"... one and a half?"
April 5, 1992
what does dramatically lowering the number of victims do to
the estimates of six million Jewish victims of the
By DAN STETS
OSWIECIM, Poland -- Beyond the Death Wall and the prisoners' barracks, past the ruined gas chambers and crematoriums, at the edge of the Auschwitz death camp, is a row of 19 concrete memorials.
The memorials are dedicated to the victims of the Nazi killing machine that operated here with such horrific efficiency. But gone now are the inscriptions that said in 19 languages that four million people died here.
The memorials are blank because they were wrong.
Jewish and Polish scholars of the Holocaust now agree that the Auschwitz death toll was less than half the four million cited here for four decades. The actual number was probably between 1.1 million and 1.5 million -- and at least 90 percent of the victims were Jews.
The fiction that more than a million non-Jews died here was a myth created by Poland's communist leaders.
It was only after the fall of the last communist government in 1989 that Polish historians were allowed to say what Franciszek Piper, manager of the historical department at Auschwitz, says he had known for five years. Jewish scholars say they knew the truth for at least 10 years.
But Piper, an ex-communist, and Jewish historians differ on why it took so long for the truth to come out.
Piper said that years of research were needed to get to the truth and that then, "the people in charge of publishing" didn't believe the lower number.
Malevolent motives? However, Jewish Holocaust specialists said they suspected more malevolent motives.
"The numbers that we dealt with before were numbers that were politically motivated," said Miles Lerman, chairman of international relations for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
The communists tried to "de-Judaize" Auschwitz to emphasize that other nationalities, particularly Poles, died at the hands of the Nazis, Lerman said.
He said the downward revision was approved by Poland's first post-communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki.
The communists tried throughout Eastern Europe to de-emphasize the suffering of the Jews, said Aaron Breitbart, research director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
"The communists looked at the war against Nazism not as a human issue but as one ideology fighting another, so they tended to misappropriate the Holocaust for their own political goals," Breitbart said.
"Poles were incarcerated in Auschwitz, Poles were murdered in Auschwitz, but they died different deaths and they died for different reasons and the num-bers were much smaller," Lerman said.
Other victims In addition to Jews, Auschwitz's victims included Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, Poles and other nationals, as well as political dissidents, criminals, homosexuals and prostitutes.
The non-Jews were mostly starved, poisoned or lined up against the infamous Death Wall and shot. The Jews were herded into the gas chambers. The only other people gassed were Gypsies and some Russian POWs.
One of the sad truths about Auschwitz, Polish and Jewish historians agree, is that the exact number of victims will never be known. The Nazis destroyed most of the camp records.
Piper said he used transport records uncovered throughout Europe to determine the number of victims. The results of his study were first published by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem last year.
Extermination center He calculates 1.1 million died -- one million Jews, 70,000 to 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet POWs and 5,000 from other countries.
His study indicates that the Soviets got their original estimates from the testimony of former inmates, camp guards and the camp commander.
Israel Gutman, a historian at Hebrew University in Israel and former Auschwitz prisoner, estimates there were 1.5 million victims, of which 93 percent to 95 percent were Jews, and roughly the same number of other victims calculated by Piper.
Piper agrees the number could be as high as 1.5 million, but 1.1 million is all he has been able to document.
But what does dramatically lowering the number of victims do to the estimates of six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust?
The downward revision actually strengthens the case that 5.5 million to six million Jews died in the Holocaust, said Breitbart. The earlier estimate of two million or more Jews killed at Auschwitz, added to the numbers who died elsewhere, produced a total of more than seven million.
"We have to be careful with numbers," said Breitbart, "because it just gives Holocaust-deniers the opportunity to come up with the idea that there was no Holocaust because the num-bers were wrong."
Since scholars are in rough agreement about the numbers, why are the 19 memorials still blank?
"The reason it takes so long is that we want to be sure that the new inscriptions are separated from politics and that they are historically correct," Lerman said.
He said the new inscriptions "will reflect the truth - -- that this is a place where citizens of various countries occupied by Nazi Germany were incarcerated, tortured and killed, and that approximately 1.5 million per-ished here and that the over-whelming majority of victims were Jews."