There can be few historical sites as bleak as the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and few places so bereft of hope. The dark stories of death and despair we are all so familiar with from Auschwitz are almost unique in their brutality since ancient times.
Yet in my readings on the history of the camp, I have discovered a world of resilience and resistance, which I would have never guessed existed from the well-known histories we often read in textbooks at school.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘One Day’, and I wanted to discuss the events of one day in August 1944, where what appeared like a small act of resistance took place, which has profoundly shaped our understanding and comprehension of history.
The Kampfgruppe Auschwitz (the Auschwitz Combat Group or KGA) had been formed in 1943, primarily founded from former members of the International Brigades—international volunteers who had fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco in the 1930s.
The group began to co-ordinate a large-scale resistance movement from within Auschwitz, against the camp authorities, stockpiling weapons and explosives, funnelling food into the barracks of detainees, and helping politically prominent prisoners to escape.
Importantly, the group also began gathering data and evidence of the goings on in the camp, which at that moment in time were shrouded in a dark veil of secrecy.
The prisoners who made up the KGA had nothing, yet with what little they did have, they were determined never to be defeated.
Some of their activities were dramatic: the group staged an armed uprising in 1944 amongst the ‘Sonderkommando’, who were prisoners tasked with disposing of the bodies from the gas chambers, an uprising which took the lives of three SS officers and severely injured many more. Forty-five Sonderkommando were put to death as a result.
However, many of their actions were less dramatic. One day in August 1944, with the help of several KGA colleagues, Greek-Jewish Partisan Alberto Errera smuggled a camera into the gas chambers and was able to take four shaky photos of the process around the execution of camp inmates and the disposal of their bodies.
Taken from a German-made Laker camera which had been hidden in a bucket by International Brigadier and KGA member David Szmulewski, the pictures clearly show mounds of bodies being sifted through by fellow Sonderkommandos and groups of inmates being undressed in advance of their execution.
Known as the ‘Sonderkommando photographs’, these images are the only images we have showing the bodies of deceased prisoners in and around the gas chambers.
Smuggled from the camp in a tube of toothpaste by the Polish Resistance, they have become an invaluable piece of evidence of the horrors committed in Auschwitz, hugely effective in exposing to the world the evil that was occurring in that place during the Holocaust.
I sometimes think: on that morning, as Alberto and his comrades readied themselves for their task, could they possibly have known how important those photographs would turn out to be? How must they have felt as they prepared themselves for their mission, the nervousness and anxiety they must have been experiencing mentally and physically? Did they look out to the bright August sky and wonder if this would be their last morning? Did the idea of taking a few photographs seem insignificant, even irrelevant, in the context of such huge suffering, misery, and death?
As it was, Alberto Ererra would live on barely another year before his untimely death. While transporting ash from the crematoria, he freed himself from the transport after stunning both guards with a shovel and attempted an escape into the river Vistula.
Sadly he was captured, tortured and executed several days later. But the world should be eternally thankful for the risks that he and his colleagues made on that day.
It is no exaggeration to say that images such as these played a significant part in the war effort, galvanising public opinion and hardening the attitudes of the allies in their pursuit of victory.
The story of the Sonderkommando photographs, for me, shows the importance of small acts of resistance—as well as those larger acts. It shows how even in the most hopeless of circumstances, those that organise and work together can never truly be denied their agency.
It shows how a determination to fight and help others can sustain us even in the most hopeless of times and places. It proves to me the truth of the old trade union saying, that ‘it is better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees’, and I remain awed, stunned, and humbled by those who put such value-ladened sentiments into action.
Had Alberto Errera, David Szmulewski, and their accomplices known on that morning that they took those photographs, that one day—another day—the war would be over and the gates of Auschwitz would be opened, and their fellow prisoners would experience freedom once again, I have no doubt they would have each given their lives gladly.