(photo: Ted and Jen)
Filip Muller, is one of the rare survivors among those condemned to work in the Sonderkommando (The members of Sonderkommando, composed almost entirely of Jewish inmates, were forced under threat of death to do the most disturbing work for the SS: dispose of the countless corpses of the victims killed in the gas chambers.)
Born in 1922 in a small town (Sered) in Slovakia, Muller was only twenty years old when he was brought to Auschwitz in April 1942. After a short while, as punishment, he was assigned to dispose of the corpses of the victims. Many of them had wasted away to skin and bones in Auschwitz or in Polish ghettos; others had died of typhus and other diseases in the concentration camp; some had been brutally beaten and shot by the SS, others were hung to set an example for other prisoners, but by far most—hundreds of thousands of men, women, children and babies–were collectively massacred in the gas chambers.
As Muller recalls, the sadism and brutality of the SS soldiers knew no bounds: “Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport”. Here he is describing a gassing:
As people reached the crematorium they saw everything – this horribly violent scene. The whole area was ringed with SS. Dogs barked – machine- guns. They all, mainly the Polish Jews, had misgivings.
They knew something was seriously amiss, but none of them had the faintest of notions that in three or four hours they’d be reduced to ashes.
When they reached the undressing room they saw that it looked like an International Information Centre. On the walls were hooks,and each hook had a number. Beneath the hooks were wooden benches. So people could undress more comfortably, it was said. alise his son lay beneath him”.
And on the numerous pillars that held up this underground undressing room, there were signs with slogans in several languages – “Clean is Good”,” Lice can kill”, “Wash Yourself”, “To the disinfection area”. All those signs were only there to lure people into the gas chambers already undressed – and to the left, at a right angle, was the gas chamber with its massive door.
In Crematoriums II and III, Zyklon B gas crystals were poured in by a so-called SS disinfection squad through the ceiling, and in Crematorium IV and V through side openings. With five or six canisters of gas they could kill around two thousand people.
This so-called disinfection squad arrived in a truck marked with a red cross and escorted people along to make them believe they were being led to take a bath. But the red cross was only a mask to hide the canisters of Zyklon B gas and the hammers to open them.
The gas took about fifteen minutes to kill. The most horrible thing was when the doors of the gas chambers were opened – the unbearable sight – people were packed together like basalt, like blocks of stone. How they tumbled out of the gas chamber.
I saw that several times- that was the toughest thing to take – you could never get used to that. It was impossible.
You see, once the gas was poured in, it worked like this: it rose from the ground upwards. And in the terrible struggle that followed – because it was a struggle – the lights were switched off in the gas chambers. It was dark, no one could see, so the strongest people tried to climb higher. Because they probably realised that the higher they got, the more air there was. They could breathe better. That caused the struggle.
Secondly, most people tried to push their way to the door. It was psychological – they knew where the door was, maybe they could force their way out. It was instinctive, a death struggle. Which is why children and weaker people, and the aged, always wound up at the bottom. The strongest were on top. Because in the death struggle, a father didn’t realise his son lay beneath him”.
And when the doors were opened?
“They fell out. People fell out like blocks of stone, like rocks falling out of a truck. But near the Zyklon B gas, there was a void. There was no one where the gas crystals went in – An empty space. Probably the victims realised that the gas worked strongest there. The people were battered – they struggled and fought in the darkness. They were covered in excrement, in blood, from ears and noses.”
“One also sometimes saw that the people lying on the ground, because of the pressure of the others, were unrecognizable. Children had their skulls crushed. It was awful, Vomit, Blood – from ears and noses, probably even menstrual fluid. I am sure of it.
There was everything in that struggle for life, that death struggle. It was terrible to see. That was the toughest part.”
“It was impossible to save people. One day in 1943 when I was already in Crematorium V, a train from Bialystok arrived. A prisoner on the Sonderkommando saw a woman in the undressing room, who was the wife of a friend of his.
He came right out and told her – “You are going to be exterminated. In three hours you’ll be ashes”. The woman believed him because she knew him. She ran all over and warned the other women – “ We’re going to be killed. We’re going to be gassed”.
Mothers carrying their children on their shoulders did not want to hear that.