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    Operation Reinhard Mass Cremation: Cremation Grill Design

    How do we know the cremation grills in the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, as described by the Jewish eyewitness survivors and German perpetrators, would have worked?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    The design of the cremation grills in the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were faulty and would not have worked.

    The facts are:

    Eyewitness evidence from the Germans themselves shows that they built fixed-height brills made of concrete blocks and steel railroad tracks over a pit full of fuel soaked with gasoline or oil. This system for burning the remains of their victims was primitive but effective.

    To “better understand the outdoor cremation process” the self-named “Denierbud,” an American Holocaust denier video maker, built a campfire on the beach over which he propped a grill on concrete blocks. He set a single 12.5 pound leg of lamb on top of the grill. He tended the fire for hours, adding more wood at regular intervals. Ultimately, Denierbud decided that the experiment was a failure because it did not reduce the leg of lamb to ashes. Based on his experiment he concludes that “the Germans wouldn’t have done it that way.” He believes that the Germans would have “at least implemented the medieval technology of an adjustable height grill.”[1]

    What we know about how the cremation grills were built.

    There were no Jewish survivors from Belzec or Sobibor who worked in the extermination area while the bodies were being incinerated. There are two survivors from Treblinka—Yankiel Wiernik and Chil Rajchman (also known as Henryk Riechman)—who did work in the area and could directly describe the cremation grills. Both Wiernik and Rajchman described the terrible process of cremation in general, but not the grills in detail. However, the SS perpetrators did describe the cremation grills in their testimony at various trials after the war.

    Heinrich Matthes, the commander of the extermination area in Treblinka, testified at the first Treblinka trial in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1964: “. . . railway lines and concrete blocks were placed together. The corpses were piled on these rails. Brushwood was put under the rails. The wood was doused with petrol. In that way not only the newly accumulated corpses were cremated, but also those taken out from the graves.”[2]

    Pavel Leleko, a Ukrainian guard in Treblinka, also described the grill: “It had the shape of a cement pit about one meter deep and 20 meters long. A series of furnaces covered on the top with four rows of rails extended along the entire length of one of the walls of the pit. The bodies were laid on the rails, caught fire from the flames burning in the furnaces and burned.”[3]

    Karl Streibel, who visited Sobibor at the end of 1942, said that the “roaster made from the railway lines was supported by a stone base.”[4]

    In general then, the cremation grills were built in or over a pit. Concrete blocks supported the railroad rails at intervals down the length of the pit. The fuel was placed under the grill and doused with oil or gas.[5]

    If cremation grills were so inefficient then why did they work so well in Dresden?

    In February 1945, in the aftermath of the Allied air raid on Dresden, Germany, 6,865 remains were burned the Altmarkt, the central square.[6] David Irving, whom the High Court in London declared to be a Holocaust denier, racist and antisemite, describes the design of the grill and the process of cremation in his 1963 book on the Dresden air raid: “The steel girders had been winched out of the ruins of the Renner department store on the Altmarkt and these had been laid across crudely collected piles of sandstone blocks. A gigantic grill over twenty-feet long was being erected. Under the steel girders and bars were poked bundles of wood and straw. On top of the grill were heaped the corpses, four or five hundred at a time, with more straw between each layer . . . Finally gallons of gasoline . . . were poured over the stacks of victims. A senior officer cleared the Altmarkt square of all unnecessary bystanders, and set a match to the heap. Once again thick black smoke coiled up from the center of the Dresden Altmarkt.”[7]

    It is unwise to depend on anything David Irving says, however Frederick Taylor, the author of Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (2004), a responsible account on the Dresden air raid, confirms Irving’s account on both the design of the grill and the process. Taylor concludes that the “task was efficiently done.”[8]

    Thus, according to both Taylor and Irving, the remains were reduced to ashes and bone fragments using a method nearly identical to the cremation grills in the Operation Reinhard death camps.

    “Medieval” adjustable-height grills?

    Denierbud claims that the proposed cremation process in the camps was so primitive that even people in the Middle Ages, who he claims used “adjustable height” grills, would have known how to incinerate hundreds of thousands of bodies more efficiently than the apparently inept Germans. However, he offers no evidence as to what this “adjustable-height” grill would have looked like, how it would have worked, or where such a grill was ever used. Denierbud’s speculations about the use of mythical “adjustable-height” grills in the Middle Ages is worthless as evidence.

    Conclusion

    Eyewitness evidence from the Germans themselves shows that they built fixed-height grills made of concrete blocks and steel railroad tracks over a pit full of fuel soaked with gasoline or oil. This system for burning the remains of their victims was primitive but effective.

    Denierbud’s claim of being able to read the Germans’ minds about what they would or would not have done does not rise to the level of evidence. He is deliberately trying to complicate a basically simple—though nightmarish—process into a technological tangle so he can claim it was all impossible.

    Stone memorial at Treblinka extermination camp resembling the original cremation pit. By Adrian Grycuk/User:Boston9, crop by User:Poeticbent [CC BY-SA 3.0 pl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

    NOTES

    [1] See “On Third of the Holocaust” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taIaG8b2u8I at approximately 3:03 and 3:05 minutes.

    [2] Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 174 citing Treblinka-Franz, Band 10, p. 2057.

    [3] “The Interrogation of Pavel Vladimirovich Leleko,” The Soviet Protocols, February 20, 1945 at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/l/leleko-pavel-v/leleko-001.html. Leleko’s “furnaces” were probably subdivisions of the pit created by concrete blocks placed at intervals in it to support the steel rails. The “rails” he was referring to are the long metal strips along which the trains roll (as opposed to “ties,” or the wooden beams which provide support that are laid perpendicular to and underneath the steel rails.)

    [4] Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 172 citing Sobibor-Bolender, Band 9, p. 1743.

    [5] You may see the design of the grill in Treblinka at http://www.deathcamps.org/treblinka/pic/bigl1model32.jpg.

    [6] You may see an image of this at Christopher Bollyn and Helje Kaskel Bollyn, “Estonian Patriot was Eyewitness to Firebombing of Dresden, Nuremberg Trials: The Historical Life of August Kuklane (1923-2006)” at http://www.iamthewitness.com/Bollyn/Eyewitness.to.Firebombing.of.Dresden.pdf.

    [7] David Irving, Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden (Focal Point Press, 2007), pp. 234, 235. This passage can be accessed at http://fpp.co.uk/books/Dresden/Apocalypse_2007.pdf.

    [8] Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (Perennial, 2005), pp. 350, 351.