Robert Jan van Pelt studied Art History and Classical Archeology, and he always wondered if such knowledge could concretely contribute to our present daily lives. The answer came in 1996 when historian David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books for defamation in an English court for characterizing some of his writings and public statements as Holocaust denial. Van Pelt was called to serve as a witness in that trial.
In his studies on Auschwitz, where not one single document mentioning the word gas chamber was left (gaskammer were referred as delousing chambers), he had to conduct a sort of reversed architectural design operation: from facts and physical evidence, from technical drawings and building contracts, he was able to go back to a project brief to prove the deliberate intention to use the “showers” as killing devices. For example, the original design shows rooms intended as morgues which had doors opening inwards. When the SS decided to retrofit the morgues as homicidal gas chambers, they rehang the doors and had them open outwards because it would have been impossible to re–enter a packed gas chamber after the killing; bodies would block the door. Or the metal protection of the peephole on the inside of the door to prevent breaking it and mainly a hole in the roof from where the Zyklon B was introduced (which made no sense in a morgue). All these facts provided incontrovertible evidence in the trial. This forensic study of architecture was able to show that Irving had deliberately misrepresented historical evidence in order to promote Holocaust denial. This reversed architectural logic proved essential to contributing to human justice.