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


by the author

His position with respect to the extermination of the Jews at Birkenau and the personal experiences that led him to undertake this study

I am not a Jew and I was at one time a “revisionist.” After reading this book, some will no doubt think that I still am one. This is quite possible and I bear them no grudge. The distinction between these two fiercely opposed schools, the “exterminationists” and the “revisionists”, becomes meaningless once a certain threshold of knowledge about the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp has been reached. I have passed this point of no return.

Any normal human being, visiting the Auschwitz camp for the first time, feels a deep emotional shock. The weight of history allows of no other response. An ordinary but motivated tourist, I nearly did away with myself one evening in October 1979 in the main camp, the Stammlager, overwhelmed by the evidence and by despair. I have often wondered how I would have been able to perform this act of self-destruction. Since that lugubrious evening, I have spent a total of almost three months, spread over ten visits between 1979 and 1984, studying the German archives in the Auschwitz State Museum, examining the ruins of Birkenau, trying to understand and put into place the pieces of this gigantic and incredible puzzle. After the first few visits, I no longer saw the barbed wire fences surrounding the camp, directly visible from the windows of the first floor of Block 24 which houses the Archives. They had become invisible to me, as I was myself, melted into the town of Oswiecim, where it was impossible to identify in my Polish silhouette, hidden among so many others, the Frenchman in his tie and three piece suit who had disembarked from the “LOT” twin engined aircraft at Balice the day before.

As the years passed, I experienced the fever that overcame the country, sweeping aside all in its path, saw the birth of Hope, the first inscriptions under the mantle of “Solidarnosc”, patriotic songs sung by the family, almost open listening to western radio broadcasts, the explosion of red and white arm bands, strikes and sit-ins where production continued 24 hours a day, the waiting, in anguish but holding firm, for the armoured divisions massed to the east, but which never came. I experienced the curfew, totally deserted shops, meatless days, coffee rationed to 100 grammes for two months and whose coupons enabled one only to obtain a bottle of vodka. I experienced the return to normal. In other words, I shared in the ordinary and difficult everyday life of a town in the south of Poland called Oswiecim, once known as Auschwitz.

I have brought back some bad habits, such as drinking tea, knocking myself out with hard liquor when things are going badly and all looks grey, skipping meals, fiddling on the gasoline, knowing the value of the dollar, understanding the meaning of the verb “to organize”. I have also fallen under the spell of the “Lady in Ermine”, by Leonardo da Vinci, jewel of the Czartoryski collection; learned to be satisfied with little and to be patient, and finally, I came away with a great love for Poland and its people. I emerged proud, not of being a Frenchman from France, but of having a French mind and living in France. And I am now innoculated for life against any form of totalitarian system.

I became a historian of the Auschwitz Krematorien purely by accident for I am a pharmacist by profession. Looking for the origins of my interest in a past that does not appear to have much to do with my own, and in such an uninviting subject, means delving right back to my early childhood.

My family came from Poitou. My parents moved to the Paris region before the war, attracted by the capital and taking advantage of an offer made by the government. They were caught there by the war. My father, who was a captain in the reserve, fought a “splendid” campaign in the north, culminating in Dunkirk and its Stukas, and a Channel crossing in which he had to change boats half way across, the first having been too badly damaged to continue. After three days’ well-earned rest in England, he was sent back to the continent to participate in the Battle of France, from which he emerged unscathed, just avoiding capture by the Germans and anticipating the Armistice by a few days. Demobilized in the free zone, he returned to his civilian functions. He was not contacted by the Resistance for the simple reason that his local chief, being a doctor and thus being entitled at that time to the military rank of warrant officer, did not want to recruit a clandestine fighter of higher rank than himself. Although a Christian, my father did have a scare one day in the street, when a German police control found that his nose had a semitic look about it. It was not really possible for him to trace his family tree back far enough to show that the Arabs had reached Poitiers before being defeated there by Charles Martel in 732. But his genes could remember this.

Born early in 1944, I was six months old when the Germans departed. My knowledge of the war is limited to my impressions as a foetus and young baby. Our family was relatively little affected by the war except, according to my parents, for some disagreeable periods as from 1944, when the food supply became homoeopathic and barely edible. The allied bombing forced my mother to take refuge in the cellar and her enlarged belly bounced at each step. As we were living in Villepinte, famous before the war for its sanatorium, we had to put up with the fighting between the Americans and the Germans at the Liberation. I took all this with Olympian calm, sleeping like a log in the midst of the shooting, even though it appears that some shots passed through the house. Despite the proximity of Drancy, nobody suggested to me, as a purely Catholic baby, that I should take a trip to the disquieting land of “Pitchipoï”, unlike some other dear little angels, some of whom had a first name not unlike my own. They had this trip imposed upon them and were deported some 1,700 kilometres to the east, to the void of “Pitchipoï.”* The hundreds of thousands of visitors to the remarkable and famous exhibition held in the Berlitz Palace from 7th September to 14th December 1941** had learned to distinguish at a glance between them and me. Visual acuity has never been the same since August 1944.

On the paternal side, all I had left was my grandmother, who lived not far from Civray. She was a solitary peasant woman whose husband had been killed in the “race for the sea” in 1915. Then the Normandy landings came at last, and four days later, on 10th June 1944, 75 kilometres from where she lived, there was an event that has marked the region for ever, the tragedy of Oradour-sur-Glane [Photo 1].

All the surrounding populations were greatly affected, even distant families such as ours, so strong were the bonds of kinship at that time. My earliest memories were marked by the end of the world war and by this tragedy. A tank of the 2nd Armoured Division, a jeep and some soldiers made up a substantial proportion of my favorite toys, a faithful reflection of the era. I rediscovered the Liberation, with Leclerc, Juin, Tassigny and de Gaulle, in the magazines my father had bought, as soon as I was old enough to be able to leaf through them. The silhouettes of Sherman tanks and half tracks were more familiar to me than that of the Renault car. The irruption of the military universe into my existence is explained by the fact that we had moved. As from the 50s, my parents were working at La Boissière Ecole. La Boissière, “a smiling little village in the outer suburbs of Paris”, received its scholastic suffix only long after the opening, on 4th November 1886, of “L’Ecole Militaire Enfantine Hèriot”, taking children from 5 to 13 years old to be reared by the army and “brought up in the cult of Honour and the Fatherland”. The proximity — I only had to cross the road — of the military college meant that my horizon was veiled in dark blue, the color of the college uniform. It was not until very much later that I realized this.

My grandmother came to stay with us and enjoy the company of her grandson from time to time. On Thursdays, when my parents went to Paris, she looked after me. She would read me G Bruno’s Le tour de la France par deux enfants, a classic work found in all our schools, recounting the joys and sorrows of two young children from Lorraine. An extraordinary tool of revanchiste propaganda, it served on our side as an unconscious alibi for the generations of simple peasants who massacred one another in the stupid butchery of 1914-18. It remains famous for its caption on page 188, under the heads of four men: “THE FOUR RACES OF MAN — The white race, the most perfect of the human races …” Grandmother’s reading was just a pretext, or rather an introduction, for her own anecdotes and tales. Oradour, destroyed by the SS, could not fail to be one of them. During our visits “to see the family,” it was not unusual for me to come across a pamphlet or illustrated book dealing with this massacre. The photographic montages with a dark SS shadow falling across the white ruins and the red sky made a very strong impression on a young mind. I think I visited the actual ruins of Oradour several times during this period, but I remember very little of it. When I was twenty I went back there in the height of summer. Life was everywhere, with grass and other plants reclaiming their rights. The contrast between my memories and the present reality seemed to me to be ridiculous and irreconcilable. These thoughts within the the ruined walls overgrown by vegetation no longer mean anything now that Franco-German reconciliation and friendship are the main pillars of Europe. I have never understood, and still do not understand, why the village of Oradour, except for the church, has not been rebuilt, and by the Germans. The human experience of Oradour should be enshrined in itself, in its flesh and in its spirit, not symbolized by paltry ruins.

At the age of ten, completely conditioned by the military entourage of La Boissière, I had to take the military schools entrance examination in order to be able to continue my schooling at the La Flèche Military Academy. I passed in spite of myself and put on the uniform of the Brutions. Despite appearances, I was never actually an army pupil — my parents paid a fee. admittedly very modest, but in return for this I was free to leave the school if I so desired, and the school administration was free to throw me out if my school results were not up to scratch. It was an excellent arrangement which, while it filled me with fear in the lower classes, appeared highly profitable at the end of my schooling, by giving me the opportunity of leaving free of all obligations towards the army apart from the normal military service. So many pupils took advantage of this possibility that the only ones left in the classes preparing for entry to the army, navy and air force officers’ colleges were real “army boys” trying desperately to rise above the mediocre career of non-commissioned officer imposed as “payment” for their free schooling. During the eight years I passed within these “ancient”, walls, I only once heard a far-sighted officer deplore this state of affairs. This was in a speech before my company one day when the results were being announced. The lower classes of the academy were of no use to the military and virtually invariably turned the boys against the army. In a Journal des Voyages, of 30th October 1904, I found an article on the Academy by Major Annet, in which he wrote: “The fact is that the pupils are subjected to a barracks regime too early, and this sometimes turns them against the army, so that the results obtained are perhaps not always in line with the sacrifice made by the State.” The situation still remained unchanged half a century later.

The transition from family to military life was difficult. A solitary and individualistic boy, I was plunged into a collective and prison-like milieu. I had to resign myself to this as best I could. The intellectual and moral training I received was of great value, but was suited to the years 1940-50 and totally inappropriate for the years to follow. My only means of escape from the austere way of life was to read and to dream. A book is freedom. In a life based on discipline and school work, the good or bad results of which directly influenced friendships, only

Translator’s notes:

* Pitchipoï: Name given by the Jewish children interned in Drancy to the unknown place in the East where the Jews were go (Auschwitz-Birkenau).
** Exhibition entitled Le Juif et la France, [The Jew and France].