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The Soap Myth

A Holocaust artifact in a post-truth era

Daniel Panneton

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 years later, at the Nuremberg Trials, Douglas T. Frost, a former British prisoner of war, testified that German civilians had taunted him about how he’d be “made into soap.” Similar testimony given to Holocaust memory organizations by survivors like Leo Fettman, imprisoned at Auschwitz, and Hanna Mishna, who lived in the Cz stochowa ghetto, attested to the rumours’ omnipresence.

Jews in Canada, Israel, Poland, Brazil, Bulgaria, and Romania held post-war ceremonies to memorialize and bury significant quantities of soap. The Mauthausen­Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol, in his narration of the 1956 documentary Night and Fog, relates that Nazis used human corpses to “make soap.” Cast a Giant Shadow, released a decade later, features Kirk Douglas telling John Wayne that his soldiers have been “knocking off a lot of guys who’d been making soap out of my relatives.” In 2010, a Montreal shopkeeper was subjected to a criminal investigation after attempting to sell a bar of soap he claimed came from the war — a controversy replicated in 2015, when a Dutch vendor tried the same on eBay.

The world heard about human soap — but maybe not the whole story.

Daniel Panneton

While the tales have persisted, so too have the unanswered questions. Mark Jacobson, of New York magazine, detailed in 2010 his attempt to verify the authenticity of a lampshade supposedly made from a Holocaust victim’s skin in The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans. In his quest, he travels — as the book title suggests — around the world, to concentration camps, museums, and the offices of many an expert. Even in his home borough of Queens, he says, “we all knew about the soap.”

The Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, in Toronto’s North York neighbourhood, opened in 1985, the product of commemorative activities of a group of survivors who made up the Holocaust Remembrance Committee of the Toronto Jewish Congress. The Neuberger offers Holocaust education and in-­person survivor testimony to visiting school and community groups, along with public programming throughout the year, culminating in an annual Holocaust Education Week, each November.

I manage daily operations at the museum, a role that includes developing exhibits and delivering programming. Last autumn, while searching for content to use in an exhibit for Holocaust Education Week, I committed a cardinal museological sin. I dropped an artifact — one stored in an envelope marked “1 Bar Soap of Human Fat.”

While I was regaining my composure and surveying for potential damage, several questions rushed to my mind. Wasn’t soap made from the fat of Holocaust victims supposed to be a myth? Where did this bar come from, and why did the Neuberger have it? Most pressingly: Was it real?

In the eyes of Holocaust historians, the question has been settled. Although the Danzig Anatomical Institute conducted small-scale wartime experiments in producing soap-like substances from corpses, there is no evidence of human soap production on an industrial scale. Furthermore, in 1990, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, had several soap samples tested, and the results revealed no human DNA. The organization reiterated the findings in 2005, and they were verified by separate tests in Montreal five years later.

Still, the myth endures — and there are two reasons why.

First, the story is plausible. The Nazis did use human hair, skeletons, and ashes for industrial purposes. The assumption that human fat was used does not require much suspension of disbelief. Given that experiments had been run, it’s conceivable that soap production could have begun in earnest if the Holocaust had continued beyond 1945.

Second, the soap myth affirms a common dualistic perception. For many of us today, Nazism blends the modern order of utilitarianism with the terror of human barbarism.

Some critics, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, suggest the extreme violence of the Holocaust was a deviation from civilization and modernity. This assumption was integral to post-war justice. To underscore the barbarism of Nazi crimes and contrast them with the Allies’ comparatively honourable wartime conduct, human lampshades and shrunken heads were used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.

The Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman rejected this view, arguing that the Holocaust was not a departure from civilization but rather “an event which disclosed the weakness and fragility of human nature” before modernity. Juxtaposing “civilized” modernity with Nazi conduct “diverted attention from the permanence of the alternative, destructive potential” inherent in the “civilizing process.”

The alleged manufacture of human soap, which would be a mass-scale, calculated act of irrational, destructive violence, is a marriage of these interpretations. It’s representative of what the Holocaust scholar and Dan Stone describes as “violence within modernity,” affirming the possibility of unrestrained, appalling barbarism inside productive and civilized society. For this reason, the rumour persists, nestled comfortably within public interpretation.

Israel Kopyto, a secular Jewish activist, donated the bar of soap that I dropped. Kopyto and his wife, Frieda, fled Poland three months before the 1939 Nazi invasion, landing in the Soviet Union. A master tailor, he produced uniforms for the Red Army during the war. Later, the couple spent four years in a displaced persons’ camp, followed by five years in Israel, before emigrating to Toronto.

In 1976, Kopyto made a pilgrimage back to Poland to reconnect with his heritage. During this tour, he acquired a number of relics, including the soap. White, rectangular, and chipped around the edges, the bar is nondescript, except for one detail: it’s stamped with “RIF.” The letters stand for Reichsstelle für Industrielle Fettversorgung (National Centre for Industrial Fat Provisioning), but it’s widely believed among survivors that they signify Reine Juden Fett (pure Jewish fat) or Reichs Juden Fett (state Jewish fat).

Kopyto was interviewed by the Canadian Jewish News upon his return to Toronto. The CJN took particular interest in the soap, writing that “one only begins to understand the profundities of the World War II experience after one has seen this specimen of Nazi brutality.” In 1991, he entrusted the bar, along with the other items from his trip, to our museum, then just six years old. Kopyto passed away in 2011, three days before his ninety-­sixth birthday.

I recently interviewed Israel’s son, Harry, about his father’s life and legacy. Harry doesn’t know if his father knew the truth about the soap, but he believes that if Israel did, he kept the bar to represent the real, historical suffering that the Jews endured.

The soap myth has become a favoured talking point among Holocaust deniers, who will appropriate any piece of erroneous information in an attempt to deny the truth of the entire tragedy. Because it is so popular, the soap myth is particularly vulnerable to this treatment. Notably, in closing remarks at his unsuccessful suit against the history professor Deborah Lipstadt, of Emory University in Atlanta, David Irving tried to use the lore as evidence of wider fraud.

Deniers’ zeal for the myth causes skittishness among historians and museum professionals. Cognizant that the deniers regularly deploy bad faith arguments, many scholars are reluctant to discuss myths and misconceptions, lest their words be twisted. While researching The Lampshade, Jacobson found that many educators would not admit even the possibility that the titular object could be made from human skin. The educators argued that since it could not “be proved to legitimately be part of the Holocaust, [they could not] treat it as such.” As it turned out, DNA testing later revealed the lampshade was made from cow skin.

Because Holocaust denial is rooted in, as the author Lawrence N. Powell notes, “refurbished conspiratorial anti-­Semitism,” it cannot be ignored. Anti-Semitism affects all communities, as it is often the linchpin of world views hostile to a plethora of demographic groups, viewpoints, and identities. Anti-Semitic biases have no place in historical discourse — or, for that matter, in our liberal democracy. Proponents of Holocaust denial must be combatted, particularly at a time when our very notions of truth are being undermined.

The post-truth era is marked by an on-going assault on once-­trusted institutions. Holocaust education is one institution that, as living memory passes, is entering a critical moment. The 1990s and early 2000s were a peak period of Holocaust education, facilitated by relatively numerous survivors, well-­funded memorial organizations, and mainstream movies, like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The passage of living memory is coinciding with the emergence of the alt-right, which co-opts meme humour to desensitize and radicalize, along with the spread of social media, which provides deniers a public platform. Holocaust memory is under siege, and this threat will only intensify in the post-truth era as fewer and fewer survivors remain to give direct testimony.

Soap wasn’t made from Holocaust victims, but it’s conceivable that it could have been. It’s not surprising that concentration camp prisoners believed what they were told. Rabbi Murray J. Kohn, a survivor of Auschwitz-­Birkenau, reminds us that “the testimonies of survivors present us with personal experiences that reflect the unspeakable suffering and anguish that defined the Holocaust.” Teaching the soap myth presents an opportunity for scholars and survivors to unite — to acknowledge that the trauma inflicted by the soap myth is real, even if the soap wasn’t actually made from murdered human beings.

Refusing to dissect the intrinsic meaning and widespread impact of Holocaust myths gives deniers — who appropriate narratives for their own malevolent purposes, while framing themselves as truth seekers — the ability to control the narrative. Deniers use manipulated facts to divert attention from historical debates. Their lies thrive on the anti-­establishment suspicion driving far-right political movements, and will only be exacerbated as public trust in institutions, archives, and records is eroded by the desensitization and misinformation campaigns that mark the post-truth era.

Denial is not simply an exercise in historical mythmaking; it is, as the political scientist Gregory Stanton describes, the “final stage of genocide.”* And denialism is not confined to the Nazi Holocaust. Indeed, skepticism and constructed ignorance call the legitimacy and legacy of all genocides into question. State-­sanctioned denial is the most egregious example of this behaviour. Consider the Armenian and Rwandan cases. The Turkish government uses the internet to push its narrative, promoting a “Let History Decide” social media campaign and providing material support for diasporic Turkish organizations willing to take up the banner. And although denying the Rwandan genocide is illegal in that country, legalities haven’t stopped Hutu perpetrators and their supporters from minimizing the atrocities. Local laws don’t limit international support, either, and these Hutu have found external allies like François Mitterrand, the former French president whose government, ironically, prosecuted the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson in the 1990s.

In an era of post-truth, what is any museum to do when it finds a myth among its collection? The reconciliation of legitimate, albeit ahistorical, psychological and emotional experiences with the historical record is fraught. Pretending that curious individuals won’t encounter myths, online or otherwise, isn’t the answer; nor is assuming they won’t be seduced by the exploitation of deniers. Ultimately, we mustn’t be afraid to address pervasive myths while teaching history. And we can recognize, and emphasize, the legitimacy of psychological memory while asserting its clash with documented reality. In this way, the soap itself and artifacts like it act as apocryphal texts, containing lessons within their questionable origins. Genocide education’s best chance against denial in a post-truth age is to teach complete ­histories — myths and all.

Note: The print edition of the May issue attributed this quotation to Adam Jones. In fact, Gregory Stanton was the correct name. The magazine regrets any confusion.

Daniel Panneton is the education and programs assistant at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, in Toronto.