The people at the National Archives couldn't believe the number of calls they were getting from people who couldn't believe that the NBC "Holocaust" series described something that really happened.
"The phones never stopped ringing," said Archives spokesman Ben Ruhe. "About half the callers said they thought the program must have been exaggerated, that the Germans couldn't actually have exterminated millions of people. The other half asked if we had something, some real evidence, that they could show their children. And then there was the odd crank call.
"Well, it did happen, and we have the documents that prove it. We have the millions of pages of original exhibits from the Nuremburg war-crimes trials plus microfilms of the other captured German records. It runs to about 40 million pages, and we thought we should put some of them out so people could see for themselves."
The task of selecting what to show went to Robert Wolfe, chief of the Archives' modern military branch, who fought in Europe in World War II and has spent most of the years since studying the meticulous records kept by the Nazis as they carried out Hitler's "final solution to the Jewish problem."
"They gave me two weeks to put it together and three display cases to put it in," Wolfe said. "That's pretty tight all 'round. And how do you get the immediacy of slaughter?"
The exhibit answers his own question, and very well. Instead of photographs of acres of corpses, which the mind objects and "which reduce individual victims to anonymous lumps of flesh," Wolfe has presented mainly selections from the papers that the functionaries of the Third Reich shuffled to keep the bureaucracy of genocide running smoothly. Among the exhibits:
A 1941 letter from the Bishop of Limburg protesting to Minister of Justice Franz Gurtner about the killing of "valueless life" at Hadamar asylum. Feeble-minded and incurable patients were being put to death and their bodies burned at such a rate, the bishop said, that even children at play chattered knowingly about the smoky chimney and sickly smell.
Gurtner responded to such complaints by citing his official copy of Hitler's 1939 order authorizing the killings, also on display.
Aroutine report from an SS mobile command unit recording the shooting, on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941, of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar ravine near Kiev. Not "nearly 34,000 Jews" or "approximately 33,750 Jew" but "33,771 Jews."
A bill from the German Corporation for Pest Control for a shipment of half a ton of Zyklon B cyanide compound to Auschwitz concentration camp. Zyklon B originally was formulated as a pesticide with a noxious smell to warn people that a building was being fumigated. The Zyklon B shipped to Auschwitz and the other death camps was odorless.
A empty one-kilo Zyklon B canister also is on display. There was a special can opener that punched a regular array of holes in both top and bottom of the containers for rapid gasification of the cyanide crystals.
The minutes of the meeting in Berlin at which the "final solution" was formally approved. The goal laid out was the extermination of all Jews within Nazi territory. Among those present was Adolf Eichmann.
Two of the seven death books kept at Mauthausen concentration camp. Each page lists, in neat clerkish script, the name, birth date and place, and cause and time of death of 32 persons. The causes of death given range from "angina," and "suicide by hanging" to "shot while attempting to escape." Inmates of the camp had a curious tendency to expire at five-minute intervals.
The report of SS Gen. Jurgen Stroop announcing, "There is no longer a Jewish quarter in Warsaw!" His battle reports and photographs became a testament to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, who fought to the last in a struggle they knew they could not win.
A wax recording of a speech by Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler in which he subsituted "extermination of Jews" for the phrase "evacuation of the Jews" written in his prompter notes.
"Most of you will know what it means when 100 corpses . . . when 500 corpses or when 1000 corpses are lying there," Himmler told his audience of SS leaders. "This is a glorious page in our histroy, never written, and perhaps never to be written."