Shadow of Doubt

Revisionists Can Go to the Beach
Published: 2005-09-01
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Very soon, revisionists will be able to take a rest and go to the beach. Their very existence will be enough to have their sworn enemies jump into action and start deconstructing the most blatant lies about the WW2 era. The story told below is very banal. A man who happened to have been a prisoner in German-occupied Europe during the war, contracts a well-known disease, the need for fame and money. In our world, he reckons, there is no better trade than selling “memory.” Memory is in great need, the market is huge. To make the sales jump high enough, you need a combination of sex, violence and blood, it is a sure recipe. Now take an ordinary Australian POW (the “Digger”) who runs a miserable coffeshop somewhere near the outback. Having felt the market, he becomes mad with desire. He writes his memoirs OK, but he needs more and resorts to the recipe. He adds the implausible circumstance that he worked at the crematory ovens (the “Stoker”) in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, places famous among the famous. Then you have the megadeath factor which makes the story sexier. Another Australian writer, Thomas Keneally, used the same recipe in his novel on Schindler. Anyone with a faint acquaintance with the material will immediately know this is a complete hoax.

This is an ordinary kind of hoax. The poor guy is not a compulsive liar, he is just adapting to the demand of the market. Editors, ghostwriters, advisers and agents know how to “improve” a manuscript. They have all read the available literature which is replete with horror stories, blood, misery, hunger and blows. The credibility of a “new” biographical tale depends on the proportion of such horrible ingredients. We can cite hundreds and hundreds of “documents” and “authentic” novels like that. Among the first to scrutinize these semi-fictional accounts of the life in the camps was Paul Rassinier, who could criticize because he had been a camp inmate himself. Modern Holocaust revisionism has its deepest roots in this thorough objective critical approach of testimonies and memoirs. There has been a violent and vocal coalition of parties interested in the building and maintenance of a mythical approach to attack revisionism and try to discredit it.

Although this coalition is still active, a fast growing number of its own members have been put to shame by the revisionist’s regular research. Now, suddenly, they want to preempt the gross stupidities which they feel is playing in the hands of the revisionist. In his scathing attack against Professor Faurisson, Pierre Vidal-Nacquet, back in 1980, gave many clues in his footnotes indicating that part of the literature on the concentration camps was rubbish. This emboldened others who are slowly coming out of the woods. The following extracts of an Australian article will show that the battle has started among the enemies of revisionism. We have a repetition of the Goldhagen syndrome: the scholars who are the guardians of the temple, those who are the ultimate rampart to protect the gas chambers from uncanny curiosities are locked into battle with illiterate publishers, ignorant journalists, foxy community leaders who do not give a damn for historical truth, but just want to terrorize public opinion and stay out of reach of moral critique in order to freely pursue their political agenda.

Revisionists may now prepare for the beach, as their enemies will take up the job.

Serge Thion


Shadow of Doubt

By Brian Woodley

Donald Watt went to war a soldier, a slouch-hatted Victorian country boy with a rifle, a bayonet and a grenade. But there is a mystery in what he came back as – a mystery triggered by Watt’s exercise in retrieving from his memory, after half a century of silence, the story of how the Germans punished him as a habitual escapee from prisoner-of-war stalags.

Watt says they drafted him into the Sonderkommando and put him to work stoking the ovens of history’s most notorious killing machine at Birkenau, the worst of the facilities that collectively comprised the Auschwitz concentration camp. His 1995 autobiography, Stoker, the story of an intrepid Aussie Digger locked up in the engine room of the Holocaust, has become a best-seller and placed Watt on a heroic pedestal. He has been feted at war reunions and commemorations, including the VE Day 50th anniversary celebrations at the Sydney Opera House.

The movie may not be far behind. Tristram Miall Films Pty Ltd, a Sydney company, is developing a feature film based on Watt’s story. It has assigned as co-writer of the screenplay one of the nation’s best-known directors of theatre and opera, Barrie Kosky.

But as Watt’s story has gained circulation, with the recent publication of his book in Britain following three print runs in Australia and, at one stage, the prospect of a German translation, the reliability of his recollection, particularly the chapters on Auschwitz, has been challenged by Holocaust researchers in Israel, Germany, Poland and Australia.

As a result Watt, 78 and in frail health, has become the focus of a world-wide controversy, with his supporters and detractors equally vehement in their claims as to whether he was or was not incarcerated in Auschwitz.

“I’ve known Donald for over two years now and he’s a gorgeous man,” says his agent, Marnie Bates. “He has no reason to fabricate anything.” Yet Watt’s doubters are highly credentialed scholars of Holocaust history. Their critiques of the soldier’s story cannot be lightly dismissed.

Watt’s descriptions are claimed to be consistently faulty in important details, from the layout of the camp to the kind of fuel shoveled into the ovens that consumed millions of people. His account of how he landed in Auschwitz also has raised eyebrows as inconsistent with everything known about Nazi procedures for transporting people to the death camps.

Gideon Greif, from the education department at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the foremost of the world’s Holocaust museum and research centers, says:

“After I read the two chapters [Watt’s account of Auschwitz] thoroughly, I could ascertain that the author at no time was a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Doubtful also is the fact that under any circumstances he was a prisoner there.”

The librarian of the documentation department at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt, Werner Renz, agrees with Greif. “The many errors in chapters six and seven show that Watt could not have been in the Sonderkommando,” Renz says. Greif, considered among many of his peers the foremost expert on the history of the Sonderkommando, or special command[o] unit, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the author of a book, We Cried Without Tears, detailing his extensive interviews with surviving special command[o] prisoners. He takes issue with Watt’s story virtually sentence by sentence. Excerpts:

“The representation that the daily arriving Jews, gypsies, communists etc. were always sent directly into the gas chambers is simply wrong. The non-Jews were not sent into the gas chambers as a whole group, there were selections, both with Jews as well as non-Jews... It is incorrect that trains arrived daily. […]

He writes that he cannot say much about crematoriums number one and four because he never worked there. However, without exception, the special command unit prisoners knew all details of the buildings exactly. […]

According to his account, the Kapos were the actual rulers of the camp. However, this was not the case, as they were prisoners themselves. This is one of the most absurd representations in the book

The author writes that in Summer 1944 the number of special command[o] unit prisoners sank from almost 1000 to about 200 members. He gives no reason for this. The reason, which surprisingly he does not mention, was a retribution measure for the special command unit uprising. In the course of this retribution hundreds of special command unit prisoners were killed. The author does not seem to know this...He writes that he experienced the uprising as a witness. But his depiction of the uprising is full of mistakes. […]

Watt shows with his representation of breakfast that he does not even know what the special command unit prisoners got to eat... He describes his work as stoker at the ovens, but declares that he did not know what was being burned… According to his description, one could assume that all gas chambers and crematoriums were underground. Only two had underground parts. […] He writes that he heard from his new colleagues that carbon monoxide had been used earlier instead of Zyklon B to kill the victims. Totally wrong. Carbon monoxide was never used in Auschwitz. It is not true that the crematoriums of Auschwitz-Birkenau worked around the clock. He writes that the corpses were brought from the gas chambers to the crematorium on lorries. Absolutely wrong. Whoever writes this way was never a member of the special command units.”

Watt’s story was checked as closely as practicable by a federal concentration camp’s committee, whose chairman, retired Rear Admiral Neil Ralph, remains satisfied of the truth of Watt’s account. “Memories do change. But I have no doubt in my mind that what Mr. Watt says happened to him, did happen,” Ralph says. Ralph, after interviewing Watt on behalf of the committee, was one of the people who encouraged him to write about his experiences as a kind of therapy.

Another was Suzanne Blake, then working as a public relations officer working for the Sydney Jewish museum, where the book was launched in 1995. “Australia per capita has the greatest number of Holocaust survivors outside Israel,” says Blake. “I said, come meet them and visit the museum.” Some of the survivors whom Watt met, including Lotte Weiss, who spent three years in the women’s camp at Auschwitz, told The Weekend Review, they had no reason to doubt his story. “What he wrote in the book was exactly what he told me,” says Weiss.

The Ralph committee was commissioned by the Hawke government in 1987 to examine the belated claims of some Australian World War II veterans who said that, as prisoners of war, they had been held in labor camps, non-military prisons or concentration camps. In Watt’s case, the committee recommended the maximum permissible compensation and in 1990 the then Minister for Veteran Affairs, Ben Humphreys, wrote:

“I am delighted that a grant of $10,000 has been made to you as compensation for the horrors you experienced in the Nazi concentration camp.”

The total lack of documentation concerning Watt’s movement from mid 1944, when he escaped from Stalag 13 C, a POW camp in Bavaria, to early 1945, when he made contact with an advancing British armored column near Hanover, did not overly concern the committee. Ralph stated:

“Look at the times and the record keeping. Watt was an escaped prisoner. In some cases there was a record of absence from a Stalag, but in most cases there was no record of a person being away from the camp or in another camp, especially from a concentration camp. The Germans weren’t keen to admit there were POWs in such places. […] He had escaped three times, so it’s not surprising, judging from the experiences of what happened to others, that he got a dose of concentration camp.”

Watt says he spent seven of those undocumented months stoking the ovens at Birkenau. He says he was a member of the special command unit – the Sonderkommando – which, according to Holocaust researchers, consisted primarily of fit Jewish men press-ganged into assisting with the murder and disposal of the great numbers of condemned people sent to Auschwitz. Their job necessarily meant the members of the Sonderkommando knew too much, as far as the Nazi SS were concerned. Their average life expectancy was about two months before they , too, were killed and cremated.

As all authorities acknowledge, the Nazi archives are incomplete. Many records have been lost or were destroyed. [...]. Even so, when the Auschwitz State Museum was inaugurated in Oswiecim in Poland in 1965, the archives relating to Auschwitz were found to be more comprehensive than had been thought. The museum has records on Weiss, for instance, but not Watt. Yet Weiss was one among millions of Jews. Watt, an Australian veteran of North Africa and Crete, was a singular case.

According to the museum’s director of research, Franciszek Piper:

“There is not any source that would confirm that among the prisoners of KL Auschwitz there was a British citizen from Australia, particularly, that such a prisoner was a member of the Sonderkommando... In the text [of Watt’s book] I noticed a string of information borrowed from literature, which is presented as experiences of the author. Certain repeated information is already outdated, such as the mentioning of the killing of 450 prisoners who were chosen for work in the Sonderkommando. […] On critical inspection immediate doubts arise as to whether [Stoker’s] author was really a witness of the events described.”

Unquestionably he suffered at the hands of the Gestapo and other Nazi authorities, including torture by thumb screws. The way he says he was treated at Auschwitz was peculiar, yet his was a peculiar case. This presents its own challenge to those who would doubt his account. Watt cannot prove beyond doubt that he was at Auschwitz. But neither can his challengers prove that he was not.

Watt concedes that he may have made errors while writing his memoirs. Most notably, he has backed away from his claim to have witnessed gas chambers in operation at another concentration camp, Belsen, after researchers pointed out gas chambers did not exist there. But he stands by his substantive account.

Watt lived fairly quietly after the war, operating some pubs and eventually retiring on the northern New South Wales coast. His decision to share his war experience came in 1987 and was triggered by news of the Hawke government’s creation of the concentration camps committee. “I was there too.” Watt quietly told his second wife, Joan, using a phrase that would become the working title of his book, in which he writes: “I haven’t told anyone else before because I hated every minute of it. I didn’t even want to think about it. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the things I saw there. It’s haunted me all my life and I didn’t think anyone would believe me. “

When Watt’s book was published, Professor Konrad Kwiet, a director of the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University school of history, philosophy and politics, and adviser to the Australian government on war crimes, harbored private doubts about its accuracy. Then early last year, says Kwiet, he was contacted by the Fritz Bauer Institute which had in turn been asked by a German publishing company to check out the manuscript.

In the course of examining the book, which resulted in a scathing critique by Fritz Bauer scholars alleging it to be full of inaccuracies, the German institute also contacted Yad Vashem, which produced a similarly sceptical analysis. At that point Kwiet and some of his students began their own intensive research.

Scholars from Fritz Bauer and other institutions point out that long before he claimed to have been taken to Auschwitz, Watt reports seeing, in the Bavarian city of Hammelburg, a train loaded with Jewish women and children with a yellow star of David sewn to their clothes – at a time predating the German directive requiring the star to be worn and the transport of Jews via Hammelburg.

Later Watt described being at Belsen, where he saw Jews taken to the gas chamber and buried in mass graves dug by Russian POWs. The problem with his account is that there were no gas chambers at Belsen. According to the scholars, similarly glaring errors pervade Watt’s account of Auschwitz. Among those collated by one of Kwiet’s students, Darren O’Brien: a `Stoker’ in the Sonderkommando was one who cremated corpses, not stoked fires; the crematoriums were fuelled with coke and coke gas, not wood; a coke storeroom was located in crematorium two, where Watt says he worked, but he makes no mention of it; and his account of the Sonderkommando uprising in October 1944 differs in virtually every aspect from the testimony of other surviving witnesses.

In a paper on these and other issues, O’Brien writes: “Distortions and impossibilities arise... in the crematorium area, Watt claims he wore no shoes. Given the risk of injuring his feet, this would have constituted virtual suicide. Claims are made concerning guards stealing prisoner food and prisoners in the Sonderkommando starving. Both of these claims cannot be substantiated. German guards ...were well-fed. Furthermore, in comparison with the ordinary prisoner, the diet of members of the Sonderkommando was far superior.”

Last October O’Brien wrote to Watt about some of these issues. In a return letter, Watt initially disputed having claimed there were gas chambers at Belsen – but wrote again the same day, saying : “I have just read my book again, and came across the page where I did quote the gas chambers in Belsen. When I wrote the book after 50 years it was done by memory. After being in Auschwitz-Birkenau, I thought the gas chambers must have been in Belsen because of the bodies thrown into the pits. Darren, I am sorry I misquoted different to you.” Responding to O’Brien’s other question, Watt said that in the last twelve months of the war the fuel source at Auschwitz was wood, with the Germans reserving coke for other uses; and that he had not a number tattooed on his arm like other Auschwitz prisoners, “as I was an Australian POW, plus you could say I was a political POW.” The tattooing of prisoners was not universal.

“There’s no doubt he believes he was there,” says O’Brien, who further notes that Watt did not attempt to record his memoirs for more than 40 years. On that basis it might be fair to assume that his memories had undergone some change in detail and substance.

John Attenborough, managing director of the Australian division of Watt’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, says the manuscript was checked, “very carefully by a number of different sources” before publication in Australia. These included the International Red cross, the Ralph Committee, the Holocaust Museum in Sydney, and the Sydney Jewish Museum. The book has sold 10,000 to 20,000 copies in Australia.

But the only document that states without qualification that Watt was incarcerated in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and which is reprinted among the book’s photographs, is the one produced by the Ralph committee. “We were able to use the experience of other cases in which similar events had occurred,” says Ralph. “Of course we gave him some benefit. But his descriptions were good...They were unrehearsed straight out of his memory... It would have been a great invention if it wasn’t true. We’ve had others caught out embellishing a story, but there was none of that in Watt’s responses.”

Bates says her client is aware of challenges to his story. But she declined on his behalf The Weekend Australian’s request for an interview, saying Watt was bound by a legal agreement with Tristram Miall Films, which must first approve any media interviews and, anyway, he was too frail to speak in his own defense. “He’s put out the book, he’s told his story and that’s the way he wants it to stay,” says Bates. “I’ve read the book and I believe very much in what Don said. Why would he want to make it up?”


This article by B. Woodley was originally published in The Weekend Australian of March 29-30, 1997

Additional information about this document

Author(s) Brian Woodley
Title Shadow of Doubt, Revisionists Can Go to the Beach
Sources The Revisionist 3(1) (2005), pp. 88-91
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  • Serge Thion: Comments
Dates published: 2005-09-01, first posted on CODOH: July 24, 2012, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
Comments This article by B. Woodley was originally published in "The Weekend Australian" of March 29-30, 1997
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