The Jewish Standard
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It is only at this late date that the issue of your paper of May 25, 1990, reached me, with a letter by Mr. George Starkman, disputing my statement that there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the claim that Nazis made soap out of bodies of Jews.
Mr. Starkman states that the soap was distributed in Poland on rationing stamps starting in 1941 and bore the inscription RJF, which he translates as “rein Juden fett.”
In fact, the bars of soap, some of which can be seen in Jewish Memorial museums, including in Jerusalem, have the letters “R.I.F.” written on them, and they mean “Reichsstelle fuer Industrielle Fettversorgung,” or Reich Center for Industrial Supplies of Fats. The terms “rein Juden fett” spelt in this form does not exist in German in any case, and in 1941, when Mr. Starkman correctly states the soap was being distributed, there were as yet no extermination camps in existence. The first, Chelmno, started operating on December 8, 1941, the second, Belzec, in March. Auschwitz had experimental gassings going on since January, 1942.
The source of the legend was a rumor current in World War I, spread by the British, that the Germans were using bodies of their own soldiers for fat or manure production — the rumor was disproved after 1918. The Nazis resuscitated the rumor, and used it as a form of additional sadism, in words this time, on their Jewish victims: it was the Nazis who told the Jews they would be made into soap, and the Poles heard it from the Nazis.
At the end of the war, the Russians uncovered, near Gdansk [then known as Danzig (JD)], a small laboratory in which parts of human bodies were used, of Polish and Russian slave workers probably, for some chemical purposes. These experiments could possibly have involved attempts to make soap out of human fats (which we know today is an almost impossible thing to do), but the Nazis apparently never managed to go beyond the experimental stage, if indeed that is what they were trying to do there. The laboratory was small, and it had been established only towards the end of the war. It did not involve Jewish bodies. The Russian prosecutor at Nuremberg brought the issue up in the trials, but had to drop it because no proof could be presented that these were actual experiments for the production of soap.
One has to fight wrong perceptions of the Holocaust, even if large numbers of survivors accept them as true. It is not as though the Nazis were not capable of this atrocity — they certainly were — but they, factually, did not do it. To claim, on the basis of Polish antisemitic slogans, or on the basis of rumors current in the camps — in Auschwitz this was an accepted rumor — that soap was produced of Jewish bodies, simply plays into the hands of the deniers of the Holocaust, who can easily prove that nothing of the kind ever happened. I deeply respect survivors’ testimonies, and Mr. Starkman’s is one of these, but that does not mean to say that such testimonies are free from misperceptions.
Professor of Holocaust Studies