At Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor the Nazis established the Sonderkommando, groups of Jewish male prisoners picked
for their youth and relative good health whose job was to dispose of
corpses from the gas chambers or crematoria. Some did the work to delay their own deaths; some thought
they could protect friends and family, and some acted out of mere greed
for extra food and money these men sometimes received. The men were
forced into this position, with the only alternative being death in
the gas chambers or being shot on the spot by an SS guard.
At Auschwitz, the Sonderkommandos
had better physical conditions than other inmates; they had decent food,
slept on straw mattresses and could wear normal clothing. Sonderkommandos
were divided into several groups, each with a specialized function.
Some greeted the new arrivals, telling them that they were going to
shower prior to being sent to work. They were obliged to lie, telling
the soon-to-be-murdered prisoners that after the delousing process they
would be assigned to labor teams and reunited with their families. These
were the only Sonderkommandos to have contact with the victims while
they were still alive. The SS carried out the gassings,
and the Sonderkommandos would enter the chambers afterward, remove the
bodies, process them and transport them to the crematorium. Other teams
processed the corpses after the gas chambers, extracting gold teeth,
and removing clothes and valuables before taking them to the crematoria
for final disposal. The remains were ground to dust and mixed with the
ashes. When too much ash mounted, the Sonderkommandos, under the watchful
eyes of the SS, would throw them into a nearby river.
At Treblinka about 200 men were in charge of removing the corpses from the gas chambers.
At Auschwitz the Sonderkommando
working in the crematoria initially numbered 400 men, but the number
was raised during the mass murder of Hungarians in 1944 to about
1,000 men. At Auschwitz
and Birkenau, the Sonderkommando were responsible for sorting the
suitcases, packages and other items with which the prisoners arrived
on the trains. These items were taken to a storage area of the camp
euphemistically called "Canada," where the "Clearing
Commando" would unpack them, sort them, and prepare them for dispatch
Despite the better conditions in which the Sonderkommando lived at
the camps, most were eventually gassed as they became increasingly weak
or sick from camp conditions. The Nazis also did not want any evidence
of their horrific acts to remain, and therefore decided to kill those
prisoners who witnessed their actions.
In October 1944, the Sonderkommando team at Birkenau
learned that the Germans intended to gas them. At the camps, an underground
movement had been planning a general uprising for some time, but it
never happened. The remaining Sonderkommandos decided to take their
fate into their own hands, and, on October 7, the group in charge of
the third crematorium at the camp, the Birkenau Three Sonderkommando,
rebelled. They attacked the SS with makeshift weapons: stones, axes, hammers, other work tools and
homemade grenades. They caught the SS guards by surprise, overpowered them and blew up a crematorium. At this
stage they were joined by the Birkenau One Kommando, which also overpowered
their guards and broke out of the compound. The revolt ended in failure.
There was no mass uprising, and within a short time the Germans succeeded
in capturing and killing almost all the escapees.
The Sonderkommandos tend to be regarded very negatively
by most survivors, and to a certain extent the Jewish establishment
in general. In the camps, the Sonderkommandos were seen as unclean,
and the writer Primo Levi described them as being “akin to collaborators.”
He said that their testimonies should not be given much credence, "since
they had much to atone for and would naturally attempt to rehabilitate
themselves at the expense of the truth." Those who were members
of the Sonderkommando, however, state they had no choice in their job,
and they were as much victims of Nazi oppression as other prisoners
in the concentration camps.