The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

A Study of the Cyanide Compounds Content
in the Walls of the Gas Chambers
in the Former Auschwitz & Birkenau Concentration Camps


As early as the first years after the end of World War II single publications began to appear in which the authors attempted to "whitewash" the Hitlerite regime and to call various signs of its cruelties into question. But it was not till the fifties that the trend may be defined as "historical revisionism" arose and started developing; its supporters claim that the history of the World War II has been fabricated for the purposes of anti-German propaganda. According to their statements there was no Holocaust, i. e. no mass extermination of Jews and in that case the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp could not have been an extermination camp - it was only a "common" forced labour camp and no gas chambers existed in it.

Historical revisionism is now put forward by members of various nations, who already have their own scientific circles, own publications and also use the mass media for their purposes. Up to 1988 the ,"revisionists" <1> most frequently manipulated historical sources or simply denied the facts. Then, after the appearance of the so-called Leuchter Report (2), their tactics changed distinctly. The above-mentioned Report, worked out on the basis of a study of the ruins and remains of the crematoria and gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, has been considered by them to be specific evidence in support of their allegations and evidence of judicial validity at that, since it was commissioned by the court of law in Toronto (Canada). F. Leuchter, living in Boston, worked on the design and construction of gas chambers still in use to execute the death penalty in some States of the USA. This is considered to give him authority to take the role of expert as regards gas chamber issues. In this connection Leuchter came to Poland on 25 February 1988 and stayed here for 5 days, visiting the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and at Majdanek. In his report based on this inspection he states that "he found no evidence that any of the facilities that are usually alleged to have been gas chambers were actually used as such". Moreover, he claims that these facilities "could not be used as gas chambers for killing people" (Item 4000 of the Report).

Leuchter tried to confirm his conclusions with the help of chemical analysis. For this purpose he took samples of material fragments from the chamber ruins to subject them to an analysis for hydrogen cyanide, the essential component of Zyklon B, used - acc. to the testimony of witnesses - to gas the victims. He took 30 samples altogether from all the five structures used formerly as gas chambers. At laboratory analyses performed in the USA the presence of cyanide ions at concentrations of 1.1 to 7.9 mg/kg of material examined was found in 14 samples. He also took one sample from the delousing building at Birkenau, which he treated as a "control sample", and in which cyanides were found to be present at a concentration of 1060 mg kg of material. The positive results of the analyses of samples from the former gas chambers are explained by Leuchter by the fact that all the camp facilities were subjected to a fumigation with hydrogen cyanide in connection with a typhoid epidemic which really broke out in the camp in 1942.

A later investigation, carried out by a G. Rudolf (4), confirmed the high concentrations of cyanogen compounds in the facilities for clothes disinsectization. This may be so since, being undamaged, these facilities were not exposed to the action of weather conditions, especially rainfall. Moreover, it is known that the duration of disinsectization was relatively long, about 24 hours for each batch of clothes (probably even longer), whereas the execution with Zyklon B in the gas chambers took, according to the statement of the Auschwitz Camp Commander Rudolf Hoess (7) and the data presented by Sehn (6), only about 20 minutes. It should also be emphasized that the ruins of these chambers have been constantly exposed to the action of precipitation and it can be estimated, on the basis of the climatological records, that in these last 45 years or so they have been rinsed rather thoroughly by a column of water at least 35 m in height (!).

In our correspondence with the Management of the Auschwitz Museum in 1989, not knowing the Leuchter Report then, we expressed our anxiety as to the chances of detection of cyanogen compounds in the chamber ruins; nevertheless, we offered to carry out an appropriate study. At the beginning of 1990 two workers of the Institute of Forensic Research arrived on the premises of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp and took samples for screening analysis: 10 samples of plaster from the delousing chamber (Block No 3 at Auschwitz), 10 samples from gas chamber ruins and, in addition, 2 control samples from the buildings which, as living quarters, had not been in contact with hydrogen cyanide. Out of the 10 samples from the delousing chamber, seven contained cyanogen compounds at concentrations from 9 to 147 µg in conversion to potassium cyanide (which was used to construct the calibration curve) and 100 g of material. As far as the ruins are concerned, the presence of cyanide was demonstrated only in the sample from the ruins of Crematorium Chamber No II at Birkenau. Neither of the control samples contained cyanides.

When the dispute on the Leuchter Report arose, we undertook a closer study of the problem, availing ourselves, among other publications, of J. C. Pressac's comprehensive work (5). In consequence, we decided to start considerably more extensive and conscientiously planned reaserches. To carry them out, the Management of the Auschwitz Museum appointed their competent workers, Dr F. Piper (custodian) and Mr W. Smrek (engineer) to join the commission, in which they co-worked with the authors of the present paper, representing the Institute of Forensic Research. Under this collaboration the Museum workers were providing us on the spot with exhaustive information concerning the facilities to be examined and - as regards the ruins - a detailed topography of the gas chambers we were concerned with. And so they made it possible for us to take proper samples for analysis. We tried to take samples - if at all possible - from the places best sheltered and least exposed to rainfall, including also as far as possible - fragments of the upper parts of the chambers (hydrogen cyanide is lighter than air) and also of the concrete floors, with which the gas from the spilled Zyklon B came into contract at rather high concentrations.

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