History and ‘Memory’

An Examination of the Evidence of ‘Holocaust Witness’ Mel Mermelstein
Published: 1997-07-01
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Theodore J. O'Keefe worked as an Institute for Historical Review editor from 1986 until 1994. He led the IHR's research effort during the second Mermelstein lawsuit, devoting hundreds of hours without pay to uncovering and organizing the evidence. He served as chief editor of this Journal from 1988 until April 1992, and addressed the IHR Conferences of 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992. Educated at Harvard University, he is the author of numerous published articles on historical and political subjects.

In September 1991 the Institute for Historical Review prevailed in a lawsuit brought by Mel Mermelstein, a southern California businessman and self-professed eyewitness to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. This victory closed more than ten years of wrangling in two legal cases, neither of which ever came to trial, in a rancorous dispute that tested the legitimacy of efforts by skeptical scholars to revise the generally held version of the Holocaust.

It all began at the first IHR conference in 1979, when co-founder and then-director David McCalden announced an award of $50,000 to anyone who could provide proof of homicidal gassings of Jews at Auschwitz. Mermelstein, a wartime detainee of the camp, submitted a claim for the award, and then brought a lawsuit against the Institute on the grounds that it had not acted quickly enough on his claim.

The first suit was settled in July 1985 when the Institute and co-defendants paid Mermelstein $90,000, and issued an apology to him “and all other survivors of Auschwitz for the pain, anguish and suffering he and all other Auschwitz survivors have sustained relating to the $50,000 reward offer.”[1] Mermelstein’s victory predictably received sympathetic nationwide media attention, and was dramatized in a flattering and much publicized made-for-television movie, “Never Forget,” starring Leonard Nimoy (as a heroic and principled Mel Mermelstein) and Dabney Coleman (who played Mermelstein’s lawyer).[2]

Theodore J. O'Keefe

Theodore J. O'Keefe

In the second case, Mermelstein brought an $11 million suit for defamation (libel) because of an IHR Newsletter item by Bradley Smith that called him a “demonstrable fraud,” a “vainglorious prevaricator,” and a “false-tale spinner.”[3] On September 19, 1991, Mermelstein was obliged to drop what remained of his suit after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed a substantial portion of it. (For the most comprehensive account of the second Mermelstein trial, see this writer’s article in the January–February 1994 Journal of Historical Review.)[4] In contrast to the generous media coverage of the first case, newspapers all but ignored the second.[5]

Although in each case the judicial dispute centered on such strictly legal issues as whether a valid contract had existed, whether Mermelstein had been libeled, whether he was a public figure, and whether earlier suits had been brought maliciously, the essence was Mermelstein’s claim to have witnessed his mother and sisters as they were driven into a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944.[6] Mermelstein and his lawyers stressed the “Holocaust” angle, twice succeeding in having a judge take “judicial notice” of the claim that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. In the second, 1991 trial, they even attempted to introduce as evidence the entire transcript of the main Nuremberg (IMT) trial.

For our part, Institute researchers, including McCalden, IHR writers Lou Rollins and Bradley Smith, and I, devoted considerable effort to checking the various claims Mermelstein had made over the years. During the course of this ten-year investigation, which intensified with the approach of trial in the second case in 1991, we were assisted by volunteers across America and in several foreign countries. For example, through intermediaries we obtained information about Mermelstein and his family from the Auschwitz State Museum.

While several accounts have already been published that focus on the legal and public relations aspects of the dispute, this article centers on Mermelstein’s credibility as a Holocaust witness. Here we take a look at his public statements and writings, especially his autobiographical memoir, By Bread Alone, as well as hitherto unpublished testimony and recollections he provided to authorities at the Auschwitz State Museum and the German consulate in Los Angeles, from wartime concentration camp records obtained in Germany and in Poland, and from other sources.[7]

This is all the more fitting given the fervor with which Jewish-Zionist groups, public officials, and much of the media have embraced Mermelstein as a particularly important and credible Holocaust witness.[8] For example, a Los Angeles Times feature article by staff writer Mark Pinsky praised Mermelstein as “a normally soft-spoken, single-minded man, a persistent witness, much like Nobel Prize-winning Elie Wiesel and no less eloquent ...”[9] The Los Angeles City Council honored Mermelstein on December 15, 1981, with a formal resolution that declared:

Mel Mermelstein, in 1944, May the 22nd, at dawn, saw his mother and two sisters among other Jewish women and children from his hometown, lured and driven into gas chambers disguised as shower rooms at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination center in Poland.

Four months later, the California state Assembly acclaimed him with a similarly laudatory formal resolution.[10]

Mel Mermelstein in the witness stand

Mel Mermelstein in the witness stand.

Research Sources and Obstacles

Our efforts to obtain information about Mermelstein and his family, and to find Mermelstein relatives in Israel and the United States, were hampered in part because Mermelstein is a common family name among Hungarian Jews.[11] Adding to the difficulties in tracking down Mermelstein family members (and other European Jews) is the common practice of changing the last name upon emigration, and the possibility of Mermelstein’s sisters marrying after the war (and his mother re-marrying). To this must be added confusion about first names. As a young man in Europe Mel Mermelstein evidently went by the first names of “Mor,” “Moric” (or “Moritz”), and (at home) “Moishe.” His father’s first name is given in documents, in By Bread Alone, and elsewhere, variously as “Bernard,” “Bernád,” “Bernat,” “Hersh-Ber” or “Hermann.”

In line with longstanding practice, the American Red Cross and the International Tracing Service at Arolsen, Germany (which is administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross), informed our researcher that any information regarding former detainees (including Mermelstein and his family members) is shared only with former detainees, their next of kin, or their attorneys.[12]

Our researchers were able to confirm that Mel Mermelstein was born on September 25, 1926, in Örösveg, a suburb of Munkacs, where he was also raised. At the time of his birth this area was part of eastern Czechoslovakia, but was annexed to Hungary from 1939 to 1944. Today Munkacs is the western Ukrainian city of Mukachevo.

Along with some two thousand other Hungarian Jews, he was deported to Auschwitz on or about May 20–21, 1944, where he was registered on the 22nd as prisoner number A-4685 (the registration number which is still tattooed on his arm). About six weeks later, he was apparently taken to the Gleiwitz I labor camp (a satellite of Auschwitz), where he was detained and worked until the camp was evacuated in January 1945. In the face of the approaching Soviet forces, he and the other inmates were marched to Blechhammer and then westwards to the Gross-Rosen camp, from where he was transported by train to the Buchenwald. Apparently arriving there on or about February 10, 1945, he remained in the camp until it was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945.[13]

Gassing Witness?

Very early on we noticed significant discrepancies between Mermelstein’s different accounts, and that some of his claims contradicted well established and easily verifiable facts.

Scene from 1991 motion picture 'Never Forget'

An angry Mel Mermelstein, played by "Dr. Spock" actor Leonard Nimoy, is restrained by his lawyer William Cox, played by Dabney Coleman, in a scene from the 1991 motion picture "Never Forget."

Perhaps most remarkable, we discovered that it was not until the summer of 1980 – that is, after he decided to respond to the IHR challenge – that Mermelstein first made his key “eyewitness” claim about seeing his mother and sisters enter a gas chamber. In none of the numerous newspaper interviews he gave prior to 1980 (that we were able to discover) did he make any mention of seeing anyone go into any gas chamber.[14] Similarly, Mermelstein makes no mention of seeing his mother and sisters enter any building or “gas chamber” in the first, 1979 edition of his detailed memoir, By Bread Alone (written before the reward offer).[15]

Instead he makes only an ambiguous reference (p. 119) to seeing them for the last time as he and his father watched from near their barracks building (“The column neared our barracks. Separated only by strands of barbed wire, I could see them ...”). He even suggests that, instead of being gassed, his mother and sisters had been “burned alive.” Specifically, he recounts (p. 129) the words of his father during a conversation a few days after their arrival at Birkenau:

“Your mother and sisters are...” He paused a moment, unable to go on. “And you must not torture your minds [sic] about their fate. Yes, yes. Look! There!” And he pointed to the flaming [sic] chimneys. The vision of my mother, Etu and Magda being burned alive made me feel faint.

More to the point, what Mermelstein wrote on this matter in his memoir actually contradicts his later claims. In By Bread Alone he specifically relates that it was only at the end of the war, after his liberation from Buchenwald, that he first heard, second-hand, that his mother and sisters had been gassed. Believing that his brother and sisters and likely his mother were still alive, he made his way back to Munkacs, where his uncle, Moshe-Aron, told him that none had survived. Moshe-Aron said he had heard that Mermelstein’s mother and sisters had been “led to the gas chambers at Birkenau.”[16]

Yet, in a letter published in a California daily paper in July 1980 (responding to the IHR challenge for proof of a Nazi gas chamber), he wrote:[17]

I witnessed my own mother and two sisters driven among others to the tunnel for their final station, the Gas Chamber No. 5 at Birkenau. It was on May 22, 1944, at dawn. I remember it. I was but a stone’s throw away from the gas chambers and crematoriums...

The contrast between this and his earlier statements strongly suggests that Mermelstein never witnessed any such event, but rather that he invented or imagined this scene in response to the IHR’s challenge. If Mermelstein had actually witnessed his mother and two sisters led into a gas chamber at Birkenau, is it believable that he would make no mention of this in his numerous pre-1980 interviews, or in his 1979 memoir of more than 270 pages?

Fantasy ‘Tunnel’

On other occasions since mid-1980, Mermelstein has claimed that he saw his mother and sisters enter “gas chamber no. 5” going into a “tunnel.” For example, in a written declaration made in December 1980, he stated:[18]

On May 22, 1944, I observed the buildings used as gas chambers and saw a column of women and children being driven into the tunnel that lead into the gas chambers, which I later determined to be the gas chamber number 5. The last time I saw my mother and two sisters was when they were driven into what I later discovered to be the gas chamber at Birkenau at dawn on May 22, 1944.

In a July 1981 response to pretrial questions, he declared:[19]

I personally observed my mother and sisters being driven, along with a group of women and children, into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The building had two chimneys which had been and continued to spew a peculiar reddish flame and which has been identified as gas chamber #5.

Mermelstein’s precision on this point is all the more noteworthy considering his numerous visits to Auschwitz (more than a dozen, he says), his testimony given there, and his evident concern, expressed in his public statements, with the details of Auschwitz and the standard Holocaust legend.

Mermelstein’s “gas chamber no. 5” can only designate the building that is more commonly known as “Crematory 5,” “Krematorium V,” or “Krema 5.” But this claim is simply not possible. As all authoritative sources agree, Crematory 5 (as well as its mirror double, Crematory 4), was built entirely above ground and had neither stairs, tunnel, basement, nor morgue cellar. (The two structures that did have semi-underground “morgue cellars” [“Leichenkeller”] were crematories 2 and 3, some distance away.)[20] Interestingly, crematory building 5 (Krema V) was surrounded by trees, and was therefore called the “forest crematory.”[21] Mermelstein, though, has never made any mention of these trees.

In short, Mermelstein’s testimony about “gas chamber number 5” and its “tunnel” alone discredits him as a trustworthy “gas chamber” witness, and further suggests that he is lying about this key “eyewitness” claim.

Extermination Victims?

What was the actual fate of Mermelstein’s parents and siblings? In By Bread Alone (p. 119), he describes the last time he saw his mother, Fani, and his sisters, Edith and Magda:

In the distance, toward the railroad tracks, we once again saw long columns of women and children walking toward the blazing [sic] chimneys. There were hundreds of them quietly humming and chanting. The column neared our barracks ...

A comparison of this description with the actual layout of the camp as established by aerial photographs and layout plans suggests that what Mermelstein most likely saw was his mother and sisters entering the “Sauna” center, where new arrivals were routinely cleaned and deloused. This is near the westernmost end of the “Kanada” section, where the personal effects of the inmates were stored and where they were issued camp clothing.[22]

'Never Forget' producer Robert Radnitz, Mel Mermelstein, and actor Leonard Nimoy

At a screening party for "Never Forget," a dramatization of the legal dispute between Mermelstein and the Institute for Historical Review, are, from left, producer Robert Radnitz, Mel Mermelstein, and lead actor Leonard Nimoy.

Mermelstein claims that he and the rest of his family arrived by train at Auschwitz on May 21, 1944 – that is, during the May-July 1944 period when, according to most Holocaust historians, the great majority of newly arriving Hungarian Jews (some 400,000 in all) were promptly gassed and cremated.[23] Jewish historian Martin Gilbert writes in his book Auschwitz and the Allies that three trainloads of some 12,000 Hungarian Jews arrived at Auschwitz on May 21, 1944, of whom all but eleven men and six women were gassed.[24]

Consistent with this, for years it has been widely and authoritatively asserted that all Jews arriving at Birkenau who were not able to work, or who were not registered, were promptly consigned to death in the gas chambers.[25] In fact, camp records and other incontestable evidence show that at least a very high percentage of Auschwitz Jews who were not able to work, or who were not registered, were nevertheless were not killed.[26] At the Eleventh IHR Conference in 1992, this writer described[27] finding the names of Mermelstein’s sisters, Edith and Magda, on an October 1944 SS document in the Auschwitz Museum archives that lists 500 Jewish female prisoners, with their birth dates, who were transferred from Auschwitz to Altenburg, a satellite labor camp of Buchenwald.[28]

Selection at the Auschwitz-Birkenau railway ramp, 1944

Upon arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jews were separated into columns of employable and non-employable inmates.

This document would seem to prove that Mermelstein’s sisters “survived” Auschwitz. However, the birth dates given on this list for these two Mermelstein women are different than the birth dates Mel Mermelstein has provided for his sisters. Whereas the 1944 SS listing gives the birth dates as September 4, 1923, for Edith, and May 17, 1926, for Magda, Mermelstein gives the birth dates as October 31, 1923, and June 12, 1928, respectively.[29]

In any case, the fact that the Jewish women on this transport list ranged in age from 15 to 48 (with most in their twenties), including quite a few sharing the same age as Mermelstein’s “gassed” sisters, at least shows that Jewish women of this age were not automatically “gassed.”[30] Also significant, nearly half the women on this 1944 transport list, including Edith and Magda Mermelstein, were not given Auschwitz registration numbers. Of the 500 Jewish Auschwitz prisoners on this SS list, 212 were transferred from the camp, alive and well, without having been registered.

Fate of Other Family Members

Mermelstein has also given contradictory information as to the fate of his father, Bernard. In his memoir, he gives a detailed and heartrending account of how he learned, at Buchenwald in early 1945, from an acquaintance from his home town, that his father had died in his bed of exhaustion at the Jaworzno (Neu-Dachs) satellite camp on December 18, 1944.[31] However, in a 1969 declaration given in Los Angeles he stated: “My father and my brother [Lajos] died during the evacuation marches to Blechhammer from other camps.”[32]

We were unable to find any substantive information about the fate of brother Lajos, although in By Bread Alone (p. 241), Mermelstein reports that after the end of the war his uncle Moshe-Aaron told him that his brother had been “shot on the road to [satellite camp] Blechammer [sic] from Camp Jaworzna [sic]” during the evacuations in early 1945.[33]

More Misinformation

In By Bread Alone, Mermelstein describes the escape in 1944 of several non-Jewish inmates from Gleiwitz I, the satellite camp of Auschwitz where he was interned for a time. He then tells readers that the camp’s remaining Slavic inmates were sent to Auschwitz and gassed: “All of the Poles, Ukrainians and Russians were going to Auschwitz – to the gas chambers.”[34] However, an official Polish version of this escape and its consequences (in an article in Hefte von Auschwitz, a scholarly periodical issued by the Auschwitz State Museum) differs markedly from Mermelstein’s. This is all the more remarkable considering that this article includes information on the affair from Mermelstein himself (p. 98), and because the article was published in 1973, and thus available to him, a frequent visitor to Auschwitz, six years before By Bread Alone appeared.[35]

What was the actual fate of the Slavic inmates at Gleiwitz after the escape of their fellows? According to the Hefte von Auschwitz article, the Slavic inmates were actually transferred for labor to a series of camps inside the Reich proper. While the article doesn’t reveal how many survived the war, there certainly is no evidence that a single one was gassed.

This same Hefte von Auschwitz article cites former inmate Mermelstein as having taken part in the “uprising and self-liberation” of Buchenwald. This is based on a statement he made in his 1967 affidavit to the Auschwitz camp authorities.[36] The story that Buchenwald was self-liberated by an inmate uprising is now almost universally acknowledged as a myth – a legend fostered in particular by the Communists, who claimed to have organized the revolt.[37]

To be sure, in the 1960s and 1970s, a period during which Mermelstein made at least nine visits to Auschwitz and other sites in Communist-ruled eastern Europe, the functionaries at the Auschwitz State Museum and the steering committee of the International Auschwitz Committee were either Communists themselves or beholden to the Communist line on Auschwitz, the Holocaust story, and doubtless much else.[38] Interestingly, in By Bread Alone (pp. 206–207), written for American consumption, there is nothing about an “uprising and self-liberation”: merely “rumors” and “talk” about such a thing. When American forces arrive for the actual liberation, Mermelstein describes himself as a somewhat bemused observer, not a participant.

Bizarre Dance of Death

Perhaps the most fantastic of the claims made by Mermelstein in By Bread Alone (pp. 115, 117) is that on the night of his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he, his father, and his brother, among many other Jews, were driven naked to three flaming pits in which it was possible to discern burning bodies. Mermelstein and the other new arrivals joined a complicated choreography wherein the nude inmates simultaneously ran around the pits as SS men with guard dogs forced others to join the macabre dance:

Ahead were three huge pits dug deep into the ground. In each a fire was raging. Around the flaming pits naked men were running in an endless circle.... Quickly father grabbed my one hand and Lajos the other. Together we continued the race around the pit of death.

In his breathless telling, Mermelstein successfully resists the pit’s hypnotic lure, and withstands as well the danger of being shot, struck or bitten. He also avoids being driven into the flames after he has been knocked down near the edge of the pit by “the oncoming crowd.” Regaining his feet, he is able to join hands with his father and brother as they whirl about the pit, and to discuss a daring plan with a friend who has foresightedly concealed a straight razor on his naked person: in succession, each will kill a Nazi, slit his own wrist, then hand the razor on to another inmate. “Mad words, yet under the circumstances, reasonable enough,” mulls autobiographer Mermelstein.

Just then, however, the SS fiends flail their whips, shouting, “Back to the barracks! Back to the barracks!” Many years later, in By Bread Alone, Mermelstein will wonder, with Talmudic acuity, whence and why the phantasmagoria at the pit. The most charitable explanation is doubtless raised by his final musing: “Or was it just an aberration of a demented mind?”

Crematory building No. 5 (Krema V) in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Crematory building No. 5 (Krema V) in Birkenau. Mel Mermelstein has repeatedly claimed to have wit· nessed his mother and sisters being driven into a "tunnel" to a "gas chamber" here. In fact, this structure is entirely above ground, and has no "tunnel." Because it was surrounded by trees, it was called the "for· est crematory." (From: Auschwitz Chronicle [1990], p. 368).

‘Special Detail’ Confusion

In an article published in early 1987 in the New York Post, Edward Koch, at that time mayor of New York City, recounted his meeting with Mermelstein at Auschwitz a short time before. The mayor quoted Mermelstein: “I was part of a special detail which hauled the bodies from the gas chamber and took them to the crematorium.”[39]

This astonishing claim contradicts virtually every other statement Mermelstein has made about his time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he claims to have spent a couple of days, and at the main Auschwitz camp (Stammlager), where he says he spent six weeks or so. In all other available accounts, he claims not to have done any noteworthy work. In his 1967 statement to the Auschwitz Museum authorities, for example, he said: “During my six week stay in the Auschwitz camp I was not working.”[40] In his 1969 declaration given in Los Angeles, he said he had “no duties” there.[41] And in his May 1981 deposition, he said that at Auschwitz and Birkenau he had done “practically nothing... just some detail work” and “no physical work.”[42]

On November 1, 1989, attorney Mark Lane questioned Mermelstein about these flagrant discrepancies. It is safe to say that this “eyewitness” has never been subjected before or since to such a dogged grilling, nor perhaps has any other self-professed Holocaust witness. The end result of several dozen pages of question and answer was, not, as one could expect, elucidation, but rather contradiction heaped on contradiction, all devastating to Mermelstein’s credibility: he did and he didn’t drag bodies; there may have been bodies in the clothes that he dragged to open pits; he might have but probably didn’t drag bodies from the gas chambers.[43]

“Did you say those things to Mayor Koch?,” he was asked. “No, not quite,” answered Mermelstein. Under prodding, he added, “Well, I was in a special detail there, yes, close to the pits, next to the – those open pits ... But we hauled not only bodies but clothes, whatever, dragging them into the pits.”

Q. Are you telling me that you do not recall if you hauled bodies from the gas chamber?

A. Not [sic] – I saw too much.

A moment later:

Q. Is it your testimony that you don’t remember whether or not you hauled bodies from the gas chamber?

A. I don’t remember. Okay? I don’t know specifically the way you put it. Okay? But I know I was there.

A frustrated Lane pressed on:

Q. I’m asking you if you were part of a special detail and if part of your obligation on the special detail was in any way related to the gas chamber.

A. No, not specifically.

Trying to untangle himself, Mermelstein declares:

To be part of a special detail, and that was, from time to time, you were pulled to do different things. There were days when we dragged – just looked like – it looked like a heap of clothes. And within these clothes, probably – and it was to have been dropped into the pits. Within those clothes and other items may have been some bodies as well.

Spoken like a real eyewitness. According to Mermelstein, his embarrassment springs from having seen too much, not too little. When, under challenge, his memory seems to fail him, it is enough that he was there.

The 'Sauna' center at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The "Sauna" center at Birkenau, where newly arrived detainees were cleaned and deloused. Note the smoking chimneys. (From: Auschwitz Chronicle [1990], p. 181)

More Phony ‘Evidence’

Mermelstein is not above simply inventing historical evidence. In a 1981 newspaper interview he said:[44]

Goebbels reassured Hitler he ought not to worry about the consequences of the Final Solution of “the Jewish question,” ... Goebbels said to Hitler that because of the way the Germans were doing it – luring the Jews into gas chambers disguised as shower rooms – what the Germans were doing was so inconceivable, it will be unbelievable. The civilized world will simply dismiss it as a hoax.

In fact, there is not a scrap of evidence that Goebbels, or anyone else, ever said any such thing to Hitler.

In By Bread Alone (pp. 120–121) Mermelstein provides a two-page photograph showing the interior of a large room, which he describes in the caption: “The interior section of one of the five gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Note the pipes and shower heads above.”

This is demonstrably untrue. First, this photo was not taken at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rather, it shows the interior of a room in the Auschwitz I (main) camp, several kilometers away. Second, although this room has been displayed for years to tourists as a “gas chamber” in its “original state,” it is actually a fraudulent postwar reconstruction. This fact is now widely and authoritatively acknowledged.[45] Third, although electrical wiring and light fixtures are visible in the photo, “pipes and shower heads” are not.

Also in his book, Mermelstein emphatically endorses figures of Auschwitz deaths that are now thoroughly discredited. At one point he calls Auschwitz “the graveyard of four million human beings, of which ninety per cent were Jews, and a million little children.” On another page he refers to Auschwitz as the place “where 4 million Jews died.”[46] Although the four million figure of Auschwitz deaths was endorsed at the Nuremberg Tribunal, and affirmed for decades by government officials and prominent historians, today no serious historian supports it. (In July 1990 the Auschwitz State Museum in Poland and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Center announced that altogether perhaps one million people, both Jews and non-Jews, died there, of all causes.)[47]

In a grotesque and fanciful scene spectacle conjured up during a 1981 legal deposition (but one he failed to mention in his 1979 memoir), Mermelstein claimed to have seen babies tossed into pits, where they were burned.[48]

Either out of ignorance or malice, Mermelstein misrepresents the views of revisionists. In a letter published in 1980 in the Jerusalem Post, he writes that “these gentlemen” of the Institute for Historical Review “are teaching our new generation that the chimneys of Auschwitz were only those of the bakeries.” This is absurd, of course, as even the most cursory examination of revisionist scholarship reveals.[49]

Mermelstein writes in his book of the well-known 1944 report about Auschwitz produced by Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba (Walter Rosenberg). He describes (p. 108) them as

two brave Slovakian Jews who made a daring escape from the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was they who took it upon themselves to inform the Slovakian Jewish community, as well as the Hungarian Jewish community, what fate is awaiting them at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.

“However,” Mermelstein goes on to write, “none would listen to these two brave and courageous young fighters.”[50]

Not true. Already in 1942, 1943 and 1944, American and British newspapers and government officials repeatedly publicized claims that the Germans were systematically exterminating European Jewry. The US government’s War Refugee Board (WRB) published the Vrba-Wetzler report in November 1944, shortly after receiving it. Newspapers in the United States, Switzerland, and other countries gave prominent coverage to the report’s sensational claims of systematic mass killing of Jews in gas chambers at Auschwitz.[51]

Illustration in Mermelstein's 'By Bread Alone' with phony caption

In his memoir, By Bread Alone, Mel Mermelstein reproduces this photograph showing the inside of a large room, which he describes as "the "interior section of one of the five gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Note the pipes and shower heads above." Although this room, located in the Auschwitz I main camp, has been shown for years to tourists as a "gas chamber" in its "original state," it is actually a fraudulent postwar reconstruction. Although electrical wiring and light fixtures are visible in the photo, "pipes and shower heads" are not.

‘Human Soap’

Mermelstein is also certain that the Germans manufactured bars of soap from the bodies of murdered Jews. During his May 1981 deposition, he was questioned on this point:[52]

Q. Did you ever see any of that soap allegedly made from the bodies or fats of Jews?

A. That’s what we were ordered to use in the death camps.

Q. Was there some sort of insignia or initial on that soap?

A. I don’t remember that. All I remember was the color of it was yellowish, and we knew that it was made out of humans. Yes.

Q. You heard it from other inmates; is that right? There was a rumor floating around the camp that the soap was made from Jewish bodies; is that correct?

A. That’s correct. That was not a rumor, it was an established fact.

Mermelstein seems incapable of distinguishing between rumor and “established fact.” In truth, the “Jewish soap” story is a wartime propaganda claim that no serious historian now accepts. In 1990 it was formally repudiated by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust center.[53]

Correcting the Historical Record

Revisionists from Paul Rassinier onward have discerned a pattern among “survivor witnesses” of warping reality in favor of rumor, allegation and libel. As one Jewish historian, who was himself interned in the Kaunas ghetto during the war, has noted:[54]

Most of the memoirs and reports [of Holocaust survivors] are full of preposterous verbosity, graphomanic exaggeration, dramatic effects, overestimated self-inflation, dilettante philosophizing, would-be lyricism, unchecked rumors, bias, partisan attacks and apologies.

Mel Mermelstein has proven himself to be no exception to this pattern. This man whom responsible public officials and many in the media are eager to praise as a truthful and reliable Holocaust witness is in fact, as Bradley Smith has written, a “demonstrable fraud.” Any intelligent and open-minded person can confirm for himself the many contradictions, exaggerations and absurdities detailed here.

And whereas today in Germany and some other countries skepticism toward the Holocaust story is forbidden by law, nowhere is it illegal to make the sort of slanderous accusations fabricated by such “witnesses” as Mermelstein, against Germans and others, whether as individuals or as a nation.

Far more culpable than Mermelstein himself are those who, either through uncritical silence or overt action, contribute to his fraud, and thereby to the corruption of our political and social life.

From the mass of evidence we studied, we learned that Mermelstein is simply not a credible witness to gassings at Auschwitz, or to much else involving the German camps and the wartime treatment of Jews. If anything, a close scrutiny of his statements suggests further reason to be skeptical of the gassing story and other claims.

The Institute for Historical Review has never desired nor sought to belittle the losses Mel Mermelstein suffered during the Second World War – and those of us who worked on this case suspect that they were considerable. As conscientious revisionists, however, we believe that historical truth must be pursued and embraced, regardless of consequences. In exposing Mermelstein’s deceit, we can say, with some pride, that it has done its duty.


[1]Myrna Oliver, “Holocaust Doubters Settle Auschwitz Survivor’s Suit,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1985, pp. 1, 26; “Report on Settlement of Mermelstein vs. IHR, et al.,” IHR Newsletter, August 1985, pp. 1–7; “Survivor Must Get Reward” (UPI), The Washington Post, July 25, 1985; “The Holocaust, Proved,” The New York Times, editorial, July 29, 1985.
[2]See J. Marcellus’ review of “Never Forget” in the Summer 1991 Journal of Historical Review, pp. 229–238; J. J. O’Connor, “Certifying the Holocaust’s Horrors,” The New York Times, April 8, 1991; TV Guide (Washington-Baltimore ed.), week of April 6–12, 1991, p. 38; M. Pinsky, “Roadshow Paves the TV Airwaves for ‘Never Forget’,” Los Angeles Times (OC ed.), April 5, 1991; M. Zad, “Cable Links” column, The Washington Post, Sunday “TV Week” supplement, April 7, 1991, p. 5; M. Pinsky, “Rescuing the Memory of the Holocaust,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1990.
[3]“How the Press Invites Anti-Semitism,” Sept. 1985 IHR Newsletter, pp. 3–4; See also “Mermelstein Trial to Begin August 9,” IHR Newsletter, July–August 1991, pp. 1–2, 4.
[4]Theodore J. O’Keefe, “‘Best Witness’: Mel Mermelstein, Auschwitz and the IHR,” The Journal of Historical Review, Jan.–Feb. 1994 (Vol. 14, No. 1), pp. 25–32. Based on O’Keefe’s presentation at the Eleventh IHR Conference, October 1992.
[5]For example, whereas the Los Angeles Times gave sympathetic front page coverage to Mermelstein’s 1985 courtroom victory, this same paper’s total coverage of the Institute’s 1991 victory against Mermelstein was a short inside item that appeared only in its Orange County edition. See: M. Pinsky, “Doubters of Holocaust Win a Round in Court,” Los Angeles Times, Orange County ed., September 25, 1991, p. B9.
[6]Mermelstein declaration of December 18, 1980, offered in connection with IHR claim, and published in facsimile in the 1981 edition of By Bread Alone, pp. 276–278.
[7]Mel Mermelstein’s autobiography, By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685, was first published in 1979 (Los Angeles: Crescent Publications). The second edition was published in 1981 by his “Auschwitz Study Foundation” of Huntington Beach, California (xvi+290 pages).
[8]See: “A Holocaust Survivor Keeps on Fighting,” Newsweek, July 23, 1984; “‘Debunkers’ of Holocaust Linked to Right-Wing Extremists,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1981; R. Lindsey, “Auschwitz Survivor Sues for Prize For Proving Germans Gassed Jews,” New York Times, March 11, 1981; D. Haldane, “Holocaust Survivor and Historian Meets Push With Shove Once More,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 12, 1988.
[9]M. Pinsky, “An Unforgettable TV Movie,” Los Angeles Times (OC ed.), October 4, 1990, p. F2.
[10]“Nazi camp survivor honored by Assembly” (AP), Press-Telegram, April 20, 1982.
[11]Although Mermelstein contends (in By Bread Alone, p. 243) that “the Jewish population of Munkacs had been annihilated,” we found tantalizing but unconfirmed evidence that large numbers of Jews from Munkacs survived the war.
[12]The ITS letter (reproduced in By Bread Alone, pp. vii-viii) informed Mermelstein that it had no information about his father and brother, whom Mermelstein has claimed died in or around subcamps of Auschwitz. The letter makes no mention of the female Mermelsteins.
[13]The information in this paragraph is based on the following sources: Documents from the records of the Buchenwald camp, reproduced in facsimile in M. Mermelstein’s By Bread Alone (1981), pp. 184–188; letter to Mermelstein from the International Tracing Service (Arolsen, Germany), Sept. 3, 1971, reproduced in By Bread Alone, pp. vii-viii; Mel Mermelstein interrogation protocol (“Vernehmungsniederschrift”), given at the German General Consulate, Los Angeles, November 13, 1969. A copy of this German-language declaration is in the Auschwitz State Museum (PMO) archives, filed under: Zespol “Oswiadczenia,” Vol. 68, pp. 183–192 (Nr. inw. 156642); Danuta Czech, comp., Auschwitz Chronicle: 1939–1945 (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 1990), p. 630; M. Mermelstein, By Bread Alone, pp. vii, 1–3, 93–130, 184.
[14]For example, in none of the following pre-1979 articles is there any mention by Mermelstein that he personally saw his mother and sisters, or anyone, led to gas chambers: B. Altman, “Auschwitz survivor maintaining his vow,” Long Beach (Calif.) Independent/Press-Telegram, July 9, 1977, p. C1; K. Sherman, “Holocaust exhibit chills most viewers,” Long Beach (Calif.) Independent/Press-Telegram, Oct. 3, 1978; S. Karl, “Survivor of Auschwitz says it could happen again,” Daily Forty-Niner (California State University Long Beach), Oct. 11, 1976, p. 1; P. Kennedy, “L.B. survivor of Auschwitz finds ‘Holocaust’ real,” Daily Forty-Niner (CSU Long Beach), April 19, 1978.
[15]Likewise, in neither his October 23, 1967, PMO declaration, or in his 1969 German Consulate declaration, does he make any mention of having seen his mother and sisters, or anyone, enter a gas chamber.
[16]M. Mermelstein, By Bread Alone, pp. 240–241. Mermelstein also relates, p. 238, that as he returned to his home town after the end of the war, “I was sure that when I reached the house and opened the door, Father, Mother, Etu, Lajos and Magda would all be there, as before, waiting for me.”
[17]M. Mermelstein letter, “Invitation to the doubters,” Long Beach (Calif.) Independent/Press-Telegram, July 29, 1980; during his deposition of May 27, 1981 (transcript, p. 46), he claimed to have witnessed them enter the “gas chamber” from “40, 50 feet” away.
[18]Mermelstein declaration of December 18, 1980, published in facsimile in the 1981 edition of By Bread Alone, pp. 276–278.
[19]Interrogatory of Mel Mermelstein, July 21, 1981. Response to question No. 26.
[20]Y. Gutman and M. Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC), pp. 168, 172, 173. See also: Jean-Claude Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers (New York: B. Klarsfeld, 1989). Mermelstein’s testimony about “Gas Chamber No. 5” is also difficult to accept because crematory facility (Krema) V (as well as Krema IV) had been shut down in 1943 – months before he claimed to have seen it in operation. See the essay by J.-C. Pressac, with Robert-Jan van Pelt, in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (1994), pp. 236, 237, 238, and p. 173. See also: J.-C. Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, pp. 413, 420. For additional reasons why this building or facility could not possibly have served as an extermination facility, see the review by M. Weber of Pressac’s 1989 book in the Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1990, pp. 235–236. See also: M. Weber, “Legal Declaration,” The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1982, pp. 31–46.
[21]D. Czech, comp., Auschwitz Chronicle: 1939–1945 (1990), p. 368.
[22]D. Czech, comp., Auschwitz Chronicle (1990), p. 5; John Ball, The Ball Report (Canada: 1993; 16 pp.), pp. 4, 5.
[23]Y. Gutman and M. Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (1994), p. 31.
[24]Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (New York: 1981), p. 210 (and pp. 211, 220). See also: D. Czech, comp., Auschwitz Chronicle (1990), pp. 629, 630.
[25]See, for example: E. Kogon, et al., Nazi Mass Murder (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1994), p. 172; Jean-Claude Pressac, Die Krematorien von Auschwitz: Die Technik des Massenmordes (München: Piper, 1994), pp. 198–199.
[26]M. Weber, “Pages from the Auschwitz Death Registry Volumes,” The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1992, pp. 265–268; The semi-official Auschwitz “Kalendarium” reports that an unknown number of Jewish arrivals were admitted as unregistered “depot prisoners,” and that some of these were sent from Birkenau to other camps for war work. See: Danuta Czech, comp., Auschwitz Chronicle (1990), pp. 628, 629, 630, 633, 636, 641, 643, 655, and others.
[27]T. O’Keefe, “Best Witness,” Journal of Historical Review, Jan.–Feb. 1994, p. 30.
[28]List of 500 Jewish Female detainees transferred from Auschwitz to Buchenwald/Altenburg, October 12, 1944, Überstellung 500 Jüdinen Schutzhäftlingen aus Auschwitz. Auschwitz State Museum (PMO) Archives. Sygn. D-Bu-3/2a, Nr. inw. 163105.
[29]Particularly in the case of “Magda Mermelstein,” the two different dates, when typed numerically in order of day, month, and year – the German fashion used in the concentration camps – are susceptible to confusion, “17.5.26” and “12.6.28,” by someone with defective eyesight, under poor lighting, and so forth. Perhaps whoever compiled the list misunderstood the birth dates given by the sisters. Anyway, given Mermelstein’s frailties of memory, there is no reason to give his statement regarding their birth dates any special weight.
[30]We examined a letter from the Auschwitz Museum (PMO) to Tijudar Rudolph, April 26, 1991 (No. IV-8521/2221-2227/91), listing available records on certain Mermelsteins, as well as a letter from the Museum to the Polish Historical Society of Stamford, Conn., September 4, 1991 (No. IV-8520-107/4104-5/910), listing all Mermelsteins supposedly in the Museum’s records. In this September 4, 1991, letter the names of Edith and Magda Mermelstein are to be found – in fact three Magdas and two Ediths – but none has a birth date matching that given by Mermelstein for his sisters. The names and birth dates of two of these women do, however, match those of the Edith and Magda Mermelstein of the October 1944 SS (Altenburg) transfer list. Their birthplace is given as “Szolyva,” Hungarian for a Carpatho-Ukraine town also known as Svalyava that is about ten miles distant from Munkacs/Mukhachevo.
[31]M. Mermelstein, By Bread Alone, pp. 173, 194–195. We shall pass over the one or two instances in which Mermelstein, quoted in the press or speaking heatedly in deposition, says his father was gassed at Auschwitz. For example, Mermelstein is quoted in a 1981 issue of a Los Angeles daily paper as saying: “They [the revisionists] are inferring that Jews were not killed in the gas chambers, that I did not see with my own eyes my mother and father and sisters led off to the gas chambers.” (Source: T. Carlson, “The $50,000 challenge: Prove Holocaust really happened,” Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Feb. 15, 1981, p. B-8).
[32]Mel Mermelstein interrogation protocol (“Vernehmungsniederschrift”), given at the German General Consulate, Los Angeles, November 13, 1969, p. 9, para. 2. A copy of this German-language declaration is in the Auschwitz State Museum (PMO) archives, filed under: Zespol “Oswiadczenia,” Vol. 68, pp. 183–192 (Nr. inw. 156642).
[33]Interestingly enough, Mermelstein claims in By Bread Alone (p. 242) that on his brief return to Munkacs after the war’s end he met with a number of men who had been with his father and brother at the Jaworzno camp, although evidently none supplied particulars clarifying their fate. The Auschwitz records obtained by IHR include no reference to a Fani Mermelstein born in 1900 (Mel’s mother). As already mentioned, inquiries to Auschwitz (by IHR) and to Arolsen (by Mermelstein) have yielded, so far as could be discovered, only such names and data as were supplied by Mermelstein.
[34]M. Mermelstein, By Bread Alone, pp. 140–142, 146.
[35]Mag. Irena Strzelecka, “Arbeitslager Gleiwitz I,” Hefte von Auschwitz, Nr. 14 (Oswiecim [Poland]: Verlag Staatliches Auschwitz-Museum, 1973). See especially pages 86, 92, 95, 98, 106, 188.
[36]Deposition of Mel Mermelstein, October 23, 1967, p. 5. A copy of this Polish-language deposition is in the Auschwitz State Museum (PMO) archives, filed under: Zespol “Oswiadczenia,” Vol. 57, pp. 14–20. (An English-language translation is in the IHR archives.)
[37]See also: M. Weber, “Buchenwald: Legend and Reality,” The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1986–87, pp. 405–417.
[38]The Communist-run “International Auschwitz Committee” of Warsaw assisted “Comrade Mermelstein” in his legal fight against the IHR. See: Information Bulletin of the International Auschwitz Committee, Feb. 1981, quoted in IHR Newsletter, Oct.-Nov. 1981 p. 1, and, Information Bulletin (Intl. Auschwitz Comm.), July–August 1981, quoted in IHR Newsletter, June 1982, p. 5.
[39]E. Koch, “A Wall in Auschwitz,” New York Post, February 9, 1987, p. 19, and, E. Koch, “Auschwitz Still Haunting the World,” Staten Island (New York) Advance, February 23, 1987, pp. A1, A10.
[40]Deposition of Mel Mermelstein, Oct. 23, 1967, p. 1. A copy is in the Auschwitz PMO archives.
[41]Mermelstein interrogation protocol, given at the German General Consulate, Los Angeles, November 13, 1969, p. 1. (“keine Beschäftigung”).
[42]Mermelstein deposition, May 27, 1981, Los Angeles, transcript pp. 68, 77.
[43]Deposition of Mel Mermelstein, November 1, 1989, reported by S. K. Farwell, in the case of M. Mermelstein vs. LSF, IHR, Liberty Lobby, et al. (2nd case), transcript pages 201, 202, 203, 204, 205, 207.
[44]T. Carlson, “The $50,000 challenge: Prove Holocaust really happened,” Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Feb. 15, 1981, pp. A-1, B-8.
[45]“Major French Magazine Acknowledges Auschwitz Gas Chamber Fraud,” The Journal of Historical Review, Jan.–Feb. 1995, pp. 23–24; see also: G. Raven, “Dramatic new Videotape Presentation Takes Aim at Key Holocaust Claim,” The Journal of Historical Review, March–April 1993, pp. 8–13.
[46]M. Mermelstein, By Bread Alone, pp. 123, 267.
[47]“Auschwitz Deaths Reduced to a Million,” Daily Telegraph (London), July 17, 1990; F. Piper, “The Number of Victims,” in: Y. Gutman & M. Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (1994), p. 71; see also the comment by R. Faurisson in The Journal of Historical Review, Jan.–Feb. 1995, p. 24.
[48]Mermelstein deposition, May 27, 1981, Los Angeles, transcript pp. 188, 189.; This repulsive allegation has also been made by such poetic liars as Elie Wiesel. See: E. Wiesel, Night (New York: Discus/Avon books, 1969), pp. 41, 42, 43, 44, 79, 93.
[49]Letter in the Jerusalem Post, intl. ed., August 24–30, 1980. Facsimile in the second, 1981 edition of Mermelstein’s By Bread Alone, p. 270.
[50]M. Mermelstein, By Bread Alone, p. 108. Likewise, on page 86 he castigates the leaders of the wartime Allied coalition – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – for their supposed indifference to the destruction of Europe’s Jews.
[51]See, for example, Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (1981), pp. 328–329. See also the detailed discussion of the WRB (Vrba-Wetzler) report in A. Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. Regarding the testimony of Rudolf Vrba in the 1985 Zündel trial in Toronto, see the remarks by R. Faurisson in the Winter 1988–89 Journal, pp. 420–421.
[52]Mermelstein deposition, May 27, 1981, Los Angeles, transcript p. 40.
[53]M. Weber, “Jewish Soap,” The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1991, pp. 217–227.
[54]Samuel Gringauz in Jewish Social Studies (New York), January 1950, Vol. 12, p. 65.

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Author(s) Theodore J. O'Keefe
Title History and ‘Memory’, An Examination of the Evidence of ‘Holocaust Witness’ Mel Mermelstein
Sources The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 16, no. 4 (July/August 1997), pp. 2-13
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Dates published: 1997-07-01, first posted on CODOH: Jan. 1, 2013, 6 p.m., last revision: n/a
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