Müller, Filip

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Nationality: Czechoslovakian. Career: Prisoner, Auschwitz, 1942-44. Award: International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism prize, 1980, for Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers.



Sonderbehandlung: Drei Jahre in den Krematorien und Gaskammern von Auschwitz, with Helmut Freitag. 1979; translated as Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, edited by Susanne Flatauer, 1979 (first published as The Death Factory , 1966); as Auschwitz Inferno: The Testimony of a Sonderkommando, 1979.

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Filip Müller's bleak testimony Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers is his account of his time in the Sonderkommando, the special squads that dealt with the processing, murder, and disposal of the bodies of the victims of the Nazis. These units have attracted a great deal of attention, yet there are few survivors and accounts (another is Rebecca Camhi Fromer, The Holocaust Odysseys of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando, 1993). Primo Levi , in his essay "The Gray Zone" from The Drowned and the Saved, writes: "Conceiving and organising the squads was National Socialism's most demonic crime. Behind the pragmatic aspect … other more subtle aspects can be conceived. This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others—specifically the victims—the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived even the solace of innocence … the existence of the squads had a meaning, contained a message; 'We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better then we are; if we so wish and we do so wish, we can destroy not only your bodies but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours."' Müller's unsparing and unhistrionic account is exactly a description of this. The SS men and the kapos are hated, but there is a strange, foul, and unwilling complicity between them, as the SS force the "crematory ravens" to do their bidding. Müller's account is spare: a simple report, with little speculation, almost as if the terrible nature of his forced duties made wider reflection impossible.

Müller came to Auschwitz on the first Slovak transport on 20 April 1942. By incredible chance and through his own tenacity and initiative, he managed to survive the camps. The origin of Müller's account was a report he wrote in 1945 or '46, which was then published 20 years later in 1966 as The Death Factory. It was then reworked, with a literary collaborator and a translator, into the text Eyewitness Auschwitz in 1979. The historian Yehuda Bauer writes in the introduction of the U.S. edition that since Müller "published his memoir in the 70s, we have learned a great deal about Auschwitz, so that we now know that there are inaccuracies in some of his statistics and diagrams as presented here." In her 1999 book Reading the Holocaust, Inga Clendinnen goes further: "I suspect the collaborator's hand in the use of the convention of dramatic direct-direct speech reportage from long public speeches by the SS and … for the responses by their victims." More than this, she writes that she would challenge the few stories she finds uplifting—"scenes of defiance and/or faith," such as Müller's telling of the well-known dancer story of the shooting of SS man Schillinger—"on the grounds of implausibility." For Clendinnen the question is "is it believable? … the critical evaluation of texts (may I accept this? must I reject that?) stands at the heart of the historical enterprise." Passing over debates on the normalization of history—such as the debate between Martin Brozat and Saul Friedländer —she reads this text passing over its affective content.

Müller's account is supported in Rudolf Vrba 's I Cannot Forgive. Müller is also one of the witnesses in Claude Lanzmann 's film Shoah. The account Müller offers is one of pain and suffering, sparingly told. It is made especially acute because of his position in the special squads, a victim first and foremost, but in an agonizing position of being able to watch other victims.

—Robert Eaglestone

See the essay on Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers.

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