UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay
Humanity in the Face of Inhumanity
We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz
by Rachel Watkins
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Rachel Watkins
I am a senior psychology major with an underlying fascination of history. About a year ago I had the haunting experience of visiting one of the Nazi death camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking past the crematoria, where countless lives were lost, I was speechless - no words can adequately describe the feelings evoked there. As a psychology major, I am both fascinated and horrified by the idea of the Sonderkommando. I chose We Wept Without Tears in an attempt to gain some insight into the experiences of these surviving Sonderkommando and the psychological scars they will undoubtedly have forever.
Abstract (back to top)
The horrors of the Holocaust are myriad. Countless novels, memoirs, histories, and other works have been written over the years from the perspective of both survivors and perpetrators. And yet there is another subgroup of people, incredibly small, that remains somewhat shrouded in mystery: the Jewish Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando of Auschwitz were work units made up of select Jewish prisoners, whose main task was to dispose of bodies in the crematoria of the camp. As the bearers of Nazi secrets and the only witnesses to the incomparable horrors happening at Auschwitz, most Sonderkommando were disposed of and immediately replaced. Few survivors remain, and as a result, the few accounts we have reflect some of the only true glimpses we have into the hell of the gas chambers. Gideon Greif’s We Wept Without Tears consists of interviews relating to the haunting experiences of eight former Sonderkommando who, after years of silence, exposed their souls. At times both horrifying and moving, the reader can only try to imagine the details in these interviews, and be thankful that they are limited to their imagination.
Essay (back to top)
For the majority of us, we will never really know the horrors of the Holocaust, the suffering and loss of hope that permeated the concentration camps, or the terrors of the crematoria and gas chambers. Much of what we do know comes from the survivors willing to share their experiences with the world. We Wept Without Tears, by Gideon Greif, is a collection of interviews with some of the few survivors of the Sonderkommando who witnessed first-hand the mass exterminations at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Primarily made up of select Jewish prisoners, their duties in the crematoria were unique and for a long time were shrouded in mystery. While not directly involved in the killing, Sonderkommando were forced to take part in the phases of extermination. As a result of their time spent in the crematoria, the Sonderkommando had intimate knowledge of the methods of mass extermination being used by the Nazis. To safeguard their secrets, the Nazis continuously killed and replaced the Sonderkommando units with new, unsuspecting prisoners. Since they were the most dangerous eyewitnesses to the mass murders, the S.S. tried to prevent any Sonderkommando from making it out of Auschwitz alive.
The nature of the Sonderkommando has been somewhat mysterious, shocking, and controversial, the latter making it especially difficult for survivors to share their experience. Many are ashamed, or have locked away those memories in a place they never wish to visit again. But if not for these survivors and their brave testimonies, the truth may never have come out. With a balance of sensitivity and deep probing supported by a detailed historical context, Gideon Greif has created a book that is at once shocking and moving. His interviews go beyond establishing facts and delve into the scarred souls of these eight men, trying to understand the moral and human challenges and psychological pain of their fateful position in the crematoria. The strength of this book lies in the relationships that developed between interviewer and interviewees, transcending the often shallow question-response nature of an interview and reading more like a conversation. It was important to Greif that his interviews be honest and illustrate both the ghastly reality as well as the moral dilemma that these men faced daily during their terms as Sonderkommando. While each survivor and each experience is different, the common theme of these Sonderkommando was their ability to cling to their humanity in the face of constant inhumanity.
We Wept Without Tears opens with a chapter that provides historical and contextual information regarding the Sonderkommando. Although much of this information is later mentioned in the interviews, it gives readers valuable background knowledge that leads to a deeper understanding. Greif is clearly an expert on the subject of the Sonderkommando, and cites various sources in his extensive endnotes. One of the more important references is the journal of a man named Zalman Gradowski, a Sonderkommando who documented his experience in detail, and whose writing is mentioned by a couple of the interviewees. This opening chapter also explores the controversy surrounding the Sonderkommando, the moral challenges that were faced, and our need to make an effort to understand.
The word “Sonderkommando,” meaning “special unit,” wasn’t used until September 1942. Initially, there was only one crematorium, located in the main camp of Auschwitz. The first transport designated for extermination arrived February 15, 1942 and was gassed in the main camp. By May of 1942, however, regular transports had started arriving at the camp, so the Nazis moved the exterminations to nearby Birkenau. Two cottages on the outskirts of the camps were used as the gas chambers; victims undressed in one building and were then forced to run naked to the “Bunker” where they were gassed (Greif 5). Once sufficient time had passed, the dead were cremated in mass pits and their ashes disposed of in the nearby Sola River. Eventually, however, these Bunkers proved to be inadequate for the increasingly large and more frequent transports, so the Nazis set prisoners to work building four new crematoria (I, II, III, and IV).
The Sonderkommando were always selected immediately after arriving at Auschwitz and thus knew nothing of the nature of their future work. They were kept in isolation from the rest of the camp and were monitored by a Kapo and foreman (fellow prisoners) and S.S. guards with vicious dogs. Their living conditions were somewhat better than the rest of the camp. In addition to their daily rations, they had access to any food that victims left behind when they were gassed. They wore civilian clothes, marked with a red cross on the back to identify them. These circumstances, however slightly better than those of the general prisoners, were trivial when one considers the daily horrors they faced and the agonizing work they were forced to do in the crematoria.
The various tasks of the Sonderkommando corresponded to the phases of extermination: directing victims to the undressing hall and instructing them to remove all clothing; gathering and sorting through the clothing and belongings left by the victims; removing of bodies from the gas chamber and transporting them to the cremation site (furnaces); cutting the hair and removing gold teeth from the victims; operating the furnaces; and disposing of the remains and ashes of the victims (Greif 10). The Sonderkommando were assigned to the different tasks in groups, and generally remained there. Some were spared from the crematoria work and were assigned Bunker duty, but even these men had to help at the furnaces when a particularly large transport arrived.
Since the Sonderkommando were told nothing of their position initially, it wasn’t until their first day of work that they were exposed to their new reality in the form of a sea of freshly gassed bodies, intertwined from their last struggles for life. The reactions of each interviewee were similar: shock, revulsion, confusion, disbelief, horror. But they were not given the chance to dwell on any of these emotions as they were immediately given instructions and put to work disposing of the bodies of their fellow brethren. It wasn’t that these men became numb to what they saw, but rather that, in the words of Sonderkommando survivor Josef Sackar, “the ocean of tears had already dried up in Auschwitz…there, weeping could no longer express the feelings of bereavement and fury over the murder of an entire people” (Greif 88). For all eight men, the most resounding response when Greif approached this topic was their lack of choice. It becomes clear in each interview that the Sonderkommando had no choice but to accept their new reality and adjust if they wanted to survive. In order to see what they saw, and do what they did every day, they had to become robots, machines. For all of these men, survival was essential, so the truth could one day come out. “The principle of ‘live in order to testify’ is plainly evident in the writings and remarks of the Sonderkommando prisoners” (Greif 20).
Once they were selected for the Sonderkommando, murder became a part of their daily routine. For every transport, they were witness to the last living moments of hundreds of Jews, men and women, young and old. Forbidden to speak to the victims (except to instruct them to undress), the Sonderkommando could offer little comfort as the victims grew increasingly terrified. As several of the interviewees insisted, “What could we tell them?” In these moments, they were especially powerless. They witnessed the shame of these people as they undressed, removing their last remaining layer of defense, making them completely vulnerable. Despite being told by the S.S. that they were there to shower and be disinfected, according to the Sonderkommando interviewees, most people were suspicious and many knew they were there to die. Families clung to one another, children cried out for their parents. Although the Sonderkommando had to usher the victims into the gas chamber, they are all quick to point out that the killing (the administration of Zyklon B) was always reserved for the Nazis. I think this point was especially important in each interview because every one of these men is still plagued by guilt and helplessness. You can almost feel them begging, needing you to understand and believe that they had no choice; that they were never murderers. I think it is also important for them to share this with the world, as the degree of Sonderkommando involvement in the exterminations has been a source of controversy, especially in Israel post-WWII. In this way, their responses take the form of both defense and protest.
Greif asked each interviewee probing questions about their experiences with the people in the transports before they headed to their death in the gas chambers. Did they know any of them? While the majority of the transports that arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau were strangers, once in a while the Sonderkommando would recognize family members or someone from their hometown. Ya’akov Gabai relates how two of his cousins arrived at the gas chambers and in order to spare them suffering, he instructed them to sit close to where the gas was released for a quick, painless death. In his own words, “Why should they suffer so much?” (Greif 191). Eliezer Eisenschmidt tells of a fellow Sonderkommando giving his cousin some bread so that he would not to die on an empty stomach (Greif 228). Shaul Chazan mentions a Sonderkommando whose entire family was brought to the crematorium. The S.S. allowed him to go see them, to spend their last moments together, but he could not bring himself to tell them what awaited (Greif 270). Nearly every Sonderkommando lived in constant fear of seeing the faces of their family and friends in the crematoria, or discovering the body of a loved one amidst the sea of dead.
Did any refuse to undress? One woman in particular stood out in the memory of Shlomo Dragon. An unusual transport had arrived of elegantly dressed French and American citizens. One woman refused to undress completely, and when an S.S. man, Schillinger, pointed his gun at her and demanded she remove her undergarments, she took her bra off, waved it in his face, then hit him, making him drop his gun. The woman quickly grabbed it, aimed, and fired, killing Schillinger. Her final act caused an uproar of joy in the camp (Greif 162-163). Religious victims were especially unwilling to undress, and often required much coaxing from the S.S. and Sonderkommando.
How did the victims behave? Most of the victims did not know exactly what awaited them, but many could sense it. Scared children clung to their parents, men and women shed tears. Some actually remained quite calm despite knowing that death was imminent. Gabai remembers a young Hungarian woman who was brought to them with a young baby. The S.S. man asked her the order she preferred them to be killed, and she responded, “Me first. I don’t want to see my baby dead” (Greif 193). Others remained completely oblivious until the last moments, when their screams could be heard from inside the gas chambers. A few unique cases stand out in the minds of the surviving Sonderkommando. Eliezer remembers how a young 18-year-old girl did not want to die a virgin, and begged one of the Sonderkommando to grant her that last favor. While the man refused, it caused a lively moral debate amongst the Sonderkommando prisoners (Greif 248). One man remarked on a large group of young boys that were brought to the crematoria who broke out in hysterics, refusing to enter the building, which prompted the S.S. to beat them into submission. Another group of about 200 children stands out in the mind of Shaul. These children had been told they were going to die; all Chazan could say was that, “…it was especially terrifying and ghastly” (Greif 270). Greif did not press him further.
While this book is certainly a historical and academic source for the Holocaust, it is much more than that. The testimonies of these men – Josef Sackar, brothers Abraham and Shlomo Dragon, Ya’akov Gabai, Eliezer Eisenschmidt, Shaul Chazan, Leon Cohen, and Ya’akov Silberberg – have exposed the world to the heart of the inferno, to the core of evil. They help us to understand the inconceivable world of the Sonderkommando, and how despite their horrifying experiences, they were not dehumanized. Readers will undoubtedly wonder how this could be possible, how anyone could be capable of enduring such nightmares. In the words of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, “Every human being possesses a reserve of strength whose extent is unknown to him, be it large, small, or nonexistent, and only through extreme adversity can we evaluate it” (Greif 70). These men had hope and an immeasurable reserve of personal strength which, along with good fortune, saw them emerge from the inferno alive, to give testimony to the world of the crimes they witnessed.
Josef Sackar was born in Arta, Greece in 1924. He and his family arrived in Auschwitz on April 14, 1944, but were immediately separated during the Selektion. His parents were sent immediately to the gas chambers, while he and his sisters were chosen for labor. After a few weeks in the camp, Josef was selected for work with the Sonderkommando, where he spent the next seven months. Initially, he worked at the Bunkers outside of Birkenau because the crematoria were too full. He was later assigned to Crematorium II. When asked to recall how he reacted on his first day,
I was confused. I thought I was going insane. I told myself, ‘This is the end.’ Even so, I had to recover quickly and I told myself, ‘We have to get out of here alive.’ That’s how I felt. I went with the feeling that I’d get out of there alive (Greif 94).
From his first day in Auschwitz, Josef had an intuition he would get out alive, but that didn’t make his experience any less horrifying. One can almost sense his agitation when Greif begins questioning him about the victims’ last moments in the undressing hall. In describing the behavior of families, “…sometimes they also embraced in the gas chamber. It was often hard to separate the corpses in order to remove them from the gas chamber. This was a serious problem (Greif 108).” Sackar is also noticeably troubled when Greif asks whether he ever looked these people in the eye and if he remembered their expressions. “…I didn’t want to remember the faces. I tried to avoid that (Greif 109).” When Greif asks if this avoidance was because he had to lie to them, he immediately responded that it was all a lie and they had no choice. One can feel his anguish at these memories. When the war was coming to an end, Josef, along with many other prisoners, was forced to take part in the demolition of the crematoria to help the Nazis destroy the evidence of their mass murders. But Josef survived, and his memories serve as there own kind of evidence. After the evacuation of Birkenau began, Sackar was taken first to Mauthausen, then Melk, and finally Ebensee where he was liberated on May 6th 1945. After the war he immigrated to Palestine and established a family, but he is still haunted by his memories. In reflecting on his time as a Sonderkommando, “One day would have been like everything you have suffered in your whole life” (Greif 121).
The story of Abraham and Shlomo Dragon is rare among not only the Sonderkommando but also among all Holocaust survivors in that the two brothers from Poland remained together throughout their time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Both were assigned from the start to the Sonderkommando, and both miraculously emerged alive. When the war reached their small town, their family moved from ghetto to ghetto. When the Germans began to transport the Jews, the brothers escaped, running from village to village. With little money and nowhere to go, however, they were running out of options. In 1942, they learned that all the Jews in the vicinity were being rounded up to be sent to a labor camp. Not knowing what really awaited them at Auschwitz, the brothers decided to go along, of their own free will (Greif 127). Abraham and Shlomo arrived at Auschwitz on December 7, 1942, and were immediately selected along with 200 strong young men for work as Sonderkommando.
On their first day, they were led to the Bunkers. Abraham was assigned to sort through the clothes in the undressing hall, but Shlomo was immediately faced with the stark reality when he was given the task of removing the bodies from the gas chambers. Shlomo describes how all of the men, upon seeing the masses of corpses, went into a shock that lasted for several days. In fact, Shlomo was so disturbed by what he faced that he actually attempted to kill himself. After disclosing that, it is amazing to then hear him go on to describe in horrific detail what he saw in those gas chambers. What the corpses looked like, how they had to untangle and drag them to the pits, how the flames were stoked by the victims’ own fat. It is incredibly difficult to read these accounts, let alone imagine experiencing them first hand. Shlomo describes how they once found a baby in the gas chamber that was still alive hidden in a pillowcase. In front of his eyes, S.S. Oberscharfürer Moll threw the baby to the ground at the edge of the pit, stomping on its neck before pushing it into the flames (Greif 136). Even after seeing all this, it took a long time for it to sink in. The brothers could not believe where they were and what was happening.
After the crematoria were built at Birkenau, Abraham and Shlomo were assigned to barrack room duty, saving them from the hell of the crematoria, except when especially large transports arrived and the extra hands were needed at the furnaces. Eventually they ended up in Crematorium III, and were even part of the underground movement responsible for the Sonderkommando uprising. Shlomo Dragon explains the attitudes of himself and these men: “We knew we could be murdered any day, so we had nothing to lose and were ready to risk our lives at any moment” (Greif 145). With their refusal to be separated and a great deal of luck, the brothers somehow survived their term together as Sonderkommando and were only separated for the first time during the death march from Auschwitz that began on January 18, 1945. Abraham was injured but thanks to the mercy of others, was being wheeled on a cart. Shlomo intended to escape if a chance came, and miraculously, when he stepped out of line and headed down another road, no one noticed. The brothers were reunited later that year and in 1949 moved to Israel together. For a long time, both men were plagued by shame and neither spoke of his experience. In defense of the Sonderkommando, Shlomo explains, “We hadn’t joined the Sonderkommando of our own free will. Fate put us there. There was nothing enviable about it; we had no way out” (Greif 179). Over time, they disclosed their story to family and close friends. After all, if no Sonderkommando had survived, the horrible truth may have remained lost forever. At the end of their interview, Greif asked them what they feel in retrospect. Abraham poignantly responds, “When I reflect on it, I wonder how we managed to endure that hell. How lucky we were to have survived. The fact that my brother and I are among the living is the sweetest revenge there could be” (Greif 180).
Each man was different; their country of origin, their spoken language, their families, and ultimately their experiences varied. And yet it was their similarities – being Jewish men in Europe - that brought them to Auschwitz and united them under the title of Sonderkommando. Each and every interview provides a unique glimpse into the life of the Sonderkommando, and yet the common threads weave naturally from one to the next. Every man was handed an unimaginable and seemingly unendurable fate. They all possessed great personal strength, an unbreakable will to survive, and a human spirit that remains resilient to this day. Combined with some good luck, these qualities helped the men survive and maintain their humanity. Despite the many critiques of oral history, Greif navigates these interviews remarkably well, balancing on the fine line between the sensitivity needed for such a delicate and painful topic, but also insistently probing the depths of their souls to try and make sense of the Sonderkommando for the world at large. It is obvious that Greif developed significant relationships with these men during the thirteen years of this project, which adds to the quality of the interviews. For several men, sharing their story removed a tremendous weight from their conscience. After all, no testimonies or words can ever recreate the hell of the death camps, or the horrors witnessed by the Sonderkommando.
Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)
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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: