Auschwitz Slave Recalls Loading Corpses in Ovens, Murdered Baby
Interview by Adam L. Freeman
Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Shlomo Venezia was a slave laborer in the crematoriums at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
For eight months in 1944, he loaded the corpses of his fellow Jews into the Nazi ovens -- 12 hours a day, seven days a week, cadaver after cadaver until it became a mechanical task, like feeding a heating furnace with cords of wood.
``Men are animals,'' Venezia says, recalling in a conversation in his Rome clothing shop how he hardened himself. ``They resist things you can't ever imagine.''
In his memoir, "Sonderkommando Auschwitz,'' Venezia provides an unflinching account of the barbarous banality of the Nazi death machine. Originally published in French as an interview with a journalist, a new Italian version of Venezia's story is written as a continuous narrative, offering page after page of grim insights.
He recalls, for example, the day he met his father's emaciated cousin in an undressing room at the gas chambers. Venezia offered him the only solace possible, he writes -- some sardines and a lie that the Zyklon B would kill him quickly.
"It was just terrible to have to lie, but there was no way around it,'' Venezia explains. ``I tried in some way to make the horrible situation easier.''
The Sonderkommandos, as the prisoners working at the gas chambers were known, were privy to how the Nazis went about their butchery. Determined to keep their methods secret, the Nazis killed members of these units at regular intervals, making Venezia's memoir rare.
He was 20 years old at the time; he will turn 84 on Dec. 29. His own mother was murdered at the camp while he worked at the ovens -- one of more than 1 million Jews killed there.
As we talk over a table of ties in his one-room shop near the Trevi Fountain, Venezia remains almost motionless. His Hungarian-born wife, Marika, tends to shoppers entering through the glass door. At one point, she places a box of coffee-filled chocolates between us.
The descendant of an old Jewish family from Spain and Italy, Venezia was born in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, where he grew up fatherless and poor, speaking Greek, Italian and Ladino, a Spanish-Jewish dialect.
Poverty sharpened his wits, he says. Working the black market in Nazi-occupied Greece, Venezia learned some German, which may have saved his life. In the camp, he escaped beatings by understanding when guards shouted out the number tattooed on his arm: 182727.
Lifeless Mona Lisa
Cutting the hair off cadavers, pulling their gold teeth and dragging them to the furnaces became mechanical, Venezia says, because it was the only way to stay sane. The routine broke down only once, he recalls, when the prisoners were confronted with the lifeless body of a woman possessing "the absolute beauty of an ancient statue.''
She looked like "a woman in a painting,'' Venezia says, pausing for a moment in reflection. "Like Mona Lisa.'' Yet there was nothing to do but cremate her.
Another day, his unit found a live baby trying to suck its dead mother's breast among a heap of corpses in a gas chamber. The prisoners watched without protest as a Nazi guard unloaded his pistol into the infant.
"There were so many terrible things that happened,'' he says. "Every day it was something else.''
Suicide Saved, Gassed
Venezia also witnessed the sometimes absurd machinations of the Nazi bureaucracy. When one prisoner attempted suicide, he recalls, a doctor treated his self-inflicted wounds, making him fit to be gassed.
As the Soviet Army neared Auschwitz, confusion swept through the camp, allowing Sonderkommandos like Venezia and his brother to mix with other prisoners. German soldiers marched some 5,000 survivors for days through the freezing Polish winter until they were out of reach of Soviet troops. Then they herded the prisoners onto trains bound for Austria, where they were eventually freed by U.S. forces.
Venezia never talked about Auschwitz -- even with his wife and children -- until he visited the camp in 1992. At the time, Italy was experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and he decided to tell his story.
Since then, he has returned to Auschwitz 46 times, often accompanying groups. He gives talks at schools across Italy, and he spoke to Rome soccer team Lazio after striker Paolo Di Canio was suspended for making Fascist salutes.
Venezia's pain didn't bring tears, he says, until 1957, when he visited Israel to be reunited for the first time with his sister. He still has nightmares about the camp, and mundane things can bring the horrors rushing back, he says.
"If I pass a brick factory, it can remind me of the crematoriums,'' he says. "In a restaurant, when people leave a meal half eaten, it brings back memories of when there was nothing to eat. These things will never leave me.''
"Sonderkommando Auschwitz: La Verita Sulle Camere a Gas'' ("The Truth About the Gas Chambers'') is published by Rizzoli (236 pages, 17.50 euros).
Polity Press of Britain owns the global rights for an English version of the book, which is slated for release next year.
(Adam L. Freeman writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Last Updated: December 17, 2007 01:05 EST