Sunday, October 16, 2016

Rebuttal of Alvarez on Gas Vans: The Just Memo

Rebuttal of Alvarez on Gas Vans
Part IX: The Just Memo

The Document

On 5 June 1942, the member of the Security Police motor pool Willy Just set up a memo for Walther Rauff, the head of RSHA department II D on Technical Matters, to "decide" on "technical modifications on the special vehicles in operation and under construction". The memo does not explicitly name the purpose of these "special vehicles", but the description is clear enough that it is talking about homicidal gas vans. It explains that about "97,000 have been processed with three vehicles in use" at one place, about "a rapid distribution of carbon monoxide" and that "the load pushes hard against the door" inside the vehicles. The memo also mentions that such vehicle was involved in an "explosion in Chelmno".

Corroboration and Confirmation

Chelmno Extermination Camp

One day end of 1941, the commissioner of the Chelmno area (Amtskommissar) Konrad Schulz learnt from Chelmno residents that "a SS commando was here, inspected the palace and obtained information on the official buildings of the village”. Several days later, "some SS-Hauptsturmführer Lange showed up" and confiscated several buildings of the village (interrogation of Schulz of 27 April 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 217). The arrival and activity of the SS in Chelmno has been also reported by the German Chelmno residents Herbert Wa., Nelly Lö., Else Se. and Erhard Mi. (interrogation of Wa. of 23 March 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 199 ff.; interrogation of Lö. of 21 March 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 191 ff.; interrogation of Se. of 22 March 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 195 ff.; interrogation of Erhard Mi. of 18 April 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 210 ff.; also hearsay in interrogation of Adele Fr. of 16 April 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 207 ff.).

According to these accounts of the local residents, the about 10 men strong SS commando was subsequently followed by a police commando. The so called palace of the village, which had been confiscated  by the SS, was screened from the outside views with a timber fence. After some time, numerous Jewish people were brought to the village by trucks and a narrow gauge railway and were forced to enter the palace. However, these people were not seen coming out again. The local teacher Mi. recalled that "I found it strange that so many people were brought into the palace, but could not find any explanation for this at first". The Chelmno residents observed the pattern that grey, closed trucks left the palace to a nearby forest guarded by the police after the arrival of a Jewish transport. According to Schulz, "it leaked to the residents that the Jewish people were killed with engine exhaust in the grey trucks and that the corpses were stacked in mass graves in the forest at Majdani".

How did this look like from the perspective of the SS commando? The driver Walter Burmeister was one of the early members of the SS Sonderkommando in Chelmno. He gave the following account of their activity:
"One day in late Autumn 1941, I received the order from the State Police office Poznań for a trip with my vehicle with Hauptsturmführer Lange…to a small village called Chelmno… [where] a Sonderkommando would be formed….Also from Poznań came a Polish working detail of six or seven persons, who had been prisoners of Fort VII in Poznań. Shortly after our arrival in Chelmno also showed up a guard detail consisting of police men…Somewhat offside the village was the palace, which was connected to the road with a farm track…. The area was first fenced with a wire mesh fence, later a timber fence was erected…The Polish working detail constructed a fenced ramp at the palace…Before the first transports of people came to Chelmno, we had to sign a declaration that we will not speak about anything we hear and see, because it was a secret state affair. After the palace was equipped with the ramp, trucks with people arrived in Chelmno from Lodz. It were mostly Jews; in one case it were Gypsies, in another case only children. After the people left the trucks, a speech was given to them…The people were told that they had to take a bath, that their clothes have to be desinfected…After the people had undressed, they were ordered to go into the basement of the palace, through a corridor to the ramp and from there into the gas vans….[gassing description reproduced below]...the vehicle was driven to the forest camp. The corpses were unloaded and buried in mass graves…"
(interrogation of Burmeister of 24 January 1961, BArch B162/3246, p. 150, my translation)

The killing of Jews with homicidal gas vans in 1942 and their burial in mass graves in the forest camp are further corroborated by two other SS men as well as seventeen police men:

One of the Polish prisoners brought from Fort VII in Poznań to Chelmno, as Burmeister mentioned above, was Henryk Mania. He pictured the start of Chelmno extermination camp as following:
"After a few weeks, Lange found the extermination camp at the Chelmno area. An old palace in Chelmno was chosen as permanent site of the extermination camp. The area was fenced with boards to a height of 250 cm. The residents of the palace were displaced…Initially, the camp commandant was Lange, then replaced by Herbert Bothmann. The camp was managed by about 15-20 SS men and more than 160 police officers…This camp [was] set for the liquidation of people, so no detainees were held for a longer period of time…[The prisoners] were told to get off the car. The commander of the camp Bothmann spoke to them… He assured them that they had come to a transit camp. Inside the building, there were three large rooms labelled as bedrooms for children, women and men separately….At the end of the corridor was a room where the prisoners were ordered to strip naked…Then they were brought to the basement to the ramp. The ramp lead them to the car (gas chambers). They were gassed there on the spot with gas from a cylinder, and at a later period directly with gas from the automobile engine. After killing a lot of prisoners they were transported to the forest, where they were buried in specially dug trenches."
(interview of 27 August 1962, Pawlicka-Nowak, Swiadectwa Zaglady, p. 114 ff., my translation)

The layout of the gas vans operating with engine exhaust was about the same as those dispatched to the Einsatzgruppen around the same time, according to one of the gas van drivers:
"The gas vans were big trucks with a box of about 4-5 m length, 2.3 m width and 2 m height. It was covered with metal sheet in the inside. There was a wooden duckboard on the floor. There was an opening in the floor of the box, which could be connected with a flexible metal hose with the exhaust pipe. When the vehicle was full of people, the double swing doors in the back were closed and the connection between exhaust pipe and the inside of the vehicle was established...The gas van drivers started the engine so that the people inside the van suffocated from the combustion gases. When this was the case, the connection between exhaust pipe and van was released..."
(interrogation of Burmeister of 24 January 1961, BArch B162/3246, p. 150, my translation)

One peculiarity can be found in the testimony of Adolf Eichmann, who visited Chelmno early in the camp's history in Winter 1941/42. He stated that he was asked to look through a peephole in the driver's cabin into the gassing box (Sassen protocols, BArch B162/3247, p. 30 ff. & Eichmann Trial evidence T/1432; Eichmann, Götzen, p. 180f.). Peepholes in the driver's cabin were also mentioned by the Chelmno escapee Szlama Winer for early January 1942 (reproduced in Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust, p. 96f.) and by Burmeister (interrogation of 23 March 1961, BArch B162/3248, p. 66 ff., cf. Kogon et al, Nationalsozialistische Massentötungen durch Giftgas, p. 114f.), but such detail is lacking in the descriptions of the homicidal gas vans sent to the Einsatzgruppen. According to Theodor L. of the Criminal Technical Institute, which developed the gas vans, the prototype gas van (supposedly based on Opel Blitz chassis) tested in Sachsenhausen was equipped with a peephole in the driver's cabin (interrogation of 11 July 1962, Hauptstaatsarchiv Hannover NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/28, p. 17).

The vehicles of Sonderkommando Chelmno were repaired at the Kraft und Reichsstraßenbauamt repair garages in Kolo, including the homicidal gas vans. In this way, the vehicles became familiar to the Polish personnel of these repair shops. The connection between the exhaust pipe and the gassing box was described by the seven car mechanics (see also these sketches of a gas van made by some of those):

Hence, all perspectives on what happened in the property taken over by the SS in Chelmno in late 1941 - that of the local residents, that the German paramilitary forces, that of a Polish prisoner  - show essentially the same events: the killing of Jews unfit for work with homicidal gas vans (corroborated by the Polish car mechanics in Kolo) in the so-called palace and their subsequent burial in the nearby forest. Contemporary German documents confirm that the deportations to Chelmno concerned Jews considered unfit for work, see in this respect “The Jews buried in a little wood near Kulmhof”: Documenting Cremation at Chełmno , fnt. 38, 42 and 43.

97,000 with 3 Special Vehicles

As indicated by the testimony of the Polish prisoner Mania, the very first gassings in Chelmno were carried out with a gas van operating with carbon monoxide bottles (on this killing technique previously employed by Sonderkommmando Lange to clear asylums see Beer, Die Entwicklung der Gaswagen beim Mord an den Juden, English translation here). This was soon replaced by two gas vans of the first series operating with engine exhaust constructed by the motor pool department of the RSHA by December 1941 (see also section First Series of Gas Vans of Einsatzgruppe B of Mattogno and the Activity & Situation Report of Einsatzgruppe B on its Gas Vans). The figure of two gas vans is confirmed by the SS men Gustav Laabs, Walter Burmeister and Fritz Ismer. According to Burmeister, who used to help out the gas van drivers, both vehicles were based on French chassis (Renault; citation as above), while Laabs, who was a permanent gas van driver, remembered that the gassing box was mounted on an American chassis (Dodge; interrogation of Gustav Laabs of 18 June 1962, Hauptstaatsarchiv Hannover NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/27, p. 228). Some time in 1942, the Sonderkommando Chelmno was also provided with another gas van of the large Saurer type. The addition of the third gas van was mentioned by Fritz Ismer (citation as above) and Walter Burmeister (interrogation of 17 April 1962, Hauptstaatsarchiv Hannover NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/26, p. 201; claimed that the Saurer was "not usefull for us").

The death toll of Chelmno extermination camp until early June 1942 can be estimated from a number of sources:
  • As borne out by the letter from the Warthegau Gauleiter Arthur Greiser to the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler of 1 May 1942, the Sonderkommando established by Herbert Lange in Chelmno had been originally ordered to kill 100,000 Jews of the Warthegau:

"It will be possible to conclude the action of special treatment of about 100,000 Jews [Sonderbehandlung von rund 100,000] in the area of my Gau, authorized by yourself with the agreement of the head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, SS-Obergruppenführer Heydrich, within the next 2-3 months. I hereby ask for authorization to use the existing and trained special detachment after the Jewish action in order to free the Gau of a danger that takes a more catastrophic shape every week.
There are 230,000 identified ethnic Poles with tuberculosis in the Gau area. The number of Poles with open tuberculosis is estimated at ca. 35,000.


Though it is not possible to tackle this popular plague in the Old Reich with corresponding draconian measures, I think I can take the responsibility of proposing to you that here in the Warthegau the cases of open tuberculosis among the Polish people are extirpated."

(letter Greiser to Himmler of 1 May 1942, Nuremberg evidence NO-246, Roberto Mühlenkamp's translation from here; on the homicidal meaning of special treatment in this specific case, see Documents about the murderous purpose of SK Lange)
  • Fritz Ismer of the SS Sonderkommando estimated that there had been 75,000 to 100,000 corpses buried in three mass graves in the forest camp near Chelmno (interrogation of 9 November 1960, BArch B162/3246, p. 76). Since the mass graves were only filled until the start of open air cremations in Chelmno, which may be dated before mid-July 1942 based on documentary traces, and since there had been a deportation lull between mid-May and mid-July 1942 (see Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust, p. 187), this corresponds approximately to the number of Jews killed when the Just memo was written.
  • Jakob Wi. of the police Sonderkommando testified that the Sonderkommando Chelmno was supposed to report the completion of the above mentioned "special treatment of about 100,000 Jews" in the Warthegau, which was achieved before the start of the open-air cremations:
"It was said that there had been 100,000 corpses in all mass graves. Bothmann summoned the whole commando, including the police guards, and drove us to the RSHA in Berlin. This was, as I already said, in Summer 1942...He presumably wanted to report the completion of the killing of 100,000 Jews and introduce us to the RSHA."
(interrogation of 14 December 1961, BArch B 162/3247, p. 181)
  • The historian Patrick Montague has compiled deportation data to Chelmno in his book Chelmno and the Holocaust, p. 185 ff. According to this, about 100,000 people had been sent to Chelmno between 7 December 1941 and 5 June 1942.
Thus, it appears that the Sonderkommando Chelmno killed about 100,000 people (mostly Jews) with in the beginning a gas van using carbon monoxide bottles and later up to three homicidal gas vans with engine exhaust between December 1941 - Summer 1942, which is in good agreement with the statement in the Just memo of 5 June 1942 that "since December 97,000 have been processed with three vehicles in use". This is therefore beyond reasonable doubt a reference to Chelmno extermination camp. Another place where three gas vans were concentrated to kill people on a large scale was the extermination site Maly Trostinez near Minsk. But this was just getting started by early June 1942 and did not reach this high death toll (see also Rebuttal of Alvarez on Gas Vans: The Schäfer, Trühe & Rauff Telexes).

The Gas Van Explosion
"The explosion that we know took place at Chelmno is to be considered an isolated case. The cause can be attributed to improper operation. In order to avoid such incidents, special instructions have been addressed to the offices concerned. Safety has been increased considerably as a result of these instructions."
(memo from Willy Just of 5 June 1942)

The incident that a gas van exploded at Chelmno is confirmed by several testimonies. The driver Walter Burmeister testified that "a [gas] van exploded, but I cannot say when this occurred and how this happened" (interrogation of 23 March 1961, BArch B162/3248, p. 71). At least two Germans were badly burnt during their time in Chelmno, however, it is unclear whether this is related to the gas van explosion. The judgement of the West-German Chelmno trial mentions that Alexander Ste. was "burnt in the face and on the hands by an explosion at the basement entrance end of May 1942" (Justiz und NS-Verbrechen Nr. 594). The police guard Hans Sch. claimed that he obtained "burns on upper arm, back of the head and back" because "an spirit stove exploded" (interrogation of 1 February 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 125).

Anyway, the cause of the gas van explosion was subsequently investigated at the RSHA. According to Anton S. of the motor pool department of the Security Police:
"During my work in Wentritt's repair shop, we received a report from the camp Chelmno that a gas van exploded upon starting up. The doors were blown open and the people inside, who got out, were partly burning. Wentritt and I searched for an explanation for the explosion and we came to the result that the driver of the gas van did not fully turn on the ignition, so that unburned gases reached the exhaust pipe which ignited upon the first spark. We wrote this in a report signed by both of us."
(interrogation of 21 August 1961, NHStA NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/23, p. 257)

The explosion was also reported to the Criminal Technical Institute of the Security Police, which had contributed to the development of the gas vans. Theodor L. stated that "half a year or one year after the trial [with the prototype gas van in Sachsenhausen] I became aware that a gas van exploded...the term "processed" matches the tone of the report [to?] Dr. Widmann" (interrogation of 11 July 1962 NHStA NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/28, p. 17).

Saurer & Hoses & Observation Windows & Lamps

The memo discusses technical modifications to be implemented for the gas vans and provides a number of hints on the gas vans' equipment and problems in this context.

It mentions that "larger special Saurer vans" are already employed. The use of a large Saurer chassis for the homicidal gas vans is - amongst other things - confirmed by the set of documents compiled as Nuremberg evidence PS-501 - the Becker letter and the Schäfer, Trühe and Rauff telexes - and the testimony of the gas van drivers Heinz Schlechte, Josef Wendl and Johann Haßler.

The poor "off-road manoeuvrability" of the Saurer pointed out in the memo is also discussed in the Becker letter. Examples of Saurer gas vans failing in the terrain, which had to be towed away can be found in the testimonies of the gas van driver of Einsatzkommando 8 Heinz Schlechte and the members of Einsatzkommando 6 Walter Ve. and Paul Br. (interrogation of Schlechte of 7 November 1964, YVA TR.10/5, p. 599, interrogation of Ve. of 1 December 1961 and interrogation of Br. of 12 December 1961, BArch B162/1570, p. 229 and 280).

The damage of the metal hoses between the exhaust pipe and the gassing box is corroborated by the Trüehe Telex.

The "observation windows", which are apparently also mentioned in the letter to Gaubschat of 23 June 1942 as "openings covered with sliders in the backdoors", were also described by Schlechte:
"At the top of the swing doors, far above eye height, there were just two narrow little winows made of strong glass; I want to describe them as mere observation slits."
(interrogation of 27 August 1963, BArch B162/5066, p. 646)

The lamp inside the gassing box was mentioned by the gas van drivers Walter Burmeister ("There was an electrical lamp inside the box"; interrogation of 23 March 1961, BArch B162/3248, p. 69) and Wilhelm Findeisen ("I believe the ceiling lamp had a cabion cage"; examination of Findeisen of 30 December 1968, BArch B162/17919, p. 112).

Fast Unloading Device

The last but not least modification concerned the implementation of a fast unloading device for the gas vans. The unloading of the vehicles was arguably the most critical part from the perpetrator's point view, it was time consuming and gruesome work, even for bystanders and supervisors but especially in the case this was to be done by the Germans themselves.

According to Emil Gr. of Einsatzkommando 11b "some members of the commando became sick during the unloading" (interrogation of 26 June 1970, BArch B162/1068, p. 4423). Franz We. of Einsatzkommando 6 remembered that "two men had to climb up the vehicle...You could stand it for 5 minutes at best. Then they had to change" (interrogation of 29 November 1961, BArch B162/1570, p. 250f.). Heinz Schlechte recalled that the "unloading of the corpses was a terrible work as the corpses laid bent double and partly cramped in the opened gas van" (interrogation of 6 November 1964, YVA TR.10/5, p. 587). Georg We. of Einsatzkommando 11a testified that "that those insides have croaked in the most cruel manner...The terrible pictures haunt me some nights. The gas van is the main reason why I had a mental breakdown shortly afterwards" (interrogation of 8 March 1961, BArch B162/1008, p. 695).

As a consequence, the motor pool of the Security Police was urged to think about a fast unloading mechanism for the gas vans. Most likely, some Einsatzgruppen leaders requested to provide the gas vans with a tipper. This could explain that Hans S. of Einsatzkommando 8 stated that it was planned to construct the gas vans with tipping devices (interrogation of October 1963, Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/29, page number not known) and that an SD deflector - who talked to the Einsatzgruppe C chief Max Thomas - assumed the gas vans were unloaded by tipping the cargo box (Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv, E27#1000/721#9928-6*, p. 60).

The tipping devices were considered as impractical by the motor pool of the Security Police because of the greatly reduced interior height and lack of availability of hydraulic tippers (memo of 27 April 1942). Instead, Anton S. proposed an extractable grate as unloading mechanism, which he had previously seen during his service in the Netherlands (interrogation of 8 February 1961, BArch B162/5066, p. 260o). The proposal was approved by Rauff and submitted to the Gaubschat company (letter from Rauff to the Gaubschat company of 30 April 1942). The request was denied by the company because "[we] currently do not have any personnel at our disposal needed for the construction tasks" and because of "delivery times of some 10 to 12 months" for the required cable winch (letter from the Gaubschat company of 14 May 1942). For that reason, the memo in question suggested the implementation of the "retractable grate" into the gassing box in order to "reach a rapid and easy unloading of the vehicle" at a "company in Hohenmauth". This proposal was dismissed by Rauff because "Sodomka in Hohenmauth does not appear proper for maintaining secrecy (Czech company in a purely Czech area with Czech workers)" and the 10 still remaining gas vans were apparently to be constructed at Gaubschat without some fast unloading device (memo of 23 June 1942).

 Holocaust Denial

One of the earliest denier treatments of the Just memo can be found in an article by Udo Walendy in Historische Tatsachen Nr. 5, 1979, p. 29ff..  Ingrid Weckert added some more remarks in Historische Tatsachen Nr. 24, 1984, p. 23ff., which was rewritten for her contribution in Germar Rudolf's Dissecting the Holocaust (published in 1994 in German). Also in 1994, Pierre Marais published his book Les camions à gaz en question (in German here). Marais reproduced a full quote of Weckert's article in his section on the Just memo. Their arguments have not much developed since then, so that Santiago Alvarez's take in The Gas Vans is mostly a rehash of those works. The following will focus on Alvarez's book, but it should be kept in mind that it is largely the output of Walendy/Weckert/Marais.


Deniers have some issue with the language of the document, and Alvarez wonders "whether the author of these lines was a native German speaker and whether he was a technician" because it "exhibits so many formal peculiarities" (Alvarez, The Gas Vans, p. 67f.).

He is not able to point out a single example, which supports that the native tongue of the document's author was not German. The spelling of Siphon as Syphon appears on google books in several German publications in the first half of the 20th century and so was certainly a variant used among Germans (e.g. Gewerblicher Rechtsschutz und Urheberrecht, Band 47, Verlag Chemie, 1942, p. 186f.; Gustav Hell, Die pharmaceutische Nebenindustrie, 4., verb. und verm. Aufl, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1910, p. 53, p. 68, p.112; Beihefte zum Gesundheits-Ingenieur, Verlag von. R. Oldenbourg., 1907, p. 174). The "non-existing superlative" einzigste (literally, onliest) and the false spelling weitgehendst are - as Alvarez himself notices - a "quite a common error in German colloquial speech" and "has become part of the German vernacular", respectively. In fact, their use rather supports that the author was a native German speaker.

Here is another example of the use of einzigste in a contemporary SS document:

"[Geheime Kommandosache!]
Einzigste Abschrift
Funkspruch des SS Oberführer Hartenstein bei AOK.2 vom 12.12.41 an Kdo Stab RF SS

Habe Befehl zur Liquidierung der Gefangenenlager auf Anordnung AOK2 widerrufen müssen.

(radio message Hartenstein to Kdo Stab RF SS of 12 December 1941, BArch B162/3300, p. 361)

"'Syphonkrümmer' (siphon elbow pipe) is a pleonasm" (Alvarez, The Gas Vans, p. 67), but not an uncommon one in German, even among people who should know better (multiple links). The word Lampenfenster (lamp window) is according to Alvarez "neither part of the German language nor of technical lingo nor does it make sense" (p.67). Actually, the term is used for a glass window in spectroscopy and medicine (e.g. Stoeckel, Die Cystoskopie in ihrer Bedeutung für den Gynäkologen, Breitkopf & Hartel, 1903, p. 169). Possibly, Justjust created it as description of the frame and glass around a bulb. There is no reason to suppose that he was too familiar with the terminology for lamp equipment.

The use of "for example" in the first sentence of the document is supposed "a nonsensical initiation of a letter". But it is apparently referring to the "special vans at present in service" mentioned in the reference line. If anything, such poor style says something on Just’s writing skills, who did not have an academic education and had left school after 8 years to get vocational training as metalworker (see his SS file reproduced in NHStA NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/3). There is nothing suggesting that the memo does not correspond to his style and level of German writing.

In sum, from more than 800 words of technical discussion we've got a few quite common mistakes for native German speakers/people even with professional background and a creative expression for a lamp glass, none of which actually "raise[s] the question whether the author of these lines was a native German speaker and whether he was a technician".

"During my analysis of the Becker letter (p. 48) I explained already the catastrophic conditions which the German army had to deal with in Russia during the winter 1941/42. Hence, processing 97,000 units (or even several such amounts) under these conditions would not have been trivial at all, if considering that during the Russian winter the majority of the German equipment was unoperational due to the extreme cold, followed by a spring when catastrophic roads conditions did not permit any major German operation. Hence already the three words 'Since December 1941' render this first sentence historically unlikely."
(Alvarez, The Gas Vans p. 68)

As pointed out in the first part of this blog, the 97,000 processed with three gas vans since December 1941 is, without doubt, a reference to Chelmno extermination camp. The site is located in the centre of Poland, several hundreds of km westwards of the Einsatzgruppen gas van killing sites in occupied Soviet territory. The argument on "Russia during the winter 1941/42" is completely off the road here. So we got Alvarez trying to lecture about what is supposed "historically unlikely" on something he has historically and geographically understood not in the slightest.

He did not bother to reason here why he thought the 97,000 were processed in "Russia". As a matter of fact, he should know that the gas vans operated not only in the occupied Soviet territory but also in Serbia and Chelmno according to historiography. Some confused attempt of an explanation is instead found 128 pages later, where he comments on the judgement of the West-German Chelmno trial:
"This is also visible from the court’s claim that, since the number of gas vans mentioned in the Just letter is the same as is said to have been deployed at Chelmno, the Just letter must be talking about these three Chelmno vans. However, the context clearly shows that the reference to the alleged explosion in Chelmno is set in contrast to the general use of these vans, so the author is talking about a general deployment of the vans and not just those at Chelmno."
(Alvarez, The Gas Vans, p. 196)

The statement on the 97,000 processed with three vehicles is the very opposite of "talking about a general deployment of the vans". It is a concrete "example".

Now, what one could argue is that the Chelmno explosion is set in contrast to the example of the flawless "processing" of the 97,000 with three vehicles, and therefore that these two sites were not identical (cf. Mattogno et al., The 'Extermination Camps' of 'Aktion Reinhardt', p. 820). But this reading is false as we have already established above that the "processing" of the 97,000 can historically only be a reference to Chelmno. The apparent contradiction is resolved when it is taken into account that the author of the memo did not regard the explosion as a technical defect resulting from flawed design, which mattered from his point of view, but from faulty operation ("The cause can be attributed to improper operation").

Since the victims of Chelmno extermination camp were brought to the execution site by train and trucks and since the burial site was located just some km apart, it was logistically entirely possible to kill 97,000 victims within six months with two or three gas vans (December 1941 - May 1942). The killing of 540 victims per day (in average) required about 7 gassings with each of two the smaller gas vans with a capacity of about 40 victims, and even less when the large Saurer was involved.

Technical Modifications 

"If they operated as flawlessly and efficiently as the author claims in his first sentence, why change them? Remember: Don’t fix it, if it’s not broken!"
(Alvarez, The Gas Vans, p. 69)

Here we encounter one of Alvarez' most significant problems: he cannot read and understand contemporary German documents too inconvenient for Holocaust denial in their historical context.

It does not take too much to explain the author's motives. It is clear from the number and kind of modifications to be implemented on the gas vans that there had to be complaints from those with field experience - the commando leaders. This included the poor off-road performance of the Saurer, damage of the metal hoses, difficulties in cleaning the gas vans, destruction of the lamps inside the gassing box, difficulties in unloading the vehicles, gassing time/reliability of killing/disfigured victims. 

The complaints were no doubt forwarded to the technical department of the RSHA (Walther Rauff) and the motor pool of the Security Police (Friedrich Pradel) (e.g. by reports of the gas van inspector August Becker such as this here). The car mechanic Harry Wentritt remembered that the modifications resulted from "complaints by the Einsatzkommandos" (interrogation of 2 February 1961, BArch B162/5066, p.260h). Pradel's department had not only distributed but also constructed the gas vans and could have been made responsible for problems with the gas vans. The whole point of the first sentence of the Just memo ("Since December 1941, ninety-seven thousand have been processed, for example, using three vans, without any defects showing up in the vehicles") was to relativize the complaints from the field. What Alvarez fails to recognize is that this sentence is not an objective, neutral assessment of the gas van's performance, but a highly selective and superficial statement to defend the department's previous work on the gas vans. 

Both views are not contradictory but merely based on different perspectives. One is from the bird's eye view on the big picture that the almost stationary gas vans in Chelmno managed to kill 97,000 people within six months. The other is from close range that in practice, the use of the gas vans used to be inconvenient and inefficient in the occupied East. The technical modifications were supposed to make the operation of the vehicles more convenient and efficient for the Einsatzgruppen.

Alvarez argues that the memo's discussion of the modifications contains "technical improbabilities", which "leads us to radically doubt the authenticity of this letter" (Alvarez, The Gas Vans, p. 77). On a closer look, most of the supposed technical improbabilities result from the deniers' own technical, historical and linguistic ignorance. 

For example, the argument that "I have already discussed the improbability that exhaust hoses rust through within a few months. It would have taken years before such metal hoses had rusted through" (p.75) is shown as unfounded in Rebuttal of Alvarez on Gas Vans: The Schäfer, Trühe & Rauff Telexes

His claim that the exhaust gas inlet into the cargo box "could have been blocked by any other object, though, which might have been accidentally or intentionally dropped into the hole by a victim" (p. 76) is false, as this opening was connected to pipes with injection holes, which was further placed under a wooden duckboard. The victims could unlikely simultaneously block multiple openings, which were not accessible to them. Alvarez should have really done some basic literature reading on the gas vans to prevent making such a newbie mistake. In fact, the pipes are mentioned in the document itself in the next paragraph ("The floor of the vehicle can be tipped slightly. In this way all the liquids can be made to flow toward the center and be prevented from entering the pipes").

Quite the contrary to Alvarez' assertion  (Alvarez, The Gas Vans, p. 77), it is entirely conceivable that the victims destroyed the lamps inside the box if these were not well secured. There was a  panicking crowd, and the light was hanging right next to the head of the victims due to the low roof of 1.7 m. It is irrelevant whether the victims had an "interest in damaging the light" and idiotic to ask  "how did they find the lamp". The lamps were just in close range of the victims and had to be hit at some point.

Furthermore, he has misunderstood the text when he argues that "the author’s explanation is nonsense that this movement toward the door was due to' the load' striving 'towards the light'...[s]ince the doors were allegedly 'hermetically sealed,' no light could have entered from it" (p. 77). The memo does not say that the victims strive towards the light when the doors are already closed but "upon closing the door", i.e. when there is still some light coming through the door frame.

The author's remark that the load needs to be reduced to improve the Saurer's off-road performance is commented by Alvarez that this "depends for the most part on its design and not on its load" (p. 72). But since the design could hardly be changed for the Saurer chassis, there was not much left than to adjust the load. Note that he did not provide any information on to what extent off-road capabilities depend on the load. It seems not far fetched to assume that the performance of a truck climbing up and down on uneven terrain does also depend on its load. From the memo itself, one can infer that the Einsatzgruppen provided the empirical feedback that the off-road performance of the Saurer was significantly improved by reducing the load. It's still up to Alvarez to show that this was not the case if he thinks so.

In relation to the poor off-road capabilities of the Saurer vans, the memo also states that "reducing the number of subjects treated, as has been done so far" would require "a longer running the empty space also needs to be filled with CO", whereas for a reduced length of the box "the operation would take considerably less time, because there would be no empty space". The remark has stirred up quite some attacks by deniers. The least clever comment was submitted by Walendy who claimed that the "volume should have been almost totally filled anyway" with a loading of 9 - 10 people per m². In reality, there would be still 2/3 free volume with 50 kg average weight of the victims.

The denier Carlo Mattogno thought he had to pull out his calculator to show that there was only a "marginal increase of free space" of 3.7% when reducing the load from a realistic valie in his point of view. With the load density menioned in the document, "this would still not be more than a 7.2% increase in air volume" (Mattogno, Chelmno, p. 34). One may argue over whether these figures were quantitatively significant. But even if not, this would merely mean that some RSHA technicians came up with a flawed idea. (like Walendy above!)

By the way, Alvarez refrained from demonstrating his claim that "no noticeable overloading of the front axle can occur" by shortening the cargo box. But since the worry about the load distribution is repeated in the letter to the Gaubschat company of 23 June 1942, which he regards as part of the "unsuspicious documents" (p. 79), the point is irrelevant anyway as far as the forgery hypothesis is concerned.

Another point in the memo is indeed questionable, albeit without supporting the forgery hypothesis, as it may have been well an authentic consideration from the RHSA staff. This concerns the statement that the "normal capacity of the vans is nine to ten per square meter" which would "not overload" the Saurer trucks. Alvarez calculates that this would actually result in "two to three tons (40 to 60%) over the maximum load". One may argue over whether 2.3 m was really the width of the cargo box (e.g. the Saurer 2C chassis used to be about 20 cm smaller, Kopacs, Die Österreichischen Saurerwerke, p. 163). His assumption that the average weight of adults, including children, was 75 kg and 60 kg respectively is questionable, to put it mildly. Already the average weight of male adult Scots was 63 kg and 64 kg for adult US Americans in 1941. A more realistic figure for Eastern European adults and children in 1941/1942 seems to be 50 kg on average.

In contrast to Alvarez' claim, a packing density of 9-10 m² can be achieved with adults (and even more so with children) and does not require "disciplined cooperation", see Viewer's Guide to "Auschwitz - The Surprising Hidden Truth". Anyway, it is quite possible that the figure of 9-10 people per m² was inflated by the author, i.e. either he performed a wrong calculation or was supplied false data as input. According to testimonial evidence, the Saurer vans were loaded with about 50 - 80 victims, which corresponds to a density of 4 to 7 people per m².

Pressure Management of the Gas Vans

One issue with the operation of the German homicidal gas vans, which needs to be addressed, is how the engine exhaust was introduced into the gassing box without building up critical overpressure. The problem is seemingly solved in the Just memo for the future gas vans by controlling "[t]he excess an easily adjustable hinged metal valve on the outside of the vents". What remains unclear, however, is how this issue was dealt with in the gas vans already in operation (cf. Alvarez, The Gas Vans, p. 70).

There are several scenarios of how the gas vans were supposed to work before the installation of the overpressure valves in the back (if these were ever implemented in practice):

A: The gassing box was gas-tight with negligible leakage. The exhaust pumped in the box lead to an increase of the inside pressure. Elliott et al. have measured an exhaust flow of 0.75 m³/min for ~ 11 liters gasoline engines running idle. Downscaled to 5.5 l for the Saurer, this would mean 375 mbar overpressure in 20 min. The cargo box was made of thick steel-reinforced hardboard. There is no estimation so far how much pressure the gassing box could have withstood before its sides/doors were bursting.

B: Leakages from the gassing box were significant, despite the efforts to seal it. Substantial leakage was also created by slightly deforming the box upon pressurizing. At some point, there would be a steady-state where the exhaust intake is compensated by the leakages.

C: There was a T-connection from the exhaust pipe to the gassing box. The exhaust pipe exit was open but had a reduced inside diameter, so that the exhaust would enter the gassing box until a defined, critical pressure was reached.

D: Inside the box, there was a gas outlet through which the excess pressure was relieved.

It seems not wise to operate the gas vans under high inside pressure (scenario A).  In scenario B, the inside pressure could be much lower than in scenario A, but still ill-defined. The drawback of scenario C is that the shut-off pressure limits the maximum concentration of the exhaust gas inside the gassing box as well as the rate the exhaust gas enters the box. Scenario D seems like the best solution from a technical point of view. It allows for a full exchange of the atmosphere inside the gassing box with exhaust gas while avoiding overpressure.

The exhaust outlet could have been located in the roof or on the floor of the gassing box.  So far, I came across a single eyewitness describing such feature:
"There was an outlet device on the roof, practically the end of the exhaust pipe. The gases were sent through the exhaust pipe into the hermetically sealed van, where they killed those inside, and were directed through the van’s roof."
(interrogation of Georg We., German army in Krasnodar, of 23 May 1969, BArch, B 162/1236, p. 5048)
It was not mentioned by the RSHA mechanic Harry Wentritt or any of the gas vans drivers.

Forgery Allegation

The forgery allegation has been developed by denier Ingrid Weckert in The Gas Vans: A Critical Assessment of the Evidence, which is also closely followed by Alvarez. According to this, "the Just document is actually a rewritten plagiarism of the RSHA letter of 23 June 1942" (p. 80).

Weckert writes that "proof for this fabrication is the fact that the 'Note' of June 5, in point 2, refers to a consultation between the RSHA and Gaubschat which the letter of June 23 shows not to have taken place until June 16, fully 11 days after (!) the alleged writing of the 'Note' of June 5!". Alvarez joins in that "proof for a forgery, however, is the fact that the Just letter, dated June 5, is actually referring in its point 2 to a consultation between the RSHA and Gaubschat, which the letter of 23 June 1942 shows to have taken place only 11 days later: on 16 June 1942!".

The argument is a textbook fallacy. The Just memo of 5 June 1942 mentions "a discussion with the manufacturer", who pointed out that "shortening of the cargo box would result in a disadvantageous weight displacement". The letter of 23 June 1942 lists "changes to the discussed in person on 16 June 1942". Now, Weckert and Alvarez assume that there was no discussion between the RSHA motor pool staff and the Gaubschat company on the shortening of the cargo box other than on 16 June 1942 and certainly not prior 5 June 1942. However, there is no proof, not even an indication, that the matter had not been discussed before, as it is indicated by the Just memo. Hence, this "proof" turns out as nothing but denier's wishful thinking. Note that the flawed argument was previously pointed out in 2000 by John Zimmerman (Zimmerman, Holocaust Denial, endnote 15 of chapter 9).

Next gaffe from Alvarez: he thinks to have spotted the "discrepancy" that the Just memo "talks about changes to future and old 'Spezialwagen' (special wagons), a term never used in the other documents" (p. 80), as opposed to "Sonderwagen".  Yet, the note of 23 June 1942 mentions that the Gaubschat company was ordered to mount "Spezialaufbauten" (special coach works) on the Saurer chassis. Thus, Spezial- was simply a permissible and interchangeable variant of Sonder- in this context, as also shown by the use of Spezialwagen in the Schäfer telex.

Figure 1
Another failed attempt to cast doubts on the authenticity of the document is presented on p. 81f., where Alvarez writes that the Just document which "claims to be the 'onliest' copy...actually exists in at least three different 'onliest original' forms". In the course of the discussion, it turns out that the differences are limited to handwritten additions. Alvarez feels unable to draw "coherent conclusions" on the issue. It is actually rather simple though. The original document is clearly the one from the Bundesarchiv, since it includes what looks like a comment and paraph of Walther Rauff on the left side of the last page (Figure 1).

Figure 2
These handwritten additions have been removed on the reproductions published in Kogon et al., Nationalsozialistische Massentötungen durch Giftgas (Figure 2) and Rückerl, NS-Prozesee, while the authors/investigators underlined some sentences themselves. The reason why Rauff's additions have been removed is probably that they were not recognized as original handwriting but considered as some post-war artefact. Alvarez cannot understand why somebody would underline Rauff's name in Kogon's/Rückerl's reproduction. Guess what, because he was the only perpetrator named in the document, precisely what investigators were interested in.

Not only is there no evidence that the Just memo is a forgery, but this is also further refuted by the testimony of the persons involved with the document, Willy Just, Anton S. and Walther Rauff, who all signed the memo. While Just insisted after the war that he did not know of homicidal gas vans and the content of the memo - and so had all the reason to deny his signature on it -, he confirmed that "I recognize the signature as mine" (interrogation of 6 February 1961, Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/22, p. 82).

Likewise, Anton S. explained that "it is correct that I have signed the memo of 5 June 1942" (interrogation 8 February 1961, BArch, B162/5066 p. 260p) and claimed it as an authentic document he discovered and signed in the RSHA "out of pomposity" half a year after it was authored by Just (interrogation of 21 August 1961, Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/23, p. 257).

Finally, also Rauff testified at Chile's Supreme Court that "I recognize the signature in form of the letter R on the left margin as mine...The document is a technical report from a clerk named Just from the department of the already mentioned Major Pradel..." (examination of Rauff of 5 December 1962, Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, NDS. 721 Hannover Acc. 97/99 Nr.10/10, p. 104).

The Alleged True Purpose of the Vans

Alvarez maintains that "it can be derived with certainty that those vans could not have been used for transporting living human beings". He argues that "the height of the vans after their suggested conversion would only have been 162.5 cm at most...which is inadequate for transporting standing people" (p. 79). However, given that most of the victims to be targeted with the gas vans were children, women and elderly and considering that already the "average terminal height of Russian men born in 1898 was approximately 166 cm" (Elizabeth Brainerd, Reassessing the Standard of Living in the Soviet Union: An Analysis Using Archival and Anthropometric Data, p. 12), even the reduced height inside the cargo box seems still sufficient for the task. 

He further claims that the "requested...'angled gridwork' of 30 to 40 height was to be added to the end of a prospective floor grate...Living, standing people, however, could never be prevented from falling over such a low trellis". But the people were no longer living and standing when the grate was supposed to be pulled out, they were dead and collapsed to the floor. There was also sufficient space to collapse, first of all, because the gas vans were not packed to ultra-high densities (instead, typically 4 - 7 people per m²) and because there was an even lower density of people in the front of the gassing box as the crowd had the tendency to move towards the doors. Accordingly, a barrier of merely 30 to 40 cm height could have been well sufficient to prevent the corpses in the front of falling from the movable floor grate.

Another false argument is the usual Saurer = Diesel canard that "the RSHA instead decided to buy Saurer heavy goods trucks, which had Diesel engines and were therefore only capable of slowly torturing the intended victims to death...It must therefore be assumed that the purpose of these vehicles was not to kill with exhaust gases" (p. 87). The Saurer were imported from German-occupied France and equipped with gasoline engines, see Why the Diesel Issue is Still Irrelevant (update) (2nd update). 

It is therefore wrong that the vans described in the existing documentation "could not have been used for transporting living human beings". But if - just for the sake of argument - the "special vehicles" constructed by the RSHA at the Gaubschat company were no homicidal gas vans, then what was their purpose and function?

Alvarez takes over the explanation from Marais that the "RSHA special vehicles with the described cargo box allowing fast, automatic unloading were meant for the transportation of corpses" (p. 84). This was actually the cover-up story of the RSHA staff made up for Gaubschat to explain their strange requests. According to Wentritt, "there was a discussion [with Gaubschat] on the construction of the gas vans...I remember that it was told about the purpose of this type of vehicles that it was used as transport van for corpses" (interrogation of 14 November 1967, BArch, B162/18154, p. 121).

The hypothesis that the vans were merely meant for transporting corpses is utterly refuted by the available testimonial as well as documentary evidence (see Becker letter, Trühe telex, Just memo, Rauff letter). It is moreover challenged by the description of the vans in the supposedly "unsuspicious documents of file R 58/871" (p. 79).

First of all, the RSHA motor pool staff were quite concerned about the inside height of the vehicles for the implementation of the fast unloading mechanism (see memo of 27 April 1942). But if the vans were loaded only with lying corpses anyway, this concern seems misplaced, as opposed to the loading with living people.

Secondly, the construction of the vehicles was subjected to considerable secrecy. For this reason, the RSHA motor pool staff excluded a Czech company to construct the vehicles, but even the German Gaubschat company in Berlin was not entrusted with all the work on the vans. Some "modifications, which cannot be considered there because for reasons of secrecy, have to be implemented in our own workshop" (see memo of 23 June 1942). This indicates a far more sinister purpose than transporting corpses, which was the official story anyway. Indeed, the actual homicidal modification - the connection from the exhaust pipe to the cargo box - was carried out by the RSHA car mechanics (interrogation of Wentritt of 2 February 1961, BArch B 162/5066, p. 260e).

Thirdly, the letter of 23 June 1942 to Gaubschat mentions that the "internal lights are to be protected with a highly domed gridwork stronger than the one used so far". The protection of the lamps inside, even more so by an even stronger gridwork, is at odds to transport corpses (and of course undermined the cover-up story towards Gaubschat). If the lamps needed robust gridwork protection, this supports that living and not dead people were put into the cargo box.


The Just memo is another powerful piece of evidence on the German homicidal gas vans. Its content on the gas vans and Chelmno extermination camp can be well corroborated by other sources. All persons, who signed the memo, have confirmed the authenticity of their signature on the document after the war.

Almost needless to say that the document has attracted fierce attacks from Holocaust deniers - Udo Walendy, Ingrid Weckert, Pierre Marias, Santiago Alvarez and Carlo Mattogno -, as the too explicit text on the gas vans can be only encountered by the usual forgery allegation. Despite these combined forces, Holocaust deniers were unable to present any comprehensible, plausible evidence for their assertion and to address the numerous evidence supporting the authenticity of the document.

16 January 2016: minor corrections
10 May 2020: modified section on pressure management & technical modifications


  1. It should be noted that the exhaust outlet to keep the pressure differential manageable would have had to be very small - with a diameter of 5-10 cm. There could have even been a couple of such openings for safety. It is possible that they were installed somewhere on the floor and were subject to possible blockage by the people. Hence the improvement suggestion in the memo.

  2. This may be just me but I'm surprised at how much documentation on the gas vans survived.

  3. Why did so much documents survive on the gas vans compared to the documents of the stationary gas chamber in the camps?

  4. Arguably more documentation survives on the Birkenau gas chambers in crematoria, depending on how you set the criteria for documents. Plus scattered documents here and there about euthanasia gassings, Natzweiler, one explicit Dachau document, off the top of my head.
    Sure, almost nothing survives on the AR camps GCs, probably because of their largely makeshift, local and uncomplicated nature - a building with a gasoline motor wouldn't have required as much written correspondence with the center as crematoria buildings with its complex engineering and many functions or a fleet of gassing mechanisms on wheels invented in Berlin (hence also the need to correspond with Berlin about repairs and stuff - something which would have been done locally in AR camps).

  5. PS: just as well one could ask why almost nothing survives on the AR disinfestation chambers, which we know existed, compared to the Auschwitz DCs. Historical circumstances were different.

  6. I believe Himmler also issued an order for the destruction of records relating to AR.

  7. Intresting thanks.

    I have a question for you on this blog. I know that the National Socialists used code words in their documents on the gassings, etc., but I know that there is a document that revisionists say is fake, but who speaks openly about the gasing and murdering of Jews. Do you know which document I'm referring to? I seek and try to find it but have not succeeded. I know it is, because I remember that it was Nizkor or someone like that, I contacted who said that the revisionists can not prove that the document would be false.

    I think after this document, the senior commanding officers gave the order that they could not write so openly about gassing jews in docuemnts, so that they then used the code words.

  8. The only such document that comes to mind is the Franke-Gricksch report (or rather an excerpt about Auschwitz therefrom) which is problematic because the original is lost somewhere, we only have a re-typed postwar copy (plus another part at PRO). (Albeit your last paragraph doesn't apply to this particular document. There are no known reactions to the report, so you may be confusing it with the Korherr report, which however used the codeword "Sonderbehandlung", by then sufficiently tainted that Himmler ordered Korherr not to use it too.)

    The FG report has been criticized by the deniers on the basis of various errors of fact contained therein. It is my opinion that such errors do not prove its falsification (but rather show a less than perfect narrator); the claims of anachronisms contain therein are not convincing; and the report fits nicely in the historical context, albeit it is quite useless for anti-denier purposes because of the issues with provenance.

  9. @Nathan

    I am unaware of the existence of such an order, but we do have Globus informing Himmler that all documents had been burned.

  10. Thanks Sergey, yes I think it is the Franke-Gricksch report I was referring to.

    Maybe HC could make a post about that report?

  11. Maybe, in the future. But it wouldn't differ significantly from what Hans, Roberto and I wrote at AHF (link above).

  12. Mattogno in "Sobibor", p.280, note 850:

    "However, the case of the 25,000-30,000 Poles suffering from incurable tuberculosis in the Warthegau raises doubts on this point. On 1st May 1942 (NO-246) Gauleiter Greiser proposed to Himmler to kill them, but on 18 November this problem was still being discussed (NO-249), and in the end these patients were not killed."


    Mattogno has therefore conceded the homicidal intent of a key document in this series (NO-246), a communication to Himmler in which Sonderbehandlung clearly means killing, and which clearly references Chelmno and implies gas vans.

  13. See also my analysis here of how Mattogno twists, turns and lies about the Greiser-Himmler sequence:


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