The Holocaust Historiography Project

Chapter Eight: The Minor Witnesses

These witnesses recount only what they saw or what they claim to have seen, without much comment. Criticism here pertains only to details, which are often small. While the great enigmas of the concentration camp problem can only he approached through the major witnesses, the others cannot be overlooked.

l. Frere Birin

Frere Birin, whose real name is Alfred Untereiner, published a chronological account of his experiences at Buchenwald and Dora entitled 16 mois de bagne (Reims: Matot-Braine 1946). In the prologue, he relates the circumstances that led to his arrest and deportation. He was arrested in December 1943, was deported to Buchenwald on January 17, 1944, and was transferred to Dora the following March 13th. We were in the same deportation convoy and in the same transport from Buchenwald to Dora. Our registration numbers were also close together: 43,649 for him, and 44,364 for me.

We were liberated together. But, inside the camp we fared differently:Thanks to the perfect knowledge that he had of the German language, because of his Alsatian origin, he managed to get himself assigned as secretary of the Arbeitsstatistik (work statistics office ) a particularly privileged position, while I shared the common lot until sickness interrupted. As secretary of the Arbeitsstatistik, he rendered innumerable services to a large number of prisoners! Especially to the French. His devotion was without limits. Implicated in a plot which I have always believed was without substance, he was incarcerated in the camp's prison for the last four or five months of his deportation. He is presently teaching, if I am not mistaken, in the Ecoles chretiennes, at Epernay.

Frere Birin claims that 16 mois de bagne is a faithful account. "I wish nevertheless only to give an account of what I have seen," writes the author (page 38). Perhaps indeed he believes this quite sincerely. But we shall see how faithful it really is. He writes that in the deportation train from the Compiegne station "They made us get into an '8 chevaux 40 hommes ' car… but 125 of us." (page 28)

What really happened when we left the Royallieu camp was this: the guards lined us up in columns of fives and in groups of 100, each group destined for one rail car. Fifteen or twenty sick men had been brought to the station by automobile, and they had a rail car all to themselves. The last group in the long line which that morning was strung out along the streets of Compiegne between heavily armed German soldiers, was short of men. It consisted of some forty persons who were disbursed among all the cars, after all of the complete groups had boarded. We got three in our car which brought our number to one hundred and three. I doubt that there were any special reasons why the car in which Frere Birin found himself should have taken on twenty-five. At any rate even if that were the case he should in all honesty have shown it to be an exception.

He describes our arrival at Buchenwald as follows:

Everyone arriving had to be disinfected. First of all, the shearings where ex tempore barbers, amused at our confusion and at the gashes which in haste or carelessness they gave us, mocked us. Like a flock of sheep shorn of their fleece, the prisoners rushed pell-mell into a big tank of water strongly dosed with Cresyl. Streaked with blood, dirty with filth, this bath served the entire detachment. Harried with clubs, heads had to be plunged under the water. At the end of each session, drowned bodies were dragged out of that despicable basin (Page 35, emphasis added )

The reader, not forewarned, will not fail to think that these ex tempore barbers who mocked and gashed us were the S.S., and that the clubs that beat the heads were held by the same. Not at all, they were prisoners. And, since the S.S. were absent from this operation, which they only supervised from a distance, no one made the prisoner barbers behave the way they should, have. But, because this detail is omitted, the entire responsibility seems to fall on the S.S.. This confusion, which I shall not point out again, is maintained all through the book, an in the same way.

Concerning the camp schedule, Frere Birin writes:

Very early rising, food clearly insufficient for twelve hours of work: one liter of soup, two to two hundred and fifty grams of bread, twenty grams of margarine. (Page 40)

Why did he forget, or neglect to mention, the half-liter of coffee each morning and night, and the round of sausage or the spoon of cheese or jam which regularly came with the margarine? The fact that the food was insufficient would not have been lessened and the honesty of the information given would have suffered less. He then goes on to say:

Since March, twelve hundred French, I among them were designated for an unknown designation. Before our departure we were issued convict's clothes, striped blue and white: Jacket and trousers only which could not protect us from the cold. (Page 41, emphasis added.)

I was in that convoy. Everyone was issued, in addition an overcoat. If this clothing could not protect us from the cold, it was not because there were not enough pieces but because the pieces were badly worn.

He describes the Dora camp as follows:

The installation of the camp at Dora began in November 1943 (Page 40)

Actually, the first convoy arrived there on August 28, 1943, exactly. Concerning our reception at Dora, he writes:

There, as at Buchenwald, the S.S. were waiting for us at the unloading of the cars. A road furrowed with ruts full of water led to the camp. We ran along it at race speed. The Nazis with big boots on, chased us and let their dogs loose on us… This new style of "corrida" was punctuated with many gun shots and inhuman yells… (Pages 43-44, emphasis added.)

I have no recollection that dogs were set on us or that any guns were fired. On the contrary, I remember very well that the Kapos and Lagerschutz (camp police composed of prisoners) who came to take charge of us were much more aggressive and brutal than the S.S. who had convoyed us.

Before going on to the serious errors, I would like still to point out two more which are not so serious but which expose the lack of accuracy of Birin's testimony, all the more so when one recalls that the author was, through his duties in the camp, in control of job placement which eliminates any excuse:

I will only mention that good old doctor Mathon, nicknamed Papa Girard …(Page 81 )

For ten months I always carried on my person the Holy Reservation. Priests, constantly risking death, kept me always replenished. I should mention here Abbe Bourgeois, the R.P. Renard, Trappist, and that dear Abbe Amyot d'lnville. (Page 87)

For one thing, there was at Dora a doctor Mathon and a doctor Girard . The Iatter was very old and it was he who we had nicknamed "good Papa Girard." For another, Abbe Bourgeois died in the second month after he came to Dora, between the 10th and the 30th of April, 1944 before the departure of a transport of the sick, among whom he was supposed to have been included. He, therefore could not have kept Frere Birin supplied for ten months. One might also add that if the priests were maltreated for the same reasons as the other deportees, and even more because of their religious calling, they still were not risking death by keeping in their possession the Holy Reservation.

Now to turn to the serious errors that Frere Birin includes in his account. He writes that:

The wives of the S.S. also picked out their victims, and with even more cynicism than their husbands. What they wanted were fine human skins, artistically tattooed To humor them, an assembly was ordered on the parade grounds, Adam naked was the rule. Then, these women went up and down the ranks, as if at a style show, and made their choices. (Pages 73-74)

It is not correct to say that these things took place at Dora. There was one case of a lamp shade made of tattoed human skin at Buchenwald. It figures in the case of Ilse Koch, who was called "the Bitch of Buchenwald." And, even at Buchenwald, Frere Birin could not have been present at the selection of the victims, as is claimed in his statement that is already cited from page 38, since these incriminating activities took place before we arrived at Buchenwald, if, in fact, they ever did take place at all. He gives to this selection of victims the feeling that it was something that happened regularly and as a matter of course and that his description is quite precise. If the person who had placed the event at Buchenwald, in the first place, from having seen evidence of the crime (the lamp shades in question), did so in the same fashion, how can one avoid thinking that the accusation against Ilse Koch rests on very fragile grounds? (1)

To conclude the matter, I shall point out that from February through March 1944, a camp rumor at Buchenwald maintained that two Kapos, one from the Steinbruch (quarry) and the other from the Gartnererei (garden) were responsible for that crime, which earlier had been perpetrated by them with the complicity of almost all of their colleagues. The two comrades had, it was said, made a business of the killing of tattooed prisoners, whose skins they sold for various favors to llse Koch and others, through the intermediary of the Kapo of the crematorium service and of some S.S. personnel who looked the other way. But did the wife of the commandant of the camp, and the other wives of officers walk around the camp looking for fine tattoo specimens, whose owners they themselves designated to be killed for their skins? Did they organize roll-calls in the nude to facilitate this search? These allegations I can neither confirm nor deny. All that I can say is that, contrary to what Frere Birin attests, these things never took place at Dora, nor at Buchenwald, during our common internment there.

Where there was a sure case of sabotage, the hanging was carried out in a more cruel fashion. Those about to be executed were lifted up from the ground very slowly by an electric winch. Not getting the fatal jerk that kills the victim and often breaks his neck, the poor men went through all the stages of agony …

Other times a butcher's hook was placed under the jaw of the condemned man who was thus hung in that barbarous manner. (Page 76 )

It is true that at the end of the war — i.e., between the end of 1944 and the end of the spring of 1945 — acts of sabotage became so numerous that groups of guilty men were hanged at a time The S. S. took to holding executions in the Tunnel itself with the use of a pulley worked by a winch, and not just on the parade grounds with gallows that looked like the goal posts on the ends of football fields. On March 8, 1945, nineteen condemned men were hanged in this way, and on Palm Sunday fifty-seven were executed. Palm Sunday, incidentally, was eight days before the Liberation, when we could even hear the Allied cannon very near and when the outcome of the war could not have been in any doubt in the minds of the S. S.! But, the story of the butcher's hook, which was told about Buchenwald, where the instrument was found in the crematory oven, was unlikely to have been true of Dora. In any case, I never heard anything about it in the camp itself and it did not fit in with the way things were done at Dora.

On the instigation of the notorious Oberscharfuhrer Sanders, S. S., with whom I had something to do, other methods of execution were used for the saboteurs.

The unfortunates were made to dig narrow ditches, in which their comrades were forced to bury them up to the neck. They were left for a certain length of time. After that an S. S. with a long handled axe cut off their heads.

But the sadism of some of the S. S. led them to discover an even more cruel death. They ordered other prisoners to pour barrow loads of sand over their poor heads. I am still haunted by the looks, etc …(Page 77)

This, too, was never done at Dora. But the story was told to me in almost the same words, in that camp, by prisoners who had been transferred there from other camps and who all claimed to have been present at the scene: Mauthausen, Birkenau, Flossenburg, Neuengame, etc… Back in France I came across references to it by various writers; but none concerned Buchenwald or Dora because it was not desirable to place the story, in a written testimony, at a camp where it did not take place. French public opinion, catching an author in a deliberate error, would have become suspicious about all the accounts concerning all of the camps, and German public opinion also would have made an issue of this lie.

Concerning the fate of the deportees, Frere Birin reports as follows:

As Geheimnistraeger (those who knew the secret of the Vl and V2) we knew we were condemned to death and destined to be massacred as soon as the Allies approached (Page 97)

Here it is not a question of a fact but of speculation. Such speculation was engaged in by all the writers of memoirs about the camps up to and including Leon Blum in Le Dernier Mois. Blum found some semblance of justification for his speculation in the drownings in the Baltic of some deportees who a short time before Liberation were loaded onto boats which were set adrift and which were allegedly sunk from the shore by gunfire. In addition, he pointed to the statement of an S. S. doctor at Dora who confirmed the existence of secret orders to that effect, and who, in so doing, saved his own life.

In any case, the Geheimnistraeger at Dora were not massacred; nor was anyone in the evacuation convoy in which Leon Blum was included. For a long time it was maintained that the absence of massacres, which was the case in all the camps, resulted solely because, in the turmoil of the German collapse, the S.S. had neither the time nor the means to carry out their sinister execution plans. Then one day, January 6, 1951, light was thrown suddenly on the worth of that assumption On that day, in Le Figaro litteraire, Mr. Jacques Sabille, of the Center of Jewish Documentation at Paris wrote under the title "Un Juif négocie avec Himmler" that:

It was thanks to pressure from Gunther, put on Himmler through the intermediary of Kersten (his personal physician), that the fratricidal order to sack the camps at the approach of the Allies — without sparing the guards — remained a dead letter.

This means that this order, supposedly received by everyone, and brandished with such forceful indignation against the accused at Nuremberg, although not one of the prosecutors could produce a copy of it, was never given by anyone who had the authority to issue it. In 1960, in the Les Mains du Miracle, a study by Dr. Kersten, Joseph Kessel confirmed this account unreservedly.

For having testified that the order actually did exist, Dr. Piazza, the S.S. physician at Dora, saved his life, and a number of good marks were awarded him, among them the following statement, made on the 25th day of June, 1954, at the Struthof Trial, by Dr. Bogaerts, Major-Doctor at Etterbeek (Belgium):

I had managed to get myself detailed to the infirmary of the camp, and there I was under S.S. Doctor Piazza's orders, the only man at Struthof with any humane feelings.

Now at Dora, where this Dr. Piazza assumed the position of head doctor of the camp, opinion was unanimous in putting the responsibility on him for all that was inhuman in the diagnosis and treatment of illness in the camp. The reports from the Revier (infirmary) were crammed with his misdeeds, which, it was said, his assistant Dr. Kuntz was only able to mitigate with great difficulty. Those who knew him at Struthof spoke of him in horrifying terms. I personally had contact with him and agree with all those in the same position: he was a brute among brutes. Back in France, I was surprised to see so many certificates of good behavior given — by privileged prisoners, true — to a man whom everyone at the camp, even the better disposed, wanted to see hanged. I could only understand it after I had learned that he had been the first, and for a long time the only one, to attest to the authenticity of the order to destroy all of the camps on the approach of the Allies, and to murder all of their occupants, guards included. It was his reward for false testimony; the worth of which at the time could not be known, but which was indispensable for the fabrication of a theory itself indispensable to a policy!

As for the drownings in the Baltic, it has long been a question as to whether they were an isolated instance, due to the excessive zeal of underlings, or whether they were part of a general plan drawn up in various departments on the initiative of Himmler, head of the German Police, and later Minister of the Interior. In reality this is what took place: On the 3rd of May, 1945, in the roads at Neustadt near Lubeck, three ships that were loaded with deportees, who, by an agreement between Himmler and Count Folke Bernadotte, were to be transported to Sweden and from there repatriated to their various countries, were waiting for the order to sail; they were the Cap Arcona, the Deutschland, and the Thielbeck. On that same day, the three ships were attacked by British aircraft, which persisted for hours in the attack, even though the people on the ships hoisted up, from the moment of the first bomb, white flags, and spread out on the decks all the linen, towels, sheets, etc. that they had. But, nothing worked, and the attack was not ended until the pilots decided that no one was left alive on board.

There were 7,000 dead, buried in a cemetery especially made for them. Most of the victims were of foreign nationalities and came from thirty different countries. However, prior to the burial, the mass of bodies that had been taken out of the smoldering ships was piled up on the shore. Photographs and films made of the corpses — piled like so much cordwood — were circulated all over the world, and the commentaries of many journalists made them appear as a new atrocity to add to Germany's charge. This was all the easier since the shore batteries of the German D.C.A. had opened fire on the British warplanes, and that fact provided a perfect occasion for spreading the word that the Germans had fired on the three ships, under orders.

The mystery has been cleared up for almost ten years now. It is known that the three ships were destroyed by an attack of British warplanes. This fact is admitted by historians all over the world, even those of the World Center of Jewish Documentation and the Institut fur Zeitgeschichte at Munich. But in La Tragédie de la Déportation (1962) Madame Olga Wurmser and Mr. Henri Michel still maintain that the drownings in the Baltic were the work of German artillery which had fired on the three ships from the shore. And, no one contests their error — not even the Center of Jewish Documentation or the Institut fur Zeitgeschichte of Munich, which not only let it stand but which continue to give praise to that "remarkable work."

II. Abbe Jean-Paul Renard

Deported with registration number 39,727, Abbe Jean-Paul Renard preceded Frere Birin and myself by several weeks to Buchenwald; it was Dora where we met him again. He published a collection of poems inspired by a sometimes moving mysticism with the title Chaines et Lumières. These poems consist of a series of spiritual reactions rather than any attempt at objective testimony. One of them, nevertheless, enumerates some facts: J'ai vu, j'ai vu, et j'ai vécu… Frere Birin published it in an appendix to his own work, which has been discussed in the first section of this chapter. One of the poems reads:

"I saw going into the showers thousands and thousands of persons over whom poured out, instead of liquid, asphyxiating gases. I saw those who were unfit for work injected in the heart."

Actually, Abbe Jean-Paul Renard saw nothing of the kind because gas chambers did not exist either at Buchenwald or at Dora. As for the injections, it was not done at Buchenwald at the time he went through there. When I pointed that fact out to him at the beginning of 1947, he answered, "Right, but that's only a figure of speech… and since those things existed somewhere, it is of no importance."

I found his reasoning delightful. At the moment I did not dare to retort that the Battle of Fontenoy was also an historical reality, but that was no reason for saying, even as a figure of speech, that he had been present. Nor did I say that, if twenty eight thousand survivors of the Nazi camps had claimed that they had been present at all of the horrors set forth by all of the testimonies, the camps would assume, in the eyes of history, quite a different image than if each survivor had confined himself to telling only what he had actually seen. Nor did I mention that it was in our interest that not one of us should be guilty of lying or exaggeration.

When, in July 1947, J'ai vu, j'ai vu et j'ai vécu appeared in Chaines et Lumieres, I had the satisfaction of noting that, although the author had allowed his testimony on the injections to remain in its entirety, he had nevertheless honestly attributed his statement on them as well as on the gas chambers to another prisoner, who, in turn, had laid the responsibility on still another deportee.

III. Abbe Robert Ploton

Abbe Robert Ploton was curé at the Nativité at St. Etienne and presently is curé at Firminy. He was deported to Buchenwald with the number 44,015, in January, 1944, in the same convoy with me. We ended up together in Block 48, which we left, also together, for Dora. His account of his deportation, entitled Montluc a Dora, was published by Dumas in March, 1946 at St. Etienne.

Montluc a Dora is an unpretentious testimony of 90 pages. Abbe Ploton states the facts simply, as he saw them, without going into much detail and often without checking himself. Manifestly he is quite sincere, and if he sins, it is out of a natural predisposition for the superficial heightened by the eagerness with which he recounts his memories.

For example, when the German collapse came, he was sent to Bergen-Belsen. But, he writes "Belsen-Bergen" throughout the chapter in which he tells about this, so that one cannot think that it was a mere typographical error. And he misses other facts: In Block 48, at Buchenwald, he heard someone say, "We are under the orders of a German prisoner, Communist ex-deputy of the Reichstag," (Page 26), and he accepted that statement as being fact. Actually, the particular Block Chief in question, Erich, was only the son of a Communist deputy.

As concerns the camp food, it is doubtless in the same manner that he writes:

On principle, the daily menu consisted of a liter of soup, 400 grams of a very heavy bread, 20 grams of margarine extracted from coal, and a dessert which varied: sometimes a spoon of jam, sometimes white cheese, or again some ersatz sausage. (Page 63-64)

So many people have said that the margarine was made from coal, and without being questioned, that the exact origin of that product is no longer brought up. After all, Louis Martin-Chauffier did even better in writing that:

It seems that nothing pleases them [the S.S.] unless it is artificial; and the margarine that they stingily distributed to us derived all its flavor from having been a product made from coal. [The cardboard box was labelled "Guaranteed to contain no fat." ] (L'Homme et la bete, Page 95)

When Abbe Ploton undertakes to speak of the categories of prisoners he finds eight classifications, without realizing that there were in reality thirty and when he talks about the camp regime, he writes:

One of the most effective and ignoble ways to moral degradation, inspired by the instructions in "Mein Kampf; " is to charge a few prisoners, chosen almost exclusively from the Germans, with the policing of the camp. (Page 28, emphasis added.)

He does not know that this ignoble procedure is used, precisely because it is effective, in all the prisons of the world, and that that was the case long before Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (2). Shall we recall that Dante n 'avait rien vu, by Albert Londres, establishes France in the application of this system in her prisons and jails?

On the duration of the roll-calls, which plagued all of the prisoners, here is the explanation that he gives:

We wait for the count to be verified, a laborious job the length of which depends on the humor of the S.S. Rapport-Fuhrer. (Page 59, emphasis added.)

The length of the roll-calls, if it depended on the humor of the Rapport-Fuhrer, also depended upon the competence of those persons who were in charge of establishing every day the number of the men present. Among them there were S.S. personnel who generally knew how to count, but there were also illiterate, or almost so, prisoners who had become clerks in the Arbeitsstatistik only as a favor. It must not be forgotten that the employment of each prisoner in a concentration camp was determined by his ability to get around and not by his ability to do the job. At Dora, as everywhere else, it happened that masons became accountants, accountants became masons or carpenters, wheelwrights became doctors or surgeons, and it could even happen that a doctor or a surgeon became a fitter, an electrician or an earth-works laborer.

Concerning the injections, Abbe Ploton sides with the general view:

Meanwhile the infirmary had to be expanded and an increasing number of its barracks were built on the hillside. Those with incurable tuberculosis ended their poor existence there as a result of an euthanasia injection.

This practice, as I have explained in earlier pages, is not true.

With the exception of these remarks, this witness is not tainted by a mania for exaggeration. He is simply crushed by an experience which was too much for him. And the inaccuracies of which he is guilty are only minor when compared with those of Frere Birin; they also carry much less influence. But, a concern for objectivity, nevertheless, requires that they be noted.

Footnotes

  1. So fragile was the case against llse Koch that the Augsburg Court of Assizes, dealing with the case, refused to hold her for trial due to the lack of evldence.
  2. See Appendix A to this volume: La discipline a la Maison centrale de Riom, in 1939, by Pierre Bernard, who was interned there, and Dans les prisons de la "Liberation" a testimony given by A. Paraz.