Mass Incineration: Not Enough Room To Crush The Bones
Holocaust deniers say:
There was not enough room in the extermination areas of the Operation Reinhard camps to crush the bones.
The American Holocaust denier videomaker asks about Treblinka: "Where did they crush and sift the burnt remains of a population equivalent to San Francisco?"
He asserts that bone crushing would have taken too long and required an area the size of a football field. The "falsehood of the whole story" comes out when maps of the camps are examined-they show there was not enough space for bone crushing in the extermination areas.
Calling the whole idea one more example of the alleged "makeshift shoddy workmanship methods" in the camps-which the Germans just would not have done-he asserts that the whole process was impossible. It is just a "story" and the "storytellers didn’t always think of the best solutions for things." 1
What we know about the crushing of the ashes and bones in the camps
Yitzhak Arad, the primary scholar of the Operation Reinhard camps, summarizes the situation regarding the disposal of ashes, bone remnants and teeth that existed in all three camps:
- "When the fire went out, there were only skeletons or scattered bones on the roasters, and piles of ash underneath. Another special prisoner team, known as the "ash group" (Aschkolonne), had the task of collecting the ash and removing the remains of the charred bones from the grill and placing them on tin sheets. Round wooden sticks were then used to break the bones into small fragments. These were then run through a tightly woven screen made of metal wire; those bone fragments which did not pass through the screen were returned for further smashing. Unburned bones which proved difficult to fragment were returned to the roaster and reignited with a new pile of bodies." 2
Eyewitness evidence about the final treatment of the ashes
We do have some testimony of survivors and perpetrators on the matter of bone crushing after incineration:
- At Chelmno, Simon Srebnik, one of the two survivors, said: "There was a concrete platform some distance away [from the incineration pits] , and the bones that hadn’t burned, the big bones of the feet, for example, we took. There was a chest with two handles. We carried the bones there, where others had to crush them. It was very fine, that powdered bone. Then it was put into sacks, and when there were enough sacks, we went to a bridge on the Narew River, and dumped the powder. The current carried it off. It drifted downstream." 3
- At Chelmno they used a bone-crushing machine. In a letter dated July 16, 1942 sent to Chaim Rumkowski, the Elder of the Jews in the Lodz ghetto, a German named Ribbe requested that ghetto be searched for a bone crushing machine "whether manually operated or motor driven." Ribbe openly wrote that it was wanted in Chelmno. Evidently there was no such machine in the ghetto because a letter sent to the Lodz Gestapo several months later showed that one was purchased from the firm Schriever and Company in Hamburg for Chelmno.4
- In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the camp, wrote about the handling of ashes in the crematoria ovens and the open air burning pits: "During the period when the fires [in the crematoria ovens] were kept continuously burning without a break, the ashes fell through the grates and were constantly removed and crushed to powder." 5
Höss visited Chelmno where he was offered a bone-crushing machine similar to theirs. He turned it down, preferring to destroy the bone material at Auschwitz-Birkenau with hammers and Jewish labor.6
- Also in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ya’akov Silberberg, a survivor of the incineration Sonderkommando, said: "We broke the bones and ground them up very, very fine and the Germans scattered the ashes in the Vistula River so that no traces would remain." 7
About the crushing of bones and ashes after incineration in the Operation Reinhard camps we have little direct testimony. Of the about 1.8 millions Jews who were murdered in these camps only two Jewish men-Yankiel Wiernik and Yechiel Reichman-survived who had first hand knowledge of the extermination area. In his writings, Wiernik dwells on the horror of the incinerations but he does not speak in detail about the final disposal of the ashes. Reichmann does not address this issue in detail either.
However, Pavel Leleko, a Ukrainian guard in Treblinka, did testify directly about the bone crushing process: "After the bodies had been burned, the prisoners belonging to the "working crews" passed the ashes through a sieve. The parts of the body that had burned but had preserved their natural shape were put into a special mortar and pounded into flour." 8
Was there enough room in the extermination areas of the three camps to dispose of the ashes and bone remnants?
The American Holocaust denier videomaker attempts to demonstrate that there was not enough room by laying out three large black circular "ash piles" each surrounded by a ring of eight blue, red and yellow circles he calls "bone crushing stations." He places all the circles on a football field to show how they would have taken up the entire field and then searches for a similarly generously-sized area on the map of Treblinka in Arad’s book and-not surprisingly-fails.
The American Holocaust denier videomaker’s speculations raise more questions than they answer. For instance:
- How did he arrive at the dimensions for his imaginary circles? What are the dimensions? He never tells the viewer. He simply slathers circles all over a football field and pronounces the whole construction too big.
- Why move the ashes and bones from the grills to another area from which they are re-distributed yet again? Why not take them directly from the grill to those prisoners who were crushing the bones and ashes?
- Why arrange everything in huge circles that use the most possible space? Why not just line up a few "stations" alongside the grills?
It appears that the American Holocaust denier videomaker is deliberately making the whole process much more complicated than it needed to be and that his plan deliberately wastes space in order to "prove" it was impossible.
Finally, the map from Arad’s book that the videomaker used is un-scaled and cannot be used to precisely portray the size and area of the camps’ areas or the buildings located in them. The videomaker’s observations about space and scale-or the lack thereof-are therefore invalid when based on this map alone.
The LaPonder map is the first that was attempted to be drawn to scale and that map shows plenty of space in the death camp section which was not occupied by mass graves, piles of sand, buildings or incineration grids. You may see this map at http://www.deathcamps.org/treblinka/maps.html (New Treblinka Map, August 1943).
A recent and more pertinent study, The Reconstruction of Treblinka by Alex Bay, is based on his meticulous and scientific analysis of air and ground photographs with the most current technology. Bay found that the extermination area covered about 85,000 square meters (about 914,932 square feet). Thus, that area could have held nine pits sufficient for 900,000 bodies with enough space left over for the gas chamber and other buildings, incineration grids and the crushing of the burned remains.9
You may see Bay’s reconstruction of the extermination area in Treblinka at http://www.holocaust-history.org/Treblinka/deathcampinternet/Figure42.html. You may read Alex Bay’s entire study at http://www.holocaust-history.org/Treblinka/.
How long would it take?
The American Holocaust denier videomaker calculates that every station could crush one body every 3 minutes; 20 per hour; 200 per day if they worked 10 hours. Thus one of his "stations" could have crushed a total of 1,600 bodies per day.
However, in his own experiment he crushed the remains of a 12.5 pound leg of lamb in about 10 seconds. Given the weight of the actual bodies (25 kilograms or 55 pounds each on average), the ashes of one body could have been crushed in less than a minute-not the 3 minutes he calculates. That translates into 600 bodies per day if only one Jewish prisoner was assigned to the task. However, the work groups in the extermination area of Treblinka numbered between 200 and 300 men at any given time. Clearly there were plenty of prisoners available to reduce the remains from any given grill (about 2,000 bodies) as necessary.
A more likely scenario
After an incineration grill cooled off the ashes would be raked off to another area for crushing and sieving. Large remnants that could not be crushed would be returned to another of the other grills for more incineration. In some camps, such as Belzec, a bone crushing machine may have been used.
Once reduced to near dust the ashes could be reburied in the empty graves or placed in sacks for disposal outside the camp. Even so, it appears that the Germans were not able or stopped short of reducing all of the human remains to ash.
There is documentary evidence about how the ashes were handled in Treblinka. Kurt Franz was first the deputy and then the last commandant of Treblinka. Although photographs were explicitly forbidden by SS directive, Franz took numerous pictures of the camp. He made a photo album of his days at Treblinka which he named "Wonderful Times." Franz photographed his SS colleagues, his dog Barry, and the animals in the Treblinka "zoo." The album was discovered by German authorities in his apartment when he was arrested in the early 1960s. Franz took several photographs of the excavators in the mass graves area that include some interesting information.
Alex Bay, a professional in the analysis of aerial reconnaissance imagery, carefully studied Franz’s photographs and found two that show five probable ash heaps surrounded by members of the Sonderkommandos who are apparently crushing and sieving the ashes. Another photograph shows a horse and cart in the area of the probably ash piles, indicating that the crushing and sieving sites were some distance from the incineration sites. These photographs also show the general size of the death camp area, which was more extensive than the Holocaust deniers maintain. You may see these photographs at: http://www.holocaust-history.org/Treblinka/appendixd/ (Photographs D2 and D3.)
If this matter were not so gruesome and terrible, the American Holocaust denier videomaker’s scenario would be laughable.
The American Holocaust denier videomaker has already demonstrated his tendency to make everything more complicated so that he can denounce it as unworkable. For instance, he helpfully re-designed the gas chambers for "more efficiency" and equipped the incineration grills with "special alloy steel" rails, walls, roofs and adjustable grills. Now he makes a huge project out of a primitive, but effective, arrangement.
Kola’s study of the mass graves at Belzec showed that almost every one of the 33 mass graves he found were filled with pieces of burnt human bones, carbonized wood, and human ash-some to the depth of 5 meters (16.5 feet).10 So no matter how the American Holocaust denier videomaker complicates the issue in an attempt to disprove it, the Germans worked it out.
Sometimes the bones were crushed with machines and sometimes by hand. It was not a precision process but it worked. The contents of the mass graves in Belzec show that it happened.
Franz Suchomel, a Ukrainian guard at Treblinka, describes the situation well: "Treblinka was a primitive but efficient production line of death . . . Primitive yes. But it worked well, that production line of death." 11
1. See Episode 24: "Bone Crushing" at http://www.onethirdoftheholocaust.com.
2. Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 176.
3. Simon Srebnik’s testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. The film transcript is available in Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film (Da Capo Press, 1995), pp. 10, 11.
4. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Revised and Definitive Edition) (Holmes & Meier, 1985), Volume 3, p. 977.
5. Rudolph Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, edited by Steven Paskuly (Prometheus Books, 1992), p. 45.
6. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Revised and Definitive Edition) (Holmes & Meier, 1985), Volume 3, p. 977 referring to an affidavit given by Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, March 14, 1945, NO-1210.
7. Ya’akov Silberberg, "One Day in the Crematorium Felt Like a Year" in Gideon Greif’s, We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz (Yale University Press, 2005), p. 327.
8. Robert Muehlenkamp, "Incinerating corpses on a grid is a rather inefficient method . . . " at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2006/12/incinerating-corpses-on-grid-is-rather_18.html, p. 10 of 23 citing Leleko’s deposition of February 21, 1945 at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/l/leleko-pavel-v/leleko-002.html.
9. Specifically see "Treblinka: Reconstruction of the Death Camp" at http://www.holocaust-history.org/Treblinka/deathcampinternet/deathcampp7.shtml. The entire study may be read at http://www.holocaust-history.org/Treblinka.
10. Kola’s report was written in Polish but you may read the English translation of portions of it and see the detailed map of the mass graves found on the site and the meticulous diagrams of the dimensions and contents of the mass graves at: http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2006/05/carlo-mattogno-on-belzec.html.
11. Franz Suchomel’s testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. The film transcript is available in Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film (Da Capo Press, 1995), pp. 52, 53.