German denoting a member of a special unit, the unit described in almost all occurrances of this term (with the exception of the Sonderkommando Künsberg
, looters of Russian cultural treasures) is a unit of Jew
ish men, hand-culled from the masses in the concentration camp
s to staff the gas chamber
s and crematoria
in the camps, fulfilling a depraved irony the SS
superiors relished in, saving the most inhuman tasks such as the harvesting of hair and golden teeth from freshly-gas
sed corpses for what were perceived as subhuman labourers.
To contain the truth of what was in the showers, the Sonderkommando squads were housed separately from the other prisoners (in more comfortable lodgings and with larger rations) and were incinerated every few months. Thus, conventional wisdom dictates that no Sonderkommandos survived the war. In fact, approximately 100 Sonderkommandos left Birkenau alive following its liberation by the Red Army. Approximately 30 of these 100 are still alive.
Sonderkommandos guided prisoners into the gas chambers, telling them the lie that they were being deloused and would be reassigned to labour teams, and collected the property of the executed on top of the aforementionned corpse-defiling as well as moving the bodies to the ovens and incinerating them three at a time, disposing of ash in nearby rivers if too much collected. Sonderkommandos did
not actually administer poison gas - that task was done by SS supervisors.
On October 7, 1944, the team at Birkenau Crematorium Three learned that they were to be gassed themselves and mounted an uprising with makeshift weapons, overpowering their immediate superiors and blowing up the crematorium. Joined by the team at Crematorium One, they escaped the compound but were soon captured and killed.
Sonderkommandos are viewed with disgust by camp survivors and the Jewish establishment in general, considering them traitorous collaborators despite the facts that they were chosen involuntarily for their work detail and that they were as equally at risk of being incinerated as any other camp inhabitant.
Even after surviving the tremendous odds within the camps and for the most part concealing their role in it to avoid the above-mentionned stigma, many former Sonderkommando workers found it nearly impossible to return to an ordinary life after having been so completely exposed to the worst manifestations of the Holocaust - the late Leon Cohen, who as a Sonderkommando had had to process corpses found that for over a year after being liberated he would stare at peoples' mouths to see if they had gold teeth. "It took me over a year to escape that habit, to begin getting Auschwitz out of my system."
At hatless' onetime urgings below, I direct you to my sources of information. If you have the stomach to learn more about this pathetic moment of human history, I found the text and images on the following sites terribly (emphasis on the terrible - nightmarish!) informative: