Auschwitz and the Allies / The Terrible Secret

Book Reviews
Published: 1983-04-01

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The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's "Final Solution", by Walter Laqueur, Little, Brown and Company, 262pp, $12.95, ISBN 0-316-51474-8

Auschwitz and the Allies, by Martin Gilbert, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 368pp, $15.95, ISBN 0-03-059284-4

According to a German proverb recorded for posterity by H.L. Mencken, "It takes a great many shovelfuls to bury the truth." Walter Laqueur, "a distinguished professor of history," whose book The Terrible Secret is subtitled "Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's 'Final Solution'", might find this proverb apt. But, ironically, the question that arises from a critical examination of Laqueur's book is whether, in regard to the burying of the truth about "Hitler's 'Final Solution'", it is an exposé or an example. Did Laqueur produce this book with a typewriter, or with a shovel?

As I've said, Laqueur's book is subtitled "Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's 'Final Solution'", which immediately begs the question: what is the truth about "Hitler's 'Final Solution'"? In this book, which purports to be a study of when "the information" about "the Final Solution" became "known," Laqueur reveals himself to be a rather dogmatic exponent of the conventional wisdom about "the Final Solution," to wit, that on Hitler's orders, the Nazi regime during World War Two embarked upon a program aimed at killing all the Jews of Nazi-dominated Europe, and succeeded in killing millions (5 or 6 million the figures most often claimed) by shooting and by gassing, mainly the latter.

For example, Laqueur, in line with the conventional wisdom, asserts (p. 11) that Hitler gave orders to Himmler and Heydrich for the extermination of all European Jews soon after he signed the Barbarossa Directive in December 1940. But how Laqueur "knows" this is his (terrible?) secret. He cites no corroborating documentation or testimony; he cites no source of any sort in support of his claim.

This scholarly sin could be forgiven if Laqueur were stating a well-known and indisputable fact. But, in fact, even the exponents of the conventional wisdom cannot agree on when Hitler is supposed to have given his supposed extermination order. According to Helmut Krausnick (Anatomy of the SS State, Walker and Company, 1968, p60), "It cannot have been later than March 1941, when [Hitler] openly declared his intention of having the political commissars of the Red Army shot, that he issued his secret decree – which never appeared in writing though it was mentioned verbally on several occasions – that the Jews should be eliminated." But according to Raul Hilberg (The Destruction of the European Jews, Harper Colophon, 1979, p177):

… we are dealing with two of Hitler's decisions. One order was given in the spring of 1941, during the planning of the invasion of the USSR; it provided that small units of the SS and Police be dispatched to Soviet territory, where they were to move from town to town to kill all Jewish inhabitants on the spot. This method may be called the "mobile killing operations." Shortly after the mobile operations had begun [in June 1941] in the occupied Soviet territories, Hitler handed down his second order. That decision doomed the rest of European Jewry.

Thus, Hilberg does not agree with Krausnick, and Laqueur does not agree with either of them about when Hitler is supposed to have ordered the extermination of all European Jews. In such a situation, Laqueur's unsupported, dogmatic assertions are worthless, and leave unanswered the question of whether or not Hitler ever actually gave such an order.

Laqueur virtually concedes that Hitler never gave a written order for the extermination of European Jewry, but then tries to save the day for the conventional wisdom. He says (p196) that

witnesses claimed to have seen the order, but it is doubtful whether there ever was a written order. This has given rise to endless speculation and inspired a whole "revisionist" literature – quite needlessly, because Hitler, whatever his other vices, was not a bureaucrat. He was not in the habit of giving written orders on all occasions: there were no written orders for the murderous "purge" of June 1934, for the killing of gypsies, the so-called euthanasia action (T-4) and on other such occasions.

But first, how does Laqueur know that Hitler ordered the killing of gypsies? Second, regarding the Blood Purge of 1934, David Irving points out (The War Path, Viking, 1978, p39) that Hitler did give a written order to Sepp Dietrich, in the form of a list of seven names of men to be executed. That 82 people were killed resulted, according to Irving, from the exceeding of Hitler's orders, mainly by Himmler and Goering. And, third, Hitler's written order for the T-4 "euthanasia" program is well-known. Gitta Sereny, journalist and devotee of the conventional wisdom about "the Final Solution," quotes it as follows:

Reichsleiter Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with the responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians who are to be designated by name, to the end that patients who are considered incurable in the best available human judgment after critical evaluation of their condition can be granted mercy-killing. (Into That Darkness, McGraw-Hill, 1974, p63.)

Say, Professor Laqueur, just what are you doing with that shovel in your hand? Digging for the truth about "Hitler's 'Final Solution' "? Or burying it?

In any case, Laqueur tells his readers (p30) that on 25 October 1941, in a conversation between Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich, rumours among the population about the destruction of the Jews had already been mentioned. ('Public rumours attribute to us a plan to exterminate the Jews.')" But what he doesn't ten his readers is that it was Hitler who was speaking and that this reference to rumors about an extermination plan was made in the following context:

From the rostrum of the Reichstag I prophesied to Jewry that, in the event of war's proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe. That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the first World War, and now already hundreds of thousands more. Let nobody tell me that all the same we can't park them in the marshy parts of Russia! Who's worrying about our troops? It's not a bad idea, by the way, that public rumour attributes to us a plan to exterminate the Jews. Terror is a salutary thing. (Hitler's Secret Conversations 1941-1944, Signet, 1961, pp108-109. See also David Irving, Hitler's War, Viking, 1977, p331.)

If, as Laqueur asserts, Hitler in December 1940 gave Himmler and Heydrich orders to exterminate all European Jews, then why was he making statements implying that his policy was to "park them in the marshy parts of Russia" in a conversation with none other than Himmler and Heydrich almost a year later? Hmmmmm? That is the question that Laqueur seeks to avoid answering by quoting Hitler out of context. Considering how good he is at burying things, perhaps Laqueur should give some thought to a career as a grave digger.

In the meantime, "distinguished professor of history" Walter Laqueur makes many "factual" assertions about what "could have been known" about "the extermination of the Jews" at various times. Almost invariably, these assertions, like his claim regarding a Hitler order for genocide, are unsupported by the citation of any source. But even when he does cite a source, his interpretations can be misleading.

For example, regarding what "could have been known" by 1 January 1943, Laqueur writes (p14) that, "According to an official SS report, 2.5 million Jews had been'deported' by the end of 1942 and were no longer alive." A footnote reveals that the SS report in question is the report of the statistician Korherr, submitted to Himmler on 23 March 1943. But it was not according to the Korherr report that those 2.5 million deported Jews were no longer alive at the end of 1942. Rather, it is according to Laqueur that they were no longer alive then. And, by equating deportation with killing, Laqueur is exaggerating the number of Jews killed by the Nazis by the end of 1942. As Laqueur knows, some of those deportees were not only still alive at the end of 1942, but managed to survive to bear witness to "the truth" later on. For example, Vrba (nee Rosenberg) and Wetzler, whose escape from Auschwitz in 1944 Laqueur mentions, were among the Slovakian Jews deported during 1942 who, according to Laqueur's interpretation of the Korherr report, were all dead by the end of that year!

The Terrible Secret is supposed to be a study of when "the truth" about "the extermination of the Jews" became "known" in various quarters. But Laqueur is determined to demonstrate, by fair means or foul, that "knowledge" of "the truth" was widespread by the end of 1942. To that end he has gathered together a motley collection of wartime rumors (some travelling through diplomatic channels), "reports" of Resistance groups, accounts of self-proclaimed eyewitnesses, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, letters, diaries, etc., as well as way too many postwar recollections, unsupported assertions, specious inferences and unproven assumptions.

* * *

Auschwitz and the Allies, by Martin Gilbert, a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and the official Churchill biographer since 1968, covers some of the same ground as The Terrible Secret, from a similar point of view. The book purports to be "an account of the facts of the extermination as they filtered out of Nazidominated Europe, and the Allied reaction to these facts …" But regarding the matter of the Allied reaction to "the facts," Gilbert is concerned not just with the question of belief or disbelief, as Laqueur, but also with what was done, or not done, to save the lives of European Jews. There are other differences in the scopes of these two volumes. Laqueur has focussed mainly on the period July 1941 – December 1942, while Gilbert carries his account through to early 1945. Gilbert is only concerned with when the Allies, especially Britain and the U.S., "learned" about "Hitler's mass murder," while Laqueur also poses this question in relation to Germany and her allies, the neutral European nations, and the Jews, both inside and outside of the Nazi-ruled Europe. Finally, Gilbert gives special attention to the story of one particular "extermination camp," Auschwitz.

Like Laqueur, Gilbert repeatedly makes "factual" statements about what was "really" happening to European Jews during the war. And Gilbert is not much better than Laqueur at citing supporting sources for these statements. For example, after alleging a Nazi plan for millions of Jews "using the most efficient and modern methods," Gilbert writes (pi 8) that "The first step in carrying out this new plan was taken on 8 December 1941, when several hundred Jews from small Polish towns were taken to a wood outside the village of Chelmno, and gassed in a specially designed building. – It's bad enough that this unsupported assertion is contradicted by the conventional wisdom about Chelmno, according to which Jews were gassed there in specially designed motor vehicles of some sort, not in a specially designed building, but, what's worse, it's contradicted by the official Churchill biographer himself! On page 40, Gilbert quotes a "report" sent to London in May 1942 by the underground Jewish Socialist Bund of Poland. Regarding the gassing of the Jews at Chelmno, the "report" said: " 'A special automobile (a gas chamber) was used.' " And, comments Gilbert, ~ "… the details given in the Bund Report were precise, and, as we now know, accurate." So, why did Gilbert contradict it on page 18? Who knows? It seems that the mind of the official Churchill biographer, like God, works in mysterious ways, its wonders of scholarship to perform.

It also seems that the official Churchill biographer does not know the meaning of the word "eyewitness," which my dictionary defines thusly: "One who has seen something happen and can give testimony about it." Chapter 10 of Auschwitz and the Allies, titled "Eyewitness," is concerned primarily with a group of Palestinian Jews (women, children and a few elderly men, according to Laqueur) who, in an exchange for German internees, had reached "the Holy Land" from Europe on 16 November 1942. Writes Gilbert (p88),

All had been eye-witnesses to Nazi brutality. Each one had horrific tales to tell of deportation, brutality, or mass murder.

Among the facts reported were "Harrowing details recounted by eyewitnesses of people thrown into flames, specially constructed crematorium, locked up in poison gas chambers, and other forms of torture." (Gilbert is quoting Moshe Shertok's summary of these "eyewitness" accounts.)

But later in the chapter (p92) we find out that "what the eyewitnesses did report … was 'all sorts of rumours' which told 'of large concrete buildings on the Russian-Polish border where people are killed by gas and burned.' " Thus, on this crucial point in these "eyewitness" reports, the "eyewitnesses" were not eyewitnesses at all. They had not seen anything; they had merely heard some things, some rumors.

Laqueur also discusses the stories of this group of Palestinian Jewish repatriates, since it was their "evidence" which supposedly convinced the leaders of Palestinian Jewry of the "reality" of a program to exterminate all European Jews. Laqueur, at least, does not call these people "eyewitnesses"; he merely calls them "witnesses." But he seems to take their "evidence" just as seriously as Gilbert. He writes (p191):

So often before, simple-minded (and even not so simple-minded) people had simply repeated rumours, often baseless in character. But the new arrivals could not be so easily dismissed: among them was a scientific researcher at the Hebrew University, two members of Kibbutz Degania B-members of the Palestinian elite – a Zionist leader of long standing from Piotrkow and other such witnesses. ("People on whose judgment and discernment one could rely," E. Dobkin was later to say.)

But was there really such a big difference between these people and earlier repatriates who "simply repeated rumours, often baseless in character"? Laqueur himself tells us that "what emerged from these accounts was firstly that a German government commission had been set up earlier that summer (Sonder- or Vernichtungskommission) under a certain commissar Feu or Foy to destroy Polish Jewry. (This information was, in fact, wrong or at least inaccurate …. )" (pigi) Apparently, these people "on whose judgement and discernment one could rely" were simply repeating a baseless rumor. Futhermore, as I've already pointed out, on the crucial question of the fate of Jewish deportees, these "witnesses" reported "all sorts of rumors" about '61arge concrete buildings on the Russian-Polish border where people are killed by gas and burned." Laqueur says (p192) that these rumors "were apparently correct," presumably meaning that they appeared to be correct to those to whom they were repeated in Palestine in November of 1942. But what was there about these rumors that made them appear more correct than any of the other rumors circulating about the fate of Jewish deportees? According to Vladka Meed (On Both Sides of the Wall, Holocaust Library, p43), "One rumor" regarding the deportees from Warsaw "was that they had been dispatched to the city of Smolensk, close to the Russo-German front, to dig trenches." And, in addition to the rumors about gassing, there were rumors about mass extermination by various other methods, including rumors about killing by live burial, rumors about thousands of Jews being run over by heavy motor lorries, rumors about throwing Jews into lime kilns, rumors about mass electrocutions at Belzec and Auschwitz, rumors about killing people with air pressure at Auschwitz, and rumors about mass executions by hot steam chambers of Treblinka. (The Black Book of Polish Jewry, published in 1943, contains an "Official Report submitted to the Polish Government," which includes "the report of an eyewitness" describing in detail the steam chambers of Treblinka. See pages 141-147. This was asserted to be "irrefutable proof of the atrocious horror wielded over their victims by the Germans.") So, why, in November 1942, were the rumors about gassing "apparently correct"? Laqueur does not explain this, though he does give a possible explanation of why rumors about mass extermination (not necessarily by gassing) may have appeared correct. He says of the deportees (p192) that "… there was not news from them, no letters, no personal regards conveyed." But there were letters, and Laqueur knows that. According to Vladka Meed (op. cit., p3l), "Some letters from deportees were received in the [Warsaw] ghetto which gave credence to the German assurances that those forced to leave had been given employment elsewhere." And Laqueur himself writes (p153) that,

When … the Slovak leaders, slightly perturbed, mentioned to the Germans the "fantastic rumours" about the fate of the evacuated Jews, pretending they had no idea about what was happening to them in Poland, Eichmann referred to more than one thousand letters and postcards which had been received in Slovakia from evacuated Jews within the previous two months.

Laqueur also mentions letters received from deportees in other countries, although he usually emphasizes that the number of letters received was small in relation to the number of deportees. In any case, letters were received from some deportees. So if the rumors about the mass extermination of the deportees "were apparently correct" because of the claim that there were no letters from them, then the rumors about mass extermination "were apparently correct" because of what Laqueur knows to be a falsehood! Ironic, isn't it, that people could have learned "the truth" about "the Final Solution" by means of such falsehoods? Immediately following his mistitled chapter "Eyewitness," Martin Gilbert discusses the case of another "eyewitness," further demonstrating his incompetence as a historian. Gilbert writes (p93):

On November 25, at the very moment when the half-million Jews in Palestine were learning of the mass murder of their fellow Jews in Europe, yet another report had reached the Jewish leadership in London. This new report described "the liquidation" of the Warsaw ghetto, and the gassings at Belzec. It had been brought from Poland to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London by an eyewitness, Jan Karski, a non-Jew.

A naive reader would most likely conclude from this passage that Jan Karski, the non-Jew, was an eyewitness to "the gassings at Belzec." But, strangely enough, in the course of detailing the contents of "Karski's report," Gilbert says (p94), "There followed an account of the different methods of 'mass extermination': execution by firing squads, electrocution, and 'lethal gas-chambers', and the report continued with an account of the 'electro cuting station' at Belzec camp…" Here is that account:

Transports of "settlers" arrive at a siding, on the spot where the execution is to take place. The camp is policed by Ukrainians. The victims are ordered to strip naked – to have a bath, ostensibly – and are then led to a barrack with a metal plate for floor. The door is then locked, electric current passes through the victims and their death is almost instantaneous. The bodies are loaded on to waggons and taken to a mass grave some distance from the camp.

The question that all this raises is this: did the "eye-witness, Jan Karski," see "the gassings at Belzec, " or did he see the operation of the "electrocuting station" at Belzec? Or did he, perhaps, see both? Gilbert sees no need to clear up the confusion he has created and moves on to other things. But, according to Karski's account of his experience at Belzec (Chapter 30, The Story of a Secret State, Houghton Mifflin, 1944), he saw neither!

Karski, a Polish diplomat before the war, and a Lieutenant of the Mounted Artillery in 1939, was a member of the Polish underground. He engaged in some "black propaganda" operations, such as the printing and posting of fake German decrees, as well as serving as a courier for the underground. According to his book, Karski had a meeting with two leaders of the Jewish underground, one a Zionist and the other a member of the Bund, who, so he says, arranged for him to visit the Warsaw ghetto and then to infiltrate "the Jewish death camp" near Belzec disguised as an Estonian camp guard. Here is Walter Laqueur's synopsis of what Karski said he saw at Belzec (p231):

There he saw "bedlam" – the ground littered with weakened bodies, hundreds of Jews packed into railway cars covered with a layer of quicklime. The cars were closed and moved outside the camp; after some time they were opened, the corpses were burned and the cars returned to the camp to fetch new cargo.

Actually, Karski did not claim to have seen where the train went or what happened to the Jews inside the railway cars after they left the camp. In his book, he wrote (p350): "As I listened to the dwindling outcries from the train, I thought of the destination toward which it was speeding. My informants had minutely described the journey." His informants were the Jewish underground leaders who had arranged his visit to Belzec, in particular "the Bund leader." According to Karski (p339), "The Bund leader had never been in it [i.e., "the Jewish death camp" near Belzecl but he had the most detailed information in [sic] its operations." Thus, Karski was told by "the Bund leader" (it was Leon Feiner) that, after leaving Belzec,

The train would travel about eighty miles and finally come to a halt in an empty, barren field. Then nothing at all would happen. The train would stand stock still, patiently waiting while death penetrated into every corner of its interior. This would take from two to four days. (p350)

Thus, what Karski saw at the Belzec "death camp" was Jews being herded into railroad cars which then left the "death camp."

Nowhere in his book did Karski mention gassings or electrocution. So why does Gilbert say (p93) that Karski's report "described … the gassings at Belzec" and (p94) that it included "an account of the 'electrocution station' at Belzec camp? It may be of interest to know that the "account of the 'electrocuting station' at Belzec camp," which Gilbert attributes to Karski, can be found on page 131 of the 1943 publication, The Black Book of Polish Jewry (Jacob Apenszlak, ed.), where it is quoted as part of a 15 November 1942 "report" of Dr. Ignacy Schwarzbart, a member of the Polish National Council in London. In fact, other parts of what Gilbert calls "Karski's report" can be found in The Black Book of Polish Jewry, all attributed to sources other than Karski.

Ironically, The Black Book of the Polish Jewry also contains two descriptions of the Belzec camp, both of them obviously based on Karski's account, though each of them contradicts Karski's book regarding some details, as well as contradicting each other. (See pp135-138 and 329-332.) One of these accounts of Belzec, after "reporting" the killing of Jews by their being left in railway cars "from two to eight days," then asserts that, "Because there are not enough cars to kill the Jews in this relatively inexpensive manner many of them are taken to nearby Belzec where they are murdered by poison gasses or by the application of electric currents." It would be very interesting to know who actually wrote this statement. Was it Karski, who did not see fit to mention either gassing or electrocution in his own 1944 book? Or was it somebody else, who took Karski's report and, for propaganda purposes, interpolated these references to gassing and electrocution? In any case, Karski, now a Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, has not answered my inquiries about these matters.

Laqueur, unlike Gilbert, gives a fairly accurate account of Karski's observations at Belzec, observations which, at the very least, raise questions about the conventional wisdom that Jews were killed by gassing at Belzec. But Laqueur tries to save the day for conventional wisdom thusly:

Karski says that he learned only in later years that Belzec was not a transit but a death camp and that most of the victims were killed in gas chambers. He had not actually seen the gas chambers during his visit, apparently because these were walled in and could be approached only with a special permit. (p231)

But if Karski "learned only in later years that Belzec was not a transit but a death camp and that most of the victims were killed in gas chambers," then why did he, in his 1944 book, refer to the camp as "the Jewish death camp" while saying nary a word about gassing? As I've already pointed out, Karski's story about the Jews who were shipped out of the Belzec camp being left in railway cars until they died was based on what he was told by Jewish Bund leader Leon Feiner, who supposedly "had the most detailed information" about the operations of the Belzec camp. But if Feiner "had the most detailed information" about Belzec and if "most of the victims were killed in gas chambers," then wouldn't Feiner have known about that? And, if so, then wouldn't he have told Karski about that too? In any case, Laqueur suggests that Karski "had not actually seen the gas chambers during his visit, apparently because these were walled in and could be approached only with a special permit … .. Apparently" the gas chambers were walled in, eh? Apparently, Laqueur has conjured up an ad hoc hypothesis, based on no actual evidence, in an attempt to reconcile Karski's story with the conventional wisdom about gas chambers at Belzec. But one could read Karski's story and conclude that "apparently" Jews were not gassed at Belzec. Martin Gilbert laments (p170) that:

As 1943 came to an end, and 1944 began, the stories of German atrocities were still not fully believed. One of those concerned by this fact was a Hungarian Jewish refugee, Arthur Koestler, then working as a journalist and lecturer in Britain. "At present," he wrote in an article which was published in the New York Times Magazine in January 1944, "we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing, by hot steam, mass-electrocution and live burial, of the total Jewish population of Europe."

Koestler's own "emotion and bitterness" arose, he wrote, because he had in his desk in front of him photographs of the killings, photographs which had been smuggled out of Poland. "People died to smuggle them out,"he commented, and added caustically, "They thought it worth while."

But if Koestler had "photographs of the killings," then, pray ten, Mr. Gilbert, were they photographs of the killings by hot steam, or of the killings by mass-electrocution, or the killings by live burial? Hmmmmm? I think it is significant that what Koestler actually wrote was this: "I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and this accounts for my emotion and bitterness." (See "On Disbelieving Atrocities," reprinted in The Yogi and the Commissar, Macmillan, 1945, p8g.) Koestler did not say that he had photographs "of the killings." He did not say what he had photographs of. He just said he had photographs. Quite possibly, Koestler wanted his readers to assume, as Gilbert has assumed, that he had photographs "of the killings," but, if that was the case, wouldn't he have made that point quite explicit in order to make his appeal for belief in German atrocities that much more persuasive?

In any case, on the two pages preceding his account of Koestler's article (pp168-169), Gilbert discusses "the second Soviet trial of German war criminals, at Kharkov," by means of which, he says, " [f ]urther evidence of the scale of the slaughter of Warsaw Jewry reached the Allies and western Jewry …"

During the Kharkov trial a twenty-four-year-old SS Lieutentant, Hans Ritz, was questioned about the use of gas vans in Kharkov. On first hearing the words "gas van" mentioned in Kharkov, Ritz told the prosecutor, "I remember the vehicle from my stay in Warsaw, when I witnessed the evacuation in it of the unreliable sections of the Warsaw population." While in Warsaw, Ritz added, "I got to know that part of the Warsaw population was evacuated by railway and another part were loaded into the 'gas vans' and exterminated."

Hans Ritz also gave evidence of the mass shooting, in sand pits and stone quarries, of tens of thousands of people in the Soviet cities of Krasnodar, Vitebsk and Taganrog. During the shooting of some three hundred people at a village near Kharkov, Ritz recalled, a woman, trying to save her child, "covered it with her body. But this did not help her, because the bullet went through her and the child."

Although Gilbert seems to take all of Ritz' "confessions" quite seriously, it is interesting to note that Ritz "confessed" to a crime that none of the other postwar exponents of the conventional wisdom have ever accused the Germans of, that is, the killing of Warsaw residents in gas vans. Ironically, a likely explanation of Ritz' "confessions" is suggested by our old friend, Arthur Koestler, in this passage from "Soviet Myth and Reality," in The Yogi and the Commissar:

The method of gross over-simplifications in Soviet home-propaganda led to the tradition that the accused in a political trial must confess lustily and voluntarily his alleged crimes; and once this tradition became established there was no going back. Hence the curious phenomenon that during the Kharkov trial of German war-criminals in December, 1943, the accused German officers and N.C.O.'s were made to behave like characters from Dostoevsky. One of them at the trail told of his own accord how during a mass-execution of Russians he took a tommy gun from a soldier and shot a mother with a child in her arms. For the foreign observer the Kharkov trial (which was filmed and publicly shown in London) gave the same impression of unreality as the Moscow trials, the accused reciting their parts in stilted phrases which they had obviously learned by heart, sometimes taking the wrong cue from the State-Prosecutor and then coming back to the same part again. There is no doubt that the Germans committed bestialities in Russia which surpass the imagination of the Western mind; but that those particular Germans committed those crimes was proved by no other evidence than their own confession. (p143)

That the official Churchill biographer should take the "confessions" of the Kharkov trial seriously merely demonstrates his gross credulity. No doubt he would also take seriously the "confession" referred to in the following:

… the last culprit burned at Paris for heresy suffered in 1663, when a certain Simon Morin, a native of Aumale in Normandy, was sent to the stake. Morin preached that he was Christ Incarnate, that to him all power had been given by God, and that his followers, those who possessed the true light, were incapable of sinning. These Illuminati practiced the most infamous debaucheries under the pretext of religious assemblies, and it was shown that Morin was insatiable in his lusts and corruptions. A wealthy widow, named Malherbe, who had joined the sect, confessed the usual catalogue of filth and folly. She had had sexual connexion with the Devil, had attended the Sabbat, banqueted with demons, entertained imps and familiars. The Parliament ordered her to be branded with the fleur-de-lys and banished from the city. (Montague Summers, The Geography of Witchcraft, Citadel, p430.)

The "confessions" of a Soviet show trail are about as credible as the "confessions" of a "witch" trail. That the official Churchill biographer takes such "confessions" seriously is further evidence of his incompetence as a historian. But, perhaps, he can find work with Walter Laqueur, as an assistant grave digger. Gilbert devotes much attention to the story of Auschwitz escapees Vrba and Wetzler, and their "report" on AuschwitzBirkenau. According to Gilbert (p236), "The Vrba-Wetzler Report, although based entirely on the power of two men's memories, was remarkably accurate in its details." But what were those details? Gilbert does not quote any substantial portion of the "report" itself, but he does quote (pp262-264) a good chunk of an 8-page summary of "the report" that reached the British Foreign Office on 4 July 1944. Here are the details concerning the crematoria of Birkenau:

At the end of February, 1943, four new crematoria were built, two large and two small, in the camp of Birkenau itself. The crematorium contains a large hall, a gas chamber and a furnace. People are assembled in the hall which holds 2,000 and gives the impression of a swimming-bath. They have to undress and are given a piece of soap and a towel as if they were going to the baths. Then they are crowded into the gas chamber which is hermetically sealed.

Several SS men in gas-masks then pour into the gas chamber through three openings in the ceiling a preparation of the poison gas megacyklon, which is made in Hamburg. At the end of three minutes all the persons are dead. The dead bodies are then taken away in carts to the furnace to be burnt. The furnace has nine chambers, each of them with four openings. Each opening will take three bodies at once. They are completely burnt after 11/2 hours. Thus each crematorium can burn 1,500 bodies daily.

The question that naturally arises (though, naturally, not in the mind of the official Churchill biographer) is: how did Vrba and Wetzler "know" all this? According to a deposition made by Vrba for submission at the Eichmann trail, Vrba's souce of information was Filip Müller, "who worked in the Gas Chamber Department." (See I Cannot Forgive, Rudolph Vrba and Alan Bestic, Bantam, 1964, p270.) In his own book, Eyewitness Auschwitz (Stein and Day, 1979), Filip Müller expounds (expands?) upon his role as informant to Vrba and Wetzler (pp121-122). However, Müller's "descriptions" of the Birkenau grematoria do not jibe very wen with those Gilbert quotes from the summary of the Vrba-Wetzler "report." For one thing, the Vrba-Wetzler summary says the four new crematoria at Birkenau were built at the end of February 1943, while MUller (p5l) says thet were ready 6'[b]y mid-July 1943." According to the Vrba-Wetzler summary, several SS men would pour 6'a preparation of the poison gas" into the gas chamber. But, according to Müller (p8l), only "two SS men took the so-called disinfectants, several canisters of Zyklon B and poured their contents into the openings of the gas chamber." An apparently minor discrepancy is the Vrba-Wetzler summary's identification of the poison gas as "megacyklon, " while Miller identifies it as Zyklon B. However, this discrepancy becomes more significant in the light of Müller's claim (p122) that he gave Vrba and Wetzler "one of those labels which were stuck on the tins containing Zyklon B poison gas." If Müller if telling the truth, how did Vrba and Wetzler manager to get the name wrong? In any case, another discrepancy is that the Vrba-Wetzler summary says, regarding the gassings, that at the end of three minutes everyone was dead, while Müller says (p116) that it usually took more than ten minutes before everybody was dead. The Vrba-Wetzler summary says the furnace of the crematorium had nine chambers, each with four openings, while Müller (p59) says that one of the larger crematoria had only five ovens, each with only three combustion chambers. The Vrba-Wetzler summary says the bodies were "completely completely burnt after 11/2 hours," while Miller (p17) says that corpses went into each oven 6'at intervals of twenty minutes." The Vrba-Wetzler summary calculated that each crematorium could burn 1,500 bodies daily, while Müller says of one of the larger crematoria (p5g) that "Its fifteen ovens, working non-stop, could cremate more than 3,000 corpes daily." Clearly, the "facts" about Auschwitz are rather malleable, somewhat like Silly Putty. But despite the fact that, on the crucial matter of the crematoria, most of the details of the Vrba-Wetzler "report" are contradicted by none other than Filip MUller, Vrba and Wetzlers' source of information about the crematoria, the official Churchill biographer calls the "report" of Vrba and Wetzler "remarkably accurate in its details," demonstrating thereby his own remarkable will-to-believe.

In his introduction, Gilbert tells the reader that he has "set out the barest facts of the principal deportations, murders and gassings as they happened…" To give one example out of many, Gilbert asserts (p169) that "On December 20 [1943] … a train-load of 849 Jews reached Auschwitz from Paris; more than five hundred were taken away to be gassed." Gilbert makes this sort of assertion again and again throughout the book. Apparently his source for the "the barest facts" (at least regarding Auschwitz) is Danuta. Czech. In a footnote on page 264, he says that "The principal features of the Vrba-Wetzler report, the arrival of deportation trains at Auschwitz between March 1942 and April 1944, the gassing of the majority of the deportees, and the numbers gassed, are fully borne out by the facts and figures in Danuta Czech's, 'Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau,' published in Hefte von Auschwitz…"

But how reliable are Danuta Czech's "facts and figures"? One indication of their reliability is given in this passage from Pierre Vidal-Naguet's "A Paper Eichmann?" in the April 1981 issue of democracy:

[Robert] Faurisson has triumphantly published a photograph of Simone Veil, the current president of the European Parliament, who, although she was reported to be gassed, is alive and well. The mechanism of this mistake is extremely simple, and the information that Faurisson gives … makes it easy to understand. According to the Polish historian Danuta Czech, the original camp calendar for April 1944 establishes the fact that convoy number 71, which came from Drancy, near Paris, on April 16 was handled in the following manner: 165 men were registered, and the rest of the convoy were gassed (Hefte von Auschwitz no.7, p.88). The camp archives, which were incomplete, no longer included the names of women who had been registered. This mistake was corrected by Serge Klarsfeld, in his [Le] Memorial [de la deportation des juifs de France]: "The Auschwitz calendar gives no names of women who were selected [for labor], but this is misleading, since 70 women survivors of this convoy were counted in 1945. There were also 35 male survivors." (p83)

Was Danuta Czech's "mistake" about convoy 71 from France just a fluke? That it was not is suggested by the one case in which I have been able to compare Czech's "facts and figures," as parroted by Gilbert, with the testimony of a survivor of the convoy in question. According to Gilbert (p210):

On May 21 [1944] the railway sidings, gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were more active than they had ever been before. For on that day three trains arrived from Hungary, two from Holland, and one from Belgium…. From the three Hungarian trains, only eleven men and six women were sent to the barracks, and more than 12,000 gassed. This was the largest number to be gassed in a single day in the history of Auschwitz up to that moment. But it was a number that was now to be repeated day after day.

But, praise Yahweh, who should have been on one of the trains that arrived at Auschwitz from Hungary on 21 May 1944? None other than our litigious old friend, Mel Mermelstein! (See Mermelstein's By Bread Alone, p276.) And, according to Mermelstein's account of his arrival at Auschwitz, "hundreds of men" (p115) from the train he arrived in, including himself, his father, his brother and four acquaintances named Lajas, Tibi, Brain and Joey, were selected for labor and sent to the barracks. (He says nothing about how many women were selected for labor, since, according to his account, the men and women were separated before the selections for labor were made.) Mel Mermelstein says that hundreds of men were selected for labor from just one of the three Hungarian trains, yet Gilbert says that only eleven men from all three Hungarian trains were sent to the barracks and that all the rest were gassed. A bit of a discrepancy, eh, Mr. Gilbert? Perhaps, Pierre Vidal-Naquet will be so kind as to explain how Danuta Czech and, thereby, Martin Gilbert made this "mistake." In any case, in Gilberts usage, "the barest facts" turn out to mean something other than the naked truth. One might even suspect that Gilbert's "barest facts" are really the baldest fictions.

The question of what was done, or not done, to save the lives of European Jews is a major theme of Auschwitz and the Allies. I'm not going to discuss the matter in any detail. However, I want to make one observation. Apparently, none of the people who, in Gilbert's account, were so concerned about saving European Jews ever suggested that this end might have been achieved by trying to bring the war to a more rapid conclusion through a negotiated peace, as opposed to prolonging the war by insisting on Germany's "unconditional surrender." Apparently, saving the lives of European Jews was of less importance than destroying Nazi Germany. "Victory at all costs" was the ruling idea, and one of the costs, it so happened, was the death of many European Jews as a direct or indirect consequence of the war.

The Terrible Secret and Auschwitz and the Allies, despite all their flaws, are each, to some extent, interesting and informative. Each contains some new material on the various rumors, "reports," etc. that were circulating during World War Two about the fate of European Jewry. They also contain some new information about the skepticism with which those rumors, "reports, 99 etc. were received, at least initially, by various parties, including Jews. And there are tidbits of new information about other matters as well. But, each of these books, taken as a whole, is a mishmash of information and misinformation, of fact and fiction, of truth and falsehood. Readers of either book would be well advised to take its author's assertions about "the Final Solution" with not just a grain, but more like a pillar, of salt.

- L.A. Rollins

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Lou A. Rollins
Title: Auschwitz and the Allies / The Terrible Secret, Book Reviews
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 4, no. 1 (spring 1983), pp. 93-108
Published: 1983-04-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 7, 2012, 6 p.m.
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