A Sonkerkommando recalls his time in Auschwitz (1945)

Filip Muller was a Czech-born Jew who spent more than two-and-a-half years in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Muller became a member of the Sonderkommando: the teams of Jewish inmates tasked with moving bodies out of the gas chambers and disposing of them in the Auschwitz crematoria. Here, Muller writes of an attempt to take his own life by smuggling himself into the gas chamber:

“Now, when I watched my fellow countrymen walk into the gas chamber, brave, proud and determined, I asked myself what sort of life it would be for me in the unlikely event of my getting out of the camp alive. What would await me if I returned to my native town? It was not so much a matter of material possessions, they were replaceable. But who could replace my parents, my brother, or the rest of my family, of whom I was the sole survivor? And what of friends, teachers, and the many members of our Jewish community? For was it not they who reminded me of my childhood and youth? Without them would it not all be soulless and dead, that familiar outline of my hometown with its pretty river, its much-loved landscape and its honest and upright citizens?… 1 had never yet contemplated the possibility of taking my own life, but now I was determined to share the fate of my countrymen.

In the great confusion near the door, I managed to mingle with the pushing and shoving crowd of people who were being driven into the gas chamber. Quickly I ran to the back and stood behind one of the concrete pillars. I thought that here I would remain undiscovered until the gas chamber was full when it would be locked. Until then I must try to remain unnoticed. I was overcome by a feeling of indifference: everything had become meaningless. Even the thought of a painful death from Zyklon B gas, whose effect I of all people knew only too well, no longer filled me with fear and horror. I faced my fate with composure.

Inside the gas chamber, the singing had stopped. Now there was only weeping and sobbing. People, their faces smashed and bleeding, were still streaming through the door, driven by blows and goaded by vicious dogs. Desperate children who had become separated from their parents in the scramble were rushing around calling for them. All at once, a small boy was standing before me. He looked at me curiously; perhaps he had noticed me there at the back standing all by myself. Then, his little face puckered with worry, he asked timidly: “Do you know where my mummy and my daddy are hiding?” I tried to comfort him, explaining that his parents were sure to be among all those people milling round in the front part of the room. “You run along there,” I told him, “and they’ll be waiting for you, you’ll see.”

The atmosphere in the dimly lit gas chamber was tense and depressing. Death had come menacingly close. It was only minutes away. No memory, no trace of any of us would remain. Once more people embraced. Parents were hugging their children so violently that it almost broke my heart. Suddenly a few girls, naked and in the full bloom of youth, came up to me. They stood in front of me without a word, gazing at me deep in thought and shaking their heads uncomprehendingly. At last one of them plucked up courage and spoke to me: “We understand that you have chosen to die with us of your own free will, and we have come to tell you that we think your decision pointless: for it helps no one.” She went on: “We must die, but you still have a chance to save your life. You have to return to the camp, and tell everybody about our last hours,” she commanded. “You have to explain to them that they must free themselves from any illusions. They ought to fight, that’s better than dying here helplessly. It’ll be easier for them since they have no children. As for you, perhaps you’ll survive this terrible tragedy and then you must tell everybody what happened to you. One more thing,” she went on, “you can do me one last favour: this gold chain around my neck: when I’m dead, take it off and give it to my boyfriend Sasha. He works in the bakery. Remember me to him. Say ‘love from Yana.’ When it’s all over, you’ll find me here.” She pointed at a place next to the concrete pillar where I was standing. Those were her last words.

I was surprised and strangely moved by her cool and calm detachment in the face of death, and also by her sweetness. Before I could make an answer to her spirited speech, the girls took hold of me and dragged me protesting to the door of the gas chamber. There they gave me a last push which made me land bang in the middle of the group of SS men. Kurschuss was the first to recognise me and at once set about me with his truncheon. I fell to the floor, stood up and was knocked down by a blow from his fist. As I stood on my feet for the third time or fourth time, Kurschuss yelled at me: “You bloody s**t, get it into your stupid head: we decide how long you stay alive and when you die, and not you. Now piss off to the ovens!” Then he socked me viciously in the face so that I reeled against the lift door.”