The Holocaust Historiography Project
Auschwitz, by J.-C. Pressac
The gas chamber of Krematorium II was fitted with four openings for pouring Zyklon-B. The witnesses state that there were only three, and a photograph of January 1943 does indeed show this gas chamber as having only three devices for introducing the toxic product at that time.

There remains the problem of the rails. According to the witnesses, they ran from C (the gas chamber) to A (the furnace room), connecting two different levels, the basement and the ground floor. This can be done only if there is a shallow slope between the two levels. This is the most dubious part of the testimony, for the corpses in Krematorien II/III, were in fact brought up from the underground gas chamber to the ground floor furnace room by means of a goods lift. There were no rails or wagons involved in this process. Three Bauleitung photographs [Documents 11,12 and 13] confirm that in late 1942 and early 1943 there were narrow-gauge rails running between the furnace room and the future undressing room, Leichenkeller 2, apparently to facilitate the transport of building materials between these two places [Document 10 (“Schéma 3”)]. This railway was visible from outside the two Krematorien. However, it did not run between the gas chamber and the furnace room. The witnesses' confusion between C and B' is all the more understandable in that they could see only the outside of Krematorien II and III. To show just how easy it is to be mistaken, I would simply refer to the book KL Auschwitz: Documents photographiques, published by the Warsaw national publishing agency in 1980, where, 35 years after the event, Photo 61, identical to PMO neg. no. 286, is captioned “Construction of the gas chamber of Krematorium IV or V” and Photo 62, showing concrete being poured for the roof of the undressing room of Krematorium II, is captioned “Prisoners concreting the ceiling above the gas chamber of Krematorium II or III”.

The presence of rails during the construction of Krematorien II and III, easily visible to witnesses outside, first led the witnesses into error because they thought they were a permanent feature and found them difficult to explain, then subsequently confused the translators, who had just as much trouble in inserting them logically in the text. Some — the version in G Wellers' book — got round the problem by talking of “path” and “lorries” for track and trucks, without bearing in mind that they were describing a building, the Krematorium, that they had never seen and whose overall dimensions did not exceed 50 by 100 metres. The same type of “vagueness” can be seen in all versions on the subject of the interior of the gas chamber, an indirect proof that the witnesses had never seen it. Version 1 describes it as “masked by hangings”, Version 2 has “shower installations … painted on the wall”, and Version 3 “the walls … are also camouflaged with simulated entrances to shower rooms”. The details that were clear and well-established in the report were well-understood and rendered by the translators. Those that were less clear gave rise to different interpretations and hence to the different “versions”.

The gassing of the 8000 Cracow Jews described by the witnesses corresponds fairly closely in date with the known history of the month of March 1943. The first tests of the Krematorium II furnaces took place on 4th March according to the deposition of former Sonderkommando member Henryk TAUBER, a day on which 45 “well-fleshed” bodies, specially selected from a batch gassed at Bunker 2, were cremated. The furnaces were subsequently kept going for another ten days without any further cremations. On 13th March, Messing, the Topf fitter who installed the ventilation systems, announced that he had finished that of Leichenkeller I, which meant that the gas chamber was now operational. And on the 14th, apparently in the evening, about 1500 Jews from the Cracow ghetto — rather than the 8000 of the report — were led to the undressing hut erected perpendicular to Krematorium II in its north yard. Preparation and gassing lasted two hours. Cremation proceeded at full pace for 48 hours. On 20th March, six days later, 2200 more victims, this time from Salonika, arrived to join the remains of the first 1500 victims of Krematorium II [Documents 14 and 15].

As there was no kind of camouflage around any of the Krematorien for virtually the whole period of their activity, witnesses could observe them directly, especially Krematorien II and III, but probably only very briefly. Most of their observations date from late 1942 and early 1943. They were also for a long time in contact with members of the Sonderkommando of Bunkers 1 and 2, who supplied them with food and money, and perhaps also with information. This barter relationship is explained by the fact that despite the repugnance that the members of the Sonderkommando inspired, they and the witnesses were compatriots. This relationship was broken off on 17th December 1942, with the “preventive” elimination of the Sonderkommando. This seems to dry up the source of information, but it is difficult to confirm this even though the concordance of dates seems to point to this conclusion. The photographs of the rails date from late 1942. The break between the witnesses and the Sonderkommando also.

Their observations may be summarized as follows:
A. What they could see and hear from the outside:
1. Without being able to interpret the significance immediately (during construction):
a) The excavation for and building of two underground rooms. From one of these (Leichenkeller 2 or the future undressing room) narrow-gauge rails ran up to the furnace room. In December 1942 it was impossible to know which basement the SS would use for gassing, or whether they would use both.
b) The installation of 3 (later 4) introduction traps in the roof of one of the basements (Leichenkeller 1).
2. With a little interpretation:
a) The erection in the yard of Krematorium II of a stable-type hut, where people entered clothed at one end and emerged shortly afterwards naked at the other end, then disappeared into a stairway near the main entrance of the Krematorium, never to be seen again.
b) Shots that could be heard coming from the basement access stairway, fired a few metres from the gas chamber entrance door.
c) SS-men, wearing gas masks, on the roof of the gas chamber, handling cans of Zyklon-B and pouring the contents into small chimneys sticking out of the roof.
d) The starting of the extractor fan motor in the roof space of the Krematorium and that of the furnace pulsed air blowers on the ground floor.
e) The smoke billowing from the chimney one or two hours after the SS had poured in the Zyklon-B.
B. What they did not see, but heard in the accounts of other prisoners:
1. The internal arrangements of the Krematorium and of its gas chamber, which would explain the discrepancies in the number of furnaces and the varying descriptions of the gas chamber.
2. The cremation statistics.
3. The attitude of the SS officers and civilian officials during the gassing and cremation of the “8000” Cracow Jews. In fact, direct witnessing of the “Final Solution” shocked even the most rabid anti-semites so much that they were virtually struck dumb (cf. Rudolf Hoess:Commandant of Auschwitz, page 173).
C. What they could only imagine:
l. The function of the rails seen during construction.
2. The transport of the gassed victims on flat wagons pushed from the basement to the furnace room, as was done between Bunkers 1 and 2 and their mass graves. In Krematorien II and III, this job was actually done using first a temporary goods hoist and subsequently an electric lift.
In conclusion, this early testimony, somewhat unreliable and even quite wrong on some points, has the merit of describing exactly the gassing process in type II/III Krematorien as from mid-March 1943. It made the mistake of generalizing internal and external descriptions and the operating method to Krematorien IV and V. Far from invalidating it, the discrepancies confirm its authenticity, as the descriptions are clearly based on what the witnesses could actually have seen and heard.

To conclude this chapter, I quote an extract from the book by Hanna Reitsch, “The sky my kingdom” [Document 16] in order to show that external alarm bells — such as the War Refugee Board report — were not the only ones ringing in the office of the Reichsführer, for whom things were getting hot. I draw no conclusions on the attitude of Hanna Reitsch or Peter Riedel with regard to the date of the episode and the disastrous turn the war was taking for them, but simply observe that it was high time for Himmler to order the destruction of the instruments of the “Final Solution”, in view of the increasingly widespread reprobation.