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 (like Klara Markus, who actually describes events of January of 1945, more than two months after gassings in Auschwitz had stopped, so we know she wasn't describing a prelude to an actual gassing, despite her belief to the contrary) or the chamber "malfunctioned" (though the only technical malfunction that one could imagine would be if the ventilation did not function; in which case one could use the above-ground gas chambers that were ventilated naturally, like those in the crematoria 4 and 5 and in the Bunkers 1 and 2), 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, traumatized people who had probably heard certain rumors are crowded into a shower room and expect the worst. Maybe something unexpected happens:  they're left there for the night or the water doesn't come from the showers (like in the story of Suzanna Braun, who actually most likely was just in a real shower, especially if her description of holding soap is correct; contrary to a popular legend, there is no credible first-hand evidence that the Nazis wasted valuable soap just in order to deceive inmates, although there are plenty of hearsay accounts claiming this) and they interpret it as surviving a gas chamber - or somebody misinforms them afterwards that they had been in a gas chamber (like what apparently happened to Gena Turgel, where her only source of information about her actually having been in a gas chamber was a claim of some woman). And they believe it. Mostly, 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 (like that of Sophia Litwinska), sometimes pretty vivid ones (if demonstrably inaccurate, like that of Regina Bialek).

(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.

Slightly updated on 03.10.2023.


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

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. @ 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.

  6. "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]".

  7. 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.

  8. > 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.

  9. " 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!!!").

  10. "the fact that it was, as a rule, Jews unable to work who were selected for the gas chambers" i belive you should say it in a time and a place context. As a rule, in most of the first death camps, the majority of jews were sent to death regardless to their ability to work.the camps were relatively small and nedded limited amount of forced workers. Auschwitz is a different matter in that sense since it had a hugh industrial area coneccted to it which received many workers from the transports of jews and atill, in the summer of 1944 most, if not all, of the jews coming in transports from Hungary were sent straight to their death.
    Selection in that sense was done mainly to separate man from the female, childen and sick as a way to control and prevent resistance.
    I'm still new to thia site but i find it to be very interesting and important. Would you be willing to find information regarding the archologic surveys being done for some years in the death camps as to the findings and discoveries?

  11. Arik:

    "I'm still new to thia site but i find it to be very interesting and important. Would you be willing to find information regarding the archologic surveys being done for some years in the death camps as to the findings and discoveries?"

    This theme has been exhaustively covered on the blog, see the tags for graves and open air incineration as well as individual camp names.

  12. Arik, you wrote:

    "atill, in the summer of 1944 most, if not all, of the jews coming in transports from Hungary were sent straight to their death."

    This is inaccurate. More than 100,000 Hungarian Jews were selected for work, please see

    This has since become a mainstream figure.


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