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Sonderkommandos were work units of Nazi death camp prisoners who aided with the killing process during The Holocaust. The death-camp Sonderkommando consisted almost entirely of Jews, and should not be confused with the SSmarker-Sonderkommandos which were ad hoc units formed from various SS offices between 1938 through 1945.

The term itself in German means "special unit", and was part of the vague and euphemistic language which the Nazis used to refer to aspects of the Final Solution (cf. Einsatzgruppenmarker).

Work and death

Sonderkommando members did not participate directly in killing; that responsibility was reserved for the guards, while the Sonderkommandos' primary responsibility was disposing of the corpse. They were forced into the position; in most cases they were inducted immediately upon arrival at the camp, and were not given any advance notice of the tasks they would have to perform. They had no way to refuse or resign other than by committing suicide. Because the Germans needed the Sonderkommandos to remain physically able, they were granted moderately less disastrous living conditions than other inmates: they slept in their own barracks, which more than any other in the camp resembled normal human dwellings; they were allowed to keep and use various goods such as food, medicines and cigarettes brought by those who were sent to the gas chambers; and, unlike ordinary inmates, they were not subject to arbitrary, random killing by guards. (Dr. Miklos Nyiszli noted with irony the fact that the medicines arriving were labeled in various languages because Jewish transports were coming from every part of Europe.) As a result, Sonderkommando members tended to survive longer than other inmates of the death camps--but very few survived the war.

Because of their intimate knowledge of the process of Nazi mass murder, the Sonderkommando were considered Geheimnisträger--bearers of secrets--and as such, they were kept in isolation from other camp inmates, except, of course, for those about to enter the gas chambers. (As a result of this isolation and of the dearth of testimony from surviving Sonderkommando members, much of what is "known" about the Sonderkommando consists of unfounded rumors that circulated among other inmates.) Because the Nazis did not wish the Sonderkommandos' knowledge to reach the outside world, they initially followed a policy of regularly gassing almost all the Sonderkommando and replacing them with new arrivals; the first task of the new Sonderkommandos would be to dispose of their predecessors' corpses. At least at Auschwitz-Birkenau, this system fell into abeyance as the volume of killing increased, and some members of the Sonderkommando there managed to survive several years.

There was a revolt by Sonderkommandos at Auschwitzmarker in which one of the crematoria was partly destroyed with explosives. When the camp resistance warned the Sonderkommando that they were due to be murdered on the morning of 7 October 1944, they attacked the SS and Kapos with axes, knives, and home-made grenades. Three SS men were killed, including one who was pushed alive into a crematorium oven; and some prisoners escaped from the camp for a period. They were recaptured later the same day. Of those who did not die in the uprising itself, 200 were forced to strip, lie face down, and then were shot in the back of the head. A total of 451 Sonderkommandos were killed on this day .

There was also an uprising in Treblinkamarker on 2 August 1943, in which around 100 prisoners succeeded in breaking out of the camp, and a similar uprising in Sobibórmarker on 14 October 1943. About 50-64 of the prisoners from each camp survived the war . The uprising in Sobibor was made into a factual film, Escape from Sobibor, starring Rutger Hauer, amongst others.

The Sonderkommandos in Sobibórmarker camp III did not take part in the uprising in camp I, and were murdered the following day. Both Sobibor and Treblinka were closed shortly afterwards.

Fewer than twenty out of several thousand members of the special squads are documented to have survived until liberation and were able to testify to the events (though some sources claim more), among them: Henryk Tauber, Filip Mueller, Daniel Behnnamias, Dario Gabbai, Morris Venezia, Shlomo Venezia, Alter Fajnzylberg, Abram Dragon, David Olere, Henryk Mandelbaum, Martin Gray . There have been at most another six or seven confirmed to have survived, but who have not given witness (or at least, such testimony is not documented). Buried and hidden accounts by members of the Sonderkommando were also later found at some camps.

Testimonies

In the collection at Yad Vashemmarker, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Israelmarker, there are notes from members of the Sonderkommando. The following note was found buried in the Auschwitz crematoria written by Zalmen Gradowski, a member of the Sonderkommando and killed in the Sonderkommando Revolt in October 1944:
"Dear finder of these notes,
I have one request of you, which is, in fact, the practical objective for my writing... that my days of Hell, that my hopeless tomorrow will find a purpose in the future. I am transmitting only a part of what happened in the Birkenau-Auschwitz Hell. You will realize what reality looked like... From all this you will have a picture of how our people perished."There are several eyewitness accounts from members of the Sonderkommando. Publications include:

See also



References

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