The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

USA Today
Letter to the Editor
regardin g the number of victims at Auschwitz

Mr. Bob Dubill
Executive Editor
USA Today
May 7, 1997

Dear Mr. Dubill,

It has been brought to my attention that USA Today has cited that the prisoner death toll at Auschwitz extermination camp was four million. This is apparently mentioned on page 14a of the May 2,1997, edition of your newspaper which states:

October, 1944, the last gassings take place at Auschwitz. As many as 4 million prisoners, most of them Jews, have been killed.

Additionally, when searching the USA Today web site I found another mention, in the USA Today Special Report: Silent Witnesses, that the Auschwitz death toll was four million:

As many as 4 million people, at least 2 1/2million of them Jews, died at Auschwitz from 1940-45.


I am bringing this issue to your attention for the simple reason that USA Today's publication of the Auschwitz death toll being four million is incorrect and which was probably at some point in the past based on an erroneous Soviet estimate made shortly after the war ended. (It should be pointed, however, that this erroneous Soviet estimate in no way diminishes the Jewish death toll in the Holocaust of six million victims nor the total Holocaust death toll of twelve million victims.)

This Soviet estimate was made on May 8, 1945, by the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission. The Soviet estimate, however, was made purely on the basis of the following calculus involving the estimated daily incineration capacity and the number of days the Kremas (i.e.crematoria and gas chambers) were in operation (cf. Gutman,Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, pp. 61,65):

Krema I.....300 bodies per day; 720 days.
Krema II.....3,000 bodies per day; 570 days.
Krema III.....3,000 bodies per day; 540 days.
Krema IV.....1,500 bodies per day; 510 days.
Krema V.....1,500 bodies per day; 540 days.

By multiplying the number of the daily incineration capacity of bodies per day by the number of days, for each Krema, a total of 5.121 million deaths was obtained. Then, assuming the Kremas were used at 4/5 their capacity, the death toll of 4.097 million was obtained.

However, it should be most emphatically pointed out that the mainstream of historians and Holocaust researchers have never concurred with the Soviet estimate for the death toll at Auschwitz.

There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious ones are thatthe statistics regarding the number of transports bound for Auschwitzdo not add up to anywhere near four million people, indicating thatthe Kremas were frequently idle for days at a time. Another is thatthe Kremas were often subject to breakdowns which idled them for weeksat a time. (In the case of Krema IV, it was only operational for a fewweeks before irreparable damage to its furnaces idled it permanently.)In fact, the daily incineration capacity of the Kremas caused such asevere bottleneck during Aktion Höss (i.e. the extermination ofthe Hungarian Jews in the summer of 1944) that the SS had to resort tousing incineration pits in addition to the Kremas to get rid of thebodies. (cf. Ibid. p. 65.)

Later estimates for the death toll at Auschwitz often relied oneyewitness testimonies that often placed the death toll in the 2.5 to4.5 million range. Many of the witnesses were surviving Sonderkommadoprisoners or SS personnel at Auschwitz. But as will be readilyadmitted by historians and Holocaust researchers, such estimates madeby people with limited opportunity to observe the killing process inits entirety, or no access to cumulative statistics and accuratefigures, are often prone to inaccuracies. This, of course, makesthings difficult for historians, and hence the range of estimates.

The most famous eyewitness testimony, however, was none other theRudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, who gave an estimate of2.5 million killed at Auschwitz during Kaltenbrunner's trial beforethe IMT at Nuremburg. Yet according to Hösss testimony he madehis estimate not on his personal knowledge of the various Aktions(i.e. specific regional extermination pogroms) against the Jews, butfrom a total death toll for Auschwitz which Eichmann or hisdeputies had related to him at a meeting in Berlin near the end of thewar. Later, during Hösss imprisonment during his trial in Poland,he reflected on this and retracted his estimate made at Nuremburg andgave a new estimate that was based on knowledge of the death tolls ofindividual major Aktions against the Jews. Höss's newer,more accurate, estimate was 1.13 million Jews killed at Auschwitz.This is a figure close to that of the number of Jews deported toAuschwitz and is nearly identical to the number established by Dr.Piper of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State museum using statisticalmethods. (cf. Ibid. pp. 64-65.)

Höss's testimony, it is worth noting, carries a certain weightwith historians- as he was not only the commandant of Auschwitz, butalso because he supervised camp affairs for the SSEconomic-Administrative Main Office in 1944. Because of this, and hisaccess to privileged information, he has been considered a crediblewitness regarding not only the estimate of the death toll atAuschwitz, but also in the operational details of the camps and theextermination process which, in his memoirs, he described in greatdetail in regard to Auschwitz. (cf. Ibid.)

Because of this the range of death tolls by some researchersaccepting Höss's estimates have varied from one to three million,based on how reliable they thought his estimates were. This has causedsome confusion in the estimates. Not only because Höss madetwo estimates, but also because of the uncertainty regardingwhether or not Höss's estimates pertained to just the time he wascommandant of Auschwitz or the entire period Auschwitz wasoperational. This has caused some researchers to add to Höss'sestimate the victims killed in 1944, mainly the nearly 400,000Hungarian Jews killed in Aktion Höss. (cf. Ibid.)

Because of this - the uncertainty of eyewitness testimony (includingHöss's) - some historians and researchers have attempted togenerate estimates of the death toll at Auschwitz using statisticaland demographic methods. Most noteworthy of such attempts were thoseby Gerrold Reitlinger, George Wellers and Franciszek Piper.

These estimates were based on the number of prisoners deported toAuschwitz. Here all three differ from each other for various reasons.Many countries have undertaken studies to help determine the number oftheir Jewish citizens who were killed in the Holocaust, includingthose deported to, and killed at, Auschwitz. When these variousstudies are taken into account the number of Jews deported toAuschwitz comes to about 1.1 million. A similar total can be had byadding up the number of transports to Auschwitz in Gilbert'sAtlas of the Holocaust. (cf. Ibid. p. 68.)

Reitlinger, however, estimates that only 851,000 Jews were deportedto Auschwitz. Careful study by Dr. Piper has determined thatReitlinger had underestimated the number of Jews deported by about250,000. In contrast, Weller estimated that about 1.43 million Jewswere deported to Auschwitz. Again, careful study by Dr. Piper hasdetermined that Weller overestimated the number of Jews deported byabout 320,000. (cf. Ibid. pp. 68-69.)

Given then that 1.1 million Jews were deported to Auschwitz, tocomplete the grim picture the numbers of non-Jews deported toAuschwitz must be accounted for. Dr. Piper estimates that between140,000 to 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and25,000 people of other nationalities were sent to Auschwitz. Thiswould bring the total to about 1.3 million people. (Ibid. p. 69-70.)But how many died? Unfortunately, due to the fact that our knowledgeof the the camp documents is incomplete because the recordsconcerning the numbers of Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz weredestroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the magnitude of theircrime, the only way to establish the death toll is by reconciling theincreases and decreases in the prisoner population from a variety ofsources.
According to Dr. Piper the best estimates for the number ofprisoners transferred from Auschwitz between 1940-45 was 212,820; thenumber released: 1,500; escaped: 500; and the number liberated by theSoviets at 8,000. This gives a total of 222,820 people who leftAuschwitz alive (but not necessarily survived the Holocaust). (cf.Ibid. p. 71.) This means that at least 1.1 million people areestimated to have died at Auschwitz. It was this figure, and theextensive research by Dr. Piper involved, that in 1990 convinced theAuschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to officially declare that the deathtoll at Auschwitz was 1.1 million, 90% of whom were Jewish. (cf. Ibid.p. 62.)

In conclusion, I would be grateful if the editorial staff ofUSA Todaywould take into consideration the above andpublish a correction in regard to the number of people murdered by theNazis at the Auschwitz extermination camp as being currently estimatedat approximately 1.1 million victims.



Mark Van Alstine


P.S. For additional information on the origins of the erroneous four million Auschwitz death toll, please see:

For further information on the Holocaust, Auschwitz specifically, and estimates on the number of victims killed, please see:

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