The Soap Myth

A Holocaust artifact in a post-truth era

Rumours that Germany exploited human remains for wartime industrial production date back to 1915. During the First World War, Allied nations spread stories of the kaiser using corpses to produce nitroglycerine at munition factories. This propagandistic atrocity tale was one of many designed to incite anti-­German sentiment. Although many of these stories were eventually discredited, tales of the corpse factories endured. They found new life during the Second World War, when Nazi concentration camp guards told prisoners that the soap being distributed to them was made of fat rendered from their murdered relatives.

The soap stories reached North America as early as November 1942. The New York Times quoted Rabbi Stephen Wise, who related that the Nazis had already killed two million Jews and were processing the bodies “into such war-­vital commodities as soap, fats and fertilizer.” Three...