Might the remarkably high burial densities claimed at the Reinhardt camps be possible because of some special circumstances in concentration camps? Looking at other evidence concerning mass graves in concentration camps shows that this is not so, and concentration camp mass graves had similar properties to mass graves elsewhere.
For a long time it was officially “known” that there had been 700,000 deaths at Jasenovac. Even sources not beholden to Yugoslav communism endorsed such figures. For example, the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust asserts a Jasenovac death toll of over 600,000.
Today such figures are not taken seriously. The Jasenovac memorial site estimates that a total of 80,000-100,000 prisoners died in the camps of the Jasenovac complex. The USHMM gives similar numbers, as do other sources. (On the other hand, the 2009 book Holocaust Denial as an International Movement claims that 800,000 were killed at Jasenovac, and labels former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman a Holocaust denier for not believing this.)
For the sake of concreteness, we will assume a death toll of 100,000 at Jasenovac. This is on the higher end of current estimates.
How does the mass grave data fit into this? First, the possibility that not all those who died at Jasenovac were buried should be pointed out. One site dedicated to supporting the higher death tolls at Jasenovac complains that other modes of body disposal have not been accounted for:
Croatia’s officials, researchers and curators of the Jasenovac Museum have made claims that the death toll is far lower than the above count, based on the fact they know the names and have information about fewer than 83,000 people. They remain silent on the fact people were burnt alive in caves, and fail to say how many corpses were boiled to make soap at a makeshift field soap factory, or how many victims were thrown into the Sava River.
If bodies were disposed of in such ways then they might never have been buried in mass graves. Nevertheless, we will assume that 100,000 bodies were buried in mass graves in the Jasenovac complex.
Another complication arises: Jasenovac consisted of several camps spread out over a huge area (more similar to Auschwitz than to the Reinhardt camps). The bodies could have been buried almost anywhere. This contrasts to the Reinhardt camps, which are very small and can easily be surveyed in their entirety. Nevertheless, we will assume that 100,000 bodies were buried in mass graves that have been identified.
How large were these mass graves? According to official sources, the largest complex of graves was at Donja Gradina:
From early 1942 onwards, up to the very last day of the existence of Camp III (Brickworks), mass liquidations of prisoners took place in Donja Gradina. Nine burial sites containing 105 mass graves, covering a total area of 10,130 m² have been found. A further 22 mass graves, the extent of which has not yet been confirmed, have also been found.
As there are no measurements available for the additional 22 graves we will simply ignore them.
Another Jasenovac burial site was Uštica:
Number of graves: 21
Surface area of graves 1218 m²
Cemetery surface area 4292 m²
We can also count the site at Limani, and its “seven mass graves, with a total surface area of 1,175 m².”
Another burial site was Krapje, but as there are no measurements, we will simply ignore these mass graves, along with those of the Bročice camp which are similarly lacking in precise description. The five mass graves of Mlaka must face the same fate, as must the four of Međustrugovi and Uskočke šume.
Using only graves which are given precise measurements, we have found Jasenovac graves with a surface area of [10,130 + 1,218 + 1,175 = ] 12,523 square meters. Dividing 100,000 bodies by this figure, we obtain a burial density of just under 8 bodies per square meter of grave surface area.
According to the New York Times,
Investigators digging at the site of a Soviet-run prison camp in the former East Germany have uncovered mass graves containing the bodies of 12,500 people, the Brandenburg state government said today. […] The excavation around Sachsenhausen revealed 50 graves, each about 25 feet long and 13 feet wide. Under the earth, bodies were stacked in heaps as high as 15 feet and higher.
On the other hand, Norman Naimark’s The Russians in Germany claims (p. 376) that these graves held “only a portion” of the 12,500 Germans who died in the Soviet special camp no. 7 at Sachsenhausen. For the sake of argument, as I am interested in upper bounds on burial capacity, I will accept the higher figure, although the lower one may well be correct.
The description of the graves from the New York Times piece gives a total grave surface area of 1,510 square meters, and therefore a burial density of 8.28 bodies per square meter.
Giving an estimate of the number of bodies per cubic meter would require data on the average depth of the graves. The NYT article says the bodies were stacked up to over 15 feet deep (4.57 meters); if the average depth was even 2 meters and the higher figure of 12,500 bodies is accepted, the density would be only 4.14 bodies per cubic meter.
Wilhelm Visintainer gave the following statement on mass graves in Dachau (from NO-1253):
During the last weeks in camp there was no fuel for the Crematorium. A large working party of about 450 prisoners was made to work in the cemetery where they had to dig pits approximately 15 metres long, 6 metres wide and 4 metres deep. When a pit was filled (400-600 dead) chloride of lime was spread over the top, which was then covered with half a metre of earth and pressed down
This is, of course, only a testimony, and not commensurate with the archaeological data from some other posts in this series. Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that these data give us a capacity of 400-600 bodies (of KZ prisoners in 1945, when starvation was at a maximum) in a grave of 90 square meters and volume 360 cubic meters. That’s 4.44 to 6.67 bodies per square meter of grave surface, and 1.11 to 1.67 bodies per cubic meter of simple volume.
Carlo Mattogno and Juergen Graf’s book Treblinka gives (p.77) some data from the Soviet investigation on mass graves in Treblinka 1. Three graves were found, with the following specifications:
10 m × 5 m × 2 m in dimension, 105 bodies
10 m × 5 m × 1.9 m in dimension, 97 bodies
10 m × 5 m × 2.5 m in dimension, 103 bodies
Each of these graves contained approximately 2 bodies per square meter of grave surface.
Mattogno and Graf also describe (p. 88) the Polish investigation which followed. It found 41 mass graves, but examined only 112 bodies. The others had presumably been removed from the graves, which had a total surface area of 1,607 square meters. The Poles believed that the graves had contained at least 6,500 bodies. That is, they were assuming that the bodies would have been buried with a density of at least 4 per square meter of grave.