Recent political developments in Eastern Europe have drawn back the iron curtain of secrecy that for 40 years concealed knowledge of Nazi concentration camps.
One result has been that newly available documents from the Soviet Union listing thousands of names of victims of the Holocaust has reignited the historical controversy over an accurate estimate of the total number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
In West Germany, the Red Cross last week completed a month long project of putting on microfilm 46 bound volumes from Auschwitz called “Sterbebuch,” or “death books,” which contain detailed data of about 70,000 prisoners who perished in the Polish death camp.
A full page in the death books was devoted to each victim listed, complete with an SS doctor’s certification of the cause of death and the exact hour and minute of expiration.
The volumes, acquired when the Soviet Union liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, had been kept in a central Soviet archive in Moscow for 40 years, out of the public eye.
Until recent months, the Soviets had refused to make available the Nazi books, which could have been helpful in determining the fates and identities of Auschwitz victims, in addition to determining a more accurate death-toll figure for the Nazi genocide.
Certain documents, however, were submitted as evidence during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, and a number of official government offices have had access to the Auschwitz books.
The Office of Special Investigations, for example, has had access to the Auschwitz records for 10 years. “We have used such materials in our prosecutions,” an OSI source said. “We’re thrilled that these records are available to scholars now.”
REOPENS LONGSTANDING CONTROVERSY
But the availability of the records for scholarly appraisal has reopened the longstanding controversy among Holocaust historians over the 6 million figure long accepted as the estimated number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
“I think the number (of Jews killed) must be higher than 6 million,” Dr. Shmuel Krakovski, Yad Vashem’s chief archivist, was quoted as saying Monday in the New York Post.
In light of the new information made available by the Auschwitz death books, he estimated that the number of Holocaust victims could rise by 500,000.
But according to Raoul Hilberg, John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont and an eminent historian of the Holocaust, such estimates are “ludicrous. Krakovski doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“We know that Jews were not registered if they went to the gas chamber, so these books document only a small minority of those killed.”
Hilberg estimates that the number of Jews killed at Auschwitz is probably closer to 1 million, rather than the 4 million commonly cited 2.5 million Jewish victims and 1.5 million others.
This estimate is in concurrence with that of Yehuda Bauer, the director of the division of Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem. In a Sept. 27 article in the Jerusalem Post, Bauer estimated the Jewish death toll at Auschwitz to be 1.35 million.
“There is a proclivity to insist that there were 6 million killed” in the Holocaust “because that’s what was said in 1945,” says Hilberg. “People don’t want to let go. But these numbers were calculated quickly and inaccurately at the time.” He estimates the total number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust to be around 5.1 million.
Hilberg said the Nazis “shoved people into the gas chambers without even counting. The only count they had was of people not gassed. They were kept inside the camp as slave labor and they were counted and counted and counted. And if they died, a record was kept.”
EX-INMATE ESTIMATES 7.5 MILLION
But there was one inmate at Auschwitz who claims to have kept an accurate count. Rudolf Vrba, a professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz whose job was to count the number of people arriving each day by transport.
Vrba managed to escape from the death camp in April 1944. His estimates of the number of Jews killed at Auschwitz were used as key testimony during the Eichmann trials.
“Hilberg’s estimate of 1 million killed is a gross error bordering on ignorance,” says Vrba. “According to my observations, there were 1,765,000 victims which I counted.”
Vrba estimates the total number killed in Auschwitz at roughly 2.5 million, bringing the total Holocaust death toll closer to 7.5 million.
“Yehuda Bauer simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but with his impressive title, he thinks he can throw around the figures without doing any research. Hilberg and Bauer just don’t know enough about the history of Auschwitz or the Einsatzgruppen,” Vrba says.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wies-enthal Center in Los Angeles, sounded a word of caution. “We have to be very careful that statistics added on account of the death books are not counted twice. We have to carefully analyze how the 6 million figure came up. In a time when revisionism is prevalent, we have to be very careful about reassessing the question (of how many Jews died).”
(JTA correspondent David Kantor in Bonn contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.