Rudolf Vrba's Gas Chamber Amnesia
Published: 2008-01-02

Slovakian Jew Rudolf Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) is perhaps one of the most well-known Auschwitz eyewitnesses, this mainly due to his co-authorship with Alfred Wetzler (Josef Lanik) of the so-called Vrba-Wetzler Report, which was included in the New York War Refugee Board Report of 1944, as well as the publication in 1964 of a memoir entitled I Cannot Forgive (later republished as I escaped from Auschwitz). Vrba escaped from Birkenau together with Wetzler on April 7, 1944.

While the late Vrba's bizarre statements at the 1985 Toronto Zündel trial concerning crematory capacities and Auschwitz victim figures are well-known to most of the revisionist readership, his claim of having observed from a shorter distance a gassing at Krema II has not been much discussed. This article will demonstrate how Vrba's testimony in 1964 and 1985 on this alleged observation is irreconcilable with statements he made in the 1944 War Refugee Board report regarding Birkenau crematorium buildings II and III.

Vrba's alleged observation of a gassing at Krema II

Let us begin by quoting at length Vrba's testimony from the 1985 Zündel trial:

A. I came from the night shift where several transports during the night arrived, but I was exchanged on the night shift approximately at five o'clock in the morning and broke into my barracks for sleep. Instead of sleeping, I get out from the barrack and walk over to Block 27 to the mortuary to talk to my friend, Wetzler. This mortuary had a window on this side.

Q. Indicating on the side closest to the crematoria?

A. On the side closest to the crematoria. […] While I was drinking my coffee I could see that the people from the night which I had seen arrive, most of them were not seen but there were several hundred, first on this yard which was enclosed with electric fences, and with tower guards, and they went into this building which is known to us as Krematorium No. II. This Krematorium No. II had, apart from buildings, long bunkers which were approximately the height of two such tables. Say the bunker was about this height, above a head of a human being.

Q. All right. You are indicating about six and a half, seven feet?

A. I would think so. In other words, a man who would climb on it would have to lift his hands and sort of make an exercise in order to swing himself on top of the bunker. This bunker had air lifts, openings for airing, approximately three or four, along, which were covered by wooden or some lid which was easily removable. […]

[The Sanitäts Dienst Gefreiter] came having about four or five of those Zyklon tubes which I knew very well from loading into the Red Cross van. And he came to the bunker and he put them down, and then he started to put those lids, those tins on top of the bunker until he had them all on. And then he climbed on the bunker by holding on his hands and in a sporty way swinging himself over, which attracted my attention because it was not usually the demeanour of S.S. men to make sport. He then, on top of this bunker, took out a gas mask which he had hang over and put on the gas mask, and with something which, from a distance of about fifty yards, opened the lid of the Zyklon-B tubes, which was well-known to me from distance, and then he went to one of the vents in a leisurely step, opened the vent and shoved in the content of the tin in the vent in a leisurely way, and when he was finished he a couple of times has hit the ---

Q. Indicating tapped the tin.

A. Tapped on that opening. Then he closed the opening, opens the tin, again in a rather leisurely way, having the gas mask on, and went to the next vent where the procedure was repeated until he dropped into each vent one or two of those tins — sometimes one, sometimes two. And when he cleared it he took the empty vents to the edge of the bunker, climbed down from the bunker, took the empty tins again down from the bunker, put down his gas mask, put the gas mask back into his holder, and with the tins under the hands walked away, disappearing inside the crematorium.[1]

Vrba also identified the building from which he supposedly observed the gassing as a small mortuary just next to Block 27 of Birkenau Bauabschnitt Ib.[2]

To summarize: Vrba claims to have seen, from a distance of about 50 - 60 meters, how a single SS man, wearing a gas mask and carrying five or six cans of Zyklon B (likely difficult but not impossible), put said cans on top of the concrete "bunker"(i.e. Leichenkeller 1) protruding from Krema II and then swung himself up on the roof of the "bunker", situated somewhere between six and a half and seven feet - that is, approximately 1.9 - 2.1 meter - above ground, proceeding to pour the contents of the cans into "approximately three or four" vents on the roof.

Douglas Christie conducted the following cross-examination of Vrba on the issue of the SS man's way of getting on top of the alleged gas chamber, a detail which will be crucial for our critique on the testimony's veracity:

Q. Just the part about getting up to the bunker. Just describe that. Let me say to you that you said he put one can up on top ....

A. Yes. He first put the cans down because he brought them not with the carriage; he brought them under his arms, and there might have been five or six.

Q. Five or six cans.

A. Yes.

Q. And he picked one up and put it on top?

A. First one down and he started to put them up on top, and he crept up on it like a monkey, which surprised me.

Q. You say he hooked his arms over the edge and pulled himself up?

A. Yes. He sort of climbed up like a monkey.

Q. He had to reach up to the edge of the bunker?

A. Yes. Or, you know, to get a hold with his hand.

Q. Yeah.

A. And then he was climbing over the cement, which is rather smooth, but he managed to get up.

Q. Well, the last time you said he was rather sporty in the way he pulled himself up, yesterday.

A. Yes.

Q. Now, how high was it that he had to reach up?

A. I would say it was high enough that he couldn't walk up, but he could make an exercise.

[…]

THE WITNESS: He had to make an effort. He couldn't walk up or jump up. It was higher than that.[3]

Thus it is confirmed that the witness was not mistaken about the height. The roof, according to Vrba, was defintely "above a head of a human being" forcing anyone attempting to climb it to carry out a kind of swinging exercise.

The visibility of the scene from Vrba point of view was also further elucidated during the cross-examination:

A: […] I could see perfectly what was happening on this road and what's happening here, from the crematoria.

Q. You described barbed wire. Was there any kind of fence around those buildings that are crematoria that would prevent you from seeing what was happening there?

A. Not at the start. At the start I could see perfectly well from here, in January 1943, February 1943, perfectly well what is happening here. The distance is not more than fifty, sixty yards. I mean, the distance apart from the barbed wires would be like over this room, quite close. So that I could see perfectly well what was happening in this area.[4]

We should thus expect the witness to be more or less precise regarding details such as the relative dimensions of objects etc.

Regarding the timeframe of the alleged sighting, Vrba testified:

I saw the crematoria, and within the vicinity of the crematoria from January 1943 until April 7, 1944, as the time went, this was the first crematorium and this is where I was witnessing the gassings of the first in the crematorium. Soon after the crematorium, three were opened. [5]

The phrase "first gassings" would imply late March 1943, if we are to follow the orthodox chronology laid out by Danuta Czech and others. Krema II was taken into operation on March 15. On June 8, 1943, was moved to another position of work in the camp.[6]

In the testimony given by Vrba at the West German Auschwitz Trial held in Frankfurt am Main, the gassing is described thus:

Witness Rudolf Vrba: […] This is Bauabschnitt I, yes. That is, the first crematorium which I saw in operation, and victims taken into [die Opfer ins Krematorium hereinzuführen] that was in Bauabschnitt Ib. […] I could see the whole thing very well. And behind this Block was a mortuary, which is not drawn in [on the map …] When during the night I came back from the Aufräumungskommando, that means, in the morning, I did not go to my Block but instead to the mortuary. At that time Wetzler, with whom I escaped from the camp, was the mortuary's secretary. And I spent most of my spare time in his company, since we were close friends. Now, from this small chamber behind Block 27 I could readily observe what was going on at the crematorium. At the time the crematorium was completed there were no trees as drawn here [on the map]. There was nothing. There was only the electric fence. Inmates were of course not allowed there. The gassings were usually carried out in the early morning before the roll call. [… At the mortuary] when I was back from the ramp, I often saw the same people [that had earlier deboarded trains at the ramp] who often had very characteristic looks. For example the Dutch looked very different from Poles or Jugoslavs even at a distance. I could see from there the people marching inside this building [Also da konnte ich die Leute hereinmarschieren sehen hier in dieses Gebäude]. And then I saw for the first time that on top of a bunker... I mean, it was like a place made of concrete [so wie ein Betonplatz]. Then suddenly... I was sitting in the mortuary, eating and drinking coffee. And then I saw how a man in SS uniform heaved himself up [heraufkriecht] on top of this bunker, with a gas mask, and [he] had a large can in his hand and opened the can and poured something through an opening [eine Öffnung] on the...

Judge: Block of concrete [Betonklotz].

Witness Rudolf Vrba: On the block of concrete, yes. [He] had opened something and poured it inside. And with me then was the Kapo of the mortuary, who was a Czech physician by the name of Lubomir Bastar. And I said to him: "Lubomir, look what he's doing. What is he doing?" And then he, Bastar, explained to me: "That is the transport you unloaded tonight, and now they're pouring in the gas. But don't tell anyone, or it will cost our lives." And since that occasion I could observe this a number of times or rather often [mehrere Male oder ganz oft]. [7]

From Vrba's 1964 testimony we gather the statements, that he had seen people marched inside the crematorium, and that he had witnessed gassings at a distance from the mortuary not merely once, but repeatedly.

In the next paragraph I will see how Vrba's witness statements from 1964 and 1985 compares to what is factually known about Birkenau Krema II.

Rudolf Vrba vs. Reality

Rudolf Vrba

Ill. 1: Rudolf Vrba at the time of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial (Photo: Günther Schindler).

The above quoted testimonies contains some statement contradicting the official view of the alleged Krema II gas chambers. For example, the number of Zyklon B introduction openings is given by Vrba as either three or four, while the orthodox view has it as definitely four. Given that Vrba's statement at the Frankfurt trial about repeatedly observing gassings from the mortuary is true, it indeed seems less than plausible that he should be uncertain about the number of Zyklon B introduction vents. Even if due of his perspective he would not have been able to see one of the alleged four opening vents, it would nonetheless have been possible for him to deduce the number of openings by counting the number of times the SS man poured down Zyklon B through one hole and proceeded to the next - especially if he had the opportunity to watch the whole process repeated times, as he claims.

However, rather than discrepances with the details of the orthodox historiography, it is the contradiction between a detail of the testimony and a verifiable feature of the crematorium building's architecture which deals a decisive blow to Vrba's credibility as a witness.

As the reader may already have guessed, it is the height of the concrete roof of Leichenkeller 1, the alleged gas chamber, which forms the crucial detail. According to repeated statements from Vrba, the part of the "bunker" visible above ground rose to a height surpassing that of an average man, that is, about 2 meters.

What was then, in early 1943, the actual elevation above ground of Leichenkeller 1? The first place to look in for an exact answer would be plans and blueprints from the time of the building's construction. Exterminationist Auschwitz historian Jean-Claude Pressac has reproduced a drawing showing the vertical dimensions of Krema II Leichenkeller 1 (the "gas chamber"). [8] From this drawing it is apparent that the structure's elevation above ground level was about one meter. This means that even a very short SS man could climb on top of the roof without engaging in the kind of exercise Vrba is talking about. He certainly wouldn't have to stretch his hands above his head. Observing an event from 50 meters away, the witness would not have been able to make detailed measurements with his eyes. He would however have been capable of appreciating the relative sizes of objects located close to each other, given not too small differences in size.

That the measures shown on the drawing reproduced by Pressac is in (at least approximate) accordance with the real dimensions of Leichenkeller 1 in 1943 can be confirmed by looking at the so-called "Little Train Photo" taken in February 1943 and showing Krema II in the background (Ill. 2). On this photo the shortside of the structure, which is known to have measured 9.58 meters, is clearly visible. [9] By comparing the visible height of the structure to its shortside we find out that the elevation above ground level could have been at most around 135 centimeters, since the shortside's length is approximately 7 times the height. The man Vrba saw standing before the "bunker" with arms stretched above his head in order to swing himself up on the top of the roof must surely have been one of Mengele's midget victims, for unknown reasons doubling as gas chamber executioner!

Vrba's 1944 description of Krema II and III

Train at Auschwitz

Ill. 2: Enlarged portion of the "Little Train Photo ".

In the OSS translation of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, the description of the twin crematoria II and III read as follows:

Models I and II [Krema II and III] consist of a waiting hall, which is equipped to resemble the hall of a bath, can accomodate 2000 persons. There is reported to be another waiting hall, equally large, below this one. A few steps lead from the big hall (on the ground level) into a very long and narrow gas chamber. False showers are built into the walls of the gas chamber so as to give the impression of a very large washroom. Three skylights in the ceiling of the chamber can be hermetically sealed by valves. A narrow-gauge track runs from the gas chambers through the waiting hall to the incinerators. [10]

And this is how, according to Vrba and Wetzler, homicidal gassings were carried out in the aforementioned buildings:

The victims are first led to the waiting hall, where they are told they will go to the bathhouse. They undress and, in order to support their delusion that they are going to bathe, two attendants clad in white distribute a towel and a piece of soap to each. Then they are squeezed into the gas chamber. [...] When everybody is in the chamber, the doors are sealed from the outside. There is a short wait, presumably to allow the temperature inside to rise to a certain deree. Then SS men with gasmasks go up on the roof, open the valves on the windows, and pour a powderlike substance into the chamber. The cans containing this substance carry the inscription: "Cyklon zur Schaedlingsbekaempfung" and the trademark of a Hamburg factory. [11]

Regarding how the text of the report was originally written, Vrba testified the following during the 1985 Toronto trial:

The final text was typed by a typist, and was presented to me for signature and to Wetzler, to confirm that his typescript contains our words. [12]

Therefore Vrba would have been able to delete all to him patent mistakes.

In the OSS translation the "testimony of the first escapee", i.e. Vrba, takes up 12 pages. The second section of the report, consisting of "Testimony of both the first and second escapees", runs to 21 pages (excluding pages with illustrations). In both sections taken together, Vrba's observation of a gassing at Krema II is devoted a total of zero (0) words. It seems highly curious that the witness should fail to mention his own sightings of the gassing procedure.

Another damning detail is the fact that Vrba and Wetzler in their report depicted the gas chambers of Krema II and III as located more or less on the first floor of the building. We read that "a few steps" led into the gas chamber and that a narrow-gauge track ran from the furnace room to the entrance of the gas chamber. And even if "a few steps" was to interpreted as the gas chamber being located underground or semi-subterranean, the rough map of the crematorium attached to the report does not match reality. On the drawing in question (Ill. 3), the "gas chamber" is shown as having its shortside parallell to that of the rest of the building, while Leichenkeller 1 in reality protruded from the main part of the building with a 90 degree angle. Why is it that the witnesses drew such an incorrect map in 1944, if they were able to witness gassings in Leichenkeller 1 repeatedly, for months on end?

Finally, how come that Vrba in 1944 was certain about the number of Zyklon B introduction openings being three, when he had witnessed the pouring of gas into the same openings, which orthodoxy claims numbered four, onr repeated occasions?

Map of Krema III Auschwitz-Birkenau

Ill. 3: Vrba and Wetzler's rough map of Krema II-III as redrawn for the OSS translation of their report (Source: Mendelsohn, p. 262).

The testimony of the "second escapee"

In the OSS translation, the "testimony of the second escapee", i.e. Wetzler/Lanik, amounts to eleven pages. While the singing of a camp hymn at Majdanek is devoted considerable space, with complete lyrics quoted, Wetzler does not devote a single line to his time as a Schreiber at a mortuary close to Krema II. In fact, Wetzler's entire time at Birkenau is devoted only the last paragraph of his testimony:

I soon lost my comparatively confortable [sic] job (October 1942?) with the Aufraumungskommando, and as punishment was transferred to Birkenau, where I spent one and a half years. On 7 April 1944 I succeeded in escaping with my companion. [13]

Wetzler worked for several months at the wooden mortuary building adjacent to Block 27, so it stands to reason that he should have been able to observe from a distance gassing actions not only once or twice, but a considerable number of times.

Since the text of the report was not the result of an interrogation, but of the two escapees freely giving testimony to a stenographer, together and separated, it follows that Wetzler either did not found his stay at Birkenau worthy of mention, or that he for some reason did not wish to talk about it in detail.

Conclusion

Auschwitz star witness and co-author of the 1944 Vrba-Wetzler Report, the late Rudolf Vrba claimed to have observed from some distance a number of homicidal gassings carried out in Birkenau Krema II. In two documented court testimonies, one from 1964 and the other from 1985, Vrba explicitly claims to have seen an SS man standing in front of the outside of Leichenkeller 1 (the alleged "homicidal gas chamber") with the roof of this structure at a level above the head of the SS man. At the 1985 trial, Vrba indicated the height of the Leichenkeller above ground level as approximately 6.5 to 7 feet (2 - 2.15 meter) and "above a head of a human being." He also stated that the man "hooked his arms over the edge and pulled himself up."

However, contemporary German documentation in the form of construction drawings from the firm Huta, as well as a photograph giving a rear view of Krema II in February 1943, shows that the elevation above ground could have been at most 1.3 meter. Therefore both the observation of the SS man's head being below the roof of the "gas chamber" and the arms-above-head swinging which the witness has the hangman engage in for the purpose of getting on top of the chamber (described in the same wording in both testimonies) must be regarded as in all likelihood false.

What further reinforces the impression that Vrba concocted the whole story sometime after the war, perhaps as late as in the early 1960's, is the fact that the 1944 Vrba-Wetzler Report does not mention the sightings with as much as a single word. Neither is Wetzler's work in the close proximity of Krema II touched upon. Finally, the layout of the rough map of Krema II and III found in the 1944 is not in accord with the actual structures, which it should have been if Vrba had indeed witnessed Zyklon B being poured into Leichenkeller 1. We must therefore conclude that either Vrba does not tell us the truth about this alleged observation of a gassing at Krema II, or else that he for some unknown reason, some time before April 1944, was suddenly struck by amnesia and forgot all about the sighting prior to writing his famed report together with Alfred Wetzler.


Notes

[1]
Her Majesty the Queen vs. Ernst Z ündel , District Court of Toronto, January 1985, p. 1328-1330.
[2]
Ibid, p. 1322.
[3]
Ibid, pp. 1432-1433.
[4]
[??? empty; ed.]
[5]
Ibid, p. 1330.
[6]
Ibid, p. 1321.
[7]
Oral testimony left by Rudolf Vrba at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, Schwurgericht Frankfurt am Main, November 30, 1964.
[8]
Pressac, Jean-Claude, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York, 1989, p. 322, 324.
[9]
Cf. Pressac, p.323, 325.
[10]
Mendelsohn, John (ed.) The Holocaust. Selected Documents in Eighteen Volumes. 11: The Wannsee Protocol and a 1944 Report on Auschwitz by the Office of Strategic Services, Garland Publishing, New York/London 1982, p. 251.
[11]
Ibid, p. 252.
[12]
Her Majesty the Queen vs. Ernst Zündel , p. 1373.
[13]
Mendelsohn, p. 277.

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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Rudolf Vrba's Gas Chamber Amnesia
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Published: 2008-01-02
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