Archive/File: camps/auschwitz pressac Last-Modified: 1993/10/07 THE DEMOCRATIC EXPERIENCE - JEAN-CLAUDE PRESSAC AND AUSCHWITZ Munich, October 6 (NCA/Joel Blocker) - Jean-Claude Pressac is known as a reliable, unassuming pharmacist in the village of La-Ville-du-Bois, a part of Paris' large southern suburban belt. A burly man of 49 years, Pressac at first glance seems only to be distinguished by his crew-cropped hair and oddly stiff military manner. But the pharmacist is actually quite different from his village neighbors: After the extensive coverage he has received in the French and foreign press during the past fortnight, Pressac has now been revealed as a respected, if amateur, historian of the Holocaust -- the systematic extermination by the Nazis of six million European Jews during World War Two. The unusual story of how Pressac became an expert on the Nazi wartime slaughter of European Jewry is, in its own way, a model of democratic experience. It bespeaks one man's determination to corroborate the Holocaust as a historical event in the face of a growing movement of so-called Revisionist and Negationist historians and their popular followers. These Revisionists, discredited and condemned by all respected authorities in the field, either deny the event ever occurred or claim it was on a far smaller scale than previously depicted by historians. Pressac himself was for several years a Revisionist follower who denied the full dimensions of the Holocaust. Pressac has never had any professional training as a historian. His parents were elementary school teachers with ties to the French extreme right, disciplinarians who sent him to eight years of tough military boarding school. When he emerged, Pressac told the weekly Nouvel Observateur last week, he was "a real little Fascist" obsessed with all things military, particularly Adolph Hitler's Germany. He tried to gain entry to Saint-Cyr, France's most prestigious officer-training school, but failed the exam. That forced him into civilian life, where he first studied chemical engineering, only to abandon that and finally enter and complete pharmacy school. Pressac's scientific background, particularly in chemistry, stood him in good stead for pursuing the obsession of his entire adult life, the obscure and arcane machinery of the Holocaust. He says the obsession began when he was 18 years old and read French writer Robert Merle's novel, "Death is My Profession," based on the life of Rudolph Hoess, the last and most murderous Nazi Commandent at Auschwitz. Later, he read Hoess' own memoirs and, when he was 22, made his first trip to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in Poland. "I didn't see very much," he says now. "I understood nothing." Pressac returned to Auschwitz in 1979 with a vague idea of writing a historical novel about what would have happened if Nazi Germany had won the war. It was his second visit, including a meeting with Tadeusz Ivaszko, a Pole who is head of the existing archives section at his government's museum at Auschwitz, that triggered doubts in Pressac about the Holocaust. "You talk like Faurisson," Ivaszko told Pressac. "Who's Faurisson?" asked Pressac. "A Frenchman, like you, who doesn't want to believe" in the Holocaust, replied Ivaszko. Back in France, Pressac fell under the spell of Robert Faurisson, a Lyons university instructor who had founded the French Revisionist school and today, although dismissed from his university post for his beliefs, is still its most well-known advocate. Pressac remained friendly with Faurisson and other Revisionists for years, and today justifies his long affiliation with them by saying: "Remember, I'm not Jewish. I didn't know very many Jews. I had no contact with them, I was never close to their suffering.... But if I hadn't had doubts about the Holocaust," he adds, "I never would have undertaken my research and I never would have discovered anything." Eventually, his researches led him to renounce his own original doubts about the Holocaust's dimensions and to break with Faurisson. With the help of professional historians, including Nazi expert Serge Klarsfeld, Pressac began to grapple with the same grim questions that preoccupied the professionals: How did the Nazis manage to kill and burn more than 4,300 inmates a day in Auschwitz at the height of their wartime industrial murder process? Where was the proof of the existence of a physical plant that could kill that number daily and dispose of their bodies? It was questions like those that gave the openings to Revisionist reasoning. Faurisson had himself laid down the Revisionist gauntlet with his notorious challenge: "Holocaust? Prove it occurred!" That wasn't easy for several reasons. For one thing, the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" had been systematically concealed by Hitler and his SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, in euphemisms like "deportation to the east." Their orders to those who carried out the mass extermination were always highly discreet -- either oral or, if written, accompanied by injunctions for their immediate destruction. And most of those that weren't immediately burned, historians suspect, were destroyed in the last days of the Nazi regime. For another, crematoria and other physical evidence in the death camps themselves, along with most of the camps' political and technical files, were also largely destroyed by retreating SS troops in late 1944 and early 1945. After a more than a decade of patient research, Pressac was finally able to come up with fresh documentary evidence of the crematoria installation in Auschwitz, almost entirely destroyed by the SS in January, 1945. His breakthrough, and with it international fame, came two weeks ago with the publication in France of his fifth, and most important, work on the Holocaust: "The Crematoria of Auschwitz: The Machinery of Mass Murder" (CNRS Editions, Paris). The book is largely based on new information garnered from files taken by the Soviet Army from the Auschwitz concentration camp in early 1945. The files belonged to the Bauleitung SS, the organization in charge of death-camp construction for the Nazis. They had inadvertently n-o-t been burned along with Auschwitz's other incriminating files when the SS departed in haste. With the help of Serge Klarsfeld and the intervention of Roland Dumas, then French Foreign Minister, these files were made available to Pressac in Moscow three years ago by the KGB, which had kept them secret for 45 years. Citing the files repeatedly, Pressac's tightly argued 96 pages --plus supporting photos, charts and notes -- coolly recount, in mind-boggling technical detail, how the SS built and operated a murder machine in Auschwitz --and, by inference, in other extermination camps. They document, among other things, the warm and profitable cooperation of wartime German civilian construction firms, most flagrantly J.A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, which built the Auschwitz human ovens. The files, and the book's arguments, are not easily refutable. For professionmal historians sympathetic to Pressac, "The Crematoria of Auschwitz" ends the dispute about how the death camps were able to kill and burn millions of people. "The question is now resolved," says Denis Peschanski, a historian with France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS in the French acronym), which published Pressac's book. Beate Klarsfeld -- Serge Klarsfeld's wife -- whose New York-based foundation published Pressac's earlier major Holocaust work ("Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers," 1989), says "he knows more about gas chambers and ovens than anyone else. His work," she believes, "stands as the most complete reference book on the question." But Beate Klarsfeld says -- as does Pressac himself -- that "the book won't silence the Revisionists because they enjoy their notoriety too much and because they don't want to be convinced." Claude Lanzmann, the French intellectual who created "Shoah," a monumental nine-hour documentary and art film on the Holocaust in 1986, is even more skeptical about the effect of Pressac's study on Revisionists. "The only Revisionist that Pressac will convince of the authenticity of the Holocaust is Pressac himself," says Lanzmann, who believes that the human testimony of Nazi mass murder he and others have compiled carries far more conviction than technical plant data. Pressac, Lanzmann adds, has made the serious, perhaps fatal mistake of arguing the authenticity of the Holocaust "on Faurisson's grounds." Perhaps the most balanced judgement of Pressac's work has recently been expressed by Raul Hilberg, the U.S.'s -- and probably the world's -- pre-eminent historian of the Holocaust. Hilberg is the author of the encyclopedic three-volume "Destruction of European Jewry," generally considered the classic work in the field. Hilberg both praises Pressac's work and suggests its limitations. He says, first, that Pressac "had the merit to study a subject whose importance had not been fully appreciated. The history of the construction of Auschwitz raises crucial questions for understanding the development of the process of the Final Solution.... Pressac was the first to examine the subject closely and to draw conclusions." But, Hilberg adds, Pressac's work is "only a beginning." Pressac is "not really an historian ... and some of his interpretations could turn out to be erroneous," he believes. For instance, Hilberg challenges Pressac's estimate of 630,000 Jews having been killed in Auschwitz's gas chambers. His conclusion is that Pressac's figure underestimates the real number of Jews murdered in the camp, which Hilberg places at close to one million. And for Hilberg, the difference in estimates is not merely quantitative, but suggests a qualitatively different view of the horrors of Auschwitz. In any case, the American historian concludes, "there is still plenty of work for the historians of the Final Solution to do." As for Pressac, whose new-won fame has not changed his will to continue his work, he clearly still has a lot to learn -- not least about the Jews to whom he has devoted his life-work. Claude Weill, a journalist with the Nouvel Observateur, France's most influential magazine, accompanied Pressac on a trip to Auschwitz last month. He reported that the pharmacist is still "almost incredibly ignorant" about Jews and Judaism. "What is that white fabric that certain Jews put on their heads while praying?," Pressac asked Weill at one point in the trip. It turned out he had never understood the function and importance of the "talit," the common Jewish prayer shawl, hundreds of thousands of which had been confiscated by the Nazis at Auschwitz before mass executions. Pressac also revealed to the same reporter that even today he had not the slightest idea of the difference between Ashkenazi (most European) Jews and Sephardic (Spanish and Mediterranean) Jews. How does he stand politically today, the same reporter asked Pressac? "I'm of the Right," he answered. "By upbringing and education, I'm a maniac for order." But in a French election today, Pressac continued, he wouldn't vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme Right National Front, whose propaganda often has anti-Semitic and Revisionist overtones. "After what I said about the gas chambers, I'm not well liked in those circles," he says. So whom would he vote for today? Well, Pressac said, "a few years ago I would have voted for (Charles) Pasqua," the current conservative French Interior Minister known for his hard-line on controlling illegal immigration and the entry of foreigners in general. "But after I met people like (Serge) Klarsfeld, I changed somewhat. These laws restricting foreigners, we know now where they can lead..."
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