Sonderkommando Revolt – Auschwitz – Birkenau

7 October 1944 


Sonderkommando burning corpses in an open air pit at Birkenau

The Sonderkommando or ("Special Command Units') were Jewish prisoners who were forced to work in the death camps at the grisly task of burning of the corpses of those already murdered by the Nazi's.


For periods lasting  from two to four month's these units worked under hellish conditions until they themselves were liquidated by the Germans, and the first task of their replacements was to dispose of the bodies of the previous group. Since a Sonderkommando usually comprised men from incoming transports, their second task often consisted of disposing of the bodies of their own families. 


At Birkenau their duties included guiding the new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterwards, shaving hair, removing teeth, sorting through possessions, cremating the bodies, in the crematoria or open air pits and disposing of the ashes.


At the end of June 1944 the Sonderkommando was moved from Barracks No 13 in Section BII d, to live in the attacks of Crematoria Nos II, III and IV. Among the prisoners were nineteen Soviet Prisoners of War from Majdanek who incited members of the Sonderkommando to revolt.


A group of leaders was formed consisting of Jozef Deresinski, Zalman Gradowski, Jankiel Handelsman, Ajzyk Kalniak, Lajb Langfus, Zalman Lewental, Lajb Panusz and Jozef Warszawski, whose real name was Jozef Dorebus.


The Sonderkommando resistance leaders made contact with some Jewish girls who worked in the munitions factory Weichsel – Union Metallwerke, which was located near the Auschwitz main camp. Salmen Lewental one of the Sonderkommando leaders kept a written record in a small notebook which was buried in a jar under the earth, which was found after the war.


Two other leaders of the Sonderkommando Israel Gutman and Jehuda Lerner began to receive small quantities of explosives from the girls employed in the munitions factory, hidden in a false bottom of a food tray.


SS listing from October 7, 1944 detailing current strength of Jewish Sonderkommando referred to as "stokers"

Israel Gutman recalled one smuggling attempt:


“When I was standing near my friend he told me there was a search going on. He told me that he had not time to put the explosives in the saucers and that the explosives were on his body in a cigarette package.


I knew quite well that not only we would be killed as retaliation, but all the underground of Auschwitz was jeopardised. When they carried out the search they felt that I was trembling and they then searched me very thoroughly.


When they didn’t find anything then they didn’t really look at my friend. Somehow or other they skipped him. Since I was a little excited they thought that I was the one who had explosives and not him.”


On the 7 October 1944 the camp underground military leaders sent an urgent warning to the resistance cadre at the crematoria that they had learned the SS were going to liquidate the Sonderkommando shortly.


On that fateful morning the Senior Sonderkommando man at Crematorium IV was ordered to draw up lists for evacuation of three hundred men on the same day, out of the total complement of eight hundred and seventy –four men.


Filip Muller a member of the Sonderkommando described what happened next:



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The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team