An Essay by Brian Harmon
dedicated to the Memory of Mark Van Alstine
The summer of 1944 was a busy time for Auschwitz. Increasingly frustrated with Hungary's unwillingness to hand over their Jews and their attempts to withdraw from the war, Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in early 1944 1,2. Between May 15 and July 25 the Nazis deported several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews into Auschwitz. To deal with the massive influx, Crematorium and Gas Chamber V was reactivated after not being used since September of 1943 as was the provisional gas chamber bunker 2 3. These activities placed such a colossal strain on the extermination facilities that the crematory ovens were soon overwhelmed. Under the direction of Oberscharführer Möll, large pits were excavated to cremate several thousand bodies per day 4. In the end, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the spring and summer of 1944 5.
It was at this time that a series of Allied aerial reconnaissance missions flew over the camp to photograph the I.G. Farben industrial works at the Buna (Auschwitz III) complex. Starting in April 1944 and ending in January 1945, these images inadvertently contained the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination complex during the final phases of the camp, including the extermination of the Hungarian Jews 6. In their 1979 publication entitled The Holocaust Revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz -Birkenau Extermination ComplexDino Brugioni and Robert Poirier analyzed and presented highly magnified images from this footage 7. These photos exposed much of the daily life at Auschwitz-Birkenau: columns of prisoners marching in the camp, recent arrivals being led to the gas chambers, and the eventual demolition and evacuation of the camp in early 1945. One photo taken on June 26,1944 shows several pits just northwest of Krema V, precisely where eyewitness accounts claim bodies were burned8,9,10.
Holocaust Denial's Response
In 1992, Ernst Zündel's Samisdat Press published a book by a geologist named John Ball entitled Air Photo Evidence containing his analysis of the images available to Brugioni and Poirier, plus other photographs not in the original report 11. Ball claimed that none of the available footage showed signs of extermination such as smoke from cremation pits. Additionally, Ball claimed the evidence that did exist was drawn in by Brugioni and Poirier, citing an instance where it looks like what might be a column of prisoners standing on the roof of one building, and the changing position of what Ball decided was a fence 12, (see Appendix ). Ball went as far as to post a $100,000 reward to anyone who could have three separate photo experts agree that these images had not been altered. His charges of fraud were repeatedly debunked by photo experts 13,14, and his reward was quietly dropped once means were taken to challenge it 15.
Despite his hasty retreat there was one assertion of Ball's that seemed airtight: none of the available footage showed the open cremation of corpses in pits. Certainly from looking at Ball's book, the photos presented show no obvious sign of open air cremation. However, given John Ball's refusal to back up his own $100,000 challenge and armed with the knowledge that additional footage was out there, we were encouraged to have a look at the archived imagery ourselves.
Using aerial photographs contained within the National Archives, John Ball's book Air Photo Evidence,Brugioni's report, and Gutman and Berenbaum's Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, we searched for evidence of open pit cremation. While this research is still in progress, we have already found clear examples of such activity in images from May 31st, June 26, and July 8th, 1944. Imagery from all these dates were used extensively in John Ball's book, and yet Ball claimed no smoke or pits were found in any of these photos.
When and Where did open air cremation take place?
While no aerial footage is available before 1944, some cremation in open pits occurred in 1942 before Kremas II, III, IV and V came on-line 16,17. At the time, gassing operations took place in the two provisional gas chambers called Bunkers I and II. The lone crematory at Auschwitz I was swamped with bodies from gassing operations, a typhus epidemic raging through the camp 18, and the excavation of bodies from mass graves 19. After the epidemic was brought under control in late 1942 and the activation of the new Kremas at Birkenau, bodies were no longer cremated in pits until May of 1944.
During the spring and summer of 1944, several historical accounts 20,21,22 and eyewitness reports 8,9,10 place the location of cremation pits in at least two places: just northwest of Krema V and adjacent to Bunker 2 on the western edge of Birkenau beyond the perimeter fence. By all accounts, the massive influx of Hungary's Jews had overwhelmed the crematory capacity of Auschwitz, and the pit cremation was necessary to dispose of the dead.
Do Aerial Photos Show the Locations of Burning Pits?
As mentioned previously, both allied and axis aerial photographs from the late spring/summer of 1944 show evidence of mass cremation in pits. Footage from May 31, 1944 shows a large pit NW of Krema V, one East of Krema V, and some trenches due North of Krema V some distance away 23. This last set of trenches were probably used for burying corpses from Bunker I. A plume of smoke can be seen emanating from the pit just NW of Krema V. Footage from the original report by Brugioni and Poirier on June 26, 1944 again shows this large pit near the edge of Krema V 24.
May 31, 1944
May 31 Closeup
June 26, 1944
June 26 Closeup
John Ball used footage from both of these dates in his book Air Photo Evidence25. In the case of the June 26th images, he simply missed the pits entirely. In the May 31st images, however, he actually included the smoke but failed to comment on it 26.
The most striking images of all come from aerial photos taken by the Luftwaffe. On July 8th, 1944, an aerial recon mission of the camp captured this stunning view of smoke pouring out of the region just northwest of Krema V.
July 8, 1944
July 8 Closeup
John Ball used footage from this
date as well, but pointedly excluded any images of Kremas IV
and V, choosing instead to focus on II and III 27.
One must wonder why.
What of John Ball?
Ball either omitted or simply missed evidence plainly present in footage from May 31st, June 26, and July 8, 1944, calling into question his integrity as a "photo expert." Lest one think Ball was simply too unskilled to notice the pits and smoke, he was lucid enough to notice tiny details like the "moving fence" that changed position from one month to the next as well as the alleged "prisoners standing on the roof" 28, (see Appendix ). While it is tempting to suggest that John Ball is not deliberately dishonest, it is unbelievable that he would miss evidence far more obvious than the nits he found to pick.
Ball's defenders are left with a nasty situation: either Ball missed the pits and smoke unintentionally, or he deliberately lied about them by omission. In the former case, Ball's integrity remains but his credentials as an "Air Photo Expert" are left in tatters. In the latter case, he is nothing more than a charlatan and a fraud.
In conclusion, aerial photos from May 31st, June 26, and July 8th, 1944 show plenty of open pits and smoke. Ball used these photos in his book, and yet somehow "missed" all of it. While Holocaust deniers are working on new ways to dismiss the evidence, they can no longer claim that there is no aerial photographic evidence of open pit cremation at Auschwitz.
Appendix: John Ball's Moving Fence and Prisoners Standing on the Roof
In Air Photo Evidence,John Ball claims that some of the lines seen on the August 25, 1944 aerial photos labeled by photo interpreters as prisoners are in fact standing on the roof of a building. This is an odd claim from a man who missed smoke plumes as large as several buildings, but it merits examination nonetheless. Firstly, these marks were not identified as prisoners by Brugioni and Poirier in their original report 29 despite using footage from this date. Additionally, these marks are near the edge of the film, suggesting that they may be scratches or marks made by the film reel or handling. It appears that John Ball is the only person who feels these marks had any importance other than being a smudge near the edge of a negative. More importantly, multiple images were taken on each date as planes overflew Auschwitz, allowing the direction of prisoner columns to be discerned as they marched about the camp and moved relative to buildings and features in the camp. Are these strange marks in all frames from August 25, 1944? Ball doesn't say, and until we procure additional footage from this date we will not be able to examine it for ourselves.
Ball also argues that a thick, dark line that he thinks is a fence around Kremas II and III seems to move over the course of several months in the photos 30. Available historical evidence suggests that this is no fence at all, and is in fact the security screen discussed in former Auschwitz Commandant Hoess's memoirs, the testimony of Jerzy Bielski, and in Nuremberg document 4463 31,32,33. A ground-level image of the security screen is available. This screen was erected to block any line of sight from the gas chambers to other parts of the camps, lest prisoners discover that people were being led to their death34.
Screen on ground
In fact, the fences in Auschwitz do not look like a thick line in an aerial photographs. Close examination shows that fences have dotted appearance in aerial photos, which each dot marking a fencepost while the much thinner coils of barbed wire are not seen from such a high altitude. John Ball's website has an image of what these fences look like on the ground, so one must assume he never considered what a fence would actually look like from high altitude.
Screen vs. Fence
Fence from Air
Closeup of Fence
Ball's Fence Picture
Clearly John Ball's "evidence" of photo tampering was nothing of the kind.
The Holocaust History Project hosts
a number of related essays. These include Dr. László
on the Hungarian deportations and exterminations, John Zimmerman's
on the subject of body disposal at Auschwitz, and Jamie McCarthy's
of John Ball's credentials and qualifications as an "air
photo expert." We also recommend readers peruse our full list of essays and
documents on the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination complex.
John Zimmerman has also written a book entitled Holocaust Denial:
Demographics, Testimonies, and Ideologies recently published by
University Press of America. A detailed analysis of the Auschwitz aerial imagery by photointerpreter
Carroll Lucas is contained in Appendix IV14.
Holocaust Denial is available for purchase from the University Press of America.
see also http://www.mazal.org/various/NMT05-T633.htm