On fat collection from burning cremation pyres at Auschwitz

There’s a popular tall tale that in the Auschwitz cremation pyres, fat ran down through the fire and into a storage pit, where it was collected and dumped back on the fire to help the combustion. It is rather obvious to anyone familiar with fire and with cremation pyres that this tale is a silly myth without any basis in fact. Consequently, the testimony of witnesses who repeat this tale is manifestly contaminated by sheer invention, suggesting that the same is the case with much of the rest of these witnesses’ testimony. As the witnesses who repeat this tale include some of the star Auschwitz witnesses, including Heinrich Tauber, Szlama Dragon, Rudolf Höss, C.S. Bendel, and Filip Müller, anti-revisionists are naturally reluctant to admit that the fat-collection fable is indeed false, for doing so would mean the loss of the crown jewels of their witness repertoire.

The most serious, and perhaps the only, defense of the fat collection story is that of Sergey Romanov. Carlo Mattogno has written a response which focuses on the details of the setup. Here, I want to emphasize some simpler and more general considerations, and to highlight Romanov’s incomprehension of the underlying science. I will also suggest an explanation for the origin of this particular Auschwitz rumor.

New, some necessary preliminary remarks. It is possible to collect fat from open air cremations. It just isn’t possible to do so in the way claimed by the Auschwitz witnesses. There are many ways in which fat from a cremation can avoid being burned. One of the simplest is to spatter out of the fire, just as oil can spatter out of a pan. In a pyre cremation (of a single body), it sometimes happens that there’s a ring of oily ground left after the cremation has finished. This occurs because when water that’s mixed in with fat vaporizes, it “pops” and can cause a bit of fat to fly out of the fire and land on the ground, where it is absorbed. While in theory such fat could be collected, the amount would be much too small to make this worthwhile, and in any event this phenomenon bears no resemblance to that testified to by Auschwitz witnesses. Also, in a larger cremation, this phenomenon will be possible only in the regions quite near the edge of the pyre, which become a smaller and smaller percentage of the area as the pyre gets larger.

It would be possible to collect fat in a more systematic fashion: one could insert a tube into a fatty region of the corpse, and allow the fat to run down this tube into a collection region outside the fire. Inside the tube there would be limited available oxygen, so combustion could be kept to a minimum; if this were a concern, one could even fill the tube with an oxygen-free atmosphere. Using a pump to create a pressure differential would also encourage fat to flow down the tube. Such a hypothetical setup, however, has nothing in common with the phenomenon claimed by the Auschwitz witnesses, namely that the fat flowed directly through the fire and on into a collection pit. It is this phenomenon specifically that is not possible in the context of a cremation pyre.

Some revisionists have objected to descriptions of the “boiling” fat in the collection pit, pointing out that fat does not boil, and Romanov does make one accurate point, namely that while pure fat does not boil, fat/water mixtures can have the appearance of boiling. As there is some water mixed into fatty tissue, which might well flow out of the corpse together with the fat, the description of `boiling’ is not objectionable in itself.

Romanov also cites two real world cases, which can be shortly disposed of. The first is a reference to a case of food supplies being destroyed by fire. What was observed is just that the fat ran off the meat “in streams”. There is nothing strange about this. In cooking, fat routinely runs out of meat being roasted and is collected in a pan. Destroying food supplies, while not the same as cooking, is also not at all the same as cremation, as the goal is simply to render the stock of meat inedible. As we have no diagram to indicate exactly how this act of sabotage functioned, we cannot say exactly what the description refers to, but it is certain that it is not specified that the fat ran through the fire and on into a collection pit. In short, the phenomenon is completely different. Romanov’s second example concerns the cremation of obese individuals, where the fat can run out of the corpse and collect in the collection pan at the bottom of the muffle. This is also nothing strange, and does not in any way contradict the impossibility of the alleged fat collection at Auschwitz.

Now, we move on to Romanov’s analysis of what would happen to the fat during a pyre cremation. He suggests that early in the cremation, when there would not be a bed of embers, the fat would not be ignited at all. In imagining that during the early phase of the cremation the fat from a body on a pyre can flow down without meeting any kind of fire, Romanov shows that he lacks all sense of what mass cremation looks like shortly after ignition:

6

Romanov believes that later in the process of cremation the fat “would flow between the embers” without being consumed. From that point on, the key to Romanov’s argument is the claim that human fat cannot sustain its own combustion. He cites the work of John DeHaan, and quotes an email which he received from that scientist:

Yes, unless there is a great deal of external radiant heat flux to keep the pool of fat at a very high temperature, it will not sustain combustion on a flat, non-porous surface. Just like candle wax will only burn on a smooth table top if you continually play a blow torch across it. We have had instances where a very corpulent body has released so much rendered fat that it forms a pool or stream that supports flame in the fire environment that a pool fire existed it is because the external fire was able to heat the liquified fat well past its flash point. (One commercial crematorium was burned down as a result, and others have been damaged!) Charred wood flooring or very porous concrete or lava-stone have been seen to act as a wick, so the nature of the floor is important.

Romanov concludes:

Thus, animal fat, although a good fuel, is unable to sustain its own combustion unless there is a sufficent external source of heat or a suitable porous wick is present.

In other words, Romanov believes that fat would flow through the fire and then simply stop burning, as fat cannot sustain its own combustion. Here he is completely wrong. DeHahn spelled it out for him, but in his eagerness to jump to his favored conclusion, he missed the point. Let’s bold the key passage:

Yes, unless there is a great deal of external radiant heat flux to keep the pool of fat at a very high temperature, it will not sustain combustion on a flat, non-porous surface. Just like candle wax will only burn on a smooth table top if you continually play a blow torch across it. We have had instances where a very corpulent body has released so much rendered fat that it forms a pool or stream that supports flame in the fire environment that a pool fire existed it is because the external fire was able to heat the liquified fat well past its flash point. (One commercial crematorium was burned down as a result, and others have been damaged!) Charred wood flooring or very porous concrete or lava-stone have been seen to act as a wick, so the nature of the floor is important.

To illustrate how Romanov is wrong, let’s consider his statement with animal fat replaced by a different fuel (and a spelling error fixed):

Thus, diesel fuel, although a good fuel, is unable to sustain its own combustion unless there is a sufficient external source of heat or a suitable porous wick is present.

It’s well known that diesel fuel, though it has flash and autoignition points considerably lower than that of human fat, won’t readily burn on a smooth table top – see here and here.
The former of these links even makes the same point as Sergey, namely that the fuel has to be absorbed into something, in this case wood, in order to burn. You can pour some diesel fuel on the floor of your garage and run a blowtorch over it without it catching fire, unless you leave the torch in one place for long enough to exceed the flash point. Does this mean that diesel is unable to sustain its own combustion without a sufficient external source of heat or a suitable porous wick? When you pour diesel on a fire, it should just drip down through without burning up, right? Well… not really. Diesel just takes some heating before it gets to the point where it can sustain combustion – see a small scale example in this video, and a larger example here.

Another example to consider: cooking fires. If you heat up oil in a pan until it ignites and then turn off the heat, it will continue to burn until the fuel is exhausted or it is put out in some other way. Yet the animal fats used in cooking are similar to human fat, and vegetable oils can have even higher ignition points. This reality contradicts Romanov’s reasoning, which would imply that once burning cooking fat is removed from an external heat supply, it will simply extinguish itself. If Romanov – or any one of the other controversial bloggers – doubts my claims, he can very easily test them by pouring some oil in a pan and setting it on high heat until it catches fire; I’ll be fascinated to hear his report on how it just went out once he removed it from the burner. (Naturally, I don’t really expect that any of the notoriously experiment-shy bloggers will dare to try this.)

Now, would human fat dripping down from a corpse on a pyre be completely consumed before making it into any trench below the fire? Well, from an empirical standpoint, the answer is clearly yes. Keep in mind also that the Jews being cremated at Auschwitz should have been fairly lean, in comparison with the farm animals being cremated after natural disasters or during epidemics. For instance, consider the body fat levels for sheep:

5

During the 2001 UK FMD epidemic, sheep were assessed to be an average of 50 kg. According to the above data, that would mean that the typical sheep cremated in that epidemic had a body fat percentage, depending on breed, between 26.4 and 36.8; five out of six breeds would have over 30% body fat, which is certainly much higher than the Auschwitz Jews’ levels of body fat. Pigs tend to be even fatter, as I have already pointed out. Nevertheless, not once during this epidemic was it observed that fat ran through the fire and collected in a trench beneath it, nor for that matter has such a phenomenon been observed in any mass cremation on which there exist high-quality sources.

Setting these direct empirical results aside, we should analyse what happens when fat drips from a corpse into the fire of a cremation pyre. We have to take into consideration the vital fact that we are not dealing with pure fat. As Romanov pointed out, there is water contained in animal fats, which can produce the appearance of boiling. But put this in perspective: this means that Romanov supposes not only that human fat could run through a fire without being consumed, but that water could do the same thing! (It is actually quite natural that if fat could make it through the flames water could as well, as it takes much less energy to heat fat well past its flash point than it does to boil off water.) However, a fire that has water running down through it without being evaporated is not long for this world. More to the point, when water hits a fire vigorous enough to cremate a large number of bodies, it will certainly vaporize. What happens then? Something very important. The vaporization of the water causes the fat to vaporize as well, so that the fat is now in the form of small particles in the air. Because of the very high amount of exposed surface area, this vapor then burns extremely rapidly. This phenomenon is why you don’t pour water on a grease fire, and if you do it burns like crazy. Thus the water, which Romanov correctly used to explain the appearance of boiling, actually makes his position even more impossible, for it guarantees that the fat which drips into the fire will be rapidly vaporised, and thus burn very quickly.

Of course, I should concede that fat could indeed drip down through a fire without burning. In fact, it’s possible to extinguish a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Just drop an ocean full of gasoline on the fire. The fire will be deprived of oxygen and consequently extinguished. Of course, such examples bear no resemblance to the case of mass cremation. The key is the quantity of fat involved. Romanov considers hypothetical total quantities of fat for an entire large pyre, on the basis of the false assumption that all of the fat in a body flows into the fire. In reality some of the fat is internal rather than subcutaneous, and certainly could not flow out in this way. Fat located on the upper side of the body is also unlikely to do this. Even under the more favorable situation of roasting meat, where the animal has generally been cut up, or at least had its internals removed, the amount of fat that drains out is only a fraction of the total. However, Romanov’s real sin lies in not converting his total to a rate of flow per unit of area. Consider a moderate rain, of say 5 mm per hour. This will deliver 5 kg of water per hour on one square meter of a pyre. The kind of intense fire needed for effective mass cremation will certainly be able to shrug off this water with ease, i.e. it will not extinguish the fire, and certainly will not flow down through the embers into a collection trench. Experience with mass cremation suggests that human-sized carcasses can be arrayed with a density of 2 per square meter on a pyre. With Romanov’s numbers, that will mean a total fat load of 9 kg, or less than two hours’ worth of rain. Certainly the cremation takes much more than two hours, so the fat dripping occurs considerably slower than a moderate rain – only this is a rain of fat, not water. Moreover, that fat will contain some water, which will quickly vaporize, which will vaporize the fat…

A snowball in hell has a better chance of surviving than does fat dripping from a corpse down into a cremation pyre.

——

For the record, I’ll also add a couple of names to the list of fat collection witnesses:
–Feliks Rosenthal testified to the fat collection system in 1959, adding that the collected fat “was used to encourage the burning, especially on rainy days” (Setkiewicz, The Auschwitz Crematoria and Gas Chambers, p. 55)
–Albert Fajnzylberg is an interesting non- or semi-witness: he claims that there were “gutters” to allow human fat to drain, but that fat never collected in them. It is perfectly plausible that trenches would have been dug in order to allow air to circulate, and that once the meme of fat collection was introduced, witnesses fit this explanation to their memories of the actual ventilation trenches. (Setkiewicz, The Auschwitz Crematoria and Gas Chambers, p. 53)

——

An explanation for the stories of fat collection

Where did the story of the collection of human fat during cremation come from? To explain this, it helps to look back to another camp. In a number of media items, the story was spread that human fat was collected from cremation pyres at Sobibor – see the story in Komsomolskaya Pravda of September 2, also reported in the New York Times of September 4, as well as the account in Information Bulletin of September 15, 1944. There were already stories concerning the extraction of fat at Sobibor – this one, for instance – but to my knowledge the Soviets were the first to come up with the story of the extraction of fat during cremation. The story fits into Soviet rhetoric regarding Fascism (or National Socialism, often identified with Fascism in Soviet writing) as a tool or extension of capitalism, characterized by its attempts to rationalize everything, ruthlessly extracting profit even from human bodies. (Granted, such rhetoric was not exclusively Soviet, and found its way into British war propaganda as well. Some of this was just parroting the Soviet line, but the tradition of propaganda which gave us the famous ‘corpse factory’ probably also plays a role.)

Now, all of the testimonies to the recovery of fat from pyres which have been identified thus far come from after the Soviets occupied the Auschwitz area. This suggests that that the story is of exclusively Soviet origin, and is based on their pre-existing Sobibor propaganda. (Naturally, as with any such explanation, this account could require revision if it turns out that the fat recovery story was indeed told in earlier accounts.)

In this connection it is interesting to bring in a witness whose statement, now digitized (YVA O.21.27), contradicts Jason Myers’ claim that “for Sobibor there are literally no witnesses who survived from the inner (extermination) area” (holocaust controversies manifesto, p. 355). On November 5, 1945, Srul Jankiel Fajgenbaum gave testimony on his experiences in Sobibor, including his experience in building the gas chambers – or rather, the electrocution chambers, for Fajgenbaum reports that the chambers were lined with iron plates on which the Jews were electrocuted, leaving their bodies black. In an earlier interrogation, as Carlo Mattogno informs us (p. 1003), Fajgenbaum testified that “during the cremation of the corpses fat had been collected in vats and then sent away somewhere.” Thus the Soviet propaganda story about fat recovery at Sobibor infected the witness statements, just as would happen on a larger scale with the same story at Auschwitz.

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3 Responses to On fat collection from burning cremation pyres at Auschwitz

  1. Pingback: Muehlenkamp doubles down on stupid | Holocaust History Channel

  2. Pingback: More Sobibor Witnesses | Holocaust History Channel

  3. Pingback: A sample of Muehlenkamp’s deceptions about his “empirical” evidence on cremation | Holocaust History Channel

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