The Holocaust Historiography Project
Auschwitz, by J.-C. Pressac
The Sonderkommando revolt
The revolt was triggered on 7th October 1944 and resulted in the burning of Krematorium IV, where most of the Sonderkommando men were housed, and the deaths of three SS and two to three hundred prisoners. By 9th October, only 212 Sonderkommando men remained alive. Several accounts of the uprising have been written, but they are not reproduced here as it is difficult to assess their veracity. In the author’s opinion, this rebellion was an act of despair on the part of prisoners who were overcrowded and underoccupied, who had seen too much and felt that their end was near.
The demolition of Krematorium IV
Demolition began after the fire. The building was already out of service as a crematorium and could no longer be used even as a dormitory. The metal parts of its furnace were removed and stored in the Auschwitz “Bauhof”. After demolition there remained only the bare concrete foundation slab [Document 13].
The final phase of operation
and the destruction of Krematorium V
After Himmler gave the order to cease gassings and to demolish Krematorien II and III, Krematorium V continued to be used to cremate the bodies of prisoners who died of exhaustion, hunger or disease. The undressing room / morgue was divided up to create new rooms to house, for example, Doctor Mengele’s racial research team from Krematorium II. In one of the two now unused gas chambers. hutches were installed for breeding rabbits. The 30 or so remaining members of the Sonderkommando, who looked after the now “normal” operation of Krematorium V, no longer had the pickings from the Hungarian transports to rely on and had to improve their rations as best they could. They were housed in the former coal store next to the doctor’s room, which was converted into a kitchen.

On 17th January 1945. the SS bums their last archives. Virtually all the files from the Political Section of the camp were destroyed, but those of the Bauleitung were forgotten in this final attempt to make it impossible to calculate the total number of deaths in the camp. In the night, taking advantage of the provisional abandonment of Krematorium V by the SS, the 30 Sonderkommando men fled towards the main entrance of the Birkenau camp and disappeared into the crowd of prisoners massed before the gates. Evacuation of the camp began at dawn on 18th January, over snow-covered roads and in arctic conditions.

The SS had been over-hasty in leaving the camp. for the Russians did not actually reach Oswiecim until 27th January. There was therefore time for small groups to return to the camp to finish off destroying the “murder weapons”.

After having blown up the remaining shells of Krematorien II and III about midday on 20th January, the SS dynamited Krematorium V, which exploded about one o'clock in the morning of 26th January [according to Danuta Czech’s Calendar of everts]. A former prisoner, Dr Otto Wolken, relates that:
“One night … the silence was broken by a great explosion … in the pale light of the moon I saw an enormous cloud of dust in the place where crematorium number five had stood the previous day.”
This witness gives no date for this episode, but according to the chronology of his account it would have been in the night of 21st/22nd January 1945.

A survey of the location of the explosions carried out by the author [Document 14] shows that eight identical charges were used in the central and western parts of the building, arranged in a regular and symmetrical pattern, and a larger ninth charge, or several charges, was placed in the 8-muffle furnace. All were detonated simultaneously.
Krematorium V
after the Liberation of the camp:
clearance and partial reconstruction
On their arrival, all the Soviets found of Krematorium IV was a concrete slab and of Krematorium V a shapeless heap of rubble [Photo 19 in annex]. They immediately began to clear the rubble, for they hoped to find the 8-muffle furnace still intact, all the furnaces of Krematorien I, II, III and IV having been dismantled. They were disappointed. The explosives that the SS had placed inside the muffles had virtually pulverised the furnace. Nothing remained of its eastern part and only a small section of the northwest part retained any form [Photo 24 in annex]. The rubble was heaped up around Krematorium V. A gas-tight door with no peephole was discovered, scarcely damaged [Photo 26 in annex]. Of the three shutters for Zyklon-B introduction openings still existing, it is not known whether they were from the “Bauhof”, and therefore came from Krematorium IV, or whether they were found in the ruins of Krematorium V. Once the ruins were cleared, the various items found were stored separately with a view to making a reconstruction [Photo 23 in annex]. In the author’s opinion, this would have been possible only if a Topf drawing of the 8-muffle furnace was available, and no such drawing has ever been found. By removing the twisted metal components of the furnace frame of Krematorium V and replacing them with the intact ones taken from Kr V and left in the “Bauhof”, it would have been possible to reconstitute the furnace perfectly, provided the drawing was available. With no drawing it could not have been accurately reproduced. Reconstruction of the rest of the building would have presented no problem, for its external aspect and internal arrangement were clearly shown on Bauleitung drawing 2036. What is more, the type of gas-tight doors and Zyklon-B introduction shutters was known. The walls were in fact rebuilt up to a height of about one meter. but reconstruction was then halted for some unknown reason.

This study of Krematorien IV and V is necessarily of a somewhat general nature. It is not possible to make an in-depth and detailed study like that of Krematorien II and III for the simple reason that very few German documents concerning Krematorien IV and V are available. This lack of documentation is no doubt a further reflection of the fact that Kr IV and V were used very little, as against the constant use of II and III.

Krematorium IV served as a test bed, and as a result of this brief experiment Krematorium V was virtually deprived of its furnace.

Krematorium V did play an important supporting role during a critical period in 1943, being the only installation used for the gassing and cremation of the unfit for work over a period of two months, a relatively light task that it nevertheless only just managed and which ceased as soon as Krematorium III was completed and II was brought back into service. It was kept in reserve' and its gas chamber section was reactivated during the Hungarian extermination, and used in association with open-air cremation ditches which made up for the inadequate output of its furnace, which remained unused. As from the end of November 1944, Krematorium V handled alone all the “normal” cremation of the camp.

There remain several unknowns concerning Krematorien IV and V. The lack of a Topf drawing of the 8-muffle furnace means that we do not know its internal arrangement: whether there was a space between the two 4-muffle half furnaces; the precise location of its firing hearths (on the same faces as the muffle doors or in the possible space between the two furnaces which would then form a “Heizgrub"). In the gas chambers in the western part, the gas-tight door found in Krematorium V has no peephole, whereas Sonderkommando members describe the doors as having them. The form of the grids inside the Zyklon-B introduction openings through which the gas was diffused and the way in which the pellets were recovered for re-use have never been described.

The number of victims killed in Krematorien IV and V depends on the length of time the Krematorien were used, and our knowledge is very uncertain here. What is more, it is absolutely impossible to calculate the cremation capacity of the ditches dug near Kr V. On the basis of the data available, it can be said that Krematorium IV [Document 15] could theoretically have “treated” 20,000 people in 40 to 50 days, a figure to be reduced in view of the repairs carried out before its final breakdown and which is likely to be closer to 6,000. In its initial period of operation in 1943, Krematorium V could have eliminated 30,000 in 2 months. but the true figure is probably no more than 15,000. In the summer of 1944, the number of victims cremated in the ditches was probably 50,000 or more. The great majority of deaths occurred then, the number “treated” in 1943 being much smaller. The total number of victims for Krematorien IV and V in 1943 was probably about 20,000. The number of victims for Krematorium V in the summer of 1944 cannot be calculated and is certainly under-estimated.
Completed on 28th June 1988

Document 12a Document 12a

Sketch by D. Olère, 1945.