International conference
12 Apr 2018 – 13 Apr 2018

Telling, Describing, Representing Extermination. The Auschwitz Sonderkommando, their Testimony and their Legacy

Venue: Centre Marc Bloch (CMB), Friedrichstraße 191, 10117 Berlin / ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. floor, conferece room
Research project(s): Early Modes of Writing the Shoah

International conference organized by the Centre Marc Bloch (Berlin) and the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (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. Our goals are to:

  • Foster discussions of the Sonderkommando manuscripts themselves and consider how they have been edited, exhibited, translated and interpreted. How can the discreet, even almost silent or non-existent reception of these testimonies be interpreted? This conference aims to examine the different – political, ideological, but also disciplinary – modes of reception according to the different linguistic, cultural and geographical areas involved.
  • We aim to respond to the Sonderkommando’s challenge to conceptions of Holocaust testimony in arts, philosophy, literature and history. We would like to reflect upon the singularity of the written and oral testimonies of Sonderkommando members, be it through the specific aesthetic forms some of them explored, or the reflection upon the subjective experience of the Catastrophe present in all testimonies. This will enable to ponder how testimony from and history of the Shoah, and the longstanding representational taboo on the gas chambers in particular, must be rethought in response to them.
  • We want to consider the larger corpus of testimonies, historical studies and works of art on the Sonderkommando. Our purpose is to understand to what extent the understandings and misunderstandings of their experience in the crematoria and the moral judgment to which they were subjected has affected the interpretation of historians and Holocaust scholars and, on a wider scale, the representation of the Sonderkommando within cultural memory.

Image above: Yard of the Sonderkommando-block in Birkenau, © Andreas Kilian


Thursday, 12 Apr 2018
Venue: Centre Marc Bloch, Friedrichstraße 191, 10117 Berlin, conference room Germaine Tillion
Markus Messling (Vice-director of the CMB): Welcoming words
Aurélia Kalisky (CMB/ZfL) and Dominic Williams (University of Leeds): Introduction
Panel 1: Juridical Testimony from the Sonderkommando: Morality, History, Agency
Chair: Guillaume Mouralis (CMB/CNRS)
  • Peter Davies (University of Edinburgh): What Can We Learn from Trial Testimony? Filip Müller's Sonderkommando Testimony to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial
  • Andrea Rudorff (Edition Judenverfolgung des Instituts für Zeitgeschichte München-Berlin): Early Testimony from Feinsilber, Dragon and Tauber. Moral Dimensions
Panel 2: Questioning Paradigms
Chair: Sonja Knopp (FU Berlin/Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut)
  • Michal Aharony (Ben Gurion University of the Negev): Resisting Dehumanization in Auschwitz – the Case of the Sonderkommando
  • Dawn Skorczewski (Brandeis University): Sonderkommando Testimonies in the Intersubjective Field
  • Florine Marmigère (Université de Strasbourg): From a Post-war Memorialization to a Later Memorability: the Rehabilitative Turning Point of the 1990s
Panel 3: The Histories of the Sonderkommando: New Approaches
Chair: Katrin Stoll (DHI Warsaw)
  • Gideon Greif (Shem Olam Institute for the Research, Documentation and Teaching the Holocaust/Foundation for Holocaust Educational Projects): Cases of Solidarity and Noble Deeds Within the Sonderkommando Inner Life
  • Igor Bartosik (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum): New Perspectives from SS Documents
  • Tom Lawson (Northumbria University at Newcastle): The Sonderkommando and Cultural History
Panel 4: Responding to the Sonderkommando’s Writings
Chair: Christin Zühlke (TU Berlin, Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung)
  • Orietta Ombrosi (Sapienza University of Rome): Silence of the witnesses. For a Philosophy of Testimony
  • Avichai Zur (Jerusalem University/Potsdam University): Zalmen Gradowzki’s Diary: A Literary-Theological Analysis
  • Philippe Mesnard (Blaise-Pascal University, Clermont-Ferrand 2): Reading the Sonderkommando: Writing beyond Oneself
Panel 5: Microhistories of the Sonderkommando
Chair: Dagi Knellessen (Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow)
  • Bart Nauta (NIOD Amsterdam): A Microhistory of Dutch Men in the Sonderkommando and the Waffen-SS at the Crematoria of Auschwitz
  • Andreas Kilian (Independent Scholar): Individual and Member of the Resistance in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando: Marcel Nadjary in the Testimony of his Contemporaries
Roundtable 1: Editing the Sonderkommando
Chair: Dominic Williams, with participants to include Pavel Polian, Zsombor Hunyadi (University of Jerusalem), Avichai Zur (Potsdam/University of Jerusalem)
Friday, 13 Apr 2018
Venue: Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. floor, conference room
Panel 6: Reading Traces. Materialities of Things Past
Chair: Katrin Stoll (DHI Warsaw)
  • Noah Benninga (University of Jerusalem): The Materiality of Writing in Auschwitz: the Sonderkommando Scrolls as Inscriptions of Life and Death
  • Marta Zawodna-Stephan (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań): Scrolls hidden under the ashes. Thoughts about the relationship between material witnesses
  • Pavel Polian (Russian Academy of Sciences/Freiburg University) and Alexander Nikityaev: To Read the Unreadable: Techniques of Multi-Spectral Imaging and the Manuscripts of the Sonderkommando
Roundtable 2: Translating Zalmen Gradowski.
Chair: Janina Wurbs (Bern University), with Aleksandra Polian (translator for the Russian edition), Almut Seiffert (German), Miriam Trinh (German), Zsombor Hunyadi (Hungarian). Some remarks of Batia Baum (French), Magdalena Ruta (Polish) and Avichai Zur (Hebrew) will be read.
Panel 7: Representing Extermination
Chair: Dominic Williams (Leeds University)
  • David Dickson (University of Portsmouth): The Fictional Representation of the Sonderkommando Beyond the Third Wave of Holocaust Commemoration
  • Samantha Mitschke (Independent Scholar): Do we weep with them? Empathy and the Sonderkommando onstage
Panel 8: Son of Saul
Chair: Aurelia Kalisky (ZfL)
  • Catalina Botez (University of Konstanz): Collateral Perpetration, Agency, and Suspended Ethics in Son of Saul (2015) and Jud Süss. Film ohne Gewissen (2010)
  • Isabel Wollaston (University of Birmingham): ‘Half-victim, half-hangman’? Representing the Auschwitz Sonderkommando in The Grey Zone (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001) and Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
  • Jeff Wallen (Hampshire College): Facing the Sonderkommando: Son of Saul and the Dynamics of Witnessing
Screening of Son of Saul by Laszlo Nemes (2016) followed by its discussion with Ludger Schwarte (Kunstakademie Düsseldorf) and Clara Royer (CEFRES, Prag/co-scriptwriter of Son of Saul)
Registration is required for the screening and the following discussion until April 9th 2018 (

Media Response

13 Jan 2011
Das Eigene im Fremden hassen

Article by Ekkehard Knörer, in: tageszeitung, 13 Jan 2011