‘Hans’ attempts to evade the facts on Bendel: a reply to a controversial blogger

‘Hans’ has responded to my post regarding his claims about C.S. Bendel and the ceiling height of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Hans calls my arguments “either of minor significance for my argument, irrelevant or utterly unfounded” and complains that “Jansson has ignored the essence of my analysis of the testimony of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando doctor Charles Sigismund Bendel.” Yet, when one examines the substance of his post, one sees that Hans is forced to concede that I was right and he was wrong. Hans, in effect, argues as follows: “I surrender – you lose.” Before getting distracted by other details, let’s address the central point of Bendel’s absurd statements concerning the ceiling height. Hans fails to produce a reasonable response the central point that Bendel’s qualitative descriptions of how it felt inside the gas chamber. As I wrote:

This problem with Bendel’s testimony is not merely numerical. Even if one assumes that Bendel simply had no head for figures and therefore disregards all numbers that he gives, his qualitative description of the ceiling height remains. At both the Belsen and Tesch trials, as well as in his testimony in the book Témoignages sur Auschwitz , Bendel described the gas chamber ceiling as being (subjectively) extremely low, so low as to cause a sort of claustrophobia. This was not the case with the structures alleged to have been gas chambers. Therefore Bendel never saw the inside of these structures, and is a fraudulent witness.

Hans had claimed that Bendel’s characterization of the ceiling height “could be the result of a small observer (Bendel doesn’t look too big) + a filled gas chamber + taking the 1.9 m height door as reference + subjective estimation.” This argument makes no sense whatsoever. First, a small observer is likely to think things are bigger, not smaller. In one’s childhood memories, everything seems to have been larger, and not, as Hans would have it, smaller. Second, it is inexplicable how looking at a door could lead an observer to believe that the ceiling inside was considerably lower than the height of the door. Third, while Hans may be able to claim that Bendel’s Belsen trial testimony regarding the low ceiling (“These chambers gave the impression that the roof was falling upon the heads of the people. It was so low.”) was made from the reference point of an observer outside the gas chamber (it came in the context of Bendel’s first day in the crematoria), he cannot make the same claim for Bendel’s other testimonies. In his Tesch trial testimony, Bendel claimed that “you had the impression that the roof is falling on your head”. Likewise, in his account in Témoignages sur Auschwitz, Bendel wrote that “on avait l’impression, en y entrant que le plafond vous tombait sur la tête tellement il était bas” (p. 161). In both of these accounts, Bendel describes the impression from the perspective of a witness inside the gas chamber. How, then, could Bendel have been confused about the ceiling height, given that he described how it felt inside the gas chamber?

In his latest attempt at an explanation, Hans writes that “[t]he best explanation I can think of is that [Bendel’s] memory was selectively distorted on the gas chamber ceiling”. This is no more an explanation than a “get out of jail free” card is an exoneration.

Before moving on to other considerations, I should clarify the nature of the debate. Hans is not being particularly honest when he faults me for not responding to every single one of his arguments. The title of the post to which Hans responded was “C.S. Bendel and ceiling height (reply to an argument advanced by ‘Hans’)”. As the title should make clear, the post was concerned with the issue of Bendel’s characterization of the ceiling height of the Auschwitz gas chambers, and with Hans’ arguments concerning this specific point, engaging with Hans’ broader arguments only as an afterthought. The reason for the focus on the ceiling height issue should be obvious, namely that it was a point of contention related to the Tesch trial, on which I had recently written a paper. The post did not pretend to be a direct response to Hans’ treatment of Bendel in general. Rather, it was a post on one specific issue, which was supplemented by some general observations and an important correction. Nevertheless, I am willing to extend the argument, but I have no intention of engaging in endless quibbling concerning trivialities.

Now, Hans complains that I ignore “the essence” of his analysis of Bendel. Alas, this “essence” is rather elusive. Hans made two arguments concerning Bendel’s testimony, first, that it contains many details which are corroborated by other accounts; second, that Bendel was resistant to prosecutors’ wishes. We’ll take on the second argument first. Here I have already annihilated Hans’ main point, and Hans has conceded that he was wrong.

Hans tries to salvage his argument by claiming that Bendel could have made more incriminating statements than he did concerning the key Belsen trial accused, and then offers some unsupported speculation:

Bendel was working at the extermination sites and accordingly, he was in the best position to directly incriminate the high ranking defendants from Auschwitz (Klein, Hössler and Kramer) on mass extermination of innocent people (mostly women, children and elderly). Yet, he only testified that Klein was sitting in the car transporting the gas, that Kramer was present when escaped or revolting Sonderkommando prisoners (i.e. somewhat less innocent people) were executed and that Hössler ordered the hanging of women who supplied explosives to the Sonderkommando (i.e. somewhat less innocent people). It was likely already borne out during his pre-trial examination(s) that [Bendel] was not willing to testify beyond that, so the prosecutors limited themselves to question him only on these somewhat less incriminating atrocities. Therefore, my conclusion that Bendel was “resistent towards manipulation and suggestive questions from the prosecution” is still indirectly (instead of directly as I argued before) supported to some extent by the trial records available online.

Hans supposes that what the prosecution most wanted was a few atrocity stories involving the key defendants. In reality, there was never any doubt that the “main” defendants, Kramer above all, would be killed. Nor is there any reason to believe that the prosecution was particularly eager for accusations against Kramer, Klein, and Hössler. Already on June 1st, 1945, the investigative team believed that the evidence for murder against Klein and Hössler was complete, and the evidence against Kramer was “more than complete”. Why, then, would they pressure Bendel to offer evidence of this nature? The fact is that the prosecution was more troubled than helped by eager claims of atrocities, as all too often the witness would manage to accuse some SS man of killing someone at a date prior to his arrival at Auschwitz, or something similarly absurd, thereby embarrassing the prosecution. One can consider as an example the Sonderkommando witness Roman Sompolinsky, who followed Bendel on the stand. Given their troubles with such witnesses, the prosecution probably welcomed and encouraged Bendel’s relative sobriety. As for Bendel’s pretrial statements, it’s important to note that Bendel was a last-minute witness, something which can be seen both by how Backhouse introduced him (“This witness does not appear in the summary but I have passed up copies of his statement”) and in the contemporary news coverage of his testimony. Bendel’s statement is not to be found among the 152 Belsen trial exhibits, unlike the affidavits of many other witnesses who testified at the trial. It would be interesting to have the statement, but given that it seems to have been taken at the last minute it is unlikely to differ too greatly from his trial testimony. It would be still more interesting to know precisely when and how Bendel came into contact with the Belsen trial authorities, exactly what other contacts he had, and why he was presented as a last-minute surprise witness. What is clear, however, is that Bendel came into the picture of the Belsen trial after the investigators had come to the conclusion that the evidence against Klein, Kramer, and Hössler was complete. Given this, what is Hans’ foundation for his assumption that prior to the trial the prosecutors “likely” tried to get Bendel to testify against these three defendants but were rebuffed?

My above interpretation, suggesting that contrary to Hans’ suppositions the prosecution did not want Bendel to pepper his testimony with atrocity stories evidently devised in order to incriminate a defendant but rather to maintain a more sober and dignified note in order to give a little respectability to the prosecution’s case, is also supported by an argument made in Hans’ initial post, which I didn’t bother responding to before. In support of his belief that Bendel resisted the prosecution, Hans pointed out that Bendel denied that anyone had been let out of the gas chamber during his tenure, which might call into doubt the testimonies of the witnesses Regina Bialek and Sophia Litwinska, who claimed to have been saved from the gas chamber mid-gassing. As Hans notes, Backhouse had mentioned these witnesses in his opening address, and promised that they would appear in court (“You will hear an actual account of what the gassing was like from two people who were sent into the gas chamber and rescued at the last moment, and you will hear that the victims foamed at the mouth, turned blue and finally died.”). However, the gas chamber escapes of both Bialek and Litwinska are supposed to have occurred before Bendel arrived in Birkenau, so his testimony on this point does not even raise much doubt about their testimonies. Moreover, the testimony of Litwinska seems to have raised some questions with the court, and Judge Advocate Stirling made a note of her tendency to exaggeration. The court’s attitude was likely transmitted to the prosecution, because contrary to the promise in Backhouse’s opening address, Bialek did not appear, and her evidence was given only in deposition form. Thus, it would seem that the prosecution had some reservations concerning the impression that its witnesses were making, and wanted to shift towards a more respectable class of witness. One might even suppose that this shift on the prosecution’s part was related to the last-minute addition of Bendel to the witness list. This is only speculation, of course, but unlike Hans’ speculation it takes proper account of the historical context.

We have seen that the second half of Hans’ argument was destroyed already in my previous post, and that his attempt to salvage it does not bear scrutiny. What of the first half of Hans’ case? Here, Hans simply enumerates a number of elements of Bendel’s testimony which he believes are accurate, or which agree with some other testimony. What is characteristic of the (allegedly corroborated and accurate) details Hans mentions is that they do not in any way imply experience inside the crematoria. The use of the term “Sonderkommando” to describe the crematoria personnel? Quite common among individuals who were never inside the crematoria. The description of the Sonderkommando revolt? Contains nothing beyond the generalities that can be found in many accounts from Birkenau prisoners who were never inside the crematoria. The story of the liquidation of the gypsy camp and the alleged gassing of its inmates? Again, a commonplace of Birkenau testimonies from witnesses who were never inside the crematoria. Open-air cremations during 1944 (which actually happened, though their extent and cremation capacity has been wildly exaggerated)? Yet again, such descriptions are quite common among witnesses who were located far from the crematoria. Bendel is slightly unusual only in that he gives some details concerning the pits, but here even Hans is forced to admit that Bendel’s claim that a single 12*6 meter pit could consume 1000 bodies in an hour is absurd. Hans tries to defend Bendel by arguing that 1000 may be the total number of bodies put into the pit, with the cremation taking much longer than an hour. This piece of apologetics also fails on the basis of real-life experience with mass cremation, for instance during the 2001 UK FMD epidemic, which suggests that a pyre of the dimensions Bendel mentions could be doing quite well to incinerate 150 corpses, and that it would take a couple of days to do so. Similarly, Hans’ citation of Bendel’s technically absurd claim that Krema V had a cremation capacity of 1000 corpses per day as an example of the latter’s reliability is too feeble to deserve a reply, unless of course Hans can offer a defence of his claimed cremation capacities on a technical basis. As for Bendel’s account of the cutting of the hair and removal of gold teeth of gassed corpses, this belongs to a broad set of very common rumors extending far beyond Auschwitz, which was based partially in fact but was heavily adorned by fantasy, as many storytellers incorporated these narrative elements into their tales. Consequently, such a story does nothing to corroborate Bendel’s presence in the crematoria. How about Bendel’s mention of Moll? He’s equally mentioned by that splendid witness Roman Sompolinsky. Does Hans think this supports Sompolinsky’s credibility? Moll is also identified by Regina Plucer, who offers a fine example to illustrate what is wrong with Hans’ style of argument. Plucer not only identifies Moll, but also gets the number of muffles in Kremas II/III correct. This is more than you can say for Bendel, who in his account in Témoignages sur Auschwitz claims that there were 16 ovens in Kremas II and III. This error on his part cannot be explained as a simple counting mistake, as there were in fact five ovens each with three muffles, meaning that any genuine witness would have seen at the absolute minimum that the number of muffles was a multiple of three, and thus was not equal to 16.

Unfortunately for the holocaust industry, Plucer went a bridge too far by trying to draw a map:

2

1

I assume that the reader knows enough to see that her plan is nonsense, although she did amass enough knowledge to include some details which are accurate or which cohere with the standard story. (The prosecution seems to have realized the problems raised by witnesses who gave specific descriptions of the gas chamber, for when it came time to read Plucer’s affidavit they omitted the gas chamber description because “we have had enough description of the gas chamber.”)

It’s striking that none of the early Auschwitz witnesses who drew diagrams of the crematoria have remained prominent. Not Plucer, not Franz Putzker (who also identified Moll), not Albert Menasche. There was always enough wrong with the map to prove that its author did not possess knowledge of the building’s interior layout. (One might cite the Vrba-Wetzler report as an counterexample, but in that case the account was so famous that it could not be shoved down the memory hole. Consequently, the fact that the diagram of the crematoria in that report is comically erroneous has simply been ignored, even though a sonderkommando witness was supposedly the source for the information concerning the crematoria.) Humans are quite good at remembering stories. Given a narrative that is spread by rumor and propaganda, there will be many people who hear the story and are capable of repeating it. In this case, that means that they could repeat the gassing narrative, including the details that Hans finds so thrilling in Bendel’s account, such as the removal of gold teeth or the cutting of the hair. What is comparatively difficult, although certainly not impossible, is to give an accurate account of the layout of a building which you have not seen from inside. This would suggest that if Hans wants to test the reliability of a witness, he would do better to ask whether the witness is capable of drawing an accurate map of the inside of the crematoria, rather than ask whether the witness can recite narrative details or mention names.

In short, Hans has not offered any kind of case for why the details he cites from Bendel’s account demonstrate even that Bendel was present inside the crematoria, much less that his account of what took place there is accurate. Hans has failed to take into account how numerous the sources of information, rumor, and propaganda at Auschwitz were, and thereby failed to show that Bendel could not have learned the details in his account without ever entering the Birkenau crematoria. and a fortiori has failed to show that Bendel is a reliable witness to gassings.

——

Six quick points before moving on to the really petty stuff:

  • Hans complains that I offer no source for Bendel’s mention of Dr. Peter Mengele. It’s in the statement of October 21.
  • Hans claims that Bendel’s absurd claim concerning the recovery of fat from cremation pyres is “either perfectly correct, largely correct or may be very well correct.” Perhaps he could specify precisely which of these he believes to be the case. The tale of fat recovery during cremations has been defended mainly by Hans’ colleague Sergey Romanov, who wrote a foolish treatment of the topic in which he completely failed to grasp the relevant technical issues.
  • How does Hans defend Bendel’s claims concerning the duration of the gassing? Bendel claimed that it took two minutes after the introduction of the Zyklon until silence fell, then the gas chamber was opened after five minutes. This would mean that the German gassing procedure caused the entire building to be contaminated with Hydrogen Cyanide. Does Hans accept this preposterous story?
  • Does Hans accept Bendel’s claim that the SS threw babies on the heads of the people in the gas chambers? How does he imagine this process worked?
  • What does Hans make of Bendel’s claim that “at Auschwitz [Stammlager] there was an underground gas chamber which was used principally for disinfestation purposes. It was about 12 metres long, 10 wide and about 1.5 meters high”?
  • Bendel claimed that on September 27, 1944, 200 sonderkommando members were taken to the Auschwitz Stammlager and gassed there. Where does Hans believe this gassing took place?

——

Hans’ complaint about a “double standard” in my arguments concerning Draper and Zippel appears to be nothing more than an attempt to find some distraction to cover the humiliating concessions into which he’s been forced. I do not think that any good-faith reader would struggle to understand the argument being made, or the degree of certainty which can be associated with arguments of this sort. Of course, Hans is wrong in his claim that I used the word “certain” is connection with anyone’s behavior in the courtroom; as any reader of the post may readily verify, I said that if Zippel had made an elementary mistake in conversion in the courtroom, he certainly would have fixed it when writing his appeal. I based this judgement on the great care with which Zippel wrote his appeal, which is evident to anyone who reads it. As for the argument concerning Draper, which Hans labels “not exactly a convincing argument for any critically minded reader”, it is based on two facts, first, that he quibbled aggressively with the defence’s criticisms of his witnesses; second, that his presentation was quite heavily based on labelling his opponents as liars, suggesting that he would not likely miss an opportunity to do exactly that if offered such an excellent opportunity. The former of these two facts was explained in some detail in the original post, but Hans chose to ignore this when selecting a passage to quote and make the target for his petty sniping.

If Hans wants to contest these facts, let him read the trial transcript. However, it’s clear that he does not seriously wish to contest this – after all, he has conceded the ceiling height issue – but rather that he was simply looking for mud to sling in order to distract his readers from the fact that he was wrong. Naturally, these psychological judgements are not certain in the sense of physical laws, a point I made myself in my paper concerning Jan Karski’s account of the Belzec transit camp, but they are quite normal use of language and their interpretation would not cause the good-faith reader any trouble.

Finally, we come to the analogy between Hans’ work and Christian apologetics which I made in my previous post. In responding to this point, Hans is reduced to arguing against a strawman. My actual argument, as should be clear to any sincere reader, was that Hans’ methodology, consisting in enumerating points of agreement or accuracy in the testimonies, while exercising his ingenuity in order to think of explanations for why falsehoods and contradictions are either irrelevant or merely “apparent”, is identical to the methodology with which some Christian apologists bolster biblical accounts as historical sources. Furthermore (though this point does not rest on a priori grounds but requires an actual familiarity with the relevant apologetic literature), by application of these techniques, apologists are able to produce a rather impressive effect, and can produce what at first encounter appear to be rather strong arguments in favor of their desired conclusions. My argument also implicitly assumed that this appearance does not stand up to more extended critical scrutiny. By analogy, one is inspired to treat the results of Hans’ apologetics with great caution, understanding that by its nature his argument is directed toward creating a presentable and persuasive facade rather than toward revealing the inner truth of the matter.

As Hans attacks a strawman and ignores my actual argument, I do not see any point in quibbling over all of his statements, but will rather confine my remarks below to a couple of aspects. Hans begins his treatment of the issue with a reading error, stating that “Jansson provides ‘some general remarks concerning methodology’ and points out what he think is one of my ‘most egregious errors'”. If Hans read a little more attentively, he would know that the reference to one of his most egregious errors was made with reference to his erroneous claim that a key exchange in Bendel’s testimony took place with the prosecution rather than the defence, and had nothing to do with the apologetics analogy.

Later, Hans writes: “The anonymous author of the Acts was a hearsay or double hearsay witness or no witness at all (=> incompetent observer) vs. Bendel was an eyewitness (=> competent observer)”. Here Hans begs the question. That Bendel was an eyewitnesses to the internals of the crematoria, and a competent observer at that, is precisely what Hans needs to prove, not something which he can assume in support of his other arguments. Nor is his characterization of Acts very satisfactory, given the famous “we passages” in Acts. Consider the “we passage” of Acts 16:11-17, which leads directly into an account of a supernatural exorcism (Acts 16:16-18). On a “straight” reading of the text, this is certainly a witness statement. However, here we are getting rather far afield; quibbling over biblical texts with Hans (who clearly knows next to nothing about the subject) is not worth my time.

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