The legend of Jews being turned into bars of soap by the Nazis lives on in the popular imagination despite the fact that all serious scholars now reject it. Simon Wiesenthal did not originate the myth but he did play a critical role in disseminating it at a crucial stage when first impressions were being formed in the immediate post-war era. Despite the comprehensive scholarly debunking it has received, the Soapocaust maintains a zombie-like existence in popular culture, embedded in numerous books, films, documentaries and testimonies.
As recently as 2005, long after the soap story was known to be false, Israel’s deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom said this to the United Nations:
By convening here today in this historic special session, we honour the victims, we pay respect to the survivors, and we pay tribute to the liberators. We convene here today for those who remember, for those who have forgotten, and for those who do not know. But we also convene to remember that the Charter of this United Nations, like Israel’s Declaration of Independence, is written in the blood of the victims of the Holocaust. And we convene today to recommit ourselves to the noble principles, on which this organization was founded.
Such an affirmation is needed today, more than ever. The past decade has witnessed a chilling increase in attempts to deny the very fact of the Holocaust. Unbelievable as it seems, there are those who would delete from history, six million murders.
Could anything be worse than to systematically destroy a people, to take the proud Jewish citizens of Vienna, Frankfurt and Vilna and even Tunisia and Libya, to burn their holy books, to steal their dignity, their hair, their teeth; to turn them into numbers, to soap, to the ashes of Treblinka and Dachau? The answer is yes, there is something worse: To do all this and then deny it. To do all this and then take from the victims – and their children and grandchildren – the legitimacy of their grief.
Jews have engaged in mass ceremonies, with thousands of participants, in which bars of soap were formally buried. This is absurdity which must never be forgotten.
Here we have an excellent, and unintentionally hilarious, Israeli documentary that tells the true story of the Soapocaust.
“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 fur 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, Prof. 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.
Likewise, Wiesenthal mused in the spring of 1946 in the Viennese Jewish weekly
Der Neue Weg about a soap burial in Fălticeni: ‘For the civilized world it is incomprehensible how joyfully the Nazis and their women in occupied Poland looked at this soap. In every bar they saw a Jew, magically put into it to prevent him from becoming a second Freud, Ehrlich, or Einstein.’ Tongue in cheek, he showed ‘surprise that German thoroughness forgot to mention [on the wrapper] whether the fat was produced from children, from girls, or from young or old men’. At the end of his reflections, he even struck a lyrical chord:
See Episode 1 of this series here. (link)