Auschwitz documents touted as a sensational find by a German newspaper have been known to historians for years, an expert told JTA.
Historian Robert Jan van Pelt, an expert on Auschwitz, said he had checked the "so-called ‘new’ material" on the Web site of Bild, a high-circulation daily, and found that "the drawings that are on their site are all old material, perfectly known" and published by himself and others in the 1990s.
"If they are original drawings from which blueprints were made, this would be an interesting story," van Pelt, a professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, told JTA in a telephone interview. But, he said, there were "tons of such drawings in 300 boxes at Auschwitz … copies of the originals." Some were found in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and published by van Pelt and others.
The Bild obtained the drawings of the Auschwitz layout, including gas chambers, and published several images in its Nov. 8 edition marking the 70th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom. The newspaper said the 28 yellowing documents, drawn by a concentration camp prisoner and dated 1941-43, were discovered in a Berlin apartment that was being cleared out.
Hans-Dieter Kreilkam, the director of the German Federal Archive, told reporters he thought the material was new and that it provided additional proof of the chronology of the so-called "Final Solution." Kreilkam did not rule out the possibility that the person who found the documents sold them to the newspaper.
Van Pelt expressed dismay that the Bild’s claim of a new discovery had been picked up by newspapers around the world.
"Everyone is repeating the same nonsense, and the deniers are having great fun because it shows how people are gullible," he told JTA.
Sven Felix Kellerhoff of Bild’s sister paper Die Welt told JTA that he knows experts were aware of the plans.
“But for the people, especially for the readers of Bild, these plans are absolutely new,” he said, adding that it is also newsworthy that the original plans are now in Germany.
One possibly unique aspect of the documents is that SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who oversaw the Nazi extermination program, appears to have marked his initials on one of the pages, in green ink.
"If these were the initials of Himmler, that would be very interesting," van Pelt agreed. But "it is completely and utterly incomprehensible" that the director of the national archive would "open his mouth on something so sensitive without having consulted the literature." And when the Bild publishes this "without doing any homework, it puts us back 20 years. It’s as if we didn’t publish these documents already."
Historian Andreas Nachama, the director of the Topography of Terror memorial in Berlin, told JTA it is well known that prisoners were forced to create architectural drawings and also to construct concentration camp buildings themselves under SS guard.