MARCH 29, 2002 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |

The Ghosts in the Machine

New Data Show Extent of IBM-Nazi Link 


In August 1943, a train swayed rhythmically as it sped toward Treblinka.

Edjya, a thin, 12-year-old girl, sat on the boxcar floor, listening to the thudding rail ties, trying to understand the stream of terrible events befalling her family. Her mother nudged and whispered, "You're a skinny one, Edjya, always a skinny one," as she eyed the tiny vent at the top of the boxcar.

"Quickly, up there," she said. "Edjya, go through." Her mother repeated. "Quickly, I said."

Two men nearby pulled and pulled until the first wooden slats broke. Piece by piece, they yanked it until the entire grille was off, allowing a slender portal of escape.

"Up now. Up!" they commanded, as they hoisted Edjya upon their shoulders. The men lifted Edjya's legs through first, then forced her hips, and pushed some more until she rested on her stomach, half in, half out of the speeding boxcar.

"We'll let you down slowly. Hold onto the towel," her mother said.

Edjya inched out of the vent and down the horizontal wooden slats of the boxcar's exterior until her elbows and then finally her wrists cleared. With one foot resting on an exterior bolt, and hanging onto the towel against the wind, Edjya cried out, "Take me back up. I can't do it."

"Get ready," her mother instructed. "When you hit the ground, run, Edjya, run. And tell someone. Tell someone what is happening."

* * *

Someone did know what was happening to my mother Edjya, her family and the Jews of Poland during the Holocaust. International Business Machines' custom punch-card technology was used by the Nazis to organize the Polish railways and make the trains run on time to Auschwitz and Treblinka. That same technology calculated the metered flow of Jews out of the ghettos and into death camps. IBM's specially designed technology in occupied Poland was provided not through its German subsidiary, but directly through a new special wartime Polish subsidiary reporting to IBM New
York. The wartime subsidiary's sole purpose was to service the Nazis during the Rape of Poland. That subsidiary was called Watson Business Machines, known to the Nazis as Watson Büromaschinen.

Details of IBM activities in Poland are important. Since the disclosures about IBM's involvement in the Holocaust first surfaced in February 2001, the company has continually pointed to supposed lack of control of its German subsidiary. But Watson Business Machines was established in Poland by IBM New York after the Nazi invasion to profitably service the Reich's plunder and ethnic cleansing programs.

In my 2001 book, "IBM and the Holocaust," I endeavored to explain exactly how IBM consciously sold its task-specific punch-card technology to the Third Reich and its allies, in effect enabling the Hitler regime to organize and accelerate six key aspects of its war against the Jews: identification, exclusion, confiscation, ghettoization, deportation and, ultimately, extermination.

During the past year, I amassed significant new information revealing specific details of IBM's operation in Poland, and added it into two new chapters just released in the paperback edition. I explained how IBM knowingly tailored its technology to systemize mass murder in Poland.

Consumed with my journalistic duty to document how IBM's strategic alliance with the Third Reich affected millions, I failed to comprehend that I had finally answered my own burning question — indeed, the quest that had propelled me on a five-year search across seven countries: How did my own mother and her family come to that boxcar headed to Treblinka?

Here's how it happened.

World War II broke out on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Germany annexed northwestern Poland. The remaining Polish territory in Nazi hands was treated as "occupied" and called the "General Government." That northwestern quadrant was serviced by IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag. In annexed Poland, Dehomag mainly serviced the payroll of Silesian coal mines and heavy industry, according to IBM files.

At about that time, IBM NY established a special new subsidiary, totally separate and apart from its German subsidiary. IBM's new Polish company was called Watson Business Machines and its sole purpose was to service the Nazis during the rape of Poland. The enterprise would require dozens of custom-wired punch-card machines, and millions of proprietary punch cards were specially designed and printed for each application. It remained completely legal for IBM to service the Third Reich until just before the United States entered the war in December 1941.

The Polish subsidiary, like all IBM's overseas units, was micromanaged personally by IBM president Thomas J. Watson.

The rape of Poland was no secret to IBM executives. From the outset, worldwide headlines reported massacres, rapes, inflicted starvation, systematic deportations and the resulting unchecked epidemics. As early as September 13, 1939, The New York Times reported the Reich's determination to make Polish Jewry disappear with a headline declaring, "Nazis Hint Purge of Jews in Poland — 3,000,000 Population Involved." The article quoted the German government's plan for the "removal of the Polish Jewish population from the European domain." The Times then added, "How... the 'removal' of Jews from Poland [can be achieved] without their extermination... is not explained."

IBM began by establishing its new headquarters at 23 Kreuz Street in Warsaw. It's former Polish manager Janusz Zaporski was replaced by a Nazi, Alexander von Dehn, according to IBM's files.

Accountants and managers created a murky and confusing network across Europe. Special accounting provisions allowed the German and Polish units to overlap. When the Polish company ran out of punch cards, Dehomag could supply them by paying a commission to the Polish company. When the Polish company ran out of machines, Dehomag could supply them, but the Polish subsidiary charged a 25% maintenance commission. IBM's French machines brought to Poland by the German army could be rented out by the Polish branch but required a 25% rental commission to the German unit. When a Polish supplier wanted to return some equipment, IBM NY asked that it be shipped to the Swedish subsidiary, from where it would be credited to the Geneva office, and then to New York. To further deniability, the Polish manager was given written authorization to receive money, but only an untraceable verbal authorization to actually deposit it into IBM's account 4b at the Handlowy Bank. When the smoke cleared, it would be impossible to track which machine and which dollar belonged to which subsidiary.

A print shop for punch cards was maintained at 6 Rymarska Street, directly across the street from the Warsaw Ghetto. Indeed, the ghetto walls actually indent around IBM's print shop location. Two people were needed to run the three printing machines and one card cutter, using paper brought in from Germany. Ultimately, the shop at Rymarska produced as many as 10 million cards per year. Most of those cards were used by Polish railroads.

In 1940, to make sure the staff of Watson Business Machines was well-cared for, IBM president Thomas J. Watson told his Geneva representative P. Taylor to arrange cash grants — disguised as loans to avoid taxes — and special food packets. Bonuses were given for meeting sales quotas to Nazi clients in Poland.

The most important customer site was 22 Murner Street in Krakow, the Reich's Statistical Office, where a 500-man Hollerith Gruppe, driven by dozens of IBM Hollerith punch-card machines, calculated endless projections, such as the rate of deaths per square kilometer due to progressive starvation, and the number of Jews to be transported to the death camps. It also conducted and tabulated continuous censuses and registrations, according to the Statistics Office of the General Government.

The Statistics Office was divided into six distinct groups — Group I: Administration; Group II: Population and Culture; Group III: Food and Agriculture; Group IV: Economic Trade and Transportation; Group V: Social Statistics, and Group VI: Finance and Tax. A November 30, 1941, Statistics Office report explains, "The Hollerith Gruppe area of operation stretches across all subject areas," adding, "Our work is just beginning to bear fruit."

In early October 1941, IBM's general manager Werner Lier visited Berlin to oversee the movement of IBM machines across Nazi Europe. He wrote two detailed reports to Watson and senior staff indicating that he shipped a small number of Polish machines to Romania in time for the Jewish census there, according to IBM correspondence. But the Polish machines would soon be replaced by others.

My mother's family's information probably first went to the 24 Murner Street facility. The office had already punched in 60,000 volumes of the Polish Statistical Service's census data, where it was compared with the "ethnic" data from the ghettos. Once my mother's family was trapped in the ghetto, their names were immaterial. Nazi Holleriths calculated exactly how many Jews could be metered out of the ghettos, either for work assignments or transport to the death camps. The exact number of boxcars and locomotives was tracked by Group IV — Transportation. The Nazis then required the ghetto councils to pick and choose names to meet quotas — or the elders would be shot. Deported Jews were subtracted from the rolls at 24 Murner Street in the on-going process.

Machine shortages were solved. In 1942, after the United States entered the war, IBM president Watson dispatched his chief attorney, Harrison Chauncey, to a Berlin meeting with IBM Czech subsidiary manager Georg Schneider to secretly authorize him to place Czech machine tags on Nazi tabulators and lease them as Czech machines, according to a letter from Schneider to Watson recounting the meeting. Schneider was instructed to transmit rent disguised as royalties from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland — and then on to New York. Some of these "Czech" machines then ended up in Poland.

In August 1943, it was finally my mother's family's turn. An important Watson Business Machines customer site, newly discovered, was the Hollerith Department of Polish Railways, located at 22 Pawia Street in Krakow. This office kept tabs on all trains in the General Government, including those that sent Jews to their death in Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Leon Krzemieniecki is probably the only man still living who worked in that Hollerith Department. Krzemieniecki was not aware of the details of routes that would end in genocide. Indeed his duties required tabulating information on all trains, from ordinary passenger to freight trains, but only after their arrival. The high-security five-room office, guarded by armed railway police, was equipped with 15 punchers, two sorters and a tabulator "bigger than a sofa," Krzemieniecki told me last summer.

Fifteen Polish women punched the cards and loaded the sorters. Three German nationals supervised the office, overseeing the final tabulations and summary statistics in great secrecy. Handfuls of printouts were reduced to a small envelope of summary data, which was then delivered to a secret destination. Truckloads of the preliminary printouts were then regularly burned, along with the spent cards, Krzemieniecki recalled.

"I knew they were not German machines," recalled Krzemieniecki. "The labels were in English.... The person maintaining and repairing the machines spread the diagrams out sometimes. The language of the diagrams of those machines was only in English."

I asked Krzemieniecki if the machine logo plates were in German, Polish or English. He answered "English. It said 'Business Machines.'" I asked, "Do you mean, 'International Business Machines?'" Krzemieniecki replied, "No, 'Watson Business Machines.'"

My mother's final encounter with IBM technology was the 22 Pawia Street facility. A half-century later, I called IBM requesting access to its archives. I was obstructed every step of the way by IBM public relations people. I asked IBM spokesman Ian Colley for access to my mother's card. He coolly replied, "I'm not going to get drawn into that question." Several weeks ago, IBM media manager Carol Makovich again denied me access to the Polish archives. Makovich merely repeated what she has asserted for a year — that Big Blue just "doesn't have much information about the period." That sentence is the key assertion in a six-paragraph IBM statement, unchanged in a year, that can still be seen on IBM's official Web site at

Just before submitting this article, I checked IBM's Polish language Web information. IBM's official corporate history states that its pre-War presence in Poland ended in 1939. No mention of the wartime period is made.

But now we know. IBM was there throughout the war. My mother's punch card probably no longer exists. But others probably do.

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