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Clearing out the Gas Chambers
10th December 1942: Some Jewish slave labourers survive because they are needed for the Sonderkommandos that dispose of the bodies in Auschwitz
The majority of Poland's Jews had been murdered by the end of 1942.
At the main "Action Reinhardt" extermination camps the small groups of Jews selected to work on the disposal of the bodies (the 'Sonderkommando') were themselves periodically murdered, and new people were chosen for the task. Few eyewitnesses were ever to emerge from these camps.
In Auschwitz, which was both an extermination camp and a labour camp, there was a slim chance of surviving this work. So some witnesses to the killing process lived to give testimony at the end of the war.
Szlamy Dragon was one of 200 men selected for this task in December 1942:1
The next day on the morning of 10th December 1942, once all the kommandos had gone to work MOLL (then Unterscharführer/ Sargeant, later to be Hauptscharführer/ Staff Sergeant and head of the Birkenau Krematorien) arrived at Block 14 and gave the order: “Sonderkommando ‘raus’” [get outside].
It was thus that we learnt that we were detailed, not to the rubber factory (Buna) but to a Sonderkommando and we did not realise what this was, for nobody had ever given us the slightest explanation of it. On Moll’s order, we went out of the block and were divided into two groups of 100 men each to be marched out of the camp by the SS.
We were taken into a forest where there was a cottage covered with thatch, its windows bricked in. On the door leading to the interior of the cottage was a metal plate with the inscription “Hochspannung Lebensgefahr / High tension danger”. Thirty or forty meters from this cottage there were two wooden huts. On the other side of the cottage there were four pits 30 meters long, 7 meters wide and 3 meters deep, their edges black with smoke.
We were all given masks, and led to the door of the cottage. When Moll opened the door, we saw that the door, we saw that the cottage was full of naked corpses of both sexes and of all ages.
We were lined up in front of the house. Moll arrived and told us we would work here at burning old and lousy people, that we would be given something something to eat and in the evening we would be taken back to the camp. He added that those who did not accept the work would be beaten and have the dogs set on them. The SS who escorted us were accompanied by dogs.
Then he split us into a number of groups. I myself and eleven others were detailed, as we learnt later, to remove the bodies from this cottage. We were all given masks, and led to the door of the cottage. When Moll opened the door, we saw that the door, we saw that the cottage was full of naked corpses of both sexes and of all ages. Moll ordered us to move these corpses from the cottage to the yard, in front of the door.
We started work with four men carrying one body. This annoyed Moll. He rolled up his sleeves and threw a body into the yard. When, despite this example, we said we were incapable of doing that, he allowed us to carry them, two men to a body. Once the corpses were laid out in the yard. the dentist, assisted by an SS man, pulled out the teeth, and the barber, also watched by an SS man, cut off the hair.
Another group loaded the bodies onto wagons running on rails that led to the edge of the pits. These rails ran between two pits. Still another group prepared the pit for burning the corpses. First of all, big logs were put in the bottom, then smaller and smaller wood, in criss cross fashion, and finally dry twigs. The following group threw the bodies into the pit.
Once all the bodies had been brought from the cottage to the pit, Moll poured kerosene over them in the four corners of the pit and set fire to it by throwing in a burning rubber comb (roughly fringed piece of rubber). That is how the corpses were burnt. While Moll was starting the fire, we were in front of the cottage, (on the north west side) and could see what he was doing.
The 'White House’, so named because it was a converted whitewashed farm building, was used from 1942 to early 1943. It was then brought back into use in 1944 because of the tens of thousands of new victims were brought in from Hungary.
Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, said in his affidavit, made at Nuremberg on 5 April 1946:
I commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries.
Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
Szlamy Dragon's statement was taken on the 10th May 1945, just after the liberation of the camp. It was admitted in evidence in the trial of SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss [sometimes spelled Hoess in English translations], the Camp Commandant.
For full details of this testimony and others relating to the operation of this Crematoria see Volume 11 of the Hoess trial, pages 101 to 121. The essential truth of Dragon's testimony has not been challenged although some have subsequently argued that he estimated the dimensions and the capacity of the gas chambers incorrectly.
Further evidence from members of the Sonderkommando continues to emerge. Some workers made extensive notes and buried them in the grounds of the camp. They were only recovered years later. See this 2017 BBC News report Auschwitz inmate's notes from hell finally revealed.