Sonderkommandos on the platform

By S. Parker Yesko

At several points on our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, our guide Pawel Sawicki’s narration turned to the complicated role of the Sonderkommando unit at the camp. The Sonderkommandos were Jewish prisoners handpicked to carry out some of the grisliest tasks of the extermination process. They were the ones sent into the gas chamber after Zyklon B had asphyxiated those trapped inside, sometimes as many as 2,000 victims at one time. The Sonderkommandos would remove the corpses and lug them to a nearby pyre where they were forced to burn them in the open air.

Due to the difficult and secretive nature of their work, the Sonderkommandos were housed separately from the camp’s general population and fed larger rations. Their special treatment often drew the ire of others and sometimes accusations of collaboration, but we now know they had no choice but to do as they were told.

According to Sawicki, the Sonderkommandos were also dispatched to collect luggage from newly arrived deportees to Birkenau. Though perhaps less gruesome than their other tasks, these encounters on the train platform must have been uniquely tormenting. For in those few moments, the Sonderkommandos briefly mingled with the living victims of the Holocaust—many of whose dead bodies they’d soon incinerate.

It was on that train platform that the theater of the Nazi death machine reached its most highly evolved state. Passengers were instructed to wait calmly as they were sorted by doctors, including Josef Mengele and his team; adults were sent right to work units, children and the elderly were directed left to the gas chambers. All the while, many were expecting a hot shower and soup—it was by Nazi design that they believed a moment of repose was near. The camp administrators had learned early on that crowd control was essential to a smooth extermination process.

The few members of the Sonderkommando embedded there in the throng were in a unique position to disrupt the carefully orchestrated calm. However, as Sawicki told us, they rarely did.

Once in a while, according to Sawicki, Sonderkommandos would offer cryptic advice to individuals likely to face difficulty in the sorting process. They might encourage an adolescent boy to fib about his age, to tell the doctors he was 17 rather than 14. Or they might instruct a young mother to turn her baby over to an elderly woman so at least one of the three might be spared from the gas chamber.

I wonder what messages I would have passed along if I’d been there on that platform. Perhaps I’d have urged a woman my age to hug her mother once more, explaining that they were headed to separate barracks where they wouldn’t have much contact. Maybe I’d have encouraged an older man to turn over a cherished pocket watch to his son. I might even have offered assurances to a small child that she was only headed off to receive clean clothes and a warm bed—anything to provide some small sense of relief.

Occasionally, I wonder if I might have attempted something more dramatic on that platform and what such an act of defiance might even have looked like. Would I have revealed the truth of what was about to happen? After all, wouldn’t the detainees have had a basic right to know why they’d been evicted from their homes, rounded up and deported? Why not make it a tad more difficult for the Nazis to kill them? Why not incite an uprising? What if a passenger had asked me point-blank if he was going to be murdered? Would lying then have been a final, unconscionable betrayal?

Or was not knowing the inconceivable torture that awaited them, the singular, sacred solace that the Nazis, albeit unintentionally, afforded their victims? By being forced to remain ignorant of their fates until the very end, those who perished in the Holocaust were perhaps able to retain some small composure in the face of unthinkable indignity. Should one of them have begged me to me to peel back the veil of normalcy on that platform, I’m not sure I could have summoned the courage to do so. Indeed, if I had warned the train’s passengers of the deranged plan for their arrival in Birkenau, I wonder how many of them would even have been able to believe what I had to say.

Birkenau platform today Parker copy

The train terminal at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (S. Parker Yesko/FASPE)

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