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    Operation Reinhard Mass Cremation: Bone Crushing

    How do we know there was enough room in the extermination areas of the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor to crush the bones that remained after cremation?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    There was not enough room in the extermination areas of the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor to crush the bones that were left after cremation.  

    The facts are:

    The Holocaust deniers’ assumptions about the lack of space necessary in the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor for crushing the bones of the murdered Jews are pure speculation. The evidence shows that there was plenty of space for this gruesome task and that the method was perfectly doable.

    The self-named “Denierbud,” an American Holocaust denier video maker, 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. He claims that the “falsehood of this whole story” comes out when maps of the camps are examined because they show there was not enough space for bone crushing in the extermination areas.

    Denierbud calls the whole idea one more example of the alleged “makeshift shoddy workmanship methods” in the camps. Ultimately, 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 bones in the Operation Reinhard camps.

    Chil Rajchman (also known as Henryk Reichman), a survivor of Treblinka who worked in the death camp area, recalled: “The body parts of the corpses that had been incinerated in the ovens often kept their shape . . . The workers of the ash commando had to break up these body parts with special wooden mallets . . . Near the heaps of ash stood thick, dense wire meshes, through which the broken-up ashes were sifted, just as sand is sifted from gravel. Whatever did not pass through was beaten once more. The beating took place on sheet metal, which lay nearby . . . [the] ash had to be free of the least bit of bone and as fine as cigarette ash.”[2]

    Pavel Leleko, an Ukrainian guard in Treblinka, also testified 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.”[3]

    Denierbud’s speculations about the handling of the ashes.

    Denierbud 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. Then he searches for a similarly generously-sized area on the map of Treblinka and fails.[4]

    Denierbud’s speculations raise more questions than they answer. How did he arrive at the dimensions for his imaginary circles? What are the dimensions? He simply slathers circles all over a football field and pronounces the whole construction too big. Why would the efficient Germans arrange everything in huge circles that used the most possible space? Why not just line up a few stations alongside the grills?

    The problem with Denierbud’s design for the ‘bone crushing stations.’

    Denierbud uses a map of Treblinka from Yitzhak Arad’s study, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. On this map, Denierbud cannot find enough space for the bone crushing operations as he laid them out. However, Arad’s map is not scaled and therefore cannot be used to precisely portray the size and area of the area of the camp. Denierbud’s speculations about the amount of space necessary and its lack in the camp is invalid when based on this map alone.

    Peter Laponder undertook to reconcile the various hand-drawn maps of survivors together with aerial photographs. His map is the first attempt at reproduce the camp to scale and it shows plenty of space in the death camp section which was not occupied by mass graves, piles of sand, buildings or cremation grids.[5]

    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 could have held nine pits sufficient for 900,000 remains with enough space left over for the gas chamber and other buildings, cremation grids and the crushing of the burned remains.[6]

    How long it would take to crush the final remnants of bone.

    Denierbud 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 remains per day.[7]

    However, in his own experiment Denierbud leisurely crushed the remains of a 12.5 pound leg of lamb in about 10 seconds.[8] Given the weight of the actual remains (25 kilograms or 55 pounds 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 remains per day if only one Jewish prisoner was assigned to the task. However, the work groups in the extermination area of Treblinka numbered in the hundreds of men at any given time. Clearly there were plenty of prisoners available to reduce the remains from any given grill (about 2,000 remains) as necessary.

    The evidence about the handling of the ashes in the Operation Reinhard camps.

    After a cremation grill cooled off the ashes would be raked off to a side area for crushing and sieving. Large remnants of bone would be returned to another of the other grills for more cremation. In some camps, such as Janowska, outside Lvov, Poland, a bone crushing machine may have been used. The ashes were then reburied in the empty graves.

    There is documentary evidence about how the ashes were handled in Treblinka. Kurt Franz was 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 1960’s.[9]

    Franz took several photographs of the excavators in the mass graves area that include some interesting information. Alex Bay carefully studied Franz’s photographs and found two that show five probable ash heaps surrounded by the Jewish prisoners who are apparently crushing and sieving the ashes. Another photograph shows a horse and cart in the area of the probable ash piles, indicating that the crushing and sieving sites were some distance from the cremation sites. These photographs also show the general size of the death camp area, which was more extensive than the Holocaust deniers maintain.[10]

    Jewish prisoners forced to work for a Sonderkommando 1005 unit pose next to a bone crushing machine in the Janowska concentration camp. Pictured from left to right are: unknown, David Manusevitz, and Moses Korn.
    Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography


    If this matter were not so gruesome and terrible, Denierbud’s scenario would be laughable. He had 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 cremation grills with “special alloy steel” rails, walls, roofs and adjustable grills. Now he makes a huge project out of a primitive, but effective, arrangement.

    Sometimes the bones were crushed with machines and sometimes by hand. It was not a precision process but it worked. 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] “One Third of the Holocaust” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taIaG8b2u8I at approximately 3:10 to 3:16 minutes.

    [2] Chil Rajchman, The Last Jew of Treblinka: A Survivors Memory 1942-1943 (Pegasus Books, 2011), p. 77.

    [3] 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 citing the interrogation of Pavel Leleko on February 21, 1945 at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/l/leleko-pavel-v/leleko-002.html.

    [4] “One Third of the Holocaust” at approximately 3:13 to 3:14 minutes.

    [5] You may see this map at http://www.deathcamps.org/treblinka/maps.html (“New Treblinka Map,” August 1943.)

    [6] Alex Bay, “The Reconstruction of Treblinka (“The Death Camp”) at http://www.holocaust-history.org/Treblinka/deathcampinternet/deathcampp7.shtml. See Figure 42, Projection of Mass Graves.

    [7] “One Third of the Holocaust” at approximately 3:13 minutes.

    [8] “One Third of the Holocaust” at approximately 3:11:20 to 3:11:30 minutes.

    [9] See Yad Vashem archives at http://collections.yadvashem.org/photosarchive/en-us/39734.html.

    [10] Alex Bay, “The Reconstruction of Treblinka” at http://www.holocaust-history.org/Treblinka/appendixd/index.shtml. See Figures D2 and D3.

    [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.