan Van Pelt and cited in his recently published The Case For Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial. Van Pelt was an expert witness for defendant Deborah Lipstadt in her attempt to prevent British writer David Irving from having her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, banned in England. Van Pelt’s expert report to the court formed the basis for his book.
The document Van Pelt referred to is a letter from Kurt Prufer, builder of the Auschwitz furnaces, to the SS. Prufer worked for the firm Topf and Sons, a manufacturer of cremation furnaces. The letter gives estimates for the 46 furnaces that will be built in the near future for the Auschwitz administration. It estimates that the 46 Birkenau furnaces will be able to burn 2,400 bodies in a 24 hour period (Van Pelt, p 350).
Meyer created a great deal of confusion in his presentation of this issue. He claimed (p 634) that Prufer’s letter of September 8, 1942 was issued nine weeks after Bischoff’s June 28, 1943 report. He had apparently confused the years 1942 and 1943. Therefore, according to Meyer, the letter issued by Bischoff was merely an estimate that was subsequently cut in half by Prufer’s letter of nine weeks later. In fact, the exact opposite is the case: Prufer’s letter was a conservative estimate while the report issued by Bischoff more than nine months later is based on the actual experience of the furnaces. By the time Bischoff issued his report, all of the Birkenau furnaces had operated for some period of time (Czech). Therefore, Bischoff had already known of the operational efficiency of all the furnaces when he issued his report.
The question arises: could the Birkenau furnaces actually have incinerated four bodies per hour, as stated by Bischoff, or was this merely an exaggeration? To answer this question we turn to the difference between Prufer’s estimates and what actually happened. It is necessary to start with the Topf double muffle furnace installed in the Gusen concentration camp. Gusen was a sub‐camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Before this furnace was installed early in 1941, Prufer informed the Gusen authorities that the double muffle furnace could burn two bodies per hour, or one body per hour per muffle (BAK, 1940, pp 11, 12). It appears that this estimate was based on normal civilian practices. It shows that Prufer was very conservative when he gave estimates on furnace efficiency—a fact to be kept in mind when dealing with his letter of September 8, 1942.
However, on July 14, 1941, more than five months after the double muffle furnace had been installed in Gusen, a Topf letter to the Mauthausen concentration camp authorities stated that a Topf double muffle furnace could burn 30 to 36 bodies in a 10 hour period. The letter also stated that a furnace could be operated day and night without causing damage if an even temperature was maintained (LK 4651). Thus, according to this report, a furnace could burn a body in 33 to 40 minutes. This is considerably better that Prufer’s original estimate. Moreover, in October 1941 this double muffle furnace was replaced. Information from a crematoria worker’s time sheet for the first 12 days on the operation of the new furnace shows that on November 7, 1941, 94 bodies were incinerated in 19 hours and 45 minutes for 25 minutes per body—a time consistent with the other 11 days (MAGK). For purposes of comparison with Auschwitz, in Gusen there were only men being cremated when this timesheet was written (Marsalek, p 132). In Auschwitz there were, in addition to men, lighter weight women, children and emaciated prisoners known as “Muslims.”
Meyer believed that Prufer’s letter of September 8 was conclusive on the issue of burning efficiency. However, he was unaware of a subsequent Prufer letter dealing with triple muffle furnaces. At the time Prufer wrote the September 8 letter he did not know how well the triple muffle furnace actually worked. Therefore, as he had done with the Gusen furnaces, he was being conservative. However, in late August and early October 1942, the Buchenwald concentration camp began to use two Topf triple muffle furnaces. These were the first occasions such furnaces were ever used (Pressac, p 95). On November 15, 1942 Prufer wrote the following:
The Topf three muffle cremation ovens have begun operation in the Buchenwald crematorium. The first oven already has made a large number of cremations, the mode of operation of the oven, and therefore the new construction, is tried and tested and is faultless. The ovens perform 1/3 better than was in general planned by me. [Die Öfen leisten 1/3 mehr, als von mir überhaupt vorgesehen war.] (Document 2/555a)
Prufer did not explain what he meant by “one‐third better than was in general planned by me.” However, since the estimate in the September 8 letter envisaged that a Topf triple muffle furnace could burn a body in about 28 minutes, it is reasonable to assume that he now realized, on the basis of the Buchenwald furnaces, that a Topf triple muffle furnace could burn a body in about 20 minutes. This could be done by introducing a body into a furnace before the prior body was completely consumed. Topf’s instructions for the Auschwitz furnaces suggest that a body can be added to the furnace before the prior body is fully consumed. Those instructions state that once the remains of corpses have fallen into the ash collection “they can be left for a further twenty minutes to be fully consumed … In the meantime, further corpses can be introduced one after the other into the chambers” (Pressac, p 136). According to Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolph Hoess, a body could be cremated in 20 minutes (Hoess, p 45).
What about Bischoff’s four bodies per hour as stated in the June 28 letter? It is almost certain that his number reflected multiple body burnings. That is, introducing four bodies simultaneously into a furnace. This process is to be distinguished from adding a body into the furnace before the prior body is fully consumed. The only comprehensive account we have of the burning operation was given by Sonderkommando Henryk Tauber, who was actually present and participated in the process. He stated in a postwar deposition that when the furnaces of Krema I (II) were first tested in March 1943 three bodies were introduced into each of the furnaces simultaneously and were consumed in 40 minutes. Observers of this first cremation used their watches to time the operation. This corresponds very closely with Bischoff’s four bodies per hour. Tauber also stated that normally four or five bodies would be introduced simultaneously and that in the case of emaciated prisoners as many as eight could fit into a furnace (Piper, pp 255, 256). Similarly, Alter Feinsilber (aka Stanislaw Jankowski), another Sonderkommando, stated that five bodies would be burned simultaneously (Bezwinska and Czech, p 41). This information is consistent with the experience in the Dachau concentration camp where seven to nine bodies could be burned simultaneously in two hours (Berben, p 7).
The efficacy of multiple body burnings was attested to in Southern California in the United States where the practice is in general illegal. In the 1980s there were major scandals when a number of mortuaries began to engage in the practice. In an Orange County crematorium, as many as seven and eight bodies were being burned simultaneously (McGraw, p 25). The best account available concerns the operation of a mortuary in the city of Pasadena, California, that had two ovens. In order to maximize profits and efficiency, extensive multiple burning operations were initiated. It was normal for nine bodies to be stuffed into a furnace. “About two hours after the retorts [furnaces] were fired up, they were cleaned out.” Business increased by 4000% over the years when only single body cremations took place. The business prospered beyond the operator’s “wildest expectations, and with any luck, he could corner the cremation market in the entire state of California.” The two furnaces incinerated nearly 28,000 bodies in a period of about five years. However, they finally broke down as a result of a fire when workers attempted to stuff too many bodies into each furnace (Englade, pp 49-52, 85, 125).
Meyer’s second major contention on the limitations of the Auschwitz furnaces is that they were being repaired so often that they could not have functioned long enough to burn the bodies needed to consume all of those who were killed. One of his “proofs” for this assertion (p 635) is a list of documents dealing with the crematoria, dating from early 1943 through 1944, used at the trial of Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolph Hoess. It mentions that an order to repair 20 crematoria furnace doors was made on April 3, 1944, and not fulfilled until October 17. Meyer concludes from this repair order that the 20 furnaces could not have functioned for over six months. This conclusion is unwarranted.
The repair order states: “Repair of 20 oven doors and 10 scratches in Crematoriums I [II] and II [III]” (“Instandsetzung von 20 ofentüren u.10. Kratzen in den Krematorien I u. II.”) An earlier repair order for 20 furnace doors—presumably the same ones—from October 27, 1943, which was implemented on January 27, 1944, states: “Repair of 20 oven doors of the ash catcher, partial welding and bolt replacement” (!Instandsetzung von 20 ofentüren vom Aschenfang, teils schweissen und Bolzen erne[ue]rn“) (APMO, Dpr.‐Hd/11a, pp 95, 96). There is nothing in these work orders to suggest that the ovens could not be operated from the time the orders were placed to the time they were fulfilled. Rather, the work orders appear to be in the nature of normally scheduled maintenance.
Moreover, it is known from the experience in the Gusen concentration camp that it was possible to run the ovens even on days when work was being done on them. In October 1941 Topf mechanic August Willing went to Gusen where he undertook extensive work on the double muffle furnace. His time sheet shows that on October 13, 14 and 15 he worked 10 hours per day on the double muffle furnace (BAK, 1941, p 188). On these same days the double muffle furnace burned 23, 19 and 33 bodies, respectively (MAGK). However, this furnace was replaced by Willing when he returned to Gusen from October 23 to 29 to do work which lasted 52 hours. Even though the workers’ time sheet on the number of cremations we have for the new furnace shows dramatically increased performance beginning on October 31, Willing had to return to Gusen one week later to do more work. The nature of the work is not specified. Willing’s time sheet states “oven work” (Ofenarbeiten). He spent 20 hours working on the furnace. Four hours each day on November 6,7, and 8 and eight hours on November 9 (BAK, 1941, pp 196, 213). On these same days the furnace burned 57, 94, 72 and 34 bodies (MAGK).
Meyer also claims (p 635) to have run across “surprising information” from the trial of camp commandant Rudolf Hoess in the form of a statement cited by Van Pelt from that trial. The statement was an answer to a prosecution question as to whether the Auschwitz camp authorities gave orders to speed up the gassing process. The part of the statement Meyer cites (p 636) is: “After eight to ten hours of operation the crematoria were unfit for further use. It was impossible to operate them continuously.” Significantly, Meyer ignored the following part of that statement: “Furthermore we reactivated the open air cremation site known as installation 5″ (Van Pelt, p 262, italics added). This was an area outside of the official camp, not far from the crematoria, where the gas chamber known as the White Bunker (discussed above) was located. Therefore, Hoess’ comment is dealing with open‐air cremations that were not dependent on the operation of the furnaces because bodies could be burned without limit in the open. Seen in its true context, Hoess’ statement actually disputes Meyer’s claim that the number of Auschwitz deaths was limited because of the furnaces’ restricted cremation capabilities.
Moreover, Meyer ignored Hoess’ observation that the White Bunker was “kept as a standby when breakdowns occurred in” Kremas I (II) and II (III) and that “[t]here was no limit to the number of bodies that could be burned at [the White Bunker] as long as the cremations could be carried out both day and night.” Hoess also noted that during the period of the Hungarian deportations the cremations—open‐air and furnaces—reached 9,000 daily (Hoess, p 37).
Meyer’s most stunning failure in his claim about cremation capacity is the omission of any mention of the open‐air burnings that occurred from mid‐May through the summer of 1944, though he did admit (p 636) that there were open‐air burnings prior to the existence of the Birkenau crematoria, which first became operational in mid‐March 1943. However, he confused the two pre‐March 1943 installations used for gassing and burning by referring to the White Bunker as Bunker I and Red Bunker as Bunker II. The Red Bunker was I and the White Bunker was II. About 250,000 bodies were disposed of during this pre‐March 1943 period.
There was a great deal of eyewitness testimony about the open‐air burnings from both the SS and prisoners for the period from mid‐May through August 1944. The burnings occurred in two places. One place was an area that lay immediately outside the camp not far from the crematoria. This area had an installation known as the White Bunker (also referred to as the White Farmhouse, Bunker II or Bunker V), discussed above, that was used to gas prisoners prior to mid‐March 1943. The other was an area near Krema IV (V) where ditches were dug in May 1944 (Pressac, p 116; Zimmerman, pp 241, 242). The White Bunker and both open‐air cremation areas can be identified from a photo taken of the area by the Allies on May 31, 1944. An analysis of that photo was undertaken by Carroll Lucas, a photo imagery expert with 45 years’ experience who also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. His report was published in 2000. His description of the physical characteristics of the areas is consistent with the eyewitness testimony. He was also able to identify the White Bunker that was destroyed by the camp authorities before they evacuated Auschwitz (Zimmerman). A Luftwaffe (German Air Force) photo taken on July 8, 1944 shows a large burning operation near Krema IV (V) (Harmon). A well known ground level photo that has appeared in many places shows a large burning operation near Krema IV (V) in August 1944 (Swiebocka, pp 174-175). The recent discovery of an Auschwitz photo taken by Britain’s Royal Air Force on August 23, 1944 shows smoke coming from a mass burial pit (Ezard).
The Hoess Memoirs
In an attempt to further bolster his argument that the 1.1 million number of Auschwitz victims is overstated, Meyer launched an attack (p 640) on the testimony and memoirs of camp commandant Rudolf Hoess. Meyer recounts how Hoess was tortured after being captured by the British and confessed to a total of 2.5 million gassed at Auschwitz. He then goes on to note how Hoess gave this same number in subsequent testimony, but then changed it to 1.13 million in his memoirs. Meyer’s conclusion is that we cannot rely on any number given by Hoess
Hoess wrote of his torture at the hands of his British captors. However, he also noted that he was treated well when transferred to Polish custody as the result of the intervention of the prosecutor’s office (Hoess, pp 179-181). Hoess stated in his memoirs that the 2.5 million killed number was given to him by Adolf Eichmann, the SS official who was in charge of Jewish transports (Hoess, p 38).
Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets in January 1945. In May, the Soviets filed a report which stated that at least four million people were murdered at Auschwitz (USSR‐008, p 261). This number was subsequently adopted by Hoess’ Polish captors. However, the Polish Supreme National Military Tribunal that tried Hoess used 2.5 million (Piper, p 58). If Hoess had been forced to give false numbers by the Poles, the four million number (or at least the 2.5 million number) would have certainly turned up in his memoirs. Yet, he wrote: “I regard the total of 2.5 million as far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive capabilities. Figures given by former prisoners are figments of their imagination and have no foundation in fact” (Hoess, p 39). He simply could not have written this under pressure. He was, in effect, calling into question the credibility of his captors. Certainly if he was being pressured by the Poles, they would not have allowed him to attack the 2.5 million figure as a figment of the imagination when at the time they were alternately using 2.5 million and four million.
More credibility is given to Hoess because, as noted earlier in this study, Polish historian Franciszek Piper, after many years of research, came up with a number nearly identical to Hoess’—1.1 million killed in the camp. Meyer tried to discredit Hoess’ memoirs by noting that the number of prisoners he lists from certain geographic regions disagrees with Piper’s numbers. However, Hoess did not have the underlying detail for his numbers readily available since that information—as noted earlier—was destroyed. However, the total 1.13 million is a number he would be likely to remember even though he forgot the underlying detail.
Interestingly, Meyer tried to use Piper and others to discredit Hoess even though he was unwilling to accept—or even acknowledge—Piper’s 1.1 million number. Thus, Meyer cites Piper’s figures on the number of deportees from each country as credible to cast doubt on Hoess’ figures for each country while at the same time rejecting Piper’s overall figure on the number of total deaths! How can he accept Piper’s individual numbers while rejecting the total of those numbers?
The accuracy of Hoess’ memoirs have been borne out over the years. The memoirs he wrote in 1946 about open‐air cremations, the furnaces, executing those violating secrecy orders, the destruction of documents, the gas chambers and other items have all been corroborated by independent documentation since those memoirs were written (Zimmerman). The fact that the most important piece of data in his memoirs—the number of deaths at Auschwitz—has been confirmed only strengthens the case for their reliability. Indeed, Hoess’ memoirs have withstood the test of time and proven to be among the most trustworthy of all the postwar witness accounts.