Michel Epstein, with Proof

For the past several months, my friend Bradley Smith has been stuck on a question. He began by directing the question to Deborah Lipstadt, knowing just how that would go. He has since directed the question to historians and working scholars, some of whom have responded with testy amusement.

Some people find Bradley’s question to be impertinent, or even offensive. Others confidently assert that the question  has already  been answered, probably in excruciating detail, by people presumed to who know what they’re talking about. There are also those who think Bradley is being an ass.

Bradley’s question isn’t rhetorical. Nor is it very interesting, as questions go. It is, however, undeniably provocative. It goes like this:

Can you provide the name of one person, with proof, who was killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz?

Think you can answer it? Think you know someone who can? Perhaps you think it’s a trick of some flavor? Or just the sort of irrelevant noise one might expect from a certifiable kook? Those are the usual outs.

Me, I think it’s a good question. A reasonable question. A jurisprudential and empirical question. I think it’s precisely the sort of question that should be asked of scholars, without courting stigma. I also think there’s a real chance someone will be able to answer it, with compelling evidence and due specificity. Trouble is, the historians are disposed to ignore old Bradley. Or to scoff in good form.   

A while back, I stepped into the comments thread appending a post by Michael Blowhard. Michael’s volley was devoted primarily to the prickly gender politics of one F. Roger Devlin, but there was also some emphasis on the question of when and whether it may be ill-advised to take impolite ideas for a test-drive. On that tangential point, Michael’s hook was phrased in the spirit of thoughtful exchange. He asked:

…what do you think about the idea
of reading a piece by someone who has written for The Occidental
Quarterly? Am I an irresponsible blogger for having linked to the likes
of Devlin? Or are those who won’t take a flyer on some far-out reading
the real fools?

I chimed in with some thoughts on Devlin’s essay, but I was more keyed to the broader question — the one that rebounds to the loosely defined locus of my nine-banded meanderings. So what I did was, I brought up the Holocaust skeptics. The deniers or revisionists or assholes, or whatever you prefer to name them, who are so quickly dismissed as miscreants and nutjobs. I suggested that reading the work of these intellectual pariahs amounted to a kind of litmus test, one that cuts to the pulsating gristle of the question put. I suggested that the issue assumed arguable urgency because Holocaust dissidents stand virtually alone as victims of real state-sponsored persecution and censorship in most western democracies. I mentioned Bradley, but not his question. I mentioned Arthur Butz, whose "banned book" I read years ago.

It seemed relevant. I didn’t mean to derail things, but I should have known better. To his credit, Michael remained gracious as things unfolded, or imploded. Even when Bradley stopped by with his question, which probably was off topic.

But this is perhaps too much in the way of backstory.  The point is that someone took a shot at answering Bradley’s question. Credit goes to a commenter writing as "blah," who offered the following account:

a Kiev-born Jewish woman, had settled in France with her wealthy family
after the Russian revolution; become a literary celebrity on a par with
Colette in 1930s Paris; was refused French citizenship shortly before
the second world war broke out; and, in 1942, was deported to Auschwitz
where she died, a stateless Jew, aged 39….

Similarly her husband wrote frantically to the German ambassador in
Paris after Irène’s arrest, pleading for her to be released: "[E]ven
though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews
with any affection whatsoever in her works." The letter didn’t save his
wife – she died from typhus in Auschwitz on August 17 1942. Michel was arrested and gassed in Auschwitz on November 6.

Blah backed up his (or her) cut & paste with a link to an article published in The Guardian, which centered on the controversy surrounding Irène Némirovsky following the posthumous publication of her novel, Suite Française.  This was hardly a primary source. The article didn’t offer anything in the way of proof, or even evidence, for the claimed fate of Némirovsky’s husband. It was just an assertion.

But still, there was a specific date and a specific person — a man whose full name I soon learned was Michel Epstein. A few rounds of obligatory Googling turned up a number of references to Epstein’s death at Auschwitz. Most of these references, like the one in The Guardian, were attached to discussion of Némirovsky’s novel and her alleged anti-Semitism. Some confidently repeated the claim that Epstein perished in a gas chamber, perhaps along with his two brothers and a sister. Other accounts ventured that this was "almost certainly" the case.

It may be that there is some compelling reason to believe that  Michel Epstein was murdered in a Nazi gas chamber. The commenter known as "blah" made no effort to provide any such reason, but the fact that the claim is so often repeated would suggest that it has some basis. After all, it is not claimed that Epstein was shot, or that he died of typhus or some other affliction. He is said, in most web-accessible references, to have been murdered in a gas chamber, the Nazi-preferred weapon of mass destruction. Specifically, on November 6, 1942. Someone must know what they’re talking about.

And so, just for the hell of it, I’ve decided to do what our Googling commenter couldn’t be troubled to do. I’m going to follow the trail and see where it leads. I will begin by reading the
Némirovsky biographies and checking the sources. If necessary, I will contact Yad Vashem and the USHMM, to make use of their registries. I will consult genealogies and archives and whatever other resources are suggested along the way. Perhaps I will hit paydirt in short order. Perhaps I will end up running in circles. All I know is I have a name, a date, and a specific and oft-repeated claim about one man’s tragic fate in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

I don’t know if I will be able to provide Bradley with a definitive answer to his question. But I am going to try. I will report back.

Memento mori.   

11 thoughts on “Michel Epstein, with Proof

  1. I have no problem at all with the challenge posed by Bradley Smith on this matter; however, the “with proof” stipulation seems fraught with peril in some ways, in that it seems like a probable invitation to question-begging. What would constitute proof? Can anything be “proven,” really? I am well aware of how tedious semantic debates can be; however, I think a good working definition of “proof” is needed here.

  2. For present purposes, I am not concerned with large scale death tolls. I am interested in verifying the basis for a specific claim about the tragic fate of a specific person — a person alleged to have been murdered in a Nazi gas chamber. If such a claim is made, my working assumption is that there should be some means of substantiating it.
    As to what should constitute proof, that’s for the jury to decide. I think the principle of reasonable doubt serves us well, and I see no reason to abandon it in this context. I have placed an interlibrary loan request to get things rolling, and I will report anything I find.

  3. I was a bit hasty in my comment. On reading the post properly I saw that it pertained to the Auschwitz gas chamber and not just the Holocaust in general.
    Still, I think that concern with “large scale death tolls” offers a complementary way of proceeding. The history books don’t just say that this or that person was gassed at Auschwitz; they say that thousands were. Why not look into the basis of those claims? That should be a far more straightforward way of proceeding, rather than investigating one person at a time.

  4. Mitchell,
    Thanks for your clarification.
    Obviously, I’m not a historian or an academic or even an independent researcher. A thoroughgoing account of events that occurred during the Second World War is beyond my depth.
    For the past fifty-some years, honest revisionists (and no, that’s not an oxymoron) have voiced skepticism primarily regarding two tenets of the received history regarding the Holocaust. They question whether the Nazi regime intentionally formulated and implemented a plan to commit genocide against Jews and others. And more intriguingly, they question the existence of Nazi gas chambers, the tools (or weapons) which are conventionally believed to have played a pivotal, if not essential, role in carrying out this genocide. The arguments advanced by those who are skeptical of claims about Nazi genocide and gas chambers are routinely maligned and mischaracterized, often by people who have no familiarity with their content. However, I think the strongest critiques derive from rational methods of inquiry. Serious revisionist arguments focus on narrative questions and the problem of dual interpretation. They focus on demographic data, documentary evidence, and forensic and technical issues. They ask real questions about victors’ justice, about the role of wartime propaganda, about social psychology and the nature of belief. Yet I’m told it’s a character flaw to take them seriously.
    This is courting digression. The point is that the salient revisionist argument is not about scale, but mens rea. There may be marginal debate over figures, but no serious person questions that vast numbers of people perished in concentration camps during the later stages of the War. And no serious person questions that the Nazis committed atrocities, as did the Allies. The locus of skepticism fixes precisely on those extraordinary elements of the narrative that distinguish the Holocaust from other historical horrors. The gas chambers are a central feature of the case for this crucially unique monstrosity. It is possible the gas chambers existed and were used just as we are told. It is also possible they are the product of culture-borne rumor and confabulation, reified through black propaganda and coerced false testimony. I am not ambitious or smart enough to determine the truth of either possibility. I do believe the revisionist critique is more credible than is generally assumed, but you already guessed that much. My motives are irrelevant, but pure.
    So for present purposes, we are back to a specific, unqualified, and manageable claim regarding the murder of Michel Epstein in an Auschwitz gas chamber on November 6 1942. This claim is presented as a fact in numerous sources, and facts can be confirmed. I intend to investigate it as I would any other confident assertion. Perhaps it means nothing in the scheme of history, but if it turns out to be demonstrably true, one pillar of the revisionist critique will collapse.

  5. I agree with Mitchell that the formulation of your question leaves much to be desired. What evidence would satisfy you? It’s not as if the Nazis implanted prussic acid-sensitive RFID tags with names encoded into them into imprisoned people before gassing them. I’d expect particular identities of gassing victims to be irrevocably lost in the gassing process.
    I also question your burden of proof – “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard used in criminal trials, which may result in completely true claims being rejected (completely guilty people being acquitted) because the consequences of a “false positive” are so severe in criminal trials. I don’t see why the historical reality of intentional homicidal gassing need be proven by such a high standard. If anything, “there was no homicidal gassing” appears to be the more extraordinary claim, which demands equally extraordinary proof.
    In civil trials, of course, juries use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard – that the claim is more likely to be true than not to be true. This is the standard we use when we’re concerned with finding the truth, rather than avoiding the horrible consequence of an unjust imprisonment.
    To me, it seems that evidence of intentional gassing at many facilities is ample. The revisionist arguments I’ve come into contact with (“but maybe ‘vergasungskeller’ meant an air raid shelter;” “that room with gas-tight doors could have just been a shower, oh wait I mean a corpse-washing facility”) remind me of the ad hoc truth mangling performed by creationists and other Biblical literalists (“but there’s no known intermediate form between THOSE two fossils;” “the Bible doesn’t say pi equals 3; maybe the meaning of the word ‘cubit’ could actually mean 1.14159 cubits”).

  6. Sister Y,
    I plan to address your — and Mitchell’s — points and criticisms (specifically regarding the burden and nature of proof) in greater detail in the context of my forthcoming post on Michel Epstein’s fate, which I am currently writing and researching. I fear I am treading beyond my depth, but what the hell.
    For the moment I will say that I think there are good reasons to be skeptical of the mass gassing/extermination claims. I believe that such claims qualify as extraordinary for various reasons, which I will do my best to explain in the context of my Epstein post. Briefly, there were culture-bound rumors of poison gas exterminations early on during the war, and I think that the horrible conditions of the camps during the later stages provided a perfect sociogenic environment for such beliefs to take root. Typhus was epidemic. People were being transported under conditions of total collapse. People were being executed. An atmosphere (and smell) of death and horror prevailed. Comverge these elements with the reality of black propaganda and victor’s justice, and it becomes possible to see how false beliefs may have graduated into the realm of received opinion.
    I think it is significant that allegations of gas chamber deaths can be found with reference to camps where no such murders are believed (by mainstream historians) to have been ordered (Dachau comes to mind). I think it is relevant that claims of human lampshades and soap have been quietly abandoned and disavowed (explicitly by Deborah Lipstadt and Yehuda Bauer) despite the fact that such exhibits were presented and accepted during the proceedings at Nuremberg. I think it is significant that those cannisters of Zyklon B are still provided for popular edification despite recent and post-hoc counter-revisionist arguments conceding that hydro-cyanic gas was used primarily — overwhelmingly — for delousing and disinfestation purposes.
    I would also suggest that the allegation of ad hoc argumentation cuts in opposite directions. From the beginning, the revisionist case has been advanced as a prima facie account. The exterminationist/gas chamber claims are defended by contextually suspicious testimony, novel interpretations of architectural and documentary evidence (shower head installations were covertly gas chamber installations; the “Final Solution” only ostensibly referred to deportation, etc.) and have been fashioned in specific and recent response to revisionist investigations (I still recommend David Cole’s documentary). Leuchter did something, had his career ruined, and Pressac responded with a list of criminal traces. Germar Rudolf did something better, and was deported and incarcerated. I would love to see Rudolf and van Pelt (or Lipstadt or Zimmerman) duke out the finer points (regarding, say, the commonplace use of “gas tight doors” and air raid shelters) in a reputable journal, but seeing as Rudolf is locked up, I don’t think that’s likely to happen.
    I believe that people walked on the moon. I believe that 9-11 was an Islamist conspiracy, not a US government conspiracy. I believe that Oswald probably killed Kennedy. I don’t believe there were tunnels under the McMartin preschool. And I don’t know if there were gas chambers at Auschwitz. One victim — out of the fabled million (more or less) — with proof would convince me that continued skepticism is unwarranted.
    Michel Epstein is volunteered as one such person, and so far I can find no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. Not even questionable evidence. From what I’ve read so far, it appears to be something that people say. I’m still looking, though, and I will report what I find.

  7. Bradley Smith’s simple question regarding one name of a person gassed with proof of such gassing appears simple and perhaps even naive on the surface. There are names of victims that can be found but proof-positive of gassing as the means of execution is difficult to find. I checked on Michel Epstein in my copy of Danutz Czech’s Auschwitz Chronicle for the date mentioned and found no mention.
    The fact is that mass homicidal gassing is accepted by most as a historical truth that requires no investigation. It is highly unfortunate that many who choose to investigate this matter and come to question or doubt the standard story are subject to incarceration throughout much of Europe and various forms of persecution elsewhere.
    Smith’s point appears to be that he has been looking into this matter since the late ’70’s and hasn’t found anything to convince him that gassings occurred. The question raised is what would be acceptable forms of proof. I would think an actual order to carry out exterminations, a blueprint or architectural drawing of a homicidal gas chamber, maybe even some sort of purchase order or contract with the builders of such a chamber.
    The investigations of Jean-Claude Pressac, a key researcher into this subject has not turned up any of the above stated proofs. Pressac has identified only what he calls “criminal traces.” The revisionists for their part have offered alternative interpretations of those criminal traces. It would seem to me that the enormous nature of this crime of the century should yield rather simply the type of evidence being looked for. We should have more than “traces” of a crime of such proportions.
    Without such evidence, it seems criminal to lock up those who are doubtful about the subject in question. In fact, even WITH such evidence, imprisonment of those who do not believe is a attack on the free speech and liberties of all of us.

  8. Part of the problem with the revisionist critique is that it is absolutist in nature. “No one” was gassed, or “everyone” was gassed. Reality isn’t like that.
    Another problem with the revisionist critique is that it is primarily reactive, i.e., it responds to Holocaust promotion (something that I have seen little of in the past several years, except in a very abstract way in reference to the need for Israel or the US to attack Iran to avoid a “second Holocaust.”)
    A further problem with the revisionist critique is that it tends to involve itself in all kinds of issues pertaining to Jews which are just not relevant. I mean, the issue is not about how Jews were killed, but how ANYONE was killed.
    Nobody questions that Nazi Germany was extremely hostile to Jews as an ethnic or “genetic” group. Nobody questions that Nazi Germany killed many. The only two big questions are: #1 How much of this killing of Jews was planned, and #2 to what extent was it carried out in “extermination” camps via various forms of “gas”, i.e., carbon monoxide and/or cyanide poisoning. As for #1, academic historians have been retreating from the “planned” idea for decades. Very few historians still hold that whatever was done to the Jews was planned in advance. That is why almost all historians of this period call themselves “functionalists.”
    From a rational point of view, the claims of mass exterminations via gas are unbelievable, both in scale and in the methods said to have been employed. They are unbelievable on their face, and would only become believable if there was a lot of connect the dots documentary and forensic evidence. And there isn’t.
    If the claims are unbelievable, but everyone believes them anyway, then how is that? I think the social psychology angle is the best. Humans are much more social animals than we give them credit for, the idea that we are all noble individuals — an idea we promoted in western democracies to encourage personal responsibility — is way over-stressed. All of us are at the mercy of collective group beliefs that come from who knows where and are accepted by everyone for a period of time for who knows how long.
    Why did rap music ever become popular? Who knows. Why isn’t it popular now? Who knows. Why did everyone talk about gas chambers and extermination camps for decades, and claim that a gastight door (apparently fairly common in Germany for a number of purposes) was proof? Who knows. Why don’t they talk about it now? Who knows.
    It’s always possible some small number of prisoners, including Jews, were gassed to death. After all, no one questions that the Germans used concentration camp prisoners to test their various war gases, including nerve gases (or did they only use those on lesser primates? I forget.)
    But the idea that millions of people were killed with CO or Zyklon B is just silly, to anyone who has read the revisionist critique. The only remaining questions are what has inhibited people from understanding the absurdity of what they believe, and second, when and how they will see the light. Probably if we were interested in studying this we would have to compare it to other odd beliefs, as, for example, with witchcraft, which took a long long time to die out.
    The Germans persecuted and killed a lot of Jews. Bad. Wrapping yourself up in your group identity to the detriment of others. Bad. Focusing on treating people in a certain way because of their ethnic or genetic background. Bad. Holocaust. Bad. I hope we don’t have to go over any of that anymore.
    And: millions of people killed in gas chambers. False.
    The only thing left here are some historical questions and some questions about how suggestible human beings are. That and the fact that persecuting and imprisoning people for their beliefs is Nazi by any other name.

  9. Autopsies performed by a US doctor ( name? – on the net) showed no deaths from “gas” in any of the supposedly “gas” camps.

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