This is a reposted review that I wrote June 20, 2017. It appears here as/is.
Hello again! I’ve just gotten back from our whirlwind long weekend in Belgium. Today happens to be my 45th birthday. I have spent all day in an aging SUV, hurtling down various high speed freeways and avoiding traffic jams as much as possible. It was kind of hellish, trying to get back to Germany today. However, as bad as today’s journey was, it paled in comparison to the journey so many others took to and through Germany back in the 1940s.
I don’t know why, but it seems like I always read about the Holocaust at this time of year. I just recently read The Pharmacist, a book about an ethnic German Romanian pharmacist who was corrupted and became a Nazi. A couple of days ago, I finished Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz (2013) by Shlomo Venezia (Venezia also includes an interesting commentary about why so many Jewish people have places as their last names). This may seem like a very heavy topic to be writing about on my birthday, but I wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot too much… although honestly, this book was so gripping that I’d be hard pressed to forget much about it.
I’ve read a lot of books about the Holocaust, but none that have quite the perspective that comes from Shlomo Venezia, an Italian Jew whose family was rounded up and deported from Athens, Greece and sent to Auschwitz. Once they arrived, Venezia’s mother and sisters disappeared, almost certainly gassed immediately. In exchange for some extra bread, Shlomo Venezia agreed to be a member of the Sonderkommando. He had no idea what he was signing up for when he agreed to this special duty; basically, it was his job to help remove the corpses from the gas chambers and burn them.
This book, written in interview style, covers what it was like for Venezia to carry out his grim duties. Although he had relative comfort compared to other prisoners, he was there to see fellow Jews sent into the gas chambers. He heard their screams and saw what they looked like after they were murdered. He watched his colleagues raid their bodies before they were dispatched to the crematoriums. One guy lied about being a dentist and was tasked with removing gold teeth from the corpses. He found the work relatively easy at first, but then it grew more difficult as the bodies stiffened.
There were times when Venezia would run into people he knew. One time, an uncle grew too sick to work and was sent to the gas chamber. Shlomo had the opportunity to talk to him before he died. He reassured his uncle, knowing that he was lying, but trying to comfort him in his last moments. He gave him an extra piece of bread. And when he died, he and his colleagues were able to say a kaddish for him before he was cremated.
Venezia was also in a position to see some things that other survivors could not have seen. He witnessed a baby that survived the gas chamber only to be shot in the neck by a Nazi. He saw a mother and son evade the gas chamber for a couple of days, hiding in tall grass. They were eventually found and murdered. He saw some prisoners try to escape, unsuccessfully, of course.
As the war drew to an end, the members of the Sonderkommando became dangerous. They had seen so much. The SS wanted to exterminate them before they could reveal all they knew. Venezia had to use his wits to escape the situation and survive so that he could tell the tale of the horrors of Auschwitz. While it must be a living hell to have those memories, we are fortunate that he is able to share them with the world. I think we still have a lot to learn from the horrors of the Holocaust.
I won’t lie. This book is pretty depressing and often shocking. And yet, it’s fascinating and unbelievable… unbelievable that I now happily live in the country that produced most of the monsters who were capable of such horrific acts. One thing I have noticed about Germany, though, is that its citizens fully recognize what happened and are very ashamed of it. I have had some interesting conversations with Germans in my two times living here and many times visiting. I even met one guy who was a POW in the USA. Still, even having had those conversations and read so many books, it’s hard to even fathom the horrors that went on during World War II.
Shlomo Venezia’s account is stark, unflinching, dispassionate… and it’s often very depressing and horrifying. I still think it’s valuable reading. We really do have a lot to learn from what happened in the 1940s, especially given what is going on in Washington, DC right now.
I highly recommend Inside the Gas Chambers. Be prepared to be shocked at the cruelty people are capable of… and heartened by the smallest acts of kindness and humanity.
Tomorrow’s post will be on a much lighter topic. I promise!
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