February 3, 2000
On Auschwitz: The Trial Continues
David Irving, who is suing Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and her British publisher, Penguin Books, for libel, insisted at his trial last week that there were no such vents and that their absence "totally demolished" evidence that the gas chambers were used to kill inmates at Auschwitz.
He asserted that the Nazis used the Auschwitz gas chambers solely for the purpose of delousing corpses and their clothing.
The comments by Irving, who is representing himself, came in the course of cross-examining Auschwitz expert Robert Van Pelt.
Irving, who is seeking damages, claims to have been professionally ruined after being described as a Holocaust denier and a distorter of historical data to conform with his own ideological disposition in Lipstadt's 1994 book "Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory."
Van Pelt, a Dutch historian who works at the University of Waterloo in Canada, served as adviser to the Auschwitz authorities on the reconstruction of the site, which was demolished by the Germans in late 1944 and early 1945.
Van Pelt referred to an SS photograph taken in February 1943 that showed openings on the roof of Crematorium II at Auschwitz through which lethal Zyklon-B pellets were introduced into the gas chambers.
But Irving, who is defending himself, claimed that the picture was taken during building works in December 1942 and that the objects on the roof were drums of sealant.
Van Pelt also produced an aerial photograph taken by the Americans in the summer of 1944 that showed "four dots" -- which he described as "introduction devices" -- on the roof of Crematorium II.
Irving questioned the authenticity of the photograph and said that the dots were too big for such a purpose.
Irving also said the testimony of Henryk Tauber, a Jewish inmate forced to work in Crematorium II, stretched "a reasonable historian's credibility."
He dismissed as "lurid" Tauber's eyewitness accounts of how he saw the SS set one Jew on fire and throw another into a pit of boiling human fat -- and he rejected Tauber's description of how he had helped to incinerate the corpses of up to 2,500 Greek, French and Dutch Jews a day in Crematorium II.
He also rejected Tauber's contention that he had seen cyanide pellets poured into the gas chambers through small "chimneys."
He was unmoved, too, by an account of a "field of ashes" from human remains, some of which was spread on icy roads to assist the passage of vehicles.
According to Irving, a number of revisionist researchers had entered the ruins of Crematorium II, where Holocaust historians have determined that 500,000 people were slaughtered.
The revisionists, said Irving, photographed the collapsed underside of the roof but found no vents, which, he contended, "blows holes in the whole gas chambers story."
"I do not accept that the Nazis, in the last frantic days of the camp, when they were in a blue funk, would have gone around with buckets of cement filling the holes that they were going to dynamite," he told the High Court in London.
Irving has denied that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were used for human extermination, and he has insisted that fewer than 100,000 Jews died -- mostly of natural causes -- at Auschwitz, which he has sought to portray as a particularly brutal labor camp.
But Van Pelt told the court there was "a massive amount of evidence" that 1 million Jews were systematicallly exterminated in the death camp by the Nazis.
He said the accumulated evidence and corroborating testimony that had emerged since World War II made it a "moral certainty" that the gas chambers were the main instruments of murder at Auschwitz between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1944.
"It will be clear that, by early 1947, there was a massive amount of evidence of the use of the camp as a site for mass extermination," said Van Pelt.
"This evidence had become slowly available during the war as the result of reports by escaped inmates," he said. "It had become more substantial through the eyewitness accounts by former Auschwitz inmates immediately after their liberation, and was confirmed in the Polish forensic investigations undertaken in 1945 and 1946.
"Finally," he said, "this evidence was corroborated by confessions of leading German personnel employed at Auschwitz during its years of operation."
Confessions given by leading German personnel at the camp included that of SS officer Pery Broad, who testified to gassings and burning of corpses, and former camp commandant Rudolf Hoess.
The court also learned that there was also evidence from the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, documentary evidence of the construction of the camp, including workers' time sheets, plans, photographs and scientific studies of cyanide compounds in the walls of the gas chambers.
"In short," Van Pelt said, "it has become possible to assert as moral certainty the statement that Auschwitz was an extermination camp where the Germans killed around 1 million people with the help of gas chambers."
Questioned by Irving, Van Pelt said he had been "more than deeply moved" by his experience of visiting Auschwitz.
"I was frightened," he said. "I don't believe in ghosts. I have never seen any at Auschwitz. But it is an awesome place and an awesome responsibility as an historian."
Asked by Irving about the dangers of conducting historical work at Auschwitz, Van Pelt responded, "One's duty is to be unemotional and objective but to remain human in the exercise.''*
In response to Gene Lichtenstein's editorial last week, the Journal has received about 100 letters addressed to Professor Deborah Lipstadt. We will print excerpts from them in next week's issue. For a report on the Los Angeles Times' retraction to its story on the trial, see Gene Lichtenstein's editorial.