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    Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematoria: Civilian Ovens Comparison

    It takes hours to burn one body in a civilian crematorium. How could the oven at Auschwitz-Birkenau cremate nearly 900,000 victims in a two-year period?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    It takes several hours to cremate one body in a civilian crematorium, so the bodies of nearly 900,000 Jews could not have been cremated in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

    In the Leuchter Report, Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter theorized that, since a civilian crematorium oven can cremate one body in 1.25 hours, or 19.2 bodies in 24 hours, only 85,092 bodies could have been cremated in Auschwitz-Birkenau from late 1941 to late 1944.[1]

    The facts are:

    In Auschwitz-Birkenau, the authorities had no respect for the dead and did not abide by civilian rules of cremation. They burned multiple bodies at once and the process was continuous. It is a false comparison to equate the cremations at Auschwitz-Birkenau with civilian crematoria.  

    What is the cremation process in the civilian world?

    In a civilian crematorium, based on laws and out of respect for the dead or their families, each body is cremated individually so ashes can be collected and returned to the family.

    The civilian crematorium oven is heated up and cooled down for each cremation. These civilian ovens are also cleaned out after each use. The body is usually burned together with a coffin or other container, which lengthens the time required to complete the process. On average, it takes between two and three hours for each cremation, depending on the oven and the body being cremated.[2]

    The cremation process in Auschwitz-Birkenau:

    In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi camp authorities were not burdened by respect for the dead or any need to consider civilian rules regarding cremation. The ovens were filled with as many bodies as could be fit into them. For instance, the men in the Sonderkommandos were instructed to combine the bodies of fat people, skeletal ‘Muselmänner,’ and children. This was done to burn the most bodies in the least amount of time; they put the bodies in the ovens continuously. The result was very high efficiency: very little fuel was needed to keep the process going for hours or days. Testimony suggests that the ovens were used continuously. Henryk Mandelbaum, a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, testified as such: “. . . the crematorium [worked] full steam and each shift stayed there until the next Kommando came to work.”[3]

    Auschwitz I Crematorium. Courtesy of Arie Darzi to memorialize the Jewish community in Greece. By אריה דרזי, ARIE DARZI (http://yavan.org.il/pws/gallery!296) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
    Auschwitz I Crematorium. Courtesy of Arie Darzi to memorialize the Jewish community in Greece. By אריה דרזי, ARIE DARZI (http://yavan.org.il/pws/gallery!296) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Testimony on the cremation of multiple bodies at once:

    Henryk Tauber, a member of a Sonderkommando who worked in several of Birkenau’s gas chambers, stated after the war: “We worked in two shifts, a day shift and a night shift. On average, we incinerated 2,500 bodies a day.”[4] Tauber also described how the muffles were filled with multiple bodies:

    The procedure was to put the first body with the feet towards the muffle, back down and face up. Then a second body was placed on top, again face up, but head towards the muffle . . . We had to work fast, for the bodies put in first soon started to burn, and their arms and legs rose up. If we were slow, it was difficult to charge the second part of bodies . . .

    We burned the bodies of children with those of adults. First we put in two adults, then as many children as the muffle could contain. It was sometimes as many as five or six. We used this procedure so that the bodies of children would not be placed directly on the grid bars, which were relatively far apart. In this way we prevented the children from falling through into the ash bin. Women’s bodies burned much better and more quickly than those of men. For this reason, when a charge was burning badly, we would introduce a woman’s body to accelerate the combustion.[5]

    Generally speaking, we burned four or five bodies at a time in one muffle, but sometimes we charged a greater number of bodies. It was possible to charge up to eight ‘Muselmanns.’[6]

    Filip Müller, also a member of a Sonderkommando that cremated bodies, confirmed the process of multiple cremations in his memoirs. The bodies were sorted

    according to their combustibility: for the bodies of the well-nourished were to help burn the emaciated. Under the direction of the Kapos, the bearers began sorting the dead into four stacks. The largest consisted mainly of strong men, the next in size were women, then came children, and lastly a stack of dead Mussulmans, emaciated and nothing but skin and bones. This technique was called ‘express work,’ a designation thought up by the Kommandoführers and originating from experiments carried out in crematorium 5 in the autumn of 1943. The purpose of these experiments was to find a way of saving coke [coal] . . . Thus the bodies of two Mussulmans were cremated together with those of two children or the bodies of two well-nourished men together with that of an emaciated woman, each load consisting of three, or sometimes, four bodies.[7]

    Perpetrators on the cremation of multiple bodies at once:

    Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, confirmed Tauber’s and Müller’s accounts of burning multiple bodies in each muffle: “Depending on the size of the bodies, up to three bodies could be put in through one oven door at the same time. The time required for cremation also depended on the number of bodies in each retort, but on average it took twenty minutes.”[8]

    Primary document on the cremation of multiple bodies at once:

    Additional instructions in September 1941 from Topf & Sons (the designers and manufacturers of the ovens) advised that “once the cremation chamber has been brought to a good red heat the bodies can be introduced one after the other in the cremation chambers.” This letter cautioned against letting the ovens cool down.[9]

    The instructions from Topf & Sons for their double muffle furnaces suggested that a body might be added to the oven during the last 20 minutes of the prior cremation. That is, a body could be added to the oven before the last body was fully cremated. The instructions say:   “As soon as the remains of the bodies have fallen from the chamotte grid to the ash collection channel below, they should be pulled forward towards the ash removal door, using the scraper. Here they can be left for a further twenty minutes to be fully consumed . . . In the meantime, further bodies can be introduced one after the other into the chambers.”[10] According to Topf’s calculations, this would result in a 25-minute burning cycle for each body.[11]

    Conclusion:

    Comparing the civilian cremation process to the process at Auschwitz-Birkenau is a misguided. The authorities in Auschwitz-Birkenau abandoned any respect for the dead and did not abide by civilian rules for cremation. They burned multiple bodies at one time, continuously pushing in more to keep the fires hot. The crematoria ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau certainly cremated many more bodies than the 85,092 figure Fred Leuchter calculated.

    Further, the issue is ultimately irrelevant; when the ovens’ daily capacities were exceeded, bodies were burned in open-air pits.

    NOTES

    [1] Robert Jan van Pelt, The Van Pelt Report (“IX The Leuchter Report”) at https://www.hdot.org. See also Fred Leuchter, Leuchter Report: The End of a Myth, Table VII (Compiled Hypothetical Maximum Execution and Crematory Usage Rates) at http://www.ihr.org/books/leuchter/statistics.html. (The figure uses the first five figures for the ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau and excludes the Majdanek figures.)

    [2] “Cremation,” Wikipedia. See also Internet Cremation Society (Cremation FAQs) at www.cremation.org/.

    [3] Henryk Mandelbaum, I Was At the Auschwitz Crematorium: A Conversation with Henryk Mandelbaum (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2011), p. 43.

    [4] Robert Jan van Pelt, The Van Pelt Report (“IV Attestations, 1945-46”) at https://www.hdot.org.

    [5] Robert Jan van Pelt, The Van Pelt Report (“IV Attestations, 1945-46”).

    [6] Robert Jan van Pelt, The Van Pelt Report (“IV Attestations, 1945-46”).

    [7] Filip Müller, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (Ivan R. Dee, 1979), pp. 98, 99.

    [8] Robert Jan van Pelt, The Van Pelt Report (“V Confessions, 1945-47”) at https://www.hdot.org.and Rudolph Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, edited by Steven Pakuly (Prometheus Books, 1992), p. 45.

    [9] John C. Zimmerman, “Body Disposal at Auschwitz: The End of Holocaust Denial” (“Cremation Capacity”) at http://www.phdn.org/archives/holocaust-history.org/auschwitz/body-disposal/.

    [10] John C. Zimmerman, “Body Disposal at Auschwitz: The End of Holocaust Denial” (“Cremation Capacity”).

    [11] John C. Zimmerman, “Body Disposal at Auschwitz: The End of Holocaust Denial” (“Cremation Capacity”).