"Soaps," a new film by director Eyal Ballas, searches for the root of the myth that Germans used the bodies of Jews to manufacture soap.
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Contemporary historians think the Nazis did not produce soap on an industrial scale using dead human bodies, a position shared by Yad Vashem. But the myth continues to hold sway with the big segments of the public.
The movie shows that in many places in Israel and the world, people light memorial candles beside soaps they believe were created from the bodies of Jews. Chemical analyses show they are actually made of vegetable materials.
The soap myth dates all the way back to World War I, when Germans were first rumored to be turning bodies into the stuff. During World War II, SS guards often tormented concentration camp prisoners by threatening to turn them into soap. The rumor gained further credence when at the end of the war the Soviet Red Army discovered a horrifying laboratory near Gdansk, Poland, with body parties alongside soap made from humans.
Some experts believe the institute served to test the feasibility of creating soap from human fat but never reached the stage of industrial production. Yehuda Bauer, Israel's leading Holocaust scholar and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says it is more likely that the soap was a byproduct of the decay of the bodies and that it was used to clean the institute on local initiative.
Either way, the institute did not use the bodies of Jews, but those of Poles and Germans from the not-far-away Stutthof concentration camp.
Ballas, 43, admits to being obsessive about the Holocaust.
"I think about the Holocaust a number of times every day; for example, when my son cries," he said.
Ballas is not a second- or third-generation descendant of survivors. His family is from Syria. He came to the soap myth by chance. As an amateur chess player, he visited a chess club at a nursing home in Givatayim, where he found a Hebrew book titled "Sights of the Destruction" – a treatise from 1946 on the annihilation of European Jewry.
"The book, which sat on a very dilapidated shelf, included pictures arranged by chapters," said Balias. "The last chapter was called 'Factory for Soaps' and presented pictures that bothered me. I started to investigate the matter and film. My wife told me I was crazy. That encouraged me even more."
At least ten cemeteries and memorial centers in Israel have soaps or monuments to soaps that were buried as symbols of Jewish communities ravaged by the Nazis. Such sites exist in Afula, Hod Hasharon, Nahariya, Bat Yam, Mazkeret Batya, the Chamber of the Holocaust on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and the archives of the Ghetto Fighters' House at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, among other places. Memorials to soaps can also be found in a number of Eastern European cities.
"Soaps" shows that one thing that contributed to the myth was confusion over the markings on some bars of soap. Certain German soaps produced in the Third Reich had the initial "RIF" imprinted on them, which was thought to stand for "Reichs Juden Fett," which means "State Jewish Fat." In fact, RIF stands for "Reichsstelle für industrielle Fettversorgung, or "National Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning," the German government agency responsible for the wartime production and distribution of soap and washing products. RIF soap contained no fat at all, human or vegetable.
The Holocaust Museum in Bat Yam exhibits an RIF soap bar donated by a Holocaust survivor, though the museum's director, professor Yuri Lyakhovitsky, does not claim to be sure it is made from Jewish fat. He says the charismatic personality of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal influenced the development of the myth.
Yad Vashem has sent mixed signals about the soap myth. On one hand, the center has released chemical analyses of soaps and vehemently denied the claims that they are made from the bodies of Jews – thereby helping to dispel the myth. On the other hand, three photographs of soap burials appear on its website. One of them has the caption, "In this grave is buried soap made from pure Jewish fat ... A silent testimony to the Holocaust and the brutality of the Germans."
A Yad Vashem spokesperson said the incorrect information on the website was a technical and temporary matter.
"We are trying to refute the soap myth at every opportunity and occasion," the spokesperson said. "We are working on a new version of the picture bank, but regretfully the update that includes a comment alongside the picture concerning the soap myth still does not appear in the Internet version; only at the museum at Yad Vashem. The website will be updated during the summer."
Meanwhile, Holocaust deniers are taking advantage of the soap myth, using it as straw man to question the Nazi's destruction of European Jewry in general.
"I am very careful in the movie," said Ballas. "I believe the viewers are intelligent and will understand the complexity of the myth. I think it is worthwhile for people to hear the truth. It may ease the fears of those who believe the story. The Nazis did so many horrible things; there is no need for another one. If Yad Vashem explains how the myth was created, that will damage the claims of Holocaust deniers."
"Already at the Nuremburg Trials it was clear that this was not [true]," said Bauer, the Hebrew University professor. "They saw the laboratory in Danzig was only experimental. The rumor about soap was a psychological plot against the Jews – classic viciousness of the Nazis. [People] ask me endlessly about the matter."
Bauer argues the soaps should be removed immediately from all Holocaust memorials. He is eagerly awaiting the release of Ballas' film. Anything that weakens and refutes such myths is good, he says. But he doubts the soap myth will be put to rest so easily.
At the climax of the film, people who have believed for their entire lives that the soaps are made of Jewish fat are confronted with the overwhelming historiographic consensus that they are not. Even when the believers are told that Yad Vashem has declared the soap myth baseless, they stubbornly refuse to change their minds, arguing the studies that disprove it were paid for by Germans. Israeli poet Yisrael Har, who is interviewed in the film, says the refutations of the soap myth come from Holocaust deniers and Wikipedia.