'We did the dirty
work of the Holocaust':
Sonderkommandos was the name given to concentration camp prisoners whose job was to service the assembly lines of death. A new book gives accounts of their survival. As one of them put it: 'I ceased belonging to the human race.'
By Ronit Roccas / May 2, 2000 / haArez
Shlomo and Abraham Dragon arrived in Auschwitz in December 1942. Shortly afterwards, the Germans marched their entire labor team, 200 still relatively healthy and robust men, into a nearby forest. The air was freezing, and snow covered the ground. In the distance they saw and smelt the clouds of smoke emanating from the crematoria, but were still unaware of the terrible truth behind those malodorous clouds. An SS officer, Otto Moll, ordered them to enter a straw-roofed hut in the forest, full of naked bodies. "We saw a mass of naked corpses, men, women and children. We were horror-stricken into an eerie unnatural silence. It took us two days to recover a semblance of normality."
That was the Dragon brothers' first day as Sonderkommandos at Birkenau, which housed the death factory that consumed some three million Jews. A new book, "We wept without tears," written by historian Gideon Greif and published by Yedioth Ahronoth and Yad Vashem, includes the accounts of eight members of the Dragon brothers' Sonderkommando team.
According to the commonly accepted conventional wisdom, no Sonderkommandos survived, since they were usually sent to the gas chambers after a few months on the job. Many historians have accepted this opinion as fact. However, as Greif's book proves, some 100 Sonderkommandos emerged alive from the death camp following its liberation by the Red Army; of these approximately 30 are still alive in various countries. Greif has been following their stories and lives for over 40 years, to ensure this particular chapter of horror not is forgotten. In addition, the accounts provide a unique insight into the daily operation of the assembly lines of genocide, throwing light on this aspect of the Holocaust that remained shrouded under a veil of secrecy and silence for two generations.
The Sonderkommandos had better physical conditions than other Auschwitz inmates. They had decent food, slept on straw mattresses and could wear normal clothing. Yosef Sackar, a Greek Jewish Sonderkommando who lives in the center of Israel recalls, "Relatively speaking we lacked nothing, we had access to reasonable food, clothing and accommodations."
Despite this seemingly rosy picture, Prof. Yisrael Gutman, in his preface to the book, writes that the selection process regarding the Sonderkommando teams was every bit as frightening and horrifying as that which determined which new arrivals would be sent to the gas chambers. Both Shlomo and Abraham Dragon, who both now live in a suburb of Tel Aviv, were totally shocked by the experience of that first day. "I had never seen anything like that," recalls Shlomo. "I was so horrified that I felt I could not continue working there, so I took a piece of glass and cut my arm, hoping in death to free myself from that fate."
Yaakov Silberberg, who was born in Poland, also arrived at Auschwitz at the end of 1942. On his first day as a Sonderkommando he met an acquaintance, Shlomo Kirschenbaum, who was the Kapo in charge of the Sonderkommando team. He told Kirschenbaum that he did not think he could survive doing that work, and was contemplating suicide. "Kirschenbaum told me that he to felt the same way when he was sent to the Sonderkommando, but was able to adapt. He said that I too, would be able to adapt. He gave me two stiff drinks. I fell asleep, and after waking the next day I felt differently about it, and did not kill myself."
According to Greif, the Nazis deliberately sent Jews to work as Sonderkommandos. "The Germans' typical sadistic streak found amusement in a system in which the victim suffered the utmost degradation prior to ending up in a cloud of foul-smelling smoke." As one of the survivors put it: "We did the dirty work of the Holocaust."
Sonderkommandos were divided into several groups, each with a specific specialized function. Some greeted the new arrivals, telling them that they going to be disinfected and showered prior to being sent to labor teams. They were obliged to lie, telling the soon-to-be-murdered prisoners that after the delousing process they would be assigned to labor teams and reunited with their families. These were the only Sonderkommandos to have contact with the victims while they were still alive. Other teams processed the corpses after the gas chambers, extracting gold teeth, and removing clothes and valuables before taking them to the crematoria for final disposal.
Sackar was 20 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz in April 1944. A few weeks later he went through the notorious selection process and was sent to the Sonderkommando. "We worked in Crematorium number two, in the room where the prisoners were ordered to strip." Asked whether he ever considered telling the prisoners they would soon be killed, he replied, "What would have been the point? They were totally defenseless. What was the point of frightening them for no good reason?"
His fellow countryman Yaakov Gabai, who died during the period of time that Greif was conducting the interviews, recalled how two of his cousins were among the last loads of "Musselmen" (long-term inmates reduced to starved walking corpses) to be killed in October 1944. "On the 13th of October two of my cousins were among 400 Musselmen processed that day. I told them the truth, and told them where to be in the gas chamber so they would die immediately without suffering."
The actual gassings were carried out by the SS. The Sonderkommandos would enter the chambers afterwards, remove the bodies, process them and transport them to the crematorium. Then the
remains were ground to dust and mixed with the ashes. When too much ash mounted, the Sonderkommandos, under the watchful eyes of the SS, would throw them into the nearby Vistula River.
Greif explains that the Sonderkommandos were dependent on continued shipments of Jews for their lives. "Any slowing down of operations due to lack of victims meant they were in danger of being eliminated."
In October 1944, the team learned that the Germans intended gassing them. The underground had been planning a general uprising for some time, but it never happened. The remaining Sonderkommandos decided to take their fate into their own hands, and on October 7th the Birkenau Three Sonderkommando rebelled. They attacked the SS with makeshift weapons: stones, axes, hammers, other work tools and improvised home-made grenades. They caught the SS guards by surprise, overpowered them and blew up the crematorium. At this stage they were joined by the Birkenau One Kommando, which also overpowered their guards and broke out of the compound.
The revolt ended in failure. There was no mass uprising, and within a short time the Germans succeeded in capturing and killing almost all the escapees.
In this maw of death the Sonderkommandos continued living. There were relatively few suicides; as Gabai puts it: "Our ability to adapt is almost infinite. We functioned like soulless robots, it was the only way to remain sane under such conditions."
Shaul Chazan, another Sonderkommando from Greece, said that the only way to survive was "to cease being human. We reached the stage where we could eat and drink among the corpses, totally indifferent, utterly detached from our emotions. When I think about it today, I don't know how we survived."
Dr. Natan Dorset, chief clinical psychologist of Amcha (an organization counseling Holocaust survivors and their families) says that "in extreme situations, humans are capable of shutting down their emotions in order to survive." Moshe Sternberg-Harel, a psychotherapist with Amcha, says there are no studies regarding how Sonderkommandos survived emotionally. "However it can be assumed that a process of emotional anesthesia took place, as happened with survivors in general. All energies and thoughts were concentrated solely on getting through another day, to the elimination of any other thoughts. The human mind is capable of minimizing and neutralizing its emotional elements in order to facilitate physical survival in extremely stressful situations."
After the war surviving Sonderkommando attempted to return to normal lives, but it was even more difficult for them than for other survivors. The late Leon Cohen, who had the job of extracting gold teeth from corpses, recalled shortly before his death how, for over a year he would stare at peoples' teeth to see if they had gold teeth. "It took me over a year to escape that habit, to begin getting Auschwitz out of my system."
Many Sonderkommandos never revealed their secrets, both out of shame and the feeling that they would never be believed. To this day many people believe that no Sonderkommandos survived.
Abraham Dragon told Greif that he was ashamed. "Israeli society held Sonderkommandos in suspicion, regarding them as the cousins of collaborators, who chose that work to escape death. "They did not, perhaps chose not, to understand that it was blind fate that placed us in the Sonderkommando, we had no control of our destiny in that hell hole whatsoever." Chazan described the incredulity he encountered when he tried to tell his family what he went through. "They thought I was mad, they wouldn't believe. To this day not even my closest relatives know of my past as a Sonderkommando."
Greif admits that the interviews were not easily obtained. "I had to make full use of my somewhat stubborn nature in order to get them to agree to be interviewed for the book."
This is not surprising, given the fact that most survivors, and to a certain extent the Jewish establishment in general, tend to regard the Sonderkommandos negatively. Even in the camps themselves the Sonderkommandos were regarded as unclean, almost as lepers. The writer Primo Levi described then as being "akin to collaborators." He said that their testimonies should not be given much credence, "since they had much to atone for and would naturally attempt to rehabilitate themselves at the expense of the truth."
Greif admits that most of the literature written after the war takes a similar attitude, and only fairly recently have these attitudes begun to change. This change is still very limited, Greif says: only two months ago a survivor he met while giving a lecture in Miami said to him, "The Sonderkommandos were the worst murderers around."
It is therefore not surprising that Sonderkommandos have a need to explain that they were as much victimized as the others. "We did not spill the blood, the Germans did," says Shlomo Dragon. "They forced us to become Sonderkommandos, the fact that we were forced to do monstrous work does not change the fact that we were the victims, not the monsters.