The Holocaust Historiography Project

Reviews

Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers

  • Filip Müller, Stein and Day, 180pp, hardback $10.85. ISBN: 0-8128-2601-9.

In the German Mills of Death 1941-1945

  • Petro Mirchuk, Vantage, 217pp, hardback, $6.95. ISBN: 0-533-01908-7.

Playing for Time

  • Fania Fenelon, Berkley, 289pp, paperback, $2.50. ISBN: 0-425-04199-9.
Reviewed by Lewis Brandon (David McCalden)

These three books are of interest to the modern revisionist for various reasons. They are all “survivor” testimony of Auschwitz, and thus descriptions and events can be compared for discrepancies or contradictions.

The Müller book has been quoted once or twice by Exterminationists in Australia, in their feeble attempts to contradict hard revisionist evidence. Mr. Mirchuk submitted his book in connection with a claim for the Institute for Historical Review's $50,000 reward for proof of gassings. Ms. Fenelon is, of course, at the center of a current controversy over whether or not the ardent anti-Zionist Vanessa Redgrave should be allowed to portray her in a forthcoming TV film of the same name.

Many people will be under the impression from “media hype” that Fenelon claims to have been part of the orchestra which supposedly conducted the inmates to the “gas chambers.” (Even though Gitta Sereny attempts to correct this in the New Statesman 2 November 1979, when she insists that the orchestra conducted the inmates to and from work.) But a study of her book will show that Ms. Fenelon had very little to do with the other inmates, and instead was in a fairly privileged position as a member of the orchestra which played for the German staff.

Her book contains all the usual neuroses found in much survivor testimony, including many scatalogical references, and claims to have encountered famous and infamous characters of the Holocaust pageant. Thus, one has only reached the first page of this historical narrative before she is telling us that

A trick I'd found to cool myself was to wash in my urine. Keeping myself clean was essential to me, and there is nothing unclean about urine. I could drink it if I was thirsty — and I had done so.

Perhaps Ms. Fenelon learned these mysterious sanitary properties of urine — previously totally unknown to modern science from her fellow survivor Kitty Hart. A TV program entitled Kitty — Return to Auschwitz was shown on British commercial television last November, and was later reviewed in the Jewish Chronicle 9 November 1979. Naturally, Kitty managed to survive only because she was assigned to labor, rather than gassed, which fate befell “thirty members” of her family. Her work was not without respite however, for while

she sunbathed on the grass, “the crematorium was in the background and I could see that people were being sent in one end and that there were ashes at the other end ten minutes later."

Ms. Hart's fascinating reportage also includes her claim that

I washed in my own urine.

One wonders if these weird scatalogical fantasies have any inspiration in Talmudic lore, for as William Grimstad shows in The Six Million Reconsidered, that particular tome is brim full of allusions to toiletary and sexual functions and dysfunctions.

Ms. Fenelon was deported from Drancy near Paris to Auschwitz quite late in the war, on 23 January 1944. She was given the number 74862, which was tattooed on her arm. However, a check with the Serge Klarsfeld re-publication of deportees' manifests, does not show a Fenelon or a Goldstein (her real name) against this number.

Nowhere in her narrative does the reader find any description of gassings. In fact, the subject is introduced so matter-of-factly that it almost seems that the activity is and was very common knowledge. Throughout the entire book, the only references to extermination are the reported speech of Ms. Fenelon's companions, or the subj ective assumptions of the authoress herself. Thus, on pages 63 and 175 we get reports of gassing from an “Irene.” On pages 64, 79 and 2 13 we find complaints about the smell of burning flesh pervading the atmosphere (even above the smell of stale, urine-soaked clothes?). Pages 79 and 145 bring us descriptions of chimneys billowing thick, black soot. Yet another inmate “Flora” reports on page 197 that handbags were made out of tattooed human skin.

Some of her claims may well have a basis in fact, such as the existence of a sauna (p135), a psychiatric ward (p135 — but weren't they all gassed right away as being unsuitable for work?), receiving parcels from outside (p 166), going swimming (p2 2 1), and the very existence of the orchestra itself.

Rather more on a par with her claims of gassing are her references to Allied bombing of Auschwitz “aimed at the crematoria” (p255), camping out with Anne Frank (p263) and playing a concert for Himmler who “invented the gas chambers” (p203).

All in all, it would appear that Ms. Fenelon's ghost-writer Marcelle Routier may have used a dash too much of poetic license in writing Ms. Fenelon's memoirs. All that reported speech about gassings cannot possibly be accurately recalled after 35 years; even if such rumors were being bandied around.

Another survivor who relies almost totally on hearsay in the camps is Petro Mirchuk, a Ukrainian now living in Philadelphia. His book In the German Mills of Death 1941-1945 is published by a “vanity” press; in other words the author paid to have it published. Although Mirchuk claims to have been a member of the Ukrainian underground, he is not highly regarded among Ukrainian exile groups in the United States. Many view him as an embarrassment, not least because he attempted to submit his book as “proof” of gassings, to claim the IHR's $50,000 reward.

In fact the book proves absolutely nothing. There are long descriptions of his various imprisonments under different regimes, and chapters dealing with his work day at the Auschwitz assignments. But references to gassing are scant and superficial.

The author relates that he arrived at Auschwitz in July 1942. He was assigned a number, which was imprinted on his clothing; not tattooed. He managed to survive having his head shaved, and taking a shower, without mishap, unlike those 6 million (or as some say “11 million") others. He managed to survive encountering the dreaded Auschwitz orchestra, which played music in front of the kitchen as the prisoners marched past, not to the “gas chambers,” but to work. Mirchuk recalls how they were often sent outside the camp to work on construction projects, and agriculture. Chapter 6 is devoted to a description of Birkenau (or “Auschwitz II") where Mirchuk admits he had never been. It was three miles away from his camp at Auschwitz I. However this does not prevent him providing a description of the gas chamber and the gassing operation:

They were taken by groups into a big room which looked exactly like a shower room, but when the room was filled with prisoners the doors were closed and the gas Cyclon B was released through holes in the floor and ceiling. In about ten minutes all who were in the room would be dead. A special kommando called the sonderkommando, consisting of about eight hundred strong young Jewish prisoners selected from the Jewish transports, transferred the corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoria. (pp 60-61)

He goes on to describe the cremation of the corpses. Apparently there were four large crematoria always in operation, but as this was insufficient capacity, corpses had to be burned in the open. There would be a layer of corpses, then a layer of logs, then more corpses, until the piles were two storeys high (sic). The completed pyre was then doused in kerosene and set on fire. By the time the second pile was completed, the first would be burned out. Then the members of the sonderkommando would “clean up the few remaining bones and start a new pile.” Naturally, the wicked Germans wanted to save on their gas bills, so children under 12 were thrown into the fires alive, in a kind of National Socialist suttee, and “after a few minutes of the extremely high heat, there would remain only an ash where there had been a child.” Members of the sonderkommando teams were themselves gassed and replaced every three or four months, which will no doubt come as a surprise to Filip Muller, who claims to have spent “three years in the gas chambers” and lived to tell the tale.

Mirchuk's description is so outlandish that one wonders at even a vanity press having the chutzpah to print this garbage. There is just no way that bodies could be burned so rapidly, and with just “a few remaining bones” or “ash” afterward. Any mortician or pathologist will confirm that the cremation of a single body in a modern crematory oven takes three to four hours, and there are so many bones left over that they have to be ground down in a bone mill, before being put in an urn. Any readers with a fireplace or wood stove will know that beef bones are one of the most difficult objects to incinerate.

Naturally, Mirchuk tells us, the Germans were so fiendish that they commanded the sonderkommandos to write letters home describing how they worked on a “disinfection process” and that the letters were always post-dated after their own gassing.

All of Mirchuk's descriptions of extermination by gas, he admits are the hearsay of fellow internees who had vis.ited Birkenau.

A different can of worms altogether is opened by Filip Müller with his Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. He claims to have worked on the sonderkommando teams himself. Despite the claim of Mirchuk, and many others, that the teams were gassed and replaced every few months, “by a sheer stroke of luck he survived” (pxi). In fact he lived to testify at the Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt in 1964, and to have his testimony published as one chapter of The Death Factory, by O. Kraus and E. Kulka. in 1966. His memoirs were also published in Czech in 1946.

In December 1979, Australian civil liberties attorney John Bennett wrote to Müller in care of his London publisher and received a reply dated 24 January 1980 in fractured German. Bennett had inquired how it was that Müller managed to survive so long against the allegedly incredible odds. Müller's reply is reprinted here in full in English. The German original is available for inspection from John Bennett.

Mannheim
24 January 1980

Filip Müller
68 Mannheim 1
Ulmenweg 25
West Germany

Dear Mr. Bennett,

I have received your letter thru Routledge & Kegan of London. Your justified questions demonstrate that you are very familiar with the concentration camp literature which unfortunately does not always present correct testimonies. Many legends have been written about this tragic truth and a few falsehoods have crept into the writing of Dr. Nyiszli.

Now, my answers to your questions.

My time in the Sonderkommando (special unit) was divided into two phases: a) in Auschwitz I from May 1942, and b) in Auschwitz II-Birkenau from late Spring 1943 until 18 January 1945.

During the course of my stay at Auschwitz I there were never any selections (Selektionen). From May 1942 until December 1942, a group of about 200 men was simultaneously active in the Birkenau Sonderkommando. They were gassed in December 1942 in Auschwitz I. Afterwards, a new Sonderkommando was organized by the SS in about January 1943 in which 300 inmates had to work in Birkenau. From February 1944 until November 1944, four selections in all were carried out there. At the final selection, 30 inmates were chosen for Crematorium V. (Among them, the group of Dr. Nyiszli, myself and others.) At the same time, another 70 men were assigned to the so-called “Abbruchkommando” (demolition unit) which worked on dismantling the crematoria. The rest were sent on to Grossrosen. However, these men were killed at an unknown location. (On that subject, see pp161-162 of my book.) The claim that periodic selections were supposed to have been made of the Sonderkommando does not correspond to the facts. For example, during the course of the entire year 1943 no selections were carried out. The strength (size) of the Sonderkommandos was dependent on the number of transports which arrived, and was not bound to any time period. The further fate of the Sonderkommandos can be read on pp164, 166 and 167.

About 100 men from the Sonderkommandos survived the liberation. A few are living today in Israel (including, for example, the brothers Avrohom and Schlomo Dragon, Milten Bugi, Lemke and others). My friend Alter Feinzylberg, alias Jankowski, lives in Paris. He was in the crematorium in Auschwitz I after November 1942. And so forth. The many statements which allege that not a single inmate who was in a Sonderkommando remained alive are also only pure fiction.

The following factors were decisive as far as my own fate is concerned:

l. A strong will to live, with the goal of being an eyewitness to the crimes and not to capitulate in border-line situations.

2. To pass on information and documents to escaping inmates about the crimes and thus alert world attention. Altho this happened, the Allies unfortunately failed to draw the conclusions. See chapter V. (Alfred Wetzler, Walter Rosenberg-Vrba).

3. Thru the conspirative activities in preparation for a total revolt, flight to the partisans, and then to blowup the railway lines to Auschwitz and thereby bring the inferno to an end.

4. Fate.

This spiritual attitude which gave my life meaning there sometimes played the most important role at certain times. It strengthened my will and gave my life meaning. All these important moments are described in detail in the book.

I got to know Dr. Nyszli (sic) very well in early summer 1944. He had to work in the Sonderkommando with his colleagues, Prof. Gorog and others, as a pathologist for Dr. Mengele. He was an outstanding and optimistic man. In contrast, Prof. Gorog was a sensible person. He died in Mauthausen in 1945. 1 never saw Dr. Nyiszli again after the war. He is supposed to have died in 1949-1950.

I am sure that my statements will give you an adequate overview on this subject. I remain, with friendly greetings,

s/F. Müller

P.S. Since I don't know English, I am writing in German. Hopefully you will find someone who can translate this for you.

Whether or not historians find “fate,” “will-power” and “the Allies” as being sufficient reasons for survival at the very heart of the “Mill or Death” is up to them. If they do, they might likely also be firm believers in the aviation abilities of domesticated ruminants.

Müller's book does not waste any time in getting down to the subject matter. Already by page 11 we are “into the crematorium” where the author was assigned to taking corpses out of the gassing room, stripping them of their clothes, and burning them in the crematoria next door. This will come as a surprise to all those Exterminationists who have been telling us all along that the victims were stark naked in the gas chamber, having been tricked into believing that they were taking a shower. The rest of the narrative continues in the same vein.

I noticed there were some small greenish-blue crystals lying on the concrete floor at the back of the room. They were scattered beneath an opening in the ceiling. A large fan was installed up there, its blades humming as they revolved. (p13)

It is rather curious that there is no such giant fan exhibited today at Auschwitz. Nor is there a large hole in the ceiling where it might have been.

Now all six ovens were working. (p14)

The powers that be had allocated twenty minutes for the cremation of three corpses. (p16)

With three corpses going into each oven at intervals of twenty minutes, it was possible to cremate more than fifty-four in one hour. (p17)

This will come as a surprise to pathologists and morticians, who, even with modern crematoria, find that it takes three to four hours to burn just one body!

By page 24 the author is delegated to a special team which is taking the bodies by truck to a pit in the countryside where they are buried. Page 33 takes him back to the gas chamber, where he witnesses 600 naked Jews being gassed. On page 38 he again witnesses a gassing operation. The Jews are again tricked into taking their clothes off and trooping into the gassing room (no mention of numbers this time).

When the last one had crossed the threshold, two SS men slammed shut the heavy iron-studded door which was fitted with a rubber seal, and bolted it. (p38)

Again, none of this description is borne out by the present-day set-up at Auschwitz. MiRler also claims that the gas was tipped in through six holes in the ceiling, where two Germans with gasmasks had scrambled up onto the roof. Truck engines were started up to drown the sound of screams. Gassings were always carried out at night or at dawn.

Pages 44 and 45 are probably the most important in the entire book. In referring to the gas chamber of the crematorium, Müller advises that “we used to call it the mortuary.” And:

The crematorium ovens were also used for the dead of other camp areas. Each evening the corpses of those who had died in the camp hospital arrived on a trolley.

These two brief excerpts are probably the key to the whole conundrum. The “gas chamber” was still what it “used to be” — a mortuary. The crematoria were used to burn the remains of those who had died from disease at the hospital. Müller's contradictory and bizarre descriptions are taken purely and simply from his imagination; or possibly from a ghost-writer's imagination.

Undaunted, he continues in the same vein. According to the author, SS doctors often visited the crematorium to take bits of people away for experiments. They would feel the legs and thighs of the gassees while they were still alive, and then after they were dead they would cut bits off and drop the pieces into a bucket where the still warm flesh would jump around. (It sounds like Mr. Müller has been watching too many low-budget horror-movies; this part reads like an excerpt from Ship of Death.)

On the same page, Müller bumps into his father working on a new crematorium chimney. By the next page, Dad dies of typhus and Filip burns him in the crematorium: a true case of disappearing up one's own chimney. Such is the scale of things in this nightmare world we have come to know as Holocaust.

However, Dad's workmanship could not have been too thorough, for on the next page we find that the firebricks have started to work loose again. Operations at this (Auschwitz I) “death workshop” ground to a halt, and while bigger and better facilities were being constructed at Auschwitz II (Birkenau), temporary facilities had to be rigged up. Two “whitewashed farmhouses with thatched roofs” were used, although the actual mechanics of the operation are not described. All we are told is that the bodies of the gassees were buried nearby. However, during the hot summer of 1942 the bodies started to swell up and ooze out of the ground. Naturally, Müller was one of those lucky ones to be allocated to the delightful job of digging up the bodies and burning them. Talk about favoritism!

By page 58, Müller gets transferred to Birkenau where their 15 ovens-working non-stop naturally-could cremate more than 3,000 corpses a day. Nearby was another crematorium with the same capacity, and 400 meters further on, the two smaller crematoria 4 and 5. Altogether, we are told, “it was now possible in the course of 24 hours to cremate up to 10,000 corpses."

The Birkenau gas chamber is described on page 60:

We werestanding in a large oblong room measuring about 250 square meters. Its unusually low ceiling and walls were whitewashed. Down the length of the room concrete pillars supported the ceiling. However, not all the pillars served this purpose: for there were others too. The Zyklon B gas crystals were inserted through hollow pillars made of sheet metal. They were perforated at regular intervals and inside them a spiral ran from top to bottom in order to ensure as even a distribution of the granular crystals as possible. Mounted on the ceiling was a large number of dummy showers made of metal. These were intended to delude the suspicious on entering the gas chamber into believing that they were in a shower room. A ventilating plant was installed in the wall; this was switched on immediately after each gassing to disperse the gas and thus expedite the removal of corpses.

Needless to say, none of these “perforated metal columns” are in evidence at Birkenau today. Nor is the “ventilating plant” in the wall.

The SS guards, of course, know no limits to their sadism and depravity. On page 80 they tie up a prisoner and push him into one of the, ovens, where he is burnt alive. How it is possible to push someone into a horizontal oven is not explained. On page 87 one of the female gassees attempts to distract the guards with a striptease show. During the mayhem, Müller gets locked in the gas chamber with the gassees, but miraculously is let out before the others are gassed. On page 141, the chief gasser Moll gets sexually turned on-as does his dog-with the killing of another beautiful young gassee.

The author is transferred once again, this time to work on the pits for burning excess corpses. By page 136, the burning is in full operation, with Müller's main job being to scoop up the run-off of human fat, and pour it over the pyre to keep the corpses well basted. It sounds like he is getting rather confused again; just a few pages previously he was telling us how the prisoners were all skin and bone.

The “ashes” (sic; no bones) were then dug out and carted away to be ground down into dust, and then buried in pits. Where these pits are located today — so that a forensic examination might take place — Müller doesn't say.

Events then move rapidly to a close, as Müller is evacuated from Auschwitz and marched to Austria, where he is liberated by the Americans.

Many of the descriptions, names and events in Müller's book have an uncanny familiar ring about them. Many seem to be direct plagiarism from earlier Holocaust testimony, overlain with a high-octane mixture of salacious sex, scatalogical grossness, sado-masochism, and Twilight Zone scenarios. No doubt one day David Wolper will want to make the book into a movie, a la Fania Fenelon, for such are the aggregate ingredients of cinematographical commercial success nowadays.