Shlomo Venezia’s Sonkerkommando memoir Inside the Gas Chambers and Filip Müller’s Sonderkommando memoir Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers are two of the most essentially disturbing books about the Holocaust for anyone who wants to understand the extent to which the oxygen of cruelty fuelled the Third Reich.
According to survivor Primo Levi, Venezia survived in the “gray zone” of complicity with the Nazi agenda because approximately 500,000 people (90 percent of whom were Jews) were murdered during the nine months that Venezia was forced to serve the genocidal agenda at Auschwitz (liberated January 27, 1945).
Any numerical comparison of Venezia’s entrapment within the Sonkerkommando units pales in comparison to Filip Müller’s endurance within the black shadow of death. Müller survived for two years and nine months within Auschwitz (from May of 1942 until January of 1945) mainly within ranks of the revolving Sonderkommando units who were forced to facilitate the gassing and burning of Holocaust victims. The gassings ceased in November of 1944. Hence Venezia survived as a Sonderkommando for seven months; Müller survived in their ranks four times longer, for thirty months in total.
“I am the oldest member of the Auschwitz and Birkenau Sonderkommando,” he wrote, “and the only one to have been through everything.”
Although it is difficult to recognize Filip Müller as a hero given such circumstances, it was Müller’s astonishing endurance within possibly the most hellish conditions in human history that enabled him to provide much of the key information that made the Vrba-Wetzler Report as influential as it was–leading to the saving of approximately 200,000 Jews. Müller also claimed to be a key informant for the report made by escapists Mordowicz and Rosin.
When Shlomo Venezia, an Italian Jew from Greece, arrived at Auschwitz, on April 11, 1944, Rudolf Vrba had escaped from the Auschwitz compound with Wetzler the day before–hence they never crossed paths, but Müller knew both Wetzler and Vrba as fellow Slovaks. Consequently Vrba does overtly credit Filip Müller as “one of my most valuable sources of information” in his memoir. It is safe to assert that Müller was, in fact, the most important informant.
Müller was also cited as a key informant for one of the first books about the Holocaust, The Death Factory [Fabrica Mort II], by O. Kraus and E. Kulka, that first appeared in a Czechoslovakian edition in 1946. It wasn’t made available in an English edition until 1964, notably one year after Vrba’s ground-breaking memoir first communicated the the complexities of Auschwitz to a non-academic, English readership. Along with Vrba, Müller became one of the most important witnesses to be featured in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah documentary but Müller laid low for most of his life. The book jacket of his 1979 memoir states he was “unable to work until 1953” when he became an auditor in Prague. He was only able to write about his “ghoulish work” [1979 book jacket copy] in his fifties. It was then edited and translated by Susanne Flatauer from a German version prepared by Helmut Freitag. The prose in Müller’s memoir, Eyewitness Auschwitz, can be off-puttingly dispassionate. Yehuda Bauer astutely asserts, “Müller is neither an historian nor a psychologist; he is a source.”
Born in Sered, Czechoslovakia, in 1922, Filip Müller, like Wetzler, arrived in Auschwitz on one the earliest transports from Slovakia in April of 1942 and became prisoner #29236. He began working in the various “gassing installations” and crematoria in May of 1942 and was forced to leave Auschwitz on a death march with 20,000 other prisoners at midnight on January 18, 1945, before Russian troops arrived nine days later.
Muller and Venezia were extreme rarities–one of only a handful of people who survived the Sonderkommando details and were able to provide a written record of their experiences after their captivity [See SCROLLS OF AUSCHWITZ section]. That’s because Adolf Eichmann had ordered camp commanders to liquidate the prisoners who were “employed” to manage the gassing and crematorium operations every six months or so, thereby eliminating the possibility that Nazi crimes against humanity could be reported. Eichmann’s order was not strictly carried out. Pressured by the need to operate the mass murder procedures as quickly and efficiently as possible, SS officers soon discovered that well-trained and highly efficient Sonkerkommandos were valuable commodities. A few, such as Müller, became veterans of mass murder. One “full liquidation” of the Sonderkommando unit was planned only once, in December 1942, but even then Filip Müller was spared. Partial liquidations became the norm whereby approximately half of the Sonderkommando workforce was murdered.
An insurrection occurred in the autumn of 1944 when the SS were planning to eliminate an increased percentage of the work force. First, a group of 200 workers were killed on September of 1944. When the crematoria work staff learned that a second liquidation was slated for October 7, 1944, Sonderkommando prisoners planned a revolt. Prisoners gathered in the yard in front of Crematorium IV, attacked the guards, and set the undressing room on fire. According to the Auschwitz Museum, “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.”
Rudolf Vrba wrote: “Philip [Filip] stoked the furnaces in the crematorium. By the amount of fuel made available, he could reckon how many bodies were to be burned because the SS never wasted fuel by overloading the fires.”
In his own memoir, Müller writes:
“I had handed to Alfred [Wetzler] a plan of the crematoria and gas chambers as well as a list of names of the SS men who were on duty there. In addition, I had given to both of them notes I had been making for some time of almost all transports gassed in crematoria 4 and 5. I had described to them in full detail the process of extermination so that they would be able to report to the outside world exactly how the victims had their last pitiful belongings taken away from them; how they were tricked into entering the gas chambers; how after the gassings their teeth were wrenched out and the women’s hair cut off; how the dead were searched for hidden valuables; how their spectacles, artificial limbs and dentures were collected; and everything that took place. In the course of many long talks I had described to them both the tragedy which was constantly being enacted behind the crematorium walls…
“The most important piece of evidence which I gave them to take on their journey was one of the labels which were stuck on the tins containing Zyklon B poison gas. I tried for a long time to lay my hands on one of these tins. This was not an easy matter, though… I was despairing as it looked as though I would never be able to. And then I had an idea. One day after the ‘disinfecting operators’ had finished their handiwork, I informed Unterscharfuhrer Gorges that we needed two new tins in which to collect gold teeth because the old ones had become rather dented. Not suspecting my ulterior motive he sent me to the Red Cross ambulance in the yard where I proceeded to explain to the two men that Unterscharfuhrer Gorges had ordered me to collect two empty tins.
“One of them took out two empty tins from the back of the ambulance and handed them to me with the words, ‘There you are and now scram!’ The text printed on the label said something like this: Zyclon B poison gas. Cyanogen compound. Danger! Poison! Tesch and Stabeno International GMBH. For pest control. To be opened by trained personnel only… Two days before his escape I handed the label to Alfred Wetzler to enable him to produce it as another piece of evidence of the systematic extermination of Jews.”
Having been forced to be directly complicit in committing murder one million times, Filip Müller must be pitied rather than blamed. He tried to assist Vrba and Wetzler with the horrid truth about the gas chambers and he felt required to do so. The Nazis generally gassed most of their Sonderkommando squads after six months, to eliminate witnesses, so his extreme longevity at the task made him arguably the most important Holocaust witness of all.
Thanks chiefly to Filip Müller, the Vrba-Wetzler Report mentions cans labeled CYCLONE.
“To compress this crowd into the narrow space, shots are often fired to induce those already at the far end to huddle still closer together. When everybody is inside, the heavy doors are closed. Then there is a short pause, presumably to allow the room temperature to rise to a certain level, after which 55 men with gas masks climb on the roof, open the traps, and shake down a preparation in powder form out of tin cans labelled “CYCLONE” “For use against vermin,” which is manufactured by a Hamburg concern. It is presumed that this is a “CYANIDE” mixture of some sort which turns into gas at a certain temperature. After three minutes everyone in the chamber is dead. No one is known to have survived this ordeal, although it was not uncommon to discover signs of life after the primitive measures employed in the Birch Wood.
“The chamber is then opened, aired, and the “special squad” carts the bodies on flat trucks to the furnace rooms where the burning takes place. Crematoria III and IV work on nearly the same principle, but their capacity is only half as large. Thus the total capacity of the four cremating and gassing plants at BIRKENAU amount’s to about 6,000 daily.”
There is no mention of a Zyclon B label in Vrba’s memoir. And there is no mention of a Zyclon B label in Fred R. Bleakley’s account of the Mordowicz-Rosin escape written in conjunction with Mordowicz. Had Mordowicz and Rosin carried such evidence with them when they were arrested on June 6, 1944 and they were taken to the regional court at Spišská Stará Ves, they would never have been released. As well, there is no indication that either Vrba or Mordowicz were able to produce a Zyclon B label during their prolonged conversation with the Pope’s sceptical representative Mario Martilotti, at the monastery five miles outside of Bratislava, to prove their claims of mass murder at Auschwitz. Surely, if either of those pairs of escapees had brought a Zyclon B label out of Poland, they would have presented that evidence to the papal emissary. Hence there is far more evidence to suggest that neither escape group carried with them a Zyclon B label, than there is evidence that they did.
The lone indication that a Zyclon B label was successfully presented as Holocaust evidence in 1944 can be found in Wetzler’s fictionalized version of his escape, What Dante Did Not See / Co Dante nevidel, first published, in Slovak, from Bratislava, in 1964. It was later translated into English by Ewald Osers and published under a different title, in English, in 2007, as Escape from Hell. The latter version added a subtitle that is specious: The True Story of the Auschwitz Protocol. That is false hype. Given that Wetzler’s story combines elements of the Mordowicz-Rosin escape with the Vrba-Wetzler escape and uses two invented characters (Val and Karol) to do so, it is conceivable that Wetzler chose to include the presentation of the Zyclon B label evidence (to fictional characters Vendelin, “a worker from the cellulose plant,” and Madame Ibi, “a chestnut-haired, middle-aged woman”) because Müller recalls in his memoir that he did give such evidence to Vrba and Wetzler. It is very possible that Wetzler and Vrba decided not to risking taking such evidence with them. To so do would have guaranteed certain death if they were apprehended in almost any situation. If they were assiduously following the guidelines provided by the Russian Volkov, they would have avoided any additional risk. But men were unusually intelligent and they had three days of cloistered time to memorize the same set of statistics.
In Wetzler’s novel, during the overland escape, a precious tube containing a ground plan of the crematoria, the plan of the concentration camp and the SS barracks is lost en route by the character named Karol, based on Wetzler . But Wetzler’s account is simply not trustworthy. For example, he reports the two fugitives were ultimately given refuge on the second floor of the old people’s home in Zilina when we know they were hidden and fed in the basement. Hence, it is clear Wetzler even went out of his way to fictionalize events, even altering details that didn’t need to be changed.
No doubt the prudent advice of their Russian advisor Captain Dimitri Volkov held sway: Don’t carry anything with you that could be problematic if you are apprehended. It would have been foolhardy to travel overland with any paperwork evidence of the Holocaust. Hence, Vrba and Wetzler most likely did jointly commit their knowledge to memory. There is ample evidence to suggest this was their escape strategy: quite simply, if the pair had travelled with proof on paper, they would not have been asked by the Jewish council to be interviewed in separate rooms for three days to ensure their details were believable.
When Vrba did manage to draw accurate maps of Auschwitz, these drawings were re-drafted by an architect. There can be no doubt Müller had been the primary informer. But if the pair had been provided with accurate maps and drawings, obviously Vrba would not have been asked to make his own hand-drawn maps and drawings in the first place.
The pair did report that factories run by German companies were using slave labour in Auschwitz III (Buna)–chiefly IG Farben but also Krupp, Siemens and others–but their final report would only include drawings of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. This is additional evidence that they were reliant on Müller–because Müller never worked in Auschwitz III.
Many years later, Müller, a fellow Slovakian, admitted in his own memoir that he was sometimes tasked with the job of emptying the Zyclon crystals into the gas chambers. Possibly to expiate the shame that made him suicidal at one point, Müller takes credit for providing Mordowicz and Rosin with essential information, as well. This mystery remains: If Müller provided them with a Zyclon B label–as described at some length in his memoir–what happened to it? This was NOT information that could be memorized. But there is no reference to any such label in the Vrba-Wetzler Report or in Vrba’s memoir. It is conceivable that Vrba and Wetzler decided it was too risky to be caught carrying it, or else Wetzler really did lose it. Otherwise the Zyclon B label would have been referenced as proof of the Holocaust in their reportage.
It is still possible to purchase a copy of Müller’s book, but there is no place where one can find a transcription what Müller says in Shoah. Here, therefore, is the content for his on-camera contributions.
Filip Müller, Czech Jew, survivor of the five liquidations of the Auschwitz “special detail”
Auschwitz design drawing from Auschwitz Baulietung. Designing a Death Camp
Vrba’s main informant about the gas chambers was his fellow Czechoslovakian prisoner Filip Müller (shown above, after the war).
For an interview with Müller, visit The US Holocaust Memorial Museum for an interview conducted by Claude Lanzmann in German.
VRBA ON THE SONDERKOMMANDO
Rudolf Vrba was asked to comment on the Sonderkommando units by the United States Holocaust Museum. Here are his comments:
VRBA: They were never told that they would be killed. The first Sonderkommando consisted of many men from my hometown. My friend Shanji Weiss from Trnava, a child of a family of ten children, had three or four brothers in that Sonderkommando. Together they plotted an uprising. When this was discovered, the whole commando was killed. The Sonderkommando were well-fed. They also had gold, which gave them the chance to buy bread from the SS. The uprising was all set. One man named Issac went to the SS and in exchange for the promise to keep him alive, he told of the plan and the time. This commando was not taken to work that night. They realized that they had been reported, discovered who it was, set up a court and split open Issaac’s head. All of them were killed the next day. It was said that they were killed because of the rebellion. The next Sonderkommando was killed for a different reason. The SS always had a spy among the group. Philip Miller was one person who survived all 12 Sonderkommandos. He was totally trusted by everyone and he knew how to manoeuvre well.
QUESTION: What was the attitude of the commando to the work they had to perform?
VRBA: Very hard to answer that question. I was in Auschwitz main camp and the Sonderkommando was in Birkenau. As I said before, the first Sonderkommando consisted largely of boys from my hometown, they were my friends. They were executed in December 1942, so my friends were no longer alive when I got there in January 1943. The next Sonderkommando was strictly isolated from the general prisoners. There was a punishment section, which was block 1 and block 2. The Sonderkommando were not allowed to mix.
We did have contact in the way of business. They had money that they had found on the dead bodies. They kept some money and did not hand over all of it to the SS. Somehow, we got some of it and I could, by some methods, get to read a newspaper, which the SS accidentally left open after I gave him money. As I said, the money had been taken from a dead body.
I met Israel in Auschwitz crematorium #1. He was opening the ovens, and we talked about the weather. He said that there was not much work that week. He mentioned that political prisoners were treated somewhat differently. The name Blum came up, some relative of Leon Blum. Israel intimated that this man was put in the oven alive. But the Sonderkommando was not used for this job. The SS did this themselves. He was upset about that. These guys were docile and considered themselves almost dead while they were working.
Inmates had an attitude of contempt toward victims who went to the gas chambers without a fight. The only thing I could think of to do was to explain the goings on to the future victims. This was next to impossible to do. So I thought of escaping and explaining it to the outside world. The machinery of getting rid of the bodies had to be destroyed. The trick of killing people had to be stopped. The whole process was inconceivable to civilized people; theirs was a different civilization. In January 1944, I got information that the biggest extermination action was being planned. I started making plans to escape.