The first crematorium in Nazi German Auschwitz camp became operational in August 1940. A handful of Polish prisoners were selected to operate it.
Originally the crematorium staff were not defined as a special unit, that is Sonderkommando, but as Krematoriumheizer, that is crematorium stokers. With the continuously increasing mortality and increasingly frequent use of the gas chamber operating inside the building, a small group of Jewish prisoners (Filip Müller among them) were incorporated into the staff in the spring of 1942.
The prisoners operating the crematorium lived in the residential blocks on the premises of the camp. Initially it was Block 4, and later – Block 15.
The Jewish prisoners sent by Germans to work in the crematorium in the spring of 1942 lived in isolated cellar rooms in Block 11, where they occupied Cell 13.
In the first months of 1942, KL Auschwitz became a “site of the final solution to the Jewish question”. Transports of Jews sent by Germans for extermination arrived in railway sidings situated in the vicinity of Birkenau camp. Arriving Jews were taken to gas chambers arranged in two residential houses redesigned especially for the purpose, situated in the vicinity of the camp.
Jews were killed in these makeshift gas chambers (described in camp documentation as Bunkers I and II) with Zyklon B. The bodies of the victims were transported by a hand-operated narrow-gauge railway to graves situated in the vicinity, where initially they were buried, and from the summer of 1942 – burnt on woodpyres.
Young Jews, all male, hailing from various European countries were drafted by SS men into the Sonderkommando (special work squad) who were responsible for the operation of the gas chambers and crematoria. Most of them were aged from 20 to 25. The majority were selected for the work squad immediately upon their arrival at the camp.
One of the basic criteria, which was a decisive factor when drafting prisoners for work in the special squad, was their fitness and physical prowess. As the SS officers were keen on quick and efficient performance of this very hard work, they delegated to it people who had not yet been exhausted by a long stay in the camp or else had still retained sufficient resilience to cope with it.
On the orders of Adolf Eichmann, the prisoners employed to operate the places of extermination were to be liquidated after each major extermination campaign. Yet the SS officers in the camp management quickly realised that people who had become used to such activities worked more efficiently. For that reason, a full liquidation of the Sonderkommando occurred only once, in December 1942.
In the following years, partial liquidations were organised, and covered no more than a half of the total number in the unit.
The identity cards of prisoners who belonged to the Sonderkommando were retained in the hands of Politische Abteilung, that is, the camp Gestapo. They were treated as Geheimnisträger (bearers of secrets), and very few documents related to them can be found in the documentation that was left in the camps.
Four large crematoria were brought into use in Birkenau in the spring of 1943. Each of them was furnished with spacious rooms, where those brought for extermination could get fully undressed. The modern gas chambers were furnished with imitations of bath installations, a drainage system, and mechanical ventilation. Moreover, the buildings were furnished with lifts for transporting the corpses, furnaces for mass incineration of bodies, and other facilities related to killing, e.g. rooms for carrying out post-mortems.
With the opening of the Birkenau crematoria, the furnaces operating in Auschwitz I were closed down and the prisoners operating them were transferred to Birkenau and incorporated into the Sonderkommando.
The following tasks relating to the murder formed part of the duties of the Sonderkommando:
• in the undressing rooms of the gas chambers: the Sonderkommando members assisted the deportees and tried to put them at ease as they undressed for what was called ‘the bathing’. Moreover, on the orders of the SS, they led people showing symptoms of anxiety behind the building, where they held them during the execution. Later, after the last people had entered the gas chamber, they took out the personal belongings of the victims from the undressing room to lorries in the transport column standing nearby;
• in the gas chamber: after completing the ventilation of the premises, they rinsed the corpses of waste body fluids, searched the bodies for hidden valuables, removed precious metal teeth and prosthetics. Moreover, they cut off the hair of the dead women;
• transport of corpses: depending on the place of work, the prisoners took the bodies from the gas chambers to the lifts, and further to the crematorium furnaces, or alternatively to cremation pits;
• incineration of the bodies: prisoners’ work involved stacking wood within the corpse incineration pits and later casting the bodies of the victims on the burning pyres. Those working in the crematoria inserted the bodies into the furnaces on special trolleys or metal stretchers. Moreover, specific groups of prisoners dealt with the provision of the fuel (wood and coke), maintenance of the appropriate furnace temperature, transport of human ashes, and pulverising larger pieces of bones in the yards situated by the places of extermination;
• auxiliary functions: members of the Sonderkommando were involved in the sorting of valuable objects, melting of precious metals, and removal of ribbons, hairpins etc. (until spring of 1944) from the shorn hair of the women.
The number of Sonderkommando prisoners fluctuated, depending on the intensity of mass extermination operations and the number of active mass extermination sites. In 1942 and 1943, the Sonderkommando was composed of approximately 400 prisoners. At the beginning of 1944, following a selection, their count dropped to approximately 200, to reach 870 people in the summer months. This was the result of the intensification of mass murder. In mid-1944, mostly due to the so-called Hungarian campaign, a few thousand Jews from Hungary were brought for destruction nearly every day.
Members of the special group were isolated from other prisoners and lived in barracks earmarked especially for them whose courtyards were surrounded by walls. This was intended to render their contacts with other prisoners of the camp impossible.
Initially it was Barracks 2 in sector BIb, and beginning in mid-1943 it was Barracks 13 in sector BIId. In the summer of 1944 the Sonderkommando prisoners were quartered in the attic of crematoria II and III, and in the dressing room of Crematorium IV, which was not operational at the time.
Members of the Sonderkommando enjoyed slightly better living conditions than the other prisoners of the camp. With respect to keeping them fit, the SS did not refuse them access to the personal belongings that the victims left in the dressing rooms of the crematorium. This is how they could acquire additional food, mostly tinned, and also non-perishable victuals. Moreover, Sonderkommando prisoners used civilian clothing left by the victims in the undressing rooms, which, however, was specially marked to make a potential escape from the camp more difficult. Red stripes were painted on jackets and trousers, or alternatively so-called “windows” were cut out and replaced with striped cloth.
Despite a strict prohibition, Sonderkommando prisoners smuggled some food, medications, and cosmetics to the camp so as to pass (or lob) them on in small packages from the walled courtyard of the Sonderkommando barracks to other, frequently anonymous, prisoners in the camp.
The members of the special work squad were absolutely aware of their future fate. As eyewitnesses of the crimes committed by Germans in the gas chambers, they knew they would never gain freedom. Moreover, living continuously in the face of liquidation, they found escape the only path of salvation. This is substantiated by a number of attempts at escape by the Sonderkommando, none of which, however, ended in success.
Realising that the SS would endeavour to obliterate the traces of the crime, Sonderkommando prisoners made clandestine notes describing their experience and the events taking place in the crematoria. These were later buried in the courtyards of the places of destruction. Some of these notebooks were found after the war, among them those by Załmen Lewental (left) and Załmen Gradowski (right), Lejb Langfus, and Chaim Cherman.
As part of the activities documenting the conduct of the mass murder in the summer of 1944, a clandestine group operating in Sonderkommando took photographs showing women taken to the gas chamber and the burning of corpses on the pyre near Crematorium V. Through camp prisoners involved in the resistance movement, the photographs were later sent to a resistance hub in Kraków.
Besides documenting the crime, Sonderkommando prisoners started activities setting up a rebellion in the camp. There were several dozen conspirators within the unit, including Jankiel Handelsman, Załmen Gradowski, Josef Warszawski aka Dorębus, Josef Deresiński, Lejb Langfus, and Szlomo and Abraham Dragon.
They obtained explosives from the prisoners employed in the Union factory which they used for the construction of primitive hand grenades. They were to be used to attain of one of the key points of the planned rebellion, namely, the destruction of the crematorium installations. Moreover, the prisoners’ plans for the rebellion included knives and other objects that they had collected which could be used in hand-to-hand combat.
In the autumn of 1944, the SS embarked on the gradual liquidation of the Sonderkommando prisoners. The first group of 200 people were murdered in September. On 7 October 1944, when the camp authorities intended to liquidate another group of prisoners, the Sonderkommando prisoners decided to resist. During the rebellion, the prisoners gathered in the yard in front of Crematorium IV, attacked the guards, and set the undressing room on fire. The armed SS troops opened fire on the rebels, killing most of them in the yard of Crematorium IV. After control over the situation was regained, a selection was conducted among the surviving members of the Sonderkommando, which resulted in some of them being killed.
A group of Sonderkommando prisoners from Crematorium II had also joined in the revolt started near crematorium IV. Three of them undertook an, alas, unsuccessful attempt to blow up the crematorium furnaces. The remaining prisoners cut through the camp fences surrounding the Crematorium and the nearby women’s camp, and later fled south. Yet the pursuing troops caught up with them and killed them with machine guns approximately 2 km away from the camp, still within the zone surrounding the camp (Lagerinteressengebiet).
The rebellion ended with the death of 450 Sonderkommando prisoners and 3 SS men.
An aftermath of the rebellion was an investigation conducted by the camp authorities aimed at liquidation of those members of the Sonderkommando involved in the conspiracy and the exposure of those prisoners employed in the Union factory who provided them with explosives. The SS operation resulted in the taking of several Sonderkommando prisoners and female prisoners working in the munitions factory to the camp prison. The Jews from the Sonderkommando were murdered in Block 11, and the female prisoners – Ella Gartner, Róża Robota, Regina Safir, and Estera Wajsblum – were publicly executed in January 1945.
Mass extermination of Jews at KL Auschwitz was stopped by Germans in November 1944.
The SS authorities decided to dismantle the crematoria in Birkenau. Sonderkommando prisoners were employed on the dismantling of the equipment and the demolition of crematoria II to IV, and on the operation of the last working crematorium – Crematorium V.
Another selection was conducted on 28 November 1944, and resulted in 70 prisoners being taken away from the camp in an unknown direction. Polish prisoners who had previously worked at the last operating Crematorium I and were later employed in the Birkenau Sonderkommando were separated from the remaining groups. In the first days of January 1945, they were transported to KL Mauthausen where they were murdered two weeks before the liberation of the camp.
The last group of Sonderkommando prisoners, composed of 100 people, remained on the premises of the camp until its evacuation, i.e. 18 January 1945. On that day, together with the remaining prisoners of KL Auschwitz, they were led away in the so-called “death marches” towards Wodzisław Śląski, where rail transport was organised to camps situated in the depths of the Third Reich. During the march Henryk Tauber, Szlomo Dragon, Eliezer Eisenschmidt, Henryk Mandelbaum, and Alter Fajnzylberg aka Stanisław Jankowski escaped from the transport. Thanks to the assistance of local people, they managed to survive and wait until the liberation.
Many Sonderkommando members who did not escape during the transport made use of the general commotion, and joined other groups of prisoners, in this way, trying to conceal their membership in the special unit. The stratagem worked in many cases, which permitted approximately 40–50 prisoners from the special work squads to survive the war.
Right from the first days following the liberation of KL Auschwitz, the investigative bodies worked to assess the scale of the crime perpetrated by German Nazis within the camp. The first to start its proceedings was the Extraordinary Soviet State Commission for the Investigation of the Crimes of the German-Fascist Aggressors. Its proceedings included the interrogation of Sonderkommando prisoners who fled from the transport. Moreover, during the inquiry and trial of the former commandant of KL Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, former prisoners of the Sonderkommando – Henryk Tauber, Szlomo Dragon, and Henryk Mandelbaum – testified.
For many years, Sonderkommando prisoners were involved in commemorative and educational activities. They wrote plenty of accounts, complementing the existing knowledge of the functioning of the gas chambers and crematoria in KL Auschwitz, for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives. They were also authors of a number of memoirs published as books, and the subjects of extensive interviews.
Autor — Dr Igor Bartosik, Centrum Badań PMA-B
Kurator — Agnieszka Juskowiak-Sawicka
Tłumacz na język angielski — Piotr Krasnowolski
Korekta wersji angielskiej — Beata Kłos
Korekta wersji niemieckiej — Łukasz Martyniak, Centrum Badań PMA-B
Korekta wersji rosyjskiej — Dr Igor Bartosik, Centrum Badań PMA-B
Korekta wersji holenderskiej — Janna Ebbens
Korekta wersji francuskiej — Jarek Mensfelt