A proto-Holocaust story investigated. Soviet POWs "buried alive" in mass graves at Ban-Saint-Jean camp (Boulay, France)

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Sannhet
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A proto-Holocaust story investigated. Soviet POWs "buried alive" in mass graves at Ban-Saint-Jean camp (Boulay, France)

Postby Sannhet » 1 month 3 weeks ago (Mon Feb 15, 2021 1:31 am)

One thing under-appreciated in Holocaust discourse is how many of the early stories/rumors/atrocity-talk focused on Soviet POWs.

The miscellaneous atrocity stories were a "clay", out of which the Holocaust was "sculpted" and refined over the decades, into that which is recognizable in our time. A lot of the clay was vague stories of atrocities against Soviet Prisoners-of-War. (This was also true in 1950s-era West Germany from what I have seen. I have read a German ex-POW released from a Soviet gulag in 1956 who spoke in shame of atrocities of against Soviet POWs -- of which he'd heard rumors, did not see himself -- but said nothing of the Jews. This seems highly strange to read in the early 21st century, if the reader is paying attention. Nothing on the Jews? What is this?)

The "Soviet POW" angle largely dropped away from Holocaust rhetoric over the years, and the Jews, who already had an important place from the start, came to absolutely dominate Nazi-Atrocity discourse ("the Holocaust"), and of course still do in the early 2020s. But the Holocaust sprang up from a variety of propaganda-strands most of which were not Jewish.

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I present here a typical case of a Soviet POW atrocity story, an Associated Press article which ran across the news wire on November 1, 1945. It was widely printed. It alleges that there were atrocities at a POW camp for "Russian prisoners of war" near Boulay, near Metz, France (the town's official name is Boulay-Moselle). The article insinuates there may have been up to 23,000 unnecessary deaths under the Nazis there, and that many of the victims were even "buried alive."

Here is the article:

Victims Buried Alive by Nazis - AP Boulay France - Nov 1 1945.png

Victims Buried Alive by Nazis

METZ, FRANCE (AP) --- Examiners at the mass graves of 23,000 Russian prisoners of war near Boulay said Thursday they had found evidence that many victims were buried alive by their Nazi captors.

German prisoners of war continued exhuming the bodies by the thousands, working in shifts around the block in the two enormous pits.

Frenchmen living near the prisoner of war camp close by the Maginot line said the Germans had concentrated invalid Russians ate the place, most of the men suffering from tuberculosis.

One witness said conditions at the hospital were horrible, and another said that the Germans had opened old Jewish graves and stolen jewels, gold and silver dental works from bodies. All personal effects of the Russians, including gold from their teeth, were taken.

Notice also how the article backtracks a little by quoting locals who say they believe the site was for tuberculosis sufferers.

No further word or source for this "buried alive" claim, which seems reckless to publish with such a flimsy source ("examiners at the mass graves said").

They also toss in another gratuitous and unsourced claim that Nazis had looted local Jewish graves, a hint of what the Holocaust would be in its later forms.

(Before reading further, take a guess at who made these allegations, who the unnamed "examiners" were. The answer is below.)

This site is the Ban-Saint-Jean POW camp. I present some little research on the camp and its inmates in the context of the Holocaust controversy. Those who read French can probably provide more helpful insights than I have been able to.

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What do we know about Ban-Saint-Jean?

I find nothing in English on this particular atrocity story ("buried alive") anywhere online. The atrocity claim appears to have been made and then dropped. There is scant information in English on the camp itself but some in French. I find nothing on Ban-Saint-Jean on CODOH.

We know with certainty that there was a POW camp near the town known as Boulay-Moselle, and that there were deaths there. We also have the results of a full exhumation of the mass graves conducted in 1979 (something lacking about some key Jewish Holocaust claims, of course).

https://www.tracesofwar.com/sights/5825 ... of-War.htm

Cemetery Ukrainian/Russian Prisoners of War

Second World War (1939-1945)
Boulay-Moselle

This war cemetery contains the remains of 3000 Soviet (mainly Ukrainian) prisoners of war who perished in the Ban-Saint-Jean POW camp.

This source says there are three thousand buried here, "mainly Ukrainian." French Wikipedia claims the number of bodies exhumed was 2879 (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_du_Ban-Saint-Jean).

A local plaque at the town of Boulay-Moselle once had this:

Memorial to 3600 Ukrainian victims of WWII at Boulay-Moselle France.jpg
« Ici reposent 3 600 Ukrainiens victimes de la guerre 1939-1945. -- Les Ukrainiens de France ».
"Here lie 3,600 Ukrainians victims of the 1939-1945 war. -- The Ukrainians of France."

(See section "Holocaust Politics" below for more on this plaque, which apparently disappeared in 1980.)

In the 2000s, two German historians, Roland Zimmer and Dr. Irmgard Wilhelm-Schaffer, corresponded with Olga Kaczmar who had set up a site called DPcamps.org (Displaced Persons Camps) documenting these ephemeral camps from the 1940s. On this page http://www.dpcamps.org/metz.html, we learn the following:
Ban St. Jean is near the small city Boulay sur Moselle, about 6 Miles east of Metz. During World War II, it was a German POW-camp for Soviet soldiers, liberated by American troops on November 25, 1944. One year later a French-Soviet delegation visited the camp and found common graves with about 22,000 victims. They declared this as a German war crime, but Germany was never accused for it. From the Ukrainian community of east France (President Mr. Anatole Silbernagel) the victims are declared as Ukrainians and there existed a memorial, which disapeared in 1980 after a Soviet visit. (See photo.)

(This is the answer to the question posed above on who the source if these claims is, on the identity of the "examiners." It was a team of Soviets who showed up and suddenly the claims began circulating. Did you guess correctly?)

From the DPcamps.org page on Ban-Saint-Jean, we see that a man named Romain Bryjowski (?) created a website, http://www.ban-saint-jean.fr, entirely about the camp (and entirely in French). The site contains a lot of information which I am unable to fully and properly evaluate, reliant on auto-translate.

Here is a 1940s shot of the camp hosted at the above-named website:
Ban-Saint-Jean POW camp.jpg

A narrative account from ban-saint-jean.fr of what arriving at Ban-Saint-Jean meant as a Soviet POW. Notice the similarity to Holocaust claims about other camps:

Ils arrivent en train dans des wagons à bestiaux en gare de Boulay. Un voyage interminable sans alimentation. Les témoins décrivent des cortèges de morts-vivants qui se traînent au BSJ où après désinfection et établissement de leur dossier, on effectue une première sélection vers les affectations en commandos de travail . Les plus faibles restent sur place et se refont une santé chez les paysans du secteur. Mais dans ce camp, la promiscuité, l'absence de soin, le manque effarant de nourriture, vont provoquer maladies et épidémies et s'ensuit une mortalité très élevée.
They arrive by train in cattle cars at Boulay station. An interminable journey without food. Witnesses describe processions of the living dead that drag themselves to the BSJ where after disinfection and establishment of their file, a first selection is made for the assignments in work commandos. The weakest remain in place and recover their health among the farmers in the area. But in this camp, the crowding (?) [promiscuité], the lack of care, the appalling lack of food, will cause disease and epidemics and result in a very high mortality.

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Evaluating the number of Deaths at Ban-Saint-Jean

With any set of data, one needs context to make any real sense of it. Without context we can fall into any kind of erroneous belief. On the Ban-Saint-Jean.fr website, we find reference to German records indicating 300,000 Soviet POWs passed through the camp between autumn 1941 and autumn 1944. The US Army rolled in November 25, 1944, a precise end-date for the camp's operation. A Soviet source claims 320,000 POWs passed through.

The camp was 88 hectares in size, which is enough to house how many? Something in the low or maybe mid tens of thousands prisoners at any one time. If it was above 30,000 at any one time, the density would be very high.

We also see that the French press reported 20,000 dead in 1945 (after a "French-Soviet delegation" visited). The AP article given above gives 23,000 citing "examiners at the mass graves," which again must be the Soviet delegation.

An exhumation effort in 1979 found remains of exactly 2789 bodies, one-eighth the original 1945 claim. If 2789 is the total, this indicates about 17 deaths per week over the three-plus-year existence of the camp, over a total prisoner population in any given week of maybe 20,000, a circa 0.1% mortality per week if my numbers are right. If a section of the camp became reserved for tuberculosis patients in 1944, as printed in the AP article, many of these will be deaths to tuberculosis and not mistreatment or anything like that, so the non-sick mortality rate would be well below 0.1% per week, which means our atrocity claim has evaporated, down to maybe 0.1% per month, if that.

A death-total of 2789 would indicate circa 1.0% deaths of the total who ever spent any time in the camp; the 1945 claims of 20,000 and 23,000 would be ca. 6.0% to 7.5% deaths of all prisoners who were ever there. The higher number is not impossible on the numbers, if the camp or a portion of it was indeed reserved for sick prisoners towards the end. This points us to the question of what the causes of death were. Maybe whoever led the dig in 1979 did some investigation into this, I don't know.

Certainly at any camp there will be some baseline level of deaths. Was the 2789 deaths (the total found by the exhumation work in 1979) higher than it needed to be? Put another way, absent internment, would the total number of deaths been much lower? I think the answer to that is Yes. The tuberculosis patients are a complicating factor but also a chicken-and-egg problem, as many must have also fallen ill with TB in German captivity. But, then, to say that "deaths were much higher than they needed to be, even absent specific atrocities," you're just walking into a "pissing contest" about how many German POWs died in Allied captivity, 1944 to 1946 or so.

We can also be certain that if there were indeed still prisoners (often sick and weak prisoners) at Ban-Saint-Jean upon the arrival of the US Army on Nov. 25, 1944, they were much more likely to survive than some of the more luckless people in the German-interior camps which stayed in German hands to April 1945, during months of severe disruption.

As for the salacious allegation of prisoners "buried alive," I find nothing repeating such a claim at http://www.ban-saint-jean.fr.

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Holocaust Politics and the Memory of Ban-Saint-Jean in the rest of the 20th century

Trying to sort out actual facts of this camp, what may or may not have happened three years of this POW camp's operation in the 1940s, is one thing. Its importance to the back-ground noise of early Holocaust claims in 1945 (pre-Nuremberg) I believe is important to help our understanding.

Another important point here is how the story relates to Holocaust Politics (WWII atrocity politics), which is clearly a key driver of the Holocaust narrative all along, including in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Most people 'consume' the Holocaust as a quasi-religious product, but the engines of the Holocaust Machine fire on the fuel of geopolitics and ethnopolitics. This Ban-Saint-Jean POW camp case gives a nice little insight into the phenomenon:

According to Zimmer and Wilhelm-Schaffer, the circa-1950(?) memorial plaque, erected by the French-Ukrainian group, disappeared at the time of a Soviet state visit to the site in 1980.

Monument at Ban-Saint-Jean disappeared in 1980.jpg

Who removed the plaque? Why? The explanation appears to be rooted in the diplomacy and geopolitics of the time (1980). France didn't want to upset the Soviets by the presence of an implicitly Ukrainian-nationalist memorial plaque. The victims being named as "Ukrainians" and not "Soviets" was the problem, as it implied Ukraine was a legitimately independent nation rather than effectively a province of the Soviet state. Ban-Saint-Jean.fr cites Georges Coudry, author of “Soviet camps in France”:
« Le combat des dissidents ukrainiens pour la reconnaissance de leur identité historique et culturelle avait alors ses prolongements jusque dans les cimetières français. » .
"The fight of Ukrainian dissidents for the recognition of their historical and cultural identity then had its extensions even in French cemeteries."

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Conclusion, evaluation of the Ban-Saint-Jean atrocity claim made in 1945

There was a POW camp at this site which had some number of deaths. A baseline of facts about the Ban-Saint-Jean camp was the springboard for the atrocity claim in 1945. The atrocity claims were already abandoned soon after they were made, but this kind of claim was being drum-beat all over the place at the time.

The French-Ukrainian group calls these dead solely "victimes de la guerre," which is probably the fairest description. Nothing about killings, nothing about German brutality, nothing about people buried alive (as the salacious November 1945 claim had it), nothing like that. The exhumation of the mass graves in 1979 finding 2789 bodies. The number of deaths seems roughly proportional to the number of German POWs who died in captivity.

What I see is that this "23,000 deaths, many buried alive" is a typical proto-Holocaust story. The difference is the central claims were abandoned after further inquiry rather than becoming part of a hegemonic cultural power-structure, as did similar claims about other camps especially those involving Jews.

The hand of the Soviets in originating this atrocity claim is again seen. Only after the Soviet delegation visited in late October(?) 1945 is the claim circulated. Non-Soviet investigations brought the numbers down by nearly a factor of ten, and nothing more was heard about the "prisoners buried alive" claim.
Last edited by Sannhet on Mon Feb 15, 2021 2:22 am, edited 6 times in total.

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Re: A proto-Holocaust story investigated. Soviet POWs "buried alive" in mass graves at Ban-Saint-Jean camp (Boulay, Fran

Postby borjastick » 1 month 3 weeks ago (Mon Feb 15, 2021 2:03 am)

Yeah right. So Germany would send Russian troops captured in wartime west that far to France to intern them in a camp. Rubbish.
'Of the four million Jews under Nazi control in WW2, six million died and alas only five million survived.'

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Re: A proto-Holocaust story investigated. Soviet POWs "buried alive" in mass graves at Ban-Saint-Jean camp (Boulay, Fran

Postby Sannhet » 1 month 3 weeks ago (Mon Feb 15, 2021 2:28 am)

borjastick wrote:Yeah right. So Germany would send Russian troops captured in wartime west that far to France to intern them in a camp. Rubbish.

Well, the region in question was part of the German Reich from 1871-1919 and 1940-1945, as part of Alsace-Lorraine. It is French again since 1945. As of 1941 it was being treated as core German territory, not occupied France.

It was also apparently not for "Russians" as such but for Ukrainians.

I don't know why they set up this POW camp there. There would seem to be more to this story but I don't know enough about it. Maybe someone else does and would be kind enough to comment. Speculation: Someone had some kind of plan at some stage to train Ukrainians for service against the USSR and this camp had a role. In that case it makes more sense to put it in the far-rear-area.

A book in French by Georges Coudry, Les camps soviétiques en France : les "Russes" livrés a Staline en 1945 ("The Soviet camps in France: The 'Russians' handed over to Stalin in 1945") (Paris, A. Michel, 1997) has more info on these camps.


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