Załmen Gradowski and wife Sonia 1935

Załmen Gradowski and wife Sonia 1935. He wrote, “It may be that this, these very lines I am writing, will be the only witnesses to what was my life. But I will be happy if my writings reach you, free citizen of the world. Perhaps a spark of my inner fire will ignite in you, and you will fulfill at least a part of our life’s desire: you shall avenge, avenge our deaths!”

It needs to be said that many other prisoners, before and after Vrba and Wetzler, tried to get the word out about the Holocaust–such as the Warsaw-born Rabbi Leyb Langfus and his fellow Sonderkommandos Zalmen Lewental and Załmen Gradowski. It has been estimated that almost twenty manuscripts by Sonderkommando members have been found near the ruins of the Birkenau crematoria. These so-called Scrolls of Auschwitz are testaments to the genocide in Auschwitz-Birkenau as witnessed by, and written separately by, Sonderkommando prisoners. [The word megillah in Hebrew translates as scroll. Hence, the term Scrolls of Auschwitz was largely derived from the title of Ber Mark’s 1977 book Megiles Oyshvits that provided some transcriptions of the documents that were buried in the grounds of the crematoria.]

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Rabbi Leyb (or Leib) Langfus left behind one of the most significant diaries. In December of 1942, he was forced to work as a Sonderkommando after his wife and son, from their hometown of Maków Mazowiecki, were gassed immediately upon their arrival at Auschwitz. At one point he had the job of gathering women’s hair for shipment to Germany. Although he retained his religious faith, Langfus was one of the planners of the revolt that resulted in the destruction of a crematorium. Overwhelmed by the horror of his fate, he wrote: “We should be alone, without a family, without relatives, without friends, without a place we might call our own, condemned to roam the world aimlessly. For us there would be neither peace nor rest of mind, until one day we would die in some corner, lonely and forsaken. Therefore, brothers, let us now go to meet death bravely and with dignity!” It is believed Langfus was executed on November 27, 1944. Replete with details, his multi-faceted diary recalls a Hungarian rabbi’s wife from Strapivka who arrived in May of 1944. In the room where she was forced to shed her clothes before being gassed, she forgave the Belzer Rebbe who had reassured Hungarian Jews it was fine to board the trains; he subsequently fled independently to Palestine, via the Orient Express to Istanbul, in February of 1944.

The “Auschwitz Scroll” by Rabbi Leyb references Rabbi Aharon Rokeach of Belz (1880–1957), shown here, third window from left, waving farewell to his followers at the Marienbad railway station. The postcard image was taken in the fall of 1939 by German photographer Hans Lampalzer and mailed to Hauptmann Grube, a soldier in the German army, c/o Air Force headquarters – Fliegerhorstkommandantur – in the fall of 1939. After Belzer Rebbe had escaped from the Holocaust on the Orient Express, he thrived in Israel as a revered Hasidic leader. Hover to see the reverse of the postcard. “Allow me to send you warm greetings from Marienbad …” 

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Lewental page

This page by Zalman Lewental discusses events in 1939.

Zalman Lewental

Zalman Lewental

Zalman Lewental’s literary reckoning of his plight in Auschwitz as a Sonderkommando lay buried in the grounds of an Auschwitz crematorium for almost twenty years until it was unearthed in October of 1962. From the town of Ciechanów to the northwest of Warsaw, Lewental was deported to Auschwitz in late 1942 and conscripted into the Sonderkommando in January 1943 [See Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitz.] He reputedly died in November of 1944, only weeks prior to Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. “The truth,” he wrote, in Yiddish, “is much more tragic and terrible.” This quote has been recorded in a scholarly essay, “Des voix sous a cendre: Manuscrits des Sonderkommandos d’Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Revue d’histoire de la Shoah, no. 171, January-April 2001, edited by Georges Bensoussan. (“Voices in Ashes: Manuscripts from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommandos,” Holocaust History Review.)

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Also a participant in the revolt of the Sonderkommando, Zalmen Gradowski was likely killed on October 7, 1944 or slightly after. His Sonderkommando manuscripts have been published in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish–and English as Heart of Hell. Manuscripts of a Sonderkommando Prisoner, Found in Auschwitz. According the book’s introduction, “The first of Gradowski’s manuscripts was found shortly after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, when the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission began its work gathering evidence of the crimes committed by the SS. From the very outset, the members of the State Commission were helped by former camp prisoners. One of them was the Sonderkommando member Shlomo Dragon, who had escaped from the evacuation march to Wodzisław Śląski. Knowing exactly where Gradowski’s manuscript was buried on the terrain of Crematorium III, he personally recovered it from the ground on 5 March 1945.”

“The two manuscripts written by him [Gradowski],” Dr. Igor Bartosik continues in the Foreword, “were found in Birkenau after the war and consist of four accounts on different subjects and a short letter. The first, a separate notebook, may have been written as early as 1943. In it, Gradowski describes the course of the transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The second, which is in three parts, begins with a beautiful metaphorical address to the moon and goes on to recount the events which took place in the barely two weeks from 24 February to 8 March 1944. Gradowski first described, in exceptionally moving language, the selection of Sonderkommando prisoners by the SS on 24 February, as a result of which more than half of the members of the Sonderkommando were deported from the camp and perished. He then recounted the extermination of almost four thousand Jews from the Theresienstadt ghetto who were murdered in the night of 8 to 9 March 1944 after spending six months in Birkenau.”

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Approximately 100 Sonderkommandos were eventually liberated by the Red Army. Among them were the aforementioned Shlomo Dragon, who located Gradowski’s manuscript, and his brother Abraham Dragon. Both have recalled their experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau within Gideon Greif’s We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz (Yale University Press 2005). “We did not spill the blood, the Germans did,” said Shlomo Dragon. “They forced us to become Sonderkommandos, the fact that we were forced to do monstrous work does not change the fact that we were the victims, not the monsters.” According to Greif, the Nazis deliberately sent Jews to work as Sonderkommandos. “The Germans’ typical sadistic streak found amusement in a system in which the victim suffered the utmost degradation prior to ending up in a cloud of foul-smelling smoke.” When the Dragon brothers arrived at snow-covered Auschwitz in December of 1942, with clouds of smoke billowing from the crematoria, during freezing temperatures, the SS officer Otto Mollthey marched them with 200 other men into straw-roofed compound with the naked victims of the Holocaust. “We saw a mass of naked corpses, men, women and children,” recalled one of the brothers. “We were horror-stricken into an eerie unnatural silence. It took us two days to recover a semblance of normality.” The Dragon brothers both lived in Tel Aviv.

Theo le Grec, Shlomo and Abraham Dragon on Bunker 2 in end 1942/beginning 1943, Elizier Eisenschmit on Bunker 2 in end 1942/beginning 1943, Shaul Hasan on Bunker 5 in Spring/Summer 1944 during the Hungary action

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Two other authors of these scrolls have been identified as Chaim Herman and Marcel Nadjary, who was a member of the Sonderkommando in Birkenau from May 1944 to November 1944. Nadjary survived the war and subsequently wrote about his wartime experiences in a book that is only available in Greek. He was one of a handful of Jews who survived the war to verify the Sonderkomando uprising of October 7, 1944, having participated in its planning but not the event itself.

Marcel Nadjary

Marcel Nadjari was a Greek Jew, born in 1917 in Thessalonica, who had fought with the Greek Army and later with the communist partisans.

Nadjary manuscript

The second page of Marcel Nadjary’s manuscript, written in Greek. This was the last of the Sonderkommando manuscripts to be recovered, in 1980.

Marcel Nadjary, a Greek Jew from Salonica, took part in resistance to German occupation before being captured and transported to Auschwitz. Having been assigned to work at Crematorium III, Nadjary was among a Sonderkommando unit that was surrounded by Germans in the early stages of the rebellion and therefore neutralized. Born in Thessaloniki on January 1, 1917, Nadjary died of a heart attack at age 54 in New York City on July 31, 1971.

According to Wikipedia, Nadjary was one of only three members of the Sonderkommando who wrote memoirs after the war, along with Filip Müller and Leon Cohen. Nadjary’s book is Χρονικό 1941–1945 [Chronicle], Ιδρυμα Ετσ – Αχα’ι’μ, Thessaloniki (1991). Wikipedia, marvellous as it is, cannot be relied upon as being the final word in many cases–this being one of them. Schlomo Venezia is a case in point. Scholars have divulged that twelve books books in French by alleged Treblinka Sonderkommando survivor Martin Gray—-born Mieczysław Grajewski—-are riddled with falsifications.

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Approximately twenty Sonderkommandos from Auschwitz survived and provided testimony as to their circumstances.

Alphabetically, here is a cursory summary.

Daniel Behnnamias was an Italian Jew, born in Thessaloniki, who separated the cadavers in the gas chambers, then operated a bone-crushing apparatus. He immigrated to the U.S. and eventually cooperated for a book by Rebecca Camhi-Frome, The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando (University of Alabama Press, 1993).

Antonio Boldrin

Antonio Boldrin

Antonio Boldrin was Italian barrack companion of Primo Levi. He was a long-lived Holocaust educator who continued speak publicly into his mid-90s.

Shaul Chazan, another Greek, was unable to confide in his own family after the war. “They thought I was mad, they wouldn’t believe,” he said. “To this day not even my closest relatives know of my past as a Sonderkommando.” Chazan confided to Gideon Greif, the only approach was “to cease being human. We reached the stage where we could eat and drink among the corpses, totally indifferent, utterly detached from our emotions. When I think about it today, I don’t know how we survived.”

Leon Cohen

Leon Cohen

Born on January 15, 1910 in Thessaloiniki, Leon Cohen wrote a book in French, From Greece to Birkenau: the crematoria workers’ uprising, translated from the French by Jose-Maurice Gormezano, postscript by Lily Eiss-Perahia nee Cohen, (Salonika Jewry Research Center, 1996). As the well-educated son of a well-off merchant, he was first arrested by the Germans in 1942 but escaped from their Thessaloniki prison and married in 1943. Re-arrested in Athens, he was first sent to the Haidari concentration camp. When he arrived at Auschwitz on April 11, his pregnant sister and mother were killed upon arrival. Fluent in German and French, he was selected among 100 Greeks for Sonderkommando duties as prisoner #182492. He was the only Greek in his unit who spoke German. He was eventually accorded the job of “dentist” or Zähnekontrolle, a euphemism for ripping out gold from the teeth of corpses.  In 1972, he settled in Bat Yam, Israel with his second wife and died there in 1989.

Abraham Dragon was one of the aforementioned brothers who were interviewed for We Wept Without Grief: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz by Gideon Greif. Abraham told Greif, “Israeli society held Sonderkommandos in suspicion, regarding them as the cousins of collaborators, who chose that work to escape death. They did not, perhaps chose not, to understand that it was blind fate that placed us in the Sonderkommando, we had no control of our destiny in that hell hole whatsoever.”

Alter Fajnzylberg, prisoner #27675, had previously fought for the Republicans against the dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His testimony was used to prosecute Rudolf Höss in 1946. He was a witness at the Krakow Trial in 1947, as documented in The Alter Fajnzylberg notebooks: What I Saw of Auschwitz (2016).

Dario Gabbai

David Kassans unfinished portrait of Dario Gabbai who died age 97 in 2020.

Dario Gabbai was a Greek Sephardi Jew, born in Thessaloniki to a Greek mother and an Italian father. As one of the last-known survivors of the Sonderkommando, he died at age 97 on March 25, 2020. He recalled there were few suicides among the well-fed Sonderkommandos. “Our ability to adapt is almost infinite. We functioned like soulless robots, it was the only way to remain sane under such conditions.” Other Jews in his unit included his brother Ya’akov Gabbai, Michel Arditti, Josef Baruch (of Corfu), Leon Cohen, Leon Cohen’s brother, Shlomo and Maurice Venezia, Marcel Nadjari, and Daniel Ben-Nachmias.

Henryk (Tauber) Fuchsbrunner had the job of stoking the ovens. He participated in the uprising and shortened his name to Henry Fuchs after immigrating to the United States in 1952. “Fuchsbrunner participated in the Crematoria Uprising of 1944, during which 3 of 23 SS soldiers were killed and a further 12 were wounded. Another source (Dragon) testified that Fuchsbrunner participated in the killing of no less than 5 SS guards stationed at Crematoria II before the uprising was put down. Fuchsbrunner later was given an assignment outside the crematoria, before being returned to his position as a stoker in Crematoria IV in late October 1944. He escaped again 3 months later in January 1945, that time successfully.” Wikipedia.

Henryk Mandelbaum, prisoner #181970, was a long-lived Auschwitz Museum educator in Poland.

Filip Müller [see separate FILIP MULLER page on this site]

David Olère, prisoner #106144, was a widely shown French artist whose talents were valued inside Auschwitz by both his fellow prisoners and the Nazis. Olère’s talents as an artist and translator (he spoke Polish, Russian, Yiddish, French, English, and German) made him useful to the SS. His number was 108144 and he appears in many of his works.

The book, David Olère–The Eyes of a Witness, published by The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation in Paris in 1989, contains a three page summary of David Olère’s life and one hundred pages of his artwork. It is extremely rare.

Yosef Sackar arrived at Auschwitz in April of 1944, at age 20. A Greek Jew who settled in Israel, he worked in Crematorium number two, in the room where prisoners were ordered to strip, and he was not tempted to alert the victims to their fate. “They were totally defenseless. What was the point of frightening them for no good reason?”

Polish-born Yaakov Silberberg arrived at Auschwitz at the end of 1942. On his first day as a Sonderkommando, he seriously contemplated suicide. An acquaintance named Shlomo Kirschenbaum, who was in charge of Silberberg’s Sonderkommando unit, said he had felt much the same but he eventually adapted. Kirschenbaum was able to give Silberberg two stiff drinks to ease the pain. He fell asleep, felt differently in the morning and lived to tell his story to Gideon Greif.

Movie poster for Life is Beautiful

Movie poster for Life is Beautiful

Schlomo and Morris Venezia

Schlomo and Morris Venezia

Shlomo Venezia (December 29, 1923 – October 1, 2012) was an Italian Jew, born in Thessaloniki, who survived his grisly experiences to first publish in Italian and French, Sonderkommando Auschwitz (Rizzoli, 2007; Editions Albin S.A.-Paris, 2007). It has since been reprinted in English more than twenty times in paperback as Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz (Polity Press, 2009) with Béatrice Prasquier. His brother Morris Venezia and cousin also survived Auschwitz-Birkenau.

His other cohorts involved in the planning stages for the Sonderkommando rebellion at Auschwitz included Lemke Chaïm Pliszko, Dawid Kotchak, Giuseppe Baruch, Leibl Paul Katz, Yaacov Kaminski, Jankiel Handelsmann, Jukl Wrobel, Josef Warszawski, a man named Władek, Giuseppe Baruch, Zalman Gradowski, Leon Cohen and Alberto Errera (who was also involved in taking the extraordinary Sonderkommando photographs shown below). Having survived more than six months as a Sonderkommando, Shlomo Venezia served as a consultant, along with Marcello Pezzetti, for the film made by Roberto Benigni called Life is Beautiful.

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THE SECRET SONDERKOMMANDO PHOTOS

Various academics, including Leah Ingle, have tried to improve global knowledge of would-be whistleblowers, mainly within Sonderkommando units, who hoped to alert the world, even posthumously, about the systemic murder of millions. In her essay, Witness and Complicity, Ingle references manuscripts written in Auschwitz that were inevitably destroyed or discarded or lost when the camps were liberated or destroyed. She also provides details about four photos taken cooperatively by a Sonderkommando unit at Crematorium V. These vital images are now displayed at the Holocaust museum in Paris and have become increasingly public via the internet. They show the burning of bodies and provide undeniable proof of mass murder. The first two of these images [below] were photos taken surreptitiously from inside the crematorium, through a window. A fourth image (not shown here) was taken so hurriedly that it does not show any people. Here, the original images have been refined and edited to more clearly reveal the evidence of genocide.

map closeup

Close up of map showing Crematorium V and the trees below where the prisoners undressed.

Alberto Errara before the war.

Alberto Errara.  the presumed photographer of the above horrors, was shot August 9, 1944 during an escape attempt.

These Sonderkommando photographs, taken secretly in early August of 1944, are the only ones known to exist to document events around the gas chambers. The pictures show Sonderkommandos throwing corpses into a heavily smoking incineration pit. Several dozen murdered people lie at their feet. All photos were taken near Crematorium V.

Two photos show women in the restricted area around the murder centre after undressing, before they were herded into the gas chamber. These two images were captured in front of the birches that had remained standing around the one-storey building erected in 1942/43, which was 67.50 meters long and twelve meters wide as a privacy screen.

Two more photos were taken from the vantage point of an open door, from inside the gas chamber, according to calculations by Holocaust researcher Jean-Claude Pressac. The door frame can be seen on the original negatives. This building was blown up and destroyed in January of 1945. One of the four photos is an errant image of the top of the birches (which gave rise to the name Birkenau).

The Auschwitz Museum has provided the best summary as to the history of these blurred images. They were taken within 15–30 minutes of each other by a Jewish prisoner from Greece named Alex. Subsequently, researchers have identified him as Alberto Errera, a Greek naval officer who was shot and killed after striking an SS officer. He hurriedly took two photographs from inside one of the gas chambers and two outside, shooting from the hip. Unable to aim the camera with any precision, his fourth photo shows only trees and the sky.

Ingle and others have reported Errera’s code name was Alekos Alexandridis (eg. Alex). Some of the others involved in the orchestration of these clandestine photos included Alter Fajnzylberg (also known as Stanisław Jankowski), who had worked at crematorium V since July 1943, as well as brothers Shlomo and Josel Dragon, and David Szmulewski. All were members of the Sonderkommando group that was forced to orchestrate the executions at Crematorium V. This underground group obtained and concealed the camera, then served as lookouts when the images were hurriedly taken by Alberto/Alex.

The images were smuggled out of the camp to the Polish underground, within a toothpaste tube, by a Polish civilian, Helena Dantón, who worked in the SS canteen.

The photos first became public knowledge soon after the war ended. A Polish investigating judge named Jan Sehn published them in preparation for the trial of 40 members of the SS team at Auschwitz concentration camp in Kraków. Survivors such as Leon Kahn have provided testimony as to how the photos were taken, and where. Holocaust deniers have had difficulty debunking their authenticity. If open cremation pits had to be used in addition to the 46 combustion chambers of the crematorium ovens in Birkenau, the immensity of the murder total for Auschwitz likely exceeds the most conservative estimate of 1.1 million. Here is a link to more information about these terrible photographs. 

“As far as my and Wetzler’s observations in Auschwitz are concerned,” Rudolf Vrba said in 1997,  during his public speeches in Berlin, “I would say that during the 21 months I was there I saw 1.7 million victims murdered in the gas-chambers of Auschwitz until our escape in April 1944 and it has been documented that many were killed there after our escape. So that the total killed will be well over two million in my estimation…”

Alter Fajnzylberg, one of the Sonderkommandos who survived after Auschwitz, described how the photographs were taken:

On the day on which the pictures were taken … we allocated tasks. Some of us were to guard the person taking the pictures. In other words, we were to keep a careful watch for the approach of anyone who did not know the secret, and above all for any SS men moving about in the area. At last the moment came. We all gathered at the western entrance leading from the outside to the gas-chamber of Crematorium V: we could not see any SS men in the watchtower overlooking the door from the barbed wire, nor near the place where the pictures were to be taken. Alex, the Greek Jew, quickly took out his camera, pointed it towards a heap of burning bodies, and pressed the shutter. This is why the photograph shows prisoners from the Sonderkommando working at the heap. One of the SS was standing beside them, but his back was turned towards the crematorium building. Another picture was taken from the other side of the building, where women and men were undressing among the trees. They were from a transport that was to be murdered in the gas-chamber of Crematorium V.

Here is further information from the Auschwitz Museum:

— A note written by political prisoners Józef Cyrankiewicz and Stanisław Kłodziński, was attached to the film, dated September 4, 1944, asking for the images to be sent to “Tell,” codename for Teresa Łasocka-Estreicher in the Kraków underground: “Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6×9 as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you photos of Birkenau showing prisoners sent to gas chambers. One photo shows one of the stakes at which bodies were burned when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest where people undress before ‘showering’—as they were told—and then go to the gas-chambers. Send film roll as fast as you can. Send the enclosed photos to Tell—we think enlargements of the photos can be sent further.”

— Fajnzylberg recalled that the camera looked like a German Leica.

— Szmulewski had hidden it in a bucket. He stayed on the roof of the crematorium as a look-out while Alex shot the film.

— The photographs were numbered 280–283 by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Nos. 280 and 281 show the cremation of corpses in a fire pit, shot through the black frame of the gas chamber’s doorway or window. No. 282 shows a group of naked women just before they enter the gas chamber. No. 283 is an image of trees, the result of the photographer aiming too high.

— Some of the cropped images were published in 1945, attributed to the Sonderkommando member David Szmulewski in a report on Auschwitz-Birkenau by Jan Sehn, a Polish judge. One was exhibited at Auschwitz in 1947, and others were published in 1958 in Warsaw in a book by Stanisław Wrzos-Glinka, Tadeusz Mazur and Jerzy Tomaszewski, published in English as 1939-1945: We Have Not Forgotten.

— Struk added that Władyslaw Pytlik of the resistance movement in Brzeszcze offered testimony about his wartime experiences to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 1960, and brought along three prints of the cropped photographs. It was only in 1985, after Pytlik died and his wife donated his photographs to the museum, including the uncropped versions, that the museum realized the prints they had seen before had been cropped.

[Also see: Leon Cohen, From Greece to Birkenau : the crematoria workers’ uprising, translated from the French by Jose-Maurice Gormezano, Salonika Jewry Research Center, 1996.]

Plaque honouring uprising of the Sonderkommandos

On October 7, 1944, members of the Sonderkommando – the special detachment of Jewish prisoners who were forced to empty the gas chambers after a mass gassing and undertake the burning of the corpses – organized the only armed revolt that ever took place at Auschwitz. They succeeded in destroying Gas Chambers and Crematorium IV. More than 450 heroic prisoners who took part in the revolt were murdered by the SS, either during the revolt itself or subsequently for the purpose of retaliation.

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