What a nice old man. He could be your grandpa. Yet, he lives every day with the horror of what he was forced to do.
He can smile today, but it took him years to be able to do that. And he still has nightmares, even 70 years later.
He will never forget, and neither should any of us.
I need to apologize for this oddity right now. This is not going to be a humorous one.
I try to make my oddities have a bit of comedy in them, but there is just no way can do it with this one. And I don't even want to try.
This oddity may contain some materiel that will be unpleasant to some. No, change that. It will be unpleasant to all. But it is history. We can't alter it, and it's important that people know about it so they become horrified by it, in the hopes that it never happens again. Today, I will be discussing something that happened during the Holocaust. I will not be cracking any jokes, because this isn't funny. It is history, though. It actually happened. And people need to know about what happened, and why.
Today, I am going to tell you of the Sonderkommando.
They were groups of men who did the dirty work in the death camps for the Nazis. But don't, for a minute, even dare to hold these men in contempt. As you will see, they had no choice in the matter. It was serve, or die. And serving also meant dying.
Let's start with the job the sonderkommando had to do.
In the death camps, like Auschwitz, hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed just because of their religion.
For many, more than a million at Auschwitz alone, people of the Jewish faith were herded in by the train load. Once they arrived at the train station, the were sorted. Healthy men and women and adolescents were separated from the rest and sent to the camp proper.
The rest, the old, the young and the infirm, were sent straight to the gas chambers.
An estimated 900,000 people were exterminated at Auschwitz alone.
One thing the Germans realized early on was, that kind of mass killing had adverse effects on their people. No matter how rabid a Nazi was, killing people by the score was upsetting. So, to save the sanity of the Germans, the Nazis created the sonderkommando.
The sonderkommando was made up of Jewish prisoners, selected because they could handle physical labor.
Remember, there were the men who were deemed able to do some work at the initial sorting, and so avoided the gas chambers. Although, every one of them would have preferred being gassed to what they had to do.
The sonderkommando were the ones who were in charge of the gas chambers. It was their job to herd those marked for death into the dressing rooms where they had them strip. They them herded them into the chamber it's self. They were instructed to tell the people they were just disinfecting showers.
Once the chambers were filled, members of the SS would release the gas.
After all the screaming was over and everyone was dead, the sonderkommando had to remove the bodies and take them to the crematorium. But before they burned the bodies, they were tasked with pulling the teeth made of gold from the fresh corpses.
And their reward for this work?
They were permitted to live.
For a time.
The Germans fed the sonderkommando better than any other prisoner. They had to have the strength to do their jobs. They also lived in quarters that could have been called luxurious when compared to everyone else's.
But the Germans knew that the sonderkommando knew things that they didn't want anyone to find out about. So every 3 to 4 months, the sonderkommando were gathered for their daily meeting, and machine gunned dead.
A new sondekommandos first job was usually to dispose of the bodies of their predecessors.
You may ask yourself how these Jewish men could do this job. How could they sent their kith and kin to their deaths?
Because the will to live is strong in humans. The people going to the gas chambers were going to die regardless of their actions. And while they did their jobs, they were alive. And the will to live is strong.
Also, a lot of them tried their best to comfort the people who were being sent to their deaths. They tried to tell them to just take a few deep breaths so it would all be over quick.
Just because the sonderkommando did their job doesn't mean they liked it. There were cases where the sonderkommando revolted. It never ended well for the sonderkommando.
They knew it wouldn't, but they had to try. And by revolting, they forced the Germans to concentrate on the sonderkommando and quash their rebellion. And even though it ended up in the death of all of them, it also put an end to the mass execution of the Jews for a day or two.
Very few sonderkommando survived the war. When the Germans fled the camps, they tried to kill all of them before they fled to prevent them from telling the allies what they had been forced to do.
A few did survive, however. Including the man pictured above. He not only survived being a sonderkommando, he also survived a revolt. Another sonderkommando unit had rebelled, while his did not. The Germans killed every third man in their unit, though, to prevent them from revolting as well.
Many of the sonderkommando who survived the war failed to live to see 1950, though. The things they had been forced to do caused many of them to take their own lives. They could not live with the guilt of what they had been forced to do.
Why? Why would these men do this? The knew they were going to die anyway. So why would they do this?
As I said, the will to live is very strong. When faced with the choice of 'do this or die now', most people will 'do this'. Not many people want to die, and most are not willing to just give up their lives when an alternative is made available.
We can not judge the surviving sonderkommando harshly. Allow me to rephrase that: We can not judge the sonderkommando that survived the camps too harshly. Today, there are no sonderkommando left. In fact, the last known survivor of Auschwitz died in 2012.
We must never forget what was done to all those innocent people, not only the Jews, but also the Roma, the Jehovas Witnesses, homosexuals, the mentally disabled and many , many more.
By forcing them to work as sonderkommando, the Nazis victimized a select few Jewish men more than once.
And we must never forget the hell they were put through. We must never allow it to happen again.
And don't be fooled into thinking we wouldn't. Genocide happens all the time. Bosnia in the mid 1990's. Rwanda in the early 2000's. Sudan in the mid 2000's.
This was a depressing oddity. I'm sorry. You may ask what qualifies this as an oddity. The fact that Jewish men were forced to do this to their own people while waiting for their own deaths is what makes it odd. Besides, it's a lesson we must never, ever forget. Humans can be immeasurably cruel to other humans just for being different. Let's never do that again, please?
The sonderkommando pictured was Henryk Mandelbaum. He was one of only 110 of the 2,000 sonderkommando forced to serve at Auschwitz-Birkenau to survive the war. He died in 2008. He spent the years after the war, up until his death, trying to make sure people never forgot what happened during the holocaust.