The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: people/i/irving.david/libel.suit/transcripts/day009.10

Archive/File: people/i/irving.david/libel.suit/transcripts/day009.10
Last-Modified: 2000/07/20

   MR JUSTICE GRAY:  But would investigating to find if there are
        any mass graves at Auschwitz cast light on the problem we
        have here, which is whether there were gas chambers
        because, as I understand it, if you have gas chambers and
        you have crematoria, you are not going to need mass
        graves.  Indeed, that was one of the reasons why they were
        built in the first place.
   MR IRVING:  My Lord, if I may interrupt your Lordship, the
        victims of these mass liquidations, like the liquidation
        of the Hungarians in the spring of 1944, as I understand
        it, alleged to have been partly cremated in the equipment
        we see here and partly cremated in open burning pits or,
        alternatively, buried for a time and then dug up again and

.          P-84

        cremated subsequently.  These alleged sites, would it be
        correct to say, Professor van Pelt, cannot be identified
        on any aerial photographs or have not been identified on
        any aerial photographers, large pits or mass graves?
   A.   I do not think that the right analysis has been done on
        air photographs.  Certainly when you go to the site, when
        you go to what is called the field of ashes, you walk
        through it, you see it, you see the remains of large
        burning pits.  So, I mean, and I can testify with some
        knowledge, I have been at that site and I have seen the
        remains of these enormous burning pits, and I have picked
        up remains at the site.
   Q.   What kind of remains?
   A.   Of burnt bodies.
   Q.   Of bodies?
   A.   Yes.  I mean, I have picked up burned bones which,
        obviously, have in some way been reduced to ashes.  This
        was in 1990.  I went there with Mr Pressec.  Mr Pressec
        showed me the site.  We spent a lot of time at the site.
        I have been there many times since.
   Q.   Of course, when you operate a crematorium, they do not
        reduce the cadavers to pure ash, do they?  They do
        generate bone as well as ash?  Not many people know this,
        but they generate large lumps of bone which have to be
        pulverized or milled down?
   A.   Yes.

.          P-85

   Q.   Was there a bone mill attached to these crematoria?
   A.   No.  The sonderkommando, they give in detail accounts of
        how they had to take out the parts of the body that were
        not reduced to ashes, and with either wooden or metal
        implements crushing them into pulp.
   Q.   These might very well be the remains that you found in the
        field of ashes?
   A.   The field of ashes is quite far away from the
        crematorium.  I think it would have been very unlikely
        that people would have carried those things from the
        crematorium to the field of ashes.  One of the problems is
        that there is a barbed wired fence in between the two
        places.  There is also a very deep ditch between the
        places, and that would have been very unusual.  Also, the
        pits themselves are visible.  You see in the landscape
        actually that there is a cavity there.
   Q.   So what did they actually do with these remains, the bone
        fragments that came out of the crematoria that had been
        pulverized by the sonderkommandos?  There must have been
        very substantial quantities, tonnes and tonnes of them?
   A.   All the ashes -- again there was an exception to this
        general account I am going to give me now, but in general
        the ashes and the crushed bones were combined, and at
        regular intervals with a truck were brought to the Vistula
        River which is very close by.  Actually, it is visible on
        the photos and it was dumped in the river.

.          P-86

                  The exception is that at certain times the truck
        broke down, especially in the Hungarian action, that this
        was impossible to do; and then there have been occasions
        in which the ashes were actually dumped in one particular
        pond near crematorium (iv).
                  The other exception, and this is on the basis of
        eyewitness testimony -- again no documents -- is that in
        the winter sometimes the ashes were used to actually throw
        on the iced roads in the camp in order to make them more
        convenient for everyone.
   Q.   What is the evidence for that rather lurid story?
   A.   This is the evidence, eyewitness testimony, for example,
        of Mr Bacon who testified in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
   Q.   He is, presumably, Jewish, therefore?
   A.   Yes.
   Q.   I am not suggesting that it makes him in any way
        unreliable, of course, but I am suggesting that possibly
        he may have derived advantage from giving that kind of
        testimony in Jerusalem in the Eichmann trial.
   MR JUSTICE GRAY:  Can I ask a related question which I should
        have gathered the answer to but I do not know?
        Sonderkommando, were they all in inmates who were, as it
        were, put to work?
   MR IRVING:  I was going to come to that, my Lord.  I was going
        to ask for identity of ----

.          P-87

   MR JUSTICE GRAY:  Were you?  Can I not ask the question now
        just so I know the answer?
   MR IRVING:  Yes.
   A.   The sonderkommando were prisoners, people selected either
        on arrival or maybe sometimes a little later from the
        general prisoner population, who were going to work in the
        crematoria.  They were housed either in the crematoria,
        especially from '44 onwards, but originally also in the
        men's camp in a special kind of barrack which was isolated
        from the other barracks with their own courtyard, and
        these inmates, 1944, when four crematoria were in
        operation and a group of 800 inmates, so roughly 200 per
        crematorium, working in two shifts of 12 hours each, so it
        would be 100 people at any crematorium at any time,
        operated the crematoria and were, again on the basis of
        eyewitness testimony, at regular intervals these groups
        were renewed after sometime.
   Q.   That is a very complete answer.  Would there be anyone who
        could be described as a sonderkommando who was, in fact, a
        Nazi camp official?
   A.   No.
   MR JUSTICE GRAY:  Thank you.
   MR IRVING:  These sonderkommandos were all people who had been
        previously very endangered, of course, they were potential
        victims, and the story is that, as you hinted at the end,
        they were recycled, they were fed into the furnaces with

.          P-88

        their -- have I understood correctly what your innuendo
        was -- at the end of their period of usefulness they were
        disposed of?
   A.   Yes, I would just like to ask you, you used the word
        "previously", what you exactly ----
   Q.   Were they previously endangered?  In other words, were
        they people who might otherwise have been exterminated,
        but they were given the option, "Do this job and you, like
        Scheherizada, you will continue to survive for a while"?
   A.   No.  Actually, you know, I thank God every day I was never
        in Auschwitz, but, given the choice, if I was in the man's
        camp and given the opportunity to get the job of
        sonderkommando, I would have tried to get out of it with
        any, whatever possibility because it was a very dangerous
   Q.   It was a kind of trustee, what we would call a trustee in
   A.   No, it is not at all, Mr Irving.  A sonderkommando was a
         -- I mean, people knew what was happening in the
        crematoria.  At a certain moment -- I mean, a recent book
        has been published by a research of the Avwaschen(?).  "We
        cried without tears" is the title, which is a quote from
        one of the sonderkommando.  This man has systematically
        started to interview surviving sonderkommandos.  In all
        these accounts you see that people were appointed
        sonderkommandos without asked if they wanted to do this,

.          P-89

        and that many of them realized it was a sentence of death.
   Q.   Because?
   A.   And tried to get out of it.
   Q.   Because?
   A.   Because they knew that the reason they were appointed as
        sonderkommandos, or they were selected as sonderkommandos,
        was because the group which had been sonderkommandos
        before had been eliminated.
   MR JUSTICE GRAY:  Yes, but why did they eliminate them?
        Because they were able to bear witness?
   A.   Because they were able to bear witness and, yes, you do
        not want -- and also, I do not know, I do not know what
        happens, you know, we talk about Stockholm syndromes, and
        so on.  I do not know at a certain moment what happens
        exactly between the SS and the sonderkommandos in the
        crematoria but probably.
   MR IRVING:  A kind of symbiosis?
   A.   What kind of symbiosis did emerge within at a moment these
        communities which formed themselves in the crematoria.
   Q.   So we can be specific about what we are talking about
        here, call a spade a spade, would it be right to say that
        a large number of these sonderkommando members were Jewish
   A.   By definition, they were Jewish.
   Q.   By definition, they were all Jewish?
   A.   Yes.

.          P-90

   Q.   I did not appreciate that.  So, in other words, all these
        eyewitnesses who were sonderkommandos were Jewish, the
        ones who are telling these appalling accounts of what they
   A.   Yes.  If they are Jews and they have survived to bear
        witness, then these are Jews who bear witness, yes.
   Q.   They have done these horrible things.  They have taken
        part in this appalling crime committed by the Nazis.  They
        have been a participant in it, and this must have been a
        traumatic experience for them?
   A.   Primo Laffi(?) has written a masterful essay on the
        traumas of the sonderkommandos in the book which he just
        published before he died.  Yes, this was a very traumatic experience.
   Q.   And how can they live with their sense of guilt or shame,
        do you think?  How would they try to resolve that in the
        years of their retirement, if they survived, as a large
        number, apparently, did?
   A.   I would refer you to Primo Laffi's ----
   Q.   Yes.  You appreciate the point I am trying to make, that
        there may be a tendency to romanticize, a tendency to pass
        the burden of guilt, a tendency to -- would you agree that
        that is so?
   A.   I am not a psychologist and I am not a chemist, so I can
        only at a certain moment state that, as an historian, as
        an historian, I am amazed by the way surviving

.          P-91

        sonderkommando in different ways have been able to live up
        to their historical responsibility to bear detailed
        witness to what happened.
   Q.   Can we just be quite plain what we agree their tasks were,
        and then we can find out where we diverge?  Their task
        was, basically, to handle the cadavers, the corpses,
        inside the crematorium, to rob them of the gold teeth and
        other precious artifacts, to cut off the hair and to feed
        the bodies into the furnaces?
   A.   No.  I would like to be more precise than that.  The
        sonderkommandos had very, very particular, very
        circumscribed tasks.  There were, for example,
        sonderkommandos who only were running, basically, the
        household of the place where they were living.  They did
        the "Stubendienst", it was called.  There were in every
        barrack or, in this case, in the attic of the crematoria
        (ii), (iii) and (iv) they were four stuben [German
        spoken] and so on.  These people were the
        sonderkommando  ----
   Q.   Actually in the building?
   A.   In the building.  They lived in the building.
   Q.   With their own shower rooms and bathrooms and sleeping
   A.   Yes, they had beds.  They were quite comfortable because
        they could make use of stuff which was left behind in the
        undressing room.  So there were people in the

.          P-92

        sonderkommandos who, in that sense, I mean -- I do not
        want to imagine what it is to live above the crematorium
         -- who actually were not involved in the operation of
        either of the gas chambers or the crematorium.
   Q.   They must have witnessed appalling scenes day after day?
   A.   They witnessed it and they heard about it from the other
        sonderkommandos when they came home, so to speak, upstairs.
   Q.   And their less fortunate friends could say, "You are
        helping the Nazis with their Devil's deed"?
   A.   I have no idea what they could or could not say.  I am not
        going to speculate on what they said.  Let me -- may
        I finish the tasks of sonderkommandos?

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