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.