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    Operation Reinhard Gas Chambers: Methods of Murder

    Is there reliable evidence about the method of murder in the Operation Reinhard camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    There is so much “hopeless confusion” in eyewitness testimony about the method of murder in the Operation Reinhard camps that none of it can be believed. Therefore, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor were not death camps.

    The facts are:

    During and immediately after the war, there were many theories about the method of murder in the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. This was due to wartime rumor and hearsay. After the war, however, the testimony of both survivors and perpetrators is remarkably consistent on the method of murder: exhaust from gasoline engines was used to murder Jews in these camps.

    Holocaust denier Carlo Mattogno claims that because the eyewitnesses gave different accounts of the method of murder—most prominent among them electricity, steam, and pumping oxygen out of the room—the whole “story” of mass murder is unbelievable.[1]

    Reports of multiple methods of murder:

    There were, in fact, many theories about the methods of murder in the Operation Reinhard death camps during the war. Among those that pertain to Treblinka are:

    • An article in the New York Times on August 8, 1943. In the article, it was claimed that the method of murder was steam. The story was based on a report written by the Jewish resistance movement in the Warsaw ghetto, entitled “Liquidation of Jewish Warsaw.” This report also contained a detailed description of Treblinka. The resistance movement report made its way from the Polish government-in-exile in London, to the Black Book of Polish Jewry, and then into the New York Times.[2]
    • The diary of Eugenia Szajn-Lewin. Szajn-Lewin kept a diary in the Warsaw ghetto between July 1942 and April 1943. In her diary, she wrote that the method of murder was steam-heated air. She also wrote that when the victims were dead a floor flap dropped down and the bodies fell into a pit.[3]
    • The testimony of Samuel Rajzman, a survivor of Treblinka, in March 1945. Rajzman claimed that the victims were suffocated by pumping air out of the rooms.[4] Razjman also mentioned “Cyclon-gas” [Zyklon-B] and other poisonous chemicals as possible methods of murders.
    • The writings of Emanuel Ringelblum. Ringelblum was an historian in the Warsaw ghetto. He recorded that the method of killing was gas, steam, and electricity.[5]

    The facts about the method of murder in Treblinka:

    None of the reports mentioned above invalidates the reliable evidence showing that the method of murder in Treblinka was engine exhaust, which poisoned and suffocated victims. There were reasons for erroneous reports:

    • Second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts. In the case of the New York Times article, their information was third- and fourth-hand. The sources in Poland (the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, the Polish underground, and the Polish government-in-exile) were trying to get information about Treblinka out to the world. They included the best information they had at the time. However, their sources had to speculate about the method of murder since almost everyone who entered the extermination area of Treblinka did not survive to tell the real story.
    • Rumors. In the case of Szajn-Lewin and Ringelblum, they were merely repeating a rumor. A “rumor” is “a story or statement without confirmation as certainty as to facts.”[6] Based on this definition of a rumor, their accounts do not rise to the level of evidence. Rather, both reports illustrate the level of fear and lack of knowledge the Jews of Warsaw had about their fate if they were “resettled.” Even Samuel Rajzman, a survivor of Treblinka, did not work in the extermination area. Rajzman claimed that he received his information from a camp doctor. The doctor also told Rajzman that this killing method was only a rumor he heard, not an eyewitness account.[7]

    Limited information about the Operation Reinhard camps, both during and immediately after the war:

    Wartime reports of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka consistently identified them as extermination camps. For example, the Polish underground army filed a confidential report in April 1942, which included their careful observations of Belzec. They learned that between March 17 and April 13 about 52 transports arrived in the camp. Each transport had approximately 18 to 35 cars with a total average of 1,500 people. The trains entered the camp, remained there for half an hour, and came out empty. No Jews left the camp, neither by day nor by night. No food was supplied to the camp. After each transport, about two box cars of clothing were transported from the camp to the railway storage building. In one area of the camp, three barracks could be seen. According to the report, these were clearly not enough barracks to accommodate the numbers of Jews entered the camp. Within the vicinity of the camp, a strong odor could be detected on warm days. Based on this information, they drew the reasonable conclusion that the Jews who entered the camp were being murdered and buried there. The report stated, It is unknown by which means the Jews are liquidated in the camp. There are three assumptions: (1) electricity; (2) gas; (3) by pumping out the air.”[8]

    In the decades after the war, some of the German perpetrators were arrested and tried, during which process more information came to light. Thus, the evidence has emerged slowly and steadily across many years through eyewitness accounts, trials of perpetrators, and site studies.Uprisings occurred in Sobibor and Treblinka in August and October 1943, respectively, during which time there were a large number of escapees. Between their escape and the end of the war, those who made it to safety began to testify about what they had seen inside those camps and more detailed information began to emerge. Further, the sites were probed by Polish and Russians investigators after the war and their findings began to emerge as well.

    In short, in the confusion of war the sources of information about the method of murder in Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor were rumors or guesses. None of these accounts negate the more solid evidence we have today on the method of murder as eyewitness (both Jewish and perpetrator), physical site investigations, and documents have emerged over the decades.[9]

    Evidence about the method of murder in Treblinka that is more pertinent.

    Rather than taking fourth-hand newspaper accounts, rumors and guesses as evidence let us look at the testimony of Jewish survivors and German perpetrator eyewitnesses about the method of murder.

    Wilhelm Pfannensteil, the SS hygienist who accompanied Kurt Gerstein to Belzec and Treblinka on an inspection tour, testified: “When the people were closed in the chambers, the gas from an engine was piped in.”[10]

    Franz Hödl, an SS guard in Sobibor, testified“There was a gas chamber with an attached room for an engine. The exhaust gases were directed into the chambers to gas the Jews . . . The people were forced into these rooms from the corridor.  After the gassing the outside doors could be opened and the bodies removed.”[11] Karl Schluch, an SS guard at Belzec, testified: “After the Jews entered the gas chambers, the doors were closed . . . Then Hackenholt switched on the engine which supplied the gas. After five or seven minutes—and this is only an estimate—someone looked through the small window into the gas chamber to verify whether all inside were dead.”[12]

    Pavel Leleko, an Ukrainian guard at Treblinka, testified under oath: “Eight chambers out of the ten existing in the gas chamber building were used to poison people. In the two remaining ones, there were two powerful German engines, about 1.5 [5 feet] meters high—two engines in all. Each engine fed gas to four gas chambers.”[13]

    Yankiel Wiernik, a survivor of Treblinka: “There was not much space in the gas chambers.  People were smothered simply by overcrowding.”[14]

    The common thread through all of the supposed methods of murder in Treblinka. 

    The common element in most of the testimony is that an engine was used. Steam-heated air, pumping out the air of the chamber, pumping in toxic exhaust gases, and even generating electricity all require an engine, generator or some source of power. The common theme of an engine being used means that Mattogno’s claim about all the supposed contradictions is not such a mass of “hopeless confusion” after all.

    In fact, Rajzman’s conclusion about suffocation being the means of murder is technically not wrong. It is reasonable to conclude that at least some of the victims died of suffocation due to the close quarters in the small gas chamber rooms before they could be overwhelmed by carbon monoxide poisoning.

    Conclusion

    Mattogno’s sources are taken from fourth-hand newspaper accounts, rumors and educated guesses—most of which arose during or right after the end of the war. They do not rise to the level of primary evidence. We do have dependable eyewitness testimony that has emerged over time from German perpetrators and Jewish survivors who actually observed the process of murder in Treblinka and stated that the method of murder was engine exhaust.

    Group photo of participants in the Treblinka uprising.
    Group photo of participants in the Treblinka uprising. Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Roberta Zuckerman

    NOTES

    [1] Carlo Mattogno and Jürgen Graf, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp? (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), 67 at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/t.pdf.

    [2] Carlo Mattogno and Jürgen Graf, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp? (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), 57 citing The Black Book of Polish Jewry citing “Treblinka. Official Report Submitted to the Polish Government” at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/t.pdf.  See also the New York Times, August 8, 1943, 11.

    [3] Carlo Mattogno and Jürgen Graf, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp? (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), 51 citing Eugenia Szajn-Lewin, Aufzeichnungen aus dem Warschauer Ghetto, July 1942 bis April 1943 (Reclam Verlag, Leipzig, 1994) at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/t.pdf.

    [4] Carlo Mattogno and Jürgen Graf, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp? (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), 68 citing Razjman’s testimony given to the military prosecutor’s office of the 65th Soviet Army, First Lieutenant of Justice Jurowski (USSR-337), 9 of the German version at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/t.pdf.

    [5] Carlo Mattogno and Jürgen Graf, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp? (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), citing Emmanuel Ringelbum, Kronika getta warszawskiego, ed. by Arthur Eisenbach (Cztelnik, Warsaw, 1983), 416 at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/t.pdf.  In English, see Emmanuel Ringelbum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (ibooks, 2006), 321.

    [6] See http://dictionary.reference.com/.  Keyword “rumor.”

    [7] Carlo Mattogno and Jürgen Graf, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp? (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), 68 citing Razjman’s testimony given to the military prosecutor’s office of the 65th Soviet Army, First Lieutenant of Justice Jurowski (USSR-337), 9 of the German version at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/t.pdf.

    [8] Jonathan Harrison, Robert Muehlenkamp, Jason Myers, Sergey Romanov and Nicholas Terry, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: Holocaust Denial and Operation Reinhard. A Critique of the Falsehoods of Mattogno, Graf and Kues, 47, 48 at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/belzec-sobibor-treblinka-holocaust.html.   Select Google Docs, Rapidshare, or Archive.org for PDF version. They are citing Zygmunt Marikowksi, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej, I, Armia Krajowa w Okregu Lubelskim, London. 1973. Book Two, Documents, 34, 35, also translated and cited in Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), 350, 351.

    [9] For a thorough discussion of what we knew about the Operation Reinhard camps and when please see Jonathan Harrison, Robert Muehlenkamp, Jason Myers, Sergey Romanov and Nicholas Terry, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: Holocaust Denial and Operation Reinhard.  A Critique of the Falsehoods of Mattogno, Graf and Kues, 43-69 at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/belzec-sobibor-treblinka-holocaust.html.   Select Google Docs, Rapidshare, or Archive.org for PDF version.

    [10] Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), 104. See also http://www.nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/people/p/pfannenstiel.wilhelm/pfannen.001 for Pfannenstiel’s affidavit.

    [11] Jonathan Harrison, Robert Muehlenkamp, Jason Myers, Sergey Romanov and Nicholas Terry, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: Holocaust Denial and Operation Reinhard.  A Critique of the Falsehoods of Mattogno, Graf and Kues, 294 citing Franz Hödl, 29.03.1966, StA Dortmund, Verfahren gegen Gomerski at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/belzec-sobibor-treblinka-holocaust.html.   Select Google Docs, Rapidshare, or Archive.org for PDF version.

    [12] Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), 70-71 citing Belzec-Oberhauser, Band 8, 1843-1484.

    [13] “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.

    [14] Yankiel Wiernik, “A Year in Treblinka” (“Chapter 7”) at http://www.zchor.org/treblink/wiernik.htm.