Thursday, August 06, 2015

Knowledge of Mass Extermination Among Hungarian Jews Returning from Auschwitz

How wide spread, detailed and reliable was knowledge of mass extermination among prisoners in Auschwitz?

I have systematically searched through more than 1000 (from more than 3500) protocols obtained by the Hungarian "National Committee for Attending Deportees" (DEGOB), which represent the testimony of 1449 Hungarian (and few Slovak) Jews returning from deportation. These testimonies were made early after the war mostly in June and July 1945, which is a crucial point as knowledge can be expected to change (in any direction) with increasing time after the event.

The vast majority of Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 93%, did not or only generically report on mass extermination in the camp. The rest was limited to few details or recollected false rumours circulating among the inmates. The studied testimonies do not remotely reach the level of knowledge and reliability displayed by former Jewish Sonderkommando prisoners or some SS men in 1944-1946. The striking difference between the accounts of ordinary prisoners and insiders like the Jewish Sonderkommando prisoners is powerful confirmation of the veracity of mass extermination in Auschwitz.

About 30% of the deported people, who talked to the DEGOB staff, were not sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but left Hungary to other camps (most through the Austrian border in late 1944). One protocol reproduced on the site is illegible and was likewise ignored (number 351). Of the remaining 999 Auschwitz survivors, more than half (about 56%) did not mention extermination in Auschwitz. This figure can be considered to include those who did not hear about it, but also those who did not believe it as well as those who knew but did not take the opportunity to talk about it. There was obviously no default question from the DEGOB staff on the level of knowledge (see also general background of the protocols).

The average detention time in Auschwitz-Birkenau was about 3 months, but it varied as much as from few hours (for those directly sent to the main camp) to more than 2 years (for a Jewess deported from Slovakia). The proportion of people not reporting on extermination significantly increases with shorter detention time (to about 81% of those who stayed in Birkenau for less than 1 month). On the other hand, among deportees who were imprisoned in Birkenau for more than five months, the figure of those not reporting on extermination drops to about 22%. Not surprisingly, there is some correlation (but no strict relation) between the time experienced in Birkenau and ability to know or willingness and opportunities to talk about mass killings.

Of those who did report on extermination, the vast majority (about 82%) shared only generic knowledge, i.e. generalities such as that people were killed/gassed/burnt/sent to the crematorium. The remaining 18% provided further details of the killing facilities (note that I counted references to outdoor mass cremation as generality). About 1/3 of these somewhat more detailed testimonies are limited to few elements, such as a sign "desinfection" on a crematorium door or that the gas chambers were camouflaged as baths. The other 2/3 testimonies contain fundamentally false details of the killing and body disposal procedure as well as of the crematoria layout when checked against Jewish Sonderkommando and SS accounts.

Shared knowledge of mass extermination among 999 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau

More than half of those 6.5% (= 1.8% + 4.7%) reporting details of mass extermination belonged to the so called Kanada detail, which took care of the belongings of the deported Jews. It's interesting to look at the knowledge of this specific group of prisoners seperately:

Shared knowledge of mass extermination among 80 Hungarian Jews employed in the Kanada detail

Only about 6% of the Kanada prisoners did not report about extermination, while more than half of them provided details beyond generic knowledge. This is partly because of their above average detention time in Birkenau (7 months), but which does not entirely and sufficiently explain their greater knowledge. Among non-Kanada prisoners, who stayed at least six months in Birkenau and who had the same average detention time of seven months, about 30% and 60% reported nothing on mass extermination or only generics, respectively. The comparable high level of knowledge (though often distorted) among prisoners from the Kanada detail is explained by their close proximity to crematoria 4 & 5. The Kanada complex was right next to the crematoria 4 site merely separated by a barbed wire and later a camouflage fence. Its workers were those Hungarian Jews in high number which were closest to extermination activities.

None of these 999 Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors - including the Kanada prisoners - was capable to provide a decently detailed and reliable description of the mass extermination sites. I also searched the remaining more than 2000 protocols containing references to "Sonderkommando".  It seems fair to assume that most describing details of mass extermination would also mention the Jewish Sonderkommando by its proper name. Among these, there are three accounts with reliable and detailed descriptions, who were obviously all genuine eyewitnesses to the killing sites (two prisoners assigned to the demolition detail taking down the crematoria, which will be worth a separate posting, the other is Miklos Nyiszli, who was assigned to Josef Mengele's section detail in crematorium 2).

The Jewish Sonderkommando prisoners working at the extermination sites were housed in their own, mostly isolated blocks or directly in the crematoria, camouflaged with a thick screen of trees and branches (as was the reactivated Bunker 2 extermination site). They were - possibly with few individual exceptions - not transferred to other details but executed when no longer needed until very late 1944 (see also Auschwitz Labour Force Reports as Evidence of Sinister Activity at the Crematoria). It's not that other prisoners were entirely free to move and speak, but the Sonderkommando was even more isolated from other groups of prisoners. Details of the killing sites were not published in the Birkenau News for everybody to look up or was announced at the next town hall, but had to be transmitted typically via a cascade of individuals more or less secretly. In such a context, it is no surprise but expected that detailed knowledge was poor and distorted among ordinary prisoners.

But it might be too simple to explain this solely with the Sonderkommando isolation. Several Kanada workers claimed to have talked to the Sonderkommando guys face to face without being guarded. If true, there had been opportunities to pass on any single detail of the killing to them. This leads to another issue (beyond the scope of this posting), to what extent did the Sonderkommando prisoners want to talk to the Kanada girls about how exactly the poison gas was put into the gas chamber to murder innocent men, women and children. And to what extent did the Kanada girls want to chat about this with the Sonderkommando guys.

Along a similar line, the Auschwitz escapee Rudolf Vrba claimed to have contacted  Sonderkommando prisoner Filip Müller prior his escape to learn about the mass murder machinery [Vrba & Bestic, I Cannot Forgive, 1964, p. 175]. It's hard to see how the far above average but nevertheless seriously flawed description in the 1944 escape report by Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler could be possibly based on a detailed discussion between somebody with good memory, which Vrba and Wetzler displayed throughout the report, on the one side and the most veteran Sonderkommando prisoner on the other side. This doesn't fit together. If Vrba talked to any Sonderkommando, then either did they not bother about details, odd enough if the escape was meant to inform the world about the mass murder machinery, or they were too short in time. In any case, the episode found in Müller's semi-fictional memoir that he "described the extermination procedure to them [Vrba & Wetzler] in all its details" (Sonderbehandlung, 1979, p. 193) cannot be historically true.

The Sonderkommando isolation was not perfect. Construction and maintenance details gained access to the sites, which is how the Sonderkommando photographs of the crematorium 5 site were passed on. Supply details gained access to the sites as well, which is how the 15 years old Yehuda Bacon working in the roll cart detail became familiar with details of the gas chamber of crematorium 3. Bacon captured the gas chamber sufficiently well, but his knowledge did not spread very far in the Auschwitz complex. It did not reach any of the many hundreds Hungarian Jews reporting to DEGOB, who had never been at the site themselves. Hence, there was not only a limited flow of details from the extermination sites to ordinary prisoners, but this was also poorly processed and passed further on. And it could not compete with the false rumours spreading among the prisoners.

These false rumours were by no means limited to the Hungarian Jews. From a sample of 41 memoirs (from prisoners detained in the main camp, Monowitz and Birkenau) written between 1945 and 1960 mentioning mass murder in Auschwitz-Birkenau, about 51% provided only generic descriptions and 34% were into false rumors. Three authors clearly used post-war sources in their accounts, which are thus no reliable measure of what the authors knew at the time. Only Albert Menasche (1945 - thanks to Andrew E. Mathis for providing me with the relevant text), Eddy de Wind (1946 - who attached to his memoir the document USSR-008 quoting himself) and Alfred Fiderkiewicz (1956 - who was previously a Polish investigator of German war crimes and initiator of the Auschwitz State Museum and may have acquired significant post-war knowledge by the time) provided relatively decent descriptions of the mass killing sites.

One of the most common misconception was the distribution of towels & soap to the gassing victims. Andre Lettich too mentioned that "towels and soap were distributed" to the victims at some Bunker extermination site before the crematoria were operative (Lettich, Trente-quatre Mois dans les camps de concentration, p. 28). Lettich was assigned as doctor to treat Sonderkommando prisoners between January - March 1943. But none of the Sonderkommando prisoners serving at this or any other time has confirmed such practice. While in Sonderkommando Filip Müller's book Sonderbehandlung, 1979, p. 128 it reads on a transport from Saloniki that "many had a towel on the arm and a piece of soap in their hand", but the book is demonstrable semi-fictional and partly plagarized nor does it say the towels and soap were provided by the crematoria staff. In fact, Müller himself pointed out in an interview with Claude Lanzmann between 1978 - 1981 that this practice is fictional:
"You know, there is a lot of fiction out there. I also read, in the last book of Anus Mungi…which (is written) by, I would say, a very old, experienced prisoner about Auschwitz. And he wrote that before the gassing, people were given towels and, and, and soap, etc. That is more or less fiction. And one has to understand,that, that the prisoners had no access to these extermination sites. In their imagination, a lot of things…well, they saw how thousands, tens of thousands went into the gas chambers and no one came out. The people know that, that is, the other prisoners of the camp. So it’s no wonder that a few fantasies, which are not quite accurate, got stored in their mind’s eye

It was also not mentioned by most of the SS men. An exception is Hans Münch, SS doctor at the Hygiene Institute in Raisko near the Birkenau camp, who wrote in a letter in 1995 (far too late to rule out external influences) that "they gave the victims soap and towels". At the time, the obviously senile 84 years old Münch was suffering from poor memory as is apparent from an interview conducted by the Holocaust denier Germar Rudolf the same year. Furthermore, Münch admitted that he "cannot imagine how it was practically possible to give everyone a towel and a piece of cake" and he did, in fact, not remember to have seen it ("I cannot see that I have ever seen it...not with my consciousness...after 50 years I should still say if one has seen it or read it or if somebody...").

One of earliest reference to soap & towels was made in the report of the Auschwitz escapee Jerzy Tabeau (it was previously also mentioned in a resistance report from December 1942 or January 1943, Mattogno, TBOA, p. 53). He referred to the Bunker extermination sites that "everybody received a towel and soap" (London wurde informiert, p. 135). This procedure was also mentioned by another Auschwitz escapee Rudolf Vrba, who testified in his section of the War Refugee Board report that "two attendants clad in white distribute a towel and a piece of soap to each" in the crematoria.

The false notion that the victims received towels & soap to trick them into the gas chambers was shared by many former prisoners, who provided details of the gassing procedure in the early years after the war:

Another recurring misconception was that the poison gas was introduced into the gas chambers via pipes and shower heads, whereas actually a carrier material soaked with hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon-B) was thrown into the gas chambers manually via openings in the wall or roof  (see also Rebuttal of Mattogno on Auschwitz, Part 2: Gas Introduction at the Crematoria):

The third most common false rumour concerns how the corpses were transported from the gas chamber to the ovens - via a conveyor belt, an underground passage below the gas chamber or in its most fancy variant by tilting the gas chamber's floor:

In conclusion, reliable details of the mass extermination sites were not common knowledge among prisoners in Auschwitz. Most Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz in 1944 had no or only generic or superficial knowledge on what was going on beyond the camouflage fences. Those who went into more details were mixing it up with false rumours. Only very few Hungarian Jewish prisoners, who gained access to the high security sites as members of the section and demolition detail, could accurately describe the sites and their operation without resorting to false rumours. Although the Hungarian Jews were living and working only up to few meters to few hundreds of meters from the crematoria, detailed and reliable knowledge on the extermination sites, which reached them was scarce and distorted. The most common false rumours were the distribution of soap & towels, the injection of poison gas through showers - both obviously inferred from the fact that the gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms - and the tilting of the gas chamber's floor to remove the corpses.

Unfortunately for Holocaust deniers, this result is boosting the credibility of the early Sonderkommando witnesses - the authors of the Sonderkommando handwritings, Henryk Tauber (or Shlomo Dragon or Stanislaw Jankowski), Miklos Nyiszli, Charles Bendel and David Olere - as well as the early SS witnesses such as Pery Broad, Hans Aumeier and Rudolf Höß. If rumours on details of mass extermination were so scarce and different to what they reported, then their independent but reliable and consistent accounts cannot be satisfactorily explained by rumour propagation, but only by first hand experience.


6 September 2015: added paragraph on Müller's interview by Lanzmann


  1. Interesting articles Herr Sortie, well done on going through all those statements.

    Unfortunately for Holocaust deniers, this result is boosting the credibility of the early Sonderkommando witnesses - the authors of the Sonderkommando handwritings, Henryk Tauber (or Shlomo Dragon or Stanislaw Jankowski), Miklos Nyiszli, Charles Bendel and David Olere

    It's immensely dishonest of you to claim the Olère is an "early Sonderkommando witnesses".

    "1964—when the great Frankfurt-Auschwitz trial was making headlines around the world—is the earliest date that the existence of David Olère's sketches can be confirmed. Which is nigh on two decades after they are claimed to have been drawn."

    And you're still afraid to tackle the verifiably earliest Sonderkommando report, that of Roman Sompolinsky.

  2. So what, you claim that the "EWIW JOOS" running the West German Criminal Justice System paid Olère to make the drawings? Can I cue the cuckoo clock noises?

    Re Sompolinsky: There are two possibilities here. One obviously being that he lied about being a SK for whatever reason and was merely a nutbar trying to get attention. You find these types in a lot of criminal cases. This does not take away from the accounts of Dragon, Tauber, Nyiszli, or Bendel, namely because those accounts match up strikingly considering the independent circumstances in which they were given. Sompolinsky is a pure outlier here.

    The second possibility is that Sompolinsky was mashing up his experiences in a number of Kremas together and adding in some wild, boneheaded speculation on things he had not seen, likely based on rumors. That makes him an unreliable witness, but he is outnumbered by those who gave accurate testimony that matched up well despite separate circumstances. Did he physically stand in the Gas Chamber while the procedure was under way? Was he party to the insertion of the Gas? No on both counts IIRC.

    Regina Plucer, due to her involvement in the step by step deconstruction of the facilities, can be expected to have a much more detailed knowledge of the technical aspects than Sompolinsky, whose experience (assuming he was a Sonderkommando) were likely limited to rushing in, removing the corpses, dragging them out, heaving, freaked out of his mind, not thinking. This is not nit-picking, but rather common sense.

    You will find the most outrageous, nonsensical testimony in relation to the Dresden bombing, the Titanic sinking, or the Blitz. This is to be expected in traumatic collective experiences. You will also find those jumping into the breach, claiming to have been a part of it all. If the number of old American men who claimed to have served in Vietnam actually had done so the Americans would have won the war lol. Same goes for the Shoah.

    Like I said this takes nothing away from the majority of witness with more credible claims backed up independently. Common sense.

  3. The Black Rabbit of Inlé said...:

    "It's immensely dishonest of you to claim the Olère is an "early Sonderkommando witnesses"."

    The earliest relevant drawings of David Olere are dated 1945-46 which makes him an early Sonderkommando witness. The fact that the drawings were made known to the public many years later does not refute this point. It is quite common that historical sources are studied long after they have been produced. There is no reason to doubt the dating on the drawings (Pressac otherwise claim on one drawing is unfounded), it's plausible. On the other hand, there is not even a motive apparent for why Olere should have back-dated the drawings and it is furthermore implausible that he would scatter the supposed fake datings of the drawings over several years instead of simply 1945.

    The Black Rabbit of Inlé said...:

    "And you're still afraid to tackle the verifiably earliest Sonderkommando report, that of Roman Sompolinsky."

    First of all, I'm not "afraid" to tackle any sources. If I don't tackle a source I know, then it is because time is limited and it is not at the top of my priority list.

    Secondly, I did actually cite Roman Sompolinski in the selection of false hearsay sources above, from which the reader may readily deduce that I regard him as a false eyewitness.

    Thirdly, I have already prepared a few words on Roman Sompolinski for the forthcoming rebuttal of "Friedrich Jansson".

    Forthly, your claim that Sompolinski provided the "verifiably earliest Sonderkommando report" is incorrect (you would say it is "immensely dishonest", but I don't want to share your and Jansson's bad habit to accuse others of dishonesty when there is a disagreement of opinions or a mistake that may be very well an honest one):

    - The first "verifiably earliest Sonderkommando report" (excluding the 1944 Sonderkommando handwritings for no good reason) is from Shlomo Dragon, who was interrogated on 26 February 1945 by the Soviets (GARF [State Archive of the Russian Federation] 7021-108-12, p. 180 ff.; courtsey of Sergey Romanov)

    - The second is from Henryk Mandelbaum, who was interrogated on 27 February 1945 by the Soviets (GARF 7021-108-13, p. 93 ff.)

    - The third is from Henryk Tauber, who was interrogated on 27 and 28 February 1945 by the Soviets (GARF 7021-108-13, p. 1 ff.)

    - The forth is from Stanislaw Jankowski, who was interrogated on 13 April 1945 by the Poles (Inmitten des grauenvollen Verbrechens, p. 25 ff.)

  4. Have you published Dragon/Mandelbaum/Tauber's Soviet testimony yet? If not, why not? Is it much more detailed than what D&T were quoted as saying in USSR-008? Did Tauber's testimony to Sehn show a truly stratospheric increase in knowledge compared to his one to the Soviets?

  5. A lot of Dragon, Mandelbaum and Tauber has already been published by Carlo Mattogno (TBOA, AOAI, ATCFS) and Sergey Romanov ( ).

    I might publish them in full in the future, but it's not a pressing thing as these Soviet depositions are not exactly new or little known sources in the debate with Revisionists, which have not been extensively quoted in English before (the more surprising is your Sompolinski "verifiably earliest Sonderkommando report" fail).


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