Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Contemporary Sonderkommando Handwritings on Mass Extermination in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The contemporary Sonderkommando handwritings were authored by members of the so called Jewish Sonderkommando engaged in the body removal and disposal at the extermination sites. The manuscripts were written during the operation of Auschwitz concentration camp, buried in the ground near the crematoria and were only to be found after the liberation of the camp between February 1945 and 1980. They are a worthy and unique historical source since they provide impressions of the Jewish prisoners engaged in the mass murder machinery while it was still running or just dismantled. They were not filtered, directed and influenced by external persons (i.e. investigators, interviewers, historians) and post-liberation and post-war knowledge and circumstances. For these reasons, the Sonderkommando handwritings are also extremely powerful evidence on mass extermination in Auschwitz. Here, I present the manuscripts found and published so far with the most relevant quotes with regards to mass extermination.

Details concerning their history from discovery to publication and formal, linguistic, stylistic analysis of the manuscripts can be found in the publications Inmitten des grauenvollen Verbrechens (hereafter Inmitten; english: Amidst a nightmare of crime) by the Auschwitz State Museum and Des Voix Sous La Cendre by the Memorial de la Shoah. 

Five of the eight manuscripts were published/edited by Bernard Mark, formerly director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. It turns out that Mark is a controversial figure as editor of historical works. According to Lucy Dawidowicz, "communist bias permeated Mark's own books on resistance in the ghettos of Warsaw and Bialystok...these works brought to light much important documentation from the Institute's archives, but their value was vitiated by the author's political distortion" (Dawidowicz, The Holocaust and the Historians, p. 101).

According to Michel Borwicz, in a 1948 publication of a diary from the Warsaw ghetto Mark did "remove certain sections and edit others, replaced some names with generalities...etc. without even alert the reader that kind of change" (Borwicz, Journaux publiés à titre posthume, in: Revue d'histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, 1962, 45). Nicholas Chare speculates that Mark "may have disregarded [Sonderkommando Chaim Herman's letter]...because it was written in French and exhibits anxiety about how the actions of the Sonderkommando will be perceived retrospectively. Mark's decision to overlook Herman's account may provide an example of...discriminatory ways in which archival materials were employed to reinforce pre-existing ideals" (Chare, Auschwitz and Afterimages, p. 78).

Fortunately, all manuscripts edited by Mark except for Lejb's second manuscript found in 1952 are still preserved in archives and can be examined by researchers. According to Chare, Auschwitz and Afterimages, p. 77 f., Lejb's first manuscript found in April 1945 and Lewenthal's manuscripts are preserved in the Auschwitz State Museum, Gradowski's first manuscript of March 1945 is preserved in the Medical Military Museum in St. Petersburg. The rather controversial representation of the Russian POWs in the Sonderkommando by Lewenthal (Inmitten, p. 231 f.) confirms that the published manuscripts were not altered by Mark's "communist bias". According to Chare, Nadsari's manuscript is also preserved at the Auschwitz State Museum, while the remaining manuscripts have been mislaid or lost and can presently be only examined as transcriptions.

Chaim Herman

In February 1945, the first Sonderkommando manuscript was found by Andrzej Zaorski at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site. According to this letter (addressed to the man's wife in French), the author was assigned to the "infamous 'Sonderkommando'" in Auschwitz as a "corpse carrier" after his arrival on 4 March 1943, whereas most of the people of his Jewish transport from France were "sent to the gas and then in the ovens" (Inmitten, p. 255 ff., note the anachronism that the crematoria in Birkenau were not yet operating by 4 March 1943). The author has been identified as Chaim Herman. The source was published in 1971 (in Zeszyty Oswiecimskie, special issue 2).

Salmen Gradowski

On 5 March 1945, another handwritten manuscript was found at crematorium 2 by the Soviet investigators with the assistance of the Sonderkommando surviver Shlomo Dragon. This author, too, was a member of the "Sonderkommando", which is "performing a terrible work" for which they are "forced to under death threats". Auschwitz is described as "death camp" and as "burial site, where everything is breathing death and annhiliation" with "Millions of killed people". The author identifies himself as Salmen Gradowski (Inmitten, p. 133 ff.). The manuscript was written in Yiddish and published in 1969 (in Biuletyn Zydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, 71-72).

Later the year, in summer 1945, another Yiddish handwriting from Gradowski was unearthed, which was published by Haim Wollnerman as In haares fun gehinnom in 1977. It contains the following detailed and very reliable description of a gassing operation at crematoria 2 & 3:

"In the big hall, in the middle twelve pillars are supporting the load of the building, now shines a bright electric light. Along the walls, around the pillars, benches with hooks for the clothes of the victims are ready for a long time. On the first pillar a sign is nailed in several languages, advising newcomers as they arrived to the "bathroom" and that they should take off they clothes for desinfection. [p. 149]

The doors are open. Hell is yawning infront of the victims. The representatives of the great power are lined up like for a military parade in the anteroom leading to the tomb. The entire Political Section is now coming to the party. High-ranking officers, of which we have never seen the face in the course of the last 16 months. Among them is a woman, a SS, the commandant of the women's camp. [p. 157]

The last woman crept with difficulty in the bunker. And the door already slams, is hermetically sealed and locked, that not a stream of air can enter. They are pressed together there, the victims, like in a barrel... [p. 174]

In the light of the moon we see the two silhouettes. They put on their masks to pour the deadly gas. They carry two metal boxes, which will kill thousands of victims buried there...they go an innocent step to each "eye" of the underground bunker, pour the gas, then cover the opened "eye" with a heavy lid so that the gas can not find back. [p. 177]

Through the peephole in the door of the tomb, they themselves, the "authorities", the big mass of men fall down dead as a result of the deadly gas. [p. 187]

Trembling hands, brothers turn the knobs and raise four latches. Two doors opened, two huge tombs. [...] Here protrudes a pan back, head and legs buried under other bodies. Here you can see a hand, a leg, pointing in the air, and the whole body is engulfed in the deep sea nudity. You only see bits and pieces of human bodies to the surface of this world of nudity. On this vast sea naked floating heads. They are raised to the surface of these bare waves. What it looks like swimming in the vast deep sea, and only the heads emerge from these deep abysses nudity. Heads, brown, blond, brown, stand alone this general nudity. One should harden his heart, stifle sensitivity blunt all painful feeling. One must drive back the agony pounding like a hurricane in all the members. One must be transformed into a machine, see nothing, feel nothing, know nothing. The legs and arms began to work. There is a group of comrades, each divided into his task. One pulls, on rips the corpses out of this tangle by force, the one here by one foot, the one there by the hand, as it is better suited. It seems they will dismember through being pulled in every direction. One draggs the corpse on the floor of glazed and stained cement... [...] Three men stand there to prepare the body. One with a cold pincers, it sinks into the beautiful mouth in search of treasure, a gold tooth, and when he finds it, he tears it with the flesh. The second with scissors, he cuts curly hair, strips women of their crown. The third tears earrings, often stained with blood. And rings that will not leave are pulled off with pliers.

Now it can be delivered to the elevator. Two men throw bodies like logs on the platform, and when their number reaches seven or eight, give a signal with a stick, and the elevator rises.
Up there, near the elevator, were four men. Two on one side, pulling the body to the "reserve". And two others who pull them directly to the furnaces. One lays out two on two before each oven mouth. Small children are stacked on a large pile on the side - they are added, thrown on two adults. The bodies are placed one on the other on the iron "stretcher", the mouth of hell is opened, and the stretcher is pushed into the furnace. The fire of hell sticks his tongue out like, seized the body as a treasure. Hair catches fire first. The skin swells bubbles, which burst in a few seconds. The arms and legs writhe, veins and nerves are tense and moving limbs. The body is already ablaze all around, the skin is cracked, grease flowing, and you hear the sizzle of burning fire.You can see more body, only infernal furnace fire that consumes something in it. The belly bursts. Intestines and bowels gush, and within minutes it is still a trace. The head takes longer to burn. Two little blue flames shimmering in the orbits - the eyes that burn with very bottom brains and mouth still calcined language. The whole process lasts twenty minutes - a body, a world was reduced to ashes.

ou remain transfixed, watching. Here we ask for two more on the stretcher. Two people, two worlds, who held their place in humanity, who lived and existed, acted and created. Who worked for the world and for themselves, laid a brick on the big building, woven wire for the world and for the future - and in twenty minutes there will be no trace of them more.
Here are two others now put there, they were made to freshen up. Two young and beautiful women, they had to be splendid. They had a place on earth, occupying two whole worlds, so much happiness and pleasure have provided the world, every smile was a comfort, a delight every look, every word a delight, like a heavenly song, and where arose not they brought them joy and happiness. So many hearts loved, and now here they are extended to both on this board with iron, and soon will open the jaws of hell, and in a few minutes there will be no trace of them more.

Here we extend to three now. A child pressed on the mother's womb. So much happiness, so much joy experienced his mother, his father, the birth of their child! They built a home, woven future, the world was for them an idyll, and in twenty minutes there will be no trace of them more.

The elevator goes up and down, carrying countless victims. As a huge slaughterhouse stacks there heaps of corpses, waiting their turn, waiting to be removed.

Thirty infernal mouths blaze now in two large buildings and engulf countless victims. It will not take long for these five thousand persons, five thousand worlds, are devoured by the flames. [p. 191 ff.]"

(Zalmen Gradowski, Au coeur de l'enfer, machine translation by Google Translate)

Gradowski detailed there are "four gaping holes in the ground, four eyes wide open" (Au coeur de l'enfer, p. 46). The presence of the four gas introduction openings is well corroborated by other evidence. Also, Gradowski perfectly described the opening mechanism of the gas tight doors when he explained they "turn the knobs and raise four latches" to open the "two doors" of crematoria 2 and 3. 

Lejb Langfus

In April 1945, another Sonderkommando manuscript was discovered near crematorium 3. It was found by the Auschwitz resident Gustaw Borowcyk and is written in Yiddish. Its author Lejb Langfus described the mass extermination at a Bunker site, including the work of the Sonderkommando:
"In the morning, the Sonder appeared, which consisted only of Jews at the time and was assigned in four groups. The first group entered the Bunker after putting on gas masks and threw the corpses of the gassed to the outside. A second group pulled the corpses from the door to the railways, on which there were little, frameless waggons. The next group lifted the corpses on the waggons - so called trolleys - and pushed them to the place, where a huge, wide and deep pit was excavated, that was laid out with chunks, beams and entire trees. They [poured] benzine on it and a hell's fire came out [...] There was the forth group and threw the people in the fire. They burned until they were completely ash. From the entire transport only a small heap of bones was left, which was thrown to the side."

(Inmitten, p.126 f., my translation).

Note that the Sonderkommando's body disposal activity and use of narrow gauge railways is independently confirmed by recently published contemporary German documents.

A second Yiddish manuscript reportedly also from Langfus ("assigned through research by Mark Bernard to Lejb Langfus", Carlo Saletti in Des voix sous la cendre, p. 461, still Bernard Mark wrote in Inmitten, p. 175 that the author "is unknown") was found in 1952 and published in 1954 (in Biuletyn Zydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, 9-10). The victims from a transport "go into the undressing room and then in the bunker". On another gassing operation, the author explains that "a red cross car is coming, the gas is thrown into the chamber". Since 25 November 1944, the "ventilation engines and pipes [of crematoria 2 and 3] are dismantled and sent to the camps Mauthausen and Groß-Rosen". These ventilation devices "served for the gassing of people on a large scale" (Inmitten, p.126 f.).

The transport of the ventilation equipment to other German concentration camps is confirmed by a letter of Topf to Mauthausen concentration camp of 10 February 1945 according to which "all parts from KL Auschwitz" were supposed to be reused for erecting a "crematorium (special facility)" in Mauthausen, including the "aeriation and deariation devices" (Schüle, Industrie und Holocaust, p. 462).

Salmen Lewenthal 

In 1961, the first Yiddish handwriting of Salmen Lewenthal was uncovered near crematorium 3 and published in 1965 (in Szukajcie w popiozach). The note comments on a diary left back by a Lodz Jew that the black force "is shooting, hanging, gassing, burning everything they can just this big burning oven named Auschwitz-Birkenau" (Inmitten, p.194).

The second Yiddish manuscript of Lewenthal was found a year later and published in 1968 (in Biuletyn Zydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego). It reads:

"In the mean time the infamous Sonderkommando is coming and emptying the bunker [...] the corpses were carried 800 m further and were thrown on a pyre
150 m further was a seemingly innocent farm house with windows, covered with thick [...] a SS man threw through a little window [...] closed the little window and after some [moments] all were suffocated
All the people were dragged from the gas bunker, on the platform to the [pyres?], where the gassed people were burned already yesterday and the day before yesterday, the corpses were thrown into the fire.
The detail came every morning and found the bunker full of gassed people, and the barracks full of various things. But never did they came across living people.
For many hours cars, from which the mass of people was thrown, were arriving, and as everybody was there, they were sent into the gas bunker [...] until the car of the red cross came [...] after throwing four cans of gas into the upper doors and closing them hermetically there was sudden silence."
(Inmitten, p. 203 f., my translation).

Also discovered with this manuscript was a Polish language list of transports/groups exterminated in the crematoria between 9 and 24 October 1944, which is attributed to Lewenthal as well (reproduced in Inmitten, p. 136). The list details the date, the number of people killed, their gender, their origin as well as the crematorium used to liquidate them:

[Date] [Number] [Gender] [Origin] Crematorium
7/10 460 male shot Sonder
9/10 2000 male camp German 2
9/10 2000 families Terezin 2
9/10 2000 female C camp 5
10/10 800 children Gypsis 5
11/10 2000 families Slovak 3
12/10 3000 female C camp 2
13/10 3000 female  C camp 3
13/10 2000 families Terezin 2
14/10 3000 families Terezin 3
15/10 3000 female  C camp 2
16/10 800 male camp German 3
16/10 600 male sick camp 3
17/10 2000 male Buna 2
18/10 3000 families Slovak 2
18/10 2000 families Terezin 3
18/10 300 families various 3
18/10 22 male Polish Bunker 3
18/10 13 female male Polish prison 3
19/10 2000 families Slovak 2
19/10 2000 families Terezin 3
20/10 2500 families Terezin 2
20/10 1000 male children
12 - 18 years
? 3
20/10 200 female C camp 3
??/10 ???? ? camp ? ?
21/10 1000 female C camp 5
23/10 400 male Gleiwitz? 3
24/10 2000 families Terezin 2
(based on Des Voix Sous La Cendre, p. 177, except for a few entries which seemed transcribed mistaken or questionable; I've also included the old crematorium in the main camp in the numbering of the crematoria; readers are encouraged to submit corrections/additions of the list).

Marcel Nadsari

Finally, in October 1980 the so far last Sonderkommando handwriting (attributed to Marcel Nadsari, written in Greek and published in 1996 in Inmitten) was found near crematorium 3:
"after about 3000 people, they close [...] and gas them. After 6-7 Minutes of pain [...] put in the gas [...] we carried the corpses of these [...] innocent women [...] which was carried to the ovens [...] and introduced into the oven [...] they forced us to sieve it and later it was loaded on a car and poured into a river [...] About 600 000 Jews from Hungary, French, Poles [...]" 
(Inmitten, p. 271 f., my translation).

See also Contemporary Handwriting of Auschwitz Sonderkommando Prisoner Marcel Nadjari Deciphered.
updated on 7/10/2017

1 comment:

  1. "after about 3000 people, they close [...] and gas them. After 6-7 Minutes of pain [...] put in the gas [...] we carried the corpses of these [...] innocent women [...] which was carried to the ovens [...] and introduced into the oven [...] they forced us to sieve it and later it was loaded on a car and poured into a river [...] About 600 000 Jews from Hungary, French, Poles [...]"
    - Marcel Nadsari

    I think I recognise that from the Guinness Book of Records; isn't it the record holder for the highest number of ellipses used in the shortest quotation.


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