THE HOLOCAUST: WE MUST REMEMBER – THE HOLOCAUST ODYSSEY OF DANIEL BENNEHMIAS- SONDERKOMMANDO
30-Hour Series of Interviews broadcast on the Roger Fredinburg Radio Program
1-14-1998 Ninth Program in Series
Guest: Rebecca Fromer, Co-founder of the Judah Magnes Memorial Museum
Author of the Books:
THE HOLOCAUST ODYSSEY OF DANIEL BENNEHMIAS- SONDERKOMMANDO
ISBN-10: 0817350411 and ISBN-13: 978-0817350413
THE HOUSE BY THE SEA: A Portrait of the Holocaust in Greece
ISBN-10: 1562791052 and ISBN-13: 978-1562791056
Roger Fredinburg interviews Dr. Rebecca Fromer, co-founder of the Judah Magnes Memorial Museum and author of the book: The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennehmias – Sonderkommando and The House by the Sea. (Sonderkommando was one of the prisoners who had to put gassed bodies into the crematoriums).
Roger: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Welcome back to our continuing saga her, the 9th program in the ongoing series. I spent the afternoon holding back tears and anger and frustration as I read through our guest’s book. It never fails that each week as we continue uncovering some of these almost unbelievable stories, it seems harder and harder to just choke back the tears. Man’s inhumanity to man is the worst thing you can imagine, especially as it relates to the holocaust.
Tonight we’re going to speak with Dr. Rebecca Fromer. She’s the co-founder of the Judah Magnes Memorial Museum. The book of hers I am reading that has me so intrigued is, “The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennehmias: Sonderkommando”. I’d like to bring Dr. Fromer up and just get started right away! Dr. Fromer, how are you?
Dr. Fromer: Good evening! Thank you, I am fine!
Roger: Would you mind giving the audience a little biographical about yourself and who you are? The Reader’s Digest version?
Dr. Fromer: The Reader’s Digest version is that I am a person who takes an interest in the quality of life that we have. I have been a teacher. I love teaching! I have done many things and the museum is one of them.
At a certain juncture I began to write about the holocaust because I felt certain stories were really important and I was in a position to get to know many survivors. Some of the stories were particularly poignant and of tremendous historical significance. With a lot of patience — and it did take a lot of patience, many years of patience – it was possible to get Danny’s stories and his experience as a sonderkommando in Birkenau, I felt it was obligatory, once I knew these individuals and Danny in particular, to bring forward a story that was really not meant to ever get out. I’m quite sure that the Germans hoped they would have been victorious and that none of what eventually became known would have been public knowledge. As long as their victory was not total and I had this opportunity, I went ahead.
Roger: You start out talking about Danny being taken from Greece. What you maybe could do because it dovetails with your other book, “The House by the Sea,” is tell us a little bit about Greece. When was it taken under the power of the Nazis? Were the Jews in Greece Sephardic Jews?
Dr. Fromer: That’s right, yes!
Roger: Were they seen as similar to all the other Jews of Hitler’s…?
Dr. Fromer: I’m so afraid that they were! I’m afraid that every Jew, no matter where he come from, what his education was, whether he was rich or poor, a peasant or a pious individual, a child, a woman, a girl, an elderly person, a sage….. it didn’t really matter. There were many games that were played, many deceptive steps that were taken to keep people calm. Very many euphemisms were used to cover up the actual intent of the holocaust. All of these were just staggering the process of the annihilation. So, yes, outwardly it might seem that the focus was on Polish Jews or the focus was on Lithuanian Jews or the Jews of Germany or France or whatever; but, the purpose was truly genocidal. There was a maniacal stress toward gathering them from wherever they were in hiding or where they sought refuge and annihilating them as quickly as possible, up to the very last days of the war! This had tremendous priority in the German mentality!
Roger: Greece was quite at the extreme tentacle of Hitler’s regime at that time. It wasn’t his primary consideration, was it?
Dr. Fromer: I don’t know what the German intention was! I had assumed they wanted to conquer the world and they were very well on their way to doing that. I don’t think Greece was any less or any more of a target. Salonika was the main city in Greece and it had many resources which they began to strip with great methodical talent.
Roger: They knew how to find things of value, didn’t they?
Dr. Fromer: Well, they used many means of doing that! They confiscated things. They had a system, whether it was in Salonika or Athens or elsewhere, across any nation that they conquered, capturing by different kinds of raids vulnerable people who could be put to some kind of slave labor. Then they tried to extort the community for everything it could possibly raise so that they could free these so-called incarcerated individuals. Instead of ransoming them, they were actually shipped out. Anything was a means to strip the individual of lifesavings or businesses or goods, his home, his apartment, his furniture, his job, his capacity to work. His associations with others had to be curtailed. The purpose seemed to have been the exploitation of all the resources of the individuals who were meant to be their victims and then they were to be disposed of!
Dr. Fromer: But, not simply to be disposed of! Once you took all of the goods that they had worked so hard to accumulate, that really constituted their life; their little apartment, their home, whatever it was, their tiny little grocery store or shop, they then transported them to various concentration camps if they weren’t killed outright. There they were starved and exploited through slave labor. So, the process what not just to kill them! The process was to squeeze everything, every ounce of energy out of them to work for the war industries as well.
Roger: So, you just drain them completely and then kill them?
Dr. Fromer: Yes, that’s right!
Roger: Boy, that really….
Dr. Fromer: And sometimes, you see, they chose what were called “Kapos”, individuals that were taken out of the prison who were known for their brutality; murderers and sadists, they chose these individuals specifically to be guards over the Jews. We are primarily talking about Jews although there were other cultural and ethnic groups that were involved. They were chosen for their cruelty and their baseness. This was a sadistic turn in the genocidal motif! It wasn’t just — we’ve decided this is the genocidal mode and we’re going to go ahead with it— it was extorting, draining, exploiting everything.
Roger: In other words, rather than recharge people with nourishment and proper care, let them work themselves completely to death…
Dr. Fromer: Absolutely!
Roger: Because there’s another trainload coming, right?
Dr. Fromer: Thank you! You’ve go the message right!
Roger: There’s another trainload coming so we don’t need to recharge this group! Just completely drain them of everything, throw them in the gas chamber and bring on the next trainload! We’ll work them until they’re going and there’s another trainload to take they place!
Dr. Fromer: That’s right! The German motif was even more diabolical than this because immediately the old, the young, the young mothers with children were all—- not all, but generally, all of these vulnerable types were immediately put into the gas chambers, if we’re talking about Birkenau.
The above photo is of Auschwitz early crematorium before the advanced ones were built in Birkenau.
Roger: Those that couldn’t produce!
Dr. Fromer: That’s right!
Roger: It would be wasting a lot of food and water! Oh, boy! So, in your book, “The Holocaust Odyssey” Danny shows up. His parents were immediately terminated?
Dr. Fromer: Yes, right. They were transported for many, many days. I think the transport was about eleven days. I think there were possible about 80 persons in this railroad car. That was very typical conduct. There was only one little window with bars in it. There was a slop pail and that was it! They had no water, no amenities, they were crushed together in the car.
Roger: How did people survive eleven days without water?
Dr. Fromer: Not all of them survived. There were quite a few who died on the train. The will to live is extraordinary! This is one of the inexplicable, in the category of miracles, that the will to live could survive that kind of ordeal.
Roger: Only the strong survived. I suppose it was just a sorting method to the Germans.
Dr. Fromer: Oh, who knows!
Roger: I mean, I don’t know; but, hey! The people who lived through this are still alive, so just give them some water and bread and put them to work! I don’t know! So, Danny survived this because he was young and strong and able to work?
Dr. Fromer: Well, actually he was on the verge of death when he was liberated by the Allied troops, but that’s way at the end of the story.
Roger: What I want to talk about is, when the train ride is over and they were at Auschwitz?
Dr. Fromer: Auschwitz, yes. The Greek Jews primarily went to Auschwitz. I think that since the crematoria were functioning at optimum capacity, they went directly into the most up-to-date mechanism up to this point.
About 95% of the Jews of Salonika were killed and overall about 89% of all the Jews of Greece were exterminated by this means. The first transports began in 1943. There were 19 transports that virtually cleared Greece of all its Jews. I think perhaps there were about 1,900 Jews left after the war. It was a catastrophic event!
Dr. Fromer: Yes, well, yes! Of very beautiful people! I’m not saying that individuals who were gypsies or homosexuals or ministers and people who spoke out against the regime were not beautiful people; but, there was beauty in every one of the individuals who was exterminated.
In terms of the Sephardic culture it was a particular debacle because they weren’t as numerous as the Ashkenazic Jews of eastern and central Europe so when you think of 95% of the Jews of Salonika and 89% of Jews overall of Sephardic individuals, that’s a very heavy toll!
You come to understand that approximately 60% of the French Jews were Sephardic and 40% of the Dutch Jews were Sephardic and about 50-60% of the Italian Jews were Sephardic and 40% of the Yugoslavian Jews were Sephardic and you come to see that the attrition is major, very major!
Roger: Where does the term “Sephardic” come from, Rebecca?
Dr. Fromer: Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word, Sepharad, which means Spain. These individuals had a history that took them from Israel or Palestine from antiquity to Spain. And over the course of the years they lived amicably with Christians and Muslims; but, particularly bonded with Muslims. They were philosophers in Spain. They were physicians, navigators, lion tamers, cavaliers. They were poets! Women were bankers in some cases. There were military people. There was a lot of diversity. They did not live in the kind of situation that was known in eastern or central Europe. They had no shtetls or anything like that. They lived basically…
Roger: In harmony?
Dr. Fromer: Well, yes and no. There were episodes from 1391 to 1492 where there were extensive massacres by various Catholic regimes. When we’re looking for who the Sephardim are, they are the Jews of Spain who chose to remain Jews when there were forced conversions under Ferdinand and Isabella and they were pronounced under the Edict of Expulsion. Many went to Portugal for a period of about five years until about 1497 when Portugal instituted its own inquisition and forced conversions. So, you had many people who did not want to convert or who converted for the moment and strove to reclaim their identity as Jews started to find ways to make their exit from Spain.
These are the ones which we call the Sephardim. They went to the Ottoman Empire. They were welcomed by the Sultan. The Sultan was very wise from the point of understanding that Spain’s loss was going to be a very big gain for him and for the empire. And he was correct! They brought a vibrant lifestyle and a lot activity there. So, they retained the language of the Sephardim, the language of 15th Century Spain which is called Ladino. They retained the ballads of Spain. They retained a lot of the stories that emanated out of Spain. Even though they were expelled, the connection with Spain was very, very strong. These are the people who we call the Sephardim.
So, whether they lived in Yugoslavia, or Bulgaria, or France, or Morrocco, or Egypt, or Italy, or Greece, they all spoke Ladino in addition to whatever their national language was.
Roger: You talk i, “The House by the Sea” about the language and how they had a distinct accent so they could be recognized as different than the other Greeks even though they lived quite a bit around the Ottoman Turks or people who were in the Turkish Empire.
Dr. Fromer: Well, what happened…. In Salonika there were different periods; between one half and one-third of the population were so comfortable with Ladino and the Ottoman Empire was so accepting, that by degrees, Ladino became the language in which you did commerce. So, everybody really knew Ladino. It was a very fascinating thing to see that! But, the fact of the matter is that the Jews of Salonika also knew Turkish, they knew French, they knew Italian! It wasn’t just a one-sided thing.
Roger: But, they still were distinguishable from the others….
Dr. Fromer: They were, if they were from Salonika. The answer is both “yes” and “no”. If they were from Salonika, they were distinguishable from other Jews who were also Greek Jews with a Sephardic background because Ladino is a very soft language, very much like Italian. But, if they came from the villages where the opportunity to speak Ladino was not so pronounced, and most of their neighbors were Greek Orthodox as distinct from Greek Jews, then their accents were not to be distinguished from the other Greek people.
So, you have a situation where in small towns the Sephardic Jews spoke Greek as any other Greek person; but, in Salonika where you had such a large Sephardic population, that’s where the Ladino inflections dominated and they were recognized very easily by how they spoke. You can recognize a Texan, can’t you?
Dr. Fromer: That’s the idea!
Roger: So, these folks were rounded up when the Germans came in. Now, did the people of Greece, were they conquered by Hitler or did they surrender to Hitler? How did the Greeks….?
Dr. Fromer: They were attacked by the Italians first. Yes, they were conquered by Germany! Sure! In very little time!
The Italians were waging a war in Albania a little bit before 1940; but, they were losing that war. Then they began to venture forward rather than retreat. They decided to attack Greece from the Albanian border. In five months they proceeded to lose that war as well; but, by that time, Mussolini were Axis powers and allies, so Hitler made a deal with the Bulgarians who very land hungry. The Bulgarians were non-combatants. They decided that if they could get part of Yugoslavia and Macedonia, part of Crete and part of eastern Thrace; why, they would just let the German armies go through their country. That’s precisely what happened! Part of Hitler’s aim was to extricate the Italians who were in a mess and also to attack Greece. With Bulgaria as the access point, on April 6, 1941, Monastere, Yugoslavia and Salonika were attacked.
Roger: Yes. We’ve got to take a quick break. Dr. Rebecca Fromer is our guest, talking about her books, “The Holocaust Odyssey” about Sonderkommandos and, “The House by the Sea”, very informative! We’ll be right back, please stay tuned!
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! Our special Holocaust series continues. Our guest, Dr. Rebecca Fromer, is with us this evening. We were talking about Hitler finally taking Greece…
Dr. Fromer: Yes, he did that in three days! On April 6, 1941 he attacked Salonika and on April 9th Salonika fell.
Roger: You describe in your book, the Italian rush first. Now, the Italians essentially just went in and surrendered…
Dr. Fromer: They surrendered in 1943, September of 1943. So, yes, the Italians really did not have a heart for killing. They really did not. Mussolini had the ambition to instill the discipline of the German into the Italian. He had great aspirations and it was his primary motive for linking with Hitler; but, the Italian people are not this kind of people. Just listen to their music and you’ll know that’s so! They not only did not want to fight, they detested the Germans! They had contempt for the Germans! The Germans had contempt for the Italians.
The Italians, in every way, tried to sabotage what the Germans were doing to the Jews. It’s amazing; but, a very credible story that I am proud to convey to you in terms of the morality of the Italians during this episode. Although they were in every way technically allied with the Nazis and the Germans, they did everything in their power to save the Jews! They went to great lengths, not just in Greece; but, wherever any Italian troops were, whether in France or Italy or elsewhere, they did their best to extricate the Jew with passports, actually shipping them out of harms way, protecting them in every way, feigning ineptitude so they would not have to deliver the Jews to the Germans because they knew very well what the Germans would do to these human beings.
Roger: That’s right. It’s hard for me to remember which book; but, I think it was “The House by the Sea,” where you describe they would give fake I.D.s.
Dr. Fromer: Oh, sure! Not only that, there’s a terrific story about Captain Mercy who was in the Diplomatic Corps in Salonika who not only saw to it that various individuals escaped; but, in one instance, one of the survivors was actually present when he collared a Greek and told him to absolutely give these individuals asylum, and if he did not, he would kill this individual himself! He didn’t want the Jews he was turning over to him to be turned over to the Germans, he didn’t want them to be extorted for the privilege of being safe for a little while. This is the kind of mentality that the Italians had. They went to great lengths. They didn’t have to do it, but they did it! It was the only nation that actually used its own army to help protect Jews. So, on the surface there was this link with Hitler and world conquest, but underneath, they played the role of the fool. They canceled meetings and did everything in their power to send subordinates to very top-level meetings which Germans considered an effrontery; but, it also stole the actual deportation of thousands of Jews!
Roger: Now, in “The House by the Sea,” you actually have the text of a radio propaganda piece…
Dr. Fromer: That’s right!
Roger: ….where they are recruiting Greek men to come to Germany? Did I understand that they wanted them to come to Germany?
Dr. Fromer: Oh, no! The ruse, if I remember the ad which you are referring to, the ruse was to let them know what a wonderful life they would have if they would only volunteer for work in the “east.” That was a euphemism.
Roger: So, it was a recruitment thing? Recruiting Greek men into the cause, so to speak?
Dr. Fromer: Well, yes; but, it was just one of many games. You know, they had this dialogue where you’re going to be well-fed, you’re going to have a good job, everything’s going to be hunky-dory, we have playgrounds and you’ll be taken care of. We know from Theresienstadt that they carried this face to great extent.
Roger: What wasie?
Dr. Fromer: That was a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where they had a model camp so whenever the Red Cross or other individuals came to see what was going, they would find beautiful shops and music, vegetables growing in the ground, children at play. This was just like a puppet show because everyone was under penalty of death if they didn’t do this. So, you know, to various institutions the presentation of safety in was in place. But, the moment the officials left, all of that was dismantled.
Roger: So, they actually went to that extent? They actually put up a theatrical set to show the world that their concentration camps were safe and secure, that nobody was being harmed….
Dr. Fromer: …they had their own library, they were playing the violin…..
Roger: Oh, my God! Masters of deception!
Dr. Fromer: Rocking in a rocking chair at leisure…. it was pure theater!
Roger: I’ve heard of e in reading; but, I didn’t realize that was going on!
Dr. Fromer: That was their “model camp”. Of course, the whole idea was to prevents the others from exploring the other camps.
Roger: It makes now. Boy!
Dr. Fromer: It really does depend! Westerbork was also a “model camp.” There was no slave labor done in Westerbork which was in Holland; but, these people never really knew what was happening. Every Wednesday the trains would come and take hosts of people away; but, it wasn’t too clear where they were going for the longest time. Meanwhile, the kommandant who loved theater would encourage all the artists to make their own plays or operettas, their own stage settings, costumes, etc. They had a symphony. They had a hospital. They had just incredible performances, incredible medical staff. So, in these two areas, the SS and the Nazis from across the globe would come either to the theater or to have their medical problems tended to.
But, for the privilege of practicing physicians or the privilege of engaging in the life of the arts, they were supposed to go quietly to their deaths when they were called to the transports! That was the one thing the kommandant would not tolerate! He would not tolerate disrespect or ingratitude because he was so nice! He wasn’t allowing them to be slave laborers, and for that they should be grateful when they went to their deaths, quietly!
Roger: Oh, boy! Listen, we’ve got to take a quick break here, Rebecca. Just hang with us for a few minutes. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t think we’ll take any calls in this hour. You might just write your questions down and we’ll open the lines up for calls later as the program progresses. Our guest is Dr. Rebecca Fromer.
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! Our guest this evening on The Holocaust Special is Dr. Rebecca Fromer talking about her books, “The Holocaust Oydssey” and “The House by the Sea” focusing on the Sephardic Jews and their demise, 89% of them in all of Europe were eliminated during the Holocaust. Dr. Fromer, something you may be best suited to help me with, when you see modern day depictions of Auschwitz and the other camps, you don’t see much. Auschwitz was quite a bit bigger! I thought what you might do is describe Auschwitz for us.
Dr. Fromer: Good! There are quite a few misconceptions and I’m very happy to tell you about this. It was a very vast complex. Most people think it was one camp. It was not. There was a main camp and it was actually called either the Main Camp or Auschwitz I. Here you had the Gestapo headquarters, you had the political wing which kept the records of all those who were killed in the camp; but, not a record of those who went straight to the gas chambers.
In the Main Camp you had Mengele’s so-called hospital where he did some of the most brutal experiments on humans known to man. You had a prison, you had various torture wings and you had a core of slave laborers. That was the Main Camp. It did have one crematorium; but, it was not to scientifically designed and it became rather malfunctioning early in the game. It was certainly not suitable for the ambition of the Nazis. That is the first camp, Auschwitz I.
Roger: How big was that? I mean, territorially, how many people, what concentration of population?
Dr. Fromer: Well, it changed a lot because you had transports coming in and out all the time. I could not be accurate about how many….
Roger: As big as a small city?
Dr. Fromer: Oh, for sure! I can give you an idea on one of the camps in just a moment.
You have Auschwitz II which is Birkenau. That was the killing center. That was actually in three divisions; you have a Womens’ Camp, you have a Mens’ Camp, you have a Gypsy Camp, you have a Czechoslovakian Family Camp. Then you have the area that was the actual killing center where there were four crematoria and five huge pits for burning people alive in many cases!
Then there is Auschwitz III which was in Monowitz. The distance from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II was two miles. The distance from Auschwitz II to Auschwitz III was about five miles.
You ask about how many? Auschwitz III at Monowitz had 60,000 slave laborers. That’s more than a little town!
Roger: That’s the size of the community I live in.
Dr. Fromer: You had hundreds of thousands in Birkenau! But, I don’t know too much about the complements of Auschwitz I because there was so much of the Administrative Department was in that particular encampment. We have to be talking about hundreds of thousands of people!
Further, what most people don’t realize is that each one of these camps had approximately 300 satellites. These satellites were like slave labor industries. So, the individuals in the Main Camp, or in Birkenau, or in Monowitz, not only did slave labor work in those camps or work designed to humiliate and torment and decimate the soul in these camps; but, were also exploited in these slave labor sub-camps where there were many war industries.
We’re really talking about what might have been, between the three camps, a fifteen mile to twenty-mile complex.
Roger: So, this was like a huge city with hundreds of thousands of people with a robust industry! They were making leather goods, uniforms, boots, and hats, and coats, and gloves, and weapons….
Dr. Fromer: Not only that, you see, the statism here was very manifest because when ambition grew greater and the genocidal impulse became more than a passion; but, an obsession… what you have to is actually make those who can do roofing, those who can do architectural work, and so on…. you have them building Birkenau which will exterminate them as soon as they’re finished! So, have the Jews who are the victims creating the buildings and the edifices that will facilitate their own demise. The Germans, of course, were very cynical here. They worked these people to death and then they killed them! They had very little choice because they were under machine guns at all times. Protest was impossible because you were machine-gunned or, in desperation, you threw yourself on electrically charged wires! This was not the easiest kind of thing to survive. Anyone who survived did so because of enormous moral strength combined with the circumstances, pure chance!
Roger: We’ve got to take a top of the hour news break, Rebecca. When we come back we’ll talk about Danny’s story and the sonderkommandos. Okay? Ladies and gentlemen, our guest this evening is Dr. Rebecca Fromer talking about her books, “The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennehmias: Sonderkommando and “The House by the Sea: A Portrait of the Holocaust in Greece.” Facsinating stuff! Please stay tuned. We’ll come back and tell you about the sonderkommandos. This will absolutely blow your mind! I don’t think you should even have children in the room for the next segment! We’ll be back.
Roger: It really is quite an honor, ladies and gentlemen, to be able to take all these historically relevant stories and bring them to you here on the radio. I know that many of you appreciate it. I get your letters and emails. Thank you very much for the encouragement and support!
Our guest this evening is Dr. Rebecca Fromer. Her book, “The Holocaust Odyssey” about the sonderkommando, Daniel Bennehmias— Rebecca, how do you say that name?
Dr. Fromer: BEN-NAH-MI-AS
Roger: I think what we should do now, since we’ve talked about Greece, and the different kinds of Jews, and the size and dimension and the incredible events of Auschwitz, I’d like you to just tell Danny’s story.
Dr. Fromer: Well, he was a very young man when the war broke out in 1941. There’s a little bit of explanation we have to give here because up until 1922, Salonika was part of the Ottoman Empire. There was a transfer of population at that time and Salonika reverted back to the Greeks who had been jurisdiction prior to 1453. When, in 1922, the Greeks reclaimed, through one of many of the Balkan wars, their former city of Salonika, they gave the option to remain a Turkish citizen or retain Spanish citizenship which some did have, or Italian citizenship which some did have. Some immediately became Greek citizens, some retained their Turkish citizenship and some retained Italian citizenship because they had sojourned in Italy some 150 or 200 years earlier and never relinquished that citizenship.
Danny was of this last group where the retention of Italian citizenship was what the family had opted for. They felt close to Italy. They didn’t particularly mind reregistering every year as foreign nationals. It was a little ludicrous, but, that’s what they had to do. Most of the family officially Greek citizens as a result of the new government and Danny’s was Italian.
He went to an Italian school and he spoke Italian. He spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), he spoke French, he spoke Turkish and he spoke Italian. He was very interested in science. He was very interested in music. He loved music! It was a revelation to him that Beethoven’s music had the grandeur that it had. All of that was a tremendous experience for him so he was growing culturally as he grew into young manhood.
When the war broke in 1941, as a person with Italian citizenship, he did not come under the same kind of category that the rest of his family came under as Greek citizens. The Greeks in his family— you must understand everybody was born in Greece; but, this is now technical.
Dr. Fromer: The Greeks in his family were considered enemies of the state. The Italians were considered allies. So he and his father and mother were not among the first to be incarcerated. They were considered allies and were not privy to a lot of the things that were happening to the rest of the family.
The rest of the family, and actually the rest of the Jews in Salonika, were being ransacked! They were subject to relinquishing their homes, their apartments, their little shops, their groceries. They were not allowed to transact business. They couldn’t go on trolleys. They couldn’t have intercourse with other individuals in the normal course of the day. They could not have telephones. There were many, many restrictions.
The first call for labor was in July, 1942. After the first pressures to ransack the nation, of the Greek Jews particularly, there was a period of quiet. At some point, the Greek strength was so much stronger than the German strength in certain areas, so the Italian citizenship was of no avail. He and his father were taken to what was supposed to be some kind of a detention camp. But, instead of a camp, it was under guard of Greeks who were very generous and good. They were housed in a hotel. They paid for their own imprisonment. They couldn’t even make sense of their imprisonment because they had a very easygoing kind of existence for about six months. Then they were released and they went back to Salonika.
Very soon the situation changed radically. The family made every effort to get out of Salonika, out-of-the-way of the Germans. They realized that the so-called technicality of their Italian citizenship was of very little use and they made their way to Athens, which was under the jurisdiction of the Italians. There they were able to live very openly as Jews among Christians. The situation was entirely different. The Italians were far more relaxed. There was no persecution of Jews under the Italian administration of the southern part of the mainland. That’s the way it was!
They rented a little apartment, and when it got too costly, they rented a room. In that room Danny and his father and mother were in the same room with his aunt and uncle. His aunt and uncle had a daughter and a three year-old child. The daughter was about fifteen. They separated the children just in case things got worse. Each child was in a different household. They supported themselves and they supported the children, always thinking of the children’s safety.
While they had a room in this household of Greek Christians, they were able to invite their friends. Other Christian neighbors knew that they were Jewish, knew they were more or less hiding, because even though the Italians were in control, there was certainly a German presence in southern Greece. So, the family had a reasonably okay existence as long as the Italians were in control of that region.
When the Italians capitulated, everything changed radically! There was a Jewish collaborator who turned in the family, found out where the two children were in their separate hiding places, and the two children were also rounded up! Danny and his family were incarcerated by the Gestapo for several days. Danny was beaten severely. The purpose was to help him reveal other Jews in hiding. Of course, he would not do such a thing! From this torment — five of them were locked in the bathroom for about three days—so, that was a very difficult thing; but, he alone was beaten.
From this prison in the bathroom kind of incarceration, they were sent to Haidari which was a concentration camp. There was an overseer who was known by the name of Napoleon who would be rather kind. He would bring from the mother’s side of the encampment–whatever food she salvaged from her own diet and used Napoleon as a courier to give it to her son and husband. She always worried if they had enough food and gave of her ration to them. Napoleon was not German, obviously!
The German overseers in Haidari were quite brutal and Danny began to see his father being tormented. His father was made to do all kinds of very, very arduous physical labor and brutalized because he could not be forthcoming on the level of expectation of the Germans.
For about a month this is the way it was in Haidari, then the transport to Auschwitz took place. That was an approximately nine to eleven day journey. I don’t remember which; but, arduous enough! The last two days were the most horrendous of all because his mother was terribly afraid of death. She wasn’t afraid of dying; but, death itself was something that traumatized her. Whenever anyone in her family died or whenever she learned of anyone who had died, she would light the house full of candles and burn the lights so there would be no shadow, no dark space in the house. It was almost as if she had this light chasing away the darkness of death. Unfortunately, on the train transport, they were so locked in place that if one person moved, everyone had to move. They were jammed together! The woman next to his mother died. She died pressed against his mother’s chest! So, for the last two days, this woman’s putrefying body was next to her chest! His mother never moved. Those last two days she turned her head to the side and never moved! His father and he could say nothing to her… and these were the last two days of her life! He never did forget that!
When they disported at Auschwitz, his parents were taken off in trucks. Within 2 hours they were dead! They were dead! That was it! He was immediately put in confinement.
You have to understand that the Greek Jews were from a sunny country, a warm country, its people played tennis, they danced the tango, they swam, they sailed little sailboats, they worked, they studied. They had a physical life. They had a cultural life. They went to the theater. They loved music. They were healthy, they ate vegetables. They had lots of sun! They were quite strong!
So, he and quite a few of the younger men were placed in quarantine for about a six-week period. At the end of that six-week period, which was rather tortuous– they were doing meaningless tasks, very hard tasks, stupid tasks– moving bricks from one corner to another corner, repairing one thing then disassembling what they repaired so they could repair it again– really totally empty kinds of work! Of course, they detested it and thought it was the worst possible existence.
Then by design, in this area of quarantine, very deliberate design, there was a rumor that there was going to be a really good job where they’d be able to have better food— a permanent job for them! That was the first ray of hope for these young men. Not all of them were Sephardim; but, there was a handful of Sephardim involved, maybe fifteen. One day Mengele came with two other SS men inspecting these young men and Danny was one of them, never knowing that he had been selected, and I use that word loosely, used by the Germans to be a sonderkommando. From there on in began the greatest nightmare of, not only his lifetime; but, in all of known mankind! I hope that your listening audience heeds you very much when you warn them not to have their children nearby if we’re going into this further.
Roger: I think they listened to me.
Dr. Fromer: I hope so!
Roger: Why don’t you go ahead and describe Danny’s first walk down the corridor?
Dr. Fromer: Well, that was early on in his experience in this special detail. The music that had meant so much to him— he had been introduced to Beethoven through the 2nd Symphony and that started his passion for Beethoven. One day, in the midst of the hell that he saw all about him, literally the inferno, out of one of the rooms of a Gestapo individual came the strains of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony came to him and he doubled over! The juxtaposition between what was happening there and the reminder of a life that included music and beauty and freedom just about devastated him. It was very hard!
But, there was something else that happened that was even more extraordinary because at one time Danny was working near the ovens themselves. The area always needed to be cleaned. One of the SS individuals recognized a woman who came up the gurney… There were two processes that were practiced. When a transport came in, everyone was gassed at the same time. But, there were always individuals who were hunted down specifically. These people would be shot, not gassed. They wouldn’t waste the gas for one or two individuals. They preferred to use the chamber for 3,000 individuals. One day, as Danny was near the crematoria, he sees a woman comes up the list. She’s a very beautiful woman! The SS man who was guarding them recognized her and he said, “Aren’t you So & So, the opera singer?” She said, “Yes, I am.” Danny heard the SS man say, “I’ve heard you perform. I love your singing. It’s just wonderful and I enjoyed how you depicted this character!” He sat her down by the bench that was right in front of the ovens and spoke to her about the life of culture. When he was finished, he shot her! And that was that! These were the kinds of things that were everyday occurrence!
Roger: Wow! We’re going to have to take a break here. When we come back I want you to give a detailed description of what a sonderkommando is, what their job is. I want to remind the folks out there that they won’t want to have little ones listen to this. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be back with Dr. Rebecca Fromer in just a minute.
Roger: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back! Our guest this evening is Dr. Rebecca Fromer talking about the Sephardic Jews and the odyssey of one gentleman, Danny, about his life as a sonderkommando. Rebecca, Danny’s new permanent job, describe it for us, will you please?
Dr. Fromer: He and the other crew that was selected by Mengele had no preparation. They had been instilled with this rumor of a good job waiting for them. That encouraged them because in quarantine they thought they were in hell, and they experienced it as hell. So, they were very relieved moving away from quarantine into this new job situation, which turned out to be, of course, another manipulative ploy.
They had almost no introduction! They were brought to a particular area in Birkenau which was behind double electrically wired fences, closed off from the rest of the camp. There’s no way of escaping unless they throw themselves on the electrically charged wires. They’re given a crust of bread and, perhaps two hours later, they are gathered together. They are brought into a room that is filled with clothing; shoes, clothing, prosthetic limbs, arms and legs. Everything was in turmoil! One of the SS officers said, “You can take whatever you want,” but, nobody touches anything. They are brought before this huge black door and told to grab a cane and begin extricating the individuals who were contorted in the death throes of the gas chamber. This was their first introduction to their “good job”. Then they realized what the clothing, shoes and prosthetic limbs were all about. Danny fainted some five or six times.
Roger: Describe the room, Rebecca.
Dr. Fromer: The dressing room was very, very long and narrow. On either side there were hooks for clothing; but, there was so much clothing that it was in heaps all around the room. To one side was the gas chamber, to the left of the dressing room.
Roger: Which was behind the black door?
Dr. Fromer: Yes.
Roger: So, what did they see when they went beyond the black door?
Dr. Fromer: Well, the first thing they saw were the bodies because the room was filled.
Roger: Filled with people who had just been gassed?
Dr. Fromer: Oh, yes! They had just been gassed! They did not know this then; but, the previous sonderkommando group had been executed. They soon learned this was the ritual, that every crew of the sonderkommando unit would be killed periodically so that no word of what this work was, what the genocide was, would ever make it to the outside world.
Roger: When they opened the door, were there hundreds of bodies?
Dr. Fromer: Thousands! 3,000!
Roger: What did they do with those bodies?
Dr. Fromer: They had to use the canes or belt straps and disentangle them. After they disentangled them, some were assigned to shave the hair from the heads or pubic areas. Some were assigned to pull out gold teeth and some were assigned to drag them to the lift that would take the bodies up to the next level where the crematoria were.
Roger: What did they shave the hair for?
Dr. Fromer: The hair was used for several purposes. I learned that one of the purposes was that for certain munitions, the filaments of the hair was very useful. They used hair for matting in pillows and things like that; but, also used as filaments …. I’m not sure if it was bullets or things like that, or what kind of armaments it was; but, it was for mechanism of destruction that required the hair as a filament.
Roger: When Danny walks in and see these thousands of bodies and begins untangling them and shaving them and taking out the gold teeth….
Dr. Fromer: He doesn’t do all of those things….
Roger: No, I mean the group he was with, the sonderkommandos!
Dr. Fromer: That’s right! The unit has to do this! He fainted six times. The man who was in charge, the Jewish guy who was the labor leader; but, he was the senior living Jew there, was a very kind person. He only knew Polish and they only knew Greek and French and Italian. He tried very hard to grab hold of Danny, to beg him to stand on his feet or he would be shot immediately! He gestured with his finger from ear to ear and kept saying, “Kaput! Kaput!” Finally Danny got the idea that he was a goner unless he could pull himself together. Of course, from that time on he could never pull himself together! His life was a nightmare!
Roger: So, although he thought it was hell doing these menial and empty tasks in quarantine, that was just designed to get him mentally ready to do some of the worst work….
Dr. Fromer: You can never be mentally ready to do what the sonderkommandos had to do. There is no such thing! As a matter of fact, in time he became, along with others, a large contingent of the Sephardim were definitely part of the individuals in the sonderkommandos who tried to do everything in their power to try to destroy the crematoria. They wanted to blow them up! There were two attempts at revolt. The first attempt had to be canceled because a huge group of German troops came to Auschwitz and it would have been counterproductive. The second was abortive; but, many, many hundreds of sonderkommandos were killed in that!
Roger: How many sonderkommandos were there? How many people were shaving heads and pulling gold teeth from all these dead bodies and then sending them up to the crematorium?
Dr. Fromer: They varied. First of all, you have to understand that there were four crematoria. Between One/Two and Three/Four was the Birkenau forest. That’s where Birkenau gets its name, from the forest. Each crematorium could handle 10,000 bodies a day. They would cram them, 12-15 bodies at a time, to a given oven. There were approximately, though it varied from time to time, there were between 1,200 to 1,500 men in the sonderkommando unit.
Roger: It took a lot of people to handle all those bodies, didn’t it? We’ve got to take a quick break, Rebecca. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to ask any questions, we’ll open the lines up. We just have time for a few questions. We’ll be right back.
Roger: Welcome back, folks! Rebecca Fromer is our guest. We’re going right to phones, are you ready?
Dr. Fromer: Sure!
Roger: We’re going to start with a sixteen-year-old in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hello, Andy!
Caller-Andy: I have some questions for Rebecca regarding the Italian situation in WW II. I came on in the middle of the program and you were talking about how the Italians used military forces to rescue Jewish populations. Is that true?
Dr. Fromer: Yes, that’s true. They used military personnel.
Caller-Andy: Another thing I want to add is that I think it’s great you’re doing the story about Danny because I think it’s really important to add the personalization factor about the holocaust. Most people hear 5.4 million Jews or 6 million Jews or whatever, it doesn’t really hit home.
Dr. Fromer: I’m so proud of you! I’m really proud of you because putting a face on it is exactly what my purpose was. It’s very hard! Six million is an abstraction, in fact, it’s not even an accurate count. There were more than that. Thank you for making this observation because you are totally correct.
Roger: Andy, thank you very much. We’ve got Owen in Culver City, California. Hello, Owen!
Caller-Owen: I’m fascinated at hearing the details of this. It reminds me of Nicaragua in South America. I heard that when the Sandinistas took over Nicaragua the first thing they did was drive the Jews out of Managua and burn down the Jewish temple. Rebecca, do you know anything about that?
Dr. Fromer: No, I don’t know anything about that particular period because at the time I was doing my research. I’m not surprised. In order to generate a certain amount of cohesion for tyranny, you’ve got to pick your target and in many cases it’s the Jew, in other cases it’s the Black or the Italian. We have to really be careful. We have to really watch out for this phenomenon.
Roger: I think it’s not necessarily well-known; but, we let these things go on in the world today. I mean, we would think that as sophisticated and modern and cultured as we’ve become, especially Americans…. you’d think that things like what happened in Rwanda,or the multiple years of devastation in the Balkans might not happen in today’s world after what we learned in WW II!
Dr. Fromer: Well, we’re not doing a good job of learning, are we!
Dr. Fromer: We’re not! I’m terribly afraid, as we get more and more technological, that we’re going to lose the faces, lose the personalization that this young sixteen-year-old made as a very keen observation. We really have to somehow remember how vulnerable each person is! How each of us is a minority of one and extend ourselves to the beauty of our diversity instead of being threatened by it.
Roger: Yes. Robert in Jackson, Mississippi is an eighteen-year-old. It’s great we’re hearing from young people tonight! Robert, hello!
Caller-Robert: I wanted to ask you, after all the time you spent in the camps, did you ever see any German guards who against what was going on?
Dr. Fromer: First of all, I was never in the camp. But, there were German guards in the camps, of course! The guards were in control. They patrolled. They shot helpless people with machine guns!
Caller-Robert: What I’m trying to ask you is, were they ever against, you know, treating them like lower human beings or anything?
Roger: In other words, did the guards ever stand up for the Jews?
Dr. Fromer: No, not at all! They didn’t treat them as human beings. They thought they were “things”! They were very sadistic! They would punish them! They would have them at a roll call, standing still practically naked in 60 Below Zero weather and kill them if they twitched or moved. No! They were very sadistic.
Roger: You know, you say that and it reminds me, I talked to a survivor who described it somewhat this way, he said, “you get a can of soda and you suck all the good out of the can, then you crush the can.” He said that’s how he felt; that once they sucked all the good out of him, then he was just an empty vessel to be destroyed!
Dr. Fromer: It’s interesting and a paradox; the emptying took place and also something remarkable took place, they did not forget. By and large, they did not lose sight of their humanity and they did try to help one another and help other victims as well. So, even thought they were victims, they tried so hard to help one another. In order to do that, they had to forget their past lives. They had to forget there was such a thing as a mother cooking, a father…. they would never see them again! They knew that! Rhey had to forget that you could read a book, you could listen to music, that you could walk the streets freely! They had to forget their classes at the universities.
Roger: Rebecca, we’ve run out of time. How do people get your books?
Dr. Fromer: They can get, “The Holocaust Odyssey” from the University Distribution Center. That number is 1-800-621-2736 or their bookstores. “The House by the Sea” will be coming out in bookstores in March or April, 1998.
Roger: Rebecca, God bless! It’s been a wonderful couple of hours of radio. I’ve really enjoyed it! Keep doing the research!
Dr. Fromer: Thank you! I’ll try!
Roger: Good night folks! God bless you all and God bless America!
(Transcription is from MP3 file converted from original cassette with minimal editing by Chey Simonton.
Errors, if any, may be due to unintelligible sections of original 1997 audio technology. Unknown/unintelligible words are spelled phonetically.)