by Mark Weber
One of the most lurid and slanderous Holocaust claims is the story
that the Germans manufactured soap from the bodies of their victims.
Although a similar charge during the First World War was exposed
as a hoax almost immediately afterwards, it was nevertheless revived
and widely believed during the Second. More important, this accusation
was "proved" at the main Nuremberg trial of 1945‑1946, and has been
authoritatively endorsed by numerous historians in the decades since.
In recent years, though, as part of a broad retreat from the most obviously
untenable aspects of the "orthodox" extermination story, Holocaust
historians have grudgingly conceded that the human soap tale is a
wartime propaganda lie. In their retreat, though, these historians have
tried to dismiss the soap story as a mere wartime "rumor,"neglecting
to mention that international Jewish organizations and then Allied
governments endorsed and sanctioned this libelous canard.
Wartime rumors that the Germans were manufacturing soap from
the corpses of slaughtered Jews were based in part on the fact that
soap bars distributed by German authorities in Jewish ghettos and
camps bore the impressed initials "RIF," which many took to stand
for "Rein juedisches Fett" or "Pure Jewish Fat." (It did not seem to
matter that the letters were "RIF" and not "RJF.") These rumors spread
so widely in 1941 and 1942 that by late 1942 German authorities in
Poland and Slovakia were expressing official concern about their
impact. According to a Polish source quoted in a secret wartime U.S.
Army military intelligence report, for example, the Germans were
operating a "human soap factory" in 1941 at Turek, Poland. "The
Germans had brought thousands of Polish teachers, priests and Jews
there and after extracting the blood serum from their bodies, had thrown
them on large pots and melted off grease to make soap," the intelligence
report added. Macabre "Jewish soap" jokes became popular in the ghettos
and camps, and many non‑Jews on the outside came to believe the story.
When trains loaded with Jewish deportees stopped temporarily at rail
stations, Poles reportedly would gleefully shout at them: "Jews to soap!"
Even British prisoners of war interned at Auschwitz in 1944 testified
later about the wartime rumors that corpses of gassing victims were
being turned into soap there. In spite of its inherently incredible character,
the soap story became an important feature of Jewish and Allied war
propaganda. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, wartime head of both the World
Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Congress, publicly charged
in November 1942 that Jewish corpses were being "processed into such
war‑vital commodities as soap, fats and fertilizer" by the Germans. He
further announced that the Germans were "even exhuming the dead for
the value of the corpses," and were paying fifty marks for each body.
In late 1942, the Congress Weekly, published by the American Jewish
Congress, editorialized that the Germans were turning Jews "by scientific
methods of dissolution into fertilizer, soap and glue." An article in the
same issue reported that Jewish deportees from France and Holland were
being processed into "soap, glue and train oil" in at least two special
factories in Germany. Typical of many other American periodicals, the
influential New Republic reported in early 1943 that the Germans were
"using the bodies of their Jewish victims to make soap and fertilizer in
a factory at Siedlce." During June and July 1943, two prominent
representatives of the Moscow‑based "Jewish Anti‑Fascist Committee"
toured the United States and raised more than two million dollars for the
Soviet war effort at a series of mass meetings. At each of these rallies,
Soviet Jewish leader Solomon Mikhoels showed the crowd a bar of soap
that he said was made from Jewish corpses. After the war the soap story
was given important legitimacy at the main Nuremberg trial. L. N. Smirnov,
Chief Counsellor of Justice for the USSR, declared to the Tribunal:
.... The same base, rationalized SS technical minds which created gas
chambers and murder vans, began devising such methods of complete
annihilation of human bodies, which would not only conceal the traces
of their crimes, but also to serve in the manufacturing of certain products.
In the Danzig Anatomical Institute, semi‑industrial experiments in the
production of soap from human bodies and the tanning of human skin
for industrial purposes were carried out.
Smirnov quoted at length from an affidavit by Sigmund Mazur, an Institute
employee, which was accepted as Nuremberg exhibit USSR‑197. It alleged
that Dr. Rudolf Spanner, the head of the Danzig Institute, had ordered the
production of soap from corpses in 1943. According to Mazur's affidavit,
Dr. Spanner's operation was of interest to high‑ranking German officials.
Education Minister Bernhard Rust and Health Leader Dr. Leonardo Conti,
as well as professors from other medical institutes, came to witness Spanner's
efforts. Mazur also claimed to have used the "human soap" to wash himself
and his laundry.
A human soap "recipe," allegedly prepared by Dr. Spanner (Nuremberg
document USSR‑196), was also presented. Finally, a sample of what was
supposed to be a piece of "human soap" was submitted to the Nuremberg
Tribunal as exhibit USSR‑393.
In his closing address to the Tribunal, chief British prosecutor Sir Hartley
Shawcross echoed his Soviet colleague: "On occasion, even the bodies of
their victims were used to make good the wartime shortage of soap." And
in their final judgment, the Nuremberg Tribunal judges found that "attempts
were made to utilize the fat from the bodies of the victims in the commercial
manufacture of soap."
It is worth emphasizing here that the "evidence" presented at the Nuremberg
Tribunal for the bogus soap story was no less substantial than the "evidence"
presented for the claims of mass extermination in "gas chambers." At least in
the former case, an actual sample of soap supposedly made from corpses was
submitted in evidence.
After the war, supposed Holocaust victims were solemnly buried, in the
form of soap bars, in Jewish cemeteries. In 1948, for example, four such
bars wrapped in a funeral shroud were ceremoniously buried according to
Jewish religious ritual at the Haifa cemetery in Israel. Other bars of "Jewish
soap" have been displayed as grim Holocaust relics at the Jewish Historical
Institute in Warsaw, the Stutthof Museum near Gdansk (Danzig), the Yivo
Institute in New York, the Holocaust Museum in Philadelphia, the Jewish
Holocaust Centre in Melbourne (Australia), and at various locations in
Israel. Numerous Jews who lived in German ghettos and camps during the
war helped keep the soap story alive many years later. Ben Edelbaum, for
example, wrote in his 1980 memoir Growing Up in the Holocaust:
Often with our rations in the ghettos, the Germans had included a bar of
soap branded with initials R.J.F. which came to be known as "RIF" soap.
It wasn't until the war had ended that we learned the horrible truth about
the bar of soap. Had we known in the ghetto, every bar of "RIF" soap would
have been accorded a sacred Jewish funeral in the cemetery at Marysin. As it
was, we were completely oblivious to its origin and used the bones and flesh
of our murdered loved ones to wash our bodies.
Nesse Godin was transferred from a ghetto in Lithuania to the Stutthof
concentration camp in the spring of 1944. In a 1983 interview, she recalled
her arrival there:
That day they gave us a shower and a piece of soap. After the war we found
out the soap was made out of pure Jew fat, Rein Juden Fett, marked in the
initials on the soap that I washed with. For all I know sometimes maybe
there was a little bit of my father's fat in that soap that I washed with.
How do you think I feel when I think about that?
Mel Mermelstein, the former Auschwitz inmate who was featured in the
sensationalized April 1991 cable television movie "Never Forget" (and who
sued the Institute for Historical Review and three other defendants for $11
million), declared in a 1981 sworn deposition that he and other camp inmates
used soap bars made from human fat. It was an "established fact," he
insisted, that the soap he washed with was made from Jewish bodies.
Renowned "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal repeated the soap tale in a series
of articles published in 1946 in the Austrian Jewish community paper Der
Neue Weg. In the first of these he wrote:
During the last weeks of March the Romanian press reported an unusual piece
of news: In the small Romanian city of Folticeni twenty boxes of soap were
buried in the Jewish cemetery with full ceremony and complete funeral rites.
This soap had been found recently in a former German army depot. On the
boxes were the initials RIF, "Pure Jewish Fat." These boxes were destined
for the Waffen‑SS. The wrapping paper revealed with completely cynical
objectivity that this soap was manufactured from Jewish bodies. Surprisingly,
the thorough Germans forgot to describe whether the soap was produced from
children, girls, men or elderly persons.
Wiesenthal went on:
After 1942 people in the General Government [Poland] knew quite well
what the RIF soap meant. The civilized world may not believe the joy with
which the Nazis and their women in the General Government thought of
this soap. In each piece of soap they saw a Jew who had been magically put
there, and had thus been prevented from growing into a second Freud, Ehrlich
or Einstein. In another article he observed: "The production of soap from
human fat is so unbelievable that even some who were in concentration
camps find it difficult to comprehend."
Over the years, numerous supposedly reputable historians have promoted
the durable soap story. Journalist‑historian William L. Shirer, for example,
repeated it in his best‑selling work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Leading Soviet war propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote in his postwar memoir:
"I have held in my hand a cake of soap stamped with the legend 'pure Jewish
soap', prepared from the corpses of people who had been destroyed. But there
is no need to speak of these things: thousands of books have been written
A standard history studies textbook used in Canadian secondary schools,
Canada: The Twentieth Century, told students that the Germans "boiled"
the corpses of their Jewish victims "to make soap." The Anatomy of Nazism,
a booklet published and distributed by the Zionist "Anti‑Defamation League"
of B'nai B'rith, stated:
"The process of brutalization did not end with the mass murders themselves.
Large quantities of soap were manufactured from the corpses of those
A detailed 1981 work, Hitler's Death Camps, repeated the soap story in lurid
detail. While noting that "some historians claim that the Nazi manufacture of
soap from human fat is just a grim rumor," author Konnilyn Feig nevertheless
accepted the story because "most East European camp scholars ... validate the
soap stories, and other kinds of bars made from humans are displayed in
Eastern Europe ‑‑ I have seen many over the years."
New York Rabbi Arthur Schneier repeated the tale at the opening ceremony
of the largest Holocaust meeting in history. In his invocation to the "American
Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors," held in Washington in April 1983,
the Rabbi solemnly declared: "We remember the bars of soap with the initials
RJF ‑‑ Rein jdisches Fett, Pure Jewish Fat ‑‑ made from the bodies of our
In spite of all the apparently impressive evidence, the charge that the
Germans manufactured soap from human beings is a falsehood, as Holocaust
historians are now belatedly acknowledging. The "RIF" soap bar initials that
supposedly stood for "Pure Jewish Fat" actually indicated nothing more
sinister than "Reich Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning" ("Reichsstelle
fr Industrielle Fettversorgung"), a German agency responsible for wartime
production and distribution of soap and washing products. RIF soap was a
poor quality substitute that contained no fat at all, human or otherwise.
Shortly after the war the public prosecutor's office of Flensburg, Germany,
began legal proceedings against Dr. Rudolf Spanner for his alleged role in
producing human soap at the Danzig Institute. But after an investigation the
charge was quietly dropped. In a January 1968 letter, the office stated that
its inquiry had determined that no soap from human corpses was made at the
Danzig Institute during the war.
More recently, Jewish historian Walter Laqueur "denied established history"
by acknowledging in his 1980 book, The Terrible Secret, that the human soap
story has no basis in reality. Gitta Sereny, another Jewish historian, noted
in her book Into That Darkness: "The universally accepted story that the
corpses were used to make soap and fertilizer is finally refuted by the
generally very reliable Ludwigsburg Central Authority for Investigation into
Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history, similarly "rewrote
history" when she confirmed in 1981: "The fact is that the Nazis never used
the bodies of Jews, or for that matter anyone else, for the production of
In April 1990, professor Yehuda Bauer of Israel's Hebrew University, regarded
as a leading Holocaust historian, as well as Shmuel Krakowski, archives
director of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust center, confirmed that the human
soap story is not true. Camp inmates "were prepared to believe any horror
stories about their persecutors," Bauer said. At the same time, though, he
had the chutzpah to blame the legend on "the Nazis."
In fact, blame for the soap story lies rather with individuals such as Simon
Wiesenthal and Stephen Wise, organizations like the World Jewish Congress,
and the victorious Allied powers, none of whom has ever apologized for
promoting this vile falsehood.
Why did Bauer and Krakowski decide that this was the appropriate time to
officially abandon the soap story? Krakowski himself hints that a large part
of the motivation for this "tactical retreat" has been to save what's left of
the sinking Holocaust ship by throwing overboard the most obvious false‑
hoods. In the face of the growing Revisionist challenge, easily demonstrable
falsehoods like the soap story have become dangerous embarrassments
because they raise doubts about the entire Holocaust legend. As Krakowski
"Historians have concluded that soap was not made from human fat. When
so many people deny the Holocaust ever happened, why give them something
to use against the truth?"
The bad faith of those making this calculated and belated concession to
truth is shown by their failure to note that the soap myth was authoritatively
"confirmed" at Nuremberg, and by their unwillingness to deal with the
implications of that confirmation for the credibility of the Tribunal and other
supposedly trustworthy authorities in establishing other, more fundamental
aspects of the Holocaust story.
The striking contrast between the prompt postwar disavowal by the British
government of the infamous "human soap" lie of the First World War, and the
way in which a similarly baseless propaganda story from the Second World War
was officially endorsed by the victorious Allied powers and then
authoritatively maintained for so many years not only points up the
dispiriting lack of integrity on the part of so many Western historians, but
underscores the general decline in Western ethical standards during this
The "human soap" story demonstrates anew the tremendous impact that a
wartime rumor, no matter how fantastic, can have once it has taken hold,
particularly when it is disseminated as a propaganda lie by influential
individuals and powerful organizations. That so many intelligent and
otherwise thoughtful people could ever have seriously believed that the
Germans distributed bars of soap brazenly labeled with letters indicating
that they were manufactured from Jewish corpses shows how readily even
the most absurd Holocaust fables can be ‑‑ and are ‑‑ accepted as fact.