Eyewitnesses To The Existence of Gas Vans Are Unreliable
Holocaust deniers say:
Eyewitness evidence about the use of gas vans in the death camp of Chelmno and by the Einsatzgruppen units in the East is based on hearsay that originated in questionable trials in the Soviet Union during the war. That "evidence" then influenced the trials held in Germany after the war.1
Ingrid Weckert, a German Holocaust denier, maintains that the testimony about the gas vans is such a "wild conglomeration of conflicting claims" that it does not rise to the level of documentary evidence that they ever existed, much less were ever used.2
Who testified to the gas vans and their use?
- The drivers of the gas vans.
- The heads of the Einsatzgruppen units that employed the gas vans.
- Survivors of the actions in the East and at the Chelmno death camp.
- Bystanders who witnessed the gas vans being used.
The facts about the eyewitness testimony regarding the existence of gas vans
The eyewitnesses all agree in their overall descriptions of the gas vans:
- From the outside a gas van looked like a normal dark gray or green-gray delivery van.
- The smaller vans held 30 to 50 people and the larger vans between 50 and 70 people.
- The gas van’s interior was lined with galvanized iron.
- It had double doors at the back that were hermetically sealed with a rubber lining around the edges.
- The floor was covered by a wooden grid or grate that could be lifted for cleaning.
- Underneath the wooden grid or grate was an opening that connected to the engine and fed the exhaust gases into the compartment.
Where and when did we first learn about the gas vans?
- After the war there were dozens of trials that centered on the personnel who operated camps like Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
- Yet other trials were conducted by the type of charges such as the Einsatzgruppen Trial in 1947/48 which dealt with the murder in a variety of ways of millions of Jews and others in the occupied Soviet territories.
- The use of gas vans in the death camp of Chelmno and on the Eastern Front was dealt with in trials in Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Darmstadt, Hanover, Munich, Koblenz, Essen, Karlsrühe, Wuppertal, Cologne, Giessen and other cities in West Germany throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Here are some examples from the vast body of testimony in the Russian and West German trials about which Weckert does not tell her readers:
- Willi Friedrich, a guard at a prison in Kharkov in the Soviet Union testified: "From February to May 1942 I was responsible . . . for the cordoning measures necessary for the gas-van operations . . . I don’t know where the van was stationed. But I remember having seen it several times . . . The gas van looked like a large moving van." (Trial in Darmstadt, West Germany, 1967)
- Wilhelm Findeisen and Heinz Oertel worked for Einsatzgruppe C as gas van drivers in Kiev in the Ukraine. Findeisen stated, "My job was just to drive the vehicle . . . About forty people were loaded inside. There were men, women, and children . . . The van door was then bolted shut, and the hose was attached . . . I drove through the town to the antitank ditches. There the doors of the vehicle were opened . . . The bodies were thrown into the antitank ditches." (Trial in Darmstadt, West Germany, 1967)
- Robert Mohr, the head of Einsatzkommando 6, testified about his activities in Stalino in the Ukraine (today: Donetsk): "I saw only the outside of the Sonderkommando’s gas van . . . it was a large gray vehicle that looked like a moving van. It had no windows." (Trial in Wuppertal, West Germany, 1962)
- Walter Burmeister, a German who worked at the Chelmno death camp in Poland, testified: "The vans’ cargo compartments had double doors at the rear, like those on a moving van. They were painted a Wehrmacht gray and looked perfectly harmless from the outside. The inside was lined with sheets of zinc, and the metal floor was covered with a wooden grid. Under this grid was a pipe, pierced with holes, which led out to the front. At the front, attached to the exhaust, was a mechanism that allowed the gas to be directed through a metal spiral hose to the pipe I have just described . . . Inside the compartment was an electric light." (Trial in Bonn, West Germany, 1967)
- A man named Laurer witnessed gassing operations that took place in November 1941 in Poltava in the southern Ukraine: "Two gas vans were in service. I saw them myself . . . the interior of the van . . . was covered with sheet metal and fitted with a wooden grid. The exhaust fumes were piped into the interior of the vans." (Trial in Darmstadt, West Germany, 1967)
- Boris Dobins, a Jew from the Minsk Ghetto, testified to the use of gas vans in Minsk in Belarus: "They [the victims] were loaded onto vehicles equipped to kill by means of exhaust fumes. These vehicles had all-metal cargo compartments. The prisoners from the ghetto called these vehicles 'gas vans.’" (Trial in Essen, West Germany, 1964)
- A man named Kotov actually survived a gas van operation in the Caucasus (a region that borders on Russia and Turkey): "As I entered the courtyard I saw a large truck with a dark-gray body." Kotov was seized and pushed into the truck, where he struggled to breathe through a wet shirt. He eventually passed out and woke up in a ditch with several dozen corpses. He crawled away and survived the war. (Krasnodar/Kharkov trials in the Soviet Union, 1943)
- Jacob Grojanowski was a member of the Sonderkommando in the Chelmno death camp. He escaped in early 1942 and made his way to the Warsaw ghetto where he gave Emil Ringelblum, the ghetto archivist, a detailed account of what he had seen. In his report Grojanowski said, "We didn’t have to wait long before the next lorry arrived with fresh victims. It was specially constructed. It looked like a normal large lorry, in grey paint, with two hermetically closed rear doors. The inner walls were of steel metal. There weren’t any seats. The floor was covered by a wooden grating, as in public baths, with straw mats on top. Between the driver’s cab and the rear part were two peepholes. With a torch once could observe through these peepholes if the victims were already dead. Under the wooden grating were two tubes about 15 cms [centimeters] thick which came out of the cab. The tubes had small openings from which gas poured out . . . There were two such vans." Grojanowski did not survive the war because he was deported a second time from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka where he was murdered. Part of the Warsaw Ghetto archives, which included Grojanowski’s report, came to light until 1946 and some more material surfaced in 1950.3
- Hedwig Schönfein, a Swiss woman who had married a Jewish doctor, was interned with her husband and daughter in the Semlin camp in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. On 8 or 9 May 1942 Hedwig’s husband was taken away in the next-to-last convoy. She was spared because she was not Jewish. She later testified to a Yugoslavian court that "the convoys were taken in a large hermetically sealed van painted dark gray. It could hold a hundred people standing up. There were no seats." (Trial in Cologne, West Germany, 1952)
- A Jewish man from Riga named Mendel Vulfovich testified on 9 December 1944 before the Soviet Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes: "In February 1942, I saw with my own eyes 2,000 elderly Jews from Germany, men and women, being loaded into special gas vans. These vans were painted gray-green and had a large closed cargo compartment with hermetically sealed doors. All those inside were killed by gas." 4
Thus, perpetrators, survivors and bystanders in Kharkov (Soviet Union), Kiev (Ukraine), Stalino (Ukraine), Chelmno (Poland), Poltava (southern Ukraine), Baranovichi (Belarus), Minsk (Belarus), the Caucasus (Soviet Union), Belgrade (Yugoslavia), and Riga (Latvia) described similar vehicles. The testimony of these eyewitnesses diverges only in small non-critical points and is remarkably coherent and convincing overall.
Weckert uses a common Holocaust denial technique for discrediting any eyewitness evidence that negates their thesis. She selects tiny, out-of-context examples from the large body of eyewitness evidence available, and then minutely picks each of them apart looking for any inconsistencies, no matter how small or inconsequential. Any minor differences mean that all the eyewitness testimony on the gas vans should be rejected as being of "no evidentiary value." 5
The fact is that minor inconsistencies aide the overall credibility and convergence of the eyewitnesses accounts, since identical descriptions would seem rehearsed.
1. Ingrid Weckert, "The Gas Vans: A Critical Assessment of the Evidence," p. 3/34.
2. Ibid., p. 25/34.
3. "Szlamek Bajler, also known as Yakov Grojanowski: Notes on the Chelmno Waldlager, January 1942" p. 2/8 at http://www.deathcamps.org/occupation/bajler.html.
4. All selections are from Chapters 4 and 5 in Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas (English language version, 1993). The chapters contain much more testimony than cited here.
5. Weckert, "Gas Vans," pp. 28/34.