Telling, Describing, Representing Extermination. The Auschwitz Sonderkommando, their Testimony and their Legacy
An international conference organized by the Marc Bloch Center and the Center for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin.
The Auschwitz Sonderkommando (“special squad”) were forced labourers in the gas chambers of Birkenau, compelled to handle and dispose of the bodies of those who were murdered. Often branded as collaborators by other prisoners, the Sonderkommando were central eyewitnesses to the process of mass killing, even able to record what they witnessed and to represent their experience in photographs, documents and writings that they smuggled outside the camp or buried in the grounds of the crematoria.
The experience and history of the Sonderkommando have been central to a number of crucial topics in post-war debates about the Shoah. As the gas chamber became one of the most significant elements of Western imagination regarding the Holocaust, the proximity of the Sonderkommando members to the extermination process conferred a specific and singular status to their testimonies. The Sonderkommando are also key figures referred to in discussions of both collaboration and resistance, especially the conceptualization of what Primo Levi called the “grey zone.”
Yet the Sonderkommando have mostly met with a reluctance to think through their testimony and history. While a handful of historians have been undertaking important work on this group since before the turn of the millennium, it is only in the last few years that scholars and artists have begun to engage with the writings in any depth. A number of significant works of art on the Sonderkommando have also been made recently, such as Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau series (2014) and the film Son of Saul (2015).
This conference will respond to this increase in interest by considering the Sonderkommando. The conference’s goals are to foster discussions of the Sonderkommando manuscripts, to respond to the Sonderkommando’s challenge to conceptions of Holocaust testimony, and to consider the larger corpus of testimonies, historical studies and works of art on the Sonderkommando.
For more information and the complete program click here.