The Sonderkommando was the most terrible task that the SS could assign to an inmate in Auschwitz: the temporarily more than 800 men of this unit had to serve the crematoria of the extermination camp, remove the murdered from the gas chambers, rob them, burn them and finally dispose of their ashes.
And although the Sonderkommando was ultimately doomed to death because of its detailed knowledge of the genocide, it initially offered certain chances of survival because the deportees often found food or valuable items that could be exchanged. And so there was no shortage of accusations, and the prisoners at the crematoria were regarded as a kind of dehumanized collaborators by many fellow prisoners and later survivors.
Such moral assessments, for example by Hermann Langbein or, in relation to the Jewish councils in the ghettos, icons such as Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg, were already identified by Primo Levi as a reversal of perpetrator-victim: the Germans had tried “the weight of the guilt on others, namely to pass it on to the victims themselves, so that – for their own relief – they would not even remain aware of their innocence. “
It is all the perfidy and cruelty of the Holocaust that is concentrated in the Sonderkommando.
There is hardly an accusation that is more absurd than that of his complacent passivity. There were pronounced, especially Polish, resistance activities in Auschwitz, which led to more than 600 escapes.
But only 76 of them were brought to Jewish prisoners, because their survival inside and outside the concentration camp was once again much more difficult.
And the non-Jewish underground did not rebel. Comprehensive planning had to be weighed against the risk of complete failure, and the decision was ultimately made to wait.
In fact, it was the Sonderkommando that dared the uprising on October 7, 1944. These men had nothing to lose, and the end of the German genocide as intimate confidants threatened them with certainty of destruction.
It was a highly complex undertaking to get explosives and primitive weapons and then to infiltrate them into the crematorium complexes. In addition, the SS remained vigilant, so plans to arrest key figures had to be adapted again and again.
In October 1944, the revolt was therefore much less targeted than originally intended – but the crematorium IV was nevertheless successfully destroyed.
And yet, even today, some historians do not see upright fighters in these men of the uprising and in their helpers beyond the actual special command. Despair is seen by critics as insufficient motivation and a kind of second-class resistance.
Nine texts by five authors were buried on the Birkenau site
It is a curiously history-forgotten perspective that, under the conditions of Auschwitz, demands the highest ethical standards, international solidarity and, last but not least, the willingness to sacrifice oneself to the point of death, where it hardly ever existed outside the extermination camps.
The contemporary historian Pavel Polian is not inclined to moralize. He wants to set a tragic monument to the tragic, desperate hero and therefore presents nine documents by five authors in his new book: They are the only surviving testimonies of the Sonderkommando from the Holocaust period.
Their narrative stories depicted here are also adventurous, because the men were of course not allowed to officially report about their slave labor, but had to do it secretly.
Accordingly, they had to hide their texts from the eyes of the SS – and therefore buried them on the site of the crematoria. Between 1945 and 1980 they were recovered there, partly by accident, partly during targeted excavations.
They are unique sources, not least because in October 1944 250 prisoners tried to escape, but the Germans all caught and shot them.
Those who did not take part in the revolt and outbreak also murdered the perpetrators before Auschwitz was liberated, which is why there were fewer than 20 eyewitnesses who could report on the crematoria.
Only one of them, Marcel Nadjari, had deposited a letter near Crematorium III, which was discovered in 1980. Nadjari, born in Thessaloniki in 1917, had never experienced this before, he died in 1971 in the USA.
Until recently, his text was largely illegible because the long time in the earth had washed out almost 90 percent of the writing. Thanks to digital photo processes, almost the same part can now actually be deciphered: it is a cry for revenge.
Like the other authors, he reports on his deportation to the extermination camp and his work there in the Sonderkommando. He writes about the cruelty of the murderers, about selections and the murder process.
It is the unique perspective of the victims that describes their immediate experience, with Auschwitz clearly in the foreground and only two additional texts thematize the history of the persecution and ghetto.
For the first time, Polians Edition brings together all the writings that have survived, without any cuts, for example by communist censors, and in a thorough new translation from Yiddish. The downer that the texts here are translations from Russian can be overcome, the testimonials are too impressive.
The commentary is deliberately reserved, the rather essayistic introduction and the accompanying materials are as extensive as they are substantial, whereby the depressing historical events are sometimes clad in doubtful cynical words that one would rather expect from survivors than from a historian.
A prisoner speaks directly to the readers: The genocide must not go unpunished
But at the center of the book are clearly the impressive sources, which can be read independently of one another with great profit.
Salmen Gradowski has left the most extensive texts, two fonts written almost ten months apart, but not yet fully completed and entitled “In the Heart of Hell”, of almost 150 printed pages.
Gradowski has quite a literary ambition, even if his style may seem a little puffy these days. However, he does not write for himself, but to testify and to shake up his readers – whom he addresses directly – the genocide must not go unpunished.
He wants to document the crimes with his notes. And in an afterword he reports of his impending death because he wants to take part in the uprising – in fact he was one of the leaders – to send an active signal himself. Something similar can be read in other of the documents handed down: They reveal the despair and at the same time show the determination of the men of the Sonderkommando not to accept the genocide just like that, but rather to rise in a hopeless situation.
After reading Gradowski, Nadjari, but also Lejb Langfuß, Salmen Lewenthal and Herman Strasfogel, who each show their own political, religious and geographic perspective and persecution history, sometimes in more detail and sometimes very briefly, there is only a shake of the head at the critics of the Sonderkommando ,
These men were not passive victims or even vicarious agents of the German murderers, but encountered them with their heads held high as proud, unbroken Jews. That too was Auschwitz. An attempt to understand this camp cannot therefore succeed without the sources compiled here.
Stephan Lehnstaedt is professor for Holocaust studies at Touro College Berlin.