The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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'News Weekly' is published in Melbourne by the National Civic Council, a
conservative Catholic public affairs organisation in Australia.

NEWS WEEKLY, MAY 11, 1991, p 19


Auschwitz:  controversy over the numbers
Alfred Cattani

Some time ago, at the monument on the grounds of the former Auschwitz
concentration camp, the memorial tablet dedicated to the victims of this
death factory was removed.

The action was prompted by the results of a study conducted by an official
historians' committee established by Poland's Ministry of Culture.  The
study concluded that the number of Auschwitz victims had not been four
million, as stated on the tablet, but the much smaller figure of about one
million.  A similar conclusion was expressed by Franciszek Piper, head of
the Historical Department at the Auschwitz Museum.

This triggered a controversy in Poland over whether removing the tablet had
been an appropriate action.  The dispute spread to Germany.  Spokesmen for
Jewish communities expressed their indignation, because they regarded the
decision to take down the tablet as a mockery of the victims, and saw the
debate as mere numerical speculation calculated to trivialise Nazi crimes.

It is a delicate matter.  The crimes of Auschwitz were of such magnitude
and such character that any dispute over the exact figures seems an
outrage.  Moreover, a debate such as this one threatens to provide new
ammunition for those revisionists who speak of the "Auschwitz Lie" and, in
order to minimise Nazi atrocities, deny the deliberate destruction of
European Jewry.

The Final Solution, and Auschwitz along with it, will constitute a horrible
trauma for Jewish people for generations to come.  Outsiders should
approach it with utmost respect.  It is almost impossible to discuss the
number of victims without doing emotional damage.  Yet it would be a
mistake simply to remain silent and view the removal of the Auschwitz
tablet merely as an act of overt anti-Semitism.  The question examined by
the Polish historians was posed by Western historians and writers decades
ago, and though their answers varied, they tended in much the same
direction.

In Poland, however, the figure of four million Auschwitz victims - which
was used in the bill of indictment at the Nuremberg Trials - remained taboo
in the post-war era largely for political reasons.  the figure itself was
first mentioned in the report of a Soviet investigatory commission, which
travelled to Auschwitz following the liberation of the camp in early 1945
and issued its report on May 12 of that year.

The Soviet study group, which also examined the organisational and
technical aspects of the death camp, based its figure of four million
mainly on the capacity of the crematoria in Auschwitz and its annexe at
Birkenau (where most of the bodies were burned).  That it should have
arrived at such a figure on the basis of the available information is not
strange.

The American historian, Arno J. Mayer, who is today Professor of
Contemporary European History at Princeton University, reached a similar
conclusion about the destructive capacities of Auschwitz and Birkenau in a
study published as recently as 1988.

Doubts about the four million were expressed as early as the 1950s.  One of
the first critics was the British historian Gerald Reitlinger in his 'The
Final Solution'.  Basing his work on statistics compiled for Hitler in
1943, he suggested that a much greater number of Jews than had previously
been supposed died in the ghettos and in transport, rather than in the
camps themselves.  Overall, he concluded, the Holocaust had destroyed not
six million Jews, as had been stated at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46,
but somewhere between 4.2 and 4.9 million.  A third of those, he stated,
had died not through direct murder, but from overwork, illness, starvation
and general distress.

As to Auschwitz, said Reitlinger, whose work did not go undisputed, it was
impossible to make a precise estimate because of the many imponderables
involved.  But the figure provided by the Soviet study group, he
maintained, could not stand up to serious examination.  Venturing an
estimate, however, he concluded that "not much less than a million" died in
Auschwitz and its gas chambers.  Reitlinger's book reflected the state of
knowledge in the mid-1950s.

The American historian Raoul Hillberg, whose major study first appeared in
1961 and was published in a revised edition in 1982, gave a higher figure
than Reitlinger - "more than a million".

According to Hillberg, a total of more than five million Jews fell victim
to the Nazi genocide.  he based his figures on a comparison of Jewish
populations in the various European countries before the war and after
1945.  Hillberg, too, expressed an awareness that these horrific figures
could be no more than approximations.  In September 1989, writing in the
'Jerusalem Post', professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University and
Georges Wellers of the Jewish Documentation Centre in Paris published
similar figures for Auschwitz (1.7 million dead of whom 1.4 million were
Jews).

The Nazi criminals directly involved in the Final solution deliberately
tried to mask these figures; their writings about the death camps are
unreliable.  Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, cited Adolf
Eichmann, who allegedly told him shortly before the war's end that 2.5
million Jews had died in Auschwitz.  During the interrogations immediately
after his arrest in the spring of 1946, Hoess initially used that figure,
stating that 2.5 million had been gassed in the camp and 500,000 more had
died of illness and exhaustion.  But in the course of subsequent
investigations, Hoess changed his story.  In his memoirs, written between
October 1946 and January 1947 in his Cracow prison cell, he penned a
country-by-country list of camp victims (an incomplete list according to
Martin Broszat,  who edited the Hoess memoirs).  He offers a total of
something more than one million - and cynically adds that even in Auschwitz
the potential for destruction had its limits.

It is a depressing undertaking to reduce the Holocaust to abstract
statistics.  Individual suffering tends to disappear behind the
astronomical figures.  In his book, Reitlinger properly notes that no one's
guilt is reduced merely because an estimate of this unimaginable crimes
turns out to have been too high.  Nor could a more precise figure, were one
ever to become available, in any way mitigate the justice of Jewish demands
for guarantees against a repetition of such horror.



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