Our Education Officer Martin Winstone reflects on the 70th anniversary of the Sonderkommando revolt in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Today – Tuesday 7th October 2014 – 200 young people from across Scotland are visiting the site of the former Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau through the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project. These visits are always charged with emotion, leaving participants with a unique insight into the tragedy of the Holocaust which will stay with them forever. However, today’s visit carries an additional poignancy since it coincides with one of the most resonant dates in the history of the camp: it was on this day 70 years ago that the Sonderkommando uprising took place, an event which belies the still widely believed myth of Jewish passivity during the Holocaust.
The Sonderkommando were those prisoners, almost all of them Jewish, selected by the SS to work in and around the crematoria in Birkenau: although the Zyklon B pellets were always dropped into the gas chamber by an SS man, the rest of the gruesome labour associated with the killing process was performed by prisoners in what Primo Levi termed "National Socialism’s most demonic crime."
The members of the Sonderkommando were ordinary human beings confronted with circumstances which no person should ever have to face. They found themselves, often after years of deprivation and persecution, brutally wrenched from their families on arrival in Birkenau and forced to work – there was no choice other than death – in circumstances whose horrors can scarcely be imagined; many saw their loved ones murdered in front of their eyes. As one of them, Lajb Langfus wrote, "they were men with hearts, emotions and awareness", numbed by their daily exposure to murder. "Sometimes I hope, occasionally I console myself," wrote Zalman Gradowski, another member of the group, "that a time will arrive, a day will come, when I will have the privilege of being able to weep – but who knows…"
Yet this sense of despair and abandonment should not be confused with apathy. After all, we only know the thoughts of Langfus and Gradowski because they were amongst several prisoners who recorded their experiences in notebooks which were buried in the mud and ashes by the crematoria in the hope that, in Gradowski’s words, "the future world of peace… may learn what happened here." This was in itself a form of resistance, providing posterity with the most direct evidence of Nazi crimes. And both men were amongst the instigators of the uprising of 7th October 1944, in which both lost their lives.
The Sonderkommando revolt was, in fact, the only instance of active armed resistance in the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Like the uprisings of the previous year in Treblinka and Sobibór extermination camps, it demonstrated that there were Jews who fought back even in the most desperate of situations. Whilst the wider prisoner resistance movement in Auschwitz-Birkenau, understandably from its perspective, wished to delay a planned camp-wide revolt until the Red Army was approaching, the members of the Sonderkommando took the lead in pressing for more immediate action. This was initially in the hope of impeding the largest killing operation in the camp’s history, the murder of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews in just two months in the spring of 1944. They also knew that they themselves could not wait for the Soviets: as Geheimnisträger ('bearers of secrets'), they were under no illusion as to what their ultimate fate would be if the Nazis had to abandon the camp – they would not allow them to survive to tell their stories.
By the autumn of 1944, after a number of planned uprisings in the summer had been called off at the last moment, the situation had become more urgent: transports had virtually ceased and the liquidation of the Sonderkommando was indeed beginning. Thus, when SS men entered Crematorium III (today known as IV) around noon on 7th October, the prisoners fought back with improvised weapons and small quantities of gunpowder smuggled to them at immense risk by female Jewish prisoners over several months. Taking the Germans by surprise, they were able to kill three SS men and blow up the crematorium. Seeing the flames, their comrades in Crematorium I (now II) launched their own action and many were able to escape the camp. However, all were soon tracked down and murdered, the fate which also befell the prisoners in Crematorium III and – three months later, after an SS investigation – four of the women who had organised the smuggling of explosives. Most of the minority of Sonderkommando prisoners who survived the revolt, and who had to dispose of the bodies of their fallen comrades, lost their lives at the camp’s evacuation or during the subsequent death marches.
The Sonderkommando rising was an assertion of defiance amidst the despair which should give all of us – like those students, teachers and guests standing by those same crematoria today – pause to remember and reflect. Effective Holocaust education, such as the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, is never about the transmission of easy answers or comforting homilies; rather, it encourages us to consider the complexities of the Holocaust and cautions against simplistic moral judgements of the sort which were once applied to the members of the Sonderkommando. Their tragic story was not one of monsters or heroes but rather of ordinary men faced with the 'choiceless choices' which so often characterised Jewish experiences during the Holocaust and whose study is central to the Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
As the participants in today’s visit return to Glasgow after their unforgettable experience, they will doubtless be reflecting on the words addressed to the future "citizen of the free world" which they heard from Zalman Gradowski, written shortly before he lost his life in the uprising: "I pass on to you only a small part of what took place in the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is for you to comprehend the reality." It is a message which all of us would do well to heed.