Jonathan Harrison misses the point again

Jonathan Harrison has made a short update to the post to which I recently replied. Harrison, incidentally, made his update silently, without any sort of announcement. Roberto Muehlenkamp has recently adopted the same practice, updating posts without any announcement that he was doing so. Harrison’s update reveals that he has still not understood what I in fact wrote in the two parts of my discussion of the steam chambers.

1. The issue at hand

In my initial discussion of Nick Terry’s failed attempt to neutralize the November 15 steam chamber report, I showed Terry was wrong about both of the witnesses he believed to have given accurate accounts of the Treblinka gas chambers prior to the November 15 report. In the case of Krzepicki, the source in question actually described steam as the killing method, though it in fact dates to after the November 15 report. In the case of Rabinowitz, a contemporary diary recorded that he had reported steam as the killing method. Moreover, the document which Terry thought derived from Rabinowicz cannot be connected with him with any certainty, and its story was related in the Warsaw ghetto press prior to Rabinowicz’s return to the Warsaw ghetto.

In the second portion of my discussion of the steam chambers, I briefly delineated where the steam chamber report fit in the overall picture of reports on Treblinka, what influence it had on later reports, and how the killing method it described was suppressed. In brief, there were many very early reports about deportations implying death. These reports came even before Treblinka had been identified as a destination, and they described a variety of killing methods, often in rather vague terms and without details. As I explained, these vague early sources were supplanted by the November 15 report, which laid out a specific map and description of the internal layout of the “death camp”. The currently accepted description of Treblinka is based on this account, with the exception of replacing steam with engine exhaust. In fact, even the accepted descriptions of the Belzec and Sobibor upper camps (in the story of the move from a first gas chamber building to a second gas chamber building based on a central-corridor system) are based on the November 15 report.

Harrison’s pointless criticisms begin from a completely false picture of what I argued. While I did not previously go into detail about this, as Harrison had posted prior to the second part of my presentation, and I assumed that he might have in the meantime read that post and come to understand what I was arguing, I now see that he still does not understand, and will consequently make things even more explicit. After briefly quoting my reference to the early reports, Harrison states that

Jansson fails to explain why this should be unusual. It was easy to determine that Jews were being killed, from the fact that masses of Jews were entering the camp daily but never leaving, and that some of the escapees were gravediggers. It was far harder to determine how they were being killed, because nobody was being given a grand tour of the killing facilities.

Harrison implies that my argument relies on the mere fact that there were various killing methods reported. This is inaccurate, and before further attempts at critique he should try reading – and understanding – what I actually wrote. My argument – which was given largely in the very same paragraph from which Harrison quotes – actually concerned the fact that early unreliable rumors were supplanted by the steam chamber report, which gave a detailed depiction of the interior of Treblinka and in particular of the two gas chamber buildings, which depiction forms the foundation for the currently accepted portrayal of Treblinka. Thus the early vague and unreliable rumors were replaced by the detailed steam chamber report, whose description of the killing buildings is the foundation of all later accounts. If Harrison cannot be troubled to understand what I have written, his attempts at critique serve no purpose beyond demonstrating his effective illiteracy.

As for Harrison’s argument that death was deduced from the fact that Jews never left the camp, he has evidently not read the sources which I cited, as they included articles which claimed that the deportees were killed without even mentioning Treblinka as a destination. Nor is there anything to support Harrison’s idea that claims of killing were based on a 24/7 watch on Treblinka to make sure that Jews never left the camp. Indeed, the “investigator” which he cites merely travelled to a destination some 20 miles from Treblinka – hardly suitable for such monitoring.

Harrison also claims that what he takes to be evidence of very early mentions of killing with gas “refute any notion (which Jansson appears to imply) that steam preceded or exceeded gassing as the method claimed in the sources.” As I have explained above – and as should have been evident to anyone who read what I wrote – this is not what I implied. I said nothing about reports of steam preceding reports of gas, and in fact cited a considerably earlier source than the Oyf der Wach article mentioning gas as a possible killing method for the deported Jews. In fact, there was plenty of talk in the Warsaw ghetto – I recently gave one example, there are many more – about killing with gas even prior to the mass deportations to the East. As for “exceeded” – exceeded in what sense? I certainly made no claim that reports of steam exceeded reports of the generic “gas” in number. Rather, what I said was that the steam chambers are described in detail in the very report that contains a detailed account of the internals of Treblinka, that this detailed report supplanted the early vague and variable accounts, and that this description forms the foundation for the currently accepted depiction of Treblinka.

One further point: reports of gas do not amount to reports of killing with engine exhaust, but are compatible with the killing method being steam, as in the case of Krzepicki’s story. For example, consider the example, which I have already cited, of a poem discussing the steam chambers. The same poet wrote another poem (same source, 2 pages earlier) in which he described the killing method as gas. There was no contradiction between the two: steam is a kind of gas. (He also chose “gas” so as to rhyme “gazie” with “razie”.) “Gas” and “steam” are not opposed killing methods; rather, the opposition is between steam and engine exhaust.

2. The September 20 Oyf der Wach article as a source

While Harrison gives the September 20 Oyf der Wach article a prominent position, it is not clear what argument he wants to make. If it is simply that there were rumors about gas as a killing method from an early date, this is not anything I have contested. Harrison argues that the content of the September 20 Oyf der Wach article dates back to July. It is evident, however, that the article incorporates more recent sources. For instance, its story about a blackout in the camp – also told with precisely the same details in the “Rabinowicz” document – is dated to August 29-30, over a month after Harrison believes the article’s information to have arrived in Warsaw.

The Oyf der Wach article also mentions talk of Jews surviving the gassing, which somewhat resembles the tale previously reported in the Polish underground press that the gassed Jews continued to walk for some time after their gassing. This suggests that the article agglomerated rumors from a variety of sources.

All in all, I am puzzled at Harrison’s attempt to attach particular importance to this source, or to regard it as anything more than a collection of the then-current rumors and propaganda. After all, the controversial bloggers have been very eager to dismiss reports of the floor of the Sobibor gas chambers opening up as mere hearsay. Logically, Harrison must treat this report, which claims that the floor of the killing-barracks at Treblinka opened up, in the same way: as inaccurate rumor. How, then, does he imagine that this source is in any way damaging to my argument? On the contrary, it is a fine example of the kind of early vague and contradictory rumors which were swept away by the detailed depictions given in the November 15 report, and therefore fully supports my argument.

3. The Bund, Oneg Shabes, and the “Rabinowicz” document

Alluding to my mention of the fact that that the “Rabinowicz” document and the Oyf der Wach article tell an identical story, and that the latter antedates Rabinowicz’s return to the Warsaw ghetto, Harrison writes that “Jansson is also still blissfully unaware that two organizations were involved in gathering the information, the Bund and OS, and their sources were different.” By “is blissfully unaware” he evidently means “does not mention.” Yes, I didn’t mention that – so what? I also didn’t mention that water is wet – am I therefore “blissfully unaware” of that? Certainly they were different organizations, but again, so what? Saying that “their sources were different” accomplishes nothing: if Harrison genuinely intends to argue that the fact that the Bund and Oneg Shabes were different organizations precludes the connection which I suggest, he would need to show that the two organizations operated in total informational isolation. This is obviously false.

The question of the origin of this document is a side issue. As the document says nothing about killing methods, even if it did derive from Rabinowicz this would do nothing to help Nick Terry’s argument, or to excuse his error of fabricating the content of a document which he was unable to read. It’s not even clear whether Harrison believes that the document was authored by Rabinowicz or not. That said, as the matter has come up, I will add a few more relevant details. The document is not written in the form of a witness account. It is not in the first person, and there is no indication of who observed the events described. The document therefore seems as likely to be the work of a chronicler as that of a witness. But even if it were a witness account, and even if it were totally unconnected with the Oyf der Wach article, my main points would be unaffected. If Harrison genuinely wants to critique my two part takedown of Nick Terry’s failed attempt to neutralize the steam chambers, he should start by addressing my actual arguments.

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One Response to Jonathan Harrison misses the point again

  1. Pingback: A little more on Ausrottung | Holocaust History Channel

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