In May 1942, in the framework of the clandestine plan known as the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," the mass-annihilation of the European Jewry began in the biggest extermination camp – Auschwitz-Birkenau. The killing process, which was characterized by its technical and industrial methods, was executed in the form of a production line run by ss personnel. Staff members were rewarded for their murderous activities with special rations, additional vacation, and a personal promotion.
To operate the crematoria and remove all traces of their crimes, the ss selected prisoners for a special squad shortly after their arrival without knowing the real aim of the work. For practical and ideological reasons the ss selected for this purpose mostly Jews, who from the middle of 1942 were the majority of the new prisoners coming to the camp. Ideologically, this was one the Germans' cruelest ways to humiliate the Jews and stamp them as sub-humans ("Untermenschen"). The inevitable death of these prisoners was a continuation of their spiritual death, which occurred during their horrible work in the death installations. The squad of prisoners thus symbolized the double death of the Jews: the mental and the physical. Another reason for choosing Jews for this squad could have been the desire to blur the distinction between the criminals and their victims, and to forcibly involve Jewish slave laborers in the process of mass killing and impose on them the onus of crimes committed solely by the Germans.
The ss euphemistically called these Jewish prisoners "Sonderkommando," "special squad." The members of the squad were given several privileges, which helped those who remained the professional core of the Sonderkommando survive. These prisoners got better food, improved living conditions, medical treatment from their own doctors, and from 1944 exemption from bodily punishment. They were always kept in isolated barracks, guarded day and night, and were not allowed to contact other prisoners. By giving them privileges, the administration of the camp achieved an additional moral separation of the Sonderkommando members from the other prisoners, who tended to accuse them of being collaborators. As a matter of fact these miserable and abused Sonderkommando prisoners had no choice at all. Anyone who refused to obey the orders or claimed that he was incapable of working was immediately shot by the ss.
The members of the Sonderkommando were organized in a hierarchic structure. At the base were the majority of ordinary workers. A few were "functionaries," e.g., the " Vorarbeiter " (foreman) and " Kapo " (head of work unit). The " Oberkapo " (head Kapo) and the " Blockaelteste " (head of the barrack) stood at the top of the Sonderkommando hierarchy. Orders, however, always came from the ss men, and through the functionaries were delivered to all members of the unit. The first Sonderkommando started to work in May 1942, in the old crematorium in the main camp (Stammlager-Auschwitz), as well as in the provisional gas chambers on the outskirts of the Birkenau camp. Parallel to this there operated from August 1942 the so-called " Krematorium-Kommando " in the main camp.
Between March and July 1943 four multifunctional crematoria were put into action in Birkenau. The work in the old crematorium at the main camp was stopped completely in July 1943. From May 1942 to January 1945 about 2,200 prisoners were recruited into the Sonderkommando. The number of members depended on the killing potential and the policy of extermination, as decided by the camp administration. The number at any one time ranged from 100 to 874 men.
As so-called "secret bearers," these direct witnesses to the genocide of the Jewish people were doomed to death by the ss and were usually murdered after the completion of the bigger killing actions, on December 9, 1942; February 24, 1944; December 23, 1944; October 7, 1944; and November 26, 1944. As it was desired that the skilled and experienced workers in the commando should stay alive until the end, there was only one complete liquidation of the whole squad, on December 9, 1942.
The members of the commando were forced by their tormentors to welcome the Jews who were entering the dressing room, to calm them, to carry those who were not able to go to the gas chambers by themselves, to ensure a quick undressing process and fast movement into the gas chambers. After the killing by gas the prisoners were obliged to evacuate and clean the gas chambers, to inspect the bodies of the victims for valuables, to cut their hair (mainly women's hair), to clean hair earmarked for industrial uses, to pull out gold teeth, and to remove prostheses. Subsequently, the prisoners were forced to burn the bodies of those murdered in the crematoria ovens or in the burning pits, to crush the remaining bones, and to spread the ashes. In the dressing room they were forced to collect all the belongings of the victims and to prepare these for dispatch by train. In the case of killing by shooting, they were obliged to distract the victims and hold them by force.
The total hopelessness and overwhelming helplessness in this extreme situation paralyzed almost every form of resistance and created an atmosphere of apathy and a loss of moral values among some of the members. Nevertheless, and amazingly, the will to survive remained in the hearts of many prisoners in the squads, who even developed an optimistic attitude.
Not only the contact with death was traumatic but also meeting the victims shortly before their deaths, including friends and relatives, not to mention the accusations by other prisoners. All this exacerbated the moral dilemma of Sonderkommando prisoners and their mental suffering. The prisoners found themselves in an extreme psychological situation, full of self-contempt and self-reproach. As the sole eyewitnesses to the killing process, these prisoners were the last to have contact with the victims before they were murdered. For this reason, the Germans preferred to choose prisoners for the Sonderkommando who spoke the same language as the victims, especially before big killing actions. The members of the unit, in the age range from 16 to 54, came from 18 countries altogether, mostly from Poland, Slovakia, France, Holland, Greece, Romania, and Hungary, and communicated in 11 languages. Despite the common fate that awaited them, the society of the Sonderkommando members could not achieve complete solidarity, mainly because of differences in social and cultural backgrounds.
Motivated by a historical conscience, several members of the Sonderkommando clandestinely wrote the history of the mass murder of the Jews and their own histories of the Sonderkommando. These manuscripts were buried in the grounds of Birkenau, discovered in part between February 1945 and October 1980, and later published.
Wishing to warn the still living Hungarian Jews before their deportation to Auschwitz, the Sonderkommando men supplied the four Jewish prisoners Vrba, Wetzler, Rosin, and Mordowicz who escaped from Auschwitz successfully in spring 1944 with important information and evidence of the crimes committed in the camp. Unfortunately this information could not prevent the mass murder of the Hungarian Jews.
With the completion of four new crematoria in Birkenau between March and July 1943, the living and working conditions of the Sonderkommando improved significantly. This enabled the creation of an underground movement of prisoners within the Sonderkommando, which initially was part of the general underground movement in the camp. This movement planned a general armed uprising of prisoners. Because of basic misunderstandings and incompatible interests, the general plan for an uprising was canceled, and only the Sonderkommando continued to plan an uprising of its own. The preparations for such an action took place in the months of spring and summer 1944. During the preparation period, young Jewish female prisoners smuggled explosives from the Union Metallwerke for the use of the Sonderkommando fighters. Four of these women were publicly hanged on January 6, 1945.
The uprising, an act of despair, was launched on October 7, 1944, in an attempt to destroy the killing installations, to avenge the crimes against the Jews committed in the camp, and to ensure that at least someone remained alive from the commando to bear witness to what had occurred in the camp.
The uprising was crushed after few hours, ending in a bloodbath of 451 Sonderkommando prisoners who fell in the battle or were shot in retaliation. The fighters of the Sonderkommando succeeded in burning one of the crematorium buildings (No. iv), killing three ss members, and wounding probably 12 others. After the uprising was crushed, the remaining prisoners of the commando were obliged to burn the bodies of their fallen comrades and destroy the remaining crematorium buildings.
By the end of October 1944, after the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau were used for the last time, more than 1,100,000 Jews had already been murdered in the death factory of Auschwitz. The last surviving members of the commando left the camp on January 18, 1945. On the long death marches they were first deported to Mauthausen.
Altogether, about 110 men of the Sonderkommando survived the Shoah. Sixty years after the evacuation of Auschwitz 18 former Sonderkommando prisoners were still alive, most of them in Israel and the United States.
[Gideon Greif and
Andreas Kilian (2nd ed.)]