In preparation for the Polish show trial against former Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Höss, Polish engineer Dr. Roman Dawidowski and Polish Investigating Judge Jan Sehn rummaged through the documents left behind by the SS at Auschwitz. They were searching for evidence for the existence and operation of homicidal gas chambers. They found several documents with ambivalent expressions such as “gas chamber” or “gastight door,” took them out of their documental and historical context, and submitted their biased interpretation as an “expert report” to the Polish Court.
French historian Jean-Claude Pressac, who discovered this report during his research in the Auschwitz Archives in the 1980s, also found a few more documents along the same line, and published them in 1989 together with his own skewed interpretation, rebranding them as “criminal traces.”
A thorough analysis of these documents within their documental and historical context shows that not a single one of these documents proves the existence of homicidal gas chambers, but rather of very mundane facilities such as disinfestation chambers, inmate showers and ordinary mortuaries.
The most-commonly mentioned criminal traces can be grouped into the following categories, according to what the respective document mentions:
These documents are so numerous and concern so many doors, windows and buildings that it is clear that “gas-tight” was a generic term used for windows and doors made draft-proof with some felt strips. These were used in numerous places, not just rooms falsely claimed to have served as homicidal gas chambers. (For more details, see the entry on gastight doors.)
Due to the catastrophic hygienic situation at Birkenau in 1942 and early 1943, and the incessant need for more disinfestation capacities and inmate showers, the Auschwitz camp authorities made plans to include these in the Birkenau crematoria. At least some of these projects were fully implemented. Documents referring to gas chambers or gassing rooms in those buildings need to be seen in this context.
The Auschwitz garrison physician Eduard Wirths requested in early 1943 that the new crematoria, where many corpses were delivered every day, had a designated undressing room. Many of these bodies were infested with fleas and lice, requiring occasional disinfestation measures. After that, the corpses could be safely undressed, and their clothes removed for treatment. Hence, during that time, one of the morgues was designated as such, to solve that problem.
Documents show that all crematoria in Birkenau Camp acquired real working inmate showers – Crematoria II and III in one of their basement rooms, and Crematoria IV and V in one of the rooms alleged to have served as a homicidal gas chamber. These were not fake showers, but real ones. Once the Zentralsauna became operational, which was Birkenau’s powerful and spacious inmate shower and disinfestation building, the inmate showers inside the crematoria were probably taken out of commission, resulting in a peculiar sight: showerheads in morgues partially filled with corpses. This was kindling for the fires that fueled the Auschwitz rumor machine.
The theory of “criminal traces” is a smoke-and-mirror show based on misunderstood or misrepresented documents that are ambivalent at worst, but usually utterly innocuous, if seen in their proper documental and historical context.