The living hell of extermination camps was home to a certain kind of ‘living dead’. Sonderkommandos were Jewish prisoners forced to dispose of their counterparts’ dead bodies. Their tormented memories keep haunting, to this day, the ruins of Auschwitz.
They were called Sonderkommandos, German for ‘special unit’. Another euphemism so as not to raise suspicion: the daily massacre perpetrated in extermination camps across Nazi territory had to be kept silent. A small group of prisoners would thus be selected for the task. SS-soldiers, responsible for the daily management of the death camps, did not like to get their hands dirty: after all, there were thousands of bodies to get rid of, an enormous amount of work. So Jewish detainees were ‘offered’ the job instead.
Death on a daily basis
First, they were singled out by SS guards on duty at the gates of the camp. How did the German soldiers pick through this exhausted, spectral mass of people? They usually chose men who seemed in good enough a shape and apparent health. In wartime, that roughly meant prisoners in possession of all their limbs and not (yet) deeply affected by malnutrition, depression or sadness. A group of people fitting the bill was then parted from the rest of the prisoners — and their own families. They still did not know the terrible task that awaited them.
The Sonderkommandos were responsible for the disposal of their counterparts’ bodies, freshly dragged out of the gas chambers. That was part of Hitler’s global plan — the Final Solution, put into practice as soon as 1941, required a vast web of accomplices (may they act willingly or on pain of death) to keep it secret. Hence the destruction of every evidence of the Holocaust so as not to raise the Allies’ and local populations’ suspicion.
Because of their terrible tasks — leading the prisoners to the gas chambers, disposing of their bodies in crematoriums, shaving women’s heads or pulling golden teeth out of detainees’ mouths — the Sonderkommandos inherited the nickname of ‘living dead’ across Nazi death camps. They were the only ones alive in a crowd waiting to be executed, yet their time would come, too. SS soldiers would ‘dismantle’ the Sonderkommando units after a while (usually, after three months of service) and give the job to another unlucky band of prisoners. Would those Arbeitsjuden (“Working Jews”) be freed upon the end of their task? Not really: they would either join the rest of the prisoners or face a firing squad.
This is the reason why most Sonderkommandos did not make it through the war. Some committed suicide — the only way to escape hell; but a group of them managed to bury their written testimonies in the clay of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most deadly extermination camps of WW2.
The ashes of Auschwitz
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, killing was mechanical. More than a million men, women and children died between the barbed wire-spiked walls of the death camp. (One out of six victims of the Holocaust died there.) The camp employed thus a large number of Sonderkommandos: in 1944, about 900 prisoners were requisitioned to clear the gas chambers. Historians assume that no less than 14 generations of Sonderkommandos followed one another there.
After the war, discovery and subsequent liberation of the camps showed the whole world the atrocities committed by Nazis during WW2 — even though Hitler, feeling the tide was turning, had ordered to destroy evidence of the Holocaust. Hence medical and administrative archives were burnt, corpses hastily buried into mass graves, death camps installations dismantled… Which would not facilitate the understanding of the death camps by later historians. However a group of prisoners had concealed their testimonies in the ashes of Auschwitz crematoriums, where they were later unearthed.
The rebellion of Sonderkommandos
The authors of those manuscripts — Zalman Gradowski, Zalman Lewental, Leib Langfus, Chaim Herman and Marcel Nadjary — did not all survive WW2 and the systematic execution of Sonderkommandos by SS firing squads. However, their testimonies reveal the horrors that took place at Auschwitz as well as missing pieces of history. Here is the introduction of Zalman Gradowski’s text, From the Heart of Hell:
“It may be that this, these very lines I am writing, will be the only witnesses to what was my life. But I will be happy if my writings reach you, free citizen of the world. Perhaps a spark of my inner fire will ignite in you, and you will fulfill at least a part of our life’s desire: you shall avenge, avenge our deaths!”
Those manuscripts also shed light on an event that historians may have missed, would the testimonies not have been discovered: the revolt of the Sonderkommandos. In 1944, a small group decided to take up arms and rise against its oppressors. On October 7, they blew up Crematorium IV with gunpowder that had been smuggled into the camp by female workers of a nearby artillery factory. Some also sat their mattresses on fire, and a few SS were killed in the process, their attackers using hatchets, rocks or metal tools as weapons.
However, the rest of the guards, alerted by billowing smoke and gunshots, soon restored order within the death camp. A bloodbath was estimated necessary to break any further resistance attempt: later that day, 451 Sonderkommandos were executed, including Zalman Gradowski, whose journey at the heart of hell had just ended.
On January 27, 1945, the Red Army entered Auschwitz. The death camp had been quickly evacuated some days earlier on Himmler’s orders. Only 7,500 prisoners were found alive, their greyish, emaciated faces bearing the horrors they had experienced. Under the Soviets’ boots, beneath the ashes of crematory ovens, there was still life — through the testimonies of the Sonderkommandos, martyrs of Nazi rule.
- Gideon Greif, We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz (2005), Yale University Press.
- Raymonde Grynberg & Claude Bassi-Lederman, “La révolte du Sonderkommando d’Auschwitz-II Birkenau” [FRENCH], L’Humanité, 5/2/2014.
- Mémorial de la Shoah, Des voix sous la cendre : manuscrits des Sonderkommandos d’Auschwitz-Birkenau (2006).
- Nicholas Chare & Dominic Williams, “Ce que racontent les «rouleaux d’Auschwitz»” [FRENCH], Slate, 2/14/2016.
- Chris Webb, “Sonderkommando Revolt – Auschwitz Birkenau”, Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team (HEART), 2009.