These are the papers of the engineers and draughtsmen, builders and surveyors who physically created the gas chambers in which more than one million people, almost all of them Jews, were killed. The documents include construction details, costings, technical drawings and accounts for sums ranging from millions down to the last half-mark. It is a laborious, bureaucratic and mechanical record of the final solution.
One British historian, Gerald Fleming, has been allowed to see them and will shortly publish an academic article outlining his findings. He told the Independent on Sunday yesterday that the documents were 'an important contribution to deepening our knowledge, and consolidating the truth, about the mass gassings in occupied Poland. It is very rare indeed that one comes across a hoard that tells so much.'
The papers survive because, as Mr Fleming put it, 'someone, thank God, forgot to burn them'. In January 1945, the Auschwitz camp command received orders from Berlin to destroy all evidence of mass gassings before the Red Army reached the camp. They set about it with vigour, dynamiting buildings and destroying records, but the files of the Building Administration, stacked up in a bunker, escaped destruction and fell into Soviet hands.
Mr Fleming, a lecturer at the University of Surrey who has studied the Holocaust for 20 years, learnt of their existence in 1990 from a report in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia. Under the headline 'Five Days in a Special Archive', the report described hundreds of boxes of papers which documented 'the typical technology of a death factory' with 'a throughput of 4,756 people per day'.
Believing the appearance of this report to be a signal that the files might be opened to scrutiny, Mr Fleming wrote to Eduard Shevardnadze, then the foreign minister, and to various senior Soviet archive administrators, asking to see the papers. That October, without fanfare, he became the first historian, Soviet or Western, to be allowed to do so.
Working in a special room at the government archive in Moscow, he tackled the mountain of 7,000 documents, reading hundreds every day and photocopying many. Among the mass of letters and records, he found an exchange in 1943 between Auschwitz and Berlin, about the urgency of completing the buildings required for 'special actions'. Later, Heinrich Himmler is recorded as demanding the buildings be completed in four weeks.
It is these buildings which give Auschwitz its place in history. Before they were built, it had been a concentration camp similar to others, albeit one at which certain experiments in gassing had been conducted. In June 1942, however, Himmler ordered the construction of four crematoria capable of extermination on an industrial scale. Between the end of March 1943 and the end of June, these special buildings, with their undressing rooms, gas chambers and oven rooms, were brought into operation by the staff of the Central Building Administration.
Two years later, three of the crematoria were dynamited and one burnt; the Moscow files give us the most detailed picture available of their design.
One man in the Building Administration, Walter Dejaco, who was responsible for registering the architectural plans, was tried in 1960 and claimed he did not know the purpose of the buildings. The Moscow papers demonstrate that he must have known. Previous crematoria at the site, for example, had shutes by which corpses were delivered. In the later designs, there were no shutes, for the bodies would be live bodies, and they could make their journey on foot. Had these documents been available at Dejaco's trial, he might not have been acquitted for lack of evidence.
Mr Fleming has found forms filled in by Heinrich Meering, a foreman. In a space where up to that time he had been accustomed to write the word Leichenkeller, or 'morgue', Meering suddenly starts to use the word Auskleidekeller, or 'undressing room'. This was where the victims left their clothes in the belief they were about to be given a shower, although there were no showers and they were exposed instead to the deadly gas Zyklon- B. Meering, who was never brought to justice, can have been in no doubt about the purpose of his building.
Mr Fleming does not see the Building Administration files as providing confirmation that the mass gassings took place, for he believes no such confirmation is needed. A vast volume of evidence, documentary and eyewitness, already exists. These new papers, as he puts it, simply 'augment the public record' of the gassings and this, for him, is part of the work of setting before future generations the fullest possible record of the Holocaust.
Does he believe the evidence in Moscow will alter the views of Mr Irving, who last week repeated his view that 'the gas chambers were a figment of British propaganda'? Mr Fleming is not optimistic. 'What does not suit Mr Irving's thesis, what does not accord with his theory, he ignores. When you put the documents in front of him, he dismisses them as forgeries. It is not possible to argue on a scholarly basis with a man who will simply ignore or dismiss evidence accepted by other qualified scholars.'