Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Auschwitz Museum's instant factchecking of a "gas chamber survival" story

The gas chamber survival stories seem to appear more often in the press lately. All such stories are a priori improbable, and thus require stronger evidence to accept them than an uncorroborated testimony.

If it is claimed that the people were driven into some sort of a room, and simply left there, with a survivor speculating that the Nazis were out of gas or the chamber malfunctioned, then the people would have probably been gassed in another gas chamber or on the next day, not simply sent to work (especially in the light of the fact that it was, as a rule, Jews unable to work who were selected for the gas chambers).

If the story is that the people were driven into a room and the gas was let in, but some person survived and was left alive, this is an even less probable variation. While certain accounts tell of a few individuals barely surviving the gassings, they were inevitably killed by the Nazis afterwards.

The origin of the stories is not hard to explain. Confused, frightened people who had probably heard certain rumors are crowded into a shower room and expect the worst. Maybe something happens:  they're left there for the night or the water doesn't come from the showers and they interpret it as surviving a gas chamber - or somebody misinforms them afterwards that they had been in a gas chamber. And they believe it. It's an honestly misinterpreted experience. These people are not liars despite the fact that their testimony is not accurate.

Sometimes false memory must be at play - like in the case of the stories where the gas was let in (sometimes in a way which we know was not actually used). Research shows that false memories are relatively easily constructed. It is no wonder that it would happen to some survivors under conditions of stress and uncertainty. Memories of the actual unpleasant experiences in unfamiliar shower rooms would combine in their heads with extraneous information (rumors, nightmares) to create memories of failed gassings, sometimes pretty vivid ones (if demonstrably inaccurate).

(This, by the way, is different from the testimonies of  inmates who actually worked in the gas chambers. The unreliable witnesses we're discussing testify about momentous, one-off events. Whereas the actual witnesses from the Sonderkommando had to work there for months, in some cases years, and the chances of misinterpretation were nil.)

Unfortunately journalists who print these stories are mostly doing it uncritically (self-selection might be at work - if you publish an old survivor's story, you usually don't do it to criticize it, so the articles that do get written and/or published are uncritical). Case in point is the latest such piece published on Oct. 4 on an Australian news site: "Miracle that saved girl from Auschwitz gas chamber":
Yvonne’s hair was shaved and she was forced to strip naked.
Yet Despite Mengele’s decision, Yvonne was ushered into what appeared to be a gas chamber, a simple room filled with what appeared to be shower heads.
“We were forced to strip, our hair was shaven and then — to this day I’m still not really sure what was happened.
“I had no idea what it was — I was in such a state of shock, I didn’t think anything. I was shaking with fear so much so that I was too afraid to even cry.”
Locked in the room in darkness with naked strangers all around her, they waited. Afraid.
Nothing happened.
“The gas chamber must have malfunctioned,” she reasons.
“In the morning we were marched out and then put to work.”
There is of course nothing in this story to suggest it was a gas chamber rather than a normal shower room. Yvonne Engelmann is an honest but confused witness. Yet the author, Paul Ewart, simply accepts her interpretation without question. Certainly not what a responsible journalist (or a historian) should do.

But this time something interesting happened: the Auschwitz Museum factchecked the article on the spot, on Twitter!



And to his credit, Paul Ewart (or his editor) included this tweet in the article (although the text remained unchanged).

If more such factchecking by authoritative institutions is forthcoming in the future, Holocaust deniers, who, like parasites, cling onto such stories, will have no ground to stand on.


9 comments:

J Kelly said...

These stories are really irritating. It's what happens when journalists try to write about things they know nothing about.

J Kelly said...

A related irritation is when politicians try and talk about things they know nothing about.

Sergey Romanov said...

Some journos are getting more soft-headed, but the Auschwitz Museum's response was just great: dry and factual.

People should understand two simple points:

1. Just because something is uttered by a witness, Holocaust survivor or not, does not mean it's true. It should be critically evaluated regardless of anyone's feelings.

2. False/shoddy testimonies play straight into the deniers' hands.

The Black Rabbit of Inlé said...

SR >>> "These people are not liars despite the fact that their testimony is not accurate."

You say, after just citing Gena Turgel nee Goldfinger.

She gave an affidavit to the British at Belsen on 7 May 1945 stating that she'd been in Auschwitz for "two days" after leaving Plaszow on "14th January 1945" [UK NA: WO 311/1326/2]. Czech's AC confirms the 1945 version of her story: 178 female prisoners arrive at Birkenau from KZ Plaszow on 17 January 1945 [p.782]. 176 of them were amongst the group of 5,345 female prisoners who were evacuated on 18 January 1945 after first heading for Auschwitz I [p.785] and leaving Auschwitz in the evening [p.786].

In her 1987 memoirs she first told her gas chamber cum shower story which she claimed happened in the main camp. The room had "no windows and narrow openings in the ceiling" and "huge metal doors" [p.84]. The shower in the CS has four huge windows, 2/3 extraction vents in the ceiling and no doors.

She extended her stay at Auschwitz from one night to "under a month" [p.88], and now she left Plazsow for Auschwitz in "December 1944" [p.78].

"We were given yellow-striped coats and dresses" [p.85] after the non-gassing incident which occurred on their arrival [p.84-85].

Most of the time the barrack stove didn't work but if it did they huddled around it [p.85].

There were no set days when the beet soup ration was distributed [p.85].

She heard "transports coming and going day and night". "In one incident I saw a truck full of children arriving. They had no chance at all and were dumped straight into the ovens." [p.86] But aside from the one she was part of, no other transports arrived at Birkenau on 17.01.45 [Czech p.781-5].

Wherever they went they could smell the "crematorium" [p.86].

"Every morning we got dressed and stood by our bunks while the blockowa counted us." [p.86].

"Some of us had regular jobs" [p.87].

"At the end of each day the blockowa sounded a whistle, the signal to stop work and return to our barracks. Our hours varied, but they were always long, and we were usually so exhausted that we could hardly summon up the energy to stand and be counted." [p.87].

"The notorious pioneer of these experiments was Dr Josef Mengele, the camp commandant. I once caught sight of him in the distance, but I do not recall his looks very clearly." [p.89] By 2007 Mengele was now the one who segregated them on their arrival. [@ 5:14].


Gena Turgel was a liar, but she's so old now she probably can't remember she invented all these claims about her overnight stay in Auschwitz.

The Black Rabbit of Inlé said...

@ SR

After seeing this on CODOH and subsequently looking at Waverly Roots' book, I found your other website! I think it's very good, even though I'm no doubt missing things using Google translate.

What's your thoughts on how Stockholms-Tidningen got hold of these alleged details from Schellenberg about Katyn?

The date indicated by the NYT "last Tuesday" i.e 26.06.45 does kinda tie in with the "first interrogation of Walter Schellenberg" "27.06.45" cited by Doerries and found in UK NA: KV 2/94. All of the British files on him [KV 2/94 to 99] can be brought and downloaded on Kew's website. I have the first two which contain details on his first three interrogations and a very lengthy report on what was learnt from him, but there's no mention of Katyn. Here's the cover of the first interrogation and the page which your colleague quotes via Doerries' book.

Doerries said Schellenberg was flown from Stockholm on the 17.06.45 by the Americans, was kept at a private house near Frankfurt, and was not interrogated until the 26th. They also state that he wrote his memoirs whilst in Sweden [05.05.45 - 17.06.45] and provided copies to several people including Hillel Storch of the WJC.

Finally, and maybe irrelevantly, Christer Jaederlund, the Berlin correspondent for Stockholms-Tidningen, was one of the party the Germans took to Katyn in April 1943.

The Black Rabbit of Inlé said...

"Doerries said Schellenberg was flown from Stockholm on the 17.06.45 by the Americans, was kept at a private house near Frankfurt, and was not interrogated until the 26th [recte: 27th]".

Sergey Romanov said...

Unfortunately I have no idea about the origin of this information.
My working, half-assed hypothesis is that the Soviets or fellow travelers somehow managed to plant this disinformation.

Sergey Romanov said...

> You say, after just citing Gena Turgel nee Goldfinger.

OK, if we are being formal, the older a person is, the more possibility of false memories, so assuming your claims are true, she may still not be telling deliberate untruth.

Less formally: my statement should be understood in context of their GC survival claim: they're not liars because of this claim. I might have formulated it better, but it's just a blog post, relax.

Gabi said...

" Holocaust deniers, who, like parasites, cling onto such stories".

Intentional or not, it's always a fun to use the deneier-nazi own semantics against them. Whever "debating" with one there's no bigger pleasure than having a chance of making a nazi see how idciotic his alt-right memes are ("Achtung! Remember the 70 Billion Holodomor victims!!!").