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.