The number of deaths at Auschwitz has changed drastically over the past 75 years. The Nazis were famous for keeping detailed records, so why are the number of deaths at Auschwitz an estimate that keeps changing?
At the Nuremberg IMT, the German war criminals were charged with killing 4 million prisoners at the three camps known as Auschwitz I (the main camp), Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). What was this figure based on?
The charge against the Germans at Nuremberg was based on a document written on May 6, 1945 by the Soviet Union that was accepted into evidence by the Nuremberg IMT although there was no proof whatsoever given in this document that 4 million people had been killed. The Soviet figure of 4 million was based on the estimated capacity of the ovens at Auschwitz and Birkenau. The ovens at Birkenau had been removed by the Germans two months before they abandoned the camp, but the Soviets were still able to somehow estimate their capacity.
The Soviets also charged the German war criminals with killing 1.5 million prisoners at Majdanek. That figure has now been reduced to 78,000 by the Majdanek Museum. Out of this number, 59,000 were Jews.
In 1990, the plaques with the figure of 4 million at the International Monument at Birkenau were removed. It was not until 1995 that new plaques were placed at the International Monument with 20 metal plates inscribed in Yiddish, English and all the major languages of Europe; the plaques were set on granite slabs on the steps of the International Monument. The number of deaths at Auschwitz, according to each of the 20 metal plates, is 1.5 million.
It is very hard to read the words on the plaque in my photo. Sorry about that.
The words on the English plaque are:
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945
But 1.5 million is not the official number of deaths at Auschwitz. The official estimate, currently given by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, is 1.1 million deaths.
In 1980, Franciszek Piper, the former director of the Auschwitz Museum, began a study of all the available documents at Auschwitz; he calculated that 1,077,180 prisoners, of which 90% were Jews, had died at Auschwitz, based on his ESTIMATE of the number of ARRIVALS minus the number of liberated prisoners and the number of transferred, escaped and released prisoners. This number includes the Jews, not registered in the camp, who are assumed to have been gassed immediately upon arrival.
Franciszek Piper wrote the following in an article on the official Auschwitz web site:
After an overall analysis of the original sources and findings on deportation to Auschwitz, I CONCLUDED that a total of at least 1,300,000 people were deported there, and that 1,100,000 of them perished. Approximately 200,000 people were deported from Auschwitz to other camps as part of the redistribution of labor resources and the final liquidation of the camp.
According to the Auschwitz Museum, no records of the number of prisoners who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau have ever been found. In an article on the official Auschwitz website, the former director, Franciszek Piper, wrote the following:
When the Soviet army entered the camp on January 27, 1945, they did not find any German documents there giving the number of victims, or any that could be used as a basis for calculating this number. Such documents (transport lists, notifications of the arrival of transports, reports about the outcome of selection) had been destroyed before liberation. For this reason, the Soviet commission investigating the crimes committed in Auschwitz Concentration Camp had to make estimates.
The absence of the most important of the statistical sources that the Germans kept in Auschwitz made it practically impossible for historians to research the issue of the number of victims. The reluctance to research this issue also resulted from a conviction of the impossibility of drawing up a full list of transports reflecting the total number of deportees, and above all of the people who were consumed by the gas chambers and crematoria with no registration or records.
Strangely, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians released some of the records, that had allegedly been destroyed, and turned them over to the Red Cross. The records were incomplete, but the numbers are embarrassingly low. I can’t even tell you the numbers for fear of being charged with being a criminal the next time I go to Germany, so you will just have to look it up yourself.
Rudolf Hoess, the former Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was put on trial in Poland in 1946. He was charged with the murder of “around 300,000 people held at the camp as prisoners and entered into the camp’s records and around 4,000,000 people, mainly Jews, who were brought to the camp in transports from other European countries for immediate extermination and thus not listed in the camp’s records.”
The caption underneath the photo that hangs in the USHMM reads:
On May 14, 1946, Rudolf Hoess, the former commandant of Auschwitz, signed a declaration stating that during his tenure in office, 2 million Jews had been gassed at Auschwitz and another 500,000 killed in other ways. Hoess overestimated the number of Jews gassed by about 1 million.
During his trial in Poland, Hoess changed the figure in his confession to a total of 1,130,000 Jews that were gassed but declared “During my tenure at Auschwitz, millions of people died, whose exact number I cannot determine.”
Hoess was the Commandant. Why couldn’t he determine the number of people that were gassed? When asked about this, Hoess claimed that, after each action (gassing), the records were destroyed. The only person who knew, according to Hoess, was Adolf Eichmann.
At the Nuremberg IMT, a quote, allegedly made by Eichmann in 1945, was introduced into evidence:
“I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”