Even as German forces retreated in the east and the west, the Nazi extermination camps were as busy as ever. Trains were still being sent from all round Europe, taking Jews to their deaths. On the 4th September 1944 Anne Frank and her family were stuck in a cattle car somewhere in Germany, en route to Auschwitz from the Netherlands.
Inside Auschwitz a small but very significant act of rebellion was taking place. The special squad of prisoners who worked in the gas chambers were smuggling out some pictures of the death camp in action. The ‘Sonderkammando’s duties included sorting out the huge quantities of victims’ property – it is very likely that the camera was acquired in this process.
The pictures were snatched covertly. This was the subsequent account of Alter Fajnzylberg:
[S]omewhere about midway through 1944, we decided to take pictures secretly to record our work… From the very beginning, several prisoners from our Sonderkommando were in on my secret: Szlomo Dragon, his brother Josek Dragon, and Alex, a Greek Jew whose surname I do not remember. Some of us were to guard the person taking the pictures.
In other words, we were to keep a careful watch for the approach of anyone who did not know the secret, and above all for any SS men moving about in the area… We all gathered at the western entrance leading from the outside to the gas-chamber of Crematorium V …
Alex, the Greek Jew, quickly took out his camera, pointed it towards a heap of burning bodies, and pressed the shutter… Another picture was taken from the other side of the building, where women and men were undressing among the trees. They were from a transport that was to be murdered in the gas-chamber of Crematorium V.
The film was smuggled out of the camp in a tube of toothpaste to the Polish Resistance on 4th September, with this message:
Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6×9 as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you photos of Birkenau showing prisoners sent to gas chambers. One photos shows one of the stakes at which bodies were burned when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest where people undress before ‘showering’ – as they were told – and then go to the gas-chambers. Send film roll as fast as you can. Send the enclosed photos to Tell – we think enlargements of the photos can be sent further.
See Yad Vashem for more.
Primo Levi, who was a prisoner elsewhere in Auschwitz-Birkenau, subsequently described the work and fate of the men who found themselves selected to work in the Sonderkommando:
An extreme case of collaboration is represented by the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps. Here one hesitates to speak of privilege: whoever belonged to this group was privileged only to the extent that — but at what cost — he had enough to eat for a few months, certainly not because he could be envied.
With this duly vague definition, ‘Special Squad’, the SS referred to the group of prisoners who were entrusted with the running of the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) who must be sent into the gas chambers; to extract the corpses from the chambers, pull gold teeth from jaws, cut the women’s hair, sort and classify clothes, shoes, and the contents of the luggage; transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the opera- tion of the ovens; extract and eliminate the ashes.
The Special Squad in Auschwitz numbered, depending on the moment, from seven hundred to one thousand active members. These Special Squads did not escape everyone else’s fate; on the contrary, the SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of it from surviving and telling.
Twelve squads succeeded each other in Auschwitz; each one remained operative for a few months, then it was suppressed, each time with a different trick to head off possible resistance, and as its initiation the next squad burnt the corpses of its predecessors.
The Special Squads, since they were bearers of a horrendous secret, were kept rigorously apart from the other prisoners and the outside world.
Nevertheless, as is known to anyone who had gone through similar experiences, no barrier is ever without a flaw: information, possibly incomplete or distorted, has a tremendous power of penetration, and something always does filter through.
Concerning these squads, vague and mangled rumours already circulated among us during our imprisonment, and were confirmed afterwards by the other sources mentioned before, but the intrinsic horror of this human condition has imposed a sort of reserve on all the testimony; so even today it is difficult to conjure up an image of ‘what it meant’ to be forced to exercise this trade for months.
It has been testified that a large amount of alcohol was put at the disposal of those wretches and that they were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration.
One of them declared: ‘Doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.’ Another, though: ‘Certainly, I could have killed myself or got myself killed; but I wanted to survive, to avenge myself and bear witness. You mustn’t think that we are monsters; we are the same as you, only much more unhappy.’