Sonderkommando

„We have a dark premonition because we know”

By Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

"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."

Crematorium I, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Crematorium I. Present condition of the site, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Zdjecie lotnicze z 1944 roku oraz plan KL Auschwitz I z zaznaczonym budynkiem krematorium nr I, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A plan of KL Auschwitz I with the crematorium building visible. Source: APMA-B. Crematorium and gas chamber I – present condition of the
site. Source: PMA-B. An aerial photo from 1944 with the crematorium building marked. Source: Archiwum Państwowego Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, henceforth APMA-B)

Personal identity card of Wacław Lipka, one of the first prisoners employed in the camp’s crematorium, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Personal identity card of Wacław Lipka, one of the first prisoners employed in the camp’s crematorium (obverse). Source: APMA-B.

Personal identity card (second page) of Wacław Lipka, one of the first prisoners employed in the camp’s crematorium, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Personal identity card of Wacław Lipka, one of the first prisoners employed in the camp’s crematorium (reverse). Source: APMA-B.

Wacław Lipka, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The camp photograph of Wacław Lipka. Source: APMA-B. 

"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."

Block 15 - archival photograph, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Block 11. Present condition of the site, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Block 11 and cells situated in the cellars of the building, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Block
15. Source: APMA-B.  Block 11. Source: APMA-B.  Cells situated in the cellars of the building. Source: PMA-B. 

"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."

Marked in the north-western section of the camp is an area, defined as the closed zone (Sperrgebiet), From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Fragments of a plan presenting the buffer zone of the camp (Lagerinteressengebiet), From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A contemporary satellite photograph of the premises of Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. The yellow colour marks the location of the Bunkers – makeshift gas chambers, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Marked
in the north-western section of the camp is an area, defined as the closed zone
(Sperrgebiet). Source: APMA-B.  Fragments
of a plan presenting the buffer zone of the camp (Lagerinteressengebiet). Source: APMA-B. A
contemporary satellite photograph of the premises of Auschwitz and Birkenau
camps. The yellow colour marks the location of the Bunkers – makeshift gas chambers. Source: Public domain

"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."

Employment card belonged to prisoner Eliezer Eisenschmidt, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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One of the few preserved prisoner employment cards with the column “work group” marked Sonderkommando. It belonged to prisoner Eliezer Eisenschmidt, who was in the special unit from December 1942 to the end of the camp’s operation. Source: APMA-B. 

"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 location of the crematoria in Birkenau. An aerial photo from 1944., From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The location of the crematoria in Birkenau. An aerial photo from 1944. Source: APMA-B.

Crematorium III. Photograph taken by the SS in 1943, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A general view of Crematorium III. Photograph taken by the SS in 1943. Source: APMA-B.

Furnace hall in Crematorium II. Photograph taken by the SS in 1943, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The furnace hall in Crematorium II.  Photograph taken by the SS in 1943. Source: APMA-B.

Crematorium V. A photograph taken by the SS in 1943, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Crematorium IV. Photograph taken by the SS in 1943, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Crematorium IV. Photograph taken by the SS in 1943, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Crematorium V.  A photograph taken by the SS in 1943. Source: APMA-B.  Crematorium IV.  A photograph taken by the SS in 1943. Source: APMA-B.   Crematorium IV.  A photograph taken by the SS in 1943. Source: APMA-B.  

"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."

Employment roll from mid-1944. The number of Sonderkommando prisoners operating the day and night shifts, described in the document as Heizer Krematorium (crematorium stokers), was 870., From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Employment roll from mid-1944. The number of Sonderkommando prisoners operating the day and night shifts, described in the document as Heizer Krematorium (crematorium stokers), was 870. Source: APMA-B.

"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."

Fragments of Barracks 13 in sector BIId, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The archive photograph presents wooden barracks in sector BII of the Birkenau camp., From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Fragments
of Barracks 13 in sector BIId. Source: PMA-B. The archive photograph presents wooden barracks in sector
BII of the Birkenau camp. Source: APMA-B.

Location of residential facilities for the Sonderkommando in the camp, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Location of residential facilities for the Sonderkommando in the camp. The red marks denote barracks for the Sonderkommando in sectors Bib and BIId, and the yellow ones denote the crematoria in which prisoners were quartered in 1944. Source: APMA-B. 

"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."

A report from the logbook of the SS officer on duty on 9 December 1942, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A report from the logbook of the SS officer on duty on 9  December 1942. The note provides information about an escape of six members of the Sonderkommando on 9 December 1942 and the capture of the prisoners who escaped from the unit two days earlier. Source: APMA-B.

An excerpt from the order of the KL Auschwitz command from April 1943, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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An excerpt from the order of the KL Auschwitz command from April 1943. It contains a commendation for an SS officer who, after a chase, caught two Sonderkommando prisoners trying to escape from the camp on 9 March 1943. Source: APMA-B.

Zalman Levental, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Zalmen Gradowski, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Załmen Lewental. Source: APMA-B. Załmen Gradowski. Source: APMA-B.

"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."

The notebook of Załmen Lewental discovered in the vicinity of Crematorium III in 1962, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The container in which was buried Załmen Lewental notebook . Source: APMA-B.

The notebook of Załmen Lewental discovered in the vicinity of Crematorium III in 1962, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The notebook of Załmen Lewental discovered in the vicinity of Crematorium III in 1962. Source: APMA-B.

A bracelet discovered together with the records, coming most probably from the ghetto in Łódź, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A bracelet discovered together with the records, coming most probably from the ghetto in Łódź. Source: APMA-B.

A page from the notebook of Zalmen Levental, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A page from the notebook of Załmen Lewental. Source: APMA-B.

"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."

Location of the gas chambers in Crematorium V (marked yellow on the plan). Source: APMA-B, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Location of the gas chambers in Crematorium V (marked yellow on the plan). Source: APMA-B. 

Location of the gas chambers in Crematorium V (marked yellow on the aerial photo from 1944), From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Location of the gas chambers in Crematorium V (marked yellow on the aerial photograph taken in 1944). Source: APMA-B.

Photograph showing women taken to the gas chamber, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Photograph taken next to crematorium V in Birkenau showing women being sent to their deaths in the gas chamber. Photograph taken by Sonderkommando prisoners. Source: APMA-B. 

Photograph showing the burning of corpses on the pyre near Crematorium V, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Photograph showing burning of corpses, taken by Sonderkommando prisoners. Source: APMA-B. 

Photograph showing burning of corpses on the pyre near Crematorium V, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Photograph showing burning of corpses, taken by Sonderkommando prisoners. Source: APMA-B. 

"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."

Władysław Siwek "KL Auschwitz Werkhalle – Union factory", From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Władysław Siwek, KL Auschwitz, Werkhalle - Union factory. Source: PMA-B Collections.

Róża Robota, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Róża Robota. one of the female prisoners involved in the acquisition and smuggling of explosives for the Sonderkommando. Source: APMA-B.

"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 aerial photo from 1944, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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An aerial photograph of the area marked on yellow dating from 1944. Source: APMA-B.

The yard in front of Crematorium IV where the rebellion and the fight with SS men took place on 7 October 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The yard in front of Crematorium IV where the rebellion and the fight with SS men took place on 7 October 1944. Source: PMA-B.

The probable route of the flight of the prisoners from Crematorium II towards the south., From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The probable route of the flight of the prisoners from Crematorium II towards the south. Source: APMA-B.

An entry in the logbook of the German police station in Auschwitz. At 14:00 on 7 October 1944, a record was made about a mass escape of prisoners from the camp, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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An entry in the logbook of the German police station in Auschwitz. At 14:00 on 7 October 1944, a record was made about a mass escape of prisoners from the camp. Source: APMA-B.

A garrison order of 12 October 1944. Section 1 lists the names of the three SS men who died during the rebellion of the Sonderkommando, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A garrison order of 12 October 1944. Section 1 lists the names of the three SS men who died during the rebellion of the Sonderkommando. Source: APMA-B.

"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."

Confirmation of the transfer of Polish prisoners operating the crematorium from KL Auschwitz to KL Mauthausen, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Confirmation of the transfer of Polish prisoners operating the crematorium from KL Auschwitz to KL Mauthausen. Source: APMA-B.

"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."

Zbigniew Otfinowski, Evacuation March, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Zbigniew Otwinowski, Evacuation of Auschwitz Camp Prisoners (1946). Source: PMA-B Collections.

The file of Abraham Dragon, an prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando, drawn up in KL Mauthausen. It lacks any mention of the prisoner’s membership of the special work squad., From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The file of Abraham Dragon, a prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando, drawn up in KL Mauthausen. It lacks any mention of the prisoner’s membership of the special work squad. Source: APMA-B.

"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."

A frame from the Soviet Liberation Chronicle film., From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Henryk Tauber testifying before the Extraordinary Soviet State Commission for the Investigation of the Crimes of the German-Fascist Aggressors.A frame from the KL Auschwitz Liberation Chronicle. Source: APMA-B.

"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."

In the photo: Henryk Mandelbaum during a meeting with educators by the ruins of Crematorium V (October 2004)., From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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In the photo: Henryk Mandelbaum during a meeting with educators by the ruins of Crematorium V (October 2004). Source: PMA-B.

Credits: Story

Autor—Dr Igor Bartosik, Centrum Badań PMA-B

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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