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Sonderkommando. Interview with Auschwitz Historian Igor Bartosik

Due to the huge success of the film ‘Son of Saul’, a lot has been said about the history of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando was a group of prisoners, mostly Jewish, who were forced to work at the gas chambers and crematorium by the SS. Only a few survived. Their stories tell about one of the darkest chapters in the history of Auschwitz. We invited Auschwitz Study Group members to ask their questions and then Paweł Sawicki, of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum Press Office, kindly delivered them do Igor Bartosik. He is the historian working in the Research Centre of the Museum and he is a dedicated Sonderkommando researcher.

Since I have watched the ‘Son of Saul’, I’ve been interested in the following scene. There was a mad rush to gather the piles of passports and papers into a box. Was this in fact part of a saving hiding documentation process? The men involved in the scene, were they the same people who were part of the revolt?

It worked this way: all of the personal documents belonging to the victims were taken away and they were supposed to be burnt in the crematorium, in the ovens dedicated for burning the garbage of all kind. If those ovens were not working, then – according to Miklós Nyisli – all of the documents were burnt in a pit behind the crematorium number two. We also know from the memoirs of the Sonderkommando prisoners that sometimes they would go through the documents to see where the transport came from, if somebody popular or well-known was it, etc. Were they the ones to hide the documents, though? They would not possibly be able to hide a lot of the documents – maybe just the ones belonging to somebody exceptional who was on the transport. In the testimony of Dov Paisikovic:

Photo taken by Sonderkommando in August 1944 in Auschwitz
One of the few clandestine pictures taken by
the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz in August 1944

Usually, by just looking at their clothes or documents, we would know that we would find so many interesting things in the pockets of the men. If we really found them, I would hide them, for example in the attic of the crematorium, between the cans with human ashes (…). Our searching for documents was very well organized. The kapo knew about it, the Sondekommando members knew about it, but the SS, of course, could never know about it. This is why we were very careful: people, who knew about it, would place some other people; their task was to have an eye on the SS coming. In the meantime, some of us would go through the pockets of the victims.


We know a lot about the last Sonderkommando and who they were because there were some survivors. But is there more to know about former Sonderkommando and who they were?

Our most recent research shows that there was nothing like killing every Sonderkommando member every 3  months and replacing them with new ones. The selections took place, the people who were not able to get used to this kind of work in Sonderkommando would die then. However, there was just one execution of all Sonderkommando members and it took place in December 1942. All the people chosen to work in the Sonderkommando in April 1942 were killed. We know about the Dragon brothers or Eisenchmidt – the prisoners who were chosen to work in the Sonderkommando in December 1942 and somehow managed to survive until the camp was liberated in January 1945.

There was no executing all of the Sonderkommando members every 3 months. I believe the Nazis were applying a special kind of policy towards those prisoners – the policy of Divide et impera. If they knew they were going to be killed in three months, they would not care about anything. And this way, they were given some hope: if you continue to work, if you continue to do what we ask you to do, you will live. This is why some of them were allowed to live. The great selection took place in February 1944, when almost half of the Sonderkommando memebers was killed. According to testimony of Henryk Tauber from 1945, every few weeks some of the members of the Sonderkommando would just go away and never come back – most of them were the prisoners who could not cope with that kind of work, and they would get sick or to depressed to work.

David Olere's painting
Depiction of the Sonderkommando
working in the Krematorium.
Painting by David Olere

However, there are no documents that would allow us to learn about the nationalities of prisoners of the Sonderkommando in periods of its existence. We do know, more or less, however, from which transports prisoners would be delegated to work in the Sonderkommando. Those were the transport from the Łomża, Ciechanów and Mława region from December 1942. We also know a lot of prisoners were chosen from French transports from the beginning of March 1943 – most of them were communists, who later became the foundations of the resistance in the Sonderkommando. We also know about the Greek prisoners from May 1944, or about the Hungarians. We are not able to give any precise information about the nationalities being represented in the Sonderkommando, though. It is impossible to estimate.


I have read somewhere there were women chosen from female prisoners to be some kind of hostesses, their task was to welcome the innocent and fool people into not knowing what was going to happen to them. Is there something more known about that?

No. In the testimony of Eizenschmidt we came across information that there was a woman working in the Sonderkommando but we believe it was just some kind of a rumour. I have never come across any other documents or testimonies talking about women in the Sonderkommando.


I will spread my questions.  According to one of the escapes, sonder made it to a barn by the Ponds next to the Harmęże sub camp. My question is: did they face resistance from the Harmęże camp guard due to their proximity. We must consider the possibility due to werk details around the camp. In October, Pławy was not recognised as a farm but details still worked there at the time.

The prisoners escaping from the gas chamber and crematorium number 2  during the Sonderkommando rebellion bumped into a patrol. They decided to attack the guards with knives. The situation took place between Zerlegebetrieb and the Harmęże subcamp, where the Nazis were establishing the Pławy farm. Those guards were attacked with knives by prisoners. There was a minor fight between them and the posse, which was sent from the SS barracks. It is possible that the 3 killed SS members were the guards from Pławy, who were patrolling the area there and bumped into the escapees.


How were the electrified fences neutralised?

The fence in Birkenau was live during the night time. During the Hungarian action, the Nazis decided to turn on the electricity in the fence also during the daytime because the transports were really big and people would lose their minds and panic.


Is there any particular, and documented reason (except for the linguistic issue, which several scholars consider significant), why so many Greeks, especially from Thessaloniki, were selected to be part of the Sonderkommando?

I do not believe that linguistic issue was important here. I think the important thing was that all those prisoners were in the camp for quite a short time, and from mid-May 1944 all Jews able to work in the Sonderkommando, were put to work there; even those from the quarantine, but not only the quarantine.


Ruins of Krematorium V in Auschwitz-Birkenau
The ruins of Krematorium V in Auschwitz-Birkenau
Photo by Michael Challoner

About 200 Greeks were selected as Sonderkommando on May 12th from the transport which came from Athens to Auschwitz on April 11th, 1944. Was that only due to the proximity of their arrival to the beginning of the Hungarian transports?

Yes, exactly.


Was it possible that a prisoner, who was sent to the Gęsiówka camp in Warsaw, and later on evacuated to Dachau, could go back to Auschwitz and be selected to work in the Sonderkommando again in August or September 1944?

The things that were happening in the camp sometimes are unimaginable for the historians and the researchers, but I doubt that story. It must have been an exceptional coincidence. Anyway, August and September 1944 was the time when the Sonderkommando began to get smaller, and not bigger. We know, according to some documents, that small rotations took place – maybe 1 or 2 people. This kind of thing seems impossible for me, but, of course, we cannot say it did not happen for certain.


Was any member of the Sonderkommando sent to the Prisoners’ Hospital?

Up to this point we did not believe that the Sonderkommando members would be send to the Prisoners Hospital. They had a special room for people unable to work in their own barrack – Jakub Pach was in charge of that room, he arrived to Auschwitz in March 1943 on transport from France. According to Abraham Dragon’s testimony, after the Sonderkommando rebellion, he was sent for a short period of time to the Prisoners’ Hospital. We also have a testimony of one of the prisoners working in the hospital, saying there was a kapo from Sonderkommando, kapo Kamiński, for some time in the hospital. So, in some exceptional situations, the ones concerning the functionary prisoners mostly, it was possible.


Are there any Sonderkommando members still alive?

Probably there are 2 Sonderkommando members still alive – Dario Gabbai and David Nencel.


Is it true that no one in the history of the camp ever volunteered for the 'special squads' despite the allure of extra rations?

Yes, exactly.


Was there any basis for section to the Sonderkommando? Also once they knew what they had to do is there any evidence of refusal? How did the survivors cope afterwards as they faced the worst job of all?

First of all, the Nazis tried to choose people to work in the Sonderkommando shortly after their arrival to the camp because they were still physically capable of working hard. They would choose young, strong, big people. It was hard work, so they would not choose people who were already in the camp for a couple of months, and the other basic thing was how the people were built. If you were not built properly for the first sight, you would not be chosen. If we take a closer look on the age of the Sonderkommando members, we know that not only people in their 20's were being chosen. In some cases, men in their 40's were chosen too. But, in general, all of them were people from the new transports.

When it comes to the refusal of working, I am sure there were many, but the Nazis would react to them in one way only: by killing the people who refused. My research shows that most of people would accept this work. Of course, people would get nervous breakdowns after they realised what their work would be about. There is a testimony stating that one of the prisoners working in the Bunker number 2 in 1944 jumped into the burning pit on his first day of work due to his nervous breakdown. There is another similar situation described by Shlomo Venezia; the Sonderkommando prisoner just froze and was not able to move. Otto Moll shot him himself. However, I do not know of many cases when somebody assigned to work in the Sonderkommando would refuse to work. In many testimonies you can find 1 sentence – we were like robots, we worked without thinking. When it comes to the lives of the Sonderkommando members after the war, it was impossible for them to have normal lives. There were some who never wanted to go back to this place; they never wanted to have anything to do with it anymore. We have to remember that there was a burden put on them by the society; a burden of people who were responsible for the Holocaust. This was one of many reasons they did not want to share their experiences. It was much later when people understood that Sonderkommando members were living at the very bottom of the hell, that they had no choice whatsoever. Only then they began to tell their stories.


Is there any information about Sonderkommando members who would join the selected people to be killed and thus commit suicide?

There is a story by Filip Müller, who survived in the end, but during the liquidation of the Theresienstadt section of Birkenau in March 1944 decided to join those people in the gas chamber, as he felt an emotional bond with them. He wanted to enter the gas chamber too. But a group of women started to talk to him, telling him it was pointless, that it will be much more significant if he carried on living and gave his testimony, and tell the world what happened. This is why I think there were more cases like this, but we have no idea about the general extent of it. I do not know any cases when the prisoner would accompany somebody to their deaths, but we cannot say that never took place.


Ruins of Krematorium IV in Auschwitz-Birkenau
The ruins of Krematorium IV in Auschwitz-Birkenau
Photo by Michael Challoner

There was speculation that the young didn’t always die because of the Zyklon B in the chambers and that some, trapped underneath and somehow surviving being crushed, were actually trapped in air locks and were as a result still alive or certainly unconscious. Is there any truth in this and how did the Sonderkommandos deal with these situations? Must have been as traumatizing to experience as it is to know that situations like this actually occured...

There are some testimonies claiming cases like this actually took place – some space would form in between the bodies and the hydrogen cyanide would not go there. Cases like this were mentioned by Dragon, Shlomo Venezia, Fajzynberg, Paisikowic, Nyiszli. The SS member would just kill person who survived the gas chamber. The prisoners would not want this person to be thrown alive to the ovens, so that he or she would wake up in the fire. So even if the SS did not notice that somebody was still alive, the Sonderkommando members would inform him about it. They had no chances of helping that person anyway. They were doing it to prevent this person from being thrown in the fire alive.


How did the explosive material smuggled in support the revolt. Can you provide examples?

They were smuggled to the BIIg section in Birkenau, that is the Kanada warehouses, and Róża Robota picked them up and delievered them to the Sonderkommando. We must not forget that the Sonderkommando was isolated from the rest of the camp, but the isolation was not always very strict.

They had some contacts with prisoners working elsewhere. For example, prisoners from warehouses would come to the crematorium to pick up clothes belonging to the murdered people. When the things were being put in the car, there was always a possibility to smuggle something. We know the explosive material was being smuggled when the water carts to take away the human waste from cesspools. Those packages were really tiny – all they included was gunpowder.


I read about babies being left in the dressing room by their mothers, did the Sonderkommando members ever try to rescue any babies, or was there no point?

In the memoirs of Rudolf Höss we can read that women would sometimes hide the children under the clothes. However, the Sonderkommando members knew what was going on and that there were no chances in keeping those children alive; they paid a lot of attention to that.


Did the 2 female prisoners from IG Farben smuggle the explosives in? And why on that day did they revolt take place, after months and months of preparation – was it because of the amassing of SS soldiers at the camp? Did they mistake this increase in SS presence as evidence of their own, and of the camps complete liquidation?

What they meant was the Union-Werke of course. When it comes to the rebellion itself, 2 things clashed: the idea of general uprising in the camp (presented by the resistance in the camp) and on the other hand, the fact that so many prisoners were being evacuated in the Third Reich, and the resistance leaders knew that there would not be a general execution of those prisoners. When you take into consideration the liquidation of Auschwitz or even the possible execution of some Jewish prisoners, the rebellion had some sense to it. However, the Sonerkommando was a group that was threatened with immediate liquidation. And this is what made them want to rebel and escape from the camp. But at some point, all of it was gone – the impulse to do it right now. We need to do our best to understand those people – they were fully aware of the fact that rebellion would be possible only if the Red Army was already close. So, on one hand, there was no threat of the camp being liquidated soon and on the other – the Red Army was still very far away. The prisoners waited for some kind of impulse. And the executions taking place in the Sonderkommando was the impulse. First selection from the first half of September made them realize they were all going to be killed. When it came to the second selection, they had 2 choices: either stop the rebellion or start it at that very moment. They decided not to start it yet. They were aware that the rebellion should start at the moment that is convenient for them – in the night, for example. They knew 300 people would be taken away on 7th October. This was not a good moment to rebel. This is why they were taking their time to make that decision and this is why the rebellion started by accident, because they could not control the situation anymore. They knew people chosen to death may rebel against the SS. And this is why they decided to fight – they did not want to be killed like that.

When a group of prisoners realized they were chosen to be killed, they jumped on the SS. This was an impulse that started all the events – the fight, the setting of crematorium on fire, which was nothing but a scream for help. It was also a signal for other people to actually start the rebellion. What is important here is that events taking place in crematorium number 4 and crematorium number 2 were not connected with each other in other way but this one: if the crematorium number 4 was not set on fire, the crematorium number 2 probably would be never set on fire either.


What do you think of Primo Levi’s analysis of the Nazis complicity by design; do you think it was by design, trial and error, or something else?

It was tough and demanding work. It is difficult to imagine the SS pulling the bodies to the burning pits or the ovens. They were very practical about it. If you threaten people with death, you can get them to do so many things.


'Son of Saul' depicts the famous situation of Sonderkommando taking clandestine photographs of bodies being incinerated. Millions have seen those images. It’s possible other clandestine photos or writings still lay buried or hidden at Auschwitz? Do you think any photos or accounts of Auschwitz have not been discovered and is there a hunt under way to find such items?

If any materials of that kind existed, they could have been made by the SS. We cannot say it is not possible.


Did only Jews work in the Sonderkommando, or were there also other prisoners?

Almost every prisoner working in the Sonderkommando was Jewish. There were some Polish prisoners, who worked in crematorium in Auschwitz I before the final solution began, they knew too much and this is why they were moved to work in the Sonderkommando in Birkenau. They were functionary prisoners, some of them would help other, but Mieczysław Morawa was not one of them. However, Wacław Lipka or Władysław Tomiczek, people remember them and say they were really good. 2 Germans were working in the Sonderkommando too, alongside with a group of Soviet prisoners.


Thanks to Igor Bartosik for his expertise in answering the questions, Paweł Sawicki for the incentive and permission and also to the Auschwitz Museum for allowing us to reproduce the article that was originally published in Polish in the Os magazine in April 2016. Thanks also to Iga Bunalska from the Auschwitz Study Group for the English translation.