The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Archive/File: pub/people/b/bauer.yehuda/press/new-york-times.nov1289
Last-Modified: 1995/08/31
Source: The New York Times, November 12, 1989

Auschwitz Revisionism: An Israeli Scholar's Case
By Peter Steinfels

At Auschwitz, it is inscribed in stone: four million people
died in the Nazi camps. But Yehuda Bauer, one of the foremost
historians of the Holocaust and a sworn enemy of those who
deny its reality, says that the number of victims was less
than half of that.

Why is Mr. Bauer, the Director of the Division of Holocaust
Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of
Contemporary Jewry, insisting that far fewer people,
including far fewer Jews, died at Auschwitz than is commonly
reported? "A historian's first duty is to tell the truth," Mr.
Bauer said. And in this case, the truth is horrible enough.
Exaggerating the number of dead at Auschwitz, he said, "would
only be grist for the mills of the deniers of the Holocaust."

"They can add, you know," he said. The four million figure,
combined with the known deaths elsewhere, would result in a
total number of Holocaust victims well above the approximate
figure of six million that has long been established by
different methods, including a comparison of European Jewish
population statistics before and after the war, he said.

Although differing estimates of the Auschwitz death toll were
reported during the furor this year about the location of a
Roman Catholic convent at the concentration camp site, the
most frequently cited figures list 2.5 million Jewish victims
and 1.5 million others, most of them presumed to be Polish. At
the end of September, Mr. Bauer published an article in The
Jerusalem Post calling those figures "patently false."

Five years ago, he said, research by the French Jewish
historian Georges Wellers had established that approximately
1.6 million people were gassed, executed by other means,
tortured to death or were victims of starvation or disease at
Auschwitz. According to these findings, about 1.35 million
were Jews. There were 83,000 Polish victims, 20,000 Gypsies
and 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war. An additional 150,000
Poles were imprisoned at Auschwitz, then shipped elsewhere
where many, although not the majority, died.

Mr. Bauer, who is in the United States participating in
several scholarly conferences on the Holocaust, said that his
article had "created quite a rumpus in Israel." He received
calls and letters asking, "Why is this Bauer going around
saying a million fewer Jews died at Auschwitz?"

Why indeed do differences between any such grisly estimates of
death matter at all? When answering that question, Mr. Bauer
speaks passionately about the role of the historian and the
temptation to create "myths" that are dangerous in the long

In his attack on the familiar Auschwitz statistics, Mr. Bauer
has the agreement of a Hebrew University colleague, Yisrael
Gutman, who is the editor of a four-volume Encyclopedia of the
Holocaust, to be published next year. Mr. Gutman led the
Jewish underground in the Auschwitz camps.

Political Purposes

Among Holocaust historians, Mr. Bauer said, the larger figures
"have been dismissed for years, except that it hasn't reached
the public and I think it's about time that it did." Mr. Bauer
contends that Polish Communists and nationalists alike
promoted the larger figures to serve a political purpose,
casting both Jewish and Polish losses in such huge numbers
that the distinction between the fate of the two groups was
blurred. Mr. Bauer said he does not play down the Nazi assault
on Poles. He calls it genocide, which he defines as the
"destruction of a national entity with selective mass murder"
of those who resisted. "The flower of Polish intelligensia was
murdered in the camps, including Auschwitz," he said. But for
the Jews, he said, the Nazis planned a fate even beyond the
destruction of a nation: "mass annihiliation." Genocide and
holocaust "are separate frightfulnesses," Mr. Bauer said, and
if the world wants to combat them, it has to keep in mind the
distinction. "You don't treat cholera and cancer with the same
medication, you differentiate between deadly diseases."

For some time, many Jewish organizations have avoided taking a
position on the Auschwitz figures. Elan Steinberg, executive
director of the World Jewish Congress and a participant in the
Auschwitz convent controversy, agreed that the lower figures
"were generally accepted by reputable scholars." Although the
inflated statistics blurred the reality of Auschwitz as
"pre-eminently a Jewish killing ground," he said, sheer
repitition led many Jews to accept the numbers.

Mr. Bauer said, "It's the historian's task to examine myths,"
and if necessary to explode them. He illustrated his point by
noting "the perception of some Israeli politicians that all
the Gentiles were against us" during the Holocaust, with the
exception only of those "righteous Gentiles" honored at Yad
Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem. "Nonsense,
just nonsense," Mr. Bauer said. "The Jews in a number of
countries were saved by the local populations."

Mr. Bauer said that it was a similar misuse of history to
"compare every post-Holocaust anti-Semite to the Nazis." There
are Nazi elements in contemporary anti-Semitism, he said, but
frequently there are significant differences as well. "facile
analogies are things we have to warn against," he said.

While insisting on precision about Holocaust death tolls, Mr.
Bauer has also warned against "immersing tears and suffering
in oceans of footnotes" and "coming up with a remote
quasi-scientific approach whic would be as inhuman as that of
those who committed the crime or of those who stood by and
watched it indifferently."

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