The Last Con­so­la­tion Van­ished: The Tes­ti­mo­ny of a Son­derkom­man­do in Auschwitz

Zal­men Grad­ows­ki; Rubye Mon­et, trans.

  • Review
By – June 26, 2023

Zal­men Grad­ows­ki (1909 – 1944), a Pol­ish Jew­ish pris­on­er, was among 2,200 inmates forced by the SS to serve in an Auschwitz Son­derkom­man­do Squad. He gained a few more months of life in exchange for his agree­ment to guide bewil­dered new arrivals to the gas cham­bers, then trans­fer their bod­ies to the cre­ma­to­ria and destroy all the evidence.

To his ever­last­ing cred­it, Grad­ows­ki secret­ly resist­ed in two ways: He helped plan an ill-fat­ed 1944 upris­ing against the SS, which the fore­word calls one of the most hope­less revolts in human his­to­ry.” And before he died fight­ing along­side 400 peers, he man­aged to safe­ly bury 120 hand­writ­ten pages about his expe­ri­ences. Some of his many man­u­scripts were unearthed in 1945, oth­ers in 1977. Each was, accord­ing to the book’s edi­tors, a true work of literature.”

All through­out his account, Grad­ows­ki invites the read­er in. Para­graph after para­graph begins with such engag­ing words as Come my friend,” or You see, my friend,” or Come, let us stand by the side to bet­ter observe the dread­ful, the hor­ri­ble scene … ”

Grad­ows­ki writes about how painful it was to bring his peers to the gas cham­ber: We lead them ten­der­ly, our beloved sis­ters, we hold them by the arms, we go in silence step by step.… We feel weak and pow­er­less, as if we too could eas­i­ly fall, togeth­er with them. We are all stunned. Under the old and tat­tered cloth­ing their bod­ies are full of charm and enchant­ment.… Their sparkling eyes that now enchant with their mag­ic will stare blankly in one direc­tion — look­ing for some­thing in the eter­ni­ty of death.” He describes his belief that, dur­ing an SS roundup, chil­dren can sense the approach­ing destruc­tion. Their child­ish intu­ition fore­tells hor­ror to come … they are fright­ened by their mother’s pas­sion­ate kiss­es and caresses.”

There are also bright moments, though they are far few­er. Even dur­ing trans­port, brave Jews along the train route risked their lives to deliv­er food to starv­ing vic­tims. Like­wise, over time, more Jew­ish inmates turned to Judaism for suc­cor, and more resolved to take revenge should they survive.

Grad­ows­ki aston­ish­es with fresh insights that only a camp insid­er could pos­si­bly have. For exam­ple, he explains that the bunk is the most cher­ished, the most inti­mate cor­ner you have left on this, the most accursed, most unfor­tu­nate piece of ground in the world … all that is left to you in a world of cru­el­ty, bru­tal­i­ty, and arbi­trary, a world where all human feel­ings are num­bered.

He tack­les com­plex ques­tions like why have we come to this point? … why did we not mount a resis­tance … run into the thick forests to grow by unit­ing with oth­ers or to train our own par­ti­san cadre, who would fight for a bet­ter, more beau­ti­ful tomor­row.” His answers are cogent, frank, and sen­si­tive — well worth a long pondering. 

In the book’s inci­sive after­word, Pro­fes­sor Arnold I. David­son con­cludes that Grad­ows­ki left us a writ­ten con­so­la­tion of courage, deter­mi­na­tion, and posthu­mous vic­to­ry. He was and remains a hero.” Indeed, until we learn from this Son­derkom­man­do mem­ber, none of us can think our­selves tru­ly knowl­edge­able about the Shoah.

Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Soci­ol­o­gy, Pro­fes­sor Arthur B. Shostak is the author in 2017 of Stealth Altru­ism: For­bid­den Care as Jew­ish Resis­tance in the Holo­caust. Since his 2003 retire­ment from 43 years teach­ing soci­ol­o­gy he has spe­cial­ized in Holo­caust studies.

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