[images and captions added by this website]
most serious historians refuse to dignify such statements
with a response, Polish administrators have taken the bait.
In response to revisionist charges, they tested the gas
chamber walls for residual traces of cyanide gas but found
Wednesday, July 7, 2004
troops liberate seemingly well fed women prisoners from
Auschwitz, Jan 1945.
IN THE FRAY
Forensic evidence of the Holocaust must be preserved
By Timothy Ryback
LAST month, Jarek Mensfelt, spokesman for the Auschwitz memorial site, announced plans to preserve the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria in the notorious death camp at Birkenau near the Polish town of Oswiecim. "This is an attempt to keep it as it is now -- in ruins -- but not let the ruins go," he said. "It was meant to be here forever as a warning."
In the coming weeks, as the Auschwitz preservationists begin their work, they should be guided by the knowledge that these heaps of dynamited concrete and twisted steel are not only historic artifacts but among the few remnants of untainted, forensic evidence of the Holocaust.
Of course, the historical and circumstantial evidence of a premeditated Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe is overwhelming.
There are the watch-tower-girded enclosures of Nazi concentration camps and the extensive testimonials of Holocaust survivors, as well as the court protocols of Nazi war criminals, but there is little forensic evidence proving homicidal intent. The Nazis were scrupulous when it came to obscuring the "Final Solution" in bureaucratic euphemism and also dismantling or obliterating their machinery of death. The dearth of hard evidence has fueled a growth industry in Holocaust-denial.
The revisionists' plaint is simple: They demand a proverbial "smoking gun" to prove that the Nazis deliberately and systematically designed an industrial system of extermination. They do not deny that millions of European Jews died from malnutrition, exhaustion and disease. They do not even deny that Zyklon B gas was employed at Auschwitz, but they claim it was used for delousing rather than homicidal purposes. One French critic has denounced them as "assassins de la memoire" -- murderers of memory.
Auschwitz has been a particular target of Holocaust deniers -- in particular, the gas chamber in Auschwitz I, the original base camp a mile east of Birkenau. It was here that some of the first experiments with poison gas were undertaken in a converted air-raid shelter refitted with air-tight doors and special ducts for homicidal purposes. Dynamited by the Nazis in the autumn of 1944, the gas chamber was reconstructed after the war. As one revisionist notes:
"The official view holds that the Soviets and Poles created a 'gas chamber' in an air-raid shelter that had been a 'gas chamber.' The revisionist view holds that Soviets and Poles created a 'gas chamber' in an air-raid shelter that had been an air-raid shelter."
While most serious historians refuse to dignify such statements with a response, Polish administrators have taken the bait. In response to revisionist charges, they tested the gas chamber walls for residual traces of cyanide gas but found none. Unlike the delousing chambers, whose walls still show cyanide "staining," the gas chambers betrayed no residual traces of Zyklon B. The homicidal process was so murderously brief that the cyanide never penetrated the interior surface. Similarly, it was found that repeated postwar "cleaning" had leached the last traces of cyanide from the heaps of human hair, one of the most damning pieces of Holocaust evidence.
Four years ago, this evidence was used by the revisionist David Irving in his libel suit against Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt. Though the judge handed down an unequivocal verdict against Mr. Irving, the Holocaust deniers remain undeterred. "While the judgment in the Irving-Lipstadt trial is certainly a heavy blow for Irving personally," a leading revisionist publication observed, "it is only a temporary setback for the ultimately unstoppable march of revisionist scholarship."
IN the battle against Holocaust deniers, Birkenau's extermination facilities remain important forensic evidence. Today, the ruined structures lie at the far end of the camp -- beyond the railway line and the infamous "ramp" where Josef Mengele once stood to make his "selections" -- tumbled and broken plates of concrete that rise from the earth like arctic ice shoals, the remnants of a once horrifically efficient piece of machinery.
Between 1942, when they were first put into operation, and 1944, when they were dynamited, more than a million human beings -- mostly Jewish -- were fed into these extermination plants, forced into subterranean chambers and gassed, their corpses removed and transported by mechanical conveyance to the crematoria ovens. The chimneys belched smoke into the air. The remnant ash was scattered in the surrounding fields, or dumped in a nearby pond whose muddied bottom, even today, is of a sticky gray viscosity laced with matchstick-size splinters of human bone.
The horrors of this machinery have been preserved in the classic memoirs of survivor-authors like Elie Wiesel (left) and Primo Levi, in the myriad recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors, and in the trial protocols of Nazi perpetrators.
But, as with any account filtered through human memory, this "evidence" is subject to challenge and rebuttal. There is no arguing with presence of the Birkenau gas chambers. Here the proof of the Holocaust is written in concrete and steel.
This summer, as the preservationists clear the weeds and sort through the rubble, they should work in the knowledge that they are not just preserving a "warning" for the future but also excavating the hard evidence of evil.
Mr. Ryback is the author of "The Last Survivor: Legacies of Dachau."
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