At Misaskim, unexpected and sad realities of life are unfortunately a daily occurrence. But last week, Misaskim was presented with an even more perplexing question than usual: what to do with a bar of soap that many Holocaust survivors believe contains human remains? This rare bar of soap, engraved with the letters RIF, was recently discovered by the Mermelstein family while cleaning up the apartment of their aging uncle, Yosef Weinberger.
Weinberger was a young adolescent who survived during the Holocaust by hiding in bunkers. Of a family of 13, only Yosef and 3 other siblings survived. However, it wasn’t only the chilling memories of his youth that shadowed Yosef each day. Tucked away in a faded green suitcase, he kept various items that were a testament to the inferno he survived. Among these objects was a tattered She’eris Hapleitah Siddur, books from the war era, legal immigration documents, and various wartime letters. Mr. Meremelstein, Yosef’s nephew, was startled when he also discovered a little package carefully wrapped in brown paper that contained a small, brownish, numbered bar of RIF soap.
Many Holocaust survivors believe that the RIF soap was made from the fat of Jewish victims during the Holocaust R’L. They have been told that RIF is the acronym for Reines Juden Fett. In fact, Nuremburg Trial judges, after accepting the testimony of a Polish national, Sigmund Mazur, ruled that the soap does indeed contain human remains,. Mazur told the judges that during the war he had worked as a laboratory assistant for Rudolf Spanner, a German professor, at the Gdansk Anatomical Institute. Mazur related that he had been involved in the production of soap from human fat.
In 2006, Poland’s INF announced that it had completed an inquiry that confirmed that the soap had been rendered from human fat. Professor Andrzej Stolyhwo, who conducted the study for the INF, obtained a sample of the soap that was presented at the Nuremberg trials and tested its contents. Stolyhwo declared that his study proves that the soap was made between 1945 and 1946 under the direction of Professor Spanner.
However, today it is universally accepted by historians and Holocaust experts that only a small amount of soap was produced by Spanner and that the soap was never mass produced. They explain that RIF stands for Reichsstelle Fur Industrielle Fettversorgung (Reich Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning). Yad V’shem, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, and other prestigious Holocaust museums all agree that since no hard evidence was ever uncovered that the soap was produced from human victims, it was most likely a cruel rumor that the Nazis spread in order to psychologically torture Jewish inmates.
Victims in the concentration camps were taunted by the SS and told that they would soon be turned into soap. Survivors, who had witnessed unspeakable horrors, firmly believed this to be true. Immediately after the war, public levayas were held in Austria, France, Germany, Romania, and Israel during which bars of RIF soap were buried. Metzeivos were erected at the burial sites memorializing those who were murdered by the Nazis and who had never received a proper burial.
Misaskim is currently consulting with its rabbinical authority to determine the appropriate way of treating the RIF soap, and whether it needs to be buried. It is Misaskim’s sincerest hope – whatever the outcome – that this incident should serve to be mekadeish shem Shamayim all those who perished in the Holocaust and who were never brought to kevuras Yisroel.