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The Jewish Men Forced to Help Run Auschwitz

February 21, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

The arrival of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in German-occupied Poland, June 1944. (Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Lesław Dyrcz leaned over a pile of rubble and dirt, completely unaware that he was about to make a discovery that would shed light on one of history’s darkest moments. It was 1980, and the forestry student was working to help restore the original forest around what was once Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the Nazis’ most notorious death camps. Dyrcz was there to help mitigate the effects decades of air pollution had on the forest, attempting to let its original pine trees grow once more. But the student was about to change history.

As he dug, Dyrcz discovered a leather briefcase buried in the ground. He opened it up and found a thermos. Inside the container were pages of handwritten paper. Though Dyrcz could not read the text—it was written in Greek—he had just discovered one of the most important pieces of testimony of the Holocaust: eyewitness accounts of Nazi crimes, written by Marcel Nadjary, a Jewish man from Greece who had been enslaved with about 2,000 others and forced to help the Nazis as they operated their grimly efficient killing machines.

Nadjary had been one of the Sonderkommando—a group of men, most of them Jewish, tasked with taking the Nazis’ victims from the gas chambers and disposing of the bodies. At the peak of Auschwitz’s operations, up to 6,000 Jews a day were gassed by the Nazis. Then, the Sonderkommando’s unthinkable task began.

The men of the Sonderkommando did more than help dispose of the Nazis’ victims: They also provided critical documentation of their captors’ crimes. Though historians had known about the Sonderkommando, the secrecy of their work and the fact that so many didn’t survive the Holocaust, made testimony like Nadjary’s even more precious.

Even at the height of the Holocaust, the work of the Sonderkommando was shrouded in mystery and performed under threat of death. Since the people brought to the gas chambers were all murdered, the Sonderkommando were the only witnesses who survived. And since they knew the Nazis’ secrets firsthand, their lives at Auschwitz were marked by fear and isolation.

The arrival of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in German-occupied Poland, June 1944. (Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

The word Sonderkommando means “special unit” in German, and from the start, the men tasked with helping the Nazis lived lives that were different from those of other prisoners at Auschwitz. Young prisoners—all able-bodied men—were …read more


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