70th anniversary of the Sonderkommando revolt
On October 7, the 70th anniversary of Sonderkommando prisoners revolt was commemorated next to the ruins of the gas chamber and crematory IV on the site of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. Sonderkommando was a work group consisting mainly of Jewish prisoners, who were forced by the Germans to work in gas chambers, burning pits and crematories.
“Towards the end of the summer 1944, the number of Jewish transports sent for extermination in Auschwitz was cut down. SS men decided to gradually reduce the number of Sonderkommando prisoners. In September they murdered approximately 200 of them. The rest of the prisoners were aware of the fact, that the danger is increasing, and so they started to plan a rebellion. On October 7, when SS-men came to the crematorium IV in order to take prisoners, they were attacked by prisoners armed with hammers and axes”, said Dr. Igor Bartosik from The Research Center of the Auschwitz Museum, the author of new publication - ”Sonderkommando revolt” (English translation is being prepared), in which he reconstructed the exact course of the rebellion.
“During the unequal fight, the prisoners were able to set fire to the crematorium. Soon after that, the action was supported by their fellow prisoners from the crematorium II. They cut wires of the fence and started to run away towards the South. During the struggle, they used primitive grenades. In order to make them, the prisoners used explosives gained from female prisoners working at detonations and missiles assembling at the Union facility. In this action they risked their lives. The refugees were however killed by the SS pursuit units. As a result of the revolt and executions made by the SS-men, approximately 400 out of 600 prisoners were killed. The prisoners managed to kill three of them and hurt more than ten of armed SS men”, added Bartosik.
In the place where prisoner’s revolt had its beginning, people lit candles and said the Kaddish prayer. Additionally, fragments of testimonies and manuscripts of the Sonderkommando prisoners were read. Handwritten notes made by some of the prisoners during the time when the camp existed were found after the war and published. These are some of the most important documents about the extermination in Auschwitz.
One of the authors was Załmen Gradowski, a Polish Jew, co-oraganiser of conspiration in the Sonderkommando, and one of the organisers of the revolt. Supposedly, he died the same day during the fight or was shot dead by the SS as part of repression after the revolt. In his very emotional and thoughtful way, Gradowski described more important events which took place at the crematories. His notes concern i.a. transport of his family to Auschwitz, extermination of the Jews from the family camp (BIIb sector) in Birkenau, and selection from among the Sonderkommando prisoners, which took place in February 1944.
In his notes there was a sentence chosen as one of five quotations — testimonies for the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation on January 27, 2015 — „We have a dark premonition because we know”.
“The history of the Sonderkommando prisoners belongs without any doubt to the darkest chapters in the history of the Auschwitz camp. The perpetrators decided to abuse victims with premeditation to work at the extermination facilities. That’s why the fact that they risked their lives in order to document the crimes, pass information for the next generations about what happened behind the fences of gas chambers and crematories, is an indication of foresight, understanding of their own situation and huge courage”, said the director of the Museum, Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński.
“This sentence of Załmen Gradowski’s should still fright us today. We know a lot, way more than in 1944, and all the more so we are burdened with a great responsibility for our incapability to fight such evil”, the director added.
Before the ceremony commemorating the anniversary, an educational session devoted to the history of Sonderkommando revolt took place. It was prepared by the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. On the occasion of the anniversary, the Museum also organised a temporary exhibition - “70th anniversary of the Sonderkommando revolt”. It is open for visitors in the temporary exhibitions hall at Block 12 on the Auschwitz I site until November 17 from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. (except for Mondays and 1st and 11th November).