Each year many thousands of tourists visit the site of the notorious Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, not far from Munich. They see the crematory, the memorial shrines, and the museum. And in recent years, as an almost daily fixture, they see Martin Zaidenstadt. This elderly Jewish man lectures visitors to Dachau on his experiences as a wartime prisoner there. He is particularly passionate about the horrors of the camp's gas chamber where, he explains, many prisoners were put to death with poison gas. He even claims that this gas chamber served as a model for Auschwitz (New York Times, Oct. 26, 1997). Zaidenstadt's listeners respond to his heart-rending testimony with unquestioning sympathy. Many reach generously into their wallets.
But now a new 50-minute documentary film, “Martin,” and a new book, The Last Survivor: In Search of Martin Zaidenstadt, written by journalist Timothy W. Ryback and published by Pantheon, have subjected that testimony to critical review. Ryback establishes that the octogenarian Zaidenstadt was born in Jedwabne, Poland, but that his story of Dachau internment is a fraud. He probably never visited the camp until the 1990s, says Ryback, and his tales of gas chamber killings are untrue.
Although supposedly authoritative evidence of gas chamber killings at Dachau has been cited over the years — including “eyewitness” testimony at the main Nuremberg trial of 1945-46 — today no reputable historian credits such claims. It is widely acknowledged, even by the well-known “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal, that no one was ever “gassed” at the camp. (See, for example, “Wiesenthal Re-Confirms: 'No Extermination Camps on German Soil',” The Journal of Historical Review, May-June 1993, pp. 9-12.)
In today's cultural climate, one is obliged to regard “Holocaust survivors” such as Zaidenstadt with an almost reverential indulgence. For example, the director of the state-run Dachau camp memorial, Barbara Distel, seems unbothered by Zaidenstadt's deceit. Even though she is a government official, she permits his mendacious pan-handling. (One can hardly imagine Distel tolerating anyone who spent hours explaining to camp site visitors that American GIs who liberated the camp on April 29, 1945, summarily killed 500 German prisoners there. For more on this, see, J. Cobden, “The Dachau Gas Chamber Myth,” March-April 1995 Journal, pp. 14-26.)
Also typical is the attitude of Howard Kaplan, a Jewish writer in Los Angeles. In a recent article about Zaidenstadt published in an influential Israeli magazine, he acknowledges that “a difficult question arises from Martin's fabrications,” but concludes on an upbeat note: “But is exaggerating the horror really an affront to truth? I'm not persuaded… What matters is that Martin has ultimately found his way back to Judaism at the doors of the crematorium.” (H. Kaplan, “The Man by the Door,” The Jerusalem Report, April 10, 2000, pp. 46-47.)
A recent New York Times article about the new “Martin” film acknowledges that Zaidenstadt's “assertion” of Dachau gassings is “contrary to the official stories.” But instead of forthrightly identifying his “provocative contentions” as lies, the Times coyly tells readers: “In the end we learn that Mr. Zaidenstadt's version of things isn't entirely reliable, but isn't to be dismissed either… The implicit message of 'Martin' [is] that everyone has a truth to deliver…” ("Holocaust Documentary Explores One Man's Truth,” April 3, 2000.)
No one seems concerned about the toll that such deceit takes on the residents of the Bavarian town of Dachau, who must live in the shadow of the camp's government-promoted infamy. For example, to avoid the stigma of having children born in the notorious city, many expectant mothers go elsewhere to deliver their babies.
The Zaidenstadt story points up the social-intellectual corruption that is an intrinsic by-product of what Rabbi Michael Goldberg (in his 1995 book Why Should Jews Survive?) aptly calls “the Holocaust cult.” All the same, Zaidenstadt now joins a growing list of demonstrably false “Holocaust survivor” eyewitnesses — a slate that includes Jerzy Kosinski and best-selling author Binjamin Wilkomirski. (See “Holocaust Survivor Memoir Exposed as Fraud,” Sept.-Oct. 1998 Journal, pp. 15-16.)