A new monograph on the “Sonderkommando” of Auschwitz-Birkenau dispels myths about the Jewish inmates forced to operate the German death camp’s killing facilities while revealing details about the “special unit’s” resistance activities.
Based primarily on SS reports and Sonderkommando testimonies, “Witnesses from the Pit of Hell: History of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando” by historian Igor Bartosik traces the notorious unit from its creation in 1942 until the camp’s liberation in 1945.
“Prisoners of the Sonderkommando were always condemned and stigmatized as willing participants in the mass murder of victims, whose bodies they burned, in return for a stayed sentence of just a few more months and the tacit permission of the SS to scavenge food left in the bags of the said Jewish victims before they entered the gas chambers,” wrote Bartosik.
The first Sonderkommando was established as part of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s transformation into the “Final Solution” destination for Jews from all over Europe. Up to 2,000 men — nearly all of them Jewish — were eventually forced into the Sonderkommando, of whom fewer than 60 survived the war.
After the war, many Sonderkommando survivors “fell silent and they remained silent for many years,” wrote Bartosik, who has conducted research at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland for decades.
Bartosik told The Times of Israel that his research at the former death camp is akin to analyzing an airplane’s “black box,” in that he only makes use of documented facts. For many years, the scholar maintained a relationship with Polish-born survivor and former Sonderkommando member Henryk Mandelbaum, who died in 2008.
“I do not feel competent to analyze the memories of former Sonderkommando prisoners from the emotional and personal side,” Bartosik said. “My very close friendship with Henryk Mandelbaum taught me there are ‘places’ to which, I, who was not a prisoner, have no moral right to approach.”
Surviving in the so-called “grey zone” — a term used by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi — Sonderkommando prisoners were forced to carry out “special handling” procedures at the former death camp where one million Jews were murdered in gas chambers. In some accounts, Sonderkommando inmates were made to cremate their own relatives.
There are ‘places’ to which, I, who was not a prisoner, have no moral right to approach
“I believe that the prisoners of the Sonderkommando are great victims but also winners over evil,” said Bartosik. “They were thrown to the very bottom of hell. Meanwhile, the Jews of the Sonderkommando, left on their own, whose relatives have mostly died, still remained people against the will of the SS,” said the historian.
Having previously authored several monographs on the killing facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bartosik used construction documents and inmate registers — among other sources — to detail the activities of Sonderkommando prisoners throughout the camp’s operation.
In the camp’s initial “provisional” gas chambers, for example, corpses were cremated outside after gassings took place in farmhouses converted into sealed bunkers, wrote Bartosik.
“The division of labor in these groups was as follows,” wrote Bartosik. “Around 10 prisoners were employed in pulling the bodies out of the gas chamber. Thirty loaded the bodies onto narrow-gauge rail platforms. Ten prisoners moved the platforms to the cremation pits. Twenty arranged the bodies in the cremation pits and around 30 were employed transporting wood for the burning of the bodies.”
An important accomplishment of Bartosik’s research on the Sonderkommando, he said, was the recovery of several dozen names of men who were forced into the unit.
“As I found the names of people who ended up in the Sonderkommando, I thought about them,” said Bartosik. “Teacher, baker, student… normal people who probably wanted to live very much. I know it’s not much, but at least I managed to get them out of the night of oblivion. At least that.”
During the decades in which Sonderkommando survivors remained relatively silent, several “widely held notions” about the unit took root, said Bartosik.
The most prominent “misleading stereotype,” said Bartosik, was that members of the Sonderkommando were executed every few months by the SS. Only once, however, in December 1942, was the entire workforce “exterminated,” said Bartosik.
Not only were there not regular “eliminations” of Sonderkommando groups, but a “large percentage” of surviving Sonderkommando members joined the unit as early as the end of 1942, wrote Bartosik.
Another inaccuracy sometimes ascribed to the Sonderkommando is that only very young men were chosen for the work. In fact, demonstrated Bartosik, at least 70% of the unit’s members were age 30 or older.
“Nor was it true that prisoners were selected for their technical expertise. After a cursory inspection, they were selected merely in view of their apparent ability to work,” wrote Bartosik.
Alongside SS documents and prisoner records, Bartosik referenced several memoir-style manuscripts written by Sonderkommando prisoners and buried next to the gas chambers in 1944. These unearthed manuscripts — the last of which was discovered in 1980 — include “an analysis of the mental state of Sonderkommando prisoners,” wrote Bartosik.
The basic determinant in surviving the Sonderkommando was mental resilience
“The basic determinant in surviving the Sonderkommando was mental resilience,” wrote Bartosik. “The accounts of surviving witnesses reveal that some of the Sonderkommando prisoners were mentally unable to withstand the extremely stressful conditions, suffering breakdowns during work and were therefore killed by the SS,” said Bartosik.
Also in 1944, a Sonderkommando member secretly captured a series of photographs from within a gas chamber building next to the cremation pits. Smuggled out of the camp inside a toothpaste tube, the photos showed the burning of corpses and women being herded into gas chambers.
Bartosik called the photos “the most famous achievement in the documenting of SS crimes.” Only because the SS returned to burning corpses outside during that spring’s frenzied “Hungarian Aktion,” Bartosik pointed out, was a prisoner able to capture images of the genocide in broad daylight.
‘I kept my promise’
When the Sonderkommando prisoners started their long-planned revolt on October 7, 1944, it was under “the most unfavorable circumstances,” wrote Bartosik, who used local police reports to piece together the revolt’s aftermath.
Instead of a well-timed, dusk attack on SS men emanating from several killing facilities at once, the hasty actions of one prisoner ignited the revolt without coordination and too early in the day. While some Sonderkommando prisoners set fire to an already-shuttered killing facility, other inmates stormed the fences and ran in the direction of fish ponds near the camp.
The revolt’s goal of at least one Sonderkommando inmate escaping into freedom to bear witness was not met, as dozens of fleeing prisoners were quickly shot down by motorized SS units. Several women who smuggled explosives to the Sonderkommando were executed for their role in the revolt.
“The organizers of the revolt deserve the deepest respect and admiration,” wrote Bartosik. “It is almost certain that if the revolt had broken out in the originally planned circumstances, the outcome could have been quite different.”
One month after the revolt, the Germans ceased gassing operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In documents analyzed by Bartosik, the Sonderkommando became known as the “crematorium demolition work unit” during the camp’s final months.
“They set about dismantling the crematoria. First, they ordered [us] to remove the shingles and rafters, and ordered us to take the furnaces apart,” testified Henryk Mandelbaum in 1947.
“We bored holes in the walls by December 1944. They placed dynamite charges in these holes. They sent all of us to the camp, and then they blew it all sky high,” said Mandelbaum.
Although the SS made strenuous attempts to eliminate Sonderkommando prisoners before liberation, several dozen of them — including Mandelbaum — were able to “blend in” with other inmates and avoid detection. Some of them gave testimony to Soviet authorities and later published memoirs about survival in the “grey zone” of Birkenau’s Sonderkommando.
After decades of research, Bartosik said his investigation into the Sonderkommando is closed. Unless another manuscript is discovered at the back of the camp — and still legible after almost 80 years in the ground — there will be no more material on the “special unit” for the researcher to assimilate.
“A long time ago I made a promise to Henryk Mandelbaum that such a book about the Sonderkommando would be written,” said Bartosik. “I kept my promise.”
This article contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, The Times of Israel may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel