The Holocaust Historiography Project

How Many Jews Died in the German Concentration Camps?

Carl O. Nordling

It is well known that the majority of those who were interned in the German concentration camps during part of the Second World War did not return to their homes after liberation. Most of these people were Jewish. It has been a common belief that about 6 million Jews died in these camps, intentionally killed in accordance with a grand program for the physical extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe. Most laymen presume that this was proven by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. The International Court did not prove anything of the sort, however, and historians who have dealt with contemporary German or Jewish history have long since modified this description in various degrees.

Recently, new light has been shed on Jewish population loss in the Second World War by the German Walter N. Sanning in his book The Dissolution of East European Jewry. This is an investigation of twentieth-century Jewish demography and migration, done with carefulness and objectivity. It is based on more than 50 publications containing statistical population data on Jews in various countries, including migrations, fertility, mortality etc. Sanning’s most quoted source is, however, Gerald Reitlinger’s book The Final Solution, written in the 1950's. (One could say with some justice that Reitlinger laid the foundation for Sanning’s work.) The great majority of statistical data used by Sanning is taken from the American Jewish Year Book (various issues), the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971) and the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (1943). As far as I can judge, Sanning’s sources appear to be the best ones obtainable.

It has been said of Sanning’s work that “not one in a thousand undergraduates could find fault with it” and that “only a few more graduates would be competent to identify its flaws and to convincingly question its credibility.” [1] If that be the case, I feel more or less obliged to comment. I have spent three decades working professionally with the same kind of demographic complexes and processes, and therefore I regard myself as one of the few who would be competent to identify at least the grosser flaws and mistakes in a work of this kind. After a careful reading of Sanning’s book, however, I have found no mistake or misconstruction of a type that would change its conclusions to any appreciable degree. Nor am I aware of any other serious criticism of Sanning’s results or methods in the eight years that have elapsed since his book first appeared in German (as Die Auflösung des osteuropäischen Judentums ). As a general appraisal, I would say that as far as the book deals with Jewish population losses within the German sphere of influence, it is the most reliable investigation done in the entire post-war period. This does not mean, of course, that it is guaranteed to be faultless, nor that it answers the question of how many Jews died in the German concentration camps.

Although nobody has been able to discover any faults, the book may of course contain such. Therefore, other methods should be used to check the reliability of the significant figures. Fortunately, I possess statistical material that lends itself to a check of some of Sanning’s results. Furthermore, Sanning’s and my own material, taken together and compared with still a few other pieces of statistical information, might enable us to form a fairly reliable answer to the question posed in the title of this article.

The statistical material at my disposal consists of data concerning 722 identified European Jews from the German sphere of influence. The biographies of all these 722 are to be found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and they can be regarded as a representative sample of Jews of a certain level of culture in the late 1930's. Persons of old age are overrepresented in the group, however, and none of the 722 was born later than 1909 (according to the principle of selection that I decided upon). This should be kept in mind, since it appears that emigration was much less frequent among those born before 1880 than among the younger people. And, of course, mortality was much higher among the older group than among the rest of the population. It is also significant that a great number of distinguished Jews had already emigrated before 1938 and were therefore unable to take part in the more general emigration that seems to have occurred in the years 1939 to 1941. Distinguished Jews presumably had more foreign contacts and perhaps realized the danger of impending persecutions earlier than others. Therefore, my group of identified Jews of 1938 probably includes a relatively high proportion of persons who were prone to stay where they were, even under adverse conditions. A statistical survey of the fates of all these 722 Jews has been published in The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 10, no. 2.

Sanning has used the year 1939 as oneof his “stop lines, “ and for this year he has found 5,044,000 Jews present in the area under consideration. [2] By means of a series of complex calculations he is able to demonstrate that no less than about 2,200,000 Jews emigrated from the area in the period between the German attacks on Poland and on the Soviet Union (i.e. 1939-41). In other words, 44% of the Jewish population in what became the German sphere of influence would have left the danger zone before the real danger materialized. Although this figure took me by surprise, I cannot find that Sanning has erred on this point. Comparison with the group of 722 identified Jews shows that among them 33% (of those present in 1939) emigrated before the end of 1941. (See Table 1.)

The cause of the difference between 44% and 33% is easily explained by considering the special make-up of my sample group. For instance, if we look at the identified Jews born 1880-1909 and consider the whole period from 1938 to 1944, we find that no less than 51% emigrated. Those born after 1909 (i.e. about half the population) may have been even more prone to emigrate. Besides, Jews who were not renowned or in the public sector certainly had possibilities (in many cases) to change their ethnic affiliation and (in some cases) even their names and identities. By such means ordinary Jews could slip away more easily than well-known people.

Evidently, we have to consider Sanning’s number of 2,847,000 Jews present in the German sphere of influence in June 1941 as the best estimate so far (certainly with margins of error). This figure will therefore be used as the base for the following comparison. With the aid of Table 1, we are now going to compare the percentages of certain significant subgroups.

Fortunately for our purposes, the bureaucratic Germans carefully registered and numbered the detainees in the Auschwitz concentration camp and in the Theresienstadt ghetto. While the latter was solely inhabited by Jews, the former had a mixed clientele consisting of various persecuted groups of people, such as Gypsies, conscientious objectors, homosexuals, vagrants, political adversaries and hard-boiled felons. Since it is commonly held that the Jews were by far the largest group, we will assume here that they made up 60% of all Auschwitz detainees. This granted, we find that 8.6% of all the available Jews (the “basic” group) were registered, sooner or later, in the Auschwitz camp. In many cases this happened after a previous stay at Theresienstadt. The corresponding figure for the group of identified Jews is 8.5%. Pending the arbitrariness of the above-mentioned figure of 60%, no statistically significant difference can possibly be exposed in this case. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 65% of the Auschwitz detainees were eventually recorded as having died within the camp, and another 20% are supposed to have died after transfer to satellite camps or during the final evacuation of the camp proper (i.e. Auschwitz and Birkenau). The total number of missing Auschwitz detainees would thus be 207, 000, or 7.3% of the “basic” number. This may be compared with the confirmed proportion of 7.6% missing out of the “basic” number of identified Jews. (See Table 1.)

From the book on Theresienstadt by H.G. Adler we learn that 141,000 were registered as inhabitants, or internees, of this German-created Jewish town in Bohemia. [3] This number equals 5.0% of the “basic” number, which corresponds perfectly with the fact that 5.0% of the identified Jews (of 1941) were also brought to Theresienstadt. The majority of the internees of this ghetto, however, were sent to Auschwitz (and are thus included in the above mentioned number of registered prisoners). This fate befell only a fourth of the identified inhabitants of the ghetto probably because these contained a higher proportion of so-called “prominent” Jews who were exempt from being moved to other camps. (All the Danish Jews were for some reason placed in this category.) The group of identified Jews also suffered a much lower death rate than the rest (31% each as against 63% among the ghetto remainers in each case). It follows that the percentage of survivors was much higher in the case of the identified Jews than among the inhabitants in general.

There is hardly any reason to contest the accuracy of the camp registration numbers quoted above. If they are correct, it follows that the “basic” number of 2,847,000 Jews present in June 1941 must also be fairly accurate. This is so because we know from the sample of identified persons what percentages of camp detainees are to be expected, and we have found percentages that fit in with these expectations.

Those who died in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt represent a little less than half the total loss in all the German concentration camps as far as the identified Jews are concerned. As for the Jewish population in general, the total number of camp deaths would be contained within Sanning’s category “Jews missing in the German sphere of influence.” This number of “missing” turns out to be 304,000, according to Sanning’s primary method of calculating. As a check, Sanning has used another method as well. This secondary calculation results in a number of 330,000 missing out of a “basic” number of 2,738,000 (within a somewhat narrower sphere of influence). The primary number of “missing” represents 10.7% of the “basic” number, the secondary 12.1% of the “basic” number. These percentages should be compared with 12.3% missing due to other causes than normal mortality among the group of identified Jews. At the first glance, this looks like a rather good agreement. But due to the coarse statistical methods used by Sanning, these figures can have “no claim to absolute certainty” — to use Sanning’s own words. He says that the available data on population size, migration, flight and deportation, fertility and mortality rates, mixed marriages and assimilation tendencies are often so vague that a slight variation in the calculation procedure might well change the result by several hundreds of thousands of persons in the “missing” category. Therefore, what Sanning really has achieved is only to show that the number of missing Jews at the end of the war in the German sphere must have been between, say, 150,000 and 500,000. The lower figure can be ruled out immediately on account of the number of registered deaths in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. The best estimate seems to be the assumption that these deaths amounted to about 51% of all Jews missing from German concentration camps, in accordance with the proportion among the groups of identified Jews. This would mean approximately 470,000 missing altogether from the camps. Since about 50,000 would have died “naturally, “ according to the normal mortality rate, there would be some 420,000 “missing” from a statistical point of view. This is 14.7% of the “basic” number to be compared with 12.3% in the case of the identified Jews.

It may perhaps contribute to the check if something could be said about the number of survivors from the concentration camps. One man who should have known the number of Jewish detainees in the camps was SS leader Heinrich Himmler. Fortunately, a certain Jewish representative was in the position to interview him on this matter as late as April 1945. This was Mr. Norbert Masur from Sweden, who went to negotiate with Himmler about a possible liberation of imprisoned Jews. During these talks Himmler mentioned the number of Jews still alive in some of the camps: 25,000 in Theresienstadt, 20,000 in Ravensbrück, from 20,000 to 30,000 in Mauthausen, 50,000 in Bergen-Belsen and 6, 000 in Buchenwald. Later information indicates that some of the figures were too high, and that the Buchenwald number was far too low. The sum was probably fairly correct. But Himmler intimated that 150, 000 Auschwitz Jews should also be counted among the survivors. According to the SS leader, these would have been alive in the camp until its evacuation. This may be fairly true, but apparently Himmler had no count of survivors after the evacuation, and he seems to have had no ideaof what had happened to the evacuees. We know from other sources that only a minority of them survived the transport in open railroad cars in the bitterly cold winter, perhaps about 30,000 to 50,000. Then there were many other camps with Jewish detainees, not mentioned by Himmler, and it seems reasonable to assume some 30,000 or 40,000 survivors among them. That would mean around about 200,000 Jewish survivors from all the German concentration camps. A total mortality of 70% among the Jewish detainees would follow from these assumptions. This is a very high figure from other points of view. The mortality in the corresponding group of identified Jews was “only” 75%, although they were much older than inmates in general and should have been much more prone to die under the conditions. Perhaps we have estimated somewhat too high a number of deaths and/or a little too low a number of survivors, after all.

In any case, the number of Jews missing in the German sphere turns out to be very far from the “established” figure of six million. Shouldn’t we expect some cardinal error in the whole reasoning just because of this great discrepancy? Certainly, some further checking seems required. But first, let us remember that we have considered here only the number of Jews who died in the German concentration camps, not all the European Jews who died in the war. Among the 5,500,000 Jews in the Soviet sphere (in 1941) more than one million died, according to Sanning’s investigation. These deaths include both “normal” victims of the war and victims of German and Soviet persecution. Secondly, the Jewish “basic” population of about 2, 850, 000 couldn’t possibly have suffered a loss of something like six million. This figure should have been discarded long ago, especially since Reitlinger proved it to be unrealistic nearly 40 years ago. The reasonable question to ask is rather this: In view of the proclaimed anti-Semitic policy of the National Socialists and Hitler’s talk about Ausrottung, how could more than two million escape deportation? What about the famous German efficiency?

Part of the answer comes from Himmler himself, who said to Mr. Masur: “I have left 450, 000 Jews in Hungary” — as if he had done it out of humanity. (The real reason probably was lack of transport facilities at the time when Hungary came under direct German rule.) Romania never came under direct German rule, and consequently very few Romanian Jews were deported to German camps. The Romanian government pursued an anti-Semitic policy of its own, and Hitler was satisfied with that. More than half a million of the “basic” number were Romanian Jews. Much the same conditions prevailed in Italy, France, Croatia and Slovakia, and the Gestapo had to be content, in most cases, with shipments of non-naturalized Jews from these countries. Naturalized Jews in Belgium, Bulgaria and Finland seem to have been entirely exempt from deportation. In Poland, hundreds of thousands of Jews were allowed to stay in the city ghettos (until they revolted as in Warsaw 1943). Most of the Jews in Denmark escaped the planned deportation by fleeing over the Sound to Sweden — and the German Army and Navy did virtually nothing to prevent them.

The fate of the non-deported Jews was often very miserable, especially in the case of Poland, and it certainly deserves a special study.

Another problem that would deserve a special study from a statistical point of view is the alleged system of transporting old Jews incapable of work to camps in the East with the sole intention of killing them immediately upon arrival. It would be unavailing to look for such cases in the registers, since the allegation requires that the murder took place without any notice taken of the names and identities of the victims. All that can be said here is that the alleged practice could hardly have been responsible for any large number of deaths. If that had been the case, there would certainly have been many more than 32 missing after Auschwitz among all the identified Jews reported by the Encyclopaedia Judaica. And, since a quarterof the identified Jews sent to Auschwitz were aged 65-80, we would probably have seen several cases of “killed on arrival” in their biographical notices. Instead, we find two rather unexpected examples. The Encyclopaedia Judaica reports of Gisi Fleischmann (47) that she was “killed on arrival,” and of Raymond Lambert (49), “gassed upon arrival.” On the other hand, it says that e.g. Béla Bernstein (76) “died” in Auschwitz and Eduard Duckesz (76) “perished” within the camp. It is not even certain that the Encyclopaedia is to be relied on in the case of Fleischmann, since later information reports her as deported to Birkenau (Auschwitz) in August and murdered about 18 October (Martin Gilbert in his book The Holocaust, 1986).

Our general conclusion must be that the question posed in this article’s title cannot be answered with any precision as long as we have recourse only to the above-mentioned sources. The general magnitude was certainly half a million, but the actual number of Jews who died in the German concentration camps might well have been as low as 300,000 or as high as 600,000. In order to establish a more precise answer to the question, more sample investigations should be accomplished. Any Jewish society, club, school class or small community might constitute such a sample, if only all or most of its members could be traced through the war. The study of a sufficient number of such samples would probably answer the above question and a number of other questions as well.

I shall finish this article by referring to just one small sample group of deported Jews from the Holocaust literature:

  • Albert Düssel taken to Auschwitz, later to Neuengamme, died there 1945
  • Mrs “van Daan” taken to Auschwitz, later to Buchenwald, died there 1945
  • Peter “van Daan” taken to Auschwitz, later to Mauthausen, died there 1945
  • Margot Frank taken to Auschwitz, later to Belsen, died there 1945
  • Anne Frank taken to Auschwitz, later to Belsen, died there 1945
  • Mrs Frank taken to Auschwitz, later to Belsen, died there 1945
  • Mr “van Daan” taken to Auschwitz, last seen there in 1945
  • Mr Frank taken to Auschwitz, survived in camp hospital.

This gives some idea of what can be achieved by means of the study of samples of known individuals.


  • Adler, H.G.: Theresienstadt, 1941-1945. Tübingen, 1960
  • Encyclopaedia Judaica. Jerusalem, 1972.
  • Sanning, W.N.: The Dissolution of Eastern European Jewry. Costa Mesa, California, 1990.
  • Masur, Norbert: En jude talar med Himmler. Stockholm, 1945.
Statistical Data Concerning Jewish Population in German Controlled Area Compared to the Corresponding Figures For a Sample of Identified Jews in Same Area
Category Thousands % % Number Category
Present 1939
(Source: Sanning)
5,044     629 Present Jan. 1939
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Emigrated 1939-41
(Source: Sanning)
-2,197     -206 Emigrated 1939-41
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Present 1941 = 2,847 100 100 = 423 Present December 1941
Jews registered at Auschwitz
(assuming that 60% of all registered were Jewish)
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
244 8.5 8.6 36 Deported to Auschwitz
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Missing in May 1945
(85% of all according to Enc. Judaica )
-207 7.3 7.6 -32 Missing in May 1945
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Survived Auschwitz = 37 1.3 0.9 = 4 Survived Auschwitz
Registered at Theresienstadt
(Source: H.G. Adler)
141 5.0 5.0 21 Deported to Theresienstadt
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Forwarded from Theresienstadt
(Source: H.G. Adler)
-88 3.1 1.2 -5 Forwarded from Theresienstadt
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Died in Theresienstadt.
(Source: H.G. Adler)
-33.5 1.2 1.2 -5 Died in Theresienstadt.
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Survived Theresienstadt = 19.5 0.7 2.6 = 11 Survived Theresienst.
      17.0 72 Missing after deport. to Concentration camps
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Missing not due to emigration or normal mortality
(Source: Sanning)
304 10.7 12.3 52 Missing not due to normal mortality (72-20)
Alive in conc. camps April 1945 according to Himmler
(Source: N. Masur)
275 9.6 5.7 24 Alive in conc. camps May 1945
(Source: Enc. Judaica )
Note: All figures refer to Jews living in the countries under German control in June 1941.