The Holocaust Historiography Project
Auschwitz, by J.-C. Pressac
The difficulties
Although the operating sequence looks simple enough, it had become irrational and ridiculous. It was irrational to have the victims going from the central room to the gas chambers then being brought back, thus destroying the linear logic of the initial design. It was ridiculous to have an SS man in a gasmask balancing on his short ladder with a 1 kg can of Zyklon-B in his left hand while he opened and then closed the 30 by 40 cm shutter through which he introduced the pellets with his right hand. This performance was to be repeated six times. If he was not capable of such a balancing act, the SS had to climb his little ladder three times for each opening: first to open the shutter (up and down), second to introduce the Zyklon-B (up and down) and third to close the shutter (up and down). Six openings, eighteen times up and down the ladder wearing a gasmask. A simulation shows that this exercise would take 10 minutes. A few steps installed beneath each opening would have avoided all this performance.

The very first gassings showed that ventilation of the premises was a serious problem. The arrangement of the doors on drawing 2036, which had not taken account of the prevailing north wind, meant that ventilation was slow and inefficient, with the attendant risk of contaminating the rooms giving onto the vestibule if there should be a sudden gust of wind from the west [Photos 15 and 16 in annex].

At the beginning of April, fissures ("Rissee” in the German) began to appear in the 8-muffle furnace of Krematorium IV, WHICH HAD BEEN WORKING FOR TEN DAYS, just as Krematorium V was being handed over to the camp administration. The Bauleitung informed Topf.

Summarizing, after Krematorium IV had been in operation for one or two weeks, representing two or three gassings, the Bauleitung found that:
1. The furnace was starting to crack;
2. The natural ventilation was badly oriented and dangerous;
3. Introducing the poison resembled a circus act.
The following action was taken to deal with these problems:
1. Topf foreman Willi Koch filled in the “Risse”, but nothing was done to rectify their cause. If the Bauleitung and Topf had been willing and able to face up to the situation, they would have demolished the furnaces and rebuilt them using better quality materials, but this was an unrealistic solution with the war nearing its fifth year.
2. A door was made in the external wall of the corridor serving the gas chambers (facing north in Krematorium IV and south in Kr V). By keeping the door between the corridor and the vestibule closed after a gassing, a north/south draught was created between the new door and that of one of the gas chambers (to the south in Krematorium IV and to the north in Kr V). This made the natural ventilation more efficient and removed the danger of accidental poisoning. Furthermore, in order to make the ventilation more rapid and even safer, at a meeting on 18th May 1943 there was talk of installing an air extraction system capable of rendering the toxic atmosphere of the gas chambers harmless in less than five minutes.
3. The Zyklon-B introduction openings were enlarged from 30 × 40 cm to 40 × 50 cm and the system for opening and closing them was simplified. The method of introduction remained the same, however, the camp authorities considering that a little physical exercise would do the medical orderlies responsible for gassing a world of good.

The victims were not consulted however. They were not asked whether death was very rapid (as initially planned) or not. Through not modifying the method of introducing the poison gas into Krematorien IV and V, the SS made the agony of the “unfit for work” longer and more painful, with internal panics ("Lebenskampf / Struggle for life,") even more savage and desperate than in the gas chambers of the Krematorien II and III.
In May 1943, the SS had to face up to the evidence. More “Risse” had appeared and the 9-muffle furnace of Krematorium IV had become unusable. After inspecting the damage on 17th or 18th May, Topf engineer Prüfer confirmed the unpalatable truth. The Topf guarantee was to expire in a few days, on 22nd and Prüfer was unable to accept that his firm should bear the cost of constantly repairing a furnace operated under such conditions. Unfortunately, we have no record of Prüfer’s meeting with the Bauleitung on 18th May, which must have been difficult for both parties, each of them being partly, but not fully, responsible. and each having arguments in their favor. The true cause of the “Risse” was the poor quality of the refractory materials used, but everybody knew that it had not been possible to get anything better. Two hundred thousand Reichsmark had been thrown out of the window thanks to Prüfer’s sales talk, and for a pitiful return: 5,000 to 10,000 corpses cremated at the excessively high unit cost of between 20 and 40 RM. Krematorium IV had also brought something in the form of cash, jewelry, wedding rings, watches, platinum or gold teeth, clothing, etc., but all in all a poor return on the expenditure incurred. All concerned must have thought of this, but without being able to mention such a “sordid” calculation.

Both sides tried to be positive and save what could still be saved. The life of the Krematorium IV furnace was over, but the gas chambers could still be used. The furnaces of Krematorium II were intact, but its chimney lining was damaged and the installation was shut down awaiting repairs. Krematorium III was still far from finished. The entire cremation capacity of Birkenau for the moment depended on Krematorium V, a fragile instrument with the same basic faults as Krematorium IV. By using it in moderation, it was possible to make Krematorium V tide over the period until Krematorium II was repaired and III completed. Once the cremation capacity of the camp was restored, the troubles would be over. While everything depended on Krematorium V, its efficiency had to be improved, and in particular that of the gas chambers. Prüfer, always with an eye to business, offered Bischoff an air extraction system with a capacity of 8,000 m³ an hour, enough to “clean” the noxious air of the gas chambers in less than 5 minutes. The gas chambers of Krematorium IV still being operational, they could benefit from a similar system. A Topf letter of 9th June 1943 [Documents 11 and 12], evaluated the cost of this project, the responsibility of Prüfer’s assistant. Schul[t]ze, at a modest 2,510 RM.
[ The author would point out that NOTHING in this letter indicates that the air extraction systems proposed for Krematorien IV and V were for the gas chambers, and they could on the face of it be for the furnace rooms. However, the chronology of the evolution of the two Krematorien and the problems inherent in their gas chambers support the thesis that the extraction systems were for them. Any attempt to deny that Krematorium II was shut down for repair, Kr IV permanently out of service and Kr V subsequently mothballed comes up against the problem of the coke consumption for the four Krematorien, which is known up to the end of October 1943 and which shows that the quantities delivered covered the requirements of 14 muffles only.]
The testimonies we have are very evasive about the state of furnace and about what happened to Krematorium V between the middle of 1943 and the beginning of May 1944. Handed over to the camp administration on 4th April 1943 and operational as from 18th April, Krematorium V was no doubt the only one in service from mid-May until 25th June, the date on which Krematorium III was handed over. Krematorium II was not back in service until 12th July 1943. As Krematorium V had to handle all cremations for a period of almost two months, its furnace must have suffered accordingly, with the appearance of “Risse”, the same causes producing the same effects. However, as it was used more moderately it was still semi-operational when it was mothballed at the end of June or beginning of July 1943.

Document 7
Document 7

Document 7
[PMO file BW 30/30, page 5]
Huta letter to the Auschwitz Bauleitung, dated 7th April 1943, concerning the erection of the barbed wire fences round Krematorien IV and V. In his letter Huta states that for the moment they cannot employ the additional 60 prisoners who were to join the 20 already working on the job, because the work has had to he interrupted because of obstacles (rails).