© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
A Paper Eichmann (1980) - Anatomy of a Lie (8)
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press 1992),
English translation © 1992 Columbia University Press
Reproduction interdite sauf pour usage personnel - No reproduction except for personal use only

We are very grateful to Pierre Vidal-Naquet and his american publisher, Columbia University Press, for allowing us to make this text available here.

8. On the Art of Not Reading Texts

If there is not, in the scientific sense of the term, a "debate" over the existence of the gas chambers, it is a fact that the "revisionists" claim that such a debate exists, or rather that it does not exist, since they are persuaded --with any necessary reservation for the acts of one or two madmen in the SS-- that no such thing existed. But gas chambers did not exist in and for them selves; they were the endpoint of a process of triage which, upon entry into a camp or at a camp, summarily sorted out men and women whom the SS deemed capable of working from the rest.

The process is known both through Nazi administrative documents and the accounts of deportees. Here, for example, is a telegram addressed from Auschwitz to the central economic ad ministration of the camps at Oranienburg on March 8, 1943. The document enumerated various convoys, including the following: "Transported from Breslau, arrived 315143. Total: 1,405 Jews. Put to work: 406 men (Buna factories) and 190 women. Subjected to special treatment (sonderbehandelt wurden ): 125 men and 684 women and children."[86] The sum is precise. Will anyone dare claim that these individuals were being brought to a rest camp ?

As for the deportees, the tale has been told a thousand times and it is practically identical for all witnesses,[87] a fact that unfortunately does not mean that they were plagiarizing each other. The testimony of Primo Levi, at the time a young Italian chemist, is particularly austere. He left on February 22, 1944 in a train containing 650 deportees. Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, about ten SS officers "interrogated those disembarking with some indifference. 'How old? In good health? Sick?' In less than ten minutes, we, the healthy males, were regrouped. What happened to the others --women, children, and the aged-- we were not able to ascertain, neither at the time nor thereafter: they were purely and simply swallowed up by the night." Sometimes, adds Primo Levi, who was forced to learn quickly, things were even simpler. Those who left the train on one side of the tracks were enrolled, "the others went to the gas chamber."[88] Such was the functioning of SS rationality. Auschwitz was, as has been repeated in every key (Butz, Faurisson, Thion) a great industrial center, specializing in the production of synthetic rubber. But no one has ever explained why babies were slated to go there, and no one has ever told us what became of those babies. The absolute inability of the "revisionists" to tell us where those who were not registered in the camp (and whose names nonetheless appeared on the convoy lists) went is proof of the mendacious character of their affirmations.[89] It is not for lack of effort on their part. Christophersen, the revisionist witness, writes calmly: "When, at roll call, detainees were asked whether they were pre pared to accomplish the task at hand [in this case, the planting of rubber-yielding dandelions], and whether they had ever done anything comparable previously, volunteers were almost always too numerous. Thus there was a selection; subsequently, that selection process has been completely distorted. It was natural to want to keep the detainees occupied and they did not ask for anything better. The selection process had no other purpose than to make use of them according to their tastes, talents, and relative health" (Mensonge d'Auschwitz, p. 22). A. R. Butz, normally so adroit, slips up and is content more or less to note that "industrial and other activities required that selections procedures take place for various purposes" (The Hoax, p. 111). His rather unique argument against the usual interpretation is that there were a large number of Jews in the hospital. This amounts, once again, to resorting to an imaginary rationality.

The heart of the question lies in knowing what happened during the "selection process" upon entry into the camp or, later on, during operations aimed, according to the going interpretation, at separating those who were still capable of working from those who were not. Might one, during the selection process, be rejected and show up subsequently? At Dora, Rassinier had a comrade who was selected and who did reappear. But there was no gas chamber at Dora, and the man had been sent to Bergen Belsen, a so-called hospital-camp, though in fact a death camp, from which he had the good fortune to return (Mensonge, p. 170). Faurisson triumphantly published a photo of Simone Veil, who was alleged to have been gassed and who was quite alive. The mechanism of his error is extremely simple, and the indications furnished by Faurisson (Vérité, p. 328) allow one to reconstitute it easily. According to the Polish historian Danuta Czech, who set about reconstituting the camp calendar for the series Hefte von Auschwitz, convoy 71, arriving from Drancy (April 16, 1944) was treated as follows: 165 men were registered; the rest of the convoy was gassed (Hefte von Auschwitz, 7, 1964, p. 88). The camp archives, which are incomplete, did not include the names of women who were registered. The error has been rectified by Klarsfeld in his Mémorial: "The Auschwitz calendar does not mention any woman who was selected, but this is erroneous, since in 1945 seventy female survivors from the convoy were counted. There were also thirty-five male survivors."

Nevertheless, "good use" can also be made of the notion of selection, for instance, for argumentative ends. An optimist, as is known, says a glass is half full and a pessimist that it is half empty. One can also choose to see only the "positive" aspect of selection, if the word be permitted. Such was the tack of Hans Laternser, who was the lawyer of the German general staff at Nuremberg and defended, in Frankfurt, from 1963 to 1965, several defendants in the Auschwitz trial. Given the fact, he ex plains, that the aim of Himmler and Hitler was the annihilation of the Jews, those who "selected the Jews to gain them entry into the camp were thus posing an obstacle to the final solution."[90]

Such is not, it will be agreed, the interpretation of Robert Faurisson. He has nevertheless been led, at first spontaneously, then by the devastating objections of G. Wellers, to attend to another aspect of the selection procedure, that of the separation between sufferers from typhus and the healthy, since that is how he ultimately interprets the "special actions" and the selections.[91] The decisive text on this subject is a document whose authenticity has been contested by no one (even if Butz chooses boldly to maintain strict silence about it). From August 30 to November 18, 1942, Professor Dr. Johann Paul Kremer served as an SS physician in the camp at Auschwitz. The British arrested him in August 1945, and confiscated a diary in which he noted the different events of his life, including the "special actions" he participated in at Auschwitz. That diary has been published in part.[92]

In order to interpret it,[93] I shall appeal exceptionally to a rule of exegesis posited by Faurisson. He has formulated it in various ways with reference to literary texts. Here is one of the oldest: "For one not to search for a meaning and a single meaning in an utterance, whether in prose or poetry, in high or low literature, grave reasons, which have yet to be discovered, would be called for."[94] And, more schematically: "One must look for the letter before looking for the spirit. Texts have only one meaning or they have no meaning at all" (Nouvelles litteraires, February 10 17, 1977; Vérité, p. 54). With reference to poetry, which Faurisson interprets professionally, the principle is palpably absurd: poetry perpetually plays on polysemy; but the rule has value when referring to plain language such as: I am going out to buy a French bread.

Kremer's Diary is incontrovertibly of the latter sort. His observations inform us of the physician's personal and professional life. Thus, on October 9, 1942: "I have sent to Munster a first package containing nine pounds of soap worth 200 RM. Weather rainy"; on September 21: "I wrote today because of Otto to the Police Headquarters in Cologne (the judiciary police service). Duck shooting in the evening. Dr. Meyer informed me of the hereditary transmission of a trauma (nose) in his father in-law's family." Many of the remarks bear on life in the camp, the illnesses present there, and the precautions taken. For ex ample, on September 1, that is, two days after the doctor's ar rival: "I have ordered in writing from Berlin an SS officer's hat, a belt, and suspenders. In the afternoon, I was present at the disinfection of a block in order to delouse it with a gas, Zyklon B." From the day of his arrival, Kremer was struck by the importance of exanthematous typhus; he was vaccinated the following day, revaccinated on September 7 and 14. The tone does not change when it is a question of extracting experimental matter from the prisoners; for instance, on October 3: "Today I proceeded to preserve living matter taken from the livers and spleens of men as well as from the pancreas." Nor does it shift when Kremer is present at physical punishments or executions. Thus, on September 9: "Later in the morning I attended as a physician the administering of blows with a stick to eight detainees and one execution with a small-calibre firearm." There is a similar calm on October 13 and 17, even though the executions are far more numerous: seven Polish civilians in the first case, eleven victims in the second: "I was present at the administering of punishment and at eleven executions [bei einem Straffvollzug und 11 Exekutionen zugegen]."

The tone changes only in a single series of circumstances, and then occasionally (not always) to take on an emotional cast that is quite remarkable. I refer to what the text calls special actions (Sonderaktionen). Kremer attended eleven of these operations, which he numbered and that took place, on occasion, twice a day. In seven cases --September 5 (the second action); September 6 and 10, September 23 (two actions), September 30 and October 7, the tone remains commonplace. In the four other cases, which include the first and last "actions" in the series (showing that Kremer never quite managed to acclimatize himself) Kremer shows signs of violent emotion and even a certain fear. On September 2: "I attended a special action for the first time, outdoors, at three o'clock in the morning. In comparison, Dante's Inferno seems almost a comedy to me. It is not for nothing that Auschwitz is known as an annihilation camp (Umsonst wird Auschwitz nicht das Lager der Vernichtung genannt)."[95] On September 5 (first action): "Today, at noon, I was present at a special action in the FKL[96] (Muslims): the epitome of horror. Hauptscharführer Thilo was right to say to me today that we were here at the anus mundi. " "On October 12, after noting that as a result of a vaccination against typhus he had a fever, Kremer added: "De spite this, I attended during the night a special action for people coming from the Netherlands (1,600 persons). Frightful scenes in front of the bunker! It was the tenth special action." October 18: "This Sunday morning, in very cold rainy weather, I at tended the eleventh special action (Dutch). Horrid scenes with three women begging to save their lives."

This coincidence between the coded terms (special action) and the emotional language is, all the same, remarkable. A second observation should be made: Kremer, in five out of eleven cases, gives several specifics concerning those targeted by the "special actions." In three cases (2, 10, and 11), we are dealing with Netherlanders, in two others (1 and 9), respectively with male and female "Muslims" and with persons coming from outside (Auswartige). We will not be departing unduly from the letter of the text if we recall that in the argot of the camps "Muslims" were detainees who had arrived at the final stages of debilitation. But perhaps this would constitute too serious a contradiction of "witness" Christophersen?

The customary interpretation of these texts consists of affirming that a "special action" corresponded to a selection, a selection for arrivals coming from without, and also a selection for exhausted detainees. Each, when sent in the "wrong" direction, would take the path to the gas chambers.

Faurisson has contested this interpretation,[97] and proposes the following one, which I shall quote in its entirety:

The physician Johann Paul Kremer's diary should be quoted correctly. It will thus be observed that when he speaks of the horrors of Auschwitz, it is an allusion to the typhus epidemic of September-October 1942. On October 3, he wrote: "At Auschwitz, whole streets have been annihilated by typhus." He himself would contract what he calls "the Auschwitz disease." Germans would die of it. The sorting out of the ill from the healthy was the "selection" or one of the forms of the "special action" performed by the physician. The sorting out took place either within buildings or outdoors. Never did he write that Auschwitz was a Vernichtungslager, that is, according to a terminology developed by Allies after the war, an "extermination camp" (by which we are to understand a camp endowed with a gas chamber). In reality, what he wrote was: "It is not for nothing that Auschwitz is called the camp of annihilation (das Lager der Vernichtung)."[98] In the etymological sense of the word, typhus annihilates those whom it strikes. Another seriously mistaken quotation: for the date of September 2, 1942, Kremer's manuscript reads: "This morning, I was present, outdoors, for the first time, at a special action." Historians and magistrates customarily suppress the word "outdoors (draussen)" in order to have Kremer say that the action took place in a "gas chamber."[99] Finally, the atrocious scenes in front of the "last bunker" (this was the courtyard of Bunker 11) were executions of prisoners sentenced to death, executions the physician was obliged to attend. Among those sentenced were three women who had arrived in a convoy from Holland."[100]
Georges Wellers has observed that Faurisson made use of Kremer's confession in 1947 to interpret the notations in his diary for October 18, 1942 as though they referred to only three executions, but that he pretended to be unaware that on the same day in 1947 Kremer spoke of the gas chambers at Auschwitz (Le Monde, February 21, 1979; Vérité, pp. 332-334). To which Faurisson retorted that he retained from Kremer's confession only what was credible, and not what was not. Since Kremer had once said that the gas chambers were reopened "a moment" after the death of the victims, his statement constitutes, he tells us gravely, "a flagrant physical impossibility" (Vérité, p. 112).

Let us leave aside what, in this interpretation, is to be attributed to pedantry or subjectivity (what is a moment ?). It comes up against a series of absolutely decisive objections:

  1. There is not a single passage in the Diary in which Kremer speaks about typhus in connection with the "special actions."
  2. One is hard put to understand why typhus outbreaks would necessarily coincide with arrivals from outside the camp. (Was there at the time a typhus epidemic in Holland?)
  3. It is hard to understand why an execution, a commonplace occurrence for Kremer, and also everything concerning typhus, should suddenly take on a tragic aspect when connected with a special action.
  4. The fact that Auschwitz was the Lager der Vernichtung has no relation to typhus epidemics. Indeed, Faurisson, who is so concerned with precision when it comes to translation, did not perceive that Kremer, in speaking of typhus, did not use the verb vernichten. He wrote on October 3: "In Auschwitz whole streets have been stricken down by typhus (In Auschwitz liegen ganze Strassenzuge an Typhus darnieder)." The difference in verbs (darniederliegen instead of vernichten) is significant, and Faurisson allowed himself to be fooled by the translation of the Polish publisher. Finally, a detail which I mention to show how Faurisson reads texts: it is false that Kremer had typhus and that what he called the Auschwitz illness is typhus. The indications in the diary for September 3, 4, and 14, show clearly that the Auschwitz illness is diarrhea with a moderate fever (37.8 degrees C. on September 14). Kremer was, in fact, vaccinated against (exanthematic) typhus and against typhoid fever. Faurisson's interpretation is thus not admissible, and the explanation --so dear to those revisionists, like Butz, prepared to admit that there was a lot of dying at Auschwitz-- of the death rates at Auschwitz by typhus stands condemned along with it. One must return to what is to be learned from the camp archives and from Kremer's confessions: that the "special actions" corresponded to the ar rival of convoys of deportees (who were, as a rule, duly registered in the camp archives); that deportees not enrolled in the camp were gassed in the bunkers of Birkenau (small houses located in the forest);[101] that those suffering from illnesses in the camp (and specifically from typhus) as well as male and fe male "Muslims" were also gassed; and that at the last moment, there were occasionally painful scenes, such as that of October 18, 1942, with the three "young and healthy" Dutch women who "did not want to enter the gas chamber and cried to save their lives" and who were shot,[102] scenes that disturbed the SS imposed order.
When Kremer spoke of the camp of annihilation, he was not, it is true, referring to a juridico-administrative concept, which did not figure, as is also true, on the official rolls of the Third Reich. He was simply speaking about what he saw. On the level he most cherishes, that of philological precision and accurate translation, Faurisson's interpretation is incoherent; on the level of intellectual ethics and scientific probity, it is bogus.[103]

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