Nazi death camps have received a great deal of attention in film and popular culture. Accounts of Holocaust survivors and life in concentration camps have been the basis of compelling stories factual and fictional. Yet the relative scarcity of true Holocaust stories underlines the difficulty of survival in the face of evil. Placed in a system designed to deliberately exterminate them, a lucky few concentration camp survivors lived to tell their stories against all odds.
There was a distinct difference between camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, which were extermination camps designed to systematically murder most prisoners upon arrival, and camps like Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen, which were meant to imprison political and social enemies of the Reich (many of whom were Jews who were worked to death). Despite the monumental death toll of the camps, accounts from Holocaust survivors have helped paint a harrowing, disturbing portrait of the reality of what life was really like in a Nazi concentration camp.
The real tasks of the Sonderkommando began after a German officer determined the inhabitants of the gas chamber were all dead. Shlomo Venezia describes the gruesome aftermath of this process:
When he was sure that everyone was well and truly dead, he opened the door and came out right away, after starting the ventilation system. For twenty minutes you could hear a loud throbbing noise, like a machine breathing in air.
Then, finally, we could go in and start to bring the corpses out of the gas chambers.
A terrible acrid smell filled the room, we couldn’t distinguish between what came from the specific smell of the gas and what came from the smell of the people and the human excrement.
When the job of cutting the hair and pulling out the gold teeth had been completed, two people came to take the bodies and to load them onto the hoist that sent them up to the ground floor of the building, and the crematorium ovens.
All the rest, the undressing room and the gas chamber, was underground. Depending on whether the people were big, small, fat or thin, it was possible to load between seven and ten people onto the hoist.
On the floor above, two people collected the bodies and sent the lift back down, the hoist didn’t have any door, a wall blocked the one side, but when they reached floor level, the corpses were unloaded on the other side. The bodies were then dragged and laid out in front of the ovens, two by two.
In front of every muffle, three men were waiting to place the bodies in the oven. The bodies were laid out head to foot on a kind of stretcher. Two men, either side of the stretcher, lifted it with the help of a long piece of wood slipped underneath it. The third man, facing the ovens, held the handles that were used to push the stretcher into the furnace. They had to slip the bodies in and pull the stretcher out quickly, before the iron grew too hot.
The men in the Sonderkommando had got into the habit of pouring water onto the stretcher before disposing of the bodies, otherwise these remained stuck to the red-hot iron. In cases such as that, the work became very difficult, since the bodies had to be pulled out with a fork and pieces of skin remained attached.
When this happened, the whole process was slowed down and the Germans could accuse us of sabotage. So we had to move quickly and skillfully.
Any member of the Sonderkommando who stole valuables from corpses or who even mistakenly neglected to remove all of the gold from a body's teeth would be shot by an SS guard on the spot.
David Olere was a French Jew arrested in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. He was assigned to work in the Sonderkommando, but because he was an artist, he also was used by the SS as a translator and illustrator, decorating letters they sent home to loved ones. He is unique in the annals of Auschwitz in that he survived the Sonderkommando and provided drawings of what he witnessed while a prisoner.
He began these drawings in the later stages of the camp's existence and survived the forced march to Mauthausen, living in France until 1985, when he perished at the age of 83. His art serves as a tremendously powerful firsthand account of life in a Nazi extermination camp.
Anne Frank and her family were arrested in Amsterdam on August 4, 1944, and deported to Auschwitz on September 3, 1944. Roughly half of their transport survived initial selection, including every member of the Frank family, although Anne's father, Otto, was separated from the other Franks, and they had no idea what happened to him. Anne and her sister, Margot, were transported to Bergen-Belsen in October 1944. Their mother remained in Auschwitz, where she perished of starvation. At Belsen, Anne encountered several school friends, all of whom were shocked by her skeletal appearance.
One, Nanette Blitz Konig, a classmate who was present at Anne's 13th birthday party, at which Anne received the gift of a blank diary from her parents, recalled:
I am the only one in that class who met her again in Bergen-Belsen. I was in camp seven and she was in camp eight. I met her several times and it was from Anne that I learnt what was happening in Auschwitz. She told me about her diary and that she wanted to use it for a book after the war, she never wanted to publish a diary. We talked about her going in to hiding, how hard life was in the hiding place. We were dreaming and we had to hope we would make it through. It was part of our survival. We were mature - the circumstances made us like that. We had all lost family and didn't know if we'd see them again. Everyone wanted to survive, nobody wanted to die willingly.
I saw Anne shortly before she died, Bergen-Belsen wasn't a death camp but the conditions eliminated people. It's very emotional. She didn't make it and I did. I still see her in front of me.
Like many interned at Belsen, both Anne and Margot contracted typhus in the late stages of the war. They both perished of the disease. Their exact dates of death have never been determined, but they are believed to have possibly lived as late as March 1945, only a month before the camp's liberation.
Nanette Blitz Konig's entire family, who were Jewish, were sent to Belsen in 1943. Only Nanette survived. After WWII, she met future husband John Konig and emigrated to Brazil, where she still lives today.
In 1945, Polish Jew Alan Zimm was interned at the Dora-Mittelbau camp, where prisoners were forced to build munitions for the failing Nazi war effort. He describes the hanging of an entire factory's worth of prisoners after a machine needed to make rockets was sabotaged:
Beginning of March of '45, somebody sabotaged a part in the factory there. Not in our group. In another group. They destroyed a part of the... of a machine. Without the machine they couldn't finish the rocket. So they... without the part the rocket was unfinished. There was no way they could finish it.
What they did, they took 2,000 people from that compartment, from that group. And... put gallows in the middle of the factory, in the tunnel and hanged every one of them. They hanged them in pairs, the two. And everybody working in that factory, had to go into the tunnel, line up, and walk through underneath the gallows where the... those 200 people were hanging and come back to our work. They say, "See what's going to happen if you do the same thing what they did? You will hang."