The Sonderkommando were units of death and labor camp prisoners assigned the tasks of carrying out the mass murders of Jews and other victims. Much of their responsibilities involved directing new death camp arrivals to the gas chambers and disposing of the corpses and ashes of the victims. The work of the Sonderkommando was done under the watchful eye of the Schutzstaffel (SS) guards surrounding the camps. The Sonderkommando were key eyewitnesses to the terroristic Nazi plan to annihilate Jews and other victims, such as Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners.
The Selection of the Sonderkommado
Sonderkommando were groups of predominantly Jewish prisoners selected to carry out the most gruesome part of the mass murders of Jews and other victims. They were used as workers in death camps, and sometimes in concentration or labor camps, to carry out various responsibilities. The work of the Sonderkommando was exhaustive, and not many survived, as the Nazis wanted to keep their process of mass murder a secret. Sonderkommandos were crucial eyewitnesses to the mass murder operations, which the Nazis called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
Jews and other victims deported to labor and death camps were immediately separated into groups upon their arrival. Individuals would often be separated based upon gender, age, and physical attributes. Jews, Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners were also occasionally separated in camps and kept in different barracks.
Sonderkommando were selected based upon their physical attributes and health. Individuals who were elderly, too young, or relatively weak were typically sent to the gas chambers immediately. Those who appeared to have enough strength to do physical labor were selected to be a part of the Sonderkommando units. Due to the poor and harsh conditions of the camps, Sonderkommando grew weak in a matter of months. Sonderkommando units were replaced about every six months with new arrivals.
Nazi Camps & Killing Centers
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Most Sonderkommando units worked in death camps, or killing centers. The largest death camp was in the Polish city of Oświęcim, infamously known in German as Auschwitz. There were three different camps within Auschwitz, each with specific roles. The main camp, Auschwitz I, was a labor camp. Auschwitz II, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, was the killing center. The third Auschwitz camp, Monowitz, was a concentration camp.
According to Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor Dario Gabbai, there were about 1,200 Sonderkommado working at the killing center. The Sonderkommado were split up into groups of about 100 for various tasks. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi camp, with four crematoriums that the Sonderkommando worked in to dispose of the bodies.
Other killing centers included Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka. Chelmno was located in German-occupied Poland, and it was the first killing center to begin using poisonous gas as a means of mass murder. Its operations began in December 1941 under the leadership of the SS and Nazi police. The other three killing centers were established the following year under the Operation Reinhard plan. This operation was the mass murder plan to kill the Jews who still remained in German-occupied Poland, also referred to as the General Government. Approximately 1.7 million Jews and other victims were killed during this operation.
These killing centers were not the only places Jews and other victims were murdered. More than 44,000 camps were established. The first concentration camp was established in Dachau after Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. It was the longest-running camp, remaining open for 12 years until its liberation in April 1945. Some concentration camps, such as Dachau, had crematoriums to commit mass murder. Other camps were used solely for labor or to incarcerate prisoners.
Responsibilities of the Sonderkommando
The Sonderkommando who worked in labor or concentration camps had similar responsibilities as those who worked in death camps. However, Sonderkommando in the death camps had to deal with the systematic disposal of corpses much more frequently than in the other camps. In the killing centers, Sonderkommando were tasked with the harshest roles so that the SS and police guards were relieved from the ghastly work of cleaning up the bodies.
The killing centers were set up like an assembly line operation. The prisoners would arrive by the hundreds to thousands and be selected for forced labor or immediately sent to the gas chambers. The only Sonderkommando who interacted with live prisoners were those responsible for directing the prisoners to undress before entering the gas chambers. Many prisoners were unaware they were about to be sent to their death, and some thought they were getting ready to be subjected to forced labor. The Sonderkommando were forbidden to warn new arrivals that they were being sent to gas chambers.
About 3,000 prisoners would fill the gas chambers at a time. The killing centers of Operation Reinhard used carbon monoxide for the gas chambers, and Auschwitz used a poisonous, cyanide-based insecticide called Zyklon B. The SS guards were responsible for releasing the gas and would then direct the Sonderkommando to enter the chambers after about 20 to 30 minutes to begin their work. The units assigned to the gas chambers would cut the victims’ hair and then move the corpses to elevators that took them up to the next Sonderkommando units.
Another group would be responsible for sifting through the clothing of the victims. There was also a Sonderkommando role that involved searching for gold teeth, referred to as “the dentists.” Any valuables found in this process were to be given to the SS guards. It was not uncommon for there to be items of some value because prisoners were deported from their homes or ghettos and brought suitcases or bags. Many packed their most treasured items, unaware of their next destination.
The corpses from the gas chambers were then burned in the crematoriums. The ashes were collected in wheelbarrows and disposed of. In May 1942, a unit called the Sonderkommando 1005 was tasked with removing any possible trace of genocide by digging up bodies of victims who had been killed in the early stages of the mass shootings. This was a result of reports being made that Nazi Germany was carrying out mass murders of Jews in death camps. The Sonderkommando 1005 was required to dispose of the remains by burning them.
It’s important to note that not all forced labor prisoners were Sonderkommando. However, both of these prisoner groups were often treated slightly better than prisoners selected to be executed shortly after their arrival. Some SS guards were not as hateful or cruel towards the Sonderkommando, but many were still extremely abusive no matter a prisoner’s status.
Some of the “better” treatments that the Sonderkommando received included slightly decent food, less strict clothing rules, and marginally comfortable sleeping quarters. Regular prisoners and Sonderkommando were kept in separate barracks. In the early stages of the death camps, there were no beds or furniture in the barracks for the prisoners. Conditions got a little better as time went on, but the barracks were always overcrowded, and many prisoners fell extremely ill due to unsanitary conditions.
The typical “meals” for a prisoner included a liter of a grain- or herbal-based drink similar to coffee or tea for breakfast, a liter of unpleasant soup for lunch, and black bread with very little margarine, sausage, or cheese for dinner. Sonderkommando may have gotten better quality food or slightly bigger portions. Although more food could have helped them retain more weight, the physically demanding work was often too much for individuals to continue after a few months. Sonderkommando were also typically unable to wear the clothing they arrived in. Some would take jackets and other garments from the piles of clothing left behind by the prisoners sent to the gas chambers.
The Sonderkommando Prisoner Revolt of Auschwitz
There were attempts of resistance at a few of the camps. One of the most notable uprisings was the Sonderkommando revolt that took place in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Female Sonderkommado Ala Gertner, Ester Wajcblum, and Regina Safirsztain stole gunpowder from a nearby armament factory to destroy the gas chambers and crematoriums. The gunpowder was passed along to other Sonderkommando by a woman named Róza Robota to create grenades with sardine cans. Other weapons, such as knives, were also made.
The revolt took place on October 7, 1944. It was successful in damaging one of the crematoriums beyond repair, but the Sonderkommando involved in the uprising were surrounded within minutes by armed SS guards. More than 400 prisoners were murdered as a result of the revolt. Some prisoners were kept alive to be interrogated, who later revealed the identity of the women who stole the gunpowder. The women were interrogated, beaten, and sexually assaulted for months until their execution. They were executed by public hanging in January 1945, less than two weeks before Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945.
Views on the Work of the Sonderkommando
The physical and psychological destruction that the Holocaust caused is chillingly monstrous. Many prisoners who were able to see the day of liberation chose to tell their stories through testimony of what life was like in camps. The Sonderkommando prisoners have been a somewhat controversial topic of the Holocaust. They were forced laborers who carried out some of the most gruesome acts involving the mass murder of Jews and other victims. For them, there was no other choice but to follow the commands of the SS or immediately be put to death.
Some may question how they were able to carry on, knowing that they were sending new arrivals of men, women, and children to their death. Those who refused to follow orders were subject to execution. Prisoners who chose to accept the Sonderkommando position did so for various reasons. Some may have done it for survival, to help family members within the same camp, or get better food or clothing. Despite their involvement in the extermination process, the Sonderkommando who did not get to see the day of liberation experienced the same outcome as millions of other Holocaust victims who did not survive.