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

[The following account is based on notes written in May 1980 and annotated during the first half of 1981, adapted by removing certain outrageous remarks and irrelevant parts and supplemented as required for this postface]

I started on the action in Birkenau. A great deal of work and reflection. Chapter well under way, almost finished. My only possibility as regards parallel history was to increase the magnitude of the massacre, the Germans being victorious, and find another extermination mechanism. Resolved [I had taken over and “improved” the claims of the civilian guard I had met at the entrance to Birkenau, which as I have said were only the imaginings of the Soviet journalist Boris Polevoi in Pravda in February 1945]. And then … and then I began to have doubts. My trip dated from thirteen years back. The atmosphere I had felt turned out to be excellent, but the paucity of the historical material available to me and the fact that it ranged from the inconsistent to the vague, and even contradicted itself, led me suddenly to doubt the very existence of the Krematorien (and not the gas chambers!). A regrettable lack of detailed information about this subject, which had meanwhile come back into the news with the broadcasting of the mediocre telefilm “Holocaust”, was blocking my progress. Obsessed by this question, my back to the wall, I decided to make a flying visit of five days to Poland at the end of October 1979 to remove this barrier that was preventing me from writing, from finishing.

I arrived at Auschwitz at 10 a.m. My memories were of no use to me. Everything had to be rediscovered. By 11 o'clock I had made my inquiries and presented myself at the Museum Archives. To work. Straightaway I ran into a sizeable barrier. “Take your own photographs ? Prohibited” they told me at the outset. “The museum will photograph the documents you want and send the prints on to you.” Disappointed, with the camera and all those films ready and waiting in my bag [I should have made inquiries beforehand. This is the rule in many museums in the West as well as in the East. What had misled me was that I had been allowed to photograph — the formalities being reduced to the minimum — twenty or so posters dating from 1940-44 in the Vincennes War Museum]. Too bad. The main thing was to get down to work. I would worry about the rest later.

I had no idea wnat the Auschwitz State Museum (PANSTWOWE MUZEUM OSWIECIM or PMO) might contain. I wanted to have a clear understanding of the layout of buildings and the fittings in the premises where the extermination was carried out. Having the impression, from what I had read, that the Polish resistance had succeeded in providing a great deal of information, I asked to see the photographs. They were pointed out to me on a table. THREE PHOTOGRAPHS. Just three! 1 had expected at very least ten times as many. But no, three of undoubted authenticity, two of them taken through a door showing men dragging corpses before a pall of smoke, and the third showing naked women apparently running in a forest [at the end of 1983, the archivist lent me the originals, a great concession, so that I could find the position of the clandestine photographer in the ruins of Krematorium V. The first two were taken from the north gas chamber of Kr V on a southeast/northwest line, looking towards a cremation pit dug between the northern barbed wire fence and the Krematorium. The third was taken outdoors, with the photographer about twenty meters from the east wall of the Krematorium, holding the camera in his hand with his arm by his side, shooting blind on a northeast/southwest line in the direction of the naked women moving from west to east along the south wall of the crematorium, paradoxically with their backs to it. This was a considerable embarrassment to mc. Going all that way to study three photographs was absolute madness.

They reassured me and brought some other photographs, of German origin this time [subsequently published in the Album d'Auschwitz]. At least some certain facts began to emerge. The Krematorien were clearly visible. I went back thirty-five years and immersed myself in the atmosphere of the time. Having looked through these albums, three others were given to me. In fact these were stills from the Soviet film Chronicles of the Liberation of the Camp. 1945 shown over and over again in the cinema at the entrance to the Museum, and a faithful reflection of it as I realized afterwards. Among the stills was a situation drawing with an enlargement of Krematorien II and III [Photo 13] and a detailed drawing of one of them [Bauleitung drawing 932 of the basement of Krematorium II]. At 1 p.m. I had to pack up as the Archives closed for the day. Then off to Birkenau, a distance of about two kilometres. A survey of the site, camera round my neck ready to shoot anything in this place of criminal fame. But the shooting was limited to two rounds, sorry, photos. What weather! In France I had thought we were still in late summer, but here it was raining. What the camera could not record, my eyes could still see. I visited everything, on foot. A fine but soaking rain was falling. At the second sewage treatment station I felt the same stupid aversion as thirteen years earlier on rereading the notice on the watchtower. Arriving at the “Zentral Saunas” a guard almost slammed the door in my face as he entered. But I hammered on the door in vain, no response. I was beginning to feel cold. I went on to Krematorium V, which I had great difficulty in finding as it was overgrown with tall weeds. It gave the impression of a miserable little hut like so many others. A concrete floor enclosed by walls 50 to 100 cm high. I finished up at the lake of ashes [this lake, marked on the drawings of Birkenau as a fire-fighting reservoir, is east of Krematorium IV, not beyond V as I imply here. I had backtracked]. A completely abandoned site. The ashes had long since been absorbed into the bed. Return through an unrelenting, driving rain. Half way back I took shelter in a watchtower for awhile, I was so wet. Everything inside was damaged, but I could still see that the workmanship was very good. The work of a master. Beams and planking dowelled, and the wood treated, hence the black colour. The interior was insulated with glass wool, still visible here and there. A luxurious construction, but then concentration camp labor was so cheap.

I ran back to the car with my teeth chattering and got back to the main camp as fast as I could. I continued by visiting Auschwitz I. Virtually alone. My footsteps echoed on the concrete floors of the blocks. The electric lighting was sparse. A thick mist was rising. By five o'clock it was dark. A real nightmare atmosphere. Later, alone in my cell, I was seized with panic. This visible, palpable confirmation had been a profound shock. Krematorien there were, yes. Five in fact, numbered one to five in roman numerals. Kr I a converted powder magazine [or dry goods store]. II and III, mirror image twins, visible on contemporary photographs and confirmed by their ruins. The same with IV and V, except that the ruins of IV were reduced to a heap of stones of one or two cubic metres [I was mistaken here, as the weeds had hidden from me the walls barely 20 cm high marking the outline of Krematorium IV. All I had seen was a pile of unused bricks, a vestige of the partial reconstruction after the war]. The ambient conditions were extremely depressing. A drastic change in temperature: 12 degrees in Paris, 2 in Warsaw, below freezing in Cracow. Auschwitz with its lugubrious landscape of barbed wire made worse by a thick fog, dank, dissolving, miserable, cut through by a cold, penetrating rain, and on top of all this my cold room, the radiaitor scarcely luke warm. I was chilled to the bone. The idea of death came to me, inexorably growing stronger as the evening went on. I began to understand those who had chosen the electrified barbed wire.

The next morning, the crisis of that night was gone. I had a shock as I looked towards the window. There was a light coating of white on the frame. It had snowed during the night. Back to the Archives. There just remained one simple question of detail: how did these installations work? Feeling I knew just about everything there was to know on the subject, I enthusiastically asked for the plans of the Krematorien to confirm what I learned from my reading [based virtually exclusively on the information provided by Robert Merle in La mort est mom métier, which was in turn based on the account by Dr Miklos Nyiszli]. I started directly with the main one, Krematorium II. The fact is that I was given no choice, as this is the one that was brought me.
[A psychological and methodological error on the part of the archivist, who produced the drawings one at a time, in chronological order. But since a western researcher, usually there only for a brief stay, does not know how many drawings exist and has but little time, his ever arriving at the final drawings becomes uncertain, if not impossible. This “presentation” may explain certain “reservations” about the gassings at Auschwitz. The projects are only projects. The archivist should have started with the final inventory drawings. My doubts stemmed from there.]
The first one I saw was Bauleitung drawing 932 of 23/1/42, “Entwurf für das Krematorium. Grundriß vom Untergeschoß / Project for the Krematorium. Plan of basement”. Unsheathing my magnifying glass (made necessary by the writing used). I bent over it. And my doubts returned with a vengeance. The premises seemed too small, in particular the junction between Leichenkeller I (corpse cellar I, later gas chamber) and Leichenkeller 2 (corpse cellar 2, later undressing room). This passage was encumbered by a ramp in the form of a chute in the middle of a stairway coming down from the outside [The “Rutsche / corpse chute” is visible [photo 14] in the ruins of Krematorium III. In the case of II its presence is doubtful [photo 15]. It has disappeared in drawing 2003, but this is contradicted by an order on the DAW metalworking shop for a palissade to hide it. Shifting the rubble that has accumulated over the place where it should be would resolve the question once and for all]. So, was it really possible for 2000 people to pass rapidly from the undressing room (Leichenkeller 2) to the gas chamber (Leichenkeller 1). undergo the appropriate “treatment”, emerge dead, evacuated by the Sonderkommando, be placed on one goods lift of modest size
[in Auschwitz: A doctor’s eyewitness account, Dr Miklos Nyiszli, after having lived for six months IN Krematorium II and claims that his account is “without the slightest exaggeration”, says that there were “four good-sized elevators” (page 49). The reason why this authentic witness should have accumulated so many gross exaggerations is not yet known]
to be carried up to the furnace room and burned very rapidly to achieve the enormous throughput [5000 cremations a day] attributed to this installation? A death route that may he considered “industrially” linear, but in which the corpses have to pass back over the path of the living. Leichenkeller 1 is a technical cul-de-sac. And then the role of the Sonderkommando, who need room to move, also has to be taken into account. Fortunately. the doors were large. Double doors about 2 metres wide. What? DOUBLE DOORS? A ZYKLON-B GAS CHAMBER WITH DOUBLE DOORS? I do not know whether I was technically justified, but t was greatly shocked by this detail, and my surprised reaction was noticed. The young woman who was watching me study the drawing, shiveringly squeezed against a radiator no warmer than that in my hotel, went off to find the archivist [Tadeusz Iwaszko] who was looking after me. He said nothing, but disappeared briefly and brought back another drawing. On drawing 934 of 27/l/42, entitled “Entwurf fur das Krematorium. Schnitte / Project for the Krematorium. Sections”, the sixteen meter crematorium chimney with the forced-draught fans at its base, loomed very large. Then came the crosssections of Leichenkeller 1 and 2. Nothing special about 2, but L-K 1 was fitted with a splendid ventilation system, with upper and lower ducts, “Belüftung, Entlüftung / Ventilation. Air extraction.” “Why air extraction if not to remove air poisoned by prussic acid gas given off by Zyklon-B crystals?” demanded the archivist. I wavered before this argument. It was obvious. My expression of discomfiture must have touched Iwaszko, for from that moment on he brought up the big guns and showed me everything unbidden. Aerial views of Birkenau. Magnificently drawn plans for the expansion of the main camp. A joy for anyone interested in architectural drawing. Fine work and in colour. These SS certainly saw “kolossal”. For the greater glory of the thousand year Reich there was an official architecture, rigid and majestic, and a private architecture, intimate and delicate. And on the side they built death factories to bum all the “labouring and hardworking” Slav populations. Iwaszko’s leitmotif was: “Why such big installations for such a small camp?” But unfortunately, on the drawings of these “big cremation installations” there was nothing to indicate the presence of gas chambers. This lack could but engender doubt. Against this disturbing doubt: belief. This is what the archivist said to me in so many words.
[In France before 1980, there was a complete absence of concrete proof despite the apparent “mass” of “documents” on the gassings. The history of these gassings was based virtually exclusively on human testimony, and Faurisson lost no time in pulling some of these testimonies to pieces. This situation enabled him to score some fine successes at the beginning of his “affair”, because the traditional historians had almost no evidence with which to oppose him. Faurisson’s mistake was to underestimate the importance of the Auschwitz Museum Archives, which contained many documents not yet studied because nobody had felt the need to do so.]
Unthinkable. The global, supreme explanation of the extermination of the Jews cannot be reduced to the acceptance of or refusal to believe what happened in Birkenau on twice 210 m² of Polish soil, the area of the Leichenkeller 1 of Krematorien II and III. Other project drawings of Krematorium II were brought to me one at a time, parsimoniously. Each time I gave back a drawing I was handed another and left to study it, with the young woman behind me. But my concentration was no longer so great and what I saw merely confirmed what the archivist had said.