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Unearthed Nazi Documents Shed Light on Holocaust Deaths

January 16, 2002
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Documents that have gathered dust in British archives for more than half a century reveal long-hidden information about the Holocaust, two researchers say.

The two published their findings in the latest edition of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which is co-published by the Oxford University Press and the Washington-based U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

According to authors Stephen Tyas of England and Peter Witte of Germany, the recently declassified and decoded Nazi radio dispatches “for the first time” show the Nazis’ own accounting of the numbers of Jews killed in 1942 in four Nazi camps.

In that year, a total of 1,274,166 Jews were killed in the extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, as well as in the Majdanek concentration camp.

The decoded document indicates that 24,733 were killed in Majdanek, 434,508 in Belzec, 101,370 in Sobibor and 713,555 in Treblinka in 1942.

The information was broadcast in coded messages from occupied Lublin, Poland, on Jan. 11, 1943.

Tyas and Witte studied two messages.

One, which was not completely recorded by British intelligence agents, was addressed to a SS Lt. Col. Eichmann in Berlin.

The second message, sent five minutes later by SS Maj. Hermann Hoefle, a staff member of the SS and police leader in Lublin, to SS Lt. Col. Heim, deputy commander of the SS and the SD in Krakow, Poland, is “much more complete,” the authors said.

The documents indicate a lower number of deaths in Belzec for 1942 than previous estimates.

Asked if he thought the revised accounting for murders in Belzec would fuel Holocaust denial, Witte said, “Holocaust deniers have always concentrated on Auschwitz. They never dealt with the Reinhardt camps. They do not exist for them. And there is no doubt that in those camps more were killed all together than in Auschwitz.”

Historians generally agree that about 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed in Auschwitz.

Adding the new Belzec figure to totals for the other camps published in the latest edition of “The Holocaust: A Short History” by German historian Wolfgang Benz, the result is a total of 1,644,508 Jews killed in the Reinhardt camps and in Majdanek during their years of operation.

One German historian, Wolfgang Scheffler, appears to have come remarkably close to the revised Belzec figure back in 1973, when he gave an estimate of 441,442.

In any case, the total for the four camps matches a known number from a 1943 report by Richard Korherr, statistician to SS head Heinrich Himmler, Tyas said.

“The radio telegram should be seen as an extremely condensed balance sheet of Einzatz Reinhardt,” the Nazi code name for this complex of camps, which “was subsequently incorporated into the Korherr Report,” the authors wrote, “though the Korherr Report left out the numbers for each camp.”

Since Korherr’s report “was typed up on ‘the Fuhrer’s’ typewriter, with big print because Hitler was short-sighted, this document adds to our understanding” of the “channels of communication about the ‘Final Solution,’ leading to ‘the Fuhrer’ himself,” Tyas said.

The documents, held at the Public Record Office in Kew, England, provide both a closer look at the Nazi chain of information and at their original accounting of mass murders.

Looking at the numbers is “horrible, and yet it’s necessary for the historical record,” said Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and a member of the journal’s editorial advisory board.

Lipstadt noted that historians have corrected the record over the years and will likely continue to do so, “in the spirit of good historical research and not in the spirit of denial.”

Holocaust historian Christopher Browning of the University of North Carolina, who sits on the journal’s editorial board, said the numbers are “important in confirming the accuracy of Scheffler’s earlier estimates made for court proceedings in Germany.”

Tyas and Witte are recognized experts in Holocaust history, though neither has a doctoral degree in history.

Tyas, born in 1947, is a businessman who lives outside of London.

Witte, 56, is a former teacher who has seriously pursued his interest in World War II history since illness forced him to stop teaching.

After England declassified the decoded radio messages in 2000, Tyas pored over 700 pages of thin rice paper “looking for key words. You can’t take in all the messages, so you look for key words or numbers.”

When he saw the number 1,274,166, he “recognized that the final total was the same as in the Korherr Report.” But he had never seen the breakdown before.

“Stephen found the document and contacted me,” said Witte, 56, who lives in Germany. “I said, ‘This is astounding. It may be a crucial document.’ “

Witte has worked behind the scenes on Holocaust-related books and documentary films, including a recent, six-part BBC program on the Nazis. He was a consultant to the team defending Lipstadt against David Irving, the British Holocaust denier who sued Lipstadt for libel and lost in 2000.

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