By PETER STEINFELS
AT Auschwitz, it is inscribed in stone: four million people died in the Nazi camps. But Yehuda Bauer, one of the foremost historians of the Holocaust and a sworn enemy of those who deny its reality, says that the number of victims was less than half that.
Why is Mr. Bauer, the Director of the Division of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem‘s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, insisting that far fewer people, including far fewer Jews, died at Auschwitz than is commonly reported? ”A historian’s first duty is to tell the truth,” Mr. Bauer said. And in this case the truth is horrible enough. Exaggerating the number of dead at Auschwitz, he said, ”would only be grist for the mills of the deniers of the Holocaust.”
”They can add, you know,” he said. The four million figure, combined with the known deaths elsewhere, would result in a total number of Holocaust victims well above the approximate figure of six million that has long been established by different methods, including a comparison of European Jewish population statistics before and after the war, he said.
Although differing estimates of the Auschwitz death toll were reported during the furor this year about the location of a Roman Catholic convent at the concentration camp site, the most frequently cited figures list 2.5 million Jewish victims and 1.5 million others, most of them presumed to be Polish. At the end of September, Mr. Bauer published an article in The Jerusalem Post calling those figures ”patently false.”
Five years ago, he said, research by the French Jewish historian Georges Wellers had established that approximately 1.6 million people were gassed, executed by other means, tortured to death or were victims of starvation or disease at Auschwitz. According to these findings, about 1.35 million were Jews. There were 83,000 Polish victims, 20,000 Gypsies and 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war. An additional 150,000 Poles were imprisoned at Auschwitz, then shipped elsewhere where many, although not the majority, died.
Mr. Bauer, who is in the United States participating in several scholarly conferences on the Holocaust, said that his article had ”created quite a rumpus in Israel.” He received calls and letters asking, ”Why is this Bauer going around saying a million fewer Jews died at Auschwitz?”
Why indeed do differences between any such grisly estimates of deaths matter at all? When answering that question, Mr. Bauer speaks passionately about the role of the historian and the temptation to create ”myths” that are dangerous in the long run.
In his attack on the familiar Auschwitz statistics, Mr. Bauer has the agreement of a Hebrew University colleague, Yisrael Gutman, who is the editor of a four-volume Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, to be published next year. Mr. Gutman led the Jewish underground in the Auschwitz camps. Political Purposes
Among Holocaust historians, Mr. Bauer said, the larger figures ”have been dismissed for years, except that it hasn’t reached the public and I think it’s about time that it did.” Mr. Bauer contends that Polish Communists and nationalists alike promoted the larger figures to serve a political purpose, casting both Jewish and Polish losses in such huge numbers that the distinction between the fates of the two groups was blurred. Mr. Bauer said he does not play down the Nazi assault on Poles. He calls it genocide, which he defines as the ”destruction of a national entity with selective mass murder” of those who resisted. ”The flower of the Polish intelligentsia was murdered in the camps, including Auschwitz,” he said. But for the Jews, he said, the Nazis planned a fate even beyond the destruction of a nation: ”mass annihilation.” Genocide and holocaust ”are separate frightfulnesses,” Mr. Bauer said, and if the world wants to combat them, it has to keep in mind the distinction. ”You don’t treat cholera and cancer with the same medication, you differentiate between deadly diseases.”
Mr. Bauer said, ”It’s the historian’s task to examine myths,” and if necessary to explode them. He illustrated his point by noting ”the perception of some Israeli politicians, that all the Gentiles were against us” during the Holocaust, with the exception only of those ”righteous Gentiles” honored at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem. ”Nonsense, just nonsense,” Mr. Bauer said. ”The Jews in a number of countries were saved by the local populations.”
Mr. Bauer said that it was a similar misuse of history ”to compare every post-Holocaust anti-Semite to the Nazis.” There are Nazi elements in contemporary anti-Semitism, he said, but frequently there are significant differences as well. ”Facile analogies are things we have to warn against,” he said.
While insisting on precision about Holocaust death tolls, Mr. Bauer has also warned against ”immersing tears and suffering in oceans of footnotes” and ”coming up with a remote quasi-scientific approach which would be as inhuman as that of those who committed the crime or of those who stood by and watched it indifferently.”