Musings on the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz: How I discovered Holocaust denial

I stared at words on the computer screen, dumbfounded:
They do not want to do it because it would show that at Auschwitz Nazis were conducting ETHICAL medicine and they want to keep the myths of the Holocaust alive!
What the--?? I blinked. Did I read this right? I read it again, gently flickering on the computer screen.
They do not want to do it because it would show that at Auschwitz Nazis were conducting ETHICAL medicine and they want to keep the myths of the Holocaust alive!
No doubt about it, I had read it correctly. It was no mistake, no matter how much I wished it had been. The Usenet poster had just capped off an argument I was having with him by saying that historians and doctors did not want to look into his claims because doing so would show that the doctors at Auschwitz-Birkenau were practicing "ethical" medicine.

"Ethical" medicine? At Auschwitz-Birkenau? Could he possibly be referring to the same Auschwitz where well over 1 million people had been killed either by gassing, starvation, disease, or even twisted "medical" experiments? The same Auschwitz, where untold thousands were subjected to starvation, overwork, and disease, with the intent of getting as much work as possible out of them before they died, while expending as little as possible in the way of food and other resources?

"Ethical medicine"? At Auschwitz, the very place where doctors--my profession, to our eternal shame!--did not merely passively acquiesce to the horrors of the camp. No, physicians were integral cogs in the machinery of death. At Auschwitz, doctors, who had taken an oath to preserve life, greeted each new transport of Jews and other prisoners and oversaw the brutal process of selection. They would take a perfunctory look at each new inmate and immediately decide his fate based on how "healthy"--and thus able to work--he appeared. These doctors directed babies, children, the old, the sick, and infirm to one line leading straight to the gas chambers at Birkenau and the young and healthy to another line leading to the camp. Those who were chosen for the concentration camp (Auschwitz) would be subjected to brutal overwork and starvation until they either succumbed or became too debilitated to work and thus candidates for the gas chambers. No doubt some of them came to envy those who went straight to the gas.

"Ethical medicine"? I had to remind myself that this was the very same place where doctors like Josef Mengele and like-minded doctors (Drs. Weber, Schumann, Wirth, and Kremer) performed cruel and scientifically useless experiments on the hapless prisoners, examples of which included (among many others):
  • Subjecting prisoners to low pressure chambers designed to simulate high altitude until they developed pulmonary edema and died
  • Immersing prisoners in ice-cold water to simulate the conditions that downed Nazi pilots encountered in the North Sea
  • Irradiating women's pelvises in order to sterilize them, leading to horrific complications of radiation enteritis, leading to bowel obstructions and fistulae
  • Killing and dissecting of prisoners for anatomic experiments to determine the effects of starvation and the "biologic basis" of racial differences
  • Injecting various chemicals into prisoner's eyes to change their color (this was one of Dr. Mengele's special interests, along with his studies of twins), leading to infection and sometimes blindness
  • Performed "euthanasia" of ill patients by direct injection of phenol into their hearts (because injecting it into peripheral veins took too long to kill the prisoner)
I knew at that point that further argument was pointless. I had just been slapped in the face by Holocaust denial. The only reason this anonymous Usenet denizen could possibly say such things is because he did not believe that the Nazis intentionally did their best to wipe out European Jewry. So eager was he to deny the crimes of the Nazi regime that he was willing to attribute "ethical" medicine to butchers like Dr. Mengele.

Sixty years ago today, the Red Army entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, liberating it from the Nazis and at the same time revealing for the world to see the dark heart of the Holocaust, the camp that has come to symbolize the Nazis' homicidal hatred and fear of the Jews. Only around 7,000 thousand pathetic souls remained, a mere fraction of the number that used to be imprisoned there, all starving, many diseased, many dying. The Soviets also discovered hundreds of thousands of women's coats and dresses and men's suits, and tons of human hair; that, and piles upon piles of rotting corpses. Over the month of January, seeing the rapid advance of the Soviet Army west through Poland, the SS at Auschwitz-Birkenau had come to realize that the war was lost and the Soviets would soon be at their very gates. They had scrambled to hide the evidence of their crimes and escape to Germany. They had burned files and destroyed the gas chambers. Nine days before, they had begun removing as many prisoners as they could, forcing them to march west, to Germany and to other camps. Tens of thousands of prisoners were forced to march on foot in brutal winter weather, without adequate clothing, food, or shelter. Those who were too weak to march or who committed any infraction during the forced march were shot and left at the side of the road. Those not taken on the march were left to die. Seven days earlier, guards shot 4,200 of the remaining camp survivors.

As I thought about what to write today, it occurred to me that, although I have written about my interest in the Holocaust and Holocaust denial right from the blog's beginning (and again more recently), I had not yet written about how that interest began. Today, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the epicenter of the Holocaust, Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the perfect day to do so. You may think the example I described above is extreme, and so it is. However, sadly, the beliefs of many Holocaust deniers are not all that far removed from a belief in the "ethical medicine" of Auschwitz. I first learned that nearly eight years ago.

The year was 1997. I had recently rediscovered the joys of the mass of online squabbling that is known as Usenet after an absence of four years, during which time the rigors of residency had kept me from any online activity more involved than perfunctory responses to e-mail. While perusing the political newsgroups, I had come across a rather bizarre post referring to the "Holohoax," which had been crossposted to several other newsgroups, including alt.revisionism. I didn't know it at the time, but alt.revisionism is the newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of Holocaust "revisionism" (which, in actuality, is almost always Holocaust denial). I lurked there for several weeks, hardly believing what I was reading. Over that time, I learned some of the techniques deniers used to downplay the Holocaust, deflect blame from its perpetrators, or portray "exaggeration" of the Holocaust as a Jewish plot. I also learned that, without exception (at least, without any exception I've yet seen), Holocaust denial derived from anti-Semitism and/or an admiration for the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler.

My move from lurking to more active involvement in debunking Holocaust denial started, oddly enough, with an admittedly arrogant eagerness to flaunt my medical knowledge. I did not know it at the time, but this precipitous leap into a discussion thread full of Holocaust denial was the beginning of my odyssey. A man who posted under the name Joe Pawlikowski, claiming to represent a group called the Polish Historical Society, had been making the claim that all the dead at Auschwitz were due not to intentional killing, to the gas chambers, but rather to starvation and diarrhea. I had recently learned that this was a standard canard of Holocaust deniers. Not wanting to admit that the Nazis had indeed intentionally sent millions to the gas chambers, Holocaust deniers will concede that there were thousands upon thousands dead in the camps, but will then claim the deaths were due to starvation and disease, not to intentional killing or gassing. They would then claim that the starvation was due to disruption of the supply lines by Allied bombing (never mind that the guards and the people in the nearby towns showed no evidence of deprivation when the Soviets arrived and that it was the explicit policy in the camps to underfeed the inmates and get as much work as possible out of them before they died of starvation). The specific bizarre claims that Pawlikowski was making, to my mind, demanded medical debunking, and, in my hubris, I thought that I could provide knowledge that none of the other debunkers of Holocaust denial could.

What were those claims? Besides the standard claims I mentioned above, which were actually better debunked by those more knowledgeable in Holocaust history than I, Pawlikowski claimed (spelling errors left intact to give you the full flavor of his ranting):
If an occasional prisoner developed oncotic edema (because SS administration was selling meat on the black market), while overfed them with patatos, they would immediately pull off the prisoner from the work detail and send him/her to Lazaret where he/she would be FORCED to drink one gallon of milk (4L) over the next two days and on the third day such survivors reported that they were ready for work with no trace of edema.
A brief explanation is in order here. Protein malnutrition (kwashiorkor) results from inadequate protein intake in the presence of relatively good overall calorie intake. These are the people who have the large protruberant bellies due to the edema caused by lack of protein. This is in contrast to the other major form of malnutrition, marasmus, in which there is both protein and total calorie malnutrition. These patients appear cachexic, and do not have prominent edema. In fact, they usually appear to be wasting away. I pointed out first that the vast majority of the starving at Auschwitz and other camps did not suffer from kwashiokor, but rather marasmus (a diagnosis that one can make just by looking at photos of camp survivors). I then pointed out that, even if it were a case of kwashiorkor, it takes a very prolonged period of time to develop malnutrition that severe. It cannot be reversed by two or three days of refeeding. I pointed out that 4 L of milk would not even come close to correcting such a nutritional deficit. In fact, feeding milk to patients with kwashiorkor can be counterproductive, because they often develop lactose intolerance.

None of these arguments affected Pawlikowski in the least. The argument went back and forth over several days. I calmly stated the medical facts that made his claims ridiculous. He then shifted gears, and the discussion moved towards typhus and his claims that typhus (which he seemed to be confusing with typhoid), not gas chambers, had caused most of the deaths. In Pawlikowski's world, there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the crematoria there existed only for hygienic purposes, to dispose of corpses and prevent the spread of epidemic disease. His responses got longer and longer. And, then, buried in one of his rants:
They do not want to do it because it would show that at Auschwitz Nazis were conducting ETHICAL medicine and they want to keep the myths of the Holocaust alive!
At that point, I hit the wall. I remember going off on him. I remember going on and on about the crimes committed by doctors at Auschwitz. He started harping on my name, asking me insistently if I were Jewish. Eventually I gave up. There was no point. A few weeks later, he reappeared. He even e-mailed me. I made the mistake of replying. He posted my e-mail to Usenet, teaching me an important lesson: Never reply to a Holocaust denier with anything I do not wish to be publicized. I even gave him the opportunity to renounce his previous claim that the Nazis practiced "ethical" medicine. His response:
I confirm that Nazis practiced ethical medicine at Auschwitz. I repeat that stories about Mengele are fantasmagoric.
But enough of Pawlikowski. Even now, thinking about him disgusts me.

Over the next seven years, I made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of posts to alt.revisionism. I learned a great deal about the Holocaust. I learned about how Holocaust deniers misrepresent legitimate debates among historians over the origins and evolution of the Holocaust as "proof" that there was never a plan to exterminate European Jewry. They would claim that there was never a written order from Hitler to exterminate the Jews, neglecting the fact that Hitler was well known to avoid giving written orders, preferring to make his wishes known to his henchmen and let them compete with each other to carry his wishes out and win his favor. I learned the difference between genuine historical revisionism (a legitimate pursuit of historians, who reexamine history in light of new evidence or reinterpretation of old evidence to come to new conclusions about it) and Holocaust denial, which is not, although Holocaust deniers like to call themselves "revisionists" in order to falsely claim the mantle of academic rigor. Although I did not believe it at first, over time I also reluctantly came to the conclusion that every Holocaust denier is an anti-Semite at heart and that the real purpose of Holocaust revisionism is to "make National Socialism an acceptable political alternative again."

Eventually, my crude efforts drew the attention of a like-minded group of people who were doing the same, most of whom are much more knowledgeable than I. I found out about how much some of them had sacrificed for their efforts. Harry Mazal, for instance, makes great sacrifices in time and money to maintain the Holocaust History Project, even in the face of distributed denial of service attacks, and Ken McVay runs the other premier Holocaust education site, Nizkor. One woman in particular, Sara Salzman, suffered serious harassment over several years as a result of her efforts. Her case was the subject of a Hatewatch report, and has been discussed at international meetings on online hate. In time, I suffered a very mild version of what they suffered, when my name was circulated around Usenet as part a list of others who combat Holocaust denial falsely labeled as pedophiles (a standard smear). Fortunately, nothing has ever come of it (although that list still resurfaces from time to time, even years later, a testament to the longevity of Internet smears.) My paltry efforts and sacrifices pale in comparison to theirs.

As I reflect upon the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the horrors that occurred there over nearly five years, I now realize that it was this initial experience with Holocaust denial that sparked my overall interest in rationalism and skepticism, leading me to do my small part to combat the pseudohistory that is Holocaust denial. The offensiveness of a group of people seeking to deny or minimize the deaths of 6,000,000 Jews and millions of others in order to make the world conform to their anti-Semitism or to whitewash the ideology that committed those murders was the spark that shocked me from my complacency. Before that encounter, I had little interest in promoting evidence-based thinking outside of my own surgical practice and laboratory. I rarely openly questioned pseudohistorical or pseudoscientific claims, even though privately I may have considered them a load of garbage. I now realize that pseudoscience and pseudohistory can contribute to making such atrocities possible, particularly when they fused to despicable ideological belief systems like Nazi-ism. For example, the "science" of racial hygiene (in actuality a perversion of Darwin's theory) touted by Nazi scientists and doctors, served to justify their exaggeration and misrepresentation of racial differences and the classification of races as "superior" or "inferior." Coupled to racial hygiene and pseudohistory (the myth of the "stab-in-the-back" by Communists and Jews leading to Germany's defeat in World War I, of a "time of greatness" 50 years earlier during Bismarck's reign, and of a pan-Aryan culture that needed to be reunited and protected from the Jews), the romantic evocation of Volk and the belief that a lost time of greatness could be reclaimed if certain enemies were defeated, provided a potent ideological brew that the Nazis used to justify their genocidal policies: the exclusion of Jews from political life (the Nuremberg Laws); the relentless expansionism of the Reich in search of Lebensraum in the East; the gassing of the mentally ill and retarded ("life unworthy of life" or "worthless eaters," as Nazi propaganda characterized them); the forcible expulsion of Jews (often compared by Nazi propaganda to "bacilli" or "cancers" that must be cut out) from territory controlled by the Reich; and their later conclusion that expulsion wasn't enough, that they must be exterminated; and, finally, the construction of camps in which to do it, like Auschwitz.

So, today, as memorials to the murdered are held and speeches made, I urge everyone to take a moment and reflect upon the evil that humans are capable of. But, more importantly, reflect upon what each of us might do to prevent it from happening again, particularly since the march of time will soon lead to the disappearance of those who were there, still remember, and can remind us of what happened. One way that I choose to honor the memory of the dead is by doing what little I can to refute those who would, for their own racist or ideological reasons, deny the crimes of those who killed them. To that end, from time to time, I will post articles here refuting specific distortions and lies of Holocaust deniers and doing my small part to help out the Holocaust History Project. In the grand scheme of things, it is not that much. But it is what I can do.

ADDENDUM (01/31/05): Deborah Lipstadt, Ph.D., Director of the Rabbi Donal A. Tam Institute of Jewish Studies and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, has written an excellent online primer on some of the more common techniques of Holocaust denial. I urge you to read it.


  1. Fantastic writing, in addition to being historically, ethically, medically, humanely on target.

  2. Beautifully stated. My father is a colleague of Dr. Robert Lifton,who wrote the seminal book on the Nazi doctors. And it _does_ almost defy belief that doctors and nurses would engage in the kinds of horrors they seem to have willingly created. Perhaps most distressing to me was the early "T4" program where children were simply starved to death by being given a "fat-free" diet. It took 3-4 months. How doctors and nurses could have stood by and participated in this is absolutley mind-boggling.

    Thanks for the work you do, Orac, and thanks for spreading the word.

  3. The BBc did a re-enactment of the trial of a holocaust denier. Good stuff. As a young man I saw the newsreels from the continent of these camps, dreadful, I shall never forget those match- figures piled up like cord wood.

  4. Thank you for a superb piece of work, truly fitting and moving.

  5. Well, I'm glad I learned about Holocaust denial from the made-for-tv movie with Leonard Nimoy.
    I certainly don't have the constitution or patience for dealing with those people.
    I know I was shocked when I learned of them.
    My father & uncle were in WWII, so it's hard for me to imagine that anybody denies the Holocaust, after growing up hearing what they said about the Nazis.
    But these days nothing surprises me. There's probably some yahoo out there that would claim Jeffrey Dahmer was innocent.

  6. Shema Yisrael.

    Great work Orac, thank you.

  7. Hi Orac,

    here's another interesting story of denial related to the holocaust that you might be interested to read and comment on ..

  8. I can speak with certainty of that which my grandfather witnessed in North Africa, Italy and other nations during World War II. The Nazis were evil incarnate. He battled Rommel. He saw several of the camps. He personally carried the weak and the sick to the field hospitals after the camps were liberated. You never forget something like that. Never. He told us of the horrors he witnessed. He even spoke of the executions of several of those "doctors" and others who worked at those camps and ran them. Over 700,000 died at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 alone. Those who deny it ever happened only display their willing ignorance and hate. I feel pity for them and their blind stupidity. I do think that if they themselves were subject to what happened in those camps, then maybe they would believe.

  9. One of the causes of the Nazi part of the collectivist Holocaust was the belief in genetic determinism. We must be extremely skeptical about any claim of hereditary taint.

  10. wonderful - you should submit this to the new yorker, or slate for publication.

  11. My family being "rednecks" have died in every war this country ever had. For me and for all of them Thank You. We all served so that the truth could be told in this country


  12. superb posting. I too, have been almost physically sickened by some of the antisemitism, 'revisionism', and holocaust denial on the internet. I've had the experience of clicking on a link and being almost ashamed at where it took me. We should be vigilant about similar hate and similar imagery of 'infection' or 'corruption' or 'conspiracy' being directed against other groups in the US...
    just read the popular hate sites
    or 'little green fascists' (or is it footballs..)
    The postings in these both can stand with the best of Der Steurmer.
    - Jeff

  13. David Edwards6/21/2005 9:14 PM

    Ah, Holocaust denial. More quackery.

    I recall (with it has to be said, an enormous amount of glee) the David Irving vs Deborah Lipstadt trial. Which in itself was (to use the words of Lucy Dawidowicz, an author Lipstadt apparently has a considerable fondness for) "a particular species of black comedy", at least during the parts where Irving gave evidence.

    Having read Lipstadt's book after the trial, and the follow-up published trial commentary, I wonder if the 'revisionists' are using the same brand of tinfoil for their hats as David Icke (who, for those who have not encountered this unique British phenomenon, believes that the world is being run by a secret cabal of alien reptiles). Some of their outpourings are, quite frankly, staggering in their illiteracy and appeal to the lowest. But then they're only following the precedent set by Julius Streicher, whose biographical details in Airey Neave's account of the Nuremberg Trials make interesting, if unsavoury, reading. Apparently none of the Holocaust deniers have read Neave's telling comment: "Surely nothing can be worse than to be a second-rate copy of Julius Streicher?"

    Oh, and for the record, I had a tiny input into that libel trial in 2000. Irving was quoted in a newspaper as saying "the book unfairly associated him with Neo-Nazis ...", which caused me no end of amusement, having seen a Channel 4 documentary on the man some years previously. I E-Mailed Prof. Lipstadt about this, and it transpired that her lawyers had already alighted upon the same documentary. However, she graciously thanked me for my contribution. In fact, I think I still have her E-mails in my inbox after all this time ... but I digress. That Channel 4 documentary from the UK again makes interesting, if unsavoury, viewing.

    However, if any readers have the stomach for it, the ultimate in anti-Semitic bilge, and the source material that fed Hitler himself, is the Ostara, written by a man called Josef Lanz von Liebenfels. A case study in moon-pie lunacy if ever there was one. Again to paraphrase Dawidowicz, his writings are "a species of black comedy". Do not, however, approach these writings without suitable sanitary protection ...

  14. Pleasew moderate this one. Since ORAC knows so much - seeing as how he is a doctor,surgeon, richboy,etc - does he know anything about ground radar, Arolson Red Cross files, etc. While you're debunking stuff go where the action is and the facts, and get your buddies to publish the ... you pick, I think you could make a great contribution writting to Arolson - of course you might suffer financially, not to mention having the JDL crack your skull, but then you're a surgeon.Jerk


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