'We did the dirty
work of the Holocaust':
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.
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."
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."
The Sonderkommandos knew that the Germans did not intend to leave any
witnesses to their crimes, and periodically killed off Sonderkommando
teams. "We did not believe we would survive," says Shlomo
Dragon. "Towards the end it was clear that shipments were becoming
smaller since there were no Jews left to kill. I was sure that the entire
Jewish nation would be eradicated."
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
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."
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
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
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.
Gideon Greif hat sich bereit erklärt, weitere Fragen der Leser von haGalil
onLine zu beantworten. Die Frage muß nur an unseren Korrespondenten als e-Mail geschickt werden.
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