Warning: this resource contains graphic content.
You can download the PDF version of The Sonderkommando Life Story here.
‘I’d more or less forbidden myself to think about what was happening; we had to do what we were ordered to do, like robots, without thinking… I thought the dead were perhaps luckier than the living; they were no longer forced to endure this hell on earth, to see the cruelty of men.’ - Shlomo Venezia, former member of the Sonderkommando.
The Sonderkommando worked in the gas chambers and crematoria at several of the Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chełmno, Bełżec, and Sobibór. Members of the Sonderkommando were responsible for a number of gruesome duties, including disrobing victims, shaving women’s hair, leading victims directly to the gas chambers, handling and removing the bodies from the gas chamber, removing gold teeth and any prosthetics from corpses, and finally the grinding of bones not incinerated in the crematorium.
Of the men who joined the Sonderkommando, some chose to join in order to receive more food rations so that they might increase their chance of survival. Others were forced to under the threat of death. Though they had larger food rations and better living conditions, the Sonderkommando were forced to witness unimaginable horrors. Abraham Bomba, a Polish Jew, was sent to Treblinka where, due to his training as a barber, he was forced to cut women’s hair before they were sent to the gas chambers. When interviewed for Claude Lanzmann’s documentary, Shoah, Bomba recalls that the Sonderkommando would sometimes have to lead members of their own families into the gas chambers.
The trauma of the daily duties had a significant impact on the Sonderkommando. Surviving members who have subsequently shared their stories remember experiencing a sense of being emotionless, deadened by the cruelty they were forced to witness. Filip Müller, who was assigned to the Auschwitz Sonderkommando when he was 20 years old, remembers witnessing a group of Czech Jews singing the Hatikvah (a Zionist song which later became the national anthem of Israel) and the Czechoslovakian national anthem as they entered the gas chamber. Müller felt that after this experience he no longer had any reason to live.
Several members of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz refused to stand by. In an attempt to hide evidence of their crimes, the Nazis would frequently kill the Sonderkommando members so that they would not be able to testify to the horrors they had witnessed. However three members of the Sonderkommando, Zalman Loewenthal, Zalman Gradowski and Leib Langfus, all wanted to ensure that the world knew what the Nazis were doing to their victims. With great difficulty these men obtained pens and paper to write down their experiences of working in the Sonderkommando to provide evidence of Nazi crimes to the outside world. Following liberation, these documents, known as the ‘Scrolls of Auschwitz’, were found buried in the ground at Auschwitz, often amongst the cremated ashes of burned bodies.
Within the Scrolls, Loewenthal states that ‘We, the Sonderkommandos, have wanted for a long time to put an end to our terrible labour… the day is coming. It could happen today or tomorrow’, referencing the Sonderkommando uprising at Auschwitz, another example of the members of the Sonderkommando refusing to stand by. On 7 October 1944 the Sonderkommando assigned to Crematorium IV learnt that the Nazis planned to kill them. In a courageous act of rebellion the Sonderkommando set fire to one of the crematoria at Auschwitz. This act of resistance sparked a series of revolts at Auschwitz: the Sonderkommando working at Crematorium II attacked several SS guards and several hundred prisoners escaped from Birkenau. All were caught and executed by the SS.
The uprising at Auschwitz could not have occurred without the bravery of young Jewish women, such as Róza Robota – who you can see in the picture on the left. Róza worked in a clothing detail in Auschwitz Birkenau. She received a small amount of gun powder, which had been smuggled in by women working in a munitions factory close to the Auschwitz complex, including Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, and Regina Safirsztain. The gun powder was passed on to members of the Sonderkommando who led the uprising. The SS identified five women involved in the uprising, executing all five of them.
In a particularly brave example of resistance, one member of the Sonderkommando, a prisoner called Alex Errera, took a series of photographs within the crematoria at Auschwitz whilst another member, Alter Fajnzylberg, kept watch as the images were taken. The images are the only known photographs taken by prisoners inside Auschwitz. You can see three of the four images at the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition in London. The Sonderkommando photographs consist of four images, one of which shows victims’ bodies being burnt in a fire pit and another a group of naked Jewish women before they enter the gas chamber – the image you can see on the right. Due to the clandestine circumstances under which the images were taken, two of the photographs show only trees and blackness. Although this images may be blurred and hard to distinguish, these photographs are important and rare pieces of evidence documenting Nazi crimes.
The Sonderkommando images are a result of the bravery of a few people who refused to stand by. The actions of the individual who held the camera and those who helped to smuggle the camera film in and out of Auschwitz via a tube of toothpaste, and send them to a Polish newspaper have provided today’s society with hard evidence of Nazi crimes which we can use to refute forms of Holocaust denial. Some members of the Sonderkommando who survived did not share their experiences of the special squads for many years after the Holocaust.
Due to Sonderkommando members’ proximity to the killing process, former members of the Sonderkommando were often condemned as collaborators. However, following the bravery of people such as Shlomo Venezia to speak out, the experiences of the Sonderkommando are now more widely shared. Fellow Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi believed that ‘no one is authorised to judge them, not those who lived through the experience of the Lager [camp] and even less those who did not live through it.’ We should all follow his example.
For more information:
- Shlomo Venezia, Inside the Gas Chamber: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz
- Gideon Grief, We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz
- Rebecca Camhi, The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando
- Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved