History in the Making

Document Type



Despite the vast amount of western scholarly work on the Holocaust, there are issues that remain under-analyzed which would help nuance our understanding of this historical event. One of these issues is the experiences of groups who challenge our conceptual frameworks and present opportunities for developing different analytical methods. The testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando, or forced crematorium workers, of Auschwitz- Birkenau present such an opportunity by defying the categories used to describe victims and perpetrators, and by forcing us to reconsider how humans survive when conditions are extreme and violent. This paper argues that the testimonies of the Sonderkommando demonstrate that the conditions of their incarceration necessitated the construction of unique, situational system of personal morality and humanity and that their post- Holocaust lives are marred by extreme difficulty in attempts to construct usable narratives about their experiences. Using published testimony and interviews as a source base, the paper endeavors to open up a space in which the coping strategies of the Sonderkommando can be analyzed. To do so, it proposes two particular frames of analysis: the equivocal psyche (a mechanism that, in the absence of cultural, moral, and emotional guidance, constructs an ethical continuum, allowing for a range of mental responses to trauma), and usable narratives (the construction of a personal story of Holocaust trauma that can adequately convey the gravity of the situation and explain one’s actions in that period in a way that does not offend the beliefs of the survivor and their post-Holocaust context).