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

Critical study of the testimonies of
doctors BENDEL and NYISZLI
concerning the Birkenau Krematorien and the homicide gassings
The testimonies of
Doctors Miklos NYISZLI and Charles Sigismund or Paul BENDEL
A demonstration of the impossibility of relying on raw testimony
Account by Doctor Paul BENDEL taken from TEMOIGNAGES SUR AUSCHWITZ, Editions de l'Amicale des déportés d'Auschwitz, 10 rue Leroux, Paris 16, 1946. Extracts from pages 159 to 164.
“The Sonderkommando”
Each concentration camp had a crematorium for “local” needs. While some of them such as Mauthaus and Dachau, had gas chambers (1), none of them had Krematorien to match those of Auschwitz-Birkenau in terms either of size or number of victims. German technical and organizational abilities were here given full play, and in fact they surpassed themselves.

For long months(2), I had the doubtful privilege of being attached as doctor to the four Krematorien (3) of Auschwitz-Birkenau that were ceaslessly working to exterminate all those whom the Master Race considered unworthy to live.

These Krematorien were tended by nine hundred deportees who formed what was called the Sonderkommando. This kommando formed a world apart, separated from the other prisoners (living first in closed barracks and later in the Krematorien themselves) and directly under the control of the Political Section.

If one of its members fell ill, it was absolutely forbidden to take him to the camp hospital and he had to be treated on site. We were three doctors assigned to this task.

The Sonderkommando has often been called “the death squad” and nothing could be more true. Those selected for it could under no circumstances avoid it.

Their death sentence had just been pronounced and, except in the case of a miracle, would be carried out sooner or later.

Of the nine hundred members of the Sonderkommando, two hundred were gassed on 7th September 1944 and five hundred shot before my eyes on 7th October 1944 during a revolt that was unique in the annals of the camps, and one hundred left on 27th November 1944 for an unknown destination: no trace of them has ever been found. Just a few isolated individuals managed to survive this massacre after countless adventures.

The Sonderkommando to which I belonged was the third one, the previous two having been exterminated at intervals of a few months. Such eyewitnesses could not and should not be left alive. Parallel to the prisoner Sonderkommando, there was also an SS Sonderkommando, three men per Krematorium (not counting the guards). They enjoyed special privileges in terms of money, alcohol etc. There were four Krematorien, a fifth, known as the Bunker, being nothing but a farmhouse transformed into a gas chamber “to serve the cause”. Separated from one another by a few hundred meters, they were camouflaged(4) in what was known as Birkenau. If you look for this name on the map you will not find it. And yet it was the tomb of hundreds of thousands of victims, from all over Europe.

A double track railway brought the deportees right to the gates of the twin Krematorien 1 and 2 [II and III]. With their spacious rooms, fitted with telephone and radio. the ultra-modern dissecting room and their museum (5) of anatomical exhibits, they constituted, as an SS-man unashamedly told me, “the best ever done in this line”.

The foundations of these imposing red-brick buildings were laid in March 1942(6). Thousands of prisoners(7) worked on them and died during their contruction.

Completed in January 1943(8), their inauguration was honored by the presence of Himmler(9) in person, an indication of the importance attached to this “work” by the Nazi leadership.

The convoy of the condemned entered via a wide stone stairway into a big underground room that served as an undressing room. The order was given that everyone had to bathe and then go for disinfestation. Each person attached his things together and, supreme illusion, placed them on a numbered hanger. From there, completely naked, he went through a narrow corridor into the gas chambers proper (there were two). Built of reinforced concrete, they had such low ceilings that they gave the impression on entering that they were falling on you.

In the middle of these chambers, descending from the ceiling, were two mesh tubes with external valves through which the gas was introduced. Through a small peep-hole in the double door of solidoak, the SScould observe the horrible agony of all these unfortunates(10). The bodies were subsequently removed by the Sonderkommando men and placed in a lift that took them up to the ground floor, where there were sixteen furnaces (11). Their total capacity was in the order of two thousand bodies in 24 hours (12).

The twin Krematorien 3 and 4 (IV and V), more commonly known as the “forest Krema” (they were located in a pleasant clearing) were of more modest dimensions, and their eight furnaces could handle one thousand bodies a day.(13) At the time I entered the Sonderkommando, the throughput of these furnaces had been deemed insufficient (14) and they were replaced by three cremation pits, each 12 meters long, 6 wide and 1.5 deep. The capacity of these pits was enormous: one thousand (15) persons an hour. This was further increased by installing a conduit to channel human fat to a recovery pit.(16)

It was in Krematorium 4 (V) that I had my first sight of what the Sonderkommando men were forced to do.

One day in June 1944(17), at 6 o'clock in the morning, I joined the day shift (150 men) of Krematorium 4. It was a fine day. The men watched for my reactions. A childlike shyness prevented them from encouraging me. I tried to hide my apprehension as much as I could. At last I was going to see what the new men on the Krematorium had been telling me about for days. The guards were waiting. And then we were off.

About a hundred meters from the Krematorium we could see white smoke rising into the air(18). The men were silent. I dared not ask any questions.

Finally we arrived and the men were detailed off to their tasks. There as a spectator, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted to know the origin of that smoke. And so, behind the Krematorium, I saw the pits where the remains of the previous evening’s convoy were in the final stages of being consumed A few meters away, men were at work around heaps of ashes, reducing into a very fine powder what remained of the three thousand people(19) who had passed this way on the previous day.

At 11 o'clock, one of the members of the Political Section arrived by motorcycle to announce that another convoy was on the way. The head of the Krematorium appeared and gave orders. The pits were to be cleared out and logs were to be put in place and soaked with fuel.

It was midday when the long column of women, children and old men came into the yard of the Krematorium. They were from the Lodz ghetto. We could sense that they were overwhelmed, exhausted and frightened.

The supreme head of the Krematorien, Herr Hauptscharführer Mohl, a big brute with a face like Bébé Cadum, climbed on a bench to tell them that they were going to take a bath and then hot coffee would be waiting for them. They applauded: the poor people already felt reassured A few children cried that