Member of the Sonderkommando
I was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, on September 2, 1922. My mother was Greek, and my father was Italian. The roots of the Gabbai Family can be traced back to the 16th century in Livorno, Italy. Because we were Italian citizens, I attended an Italian school in Thessaloniki. At home we spoke Ladino, Greek and Italian. I finished high school in 1938 but was prevented from going on to a university after Mussolini entered into an alliance with Hitler and barred Jews from attending Italian Universities.
Because I couldn't go to college, I went to work as a typographer for a Greek newspaper. Italy declared war on Greece in 1940 and Italian citizens living in Greece, including my family, were taken to a concentration camp called Argo in Southern Greece. After six months we were able to leave Argo and move to Athens. From 1942 onwards, the German SS put increasing pressure on the Greek Jewish community, demanding ransom payments, and sending male Jews between 18-43 into forced labor battalions.
On March 24, 1944, my family and I were arrested and placed in Hidari Prison in Athens. On April 1, 1944, we were loaded into cattle wagons and embarked on a ten-day rail journey under terrible conditions. The only thing I had was a parcel from the Red Cross for the voyage. The German guards were not in the train itself, they were outside. The stations we stopped at were in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. On April 11, at about 11:00 A.M. we arrived at Auschwitz. It was a Tuesday. know this because, at the time, we made notes.
Upon our arrival, we were assembled for a procedure which I would later learn was called a selection. The selection was done most of time by Mengle. Actually, they had two fingers. Left and right. Left meant 10 times, people who were going directly to be gassed. And the others, about 10%, for work. My mother and father were ordered to go in one direction. My two brothers and I were ordered to go in the opposite direction. My little brother, seeing my parents going away, left us and went with them. He was 12 years old. That was the last time I saw my little brother, my mother or my father.
My brother Jacob and myself were tattooed on our left arm by another prisoner who used a hypodermic needle attached to a pen. My number is 182568. We were placed in quarantine for 30 days, after which we were sent to work. My brother, myself, and others Jews who arrived with us, including my two cousins Shlomo and Morris Venezia, were selected to work in what they called the Sonderkommando, and sent to Block 13.
Block 13 turned out to be a Sonderkommando barrack, above the crematorium. We realized that we had been chosen to participate in the operation of the Auschwitz death machine. Our task was to keep this horrifying process moving as quickly as possible.
Our work was horrendous. We were constantly surrounded by death, dead bodies and the flames of the crematorium. Our work had an adverse effect on our souls, and this degradation was reflected in our faces. I will now describe what I saw and did, and how the killing operation at Auschwitz worked. It's difficult to say these things. It may be difficult to listen to them. But it is important for the truth be known and preserved.
I worked in Crematorium II. The Sonderkommando had only two German guards which stood outside the doors. Incoming Jews, who had recently arrived at Auschwitz and passed through a selection like the one I experienced when I arrived, would come into the changing rooms adjacent to the gas chambers. Often they had no idea where they were, or what was going to happen to them. They were told they were going to take a hot shower and be disinfected. They would be told to change, and given a claim number so they could retrieve their belongings after the shower. They were then crowded into the gas chambers. Inside the gas chamber they were showerheads. Only no water was coming, but the shower heads did exist. The gas chamber had been built to hold 1400 people, but the SS would often put 1700 to 2000 in at one time in the name of efficiency. The people were packed like sardines. Even before the Zyklon-B gas, many of them were scratching the walls.
After 20-30 minutes, the doors to the chamber would be opened and Sonderkommando had to untangle the sorry human web. The bodies were separated and pulled out. Then the hair was cut off and any gold teeth were extracted from the victims' mouths. We pulled the bodies down a five foot corridor to the elevator, and loaded the corpses to be sent to the 2d floor, where the ovens would burn the evidence.
Once the gas chambers were cleared out they had to be hosed down from all traces of blood and quickly white-washed with quick-dry paint. This step was crucial and done after each transport to keep up the deception so that the next batch of victims would not suspect that they were about to be gassed. The whole process took between 2-3 hours each time.
The killing operation went on around the clock. We were sleeping on top of the crematorium and we had facilities to wash ourselves. Our shifts were twelve hours long and there were both day and night shifts. When the transports arrived, if it was 8 A.M. or 1 P.M. or 2 A.M. we had to be ready. Our work was constant and were always under pressure to go faster. The SS allowed us to keep whatever clothing and foodstuffs the victims left behind so we had the energy to keep up with the work. I worked in the crematorium for 8 1/2 months. During that time, more than 600,000 Jews, mostly from Hungary, Holland and Lodz, Poland were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In the fall of 1944, the transports were drying up. We heard rumors about an uprising planned by the Sonderkommandos. All the 35 Greeks in crematorium II were ready to take part in it. The original uprising was planned to take place on August 19, 1944, during the shift change, but it was postponed after the Nazis heard rumors about the uprising and tortured our Kapo; Kaminsky. He was a very brave man and never revealed any names.
On October 7th, 1944, at 3:00 A.M. we heard shooting and saw flames rise up from Creamtorium III. We decided to blow up our Crematorium II, but the poles talks us out of it. Soon we were surrounded by the SS and prevented from taking any action. The uprising in Crematorium III was suppressed and we were unfortunately forced to cremate the bodies of our 600 murdered comrades the next day. They were qreat heroes. We had to continue our work, but we knew our days were numbered.
In the final period of the camp's existence, the prisoners of the Sonderkommando were employed in destroying all traces of the crimes committed at the camp.
In October 1944, under SS supervision, we demolished crematorium 4, which had been burnt during the revolt. In November, the transports ceased. The Sonderkommando was employed in removing equipment from the gas chambers and demolishing the ovens. Crematoriums 2, 3 and 5 were blown up.
On November 26, 100 of the 200 surviving members of the Sonderkommando were assembled allegedly to be transported to another camp. In reality, they were murdered near Auschwitz. On January 5, 1945 six members of the Sonderkommando were shipped to the camp at Mathausen and shot. About 100 remained. Thirty were assigned to maintain the last operating crematorium, and seventy were employed at clearing out and leveling the pits where corpses had been burned.
Then in January 1945 Auschwitz-Birkenau was evacuated in front of the approach of the Russian army. We Sonderkommandos were able to leave our hated block 13 and mix in with the thousands of prisoners fleeing the camp. The Germans tried to find us many times, but we kept quiet. On January 18, 1945 we began a death march in the subzero weather. It was snowing. The German army was behind whoever couldn't walk, they'd just kill them. I survived the cold by closing my eyes and saying, "Beautiful Athens in the sunshine.' As I repeated this, I began to sweat. Such is the power of the mind. Eventually we were put into railroad cars and taken to Melk, Austria.
In Austria, we were put to work digging tunnels. I was liberated on May 6, 1945 by the Americans. I weighed 68 pounds. I do not think I would have survived another week. I obtained work with a UN relief team. I was finally able to return to Greece in July of 1945. In 1951, under sponsorship of the Jewish community in Cleveland, I came to the United States.
Auschwitz never left me, but I tried to have as good as a life as I could have, working and from time to time forget everything else. But there are some things you can never shake off. I feel as if there is another man inside me. When I got to the States in 1951, mostly I was in charge of a wholesale textile company that dealt with drapery and upholstery fabrics. It was called Lensol Fabrics. I was successful in making lots of profits for them.
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