The Holocaust Historiography Project
Auschwitz, by J.-C. Pressac


Chapter I Critical study of the “WAR REFUGEE BOARD” report of November 1944 on K L Auschwitz-Birkenau


(A collective report based on the testimonies of Alfred WETZLER and
Walter ROSENBERG [Rudolf Vrba], Czeslaw MORDOWICZ
and Arwost ROSIN, and a Polish major.)
Large extracts of this report were published in the New York Times on 26th November 1944, the day when Himmler, it is thought, ordered the dismantling of the three remaining Birkenau Krematorien. The concordance of dates, though perhaps due to chance, amply justifies the action of these five witnesses whose accounts formed the basis for the report.

My aim is to demonstrate the authenticity of the Rosenberg / Wetzler testimonies regarding Krematorien of type II/III, even though their accuracy is not great in the light of what we know now, because this report was the first on the subject and was regarded as authoritative for many years, despite errors on certain points. I have used three sources for the descriptions of the Krematorien and how they operated:
Version 1: L'extermination des Juifs en Pologne: Depositions de témoins oculaires. Trotsième série: LES CAMPS D'EXTERMINATIONpublished in Geneva in 1944 by Dr A Silverschein;
Version 2: Souvenirs de la maison des morts, Le massacre des Juifs. Unpublished documents on the extermination camps. Brochure of 76 pages with no publication date, doubtless of Swiss origin;
Version 3: GERMAN EXTERMINATION CAMPS. AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU, Published by the Executive Office of the President. WAR REFUGEE BOARD, Washington DC, November 1944.
Of the three versions of the report, I consider the American one to be the best. I have underlined in red the phrases that I consider important and on which I shall comment in detail. In the second underlined phrase in versions 1 and 2. there is an error in 1, while in 2 the translator has added something, inspired by the sketch plan. Unlike versions 2 and 3, version 1 does not contain a ground plan of a Krematorium of type II/III. I do not know who drew this plan, which fits the text and is referred to by it, but in the light of our present knowledge we must say it is inaccurate.

I mention simply for memory a translation that does not take account of the context of the premises, published by G Wellers in his Les chambres à gaz ont existé, taken from Auschwitz et Birkenau, 1945, pages 17 and 18. Here, between the gas chamber and the furnaces there is a “path” where “lorries” transport the corpses. There is no mention of [rail] tracks or [narrow-gauge railway] trucks, the translator having opted for an inappropriate interpretation of both “track” and “truck”.

In order to properly situate the report with respect to the reality of the premises, it should be read in conjunction with Document 4 ("schéma 1"), a simplified plan of Krematorien of type II/III, based on German sources reproduced below, i.e.: Bauleitung drawing 2216 [Documents 5, 6. 7 and 7a], a general plan of KGL Birkenau, drawn by prisoner 538, checked by Dejaco and Janisch on 20/3/43, countersigned by an unidentified person [PMO neg. no, 20583] and three photographs: PMO neg. nos 286, 287 and 290. [Documents 11, 12 and 13]. In this arrangement, however, the rails do not go from the gas chamber to the furnaces, but PASS IN FRONT. I shall explain this.
The report describes the Krematorium as being made up of three parts. A, B and C. The furnace room (A) and the undressing room (B) are on the ground floor and the gas chamber (C) is at basement level [Document 4], The proposed layout, while recalling that of Krematorien IV and V, applies to Krematorien of type II/III, as stated. Lastly, the underground location of the gas chamber (C) and a preparation room (B') is characteristic of Krematorien II and III [Document 8 ("schéma 2") ].

The number of furnaces cited per Krematorium is wrong. Those of type II/III had only 15 cremation muffles, not the 36 announced. This error is understandable if we assume that the witnesses had themselves never entered a Krematorium and all their observations were from the exterior or based on the accounts of other prisoners, in particular, though we cannot prove it, Sonderkommando members working in December 1942 at Bunkers 1 and 2 who would have been able to watch the building of what they believed would be their future place of work. Document 9 enables us to understand the assumed disposition of the furnaces around the chimney, and with this arrangement the number of furnaces would be a multiple of three.

In the report the throughput of the four Krematorien per 24 hours is fairly reasonably estimated at 6000, though this is one third higher than the 4416 units a day reported in a letter of 28th June 1943 from the Bauleitung to the SS Economic and Administrative Head Office in Berlin. Even this I consider to be a purely administrative document, calculated on the basis of the original estimated throughput of the furnaces, the true daily rate for the four cremation installations being no more than 3000. If we take the rate of incineration given by the witnesses — three corpses per muffle in one and a half hours — and apply this to the true number of furnaces, the daily figure for the four Krematorien is about 2200.

In light of the drawings of type II/IIII Krematorien now known, it might be thought that there was no undressing room at ground level, but drawing 2216 of 20/3/43 [Documents 5 and 6], a plan of the entire POW camp, confirms the reality. As at this date, only Krematorium II AND its gas chamber were completed. Its future underground undressing room is shown only as “planned”. It had in fact already been built, but was not yet operational. Krematorium III was under construction. Its undressing room and gas chamber were also shown as “planned”, which is not quite true — they were almost complete, but not yet usable. A “Pferdestallbaracke OKH Typ 260/9”, a “stable-type” hut, was erected as a provisional undressing room in the north yard of Krematorium II. Two reasons may be advanced for this. First, the SS intended to use both Leichenkeller (basement morgues) of Krematorium II as gas chambers, operating them alternately, which would have been possible after making only minor modifications to Leichenkeller 2 (the undressing room) as it was already ventilated. Second — and this is more likely — a temporary undressing room was required because the access stairway to the basement undressing room was not yet built and work was still going on in this room, making it unavailable for “special treatment” operations.

It is difficult to accept at face value the descriptions of the interiors of the undressing rooms and gas chambers, for the installations varied over time. Those of summer 1944 are well-known, for they have been described or sketched many times by former members of the Sonderkommando. On the other hand, those of the early days have virtually not been described at all. The witnesses may have described the strict truth — which already fluctuated according to the version — but I doubt this, since they never entered Krematorium II themselves, or they lied, which is also most unlikely in view of the exact details given elsewhere, or — and this is far more probable — they invented a little to fill in the gaps in a story whose ending they knew only too well.