Telling, Describing, Representing Extermination. The Auschwitz Sonderkommando, their Testimony and their Legacy
International conference organized at the Centre Marc Bloch (Berlin) and at the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (Berlin)
12–13 April 2018
Speakers will include:
Chief Historian, Shem Olam, Israel, and Foundation for Holocaust Education Projects, Miami U.S.A, and author of We Wept without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz
Professor of Comparative Literature at CELIS, Université Blaise Pascal, Director of the Auschwitz Foundation in Brussels, and co-editor of Des voix sous la cendre: Manuscrits des Sonderkommandos d’Auschwitz Birkenau
Director of CEFRES, Prague, and co-screenwriter of Son of Saul
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 also eyewitnesses to the process of mass killing, even able to record what they witnessed in photographs and documents smuggled outside the camp and to express and represent their subjective experience in writings 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. Whether written during the event or produced after the war, all of their testimony presents far-reaching epistemological, ethical and aesthetical implications, challenging ideas of how the Holocaust, and especially the extermination process at Auschwitz itself, can be witnessed and represented. 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 history and, above all, their testimony. While a handful of historians (e.g. Gideon Greif) 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. New scholarly editions in French, German, Hebrew, Russian and Hungarian and studies of their writings (e.g. Chare and Williams, Matters of Testimony, 2016) have recently been published. A number of significant works of art on the Sonderkommando have also been made, 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 and their writings and placing them in a wider context, but also by gathering together all the specialists – editors, translators, literary scholars, historians, archivists – who have been working on their testimonies.