‘They wanted to bear witness,’ says Holocaust historian who uncovered ‘Son of Saul’ story

Israeli academic Gideon Greif spent 13 years writing about the surviving Sonderkommandos, then shared his findings with director László Nemes

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Géza Röhrig plays a Sonderkommando in his anguished performance in 'Son of Saul.' (courtesy)
Géza Röhrig plays a Sonderkommando in his anguished performance in 'Son of Saul.' (courtesy)

When Holocaust historian Gideon Greif heard that Hungarian film “Son of Saul” had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, he was surprised but pleased.

“I had naively thought that the film industry is less in favor of dealing with the Holocaust, and this film really looks at the core of the Holocaust, at its most complicated chapter,” said Greif.

The film, from Hungarian Jewish director László Nemes, is about the Sonderkommandos, the Jews who were charged with disposing of the corpses of their fellow Jews after they were killed in the gas chambers. Its story is about one Sonderkommando, Saul, played by first-time actor and native Hungarian Géza Röhrig.

It was Greif, currently the chief historian at Shem Olam, the Faith and the Holocaust Institute for Education, Documentation and Research in Israel, whose dogged research initially uncovered much of the history of the Sonderkommandos. His book, “We Wept without Tears… the Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando in Auschwitz,” was the result of 13 years of research that began in the late 1980s.

At the time, 31 Sonderkommandos were still alive, and until then, “no one thought it was important to interview them,” he told The Times of Israel. “I nominated myself. People were reluctant to speak out, and I persuaded them that it was important.”

He calls the research “a diamond of history.”

Holocaust historian Gideon Greif whose seminal book on the Sodderkommando was the basis for Oscar-winning 'Son of Saul' (Courtesy Israel Embassy)
Holocaust historian Gideon Greif, whose seminal book on the Sonderrkommando was the basis for Oscar-winning ‘Son of Saul’ (Courtesy Israel Embassy)

There are currently only two Sonderkommandos still alive, both in the US, and Greif is in regular contact with both of their families.

“I’m still writing books and articles about this topic because it’s so central and so important,” he said. “One fact that people really can’t understand is how can a person be surrounded by corpses for days and sometimes years? It’s impossible, incredible. And those that did survive were able to because of a strong desire to tell the world. They wanted to bear witness.”

Greif, who currently lectures widely around Germany about the Holocaust and has addressed 200,000 Germans at his last count, was contacted by “Son of Saul” director Nemes about two years ago. When they met in Tel Aviv, Nemes told Greif he wanted to make a movie about the Sonderkommandos. Greif told him it was a good idea.

As part of popular culture, movies, said Greif, can be useful in helping people to better understand the Holocaust. Not every film, however. He pointed to the 2001 film “The Grey Zone,” also about the Sonderkommandos, which he felt gave a “very distorted impression, showing them as corrupt,” a description that he said wasn’t factual.

Nemes, by contrast, created a story that seems impossible, but was completely authentic.

“He really followed my instructions,” Greif said.

Greif was also impressed with lead actor Röhrig, who he calls “one of the most intelligent people he’s ever met. He’s so wise.”

Greif’s book about the Sonderkommandos is now being translated into Hungarian, after a dozen Hungarian publishers contacted him following the release of the film. He said it’s gratifying to be receiving all this attention, even after so many years.

A scene from 'Son of Saul' (YouTube screen capture)
A scene from ‘Son of Saul’ (YouTube screen capture)

“It’s a big achievement,” he said. “Most of the people I interviewed aren’t alive anymore.”

But he will continue to write books and articles about the topic because it’s so important, said Greif.

It’s also part of his own history.

Following the November 1938 Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, Greif’s grandfather was imprisoned in Buchenwald, one of the first concentration camps, but was released five months later and emigrated to Israel in 1939.

“He survived the Holocaust but emotionally he never left Buchenwald,” said Greif. “He used to scream every night. He never told the story but that was his story.”

Greif’s great-aunt stayed in Germany to care for her mother, and was deported to Auschwitz where she was killed.

“I felt very attached to Jewish history and the Holocaust conquered me,” he said. “Now I’m enslaved to it and I do not complain. It’s the mission of my life.”

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