This week we had an interview with the Israeli historian, Gideon Greif whose book “We Wept without Tears” will be published in Hungary this April. This book contains testimonies from some of the survivors of the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz.
The Sonderkommando was a work unit of mainly Jewish prisoners who were forced to burn the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers or in other parts of the camps. We asked Mr. Greif about the members of the Sonderkommando and their life.
Your main research areas are the Auschwitz Concentration Camp and the Sonderkommando organized there. Why did you choose this particular part of the Holocaust?
I decided to conduct an intensive research on Auschwitz, the biggest Concentration and Extermination Camp and especially on the “Sonderkommando” after realizing, that there are important aspects which have not been researched yet. The history of the “Sonderkommando” was neglected almost completely in the historical research, and when I discovered, that there are 31 survivors are still alive all over the world, I realized that unless I will save their testimonies, there is a danger that these important stories will get lost when the survivors will die. This was a project of saving an essential piece of the history of the “Final Solution”.
Nobody has asked me to do this project; I have nominated myself to become the historian of the “Sonderkommando”, understanding the importance and urgency of this project of documentation.
I am very pleased, that I have successfully completed my goal and saved the testimonies of 31 survivors of the “Sonderkommando” prisoners, the last ones, who can tell us everything about the German machinery of murder in Auschwitz-Birkenau and about the German atrocities. There are also other aspects in the history of Auschwitz, which still wait for being researched and I am dedicating much time for such researches.
Your book “We Wept without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz” will be published in Hungary this April. The book is based on a series of interviews that you have made with surviving members of the Sonderkommando. What were your impressions, how did these people live? How could they go on with life after what has happened to them, if that is even possible at all?
This question is more psychological and less historical, and as you know, I am a historian. Anyway, let me share my impressions with you. I was asking this question during the interviews, and the answer I got was: “We were working there at the Gas Chambers like living machines, like living robots”. I think that this may be the answer to the question, how can a human being be able to work day and night in a death factory, in some cases more than two years (some of the survivors I have interviewed worked in the “Sonderkommando” for more than two years!). This can perhaps explain how they were able to open a new chapter in their life after the Holocaust, create a family and continue living a “Normal”, conventional life. This question is however more complicated and needs also a psychological research.
The members of the Sonderkommando either worked together with the Nazis or committed suicide. But sooner or later most of them ended up in the gas chambers. In spite of this some consider the Sonderkommandos guilty, some victims. What do you think about that?
The “Sonderkommando” men were victims of the Germans, not perpetrators. They never murdered anyone, not even one single Jew. The Germans were the murderers and they have always, without one exception, poured Zyklon B gas into the Gas Chamber, where thousands of Jews were standing, waiting for a “bath” or a “shower”. Accusing the “Sonderkommando“ men in being collaborators is a huge mistake, based on ignorance or stupidity. Moreover, the “Sonderkommando” prisoners tried to help the Jews sentenced to death in their last minutes. Unfortunately, they could not save them, but they made some human activities to ease and comfort them in their last minutes of life. To sum up: the “Sonderkommando” men were the most miserable of all Auschwitz prisoners, compelled to be slaves in the biggest Death Factory in the world. No other prisoners in Auschwitz had to work like the “Sonderkommando” men day and night surrounded by corps, ashes, and death, death and death.
Your book starts with Günther Anders’ lines “And what would you have done?”. Why did you choose this poem?
I chose the poem because it is a good poetic example to the sensitivity and complexity of the daily life of the “Sonderkommando” prisoners. Never before had a human being been forced to such a tragic situation: to be present in a place, where his parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents and all his people are being murdered and burnt. Such a fate has no precedence in men’s history. The poem of Guenther illustrates this impossible world of the “Sonderkommando” men very plastically. Author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi defined this crime of the Germans very accurately by stating, that creating the “Sonderkommando” unit was the most satanic crime of the Germans.
Many have been inspired by your book, like László Nemes Jeles, the director of the Oscar winning film “Son of Saul” and the film “Grey Zone” directed by Tim Blake Nelson, films where the Sonderkommando is in the focus. What do you think about that this topic has gained so much attention lately?
First of all I feel very privileged, that I have changed the field of Holocaust research and holocaust representation in the arts. If not my books on the “Sonderkommando” both, “The Grey Zone“ and “Son of Saul” would have never been born. And I can give you many more examples on the huge influence of my scientific work on the field of Holocaust studies and Holocaust education.
The reason that the attention to the “Sonderkommando” men and their tragic world happens so late is exactly the reason why I personally came to it so late: like many other historians of the holocaust, the fact, that dozens of Sonderkommando men have survived, was not clear to many of us, including professional historians. The minute I discovered this fact in 1986, I conducted my interviews with the last survivors as quickly as possible, not to lose their precious stories. I would like also to add, that dealing with such a painful topic is a matter which makes many historian feel reluctant to deal with it. I was not afraid, understanding the importance and urgency of the documentation of Sonderkommando survivors.
Have you seen the film “Son of Saul”? If so what do you think about it?
I have seen the film Son of Saul until now 8 times. It is a great film, allowing us to feel the real atmosphere inside the gas chambers and crematoria. Laszlo Nemes takes us inside the heart of the killing factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in a very sensual, realistic way, which was never achieved in any other film in the world. The previous attempt to reconstruct this reality of the “Sonderkommando”, was a total failure: I mean the horrible film “The Grey Zone”, which distorted the real character of the “Sonderkommando” men and described them in a wrong, distorted manner. Nemes gives us a decent, authentic picture on the “Sonderkommando” and helps us to understand, that these miserable men were no criminals – but victims, victims of the German cruelty and murderous tendencies.
When I met Nemes in Tel Aviv, about 3 years ago, this was my first advise to him: please do not repeat the catastrophe of “The Grey Zone” He fulfilled this advise fully and created a genius film, which will pave the way for a better understanding on the Holocaust, Auschwitz and “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question”.
In 2006 you initiated a project called the “Authentic Box Car”. A railbox car has been placed on the ramp of Birkenau as a memory of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews murdered there in 1944. Why did you consider this project to be important?
I have initiated the project of the Box Car in order to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, which were deported to their death in Birkenau from May 1944 onwards. This original box car is an authentic one, found in a private yard near the Netherlands-Germany border. Using a box car as memorial for the Hungarian Jews has also another educational reason: it shows in a very realistic manner the huge suffering, of the deported Jews. Days and nights they had to stand in a narrow car, without air, without food or water, without toilets, sometimes over 100 or even 120 people in one box car. No wonder that many died on the way to Auschwitz or the other Concentration and Extermination Camps. The wagon demonstrates this horrible reality in a very clear way.
You give lectures about Holocaust in schools and universities around the world. Why is it important for the younger generations to get to know what happened?
The most important questions I am frequently asked refer to the following points:
How was it possible for so few SS men standing on the ramp, to overcome thousands of arriving Jews?
Who “invented” the idea of murdering the Jews per poisonous gas? Who was involved in constructing the buildings of the Crematoria?
Why did the Jews not resist against their suppressors before being gassed?
Why did the Sonderkommando prisoners “agree’ to work at the killing installations - and many other questions, to which I try to supply the best possible answer and explanation.
You have written many books. What are you working on at the moment?
I am now writing several books: a book on Extermination Camp Majdanek, more books on the Sonderkommando, a book about Greek Jews in Auschwitz and a text book for the general public about Auschwitz. I also am writing books for high schools and gymnasiums in Germany about the Holocaust, as education and teaching are extremely important for me.
You will be the guest of the 23rd International Book Fair in Budapest in April. Have you been in Hungary before? Do you intend to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue which is Europe’s biggest synagogue?
Yes, I have several times in Hungary before. Naturally I am going to visit again the beautiful Synagogue at the Dohany Street and many other Jewish sites in Hungary.