Before I go into the main story, I just want to point out the most disturbing aspect of the picture above. At the very front is a lady carrying a baby. We know now what her fate would have been. It is a disturbing sight on an old photograph, so just imagine how disturbing this most have been for those who were forced to help the Nazis in their crimes. These men would have also know what fate awaited the lady and her baby, and they could nothing about it, to safeguard their own survival and perhaps of their family. Or at least the notion that they perhaps would survive.
Sonderkommandos were work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners. They were composed of prisoners, usually Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. The death-camp Sonderkommandos, who were always prisoners and victims themselves, were unrelated to the SS-Sonderkommandos, which were ad hoc units formed from members of various SS offices between 1938 and 1945.
This blog is not to judge those were forced into the Sonderkommandos, none of us can judge because we were never put in that situation. This blog is about a few of the Dutch Jews who were forced into the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz.
With the arrival of a deportation train in Auschwitz, the work of the Sonderkommandos began. They had to escort the victims to the gas chamber, reassure them and collect their belongings. After the victims were gassed, the members of the Sonderkommandos moved the corpses from the gas chamber and took them to the incineration pits or crematoria. For this arduous work, Jewish men are selected on the platform, including one hundred to one hundred and fifty Dutch. They were forced to become part of the Nazi killing machine at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
During the invasion of the German army of the Netherlands in May 1940, Josef van Rijk fought with the reserve company De Jagers in The Hague against the Germans. During that time Josef shot d a German paratrooper, and killed him. Maurice Schellekes is a tailor and didn’t notice much of the German invasion. But both Jewish men soon had to deal with the persecution of the Jews in the occupied Netherlands. Josef is fired from De Bijenkorf in The Hague and Maurice was sent the Jewish labor camp Kremboong on March 31, 1942.
Josef tries to flee to Switzerland, but is arrested during a check at Amsterdam Central Station. He is imprisoned in the prison on the Amstelveenseweg and is soon transferred to Camp Westerbork. Maurice also flees after rumors that Kremboong will be evicted. He goes into hiding in Amsterdam. On August 6, 1942, Maurice goes outside to get razors and is arrested. He also ends up in Camp Westerbork.
Josef and Maurice both only spent a brief time in Camp Westerbork. Because they were arrested after an attempt to flee and trying to go into hiding, the men are considered ‘criminal cases’. They were deported on 10 August 1942 from Camp Westerbork to Auschwitz.
The following day they arrive at the extermination camp and are selected to work in the Sonderkommando. Maurice works at the mass graves in the open Sonderkommando of Bunker II. Josef buries the corpses after they are taken from Bunker II to the mass graves via a narrow gauge railway with a small wagon.
Working in the Sonderkommando was physically very demanding. In the scorching August sun, the men barely get a drink. The SS and Kapos guarding them constantly mistreated the men. But then suddenly there was a way out. All Dutchmen were called upon to participate. The men of the Sonderkommando were not allowed to leave at all.
This saved Josef and Maurice’s lives. The group of 1200 Dutch people had to undress and were inspected. The healthy men, including Josef and Maurice, were given clean camp clothes, leave Birkenau and walk to Auschwitz. The other Dutch were gassed. Josef and Maurice end up in the Kanada-Kommando.
–When the selection process was complete, a work group of prisoners called the ‘Kanada Kommando’ collected the belongings of victims and took them to the ‘Kanada’ warehouse facility for sorting and transporting back to Germany.
To prisoners Canada was a country that symbolised wealth. They, therefore, gave the ironic name Kanada (the German spelling of Canada) to the warehouse area as it was full of possessions, clothing and jewellery.–
Both Josef and Maurice survived the war.
“An intertwined mass of people – tangle of people – who could only be separated by moistening them. They were sprayed wet. (..) By just pulling you took the bodies out, like a bunch of animals. We have been horrified done that for a few days but by then we were already used to it.”: Josef van Rijk
“I realized that this mound was loose earth, shoveled from the ground where there was now a mass grave filled with rows of women’s bodies covered with quicklime. It was such a terrible sight that words on paper simply cannot describe it. There was the work that was waiting for me.”: Maurice Schellekes
At the end of 1943 a new group of Dutchmen ended up in the Sonderkommando. Including Samuel Zoute who arrived on 21 October 1943. Before the war, he sold fruit and vegetables on the Albert Cuyp market. On 19 October 1943, Samuel is deported from Camp Westerbork to Auschwitz, together with his wife Doortje and four children. Doortje, Rachel, Abraham and Simon are gassed immediately. Eldest son Maurits is selected for labour, until he too is gassed. Samuel found his son Maurits among the gassed people and had to burn him.
On August 17, 1943, Abraham Beesemer, Joseph Peperroot, Salomon van Sijs and Louis Elzas arrived in Auschwitz. The men were first in the quarantine block and at the beginning of January 1944 they ended up together in the Sonderkommando. Jacob Beesemer, Abraham’s brother, was later also selected for the Sonderkommando.
These Dutchmen were also looking for a way out of the Sonderkommando. The number of incoming transports decreased and the Sonderkommandos were slowly reduced. The threat of the complete liquidation of the Sonderkommandos hung in the air. On October 7, 1944, a prisoner knocked down an SS man with a hammer and started the uprising. Several Sonderkommandos revolt. One of the crematoria is blown up and hundreds of Sonderkommando prisoners flee the camp. Three SS men and about 450 Sonderkommando prisoners were killed. The brothers Abraham and Jacob, Salomon, Joseph and Louis were murdered by the SS. Samuel Zoute and Hagenaar Henry Bronkhorst worked at other crematoria in other Sonderkommandos and managed to survive the uprising.
After the uprising, Henry Bronkhorst, Samuel Zoute, Maurice Schellekes and Josef van Rijk are still alive. As the Russians approach, the death marches begin to clear the camp. Henry Bronkhorst is the only one who manages to mix with the other prisoners and thus remain in Auschwitz until its liberation by the Russians on January 27, 1945. The rest are forced to join the death marches: Samuel, Maurice and Josef leave Auschwitz. Samuel ends up in Mauthausen, he is murdered on March 7, 1945. Maurice ends up in Ebensee, a satellite camp of Mauthausen, and is liberated by the Americans on May 6, 1945. Josef ends up in Leitmeritz, a subcamp of Flossenbürg and is liberated by the Russians on 9 May 1945.
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