John C. Zimmerman
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
One of the issues that has arisen in connection with the Holocaust is the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Holocaust deniers are forever attacking eyewitnesses as liars or people prone to exaggeration. There can be no doubt that not all eyewitness testimony is reliable. Also, it is true that some witnesses lie or exaggerate.
The main problem with such testimony, however, is that there will often be inconsistencies with regard to details. This is not unusual. Any prosecuting attorney knows that there are differences in the way witnesses view an event. But even though witnesses may differ as to the details of an event, they are seldom wrong as to the event itself. Thus, witnesses to the number of people who could be gassed in the gas chamber of Crematorium I at Auschwitz gave such varying amounts as 600, 700, 900, and 1000. 1 Holocaust deniers exploit the differences in this type of testimony by claiming that if there are differences as to the number of people who could be gassed, then there must be doubt as to whether the event occurred.
Holocaust historians have not avoided the issue of the reliability of such testimony. The late Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz wrote:
Many thousands of oral histories by survivors recounting their experiences exist in countries and archives around the world. Their quality and usefulness vary significantly according to the informant's memory, grasp of events, insights and of course accuracy. The longer the time lapsed [between the event and the testimony] the less likely the informant has retained freshness of recollection. The transcribed testimonies I have examined have been full of errors in dates, names of participants, and places, and there are evident misunderstandings of the events themselves. To the unwary researcher some of the accounts can be more hazard than help. 2
Holocaust denier Mark Weber misquoted a report that the archives director for Holocaust testimony in Israel stated that over one half of the 20,000 testimonies in the possession of the archives are unreliable. 3 The actual article quoted the director as saying that many testimonies, not most, were inaccuarate. 4 Weber did not reveal that the director angrily denied making the statement attributed to him. Schmuel Krakowski, the director, wrote: "I said that there are some - fortunately very few - testimonies, which proved to be inaccurate." 5
How then can the reliability of such testimony be evaluated? One method is to compare it to other testimony on the subject. Is the testimony consistent overall when compared to other testimony on the same event? Another method is to compare the testimony to other corroborative evidence. Is there some documentary evidence that supports the testimony? For example, Miklos Nyiszli was a Jewish doctor who was part of the Hungarian transports deported to Auschwitz from May to July 1944. His memoirs were written in March 1946 and published in Budapest in 1947. A copy of the original Hungarian is at the UCLA main library. They were translated into English in 1960. Nyiszli served as a prisoner doctor to the notorious Joseph Mengele. He witnessed the bodies of dead gassing victims and the burnings of bodies in the Crematoriums. He also witnessed the burning pits dug by the Auschwitz authorities to dispose of the murdered victims. How can his testimony be evaluated? His testimony can be classified as victim testimony, the essentials of which have been verified by other victims. Perpetrators have also verified the essential aspects of his testimony. 6 But there is other evidence by which the veracity of his testimony can be evaluated. Nyiszli wrote that while he was at Auschwitz there were 860 special commando prisoners assigned to the four crematoriums to dispose of the murdered victims. 7 This is a very large number and is consistent with what the camp authorities would need to dispose of victims who were being murdered en masse. A camp labor deployment list dated August 29, 1944 shows 874 special workers assigned to the four crematoria. They are evenly divided among those installations and divided again into day and night shifts. 8 Thus, Nyiszli is a very credible witness based on this independent corroboration.
Rudolf Höss was the commandant at Auschwitz for most of its existence. His memoirs show that he occupied a unique position in the history of the Nazi implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. 9 He was an intermediary between those who ordered the murder of the Jews and those who carried out the policy. Thus, he was able to witness the final solution from both sides. He recounts how Heinrich Himmler, second in overall authority in the Third Reich, told him (27-28) that Hitler had ordered that all Jews within the Nazi reach must be annihilated.
Höss's memoirs are divided into two parts, which have been relied upon and cited by historians since their publication in 1959. The first part is entitled The Final Solution of the Jewish Question and is dated November 1946. Here he details how the extermination machinery developed at Auschwitz. It should be pointed out that his account is in substantive agreement with other testimony by victims and perpetrators at Auschwitz. 10
The second part of his memoirs, dated February 1947, deals with his rise through the Nazi hierarchy and some of the administrative problems he faced at Auschwitz. Here he reveals (142) an order from 1941 that "[a]ll Jews without exception are to be destroyed." There is a separate chapter on gassing (155-164), but not as much detail is given as in the chapter on the final solution.
For obvious reasons, Holocaust deniers have been excoriating these memoirs for years, arguing that they are not worth the paper they are written on. The typical argument is that Höss was tortured into falsely confessing to crimes he did not commit. Höss wrote these memoirs while in Polish captivity. However, we know that he was tortured by his British captors before being turned over to the Poles. What deniers never reveal is that we know this because Höss stated this in his memoirs. If there was an attempt by his Polish captors to falsify these memoirs or to have Höss lie, this information would have never appeared. Höss explains (179):
During the first interrogation they beat me to obtain evidence. I do not know what was in the transcript, or what I said, even though I signed it, because they gave me liquor and beat me with a whip. It was too much even for me to bear.
It appears that his harsh treatment was caused by Jewish sergeants in the arresting party whose parents had died at Auschwitz. One Jewish sergeant claimed that Höss admitted without a trace of remorse that he had been responsible for around two million deaths. Yet, this same sergeant spoke about Höss's letters to his wife. "Sometimes a lump came to my throat. There were two different men in that one man. One was brutal with no regard for human life. The other was soft and affectionate." 11
Höss was turned over to the International Military Tribunal to testify because the defense attorney for accused war criminal Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the former head of Reich Main Security, wanted him as a witness. Höss writes (180) that compared to where he had been before, "imprisonment with the IMT was like staying in a health spa." He was then handed over to the Poles to stand trial in Cracow, Poland. He describes (181) his first weeks in prison as "quite tolerable." However, the attitudes of the guards changed for the worse. Both he and Polish prisoners were mistreated. The prosecutor's office intervened and things changed. "I have to openly confess that I never would have expected to be treated so decently and so kindly in a Polish prison as I have been since the intervention of the prosecutor's office." Höss's surprise stemmed, no doubt, from the fact that about 300,000 Poles, most of them Jews, perished at Auschwitz.
The reliability of these memoirs can be tested by comparing them to independent corroborating evidence. All of the essential eyewitness testimony corroborates Höss's memoirs on Auschwitz. Pery Broad, an SS man stationed at Auschwitz while Höss was the commandant, wrote of the gas chambers and crematoria in his memoirs. 12 Similarly, they are confirmed by the diary kept by SS physician at Auschwitz Johann Kremer. 13 The post war testimony by victims and perpetrators at the Belsen trial in 1947 of many guards who served at Auschwitz is further corroborating evidence. 14 There was also a great deal of victim and perpetrator testimony at the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, Germany in the mid 1960s of 20 defendants who were stationed at the camp. 15
In the case of Auschwitz there is also a great deal of documentary evidence which has survived that supports Höss's memoirs in all details. The following analysis will examine this documentation to test the reliability of the memoirs
Höss wrote about a secret order (29;155) given in the Fall of 1941 to kill all Soviet commissars and political functionaries in the camps. Such individuals were consistently arriving at Auschwitz. Höss then recounts (30) how the first gassing of Soviet POWs took place in the cellar of Block 11, an execution block where prisoners were usually shot or hanged, but not gassed. However, this appears to be either the first gassing that took place in Block 11 or one of two gassings. 16 Block 11 was unsuitable for gassing because it took two days to air out the cellar. Höss then states that the gassing of Soviet POWs was moved to Crematorium I. Jews (31) were gassed elsewhere.
How reliable was Höss? A card index for Soviet POWs for the Fall of 1941 shows that 9997 were brought into the camp. 17 The Auschwitz morgue registries - not to be confused with the Auschwitz Death Books 18 - show that 7343 Soviet prisoners died in the four month period from October 1941 through January 1942, an astounding 73%. 19
Holocaust deniers argue that there was no first gassing of Soviet POWs in Auschwitz. 20 However, in 1994, Cracow's Institute for Forensic Research did a comprehensive study of the structures at Auschwitz identified as homicidal gas chambers. The Institute found traces of hydrocyanic acid, the poison gas used for mass murder, in the cellar of Block 11, the place identified by Höss as the site of the first gassing. Moreover, the Institute also found that there were low levels of such acid when compared to the other gassing sites, thus substantiating Höss's statement that Block 11 was abandoned early on as a gassing site because of unsuitability. The Institue also found hydrocyanic acid in Crematorium I, where Höss states that the gassing operations for Soviet POWs were moved to. 21
Höss writes (28) that he met with Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Gestapo's Jewish Office, "who told me about killings by engine exhaust gas in the gas vans and how they had been used in the East [the Soviet occupied territory] up until now."
Holocaust denier David Irving obtained Eichmann's unpublished memoirs. These memoirs were written before he was captured by the Israelis, so it cannot be claimed that they were written under duress. Irving quotes Eichmann as writing that he was on a bus and told by the driver "to look through a peep hole in the back of the bus where he saw a number of prisoners being gassed by exhaust fumes." 22
Irving attempted to put the right spin on Eichmann's admission by arguing that this was an isolated incident. He also tried to argue that Eichmann's memoirs impeached Höss. But Irving knew better. Höss's characterization of Eichmann's role had been confirmed by Irving before he became a denier. In 1977 Irving wrote of discovering a document from 1941 showing that Eichmann approved of "a proposal that these [Jews] arriving at Riga [in Latvia] should be killed by mobile gas trucks." 23 The memo confirms in detail Höss's description of Eichmann's role in these matters. It is a top secret memo from the Advisor for Jewish Affairs with the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories entitled "The Solution of the Jewish Question." It reads:
...please be informed that [Chief Executive Officer] Brack from the Fuhrer's Chancellory has stated his readiness to assist in the construction of the necessary accomodations and gassing apparatuses [Vergasungsapparate]. At the present time we do not have on hand a sufficient quantity of the apparatuses, so they must first be constructed... I might further point out that [Major] Eichmann, the Advisor on Jewish Affairs in the Reich Security Main Office, is in complete accord with this procedure. According to information received here from [Major] Eichmann, camps for the Jews will be set up Riga and Minsk... Given the present situation, Jews who are unfit for work can be eliminated without qualms through use of the Brack device. 24
Höss also wrote (42) of witnessing at Treblinka large trucks and tanks that "were started up and the exhaust gases were fed by pipes into the gas chambers...." This was the preferred gassing method at Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and the gas vans which patrolled Soviet territory. His observations are confirmed by a "Top Secret" memo dated May 16, 1942 on activities in the occupied Soviet territories from SS Lieutenant August Becker who reported that "to come to an end as fast as possible, the driver presses the accelerator to the fullest extent. By doing that the persons to be executed suffer death from suffocation and not by dozing off as was planned." Four weeks later a memo was sent from the Reich Security Main Office in Riga requesting "the shipment of 20 gas hoses for the three S-vans" which are to be used on a "transport of Jews which has to be treated in a special way [which] arrives weekly." 25 At about the same time another report from the Reich Main Security Office mentions that since December 1941, "ninety seven thousand have been processed using three vans." The report mentions that "[i]n order to facilitate the rapid distribution of CO [carbon monoxide] ... two slots ... will be bored at the top of the rear wall." It states that the "pipe that connects the exhaust to the van tends to rust, because it is eaten away by liquids that flow into it." 26
Höss wrote (44) that the Auschwitz gas chambers were furnished with showers in order to give the impression of a real bathhouse. An inventory list from the camp authorities for Corpse Cellar 1 of Crematorium III lists "14 showers" and one "gas tight door." 27 Deniers have had a difficult time explaining why a shower and a gas tight door would be in a corpse cellar. Höss also wrote (32,44) of removing gold teeth from the mouths of gassing victims. Such testimony was common among survivors. The completion document for Crematorium II states than in the basement where there are two corpse cellars is a gold processing room. 28 Two months earlier, on January 29, 1943, one of these corpse cellars was identified as a "gassing cellar" in a report by the camp construction authority. 29
Höss states (32) that in the summer of 1942 five barracks were built near two bunkers. The two bunkers had been converted to gas chambers in the wooded area of the Birkenau camp, known as Auschwitz II, that were used to murder Jews. These two gas chambers preceded the ones in the four Birkenau crematoriums, which became operational in 1943 and were also used for gassing (36). The barracks were used as undressing facilities. A memo from the Auschwitz Construction Authority from July 1942 requests "four huts [Stuck Baracken] for the special treatment [Sonderbehandlung] of the prisoners at Birkenau." This document is the first one to support all of the eyewitness testimony on the existence on these structures. 30 Höss also wrote (38) that the term "special treatment" was a designation from Eichmann of Jewish transports to be murdered.
The term "special treatment" was a well known Nazi camouflage word for murder. In Auschwitz, two camp reports have survived which show that "special treatment" meant the disappearance of prisoners. A camp report from March 8, 1943 supports Höss's definition that the term meant the murder of Jewish transports. The report states that on March 5 a total of 1128 Jews arrived from Berlin. Only 389 of these prisoners were admitted to the camp while the remainder, women and children, were given "special treatment." Auschwitz registration records for March 6 show 389 men and 96 women registered from this transport. The same report states that on March 5, 1405 Jews arrived from Breslau. This transport, according to the report, saw 406 men and 190 women admitted while the remainder received "special treatment." Auschwitz registration records show 406 men and 190 women registered from this transport.
The same report also states that on March 7, 690 prisoners arrived from Berlin of whom 243 were admitted to the camp while the remainder - 30 men and 417 women - received "special treatment." Auschwitz registration records for March 7 show 243 arrivals from Berlin receiving a registration number. 31 Therefore, in all three of these transports the prisoners given "special treatment" disappear after arriving at Auschwitz. The data from these three transports also support Höss's statement (35) that between 25 and 30% of the new arrivals were found fit for work and admitted to the camp.
A camp report from October 8, 1944 on prisoner strength for the women's camp in Birkenau states that on October 7 there were 38,782 prisoners. A total of 8 arrived bringing the total to 38,800. The report then speaks of 2394 decreases to bring the total down to 36,406. These decreases consist of seven natural deaths, eight releases, 1150 transfers and 1229 under the heading of "SB". Since this "SB" could not mean natural death, release or transfer, it can only mean that these prisoners were killed. 32
One of the more recent examples to surface which equates this term with the gassing of prisoners is a memo from the Auschwitz Construction Agency dated January 29, 1943 which deals with electricity problems in Crematorium II. It states: "The functioning is limited to existing machines (therefore enabling a concurrent burning with special treatment)." 33 The burning can only mean the burning of bodies. This memo is stating that in Crematorium II "special treatment" [i.e. gassing] and cremation can occur simultaneously. The date of January 29 is also highly significant. Recall that on this same day the same agency stated that there was a "gassing cellar" in Crematorium II. The link of special treatment to poison gas was further established in a memo of August 26, 1942 where permission was given to the Auschwitz concentration camp "for dispatch of a truck to Dessau to load material for special treatment." Dessau is where the poison Zyklon B was manufactured. 34 Cracow's Institute for Forensic Research, referred to earlier, found many traces of Zyklon B in the cellar of Crematorium II. 35
Thus, Höss's description of the word "special treatment" is confirmed in all of its essentials. The term is linked directly to taking place in the crematoriums, the use of poison gas, and the disappearance of prisoners.
Höss wrote of the problems faced in disposing of the dead bodies of murdered victims. This topic has generated a great deal discussion on the internet and denier publications. The topic will be dealt with comprehensively elsewhere. 36 The purpose of the following inquiry is to evaluate Höss's writings on the topic in light of what is known.
Höss wrote (32) of the two bunkers, referred to earlier, that had been converted into gas chambers. Prisoners were gassed and their bodies buried. However, the bodies were then dug up at the end of the summer and mass burnings began. The burnings went on until the end of November 1942 by which time all of the mass graves had been cleared. A report in The New York Times in late November 1942 states:
Information received here of methods by which the Germans in Poland are carrying out the slaughter of Jews includes accounts of trainloads of adults and children taken to great crematoriums at [sic] Oswiencim near Cracow. 37
Oswiecim was the Polish name for Auschwitz. This report of a "great crematoria" is consistent with the time frame and the mass outdoor burnings mentioned by Höss. At the time this report was written, Auschwitz only had six ovens (this number would later be increased to 52). The outdoor burnings were utilized because the crematoria could not handle all of the dead.
Höss wrote (36) that the eight ovens in Crematorium IV, which became operational in March 1943 38 "failed completely after a short time and later [were] not used at all." This is now confirmed by a visit to Auschwitz in May 1943 by the chief engineer who was responsible for building the ovens. He stated that the ovens for Crematorium IV could no longer be repaired. 39 It should be noted that if Höss's Polish captors were attempting to coerce false information out of him they certainly would not have allowed him to mention the permanent breakdown of these structures, a fact which suggests limitations on the crematoriums. As will be seen later, the Poles were basing a too high death rate at Auschwitz on the capacity of these ovens to burn more bodies than they were capable.
Höss wrote (37) that gassed bodies from Crematorium V were burned mostly in pits behind that structure. An aerial photo taken of the complex on May 31, 1944 shows smoke rising from an area behind Crematorium V. The photo was first made public in 1983. 40 A recent photographic enhancement of this photo by the supervisor of cartographic applications and image processing at Caltech/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena shows prisoners being marched into Crematorium V. 41 There is also a well known photo showing naked bodies being burned at Birkenau in the open. The landscape background of this photo shows that these bodies are being burned behind Crematorium V. 42 An aerial photo of the Birkenau area taken on June 26, 1944 show ground scarrings behind Crematoriums IV and V consistent with pits. 43
Höss wrote (36) that a sixth crematorium was planned. The idea was abandoned because Himmler ordered a halt to the exterminations in 1944. A letter to Höss dated February 12, 1943 from the head of the Auschwitz Construction Agency states that the idea for a sixth crematorium had been discussed with an engineer from the company that built the ovens. 44
Höss wrote that in 1944 (166) tens of thousands of Jews were transferred from Auschwitz to be used in the German arms industry production. He does not specify the period of time in 1944, but he apparently means the Hungarian deportees who began to arrive in May. Auschwitz camp records show that from May 29 to August 13 about 20,000 Jews were transported out of the camp. 45 A total of 437,000 were deported from Hungary from mid-May to mid-July. 46 However, Höss noted (166-167) that the workers were useless to the German war effort because they were unfit for work. "I always thought that the strongest and healthiest Jews should be selected." Höss's observation is confirmed by the minutes of meetings by the Ministry of Armaments. On May 26, the Central Department Manager for the Ministry, Fritz Schmelter, complained: "For fighter construction we were only offered children, women and old men with whom very little can be done...." 47 Two weeks later Schmelter announced that he could get 10,000 to 20,000 Jewish female workers. However, only 520 were selected who were, in the final analysis, not considered suitable for the work. 48
Höss's most important demographic observation concerns the total number of victims who were murdered at Auschwitz. He gave the total (39) of 1,130,000. Until recently, many disputed estimates of this size. Most studies of Auschwitz gave a number at least twice as high or higher. Even the cover jacket for the edition of the memoirs used for this study places the number murdered at 2 million. However, in 1991 Polish historian and Auschwitz authority, Dr. Franciszek Piper, did the most comprehensive demographic study of the number of deportees to the camp ever undertaken. He began the study in 1980. He found that 1.3 million had been deported to Auschwitz during its 4 1/2 year existence but that only 400,000 had received a registration number. Of those 400,000 only 200,000 had not been killed. All of the unregistered deportees, who cannot be accounted for, were killed. This means that 1.1 million were killed. 49 The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. has now accepted this number. 50
Höss was incorrect as to some of the details. For example, he overstated the number of French and Netherlands Jews who died at Auschwitz and understated some others. However, this is not unusual. He did not have the underlying data in front of him since it had been destroyed. But he knew the total. This is something that he would be likely to remember.
The most significant aspect to Höss's placing the number at 1.1 million is that this constitutes the definitive proof that Höss could not have been forced to lie in his memoirs. At the time Höss wrote his memoirs the standard figure on the number murdered was 4 million. The Soviets, who had liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, issued a report dated May 6, 1945 where the 4 million number was given. This report was subsequently filed with the International Tribunal at Nuremberg as document USSR-008. Many former prisoners stated that 4 million were killed at Auschwitz. This number was also accepted by the Polish authorities that tried Höss. 51 Yet at the same time these reports were listing four million murdered, Höss repudiated former testimony he had given at the International Military Tribunal, before he was handed over to the Poles, that 2.5 million were killed. He wrote (39): "I regard a total of 2.5 million as far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive capacity. Figures given by former prisoners are figments of their imagination and have no basis in fact."
Höss was directly challenging the credibility of his captors. He simply could not have written this under duress. Rather, if he was being forced to write these memoirs the 4 million number would certainly have turned up. Also, this shows that his memoirs were not tampered with by the Polish or Soviet authorities. This could explain the reason - though the author has no information to this effect - the Höss memoirs were not released by the Poles until 1958, more than eleven years after they were written.
It should, however, be pointed out in fairness to the former prisoners and investigating bodies that reported the 4 million that the real number was not known. It was only known that the number was very high. The death count was based on the number of bodies the authorities thought had been burned in the ovens. The figures given by the Soviets in USSR-008 were far too high, partly because they were based on the assumption that all the crematoria ovens worked at full speed around the clock for 2 1/2 years. The assumption was erroneous and will be examined in greater depth on this site in a forthcoming study. Like many historical events, all of the facts only became known with the passage of time.
The mass murder at Auschwitz necessarily required secrecy. Höss writes (35-36) that SS members who took part in the murders were bound to secrecy, "but even the most severe punishment was unable to stop their love of gossip." One of the key documents to survive is the declaration signed by SS Corporal Gottfried Wiese on May 24, 1944, during the Hungarian operation. He states that on pain of death he will not steal any Jewish property or reveal any information about the Jewish "evacuations." He also acknowledges that he has been informed about the case of a female SS employee who was sentenced to death for revealing state secrets. 52
Höss recounts (38-39) that he was ordered by Himmler to destroy all of the information about the number of victims murdered after each action at Auschwitz. He states that he personally destroyed all of the evidence of mass murder and that other department heads did the same. He quotes Eichmann as telling him that Himmler and the Gestapo headquarters destroyed documents which could tie them to mass murder. He states that while some documents may have escaped the shredder, they "could not give enough information to make a calculation." This is one of the more hotly contested statements by deniers. They claim that the reason there is not more information about the number murdered at Auschwitz is because mass murder never occurred there. In fact, it is known that there were general orders to destroy all incriminating evidence. Unfortunately, most of these orders were destroyed as well. However, one important document has survived which shows the nature of the materials ordered destroyed. It is a secret order dated March 15, 1945 from the Gauleiter and Commisioner for Reich Defense, Sprenger:
All files, particularly the secret ones, are to be destroyed completely. The secret files about... installations and deterring work in the concentration camps must be destroyed at all costs. Also, the extermination of some families,etc. These files must under no circumstances fall into the hands of the enemy, since after all they were secret orders by the Führer. 53
The "installations" and "deterring work" in the "concentration camps" and which "families" were subject to "extermination" are not defined. Like "special treatment," there were code words for the destruction of the incriminatory evidence.
The answer to the question posed by the title of this study is that, based on all of the available evidence, the Höss memoirs are very reliable as to their overall truth. There is a great deal of independent documentation which supports nearly all of Höss's statements. The Höss memoirs emerge as among the most reliable of those from World War II. Unfortunately, there is not independent corroboration for all of his statements. The key statement for which we have no evidence is Höss's assertion (27-28) that Himmler told him in the Summer of 1941 that Hitler had ordered the murder of all Jews within Nazi reach. Himmler may have had records of this conversation, but he destroyed all evidence which connected him to these matters. 54 Nevertheless, it is known that Himmler did speak in these tones. In particular there is his infamous Posen speech in 1943, for which there is a tape recording in the National Archives, where he openly speaks of the "extermination of the Jewish people." 55 A recent discovery of captured German documents in the Russian archives shows a notation by Himmler in his notebook in December 1941, following a meeting with Hitler, which states: "The Jewish question / to be exterminated as partisans." 56
More than 50 years have passed since Höss was executed for his crimes. The passage of time has tended to validate the Höss memoirs. New discoveries only add to his credibility. Historians have been correct for the past 40 years to rely on these writings.