Inside the Gas Cham­bers: Eight Months in the Son­derkom­man­do of Auschwitz

Shlo­mo Venezia
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By – January 9, 2012

The Son­derkom­man­do, work units of Nazi death camp pris­on­ers, in Auschwitz were assigned the task of assist­ing the SS in the killing process. This hor­rif­ic assign­ment con­sist­ed of direct­ing vic­tims to the gas cham­bers, remov­ing any valu­ables from the corpses and then dis­pos­ing of the remains in the cre­ma­to­ri­um. Even­tu­al­ly, most mem­bers of this spe­cial unit” met the same fate as their brethren. Few Son­derkom­man­do mem­bers sur­vived the war. 

The pauci­ty of eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny on the part of these trag­ic fig­ures makes this stark and arrest­ing mem­oir by for­mer Son­derkom­man­do Shlo­mo Venezia all the more com­pelling. Now in his eight­ies, Venezia’s tes­ti­mo­ny is put forth in an inter­view for­mat with Beat­rice Prasquier con­duct­ing the ques­tion­ing. The result is a deeply sin­cere, unadorned descrip­tion of Venezia’s jour­ney through hell. The gnaw­ing sense of com­plic­i­ty with the Nazis giv­en his role in the anni­hi­la­tion of his brethren is heart­break­ing to read, as it left Venezia an inward­ly destroyed human being despite hav­ing suc­cess­ful­ly” recon­sti­tut­ed his life after the war. 

What makes Inside the Gas Cham­bers such an impor­tant work, giv­en the pletho­ra of mem­oirs, is that Venezia’s is one of the few that leaves out themes of heal­ing, renew­al, mean­ing, and redemp­tion. The expe­ri­ence of remov­ing men, women, and chil­dren from gas cham­bers, the han­dling of corpses around the clock, the per­va­sive smell of burn­ing flesh cou­pled with chron­ic death pan­ic left Venezia with what he calls the sur­vivor dis­ease.” There are few, if any, bet­ter descrip­tions of the impact of mas­sive psy­chic trau­ma on the human soul than Venezia’s con­clud­ing com­ments at the end of this crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant work. 

In an era when writ­ers speak of post-trau­mat­ic growth” it is impor­tant to acknowl­edge that there are those sur­vivors like Shlo­mo Venezia who were dev­as­tat­ed and who nev­er were able to recov­er the capac­i­ty to expe­ri­ence plea­sure, or a “…moment of joy or care­free happiness.” 

His­tor­i­cal notes, select­ed bibliography.

Steven A. Luel, Ph.D., is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy at Touro Col­lege, New York. He is a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst in pri­vate prac­tice. He is co-edi­tor (with Paul Mar­cus) of Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Reflec­tions on the Holo­caust: Select­ed Essays.

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