Did the Nazis make soap from Jews?

2000-09-26 09:51

Atlanta - A dispute over a new memoir has cast a spotlight on the powerfully enduring belief that the Nazis made soap from the bodies of Jews - something that Holocaust scholars largely dismiss as myth.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has refused to allow a book-signing for an Atlanta man whose memoir tells the story of an uncle who says the Nazis forced him to make soap from victims at Auschwitz.

Ben Hirsch said the museum doesn't want to be seen as endorsing the soap-making stories in his book, Hearing a Different Drummer. Museum officials said a senior historian read the book and questioned the accuracy of the soap-making passages.

"Singling out a memoir for a book signing implies a level of endorsement of its contents," said Mary Morrison, a spokesperson for the museum. "The combination of all available evidence doesn't draw one to the conclusion that this happened."

Historians have never been able to prove, or disprove, that the Nazis used human fat to make soap. Many say the tales are probably just rumours so gruesome that they are still circulating nearly 60 years later.

But Hirsch, whose parents and two siblings died in concentration camps, said his book offers new evidence - excerpts from unpublished memoirs that his uncle typed in broken English.

"How dare you say that it didn't happen when you say there's not enough proof," Hirsch, 68, said on Monday. "I just can't imagine anybody writing a memoir and saying they made soap if they didn't. It's not something to be proud of."

Historians have documented many Nazi atrocities, including the fact that Jews were killed in gas chambers and used as live subjects in science experiments. Their hair and gold fillings were removed for industrial use. And in at least one instance, the skin of Jews was used to make lampshades.

One Holocaust scholar said the museum has good reason to distance itself from Hirsch's soap story: The tale could give new ammunition to those who insist the Holocaust was a hoax.

"Holocaust deniers have seized upon the soap story as proof of demonstrating the unreliability of Holocaust survivors," said Christopher Browning, a historian at the University of North Carolina. "I don't think they can afford to compromise themselves on this."

Raul Hilberg, considered the dean of Holocaust scholars, said rumours that the Nazis made soap from human fat started circulating in Poland in 1942, the same year they first appeared in American newspapers.

Testimonial accounts of soap-making tend to be secondhand at best. Hilberg said he cannot recall a single account from a survivor who saw human soap being made. He said he doubts the soap stories, in part, because the Germans would have found such a product repulsive.

"The idea of washing oneself with soap made of human fat, aside from the fact they didn't like Jews and didn't want any contact with them, it was considered sick," he said.

Hirsch's memoir, which remains on the shelves at the museum's bookstore, mostly recalls his experience as a US soldier in post-World War II Germany. But he uses one chapter to criticise scholars for rejecting stories of human soap.

He quotes a typewritten manuscript by his uncle, Philipp Auerbach, a chemist who said Nazis made him manufacture soap using human remains at Auschwitz.

One excerpt reads: "As chief of the soap-production I had to take care of the production of fat and to make controls in the Slaughter-house. Nearly every week I have been three or four times there in order to get the waste of fat and of the bowels for the soap-manufacture."

Hirsch also recalls how he helped a rabbi in 1970 bury four bars of soap at Atlanta's Greenwood Cemetery. He says the soap had been found by a Jewish soldier who helped liberate a concentration camp at the end of World War II. The soldier's wife had them buried after finding them in her basement decades later.

For those who ask, the Holocaust museum distributes a fact sheet saying the story that Nazis used corpses for soap is a rumour that has never been substantiated.

"This one soap story keeps rolling around," said Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University history professor who recently prevailed in a legal dispute against a British scholar whom she accused of denying the Nazis slaughtered millions of Jews. "Soap became sort of a metaphor - they killed them and made soap out of them - to show how horrible the Nazis were." - Sapa-AP