Sonderkommandos (German: [ˈzɔndɐkɔˌmando], special unit) were work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners. They were composed of prisoners, usually Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. The death-camp Sonderkommandos, who were always inmates, were unrelated to the SS-Sonderkommandos which were ad hoc units formed from various SS offices between 1938 and 1945.
|Incident type||Removal of Holocaust evidence|
|Camp||Extermination camps including Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka among others|
|Survivors||Zalman Gradowski, Filip Müller, Henryk Tauber, Leib Langfus, Morris Venezia, Henryk Mandelbaum, Dario Gabbai, Antonio Boldrin|
Death factory workers
Sonderkommando members did not participate directly in killing; that responsibility was reserved for the SS, while the Sonderkommandos' primary duty was disposing of the corpses. In most cases, they were inducted immediately upon arrival at the camp and forced into the position under threat of death. They were not given any advance notice of the tasks they would have to perform. To their horror, sometimes the Sonderkommando inductees would discover members of their own family amid the bodies. They had no way to refuse or resign other than by committing suicide. In some places and environments, the Sonderkommandos might be euphemistically connoted as Arbeitsjuden (Jews for work). Other times, Sonderkommandos were called Hilflinge (helpers). At Birkenau the Sonderkommandos reached up to 400 people by 1943, and when Hungarian Jews were deported there in 1944, their number swelled to over 900 persons to accommodate the increased rounds of murder and extermination.
Because the Germans needed the Sonderkommandos to remain physically able, they were granted much less squalid living conditions than other inmates: they slept in their own barracks and were allowed to keep and use various goods such as food, medicines and cigarettes brought into camp by those who were sent to the gas chambers. Unlike ordinary inmates, they were not normally subject to arbitrary, random killing by guards. Their livelihood and utility was determined by how efficiently they could keep the Nazi death factory running. As a result, Sonderkommando members survived marginally longer in the death camps than other prisoners — but few survived the war.
As they had intimate knowledge of the Nazis' policy of mass murder, the Sonderkommando were considered Geheimnisträger — bearers of secrets — and as such, were held in isolation away from prisoners being used as slave labor (see SS Main Economic and Administrative Office). Every three months, according to SS policy, almost all the Sonderkommandos working in the death camps' killing areas would be gassed themselves and replaced with new arrivals to ensure secrecy. However, some inmates survived for up to a year or more because they possessed specialist skills. Usually the task of a new Sonderkommando unit would be to dispose of the bodies of their predecessors. Research has calculated that from the creation of a death camp's first Sonderkommando to the liquidation of the camp, there were approximately 14 generations of Sonderkommando.
Between 1943 and 1944, some members of the Sonderkommando were able to obtain writing equipment and record some of their experiences and what they had witnessed in Birkenau. These documents were buried in the grounds of the crematoria and recovered after the war. Five men have been identified as the authors of these manuscripts: Zalman Gradowski, Zalman Lewental, Leib Langfus, Chaim Herman and Marcel Nadjary. The first three wrote in Yiddish, Herman in French and Nadjary in Greek. The manuscripts are mostly kept in the archive of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial Museum, apart from Herman's letter (kept in the archives of the Amicale des déportés d’Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Gradowski's texts, one of which is held in the Medical Military Museum in St Petersburg, and another in Yad Vashem. Some of the manuscripts were published as The Scrolls of Auschwitz, edited by Ber Mark. The Auschwitz Museum published some others as Amidst a Nightmare of Crime.
The Scrolls of Auschwitz have been recognised as some of the most important testimony to be written about the Holocaust, as they include contemporaneous eyewitness accounts of the workings of the gas chambers in Birkenau.
The following note, which was found buried in an Auschwitz crematorium, was written by Zalman Gradowski, a member of the Sonderkommando who was killed in the revolt (see below) at Crematoria IV on 7 October 1944:
"Dear finder of these notes, I have one request of you, which is, in fact, the practical objective for my writing ... that my days of Hell, that my hopeless tomorrow will find a purpose in the future. I am transmitting only a part of what happened in the Birkenau-Auschwitz Hell. You will realize what reality looked like ... From all this you will have a picture of how our people perished."
Fewer than 20 out of several thousand members of the Sonderkommandos – who were forced to work in the Nazi death camps – are documented to have survived until liberation and were able to testify to the events (although some sources claim more), among them: Henryk (Tauber) Fuchsbrunner, Filip Müller, Daniel Behnnamias, Dario Gabbai, Morris Venezia, Shlomo Venezia, Antonio Boldrin, Alter Fajnzylberg, Samuel Willenberg, Abram Dragon, David Olère, Henryk Mandelbaum and Martin Gray. There have been at most another six or seven confirmed to have survived, but who have not given witness (or at least, such testimony is not documented). Buried and hidden accounts by members of the Sonderkommando were also later found at some camps.
The first revolt occurred at Treblinka on 2 August 1943 when 100 prisoners succeeded in breaking out of the camp. They stole 20–25 rifles, 20 hand grenades, and several pistols from the camp arsenal using a duplicate key. At 3:45 p.m., 700 Jews launched an attack on the camp's SS guards and trawnikis that lasted for 30 minutes. Buildings were set ablaze and a fuel tanker was set alight. Armed Jews attacked the main gate, while others attempted to climb the fence. However, the well-armed guards concentrated their fire on the prisoners creating a near-total slaughter. Although about 200 Jews escaped from the camp, half of them were killed after a chase in cars and on horses because they did not cut the phone wires. This allowed the SS to call in reinforcements from four different towns and set up roadblocks.
Partisans of the Armia Krajowa (Polish: Home Army) transported some of the surviving escaped prisoners across the river while others were helped and fed by Polish villagers. Out of 700 Sonderkommando who took part in the revolt, 100 managed to get out of the camp, and around 70 them are known to have survived the war. These include Richard Glazar, Chil Rajchman, Jankiel Wiernik, and Samuel Willenberg who co-authored the Treblinka memoirs.
Two months after Treblinka, a similar uprising occurred at Sobibór Camp I on the night of 14 October 1943. The Sonderkommando which were part of the Arbeitshäftlinge, the general slave labor required to operate the death camp (e.g. working at the arrivals center, processing victims possessions, work parties, etc), led by Soviet-Jewish POW Alexander Pechersky from Minsk, covertly killed 11 German SS officers, overpowered the camp guards, and seized the armory. Although the plan was to kill all the SS and trawniki guards and walk out of the main gate of the camp, the killings were discovered forcing the prisoners to run for their lives under fire.
Dutch historian and Sobibor survivor Jules Schelvis estimates that of the 600 Sonderkommando from Camp I, about 300 escaped during the uprising. Of those, 158 inmates were either killed by the guards or in the minefield surrounding the camp. A further 107 were killed by the pursuing SS, Wehrmacht, or Order Police battalions. Another 53 died of other causes between their escape and May 1945. There were only 58 known survivors, 48 male and 10 female, from the uprising. The Sonderkommando in Sobibór's Camp III, where the gas chambers were, did not take part in the uprising and were all killed the following day.
The uprising in Sobibor was dramatized in the film Escape from Sobibor.
In June 2019, it was reported that the last surviving escapee from Sobibor had died in Tel Aviv, Israel aged 96.
In October 1944, the Sonderkommandos rebelled at Crematorium IV in Auschwitz II. For months, young Jewish women had been smuggling small packets of gunpowder out of the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory in an industrial area between the Auschwitz I main camp and Auschwitz II. Eventually the gunpowder was passed along a smuggling chain to Sonderkommando in Crematorium IV. The plan was to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria before launching an uprising.
However, on the morning of 7 October 1944, the camp resistance gave advanced warning to the Sonderkommando in Crematorium IV that they were due to be killed. The Sonderkommando attacked the SS and Kapos with two machine guns, axes, knives and grenades. The guards suffered 15 casualties of whom about 12 were injured and 3 were killed. Some of the Sonderkommando escaped from the camp but most were recaptured later the same day. Of those who did not die in the uprising itself, 200 were later forced to strip and lie face down before being shot in the back of the head. A total of 451 Sonderkommandos were killed on this day.
Portrayals in literature and media
The earliest portrayals of the Sonderkommando were generally unflattering. Miklos Nyiszli, in Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, described the Sonderkommando as enjoying a virtual feast, complete with chandeliers and candlelight, as other prisoners died of starvation. Nyiszli, an admitted collaborator who assisted Josef Mengele in his medical experiments on Auschwitz prisoners, would appear to have been in a good position to observe the Sonderkommando in action, as he had an office in Krematorium II; and yet, the significant inaccuracy of some of his physical descriptions of the crematoria diminishes his credibility in this regard. Historian Gideon Greif characterized Nyiszli's writings as among the “myths and other wrong and defamatory accounts” of the Sonderkommando that flourished in the absence of first-hand testimony by surviving Sonderkommando members.
Primo Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, characterizes the Sonderkommando as being a step away from collaborators. Nevertheless, he asks his readers to refrain from condemnation: “Therefore I ask that we meditate upon the story of ‘the crematorium ravens’ with pity and rigor, but that judgment of them be suspended.” Levi, whose time at Auschwitz was spent at Camp III/Monowitz (also known as the Buna Werke), may not have directly encountered the Sonderkommando. It has been said that he could have based his description of them on Nyiszli.
Filip Müller was one of the few Sonderkommando members who survived the war, and was also unusual in that he served on the Sonderkommando far longer than most. He wrote of his experiences in his 1979 book Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. Among other incidents he related, Müller recounted how he tried to enter the gas chamber to die with a group of his countrymen, but was dissuaded from suicide by a girl who asked him to remain alive and bear witness. In the last several years, several other more sympathetic accounts of the Sonderkommando have been published, beginning with Gideon Greif’s own book We Wept Without Tears, which consists of exhaustive, and sometimes grueling, interviews with former Sonderkommando members. Greif includes as his prologue the poem “And What Would You Have Done?” by Gunther Anders, which makes the point that one who has not been in that situation has little right to judge the Sonderkommando: “Not you, not me! We were not put to that ordeal!”
The first theatre play to describe the Sonderkommando revolt was written in 1947 by Ludovic Bruckstein (born 1920, in Mukachevo, Czechoslovakia - today in Ukraine - and subsequently sent to the camps in May 1944, from Sighet). It was entitled Nacht-Shicht ("Night-Shift" in Yiddish) and played with great success by the Romanian Yiddish Theaters of Bucharest and Yasi, from 1948 till 1957. It is available (in Yiddish) on the internet.
A theatre play that explores the moral dilemmas of the Sonderkommando was The Grey Zone, directed by Doug Hughes and produced in New York at MCC Theater in 1996. The play was later made into a film of the same title by producer Tim Blake Nelson. The film took its mood, as well as much of its plot, from Nyiszli, portraying members of the Sonderkommando as crossing the line from victim to perpetrator, as when Sonderkommando Hoffman (played by David Arquette) beats a man to death in the undressing room under the eyes of a smiling SS member. Nelson makes it clear that the subject of the film is that very moral ambiguity. “We can see each one of ourselves in that situation, perhaps acting in that way, because we are human. But we’re not sanctified victims.”
A 2014 “novelized” memoir, A Damaged Mirror, explores the lengths to which a former Sonderkommando will go to obtain forgiveness and closure: “The fact that good people can be forced to do wrong doesn’t make them less good,” the survivor says of himself, “but it also doesn’t make the wrong less wrong.”
Son of Saul, a 2015 Hungarian film directed by László Nemes, and winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix, details the story of one Sonderkommando attempting to bury a dead child he takes for his son. Géza Röhrig, who starred in the film, reacted with anger to the suggestion, made by a journalist, that members of the Sonderkommando were “half-victim, half-hangman”. “There has to be a clarification,” he said. “They are 100% victims. They have not spilled blood or been involved in any sort of killing. They were inducted on arrival under the threat of death. They had no control of their destinies. They were as victimised as any other prisoners in Auschwitz.”
- Two hundred is the number accepted by Polish historians and the Treblinka camp museum; the Holocaust Encyclopedia lists 300, instead.
- Friedländer (2009). Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933–1945, pp. 355–356.
- Shirer (1990). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p. 970.
- Langbein, Hermann (2005-12-15). People in Auschwitz. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-8078-6363-3.
- Sofsky 1996, p. 267.
- Sofsky 1996, p. 269.
- Sofsky 1996, p. 271.
- Sofsky 1996, p. 283.
- Michael & Doerr (2002). Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich, p. 209.
- Wachsmann & Caplan, eds. (2010) Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, p. 73.
- Sofsky 1996, p. 271–273.
- Greif (2005). We Wept Without Tears: Interviews with Jewish Survivors of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, p. 4.
- Greif (2005). We Wept Without Tears: Interviews with Jewish Survivors of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, p. 327.
- Dr. Miklos Nyiszli (1993). Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-202-8.
- Chare, Nicholas (2011) Auschwitz and Afterimages: Abjection, Witnessing and Representation. London: IB Tauris; Stone, Dan (2013) ‘The Harmony of Barbarism: Locating the Scrolls of Auschwitz in Holocaust Historiography’. In Representing Auschwitz: At the Margins of Testimony, eds Nicholas Chare and Dominic Williams. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 11–32.
- Mark, Ber. (1985) The Scrolls of Auschwitz. Trans. Sharon Neemani. Tel Aviv: Am Oved.
- Bezwińska, Jadwiga, and Danuta Czech (1973) Amidst a Nightmare of Crime: Manuscripts of Members of Sonderkommando. Trans. Krystyna Michalik. Oświęcim: State Museum at Oświęcim.
- Stone, (2013)
- Rutta, Matt Yad Vashem website, Rabbinic Rambling, 23 March 2006. Retrieved 30 April 2007.
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- Peter, Laurence (1 December 2017). "Auschwitz inmate's notes from hell finally revealed". BBC News. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
- Chrostowski, Witold, Extermination Camp Treblinka, Vallentine Mitchell, Portland, OR, 2003, p. 94, ISBN 0-85303-457-5
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- Śląski, Jerzy (1990). VII. Pod Gwiazdą Dawida [Under the Star of David] (PDF). Polska Walcząca, Vol. IV: Solidarni (in Polish). PAX, Warsaw. pp. 8–9. ISBN 83-01-04946-4. Retrieved 15 August 2013.
- Easton, Adam (4 August 2013), Treblinka survivor recalls suffering and resistance, BBC News, Treblinka, Poland
- Archer, Noah S.; et al. (2010). "Alphabetical Listing of [better known] Treblinka Survivors and Victims". Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team H.E.A.R.T. Retrieved 30 August 2013. Also in: "The list of Treblinka survivors, with expert commentary in Polish". Muzeum Walki i Męczeństwa w Treblince. Source of data: Donat (1979), The death camp Treblinka. New York, pp. 279–291. ISBN 0896040097. Archived from the original on 22 September 2013.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- Jules Schelvis (2007). Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp. Berg, Oxford & New York. ISBN 978-1-84520-419-8.
- Schelvis, Jules (2004). Vernietigingskamp Sobibor. De Bataafsche Leeuw. ISBN 9789067076296. Uitgeverij Van Soeren & Co (booksellers).
- Schelvis, Jules (2007). Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp. Berg, Oxford & New Cork. pp. 147–168. ISBN 978-1-84520-419-8. Retrieved 15 January 2015.
- Arad 1987, pp. 362–363.
- "Last known survivor of Sobibor death camp uprising dies aged 96". BBC News. 4 June 2019.
- "Auschwitz Revolt (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)". Ushmm.org. Retrieved 2016-02-08.
- Rees, Laurence (2012). Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution". Random House. p. 324.
- Wacław Długoborski; Franciszek Piper (2000). Auschwitz 1940–1945: Mass murder. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. ISBN 978-83-85047-87-2.
- Yisrael Gutman; Michael Berenbaum; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1998). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press. p. 501. ISBN 0-253-20884-X.
- Gideon Greif (2005). We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz. Yale University Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-300-13198-7.
- Gideon Greif and Andreas Kilian, “Significance, responsibility, challenge: Interviewing the Sonderkommando survivors” Sonderkommando-Studien, April 7, 2004, <http://www.sonderkommando-studien.dt/artikel.php?c=forschung/significance%5B%5D> (September 19, 2008).]
- Primo Levi, The Drowned and The Saved (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 60.
- Müller, Filip (1999) . 'Eyewitness Auschwitz - Three Years in the Gas Chambers. trans. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. and Susanne Flatauer. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee & in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. p. 180. ISBN 1-56663-271-4.
- Müller, 1979, p. 113.
- Petrescu, Corina L. (2011) “The People of Israel Lives!” Performing the Shoah on Post-War Bucharest’s Yiddish Stages. In: Jeanine Teodorescu and Valentina Glajar (eds) Local History, Transnational Memory in the Romanian Holocaust. Basingstoke: Palgrave. 209–223.
- Kristin Hohenadel, “FILM; A Holocaust Horror Story Without A Schindler,” The New York Times, January 7, 2001, sec. Movies
- Patrick Henry, “The Grey Zone,” Philosophy and Literature 33, no. 1 (2009): 159. Cited in Nicole Meehan, “An unrepresentable concept? Tim Blake Nelson’s “The Grey Zone” in Theatre and Film”. Accessed 28 May 2015
- ""This Is Not a Movie About the Holocaust"". AboutFilm.Com. November 2002. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
- Shahar, Yael; ben Malka, Ovadya (2015). A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption. Kasva Press. ISBN 978-0-9910584-0-2.
- Shoard, Catherine (15 May 2015). "Son of Saul's astonishing recreation of Auschwitz renews Holocaust debate". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
- Chare, Nicholas, and Williams, Dominic. (2016) Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitz. New York: Berghahn.
- Friedländer, Saul. (2009). Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933–1945. New York: Harper Perennial.
- Greif, Gideon (2005). We Wept Without Tears: Interviews with Jewish Survivors of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Michael, Robert, and Doerr, Karin (2002). Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Press.
- Shirer, William L. (1990). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: MJF Books.
- Sofsky, Wolfgang (2013) . The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp (Google Book, preview). Princeton, NJ, United States: Princeton University Press. ISBN 1400822181.
- Wachsmann, Nikolaus, and Jane Caplan, eds. (2010). Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories. New York: Routledge.
- Eyewitness accounts from members of the Sonderkommando. Publications include:
- Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, deposition by Henryk Tauber in the Polish Courts, May 24, 1945, p. 481–502, Jean-Claude Pressac, Pressac-Klarsfeld, 1989, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York, Library of Congress 89-81305
- Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers by Filip Müller, Ivan R. Dee, 1979, ISBN 1-56663-271-4
- We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz by Gideon Greif, Yale University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10651-3.
- The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando by Rebecca Fromer, University Alabama Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8173-5041-1.
- Auschwitz : A Doctor's Eyewitness Account by Miklós Nyiszli (translated from the original Hungarian), Arcade Publishing, 1993, ISBN 1-55970-202-8. A play and subsequent film about the Sonderkommandos, The Grey Zone (2001) directed by Tim Blake Nelson, was based on this book.
- Dario Gabbai (Interview Code 142, conducted in English) video testimony, interview conducted in November 1996, Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, University of Southern California.
- Sonderkommando Auschwitz. La verità sulle camere a gas. Una testimonianza unica, Shlomo Venezia, Rizzoli, 2007, ISBN 88-17-01778-7
- Sonder. An Interview with Sonderkommando Member Henryk Mandelbaum, Jan Południak, Oświęcim, 2008, ISBN 978-83-921567-3-4
- Antonio Boldrin, video testimony (only in Italian), April 2013
- History of the Jüdische Sonderkommando Sonderkommando-studien.de (further content: Zum Begriff Sonderkommando und verwandten Bezeichnungen • „Handlungsräume“ im Sonderkommando Auschwitz. • Der „Sonderkommando-Aufstand“ in Auschwitz-Birkenau – Photos )
- Information about Auschwitz Sonderkommandos members, French website Sonderkommando.info
Media related to Sonderkommando at Wikimedia Commons