Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Well. Well? Well!

by Andrew Mathis, Roberto Muehlenkamp and Sergey Romanov

In Part 2 of the One Third of the Holocaust video [YouTube version], The Ugly Voice tries to cast doubt on Treblinka witnesses' testimonies by trying to point out the absurdity of using the water from the well which was situated near the graves.

The UV cites Arad to the effect that the inmates used the well in the extermination area for washing dishes and preparing supper in the last period before the revolt (summer of 1943). Since the well was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of corpses, the well would have been severely contaminated and unusable, or so the UV says.

This may sound reasonable until you take into account a number of factors influencing the risk of groundwater contamination by leachate from the corpses.

Read more!
The factors include, first of all, the environmental conditions affecting the chances of micro-organisms contained in the leachate to survive and reach the underground waters. According to a WHO paper about The Impact of Cemeteries on the Environment and Public Health, the factors affecting the survival of viruses are temperature, dessication (increased virus reduction in drying soils), soil PH, cations and soil texture. Laboratory work, according to this article, has shown that most micro-organisms are filtered out on or near the soil surface, but adsorption of micro-organisms by the soil decreases with increasing water velocity. This means that, without information about these environmental conditions, it is impossible to predict the extent to which the presence of large numbers of corpses in the soil is likely to have contaminated the ground water at Treblinka. Then there is the – also unknown – depth of the unsaturated zone separating the groundwater table at Treblinka from the bottom of the mass graves, a factor mentioned in the article about Infectious disease risks from dead bodies following natural disasters from which the following quote is taken (emphases added):
Although there is some evidence of microbiological contamination in the immediate vicinity of cemeteries, the rapid attenuation of these microorganisms suggests that they pose little risk to the public (27). However, where it is necessary to choose a new burial site, several issues should be considered. A soil of sand-clay mix of low porosity and a small- to fine-grain texture is likely to maximize pathogen retention in the unsaturated zone (27). In such soil conditions, the water table should be at least 2.5 m deep in order to allow a “traditional” grave depth of six feet (1.8 m), with a 0.7-m unsaturated zone (34). This may have to be adjusted for more porous soil conditions, topographic lows, and low points of hydraulic gradients (25). To protect water supplies, distances of at least 30 m from springs or watercourses and 250 m from any well, borehole, or any source of drinking water have been suggested. However, there are no accepted standards, and distances are best chosen based on local hydrogeological conditions and with the agreement of nearby communities.
Another possible factor is wax-fat transformation. As has been pointed out earlier on our blog, layers of wax-fat-transformed corpses were found in Belzec graves. One can reasonably assume that these were the bottom layers, not taken care of by the Nazis. If the unsaturated zone separating the bottom of the graves from the water table was thin enough for the lower layers of bodies to be in a humid environment, it is fairly certain that an amount of corpses would have been transformed into wax-fat in Treblinka, too. In such case, the filtration of the leachate by the subsoil would have been less, but on the other hand the wax-fat would have at least partially retained the leachate and kept it from leaking into soil and groundwater.

Yet another factor is the disinfecting effect of quicklime, which is mentioned in a natural disaster context in this article, from which the following quote is taken (emphases added):
Stanley Michael, 31, the Chennai health expert tasked with averting disease, was consumed by concerns that the drinking water would be contaminated by all the corpses -- particularly after learning that the water table is as high as six feet below the surface here. First and foremost, he was concerned about cholera, an often-fatal disease that is endemic in the area and is spread in part by drinking contaminated water.

"I knew I was sitting on a time bomb," he said. "Once we had one case of cholera, it would have been four, then 100, 200 within a day. Thousands within two or three days."

The World Health Organization was recommending the use of an injectable cholera vaccine, but Michael doubted its effectiveness. The day after the tsunami struck, he sat at a desk in the health office and sketched out an alternative. Bodies would be placed in mass grave pits lined with multiple layers of bleaching powder, lime and soil, which would purify whatever fluid leaked through. Pipes would be inserted, allowing disinfectant to be poured in.

Local officials built 73 mass graves, the largest holding as many 800 bodies. "This is what prevented the epidemic," Michael said.

To assure drinking water quality, he handed out chlorine testing kits to his health officers. Wherever chlorine levels were not adequate, he instructed them to dump in more. He gave simpler contamination testing kits to village leaders.
The article implies that people would be drinking some amounts of corpse leachate for some time.

It also suggests that the risk that mass burial sites pose to groundwater can be considerably reduced, if not eliminated, by using disinfecting lime and/or bleaching powder. We know that at Treblinka each layer of bodies in the mass graves was covered with a thin layer of sand or quicklime before adding the next layer of bodies. When quicklime was used, it may have kept a considerable amount of pathogens from getting to the ground water.

Another effect of quicklime is that it hastens decomposition. Apart from acting as a disinfectant, quicklime may thus have led to the corpses more quickly reaching a stage of decomposition at which they would be less of a potential hazard to the ground water. Just how relevant the "age" of corpses in a mass grave is to the question of possible groundwater contamination becomes apparent from the following quote, taken from the article Carcass Disposal: A Comprehensive Review (emphasis added):
Some of the best information available on the decomposition of animal carcasses in burial sites stems from the 2001 outbreak of FMD in the UK. Although a devastating event, this incident provides unique and valuable information relative to decomposition of mass quantities of animal carcasses. A report commissioned at the very early stages of the outbreak as a result of problems related to the use of mass burial sites attempted to estimate the volume of fluid leachate which could be expected to originate from cattle, sheep, and pig carcasses. It was estimated that about 50% of the total available fluid volume would "leak out" in the first week following death, and that nearly all of the immediately available fluid would have drained from the carcass within the first 2 months (Table 15).

The author of this report highlighted the fact that much of the information used to generate the estimates was obtained from the rates of decomposition established for single non-coffined human burials, and these estimates may not accurately reflect the conditions in mass burials of livestock (Munro, 2001).
Although, as the above-quoted authors point out, the estimate may not be immediately applicable to mass burials, they - and the author of the original study - still provided this estimate, which means that it is useful, if even very approximately. Corpses eaten away by quicklime would much sooner be "old" enough to issue a considerably lower amount of leachate.

The above doesn't mean that the water in the well would be the best and healthiest water out there, without any corpse contamination whatsoever, but we aren't talking about a health resort either; we are talking about the health risk from a water well used by condemned men in death camp’s extermination area, which their captors, who had access to water sources further away from the mass graves and therefore safer, had no reason to care about. And there is also no reason to think that the water from the well in the Treblinka extermination sector wouldn't be usable for dish-washing and - when boiled - also for supper-preparation and even drinking.

In fact, here's what PAHO/WHO/ICRC manual "Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters: A Field Manual for First Responders" says:
1. Do dead bodies cause epidemics?

Dead bodies from natural disasters do not cause epidemics. This is because victims of natural disasters die from trauma, drowning or fire. They do not have epidemic causing diseases such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, or plague when they die.

2. What are the health risks for the public?

The risk to the public is negligible. They do not touch or handle dead bodies. However, there is a small risk of diarrhea from drinking water contaminated by fecal material from dead bodies. Routine disinfection of drinking water is sufficient to prevent water-borne illness.

3. Can dead bodies contaminate water?

Potentially, yes. Dead bodies often leak feces, which may contaminate rivers or other water sources, causing diarrheal illness. However, people will generally avoid drinking water from any source they think has had dead bodies in it.
Although this is a manual for "first responders", it does mention decomposed bodies, meaning that the above quote covers at least the first stages of decomposition. What is of special interest for our case, however, is how the contamination potentially caused by dead bodies is characterized, and what possible effects are attributed to that contamination: dead bodies may contaminate waters because they tend to leak feces, and the ingestion of such feces is likely to cause diarrheal illness. More specifically, the already quoted article Infectious disease risks from dead bodies following natural disasters tells us that
Where dead bodies have contaminated water supplies, gastroenteritis has been the most notable problem (7), although communities will rarely use a water supply where they know it to be contaminated by dead bodies.
Gastroenteritis, a disease also associated to sewage, usually comes in the form of viral gastroenteritis, a condition that is critical for infants, young children and persons who are unable to care for themselves and drink enough fluids to replace what they lose through vomiting or diarrhea, such as the disabled or elderly. It is one of the waterborne diseases frequently caused by drinking water contamination through human waste in India. Another such disease is known in English as typhoid fever. It is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi and unrelated in its cause – though similar in certain symptoms, namely a rash on the skin of the diseased – to the disease known in English as typhus, which is caused by the louse-borne bacterium Rickettsia prowazekii. The German terminology is different, designating as "Typhus" the water-borne disease caused by Salmonella typhi, whereas the disease caused by Rickettsia prowazekii is known as Fleckfieber (spotted fever) in German medical terminology. This discrepancy between English and German terminology, together with the similarity of certain symptoms, may be the reason why a disease that broke out among the permanent inmates of Treblinka extermination camp was referred to as "typhus" by Richard Glazar and as Fleckfieber in the Düsseldorf County Court’s judgment at the 1st Treblinka Trial. It is also possible that both diseases were present among these inmates, one caused by poor hygienic conditions leading to the presence of Ricksettia - bearing lice, the other caused by Salmonella typhi from the water consumed by the inmates. In what concerns the latter disease, it should be pointed that whether or not an inmate contracted the disease would depend on whether that person actually ingested the carrier (the possibility of which, in turn, essentially depended on the degree to which the factors mentioned in this article reduced or prevented the water’s contamination) and on the constitution of that person’s immune system. Even among those infected by Salmonella typhi, according to this article, up to 5 % become carriers of the bacterium without ever having symptoms of the disease.

In sum, we can conclude that gastrointestinal infections due to groundwater contamination from the corpses in the mass graves may but need not have affected the permanent inmates of the Treblinka extermination camp, and that the possibility of such infection need not be at odds with the evidence and may even be borne out by the evidence, referred to in the previous paragraph, to what may well have been the presence among the Treblinka inmates of the disease caused by Salmonella typhi that is known as typhoid fever in English and as Typhus in German medical terminology. The Treblinka inmates were hardly more at risk of contracting that disease due to the leachate from the corpses in the mass graves than a substantial part of the inhabitants of present-day India are at risk of contracting the same disease from water contaminated by untreated human waste.

So there’s no banana for the Ugly Voice also in what concerns this attempt to discredit evidence to the mass killings at Treblinka, which is followed in the same clip by the fellow’s characteristic considerations about why those lying Jews are supposed to have got it all wrong. This part is left to Andrew, who in his addendum to this chapter will show that the UV got it all wrong about water wells and urban Jews.


  1. I came across this post while googling for the potential uses of lime. Had just read the latest update re the excavations at the Jersey group home. They have apparently found some 5 foot deep pits on the property with layers of lime at the bottoms. Authorities claim they can't imagine what these pits with lime might have been used for. Hmmm.

  2. But you still wouldn't bury 700k dead bodies right next to a well, would you. I mean, come on. Also I guess if there was any evidence that the large amounts of lime needed were purchased you would have provided it here.


Please read our Comments Policy