Sonderkommandos were work units of German Nazi death camp prisoners, composed almost entirely of Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during The Holocaust. The death-camp Sonderkommando, who were always inmates, should not be confused with the SS-Sonderkommandos which were ad hoc units formed from various SS officers between 1938 through 1945.
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 corpses. In most cases they were inducted immediately upon arrival at the camp and forced into the position under threat of death. They were not given any advance notice of the tasks they would have to perform. To their horror, sometimes the Sonderkommando inductees would discover members of their own family amid the bodies. They had no way to refuse or resign other than by committing suicide. In some places and environments, the Sonderkommandos might be euphemistically connoted as Arbeitsjuden (Jews for work). Other times, Sonderkommandos were called Hilflinge (helpers). At Birkenau the Sonderkommandos or "special squads" reached up to 400 people by 1943, and when Hungarian Jews were deported there in 1944 - their number swelled to over 900 persons to accommodate the increased rounds of murder and extermination.
Because the Germans needed the Sonderkommandos to remain physically able, they were granted much less squalid living conditions than other inmates: they slept in their own barracks and were allowed to keep and use various goods such as food, medicines and cigarettes brought into camp by those who were sent to the gas chambers. Unlike ordinary inmates, they were not normally subject to arbitrary, random killing by guards. Their livelihood and utility was determined by how efficiently they could keep the Nazi death factory running. As a result, Sonderkommando members tended to survive longer than other inmates of the death camps — but 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 for those about to enter the gas chambers. Since the Germans did not want Sonderkommandos' knowledge to reach the outside world, they followed a policy of regularly gassing almost all the Sonderkommando and replacing them with new arrivals at intervals of approximately 3 months and up to a year or more in some cases (special skills might merit longer life). The first task of the new Sonderkommandos would be to dispose of their predecessors' corpses. Therefore since the inception of the Sonderkommando through to the liquidation of the camp there existed approximately 14 generations of Sonderkommando.
In 1944, there was a revolt by Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz in which one of the crematoria was partly destroyed. For months, young Jewish women, like Ester Wajcblum, Als Gertner, and Regina Safirsztain, had been smuggling small amounts of gunpowder from the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex, to men and women in the camp's resistance movement, like Roza Robota, a young Jewish woman who worked in the clothing detail at Birkenau. Under constant guard, the women in the factory took small amounts of the gunpowder, wrapped it in bits of cloth or paper, hid it on their bodies, and then passed it along the smuggling chain. Once she received the gunpowder, Robota passed it to her co-conspirators in the Sonderkommando. Using this gunpowder, the leaders of the Sonderkommando planned to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria, and launch the uprising.
When the camp resistance warned the Sonderkommando that they were due to be murdered on the morning of 7 October 1944, the Sonderkommando attacked the SS and Kapos with two machine guns, axes, knives and grenades. The SS men suffered 15 casualties of whom about 12 were injured and 3 were killed; one of the killed SS and a Reichsdeutsche Oberkapo  were pushed alive into a crematorium oven after being stabbed by a member of the Sonderkommando. Some of the Sonderkommando escaped from the camp for a period, as was planned, but they were recaptured later the same day. Of those who didn't die in the uprising itself, 200 were later forced to strip and 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 Treblinka on 2 August 1943, in which around 100 prisoners succeeded in breaking out of the camp, and a similar uprising in Sobibór on 14 October 1943. The uprising in Sobibor was dramatized in the film, Escape from Sobibor. The Sonderkommando in Sobibór's Camp III did not take part in the uprising in Camp I, but were murdered the following day.
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 (although some sources claim more), among them: Henryk (Tauber) Fuchsbrunner, Filip Müller, Daniel Behnnamias, Dario Gabbai, Morris Venezia, Shlomo Venezia, Alter Fajnzylberg, Abram Dragon, David Olère, 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.
In the collection at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, there are notes from members of Sonderkommandos. The following note was found buried in the Auschwitz crematoria and was written by Zalman Gradowski, a member of the Sonderkommandos who was killed in the 7 October 1944 revolt:
"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."
|Original photographs by “Alex” (Alberto Errera)|
|Close-ups of subject area (from above)|
- Ala Gertner
- Henryk Mandelbaum
- Rose Meth
- Filip Müller
- David Olère
- Roza Robota
- Shoah (film)
- The Grey Zone
- Ypatingasis būrys
- Henryk (Tauber) Fuchsbrunner
- Leib Langfus
- Shlomo Venezia
- Morris Venezia
- Friedländer (2009). Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945, pp. 355-356.
- Shirer (1990). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p. 970.
- Sofsky, Wolfgang (1996). Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, p. 267.
- Sofsky, Wolfgang (1996). Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, p. 269.
- Sofsky, Wolfgang (1996). Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, p. 271.
- Sofsky, Wolfgang (1996). Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, p. 283.
- Michael & Doerr (2002). Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich, p. 209.
- Wachsmann & Caplan, eds. (2010) Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, p. 73.
- Sofsky, Wolfgang (1996). Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, p. 271-273.
- Griech-Polelle (2005). We Wept Without Tears: Interviews with Jewish Survivors of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, p. 4.
- Griech-Polelle (2005). We Wept Without Tears: Interviews with Jewish Survivors of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, p. 327.
- Dr. Miklos Nyiszli (1993). Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-202-8.
- "Auschwitz Revolt (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)". Ushmm.org. Retrieved 2013-02-20.
- reports that 70 SS were killed are apparently exaggerated Axis History forum
- Rees, Laurence (2012). Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution". Random House. p. 324.
- The Kapo was Karl Konvoent, a Criminal prisioner who had been transferred from KZ Majdanek 16 April 1944 Axis history forum
- Auschwitz, 1940-1945: Mass murder. Books.google.com. 11 June 2008. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
- Anatomy of the Auschwitz death camp. Books.google.com. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
- We wept without tears: testimonies .... Books.google.com. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
- Chrostowski, Witold, Extermination Camp Treblinka, Vallentine Mitchell, Portland, OR, 2003, p. 94, ISBN 0-85303-457-5
- Jules Schelvis (2007). Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp. Berg, Oxford & New York. ISBN 978-1-84520-419-8.
- "Auschwitz - Sonderkommando". Hagalil.com. 2 May 2000. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
- Rutta, Matt Yad Vashem website, Rabbinic Rambling, 23 March 2006. Retrieved 30 April 2007.
There are several eyewitness accounts from members of the Sonderkommando. Publications include:
- Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, deposition by Henryk Tauber in the Polish Courts, May 24, 1945, p. 481–502, Jean-Claude Pressac, Pressac-Klarsfeld, 1989, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York, Library of Congress 89-81305
- Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers by Filip Müller, Ivan R. Dee, 1979, ISBN 1-56663-271-4
- We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz by Gideon Greif, Yale University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10651-3.
- The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando by Rebecca Fromer, University Alabama Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8173-5041-1.
- Auschwitz : A Doctor's Eyewitness Account by Miklós Nyiszli (translated from the original Hungarian), Arcade Publishing, 1993, ISBN 1-55970-202-8. A play and subsequent film about the Sonderkommandos, The Grey Zone (2001) directed by Tim Blake Nelson, was based on this book.
- Dario Gabbai (Interview Code 142, conducted in English) video testimony, interview conducted in November 1996, Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, University of Southern California.
- Sonderkommando Auschwitz. La verità sulle camere a gas. Una testimonianza unica, Shlomo Venezia, Rizzoli, 2007, ISBN 88-17-01778-7
- Sonder. An Interview with Sonderkommando Member Henryk Mandelbaum, Jan Południak, Oświęcim, 2008, ISBN 978-83-921567-3-4
- Friedländer, Saul. (2009). Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945. New York: Harper Perennial.
- Griech-Polelle, Beth A. (2005). We Wept Without Tears: Interviews with Jewish Survivors of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Michael, Robert, and Doerr, Karin (2002). Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Press.
- Shirer, William L. (1990). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: MJF Books.
- Sofsky, Wolfgang (1996). Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.
- Wachsmann, Nikolaus, and Jane Caplan, eds. (2010). Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories. New York: Routledge.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sonderkommando.|
- (German) short history of the jüdische Sonderkommando – www.sonderkommando-studien.de/ (further content: Zum Begriff Sonderkommando und verwandten Bezeichnungen • „Handlungsräume“ im Sonderkommando Auschwitz. • Der „Sonderkommando-Aufstand“ in Auschwitz-Birkenau – Photos )
- Informations about Auschwitz Sonderkommandos members on the French site Sonderkommando.info