Henryk Tauber deposition

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giles120
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Henryk Tauber deposition

Post by giles120 » 04 Aug 2005 09:45

Apologies if already posted anywhere in this forum! Here is the deposition of Henryk Tauber, Polish Jew and member of Sonderkommando at Auschwitz Birkenau.


In Auschwitz, on 24th May 1945, Jan Sehn, examining judge in Cracow, member of the Central Commission for the Investigation of Hitlerite Crimes in Poland, at the request of, in the presence of and with the participation of the vice-prosecutor of the Cracow Regional Court, Edward Pechalski, pursuant to Article 254 and in connection with Articles 107 and 115 of the Criminal Code, interrogated former Auschwitz concentration camp prisoner 90124, who testified as follows:

My name is HENRYK TAUBER, I was born on 8th July 1917 in Chrzanow, son of Abraham Tauber and Minda nee Szajnowic, unmarried, of the Jewish faith, of Polish nationality and citizenship, shoemaker by trade, domiciled at 1 Grunwaldzka Street, Chrzanow, with no police record.

Until the war broke out in 1939, I lived with my immediate family of 12 persons in Chrzanow. Of this family, one of my brothers-in-law and myself are the only ones to have survived the war. Up to now I have had no news of the fate of one of my brothers who went to Russia. After many expropriations and displacements, my family and I were separated and I found myself in the Crakow ghetto. There, I was arrested in November 1942 and incarcerated in the Jewish police prison at 31 Jozefinska Street. On 19th January 1943 I was transferred to Auschwitz with 400 Jews from the Cracow ghetto and 800 Aryans from Monteluppich (Cracow prison). This transport consisted of about 800 men and 400 women. On our arrival at Auschwitz station, the women were separated from the men and installed in the women's camp in Birkenau. Included in a group of 250 Jewish prisoners and about 550 Aryans, I was assigned to block 27, sector B1b. This block was unfinished, without windows, doors or bunks. Later on, I went to blocks 22 and 20 in the same sector of the camp. I spent a few days at Buna (Monowitz) from where, because of typhus detected in my group, I was transferred back to Birkenau and put in block 21 of sector B1b. In the meantime, there were the formalities of registration, during which I stated that I was a qualified fitter-mechanic by trade.

At the beginning of February 1943, Unterscharfuhrer (sergeant) Groll of the Arbeitsdienst (labor service) and prisoner Mikusz of the Arbeitseinsatz (labor deployment) came in our block and selected from among the prisoners living there some specialists for what was supposed to be work in the Auschwitz workshops. Twenty young Jews were picked out. We were then taken to block IV (main camp) where we were examined by a doctor who declared us all fit. The same day we were taken by truck, under SS guard, to Auschwitz and installed in Bunker 7 (basement cell) in block XI (main camp). The next day we, the twenty prisoners, were taken under a stronger SS guard, to the bunker in which, as we learned later, Krematorium I was installed. There we met seven Jews, among them Jankowski, and three Poles. The Capo was Mietek Morawa from Cracow. He was a tall, blond, slim man about 24 years old. One of his brothers was a boxer in Cracow. I heard that Morawa's family lived in Dibnikach (a district of Cracow). From the very beginning of his activity in the first crematorium (Kr. 1), he was a very strict Capo who carried out the work ordered by the Germans in conformity with the regulations. Later on, he was promoted to Obercapo (principal Capo) of Birkenau Krematorien II and III. There, he tried to live on good terms with us, for there were then about 400 of us and we had been working there long enough to be ready for anything and to let nobody spit in our plate (Polish expression: "not let anyone walk over us").

The day after our arrival at the crematorium (Kr I) an SS Unterscharführer (sergeant) whose name I forget gave us a pep talk. He warned that we were going to have to do unpleasant work to which we would have to accustom ourselves, and which after a certain time would present no more difficulty. He spoke Polish the whole time. Never during all his speech did he once mention the fact that we would have to burn the bodies of human beings. As soon as he finished the speech, he ordered "Los, an die Arbeit!" (OK, get to work!) and started beating our heads with a bludgeon. With Mietek Morowa, he drove us towards the bunker (Leichenhalle, or morgue) of Krematorium I, where we discovered some hundreds of corpses. They were in heaps, one on top of the other, dirty and frozen. Many of them were covered in blood, their skulls crushed, others had their stomachs open, probably as the result of autopsy. All were frozen and we had to separate them from one another with axes. Beaten, and harassed by the Unterscahfuhrer and Capo Morawa, we dragged these corpses to the "hajcownia" (German-Polish term meaning "boiler room"), where there were three furnaces, each with two muffles. I designate as "muffle", in conformity with the nomenclature used by the Soviet Commission, the corpse incineration hearths.

In the "boiler room" we put the corpses on a trolley with a high platform that ran on rails installed between the furnaces. This trolley went from the door of the bunker, where the corpses were, on a turntable that crossed the "boiler room" on broad rails. From these there ran narrower rails on which the trolley itself fitted, leading to each muffle. The trolley ran on four metal wheels. Its strong frame was in the form of a box, and to make it heavier we weighted it with stones and scrap metal. The upper part was extended by a metal slide over two metres long. We put five corpses on this: first we put two with the legs towards the furnace and the belly upwards, then two more the other way round but still with the belly upwards, and finally we put the fifth one with the legs towards the furnace and the back upwards. The arms of this last one hung down and seemed to embrace the other bodies below. The weight of such a load sometimes exceeded that of the ballast, and in order to prevent the trolley from tipping up and spilling the corpses we had to support the slide by slipping a plank underneath it. Once the slide was loaded, we pushed it into the muffle. Once the corpses were introduced into the furnace, we held them there by means of a metal box that slid on top of the charging slide, while other prisoners pulled the trolley back, leaving the corpses behind. There was a handle at the end of the slide for gripping and pulling back the sliding box. Then we closed the door. In Krematorium I, there were three, two-muffle furnaces, as I have already mentioned. Each muffle could incinerate five human bodies. Thirty corpses could be incinerated at the same time in this crematorium. At the time when I was working there, the incineration of such a charge (5 corpses in one muffle) took up to an hour and a half, because they were the bodies of very thin people, real skeletons, which burned very slowly. I know from the experience gained by observing cremation in Krematorien II and III that the bodies of fat people burn very much faster. The process of incineration is accelerated by the combustion of human fat which thus produces additional heat.

All these furnaces were located in a hall that I have called the "boiler room". Near the entrance to this hall, there was one furnace with its hearth facing the entrance door and the muffles towards the interior of the hall. The two others faced in the opposite direction, muffles towards the entrance doors and hearths towards the back of the hall. They were at the other end of the room. These furnaces were coke-fired. They were built, as could be seen by the inscriptions on the doors of the furnaces, by the firm Topf & Sohne of Erfut. The trolley for transporting the corpses was also supplied by this firm.

Behind the boiler room there was a small coke store with a little office beside it and then on the right the store for the urns containing human ashes. The entrance door which now leads to the hall that I call the boiler room was put in later. When I was working in Krematorium I, that door did not exist. We used to enter through the corridor to the boiler room through the door to the left of the entrance. There were two (other) doors of this type. The first door, on the right of the corridor, opened on an auxiliarystore where the spare fire bars were kept. The men from small transports, brought by truck, used to undress there. When I was working at Krematorium I, they were shot in the bunker of the crematorium. Such transports arrived once or twice a week and comprised 30 to 40 people. They were of different nationalities. During the executions, we, the members of the Sonderkommando, were shut up in the coke store. Then we would find the bodies of the shot people in the bunker. All the corpses had a firearm wound in the neck. The executions were always carried out by the same SS man from the Political Section, accompanied by another SS from the same Section who made out the death certificates for those shot. Capo Morawa was not with us in the coke store during the shootings. I don't know what he did during this time. We carried the still warm and bloody bodies of the shot people from the bunker to the boiler room. The second door on the right of the corridor led to a small room where the human ashes were put. We passed through this room to reach the bunker proper, used during my time there for shooting the victims and which previously had been used for gassing people. In December 1942, 400 prisoners of the Sonderkommando were gassed there. The prisoners who worked before me in Krematorium I, where I had met them, told me that. I worked in Krematorium I from the beginning of February 1943, 4th March 1943, or just over one month. During all this time, we were put in bunker 7 of block XI. We were in fact 22 Jews there, because at the beginning of February, two dentists, Czech Jews, were sent to join us, coming from Birkenau. The seven Jews I had met working in Krematorium I were also locked in block XI, but in another cell. Capo Morawa and the Poles Jozek and Wacek who worked with him, lived in block XV, which was open. Besides the two Czech Jews, four Poles came to join out group during that month: Staszek and Wladek, whose family names I have forgotten, and Wladyslaw Biskup from Cracow and Jan Agrestowski from the commune of Pas in the Warsaw region. I remember their names well, because I wrote letters to their families in German for them. These last four Poles were housed in block XV. When we left for work, the old Kommando that had preceded us at Krematorium I was called "Kommando Krematorium ". Our group, that is the 22 Jews from block XI and the four Poles who were detailed to it, was called "Kommando Krematorium II". We did not understand why there was this separate designation. Later on, we understood that we had been sent there for one month's practical training in Krematorium I in order to prepare us for working in Krematorium II. I would emphasize that the crematoriums and the Kommandos who worked in them came under the Political Section. The personal records of the prisoners working in these Kommandos were kept in the Political Section. Our sick were not sent to the hospital, but to an infirmary set up for us in a closed block. The block we occupied was isolated. In Auschwitz (main camp), this was closed block XI. Authorization to leave the Kommando and transfer into another did not depend on the Arbeitdienst (labor service), but on the Political Section. Our doctor was Pach, a French Jew. He was a good specialist who also looked after the SS, which enabled him, thanks to them, to get out of the Sonderkommando block and install himself in another. When the Political Section heard of this, he was sent back to our infirmary, even though he had lived for some months in an open block. During my training in Krematorium I, Untersturmfuhrer (SS Second Lieutenant) Grabner and Oberscharfuhrer (senior staff-sergeant) Kwakernak were the overseers for the Political Section. I remember Morawa having to ask Grabner to give him another prisoner because one of our group had died. Grabner replied that he could not give him one "Zugang" (new arrival), but if he killed four more Jews, he would supply five "arrivals". He also asked Mietek [Morawa] what he beat us with. Mietek show him a stick. Grabner took hold of an iron fire bar and said he should hit us with that. At the end of the first day's work in Krematorium I, five of my group declared they were sick and stayed in the block. The next day, pulling the bodies out of the bunker of Krematorium I, we found their naked corpses without any traces of bullet wounds. I suppose they must have been given jabs. A month later, of 22 Jews, there remained only 12. On 4th March 1943, my group, including on Wladyslaw Tomiczek of Cieszyn and the four Poles I have already mentioned, was transferred to Birkenau and installed in closed block II of sector Blb. I learned later that Tomiczek had already worked in the crematorium {Krema I] in 1941. He was an old hand, with a prison number of 1400 and something, and before being detailed to our group in March 1943, he worked for a while in the mill and the abattoir, where, with 49 other people, he was arrested on suspicion of engaging in clandestine activities. All were incarcerated in Auschwitz block XI and condemned to death by the SS tribunal. Untersturmfuhrer Grabner recognized Tomiczek just before the execution and transferred him to our group. In Birkenau, Tomiczek worked as Capo of the Kommando employed in Krematorium II, and later on in Krematorium IV. In the month of August 1943, I think it was, Tomicek was summoned to the Political Section, from where that very day Oberscharfuhrer Kwakernak brought his corpse that we incinerated in Krematorium V. Although Tomicek's head was wrapped in a sack, we identified him by his large size. Kwakernak personally supervised the introduction of his body into the furnace, then went off. We then opened the door of the furnace, unwound the sack and recognized his face very well. He was a good man, hard working, decent with us, and we had told him about our clandestine activities.

On 4th March 1943, we were taken under SS guard to Krematorium II. The construction of this crematorium was explained to us by Capo [Julius] August [Bruck], who had just arrived from Buchenwald where he had also been working in the crematorium. Krematorium II had a basement where there was an undressing room and a bunker, or in other words a gas chamber. To go from one cellar to the other, there was a corridor in which there came from the exterior a stairway and a slide for throwing the bodies that were brought to the camp to be incinerated in the crematorium. People went through the door of the undressing room into the corridor, then from there through a door on the right into the gas chamber. A second stairway running from the grounds of the crematorium gave access to the corridor. To the left of this stairway, in the corner, there was a little room where hair, spectacles and other effects were stored. On the right there was another small room used as a store for cans of Zyclon-B. In the right corner of the corridor, on the wall facing the door from the undressing room, there was a lift to transport the corpses. People went from the crematorium yard to the undressing room via a stairway, surrounded by iron rails. Over the door there was a sign with the inscription "Zum Baden und Desinfektion" (to bath and disinfection), written in several languages. I remember the word "banya" [Russian for steam bath] was there too. From the corridor they went through the door on the right into the gas chamber. It was a wooden door, made of two layers of short pieces of wood arranged like parquet. Between these layers there was a single sheet of material sealing the edges of the door and the rabbets of the frame were also fitted with sealing strips of felt. At about head height for an average man this door had a round glass peephole. On the other side of the door, i.e. on the gas chamber side, this opening was protected by a hemispherical grid. This grid was fitted because the people in the gas chamber, feeling they were going to die, used to break the glass of the peep-hole. But the grid still did not provide sufficient protection and similar incidents recurred. The opening was blocked with a piece of metal or wood. The people going to be gassed and those in the gas chamber damaged the electrical installations, tearing the cables out and damaging the ventilation equipment. The door was closed hermetically from the corridor side by means of iron bars which were screwed tight. The roof of the gas chamber was supported by concrete pillars running down the middle of its length. On either side of these pillars there were four others, two on each side. The sides of these pillars, which went up through the roof, were of heavy wire mesh. Inside this grid, there was another of finer mesh and inside that a third of very fine mesh. Inside this last mesh cage there was a removable can that was pulled out with a wire to recover the pellets from which the gas had evaporated.

Besides that, in the gas chamber there were electric wires running along the two sides of the main beam supported by the central concrete pillars. The ventilation was installed in the walls of the gas chamber. Communication between the room and the ventilation installation proper was through small holes along the top and bottom of the side walls. The lower openings were protected by a kind of muzzle, the upper ones by whitewashed perforated metal plates.

The ventilation system of the gas chamber was coupled to the ventilation ducts installed in the undressing room. This ventilation system, which also served the dissection room, was driven by electric motors in the roof space of the crematorium.

The gas chamber had no water supply of its own. [A Bauleitung inventory drawing indicates that three taps were in fact installed in the gas chamber. But they were destroyed in the first gassings and it was decided not to replace them.]

The water tap was in the corridor and a rubber hose was run from it to wash the floor of the gas chamber. At the end of 1943, the gas chamber was divided in two by a brick wall to make it possible to gas smaller transports. In the dividing wall there was a door identical to that between the corridor and the original gas chamber. Small transports were gassed in the chamber furthest from the entrance from the corridor.

The undressing room and the gas chamber were covered first with a concrete slab then a layer of soil sown with grass. There were four small chimneys, the openings through which the gas was thrown in, that rose above the gas chamber. These openings were closed by concrete covers with two handles.

Over the undressing room, the ground was higher than the level of the yard and perfectly flat. The ventilation ducts let to the [air extraction] pipes and the chimneys located in the part of the building above the corridor and undressing room. I would point out that at first the undressing room had neither benches nor clothes hooks and there were no showers in the gas chamber. These fittings were not installed until autumn 1943 in order to camouflage the undressing room and gas chamber as a bathing and disinfestation facility. The showers were fitted to small blocks of wood sealed into the concrete roof of the gas chamber. There were no pipes connected to these showers, from which no water ever flowed.

As I have already said, there was a lift or rather a goods hoist. In addition, there was a vestibule there, which was reached through an entrance facing the access door to the crematorium. From this vestibule, one entered through the right hand door into the dissecting room. Between this room and the corpse store, there was a WC reached through a door from the dissecting room. The left hand door led to the "boiler room" on the firebox side of the cremation furnaces. They were in a row, equally spaced. There were five furnaces, each fired by two hearths. On the other side, where the exit from the lift was, were the muffles, three per furnace. It was possible to put five human corpses in each muffle, which was closed by an iron door bearing the inscription "Topf". Beneath each muffle, there was a space for a bin to collect the ashes, also closed by an iron door made by the same firm. Behind the furnaces, on the left, on the left, on the side of the access door from the crematorium yard, was the coke store. Going to the end of the yard was a narrow corridor from which a door led to a small room reserved for the SS. One of the windows of this room looked onto the yard behind the crematorium. This room was next to that of the head of the Kommando, which had a window looking out on the back yard. Just beyond this room, there was a WC and a small washroom, and then the doctor's room with windows looking out on the women's camp. From the corridor, a stairway led up to the roof space, where there was a dormitory for the men working in the Sonderkommando and, at the end, the electric motors for the lift and the ventilation system. A prisoner mechanic worked on their maintenance. Facing the entrance gate to the crematorium grounds, in the centre of the building, was a wing in which rubbish was burnt in an incinerator. It was called "Millverbrennung". It was separate, reached by going down a stairway. It was surrounded by an iron platform and was coal fired. The entrance to the waste incinerator wing faced the crematorium access gate. This wing had, in addition to its entrance door with a transom window over it, two windows, one on the right entrance and one on the left of the entrance. In the left corner of the entrance, there was an opening through which, from a walled-off area on the outside, the objects to be burned were passed inside. The incineration hearth for these things was to the left of the entrance and the firebox on the right. I would point out that it was in this particular furnace that the documents of the Political Section of the camp were always burned. From time to time, the SS would bring whole truckloads of papers, documents and files that had to be burned under their control. During the incineration of these papers, I noticed great stacks of records of dead people and death notices. We were not able to take any of these documents because we were operating under the close and direct surveillance of the SS. Behind the waste incinerator, at the end of the wing, was a chimney for all the cremation furnaces and the incinerator. At first, there were around this chimney three electric motors used for the draught. Because of the heat given off and the proximity of the incinerator, these motors often broke down. There was even a fire on one occasion. Because of these problems, they were later removed and the [underfloor] smoke flues of the cremation furnaces were connected directly to the chimney. A door allowed passage between the waste incinerator wing and the part where the chimney was. This part being slightly higher, it was reached by a few steps. After the motors were removed, some wash basins for the Sonderkommando were installed next to the chimney, and in the other part on the opposite side looking towards the undressing room, there was a room where Obercapo August sometimes slept. Normally he slept in the Reich Germans' block, which was first in Sector Bib, then in BIId. In the roof space above the waste incinerator wing, the hair cut from the victims was dried, tossed and put in sacks which were subsequently taken away by truck.

As I have already said, there were five furnaces in Krematorium II, each with three muffles for cremating the corpses and heated by two coke-fired hearths. The fire flues of these hearths came out above the ash boxes of the two side muffles. Thus the flames went first round the two side muffles then heated the centre one, from where the combustion gases were led out below the furnace, between the two firing hearths. Thanks to this arrangement, the incineration process for the corpses of "musulmans" or of wasted people with no fat burned rapidly in the side muffles and slowly in the centre one. Conversely, the corpses of people gassed directly on arrival, not being wasted, burned better in the centre muffle. During the incineration of such corpses, we used the coke only to light the fire of the furnace initially, for fatty corpses burned of their own accord thanks to the combustion of the body fat. On occasion, when coke was in short supply, we would put some straw and wood in the ash bins under the muffles, and once the fat of the corpse began to burn the other corpses would catch light themselves. There were no iron components inside the muffle. The bars were of chamotte , for iron would have melted in the furnace, which reached 1000 to 1200 degrees C. These chamotte bars were arranged crosswise. The dimensions of the door and the opening of the muffles were smaller than the inside of the muffle itself, which was 2 metres long, 80 cm wide and about 1 metre high. Generally speaking, we burned 4 or 5 corpses at a time in one muffle, but sometimes we charged a greater number of corpses. It was possible to charge up to 8 "musulmans". Such big charges were incinerated without the knowledge of the head of the crematorium during air raid warnings in order to attract the attention of airmen by having a bigger fire emerging from the chimney. We imagined that in that way it might be possible to change our fate. The iron components, in particular fire bars, still to be found in the camp, were from the fireboxes. Krematorium II had fire bars of heavy angle iron. Krematorium IV and V were fitted with fire bars in the form of a lance, or rather were like swords with handles.

On 4th March [1943], we were ordered to fire the hearths. We worked there until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. It was then that a commission formed of members of the Political Section and senior SS officers from Berlin arrived at the crematorium. There were also some civilians and engineers of the firm "Topf". I remember that among them was Hauptsturmfuhrer Schwarz, Lagerkommandant Aumeyer and Oberscharfuhrer Kwakernak. After the arrival of this commission, we were ordered to take the corpses out of the store room and throw them in the muffles. In this room we found about 45 bodies of men only, very well fed and fat. I did not know when they were put there or where they came from. Later on, I learned that they had been selected from the persons gassed in Bunker II situated in the forest. An SS officer of the Political Section had gone there and ordered prisoners to pick out big and well-fleshed bodies that he made them load on vehicles and remove from the Bunker. At that time, the Sonderkommando prisoners did not know where these corpses came from. It turned out they were to be used to test and demonstrate to this big commission the operation and capacity of Krematorium II, which was going to be started up. Via the lift and the door leading to the "boiler room", we took out the bodies and placed them two or three at a time on trolleys of the type I described for Krematorium I and charged them into the different muffles. As soon as all the muffles of the five furnaces had been charged, the members of the commission began to observe the operation, watch in hand. They opened the muffle doors, looked at their watches, expressed surprise at the slowness of the cremation process. In view of the fact that the furnaces were not yet hot enough, even though we had been firing them since the morning, and because they were brand new, the incineration of this charge took about 40 minutes. In continuous operation, we could burn two charges per hour. According to the regulations, were supposed to charge the muffles every half hour. Ober Capo August explained to us that, according to the calculations and plans for this crematorium, 5 to 7 minutes was allowed to burn one corpse in a muffle. Because with that quantity we were obliged to work without interruption, for as soon as the last muffle was charged, the contents of the first had been consumed. In order to be able to take a pause during the work, we would charge 4 or 5 corpses in each muffle. The incineration of such a charge took longer, and after charging the last muffle, we had a few minutes' break until the first one was again available. We took advantage of this free time to wash the floor of the "boiler room", as a result of which the air became a little cooler.

Once the incineration of the first test charge was finished, the commission left. We tidied up the crematorium, washed it, and were taken back to block 2 in Sector Bib. During the next ten days, we went back, under SS guard, to fire the furnaces. No convoys arrived during these ten days. We did not burn any corpses, simply keeping the fires going in order to keep the furnaces hot. About mid-March 1943, one evening after work, Haupscharfuhrer Hirsch, in charge of the Krematorien at that time, came and ordered us to stay in the crematorium because there was some work for us. At nightfall, trucks arrived carrying people of both sexes and all ages. Among them there were old men, women, and many children. The trucks ran back and forth for an hour, between the station and the camp, bringing more and more people. As soon as the trucks began to arrive, we, the Sonderkommando, were shut up in a room located at the back where, as I said in my description of the crematorium, the doctors who carried out the autopsies were to be housed. From this room, we could hear the people emerging from the trucks weeping and shouting. They were herded towards a hut erected perpendicular to the crematorium building, towards the entrance gate of Krematorium II. The people entered through the door facing the gate and went down by the stairway to the right of the waste incinerator wing. At that time, this hut served as an undressing room. It was used for this purpose only for a week or so, then it was dismantled. After this hut was removed, the people were herded towards the basement area of the crematorium via a stairway leading to the underground undressing room, already described. After we had waited for two hours in the pathologists' room, we were let out and ordered to go to the gas chamber. We found heaps of naked bodies, doubled up. They were pinkish, and in places red. Some were covered with greenish marks and saliva ran from their mouths. Others were bleeding from the nose. There was excrement on many of them. I remember that a great number had their eyes open and were hanging on to one another. The bodies were most crushed together round the door. By contrast, there were less around the wire mesh columns. The location of the bodies indicated that the people had tried to get away from the columns and get to the door. It was very hot in the gas chamber and so suffocating as to be unbearable. Later on, we became convinced that many people died of suffocation, due to lack of air, just before gassing. They fell to the floor and were trampled on by the others. They were not sitting, like the majority, but stretched out on the floor, under the others. It was obvious that they had succumbed first and that they had been trampled on. Once the people were in the gas chamber, the door was closed and the air pumped out. The gas chamber ventilation could work in this way, thanks to a system that could both extract and blow. Only the undressing room had a blower-assisted air intake system. Despite the fact that the ventilation remained on for some time after the opening of the gas chamber, we wore gas masks to work there. Our job was to remove the bodies, but we did not do this for the first convoy in mid-March because we had to go back to work in the furnace room. To do the job, seventy prisoners were brought from block II, also members of the Sonderkommando and working at the incineration pits of the Bunkers. This group took the corpses from the gas chamber into the corridor near the lift. There, a barber cut off the women's hair, then the bodies were taken on the lift to the "boiler room" level. On this floor they were put in the store room or taken directly to the "boiler room", where they were heaped in front of the furnaces. Then, two dentists, under the surveillance of the SS, pulled out metal fillings and false teeth. They also removed the rings and earrings. The teeth were thrown into a box marked "Zahnarztstation". As for the jewels, they were put into another box with no label other than a number. The dentists, recruited from among the prisoners, looked into all the mouths except those of the children. When the jaws were too tightly clamped, they pulled them apart with the pincers used to extract the teeth. The SS carefully checked the work of the dentists, always being present. From time to time they would stop a load of corpses ready for charging into the furnace and already operated on by the dentists, in order to check the mouths. They occasionally found a forgotten gold tooth. Such carelessness was considered to be sabotage, and the culprit was burned alive in the furnace. I witnessed such a thing myself. A dentist, a French Jew, was burned in this way in Krematorium V. He fought and cried, but there were several SS and they threw themselves on him, overpowered him and put him in the furnace alive. This punishment was often inflicted on members of the Sonderkommando, but it was not the only one. There were many others, such as immediate shooting, being thrown into water, physical torture, beating, being rolled naked on gravel, and other punishments. Such things were done in the presence of all the members of the Sonderkommando in order to intimidate them. I remember another case that took place in August 1944 in Krematorium V. When the shifts were changing over, they had found a gold watch and wedding ring on one of the labourers, a man from Wolbrom called Lejb. This Jew, aged about twenty, was dark and had a number of one hundred thousand and something. All the Sonderkommando working in the crematorium (Kr V) were assembled, and before their eyes he was hung, with his hands tied behind his back, from an iron bar above the firing hearths. He remained in this position for about one hour, then after untying his hands and feet, they threw him in a cold crematorium furnace. Gasoline was poured into the lower ash bin and lit. The flames reached the muffle where this Lejb was imprisoned. A few minutes later, they opened the door and the condemned man emerged and ran off, covered in burns. He was ordered to run round the yard shouting that he was a thief. Finally, he had to climb the barbed wire, which was not electrified during the day, and when he was at the top, the head of the crematoriums, Moll, first name Otto, killed him with a shot. Another time, the SS chased a prisoner who was not working fast enough into a pit near the crematorium that was full of boiling human fat. At that time, the corpses were incinerated in open air pits, from which the fat flowed into a separate reservoir, dug in the ground. This fat was poured over the corpses to accelerate their combustion. This poor devil was pulled out of the fat still alive and then shot. To satisfy the formalities, his body was carried to the block where the death certificates were issued. The next day, the corpse was brought back to the crematorium, where it was incinerated in a pit.

During the cremation of this first transport in mid-March 1943, we worked without interruption for 48 hours, but did not succeed in burning all the bodies, because in the meantime a Greek convoy that had just arrived was also gassed. We were overworked and completely exhausted. We were then taken back to the block and the work continued, thanks to a relief Sonderkommando that also worked at the two Bunkers and comprised about 400 prisoners. I worked in Krematorium II until about mid-April. During my stay, convoys arrived from Greece, France and Holland. In addition, we also burned the corpses of people designated for gassing at selections within the camp. I cannot say how many people were gassed during this period. We worked in two shifts, a day shift and a night shift. On average, we incinerated 2500 corpses a day.

At this time I was never able to see how the people were herded into the undressing room, then from there into the gas chambers, for when the convoys arrived we were locked up in the coke store. Only the two members of the Sonderkommando who were required to keep the fires going were allowed to remain in the "boiler room". I came to be detailed to this job myself. Through the window of the "boiler room", I observed how the "Cyklon" was poured into the gas chamber. Each transport was followed by a vehicle with Red Cross markings which entered the yard of the crematorium, carrying the camp doctor, Mengele, accompanied by Rottenfuhrer Scheimetz. They took the cans of "Cyklon" from the car and put them beside the small chimneys used to introduce the "Cyklon" into the gas chamber. There Scheimtetz opened them with a special cold chisel and a hammer, then poured the contents into the gas chamber. Then he closed the orifice with a concrete cover. As there were four similar chimneys, Scheimetz poured into each the contents of one of the smallest cans of "Cyklon", which had yellow labels pasted right round them. Before opening the cans, Scheimetz put on a gasmask which he wore while opening the cans and pouring in the product. There were also other SS who performed this operation, but I have forgotten their names. They were specially designated for it and belonged to the "Gesundheitswesen" (health service). A camp doctor was present at each gassing. If I have mentioned Mengele, that is because I met him very often during my work. In addition to him, there were other doctors present during the gassings, like Konig, Thilo and a young, tall, slight doctor whose name I do not recall. During the selections, this last one sent everybody to be gassed. I remember that on one occasion, Mengele told Scheimetz to hurry up and "feed" the victims in the gas chamber. His actual words were "Scheimetz, gib ihnen das Fressen, sie sollen direkt nach Kattowitz fahren" That meant that Scheimetz was to get a move on with throwing in the "Cyklon". I also noticed during my work that the SS who escorted the convoys and came into the crematorium yards were accompanied by dogs and held truncheons in their hands.

The trolley for transporting the corpses was little used in Krematorium II. It was replaced by a metal stretcher that was pushed to the back of the muffle with the aid of iron rollers located below the bottom edge of the muffle door. This new device was invented, it appears, by Obercapo August. It was later used in all the crematoriums. On the furnaces of Krematorien II and III, there was a single pair of rollers for three muffles which could be moved along an iron bar fixed in front of the muffle doors. In Krematorien IV and V, each muffle had two rollers of its own permanently installed before the door. Each crematorium [furnace] had two rollers for charging the corpses. This "stretcher" was placed before the muffle. Two prisoners loaded it with corpses. The procedure was to put the first corpse with the feet towards the muffle, back down and face up. Then a second corpse was placed on top, again face up, but head towards the muffle. This method was used so that the legs of the upper corpse blocked that below and did not get in the way when the corpses were introduced into the furnace. Two prisoners loaded the stretchers. One end of the stretcher was put in front of the muffle, below the bar, alongside which stood two prisoners. While the corpses were being loaded on the stretcher, one of these opened the door of the muffle and the other positioned the rollers. Then, they lifted the stretcher and put it on the rollers, while a fifth prisoner, positioned at the handles at the other end of the stretcher, lifted it at the same time as them and pushed it into the muffle. As soon as the corpses were inside, a sixth prisoner held them there with a fire iron while the fifth withdrew the stretcher. The sixth man also had to cool the stretcher as it came out of the furnace by pouring over it water in which soap had been dissolved so that the next load of corpses would slide easily on the metal of the stretcher without sticking to it. The same procedure was used for the following charge destined to be incinerated in the same muffle. We had to work fast, for the corpses put in first soon started to burn, and their arms and legs rose up. If we were slow, it was difficult to charge the second pair of corpses. During the introduction of these other two corpses, I was able to observe the cremation process. It appeared that the trunk of the body rose and the arms stretched towards the sky before contracting. The same thing happened with the legs. The bodies became covered in blisters. Gassed bodies that had remained in the store room for two days were swollen, and in the fire their diaphragm burst and their intestines poured out. I was also able to observe how cremation proceeded while I was moving the corpses in the furnace with a fire iron, to accelerate the combustion. After each charging, the SS head of the Kommando checked to make sure that the furnaces were properly filled. We had to open each muffle for him and at that moment we could see what was happening inside. We burned the bodies of children with those of adults. First we put in two adults, then as many children as the muffle could contain. It was sometimes as many as 5 or 6. We used this procedure so that the bodies of children would not be placed directly on the grid bars, which were relatively far apart. In this way we prevented the children from falling through into the ash bin. Women's bodies burned much better and more quickly than those of men. For this reason, when a charge was burning badly, we would introduce a women's body to accelerate the combustion.

At the beginning of the cremation process, the furnaces were heated only by their fireboxes and the charges burned slowly. Later on, as cremations succeeded one another, the furnaces burned thanks to the embers produced by the combustion of the corpses. So, during the incineration of fat bodies, the fires were generally extinguished. When this type of body was charged into a hot furnace, fat immediately began to flow into the ash bin, where it caught fire and started the combustion of the body. When "musulmans" were being cremated, it was necessary to constantly refuel the fireboxes. The shift boss wrote in a notebook the number of corpses incinerated per charge and the head of the Kommando, as SS man, checked these entries. After an entire transport had been cremated, he took away the notebook. Each time the Sonderkommando was relieved, various SS guards and heads of Kommando were present. Among these last I remember Georges, Knaus, Kurschuss, Schultz, Koln and Kellers. Scheimetz, whom I have already mentioned, was Kommandoführer for a while in Krematorium IV.

All the Kommandoführer ill-treated the Sonderkommando prisoners working in the Krematorien. Sometimes their cruelty was such that on one occasion Voss, one of the heads of crematorium who was later transferred to another post, criticized Kommandofuhrer George who was hounding us for the simple reason that no convoys were arriving and there was a lack of work, saying to him: "Wenn du hast nicht was zu umlegen, dann bist du wild. Ich habe das schon genug." [meaning roughly "Whenever you have nothing to wipe out, you go mad. I've had enough of it."] Apart from this Voss, the heads of this crematorium during its activity were: Unterscharfuhrer Steinberg, Hauptscharfuhrer Hirsch and Moll, Scharführer Puch and Oberscharfuhrer Mussfeld who came from Lublin after the liquidation of his crematorium.

Hauptscharführer Moll was the most degenerate of the lot. Before by arrival at the camp, he was in charge of the work at the Bunkers, where they incinerated the gassed victims in pits. Then he was transferred for a while to another section. In view of the preparation necessary for the "reception" of convoys from Hungary in 1944, he was put in charge of all the Krematorien. It is he who organized the large-scale extermination of the people arriving in these convoys. Just before the arrival of the Hungarian transports, he ordered pits to be dug alongside Krematorium V and restarted the activity of Bunker 2, which had been lying idle, and its pits. In the yard of the Krematorium, there were notices on posts, with inscriptions telling the new arrivals from the transports that they were to go to the camp where work was waiting for them, but that first they had to take a bath and undergo disinfestation. For that, it was necessary for them to undress and put all their valuables in baskets specially placed for this purpose in the yard. Moll repeated the same thing in his speeches to the new arrivals. There were so many convoys that sometimes it happened that the gas chambers were incapable of containing all the new arrivals. The excess people were generally shot, one at a time. On several occasions, Moll threw people into the flaming pits alive. He also practised shooting people from a distance. He ill-treated and beat Sonderkommando prisoners, treating them like animals. Those who were in his personal service told us that he used a piece of wire to fish out gold objects from the box containing the jewels taken from new arrivals, and took them off in a briefcase. Among the objects left by the people who came to be gassed, he took furs and different types of food, in particular fat. When he took food, he said smilingly to the SS around him that one had to take advantage before the lean years came. Under his direction, the Sonderkommando was strengthened and increased to about 1000 prisoners. When I arrived in the Sonderkommando, it comprised only about 400 men, a number that was maintained until January or February 1944. It was at this time that a convoy of about 300 of its members were sent to Lublin. Before I arrived in the Sonderkommando, about 50 prisoners a week were regularly added to it. Despite these constant additions, many died and there were no more than 400 prisoners in it when I started to work there. After the convoy departed for Lublin, there were one hundred of us left. They then sent us 20 Russians and a German, called Karol, as Capo. The Sonderkommando also received several dozen prisoners, among others gold founders and the "stokers" of Auschwitz Krematorium I, so that in April 1944, the Sonderkommando comprised about 160 prisoners. At the end of the month, it was increased to 1000 because of the Hungarian transports. Moll and his men plunged us into despair and distress through their behaviour and the way they treated us during the whole period of the mass cremations of the Hungarian transports. As soon as contact was established between the camp and the outside world, we decided to organize an insurrection that would enable us to find a way to freedom or die in the attempt. The uprising was fixed for June 1944, but I no longer remember the exact date. However, it never took place even though everything was ready, to the point that we had revealed the secret to some people who had previously suspected nothing. This affair caused us a great deal of trouble, and when it was discovered there were many victims. The first to be shot, shortly after the date planned for the beginning of the insurrection, was our Capo, Kaminski. Then, in order to make it impossible for us to have any contact with the outside world, we were transferred to Krematorium IV. Two hundred prisoners from the Sonderkommando installed there were selected and sent to be gassed. They were gassed in the delousing chamber of Auschwitz "Kanada" and were incinerated in Krematorium II by the SS themselves.

As our situation was becoming more and more painful, we decided to escape from the camp, even though we were closely guarded and rigorously controlled. Once preparations were complete, the revolt came in September 1944. It also spread to Krematorium II. During the revolt in Krematorium IV, we killed 25 to 30 SS, then we scattered. Before fleeing, we set Krematorium IV on fire and blew it up. The alarm was given in the camp, and the SS surrounded all the Krematorien, capturing virtually all the escaping prisoners. When the insurrection was over, of the 1000 men of the Sonderkommando, only about 190 remained alive. We were all housed first of all in Krematorium III, then some were transfered to block 11 of Sector BIId. Then, a convoy of 100 prisoners left there and a further group of 30 was detailed to the incineration of corpses at Krematorium V. Sixty remained in block 11 and worked in the demolition commando dismantling Krematorium II and III, which were to be transported to Gross-Rosen. Later on, the 30 "stokers" of Krematorium V came back to block 11, which housed about 90 Sonderkommando members when the camp was liquidated. On 18th January 1945, we were assembled, together with the prisoners from the other Auschwitz blocks and herded in the direction of the Reich. After about 20 kilometres, I escaped, and so I was able to save my life.

I have already mentioned that there were four pathologists belonging to the Sonderkommando. At first, they lived with us in the block, but later they installed themselves in the room next to the coke store of Krematorium II. These doctors carried out autopsies in a room on the ground floor of Krematorien II and III, on big stone tables. There they dissected the corpses of prisoners who had died in the hospital, sometimes those of certain persons shot in the corridor between the undressing room and the gas chamber. More often than not, Moll shot them himself. They shot prisoners coming from the bunkers of block 11 or from outside the camp. As soon as prisoners were brought to be shot, an Unterscharfuhrer, whose name I do not know, often came to the crematorium to cut the meaty parts from the bodies of these prisoners when they had been shot. The pieces of the body cut off from the buttocks and thighs were put in boxes and buckets by this SS man, who took them away in a car. I do not know why he did this. These pathologists had to produce a report on each autopsy, which was subsequently taken away by an SS doctor.

In mid-April 1943, I was transfered to Krematorium IV which had just come into service, the second to come into service. Then, still in the first half of 1943, came Krematorium V, and finally Krematorium III. Krematorium III was identical in construction to II, except for the internal difference that the trolleys for charging the corpses were never used there. In the room beside the coke store where, in Krematorium II, the doctors were housed, in Kr III it was the gold workers who poured the gold teeth into ingots.

Krematorium IV and V were built on the same plan and situated symmetrically on either side of the road running between construtction stage BII and "Mexico" in the direction of the new sauna. These Krematorien were each fitted with two four-muffle furnaces. The muffles were in pairs on each side. One firebox heated two muffles, which together made up half of a furnace. Each furnace had its own chimney. The undressing room and the gas chambers were installed on the ground flour, and the part of the building where they were located was not so high as the "boiler room" so that it had the appearance of an annex to the crematorium. The boiler room was separated from the undressing room by a narrow corridor with four internal doors, allowing passage between the two rooms. The undressing room was illuminated by four small barred windows giving on the exterior. Another door opened onto the yard of the Krematorium. This entrance was flanked by two windows.

Opposite the entrance door in the corridor, there was a door that opened on a room with a window which was the kitchen for the SS working in the crematorium, a kitchen where the dishes were prepared by members of the Sonderkommando. This room was next to that of the Sonderkommando prisoners. In Krematorium V, it was in the corresponding room that the Sonderkommando bootmakers, tailors and carpenters worked. There were similar workshops in Krematorium II where in addition there were heaps of hair shorn from the gassed people. The third door in the corridor led to a corridor with a barred window and a door leading to the crematorium yard. From this corridor, the door on the right gave access to the first of the gas chambers and that opposite to the smallest of the chambers, communicating by another door with the biggest.

This corridor, and the three following rooms were used as chambers for gassing people. All had gas-tight doors, and also windows that had bars on the inside and were closed by gas-tight shutters on the outside. These small windows, which could be reached by the hand of a man standing outside, were used for throwing the contents of cans of Zyclon B into the gas chambers full of people. The gas chambers were about 2 metres high and had an electric lighting installation on the walls but they had no ventilation system, which obliged the Sonderkommando who were removing the bodies to wear gasmasks. The corpses were dragged along the floor into the access corridor, where the barbers cut off the hair and then into the undressing room, which also served, in this kind of crematorium, as a store room for the corpses. It was a big hall where the bodies were put while the gas chambers were being cleaned up. Then they were taken through the narrow corridor between the undressing room and the "boiler room", where at each end, a dentist tore out the gold teeth. In the "boiler room", the introduction of the corpses into the muffles was by means of metal stretchers, as I have described. Beyond the "boiler room", there was the room of the head of the commando and beside it another one for the rest of the SS. This was followed by a narrow corridor, the SS washroom and WC. The building was entirely brick-built, with a wooden roof, covered with asbestos sheets and roofing felt. The yards of all the crematoriums were separated from the outside world by a thick enclosure of wicker and a hedge to which straw hurdles were attached. In the yard, [of Kr V], there were watchtowers, where SS armed with machine guns kept guard. Furthermore, the whole area was surrounded by electrified barbed wire and the yards were lit by powerful lamps. In May 1944, the SS ordered us to dig five pits in the yard of Krematorium V, between the building itself and the drainage ditch, five pits which were used later for incinerating the corpses of gassed people from the Hungarian transports. Although a track for the trolleys was laid between the building and the pits, we never used it because the SS considered it to be inconvenient, so we had to drag the corpses straight from the gas chambers to the pits. At the same time, the old Bunker 2, with its incineration pits, was also made ready for re-use. I never worked there. It was realized that the pits burned the corpses better, so the Krematorien closed one after the other after the pits came into operation. The first to be stopped was Krematorium IV, apparently in June 1944, then, in October 1944, I think, Krematorien II and III. Krematorium V kept going until the Germans fled. Towards the end, it was used to incinerate the bodies of prisoners who died naturally or were executed. Gassing ceased in October 1944. At present, I am incapable of giving the exact number of all the people gassed and incinerated in the Krematorien and the pits. Some of the men working in the Krematorium noted individually and in secret the figures and the most dramatic events concerning the gassed persons. These notes were buried in different places close to the Krematorien. Some were dug up during the stay of the Soviet Commission and the Soviets took them away. Most of the notes must still be buried and it should be possible to retrieve them. There were, among other things, photographs of people gassed in the gas chamber and others of convoys arriving at the Krematorium to be gassed. I imagine that during the period in which I worked in the Krematorien as a member of the Sonderkommando, a total of about 2 million people were gassed. During my time in Auschwitz, I was able to talk to various prisoners who had worked in the Krematorien and the Bunkers before my arrival. They told me that I was not among the first to do this work, and that before I came another 2 million people had already been gassed in Bunkers 1 and 2 and Krematorium I. Adding up, the total number of people gassed in Auschwitz amounted to about 4 million. This figure includes various transports from different European countries, both Jews and Aryans, as well as prisoners registered in the camp and sent for gassing after selection.

The dismantling of the Auschwitz Krematorien began in autumn 1944. The parts were taken to the goods platform and loaded onto trains. Part of the material was left in Auschwitz, where it is still to be found in the place where building materials were stored, known as the "Bauhof" in Auschwitz I. The Germans did not succeed in shipping everything, being in such a hurry to flee. To be found there are the trolley I have already described, the components of the ventilation system, the frames of the cremation furnaces of Krematorien IV and V, the doors of these same furnaces, the ash bins, fire bars, the iron grids from the windows, the fire irons from the furnaces, a gas-tight door from a gas chamber, clothes hooks and benches from the undressing rooms and other metal and wooden items.

Sean_Lamb
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Post by Sean_Lamb » 04 Aug 2005 09:54

Part of the material was left in Auschwitz, where it is still to be found in the place where building materials were stored, known as the "Bauhof" in Auschwitz I. The Germans did not succeed in shipping everything, being in such a hurry to flee. To be found there are the trolley I have already described, the components of the ventilation system, the frames of the cremation furnaces of Krematorien IV and V, the doors of these same furnaces, the ash bins, fire bars, the iron grids from the windows, the fire irons from the furnaces, a gas-tight door from a gas chamber, clothes hooks and benches from the undressing rooms and other metal and wooden items.
Emphasis mine naturally.

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giles120
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Post by giles120 » 04 Aug 2005 13:21

Another Sonderkommando account from Birkenau.


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."

The only revolt
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 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.

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