II. The Use of the Morgues of the Crematoria at Birkenau in 1943 - 1944

1. Jean-Claude Pressac's Thesis

As is well known, Jean-Claude Pressac's fundamental thesis on Auschwitz is the assumed transformation of the two morgues no. 1 of crematoria II and III into homicidal gas chambers from the end of 1942 onwards. He also claims that the morgues of crematoria IV and V initially served as corpse storage facilities for the bodies of those gassed in the so-called "Bunkers" of Birkenau, and later as corpse storage facilities for the bodies of those gassed in the homicidal gas chambers installed in these crematoria themselves.

One of the major arguments of this thesis is based upon drawing 2003 of the Central Construction Office, dated December 19, 1942, which is a re-issue of the preceding drawings 932 and 933 and which addresses the "relocation of basement access to the roadside."[1] Pressac notes that in the design of the basement of this building, a corpse chute - an inclined cement plane which allowed the corpses to be slid down from the outside into the basements of crematoria II and III - is now missing, and he comments:[1]

"Replacing a chute designed to take corpses by an ordinary stairway defies all logic - unless the future corpses entered while they were still alive and were able to walk down the stairs."

Later Pressac came back to this argument with the same claim:[2]

"On December 19, Dejaco produced a new drawing - Nr. 2003 - for the basement, and made a major 'architectural blunder' at the same time. If we follow the indications on the new drawing, the northern stairway was now the only possible access to the morgues, which meant that the dead would have had to walk down those stairs!"

Listing of metal requirements for, i.a., two disinfestation ovens for Krematorium II of PoW camp Auschwitz; APMO, BW 30/34, p. 47
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Robert Jan van Pelt and Deborah Dwork later took over Pressac's argument with the following comment:[3]

"He [Dejaco] canceled the planned corpse chute, which in the earlier plans had been the main access to the basement morgues. Live human beings descend staircases. Dead bodies are dropped through a chute. The victims would walk to their death."

Of course, the chute for the corpses was not eliminated,[4] but the assumed transformation of the morgues in the crematoria into "undressing rooms" and homicidal "gas chambers" implied an important effect: the absence, within the crematoria, of morgues for the corpses of the registered detainees who died a "normal" death in the camp. Robert Jan van Pelt has noted this and stated:[5]

"In fact, the situation was much worse,[[6]] because in February 1943 all the morgues in crematoria 2 and 3 had been redesigned and were being equipped to function as undressing rooms and gas chambers, while the morgues in crematoria 4 and 5 were to destined [sic] as undressing rooms. By the time the crematoria were finished, Auschwitz had virtually no permanently dedicated morgue capacity." (emph. in original)

This would have entailed serious problems of sanitation and hygiene, because one could not have scheduled in advance the cremation of registered detainees who had died in the camp and who would thus have had to wait for days or even weeks[7] on end for the crematoria to be freed from the victims of the alleged homicidal gassing operations. If Pressac's thesis were true, the documents referring to the storage of corpses of deceased detainees in the morgues of the camp and to their transport to the crematoria would have had to contain explicit references to the dangerous sanitary and hygienic situation that would have arisen. First and foremost, references to protests and proposals to solve this problem by the SS garrison physician would be expected in the documents. What do the documents say about this?

2. Documents Regarding the Use of Morgues in the Crematoria at Birkenau

"Immediate hygienic measures in PoW camp Auschwitz, erection of corpse halls in every subsection"; RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 262
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On March 20, 1943, the SS garrison physician of Auschwitz, SS Hauptsturmführer Wirths, wrote a letter to the camp commander (we shall discuss this letter in the next section) on the subject of the enlargement of the hospital facilities for the detainees, in which he states:[8]

"For the removal of the corpses from the detainee sick-bay to the crematoria 2 covered hand carts must be procured, allowing the transportation of 50 corpses each."

The reference concerns crematorium II, which had been put into operation at a reduced throughput on February 20 and which was still the only crematory functioning by March 20.

On July 20, 1943, the SS garrison physician wrote the following letter to the Central Construction Office:[9]

"Those camp sections of construction phase II already in use are still lacking corpse chambers made of concrete or brick; it is essential that they be provided urgently.

The wooden sheds currently used for this purpose are strongly subject to rat attacks; on removal of the corpses there is hardly a corpse that does not show signs of this. The rats are strongly attracted by the corpses and are proliferating at a rate, which makes any control measures practically futile. The rat flea is a carrier of the plague. Any case of plague within the camp can have unimaginable consequences for our men as well as for the detainees of concentration camp Auschwitz. This can only be avoided by a hygienically satisfactory conservation of the corpses, accompanied by intensive rat control measures.

Therefore, the Auschwitz SS garrison physician makes the urgent request to build the necessary corpse chambers immediately, even if simple means have to be employed."

The type of corpse shed then in use was otherwise in conformity with the directives of the Main Office for Budget and Buildings) of November 25, 1941.[10] Bischoff replied to Dr. Wirths on August 4 by the following letter:[11]

"With reference to the above-mentioned letter, please be informed that based on the discussion on Saturday, 31 July 1943, in which SS Standartenführer Dr. Mrugowski, SS Hauptsturmführer Dr. Wirths and the undersigned took part, the construction of dedicated morgues in the individual subsections of the PoW camp, as per the aforementioned request of the SS garrison physician will not be carried out.

SS Standartenführer Mrugowski has decreed during the discussion that the corpses are to be removed twice daily, in the morning and in the evening, into the morgues of the crematoria; in this way, the separate construction of morgues in the individual subsections can be avoided."

In early 1944, the SS garrison physician succeeded in having one brick-type corpse shed built, which became building 8a.[12] However, in May 1944 Dr. Wirths again raised the problem of solid corpse sheds for construction phase II at Birkenau, turning to SS Sturmbannführer Bischoff, head of Construction Inspectorate of the Waffen-SS and Police Schlesien. The latter wrote to SS Obersturmführer Jothann, head of Central Construction Office at Auschwitz, and informed him of the request.

In this letter, dated May 15, 1944, Bischoff expressed himself as follows:[13]

"SS garrison physician Auschwitz has requested the construction of a solid morgue for construction section II - CC II Auschwitz.

Central Construction Office Auschwitz is ordered to plan the construction in cooperation with Auschwitz local SS administration and to request immediately the means of construction as well as GB-permission.[[14]]

As justification, letter from SS-Main office of Economic Administration dated May 12, 1944, - copy attached - is to be annexed at top of request.

On account of urgency of execution, works are allowed to be started as of now."

"Erection of corpse halls in construction sections II, camp II Birkenau"; RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 260
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On May 22, a meeting was held at Auschwitz grouping SS Obersturmbannführer Höß, SS Sturmbannführer Bischoff, SS Hauptsturmführer Baer, who had been appointed Kommandant of Auschwitz I on May 11, 1944, SS Sturmbannführer Bischoff, head of Construction Inspectorate of the Waffen-SS and Police Schlesien, and SS Obersturmführer Jothann, head of Central Construction Office. The latter wrote a file memo, in which he summarized the results as follows:[15]

"The meeting was called in order to define the location and the size of the c[orpse]-halls requested. It became evident that an inclusion into the present lay-out is problematic. If enough space for the construction of the c[orpse]-halls is to be made available, at least part of the toilet and washing barracks would have to be dismantled. It is however difficult to do without these barracks under the present circumstances.

SS Obersturmbannführer Höß points out that in accordance with a presently valid order, the daily load of c. [corpses] is to be removed daily in the morning by means of a dedicated truck; if this order is carried out, an accumulation of c. cannot arise and therefore the construction of the above-mentioned halls is not imperative. SS Ostubaf. Höß therefore demands not to undertake the construction of the halls under discussion."

But Dr. Wirths does not stop there and on May 25 comes back with a letter addressed to the senior garrison SS officer:[16]

"On July 20, 1943, I brought to the attention of the Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS and Police Auschwitz the fact that in the women's camp of Auschwitz II and in the camps of construction section II concrete and brick morgues are still missing and that their construction is urgently required in view of the fact that the available wooden sheds are absolutely unsuitable for the conservation of corpses because of the danger of epidemics and because of rat attacks. Improperly stocked corpses will always attract many rats.

In the sick-bays of the camps at cc Auschwitz II a certain number of corpses accumulate daily on a regular basis. While their transportation to the crematoria has been organized and takes place twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, it does happen that on account of the scarcity of vehicles and/or fuel the corpses are not taken care of for 24 hours.

For reasons of hygiene and as a prevention of epidemics, any hospital has a corpse chamber for the short-term storage of bodies as they accumulate. Normally, in common hospitals the number of beds does not exceed 500, whereas in the various sick-bays for the detainees the number of beds amounts to 3-4,000 on average. In my opinion it is therefore patently evident that proper storage space for the numerous bodies must be available.

In my note of July 20, 1943, and in all preceding notes to the Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS and Police Auschwitz I have requested only the provision of corpse chambers, never the construction of corpse halls in dedicated buildings or sheds; I request steps for the provision of such corpse chambers to be undertaken immediately on account of the urgency of the matter. Otherwise I shall have to advise my superior commander in order to avoid a most serious risk of epidemics for the whole camp caused by the present hygienically unsatisfactory storage of the corpses.

I enclose a sketch showing a corpse chamber. Such chambers are urgently required in the inmate sick-bay of the women's camp, of building section II, subcamps a, b, e and f. These chambers can be either built within the out-patient barracks or attached to them on the outside."

This letter, even though it was addressed to the camp commander, concerned also the head of Central Construction Office who wrote to the head of Construction Inspectorate of the Waffen-SS and Policei Schlesien on June 12, attaching his own file memo of May 23, postdating it May 30, as well as the letter from Dr. Wirths of May 15 with the sketch of a corpse chamber attached to the letter of May 25. Jothann declared himself ready to undertake immediately - upon their approval - the construction of the corpse chambers in the form requested.[17]

3. The Significance of these Documents

The documents presented in the preceding section refute totally and radically Pressac's interpretation of the transformation of the Birkenau crematoria in a criminal sense.

There is not even the slightest hint of an improper (criminal) use of the morgues in the crematoria in the letters of the SS garrison physician. Such improper use would have raised immensely the hygienic and sanitary problems that he evoked. The morgues of all crematoria, on the contrary, appear to be available at any time and unconditionally. I say at any time, because there is no mention whatsoever, in any of the known documents, of a temporary unavailability of the morgues on account of a reason other than the temporary storage of the bodies of registered detainees. I add unconditionally, because the use of a morgue for the purpose of storing corpses is never subject to a different use in any of the known documents.

And if Pressac's thesis were true, it is obvious that the authorities of the Auschwitz camp would at least have organized the cremations by assigning one of the smaller crematories - or one or several of the morgues in the smaller crematories - to the bodies of the registered inmates who died at the camp, which however was not the case.

All this demonstrates that the essential function of the morgues in the crematoria was exactly what morgues normally provide, as results already from the letter of Dr. Wirths dated March 20, 1943, the day of the alleged gassing of 2,191 Jews from Greece,[18] whose cremation would have taken a whole week. The first gassing, of 1,492 victims in crematorium II is said to have taken place on March 14. Their incineration would have ended on March 19 and would thus have made impossible the alleged second gassing operation, said to have occurred on March 16,[19] because there would still have been 900 corpses left in the alleged 'gas chamber' of the crematorium.

Dr. Wirths, for his part, is only concerned with real dead and requests two hand carts to take them from the camp hospital to the crematorium.

Dr. Wirths' letter of July 20, 1943, shows how dangerous the storage of corpses of detainees deceased in the camp really was from the point of view of hygiene, all the more with respect to an outbreak of the plague that had been evoked. If Pressac's thesis were true, the risk of an epidemic would have increased enormously, because the bodies of registered detainees would have been lying around in inadequate morgues within the camp for a much longer time, their number would have been greater, and the rats would have multiplied beyond all measure.

But Dr. Wirths never makes even a veiled reference to this hypothetical situation, which could have occurred, if Pressac's thesis were true. Dr. Wirths proposals concern always and exclusively the real conditions in the camp, and are not suspect in any way. Bischoff's letter of August 4, 1943, mentions the order given by Dr. Mrugowski on July 31 to transport the corpses "into the morgues of the crematoria" twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. The order concerned all the crematoria and had to be carried out twice daily, which implies the total availability of the morgues concerned. If Pressac's thesis were true, this order would have been foolish, because on the day it was given, preparations for the transports of the Jews from the ghettos of Bendsburg and Sosnowitz to Auschwitz were being made, and would have resulted in the gassing of 28,000 persons[20] in the crematoria of Birkenau between August 1st and 12th. Dr. Mrugowski, who was the head of the hygiene institute of the Waffen-SS, could not have been unaware of such preparations, in the same way as Dr. Wirths could not have been unaware of them, and Jothann could not have been unaware of them either.

Therefore, the proven and normal fact that the corpses were taken twice a day to the morgues of the crematoria refutes categorically the hypothesis of mass gassings that have allegedly occurred in these crematoria.

And that we are dealing with an proven fact results unequivocally from Jothann's file memo of May 23, in which it is said that the camp commander, in the meeting of the previous day, had spoken of the existing order of removing the corpses in the morning by means of a suitable truck. Even more explicitly, Dr. Wirths, in his letter of May 25, 1944, declared that transportation of the corpses to the crematoria was regulated and took place twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. Hence, there is not a shadow of a doubt concerning the fact that, during the second half of May 1944, this order was valid and was observed, within the limits of the availability of trucks and fuel.

However, the second half of May 1944 is also the time of the beginning of the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, something that no one could have been unaware of, least of all Rudolf Höß. The first transports reached Auschwitz on May 17; by May 22, the day of the meeting mentioned above, more than 62,000 Hungarian Jews had already arrived. If we follow the traditional historiography, over two thirds of them, some 41,000 are said to have been gassed and the crematoria at Birkenau,[21] all of a sudden, had turned out to be so inadequate for this task that several trenches had to be dug for the incineration of the corpses in excess.

If that hypothesis were true, the morgues in the crematoria at Birkenau during that period would have been permanently occupied by victims: but then how could Rudolf Höß have calmly recalled the order we spoke of, namely to take the bodies of the registered inmates who had died in the camp to the morgues in the crematoria twice a day?

Therefore, in this case, too, and I would add, even more strongly, the proven and ordinary fact of transporting the bodies twice a day into the morgues of the crematoria, refutes categorically the hypothesis of mass gassings of Hungarian Jews allegedly carried out in those crematoria.

In conclusion it can be said that the documentation regarding the utilization of the morgues in the Birkenau crematoria demonstrates that, from their very origin in March 1943 onwards, they were not - nor could they have been - used as 'undressing rooms' and 'gas chambers' within the framework of an alleged mass exterminations by means of gas. Such a thesis is historically unfounded.


Notes

[1]J.-C. Pressac in: Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas chambers, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation. New York 1989, p. 302.
[2]Jean-Claude Pressac, Die Krematorien von Auschwitz. Die Technik des Massenmordes, Piper Verlag, München-Zürich 1994, p. 81.
[3]D. Dwork, R.J.van Pelt, Auschwitz 1270 to the present. W. W. Norton & Company, New York-London 1996, p. 324.
[4]The Rutsche of crematoria II and III, 6.8 m long, was built by Huta - Hoch-und Tiefbau Aktiengesellschaft of Kattowitz at a cost of 37,40 RM. Huta report concerning "Ausgeführte Bauarbeiten d. Krematoriums 2" dated 7 May 1943 (APMO, BW 30/26, p. 36) and Rechnung Nr. 2 also dated 7 May 1943 concerning "Ausgeführte Bauarbeiten des Krematoriums 3 lt. Angebot vom 13.7.42" (RGVA, 502-1-306, p. 31). The Rutsche of crematorium II is moreover clearly visible on drawing 2197(a)(r) E 2197 (b) (r) attached to documentation of Übergabeverhandlung for the crematorium (J.-C. Pressac, Auschwitz:..., op. cit. (note 1), pp. 311-312) and is explicitly described in the corresponding "Gebäudebeschreibung" (RGVA, 502-2-54, p. 78).
[5]The Pelt Report, p. 210. Author's italics.
[6]The reference is to the reduction of the capacity of the Birkenau morgues asserted by van Pelt a few lines before.
[7]In crematoria II and III, the incineration of a load of 2000 victims would have taken almost one week, in crematoria IV and V about ten days.
[8]Letter from SS garrison physician to commander KL Auschwitz dated March 20, 1943 concerning "Häftlings-Krankenbau - Kriegsgefangenenlager." RGVA, 502-1-261, p. 112.
[9]Letter from SS garrison physician to Central Construction Office dated July 20, 1943 concerning "Hygienische Sofortmaßnahmen im KL." RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 263.
[10]Letter from HHB to Central Construction Office of Lublin and of Auschwitz dated 25 November 1941 concerning "Leichenschuppen." RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 249.
[11]Letter from Bischoff to Wirths dated 4 August 1943 concerning "Hygienische Sofortmaßnahmen im Kriegsgefangenenlager: Erstellung von Leichenhallen in jedem Unterabschnitt." RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 262.
[12]Erläuterungsbericht zum Ausbau des Kriegsgefangenenlagers der Waffen-SS in Auschwitz O/S. Errichtung von 1 Leichenbaracke (Effektenkammer) massiv. February 20, 1944. RGVA, 502-1-230, pp. 201-203. Letter from head of Bauinspektion der Waffen-SS und Polizei "Schlesien" (Bischoff) dated March 30, 1944, concerning "Bauantrag zur Errichtung einer Leichenbaracke (Effektenkammer) im Kriegsgefangenenlager Auschwitz." RGVA, 502-1-230, pp. 200-200a. The drawing of the barrack and a sketch of its location have been preserved. RGVA, 502-1-230, p. 206.
[13]Letter from Bischoff to Central Construction Office Auschwitz dated May 15, 1944, concerning "Errichtung einer Leichenhalle im KL II Auschwitz." RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 259.
[14]GB: Generalbevollmächtigter für die Regelung der Bauwirtschaft - plenipotentiary for regulation of construction industry, Albert Speer.
[15]Aktenvermerk by Jothann dated May 23, 1944, concerning "Errichtung von Leichenhallen im Bauabschnitt II, Lager II Birkenau." RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 260.
[16]Letter from SS garrison physician to SS-Standortälteste dated May 25, 1944 concerning "Bau von Leichenkammern im KL Auschwitz II." RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 264; Rudolf Höß was "SS-Standortältester, SS-Oberstumbannführer und Kommandant."
[17]Letter from head of Central Construction Office to head of Construction Inspectorate of the Waffen-SS and Police Schlesien, dated June 12, 1944 concerning "Bau von Leichenkammern im KL. Auschwitz II." RGVA, 502-1-170, p. 251.
[18]D. Czech, Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau 1939-1945. Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbeck bei Hamburg 1989, p. 445.
[19]Idem, p. 442.
[20]Idem, pp. 560-572.
[21]Cf. in this matter my article "Die Deportation ungarischer Juden von Mai bis Juli 1944. Eine provisorische Bilanz," in: Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung, 5(4) (2001), pp. 381-395.

Source: The Revisionist 2(3) (2004), pp. 279-283.


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