Materials on the Kharkov Trials, 1943

One of our correspondents writes:

IN DECEMBER 1943, the Soviets held another atrocity trial, this time in Kharkov, a city in the Eastern Ukraine that had changed hands several times during the war. There were repetitions of the gas van testimony given at the Krasnodar trial, and, on December 16, 1943, an interesting description of Auschwitz given by SS Major General Heinisch.

Prosecutor: Tell the court about your talk with Somann.

Heinisch: Somann told me that death caused by gas poisoning was painless and more humane. He said that in the gas van death was very quick, but actually death came not in twelve seconds but much more slowly and was accompanied by great pain. Somann told me about the camp in Auschwitz in Germany where the gassing of prisoners was carried out. The people were told that they were to be transferred elsewhere, and foreign workers were told that they would be repatriated and were sent under this pretext to bath-houses. Those who were to be executed first entered a place with a signboard with "Disinfection" on it and there they were undressed -- the men separately from the women and children. Then they were ordered to proceed to another place with a signboard "Bath." While the people were washing themselves special valves were opened to let in the gas which caused their death. Then the dead people were burned in special furnaces in which about 200 bodies could be burned simultaneously.

[Heinisch went on to say that Somann was the Chief of the Security in the Breslau area, which is the general area where Auschwitz is located, that gas executions took place only in camps on German soil, and further revealed that the decision to carry out executions "by means of gas poisoning" was made at a conference in the Summer of 1942 which Hitler, Himmler, and Kaltenbrunner attended.]

Heinisch's testimony is remarkable in several respects. First of all, we have by December, 1943, at a trial under Soviet auspices, a clear albeit erroneous narrative of the gassing claim at Auschwitz, in a form more or less similar to the standard narrative and in a publication that received wide distribution. Heinisch does not specify the ethnicity of the victims, but rather prefers to speak of foreign workers and their families: this at a time when large numbers of Ukrainians were being evacuated to the Reich for labor and were being subjected to the indignities of communal showers.

Heinisch's description of the gassing process is erroneous and therefore in attempting to account for it we could conceive of a link back to the unpublished narrative concerning Auschwitz in May [1942] or to other rumors that may have been circulating. But it is important to note that the narrative contains details about bathing and disinfection that we have not encountered prior to this point. It is also important to reflect on how it would be possible for Heinisch, a district commissar at Melitopol in occupied Russia, and Somann, an SS chief in Breslau, to be informed of a process that the postwar trials have assured us were carried out in the greatest secrecy.

NOTE It is also remarkable that Martin Gilbert, in Auschwitz and the Allies, completely ignores Heinisch's testimony about Auschwitz, even though he references the Kharkov trial, references The People's Verdict, and sought to present in that book a complete narrative of how information about Auschwitz was acquired. It is also remarkable that Heinisch's narrative precedes the 1944 constructions of the Auschwitz narrative.

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