“The whole truth is much more tragic and terrible.”
— Zalmen Lewental, in Yiddish
(from a manuscript discovered in October 1962, buried in the yard of Auschwitz Crematorium,
written shortly before the Sonderkommando revolt)
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 little-known Lewental, quoted above. It is considered likely that the Sonderkommando eyewitness Zalmen Lewental died in November of 1944, only weeks prior to Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. (The quote is from “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.)
It has been estimated that 18 other 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, prisoners who also include Zalman Gradowski, Leyb Langfus, Chaim Herman and Marcel Nadjary.
Nadjary, a member of the Sonderkommando in Birkenau from May 1944 to November 1944, survived the war and subsequently wrote about his wartime experiences in a book that is only available in Greek. He was one of the few Jews who survived the war to verify the Sonderkomkando uprising of October 7, 1944, having participated in its planning but not the event itself.
Cohorts in the planning stages 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 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. But 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.
Schlomo Venezia (December 29, 1923 – October 1, 2012) was a rare 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). Having survived more than six months as a Sonderkomando, Venezia served as a consultant, along with Marcello Pezzetti, for the film made by Roberto Benigni called Life is Beautiful. Bizarrely, his brother and cousin also survived Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Also a participant in the revolt of the Sonderkommando, Załmen 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,” Dr. Igor Bartosik continues in the Foreword, “were found in Birkenau after the war 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.”
“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!” Gradowski wrote.
An academic named Leah Ingle has been at the forefront of spreading the word about these would-be whistleblowers, mainly within Sonderkommando units, who hoped to alert the world, even posthumously, about the systemic murder of millions–and failed. 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. As well, Ingle provides some details about three photos taken cooperatively by a Sonderkommando unit within Auschwitz at Crematorium V. These are now displayed at the Holocaust museum in Paris, but they have remained largely unknown beyond Holocaust experts. They show the burning of bodies. They provide undeniable proof of mass murder. The first two of these images [below] are photos taken surreptitiously from inside the crematorium, through a window. There is also a fourth image (not shown here) that was taken so hurriedly it fails to show any people. The original images are shown below in the top row. These have refined and edited to more clearly to reveal the evidence of genocide in the row below.
Ingle asserts that these Sonderkommando photographs, taken secretly in August 1944, are the only ones known to exist to document events around the gas chambers. According to Ingle, these images were made within 15–30 minutes of each other by a Jewish prisoner from Greece named Alex. Some sources 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 (not shown above).
Ingle reports 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 by a female, Polish civilians who worked for the Nazis but did not dwell within Auschwitz. Fajnzylberg has 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.
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.
Next: VRBA ON THE ESCAPE