Supplement 5: Vergasungskeller

An early version of this supplement appeared in the Journal of Historical Review, vol. 16, no. 4, July-Aug. 1997, pp. 20-22.

Veteran revisionists recognize that an outstanding small problem has been the "Vergasungskeller" that was evidently in or near Crematorium II in the Birkenau part of the Auschwitz camp.

Crematorium II (and its mirror image Crematorium III) had two huge underground morgues, Leichenkeller 1 (LK 1) and LK 2, and a smaller morgue LK 3. LK 1 and LK 2 were simple concrete morgues in which bodies were simply laid on the floor. See Fig. 33. Essentially everything said here concerning Crematorium II should be presumed to hold also for Crematorium III. With one exception to be noted, nothing said here applies to Crematorium I (in the Stammlager part of the Auschwitz camp, rather than Birkenau, and taken out of service in July 1943). Apart from remarks near the end about the work of Samuel Crowell, nothing said here applies to Crematoria IV or V at Birkenau.

A letter to SS headquarters Berlin, from the Auschwitz construction department, dated 29 January 1943, when the construction of Crematorium II was nearing completion, reports that frost prohibits removal of the formwork for the ceiling of the "Leichenkeller" (without specifying which of the three is meant) but that this is unimportant, since the "Vergasungskeller" can be used for that purpose, i.e. as a morgue. The document had the number NO-4473 at the Nuremberg trials. Specifically, NO-4473 reads:

"The Crematorium II has been completed - save for some minor constructional work - by the use of all the forces available, in spite of unspeakable difficulties, the severe cold, and in 24 hour shifts. The fires were started in the ovens in the presence of Senior Engineer Prüfer, representative of the contractors of the firm of Topf and Sons, Erfurt, and they are working most satisfactorily. The formwork for the reinforced concrete ceiling of the Leichenkeller could not yet be removed on account of the frost. This is, however, unimportant, as the Vergasungskeller can be used for this purpose.

The firm of Topf and Sons was not, on account of the unavailability of rail transport, able to deliver the aeration and ventilation equipment on time, as had been requested by the Central Building Management. As soon as the aeration and ventilation equipment arrive, the installing will start so that the complete installation may be expected to be ready for use by 20 February 1943.

A report of the inspecting engineer of the firm of Topf and Sons, Erfurt, is enclosed."

When NO-4473 is interpreted with the help of some documents reproduced by Pressac,[678] it is shown that the "Leichenkeller" is LK 2. Pressac believes that the "Vergasungskeller" is LK 1 and that a "slip", indeed "enormous gaff" (sic), caused the author of the document to betray the true purpose of LK 1, referring to it as a "gassing cellar" (although the usual German word for such a concept is "Gaskammer"). On no known set of engineering drawings is a "Vergasungskeller" indicated.[679]

Many of those who would have us believe that there were homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz insist on this interpretation. An interesting exception has been the Austrian-born Raul Hilberg. He cites and even quotes from NO-4473 in the "Killing Center Operations" chapter of The Destruction of the European Jews, but he is silent on the "Vergasungskeller".

In my 1976 book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, I offered that the Vergasungskeller was a part of the crematorium building devoted to generating a combustible gas for the ovens.[680] This interpretation was linguistically correct and could be technically correct, depending on the design of the ovens. The primary meaning of "Vergasung" is gas generation or carburetion, i.e. turning something into a gas (a "Vergaser" is a carburetor). A secondary meaning is application of a gas as in fumigation or in gas warfare. It is also the word Germans use today to refer to the alleged gassing of Jews; however, they use "Gaskammer" rather than "Vergasungskammer" or "Vergasungskeller" for the facility imagined to have accomplished this. Such usage also applies in the literature on fumigation.[681]

By 1989, Robert Faurisson realized that my original interpretation was wrong, and later in 1989, Pressac[682] conclusively showed that it was wrong, based on the design of the cremation ovens. In 1991, Faurisson offered a theory[683] that the Vergasungskeller was a storage area for fumigation supplies within LK 3.

In 1992, I showed that there were many ways "Vergasung" can come up in sewage treatment technology and offered that the Vergasungskeller might be found in the sewage treatment plant next to the crematorium. However, I favored the interpretation that the Vergasungskeller was simply a facility for generating fuel gas for the camp.[684] NO-4473 suggests, but does not require, that the Vergasungskeller was located within the crematorium building.

The purpose of this note is to offer another interpretation, which I now believe is more plausible than any earlier offered by me or anybody else. Before I do that, I should remark that the problem here is what the Vergasungskeller was, not whether it was a homicidal gas chamber. Those who claim it was a homicidal gas chamber focus their attention entirely on that one word in the document. If they would instead focus on what the document says, they would realize that it is impossible to make that interpretation work. The document shows that in January 1943 the Germans were in a great rush to use the building as an ordinary crematorium.

As Faurisson discussed earlier,[685] during World War II the combatants paid great heed that new structures be considered, if possible, as air raid shelters. There were two principal dangers that such shelters were to provide protection against: bombs and gas attacks. On account of World War I experiences, the possibilities of the latter were taken very seriously. Indeed, many simply assumed that gas would be used, despite treaties outlawing its use. Typically, a gas shelter was conceived of as a bomb shelter, preferably underground and very strong structurally, with some features added to make it secure against gas; a gas shelter had to be gas tight but allow people to breathe. Since in many cases it was not economic to provide such structures for at most only occasional use, it was recognized that such shelters could exist in the form of embellishments to structures that exist for other purposes. However, the number of suitable such structures was limited. For example, the typical underground cellar belongs to a building with several stories; the collapse of these in an air raid could prevent people from leaving the cellar.[686]

Germany started its air raid gas shelter program early with a 10 October 1933 decree of the Ministry of Finance providing financial incentives for the construction of shelters. The decree was followed by the Luftschutzgesetz (Air Defense Law) of 26 June 1935. Three German decrees in May 1937, in application of the Luftschutzgesetz, alarmed the British Chargé d'Affaires in Berlin, who compared the earnest German attitudes on air defenses to British apathy. The provision of shelters advanced far in Germany before the war, and of course was accelerated with the outbreak of war. On defense against gas, Germany was deeply committed to the shelter approach in its civil defense program, in contrast to the British, who put more emphasis on distribution of gas masks. However, it should be stressed that in World War II thinking, bomb and gas defenses went together, and provision of the one was unlikely without the other.[687]

Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Israel has had a law requiring that every newly constructed domicile have a room equipped as a gas shelter.[688]

My proposal is that the Vergasungskeller was a gas shelter. It need not have been located within Crematorium II, but I believe it most likely was, on account of the fact that Crematoria II and III, with their large concrete cellars, were obviously ideal for adaptation as air raid shelters. Indeed, when this problem is looked at from the point of view of defense against air raids it seems there was no better choice at Auschwitz. The German authorities responsible for providing air raid shelters would have insisted that the necessary embellishments be made to these structures, which were far more suited to such purposes than, e.g., Crematorium I at the Stammlager, which despite being above ground was converted to an air raid shelter after it was taken out of service as a crematorium in July 1943.[689] My reading of some of the relevant chemical warfare literature convinces me that Crematoria II and III were conceived of by the Germans as having this additional role.

I have never seen the word "Vergasungskeller" in a lexicon; indeed I have seen it only in discussions of NO-4473![690] I have seen two German-Russian dictionaries, one a military dictionary, that say "Gaskeller" means "gas shelter".[691] However, we should not consider ourselves bound to dictionaries on this. If one asks the question: In a World War II military context, what might "Vergasungskeller" and/or "Gaskeller" mean? I think that "gas shelter" is the answer that comes naturally to mind and that other meanings are somewhat strained. Of course, other meanings come naturally to mind in non-military contexts.

As a personal example, I can report that I have been unable to find the term "control lab" (or "control laboratory", "controls lab", "controls laboratory") in my IEEE Standard Dictionary of Electrical and Electronics Terms (edition of 1972), although every university Dept. of Electrical Engineering in the USA has a "control lab," and that is how we normally refer to such a place. I have also been unable to find the term in an unabridged Webster's, in an on-line version of the Oxford English Dictionary, and in several other dictionaries I have.

If this interpretation of the Vergasungskeller of NO-4473 is correct, then we should view all three cellars in Crematorium II as air raid shelters, with only one being provided with the additional measures to make it effective as a gas shelter. That could only be LK 1, since NO-4473 implies it is not LK 2, LK 3 was very small and, conclusively, because LK 1 was the only one of the three provided with a gas-tight door.[692] Moreover, while all parts of the building had motor driven air extraction systems, it appears that only LK 1 had a motor driven air intake system.[693]

The extermination legend claims that homicidal gas chambers existed at Auschwitz and employed the pesticide Zyklon B, which releases HCN gas (hydrogen cyanide). Pressac also believes the Vergasungskeller was LK 1, but he interprets it as a gas chamber employing Zyklon B. Under my theory, he is then right on location but wrong on function. LK 1 had the basic features of a gas shelter.

Pressac admits that the air exhaust (at the bottom) and air intake (near the top) systems of LK 1 were misplaced for a gas chamber employing HCN.[694] Although HCN is only slightly lighter than air, there are various practical reasons why gas chambers employing it normally expel the gas from the top when the gassing process is completed.[695] Carbon dioxide is much heavier than air and is most naturally expelled from the bottom of the relevant space. Moreover, preferred German practice of the time used a circulatory system for disinfestation gas chambers that employed Zyklon B, rather than a simple system of intake/exhaust. Another feature of any serious Zyklon gas chamber, lacked by LK 1, was a heating system, required to accelerate the development of HCN gas from the Zyklon carrier material (usually gypsum). LK 1 had whatever temperature the elements gave it,[696] a tolerable situation for an air raid/gas shelter. For explanations, see Supplement 4. The construction of LK 1 was exactly that of a gas shelter. One must stand on one's head to interpret it as a gas chamber.

The reader should understand that here I am only considering the physical details of the construction of LK 1 that oblige us to interpret it as a gas shelter rather than gas chamber. There is much more evidence that LK 1 was not a gas chamber. The purpose of this note is only to interpret the word "Vergasungskeller" as used in one document.

Why would the author of NO-4473 not refer to a Leichenkeller as a Leichenkeller? I don't think a slip is involved. We normally do not consider ourselves bound to use only formal designations. More commonly, we refer to things according to their function or in any case the function that happens to be in mind at the time. The gas shelter features of LK 1 were its principal structural distinction from LK 2, and those features were being taken into account in the construction at the time. It was natural that LK 1 might be referred to as the gas shelter.

As another example of a use of terminology suggested by function, the engineers Jährling and Messing referred to LK 2 of Crematoria II and III, during construction, via the terms "Auskleideraum" and "Auskleidekeller" (undressing room or cellar), another one of what Pressac considers "slips" that betrayed a criminal purpose.[697] This has been another point raised by those who would put a homicidal interpretation on Crematoria II and III; according to this theory, the victims would undress themselves in LK 2 and then be gassed in LK 1.

It seems hard to believe these were "slips," because they were so frequently committed. Jährling used this designation in a document of 6 March 1943, and then Messing used it in three documents later in March. If these were "slips", it would seem that by this time the bosses would have told them to clean up their language. They evidently didn't, because Messing used the designation in two more documents in April.[698]

The truth about the undressing is much more prosaic. Pressac believes that, when the Germans viewed Crematoria II and III as ordinary crematoria, then the sequence of processing bodies was contemplated to be LK 3 to LK 2 to LK 1, but that LK 3 was eventually eliminated from the regular sequence.[699] However that may be, if the dead bodies were contemplated to sta rt in LK 2, they would then be undressed there.[700] They would be stored in LK 1 while awaiting cremation. Presumably, LK 3 was only used when a body needed some sort of special processing, e.g. dissection or the famous extraction of gold fillings from teeth.

I am struck by the humorous simplicity of the theory offered here.

In March 1997, Samuel Crowell also proposed an interpretation of LK 1 as a gas shelter that goes far beyond, and in some respects departs on secondary levels from, the interpretations proposed here. Crowell's theory is to be found at the Web site of CODOH (Committee for Open Debate of the Holocaust).[701] He went beyond my theory in two principal respects. First, he attributed to Crematoria II and III a broader role within the air raid/gas shelter paradigm. For example, showers and undressing are interpreted by him in terms of "decontamination", a feature of that paradigm. Second, he interpreted features of Crematoria IV and V in terms of air raid and gas shelters, matters on which he cites much contemporaneous German literature. Crowell has bitten off a big piece, and evaluation of his theories will take time. I believe he tends at points to over-hasty interpretation in terms of air raid and gas shelters, without adequate consideration of alternative interpretations, but my hunch is that he is mostly right.


[678]J.-C. Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, NY, 1989, p. 548. The reader should understand that the title of this book is misleading, as the only real "gas chambers" whose "technique and operation" are discussed are fumigation gas chambers. The homicidal gas chambers are only imagined, based on alleged "criminal traces", a few of which are dealt with here, directly or indirectly. It is common to refer to this book in discussion of Auschwitz because it is the greatest single published source of reproductions of original documents and photographs for the camp.
[679]Pressac (1989) pp. 211, 217, 432, 548.
[680]Chapter 4 herein.
[681]An example of the two usages is in one paragraph in Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungslager im Spiegel deutscher Strafprozesse, Adalbert Rückerl, ed., Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich, 1977, p. 12, where we are told that "Judenvergasung" (Jew gassing) took place in "Gaskammern". About the same distinction in usage held in the fumigation field, as can be inferred from F. Puntigam et al., Blausäuregaskammern zur Fleckfieberabwehr, Berlin, 1943.
[682]Pressac (1989) pp. 106-113, 222-225, 548.
[683]R. Faurisson, Journal of Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 55ff.
[684]A.R. Butz, Journal of Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 3, May/June 1993, pp. 27-31.
[685]Faurisson, op. cit., pp. 52f.
[686]A.M. Prentiss, Chemicals in War, Mc-Graw-Hill, NY, 1937. G. Woker, Der kommende Gift- und Brandkrieg, Oldenburg, Leipzig, 1932.
[687]Alden H. Watt, Gas Warfare, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, NY, 1942, p. 252. Terence H. O'Brien, Civil Defence, H.M. Stationery Office and Longmans, London, 1955, pp. 102ff, 329. Stephen E. Ambrose, ed., Handbook On German Military Forces, Louisiana State Univ. Press, Baton Rouge, 1990, p. 518. The last is a reproduction of a book issued in March 1945 by the U.S. Army.
[688]Chicago Tribune, 7 Sept. 1996, sec. 1, p. 2.
[689]Pressac (1989), pp. 132f, 144, 156f. The engineering drawings Pressac reproduces are dated 21 & 24 September 1944, but I do not know the actual date of the conversion. Pressac erroneously places the first Allied air raid on 13 September 1944; it was on 20 August 1944.
[690]Dictionaries are somewhat politicized, so do not assume that "Vergasungskeller" will never appear in one that defines it as equivalent to "Gaskammer". For example my Deutsches Wörterbuch, G. Wahrig, ed., Bertelsmann Lexikon-Verlag,1973, defines "Gaskammer" only as something for killing people in concentration camps with poison gas, although the word was used in the fumigation field long before World War II. The justification that would be claimed for defining "Vergasungskeller" thus is that it was used that way in NO-4473! Orwell, anyone?
[691]L.F. Parparov, ed., Nemetsko-Russkii Voennyi Slovar, Voenizdat, Moscow, 1964. A.A. Lepinga and N.P. Strakhovoi, eds., Nemetsko-Russkii Slovar, Sov. Entsiklopediia, Moscow, 1968.
[692]Pressac (1989), 223, 231.
[693]Pressac (1989), 284ff, 290f, 355-374.
[694]Pressac (1989), 224, 274, 289ff, 322, 338.
[695]Puntigam, op. cit..
[696]Pressac (1989), pp. 221, 223, 230, notes that at one point consideration was given to "pre-heating" LK 1, but the idea was dropped 3 weeks later. LK 1 was not heated. I have an idea on the purpose imagined for the pre-heating, but it would be premature to present it. In any case, heat was not considered vital to the function of LK 1. The notion that a crowd of people in LK 1 would provide the necessary heat for efficient gassing is a fig leaf that doesn't work, because they would not generate that much heat, and because according to the legend the Zyklon would have been strewn about the floor, thus assuming a temperature close to that of the floor.
[697]Pressac (1989), pp. 223, 373.
[698]Pressac (1989), pp. 431-435, 438f.
[699]Pressac (1989) 284ff. Of course, revisionists hold that they always were ordinary crematoria.
[700]Faurisson, op. cit., pp. 49f., advanced this interpretation but only tentatively, because he had not been able to verify that the word "Auskleideraum" is used that way in the special terminology of morgues (that seems to be what Faurisson meant). I do not think the question is important, because there is no reason to assume that Jährling (a heating technician employed by the SS) and Messing (a fitter employed by the Topf company that was providing the crematorium ovens) cared very much about the special terminology of morgues. I have spent many years with engineers, and I know they tend to express themselves without great concern for lexical standards, especially outside their own fields. Jährling and Messing could never have suspected that their hasty words would be subject to such contentious scrutiny half a century later!

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