The Pines of Birkenau
Thirty-five students from the Forestry and Ecology School Complex in Brynek spent two weeks at the Museum in September. As they do each year, the students concentrated on removing the wild-growth trees and bushes that spring up on the Museum grounds as a result of the natural expansion of vegetation.
The students groomed the woods in the vicinity of the burning pits and the ruins of gas chamber and crematorium no. V. Their supervisor, the Museum’s vegetation specialist Barbara Zając, said that one of their tasks was clearing trees in order to save the pines growing there. During World War II, pines were the main tree species surrounding gas chambers IV and V.
After the war, intense air pollution in the form of industrial particulates from the local chemical plants caused the mass dying off of the pines, which were replaced by birch trees that sprang up as wild growth. Current efforts aim at restoring the original appearance of the woods.
The Museum has cooperated uninterruptedly with the Brynek school since 1980, when the first students from what was then the Forestry Vocational School arrived for a work-study experience. For the young people, working at the Auschwitz site is a living history lesson, enriched with lectures and film showings, arranged by the Museum staff, about the place’s tragic past.
To mark a quarter-century of cooperation this year, Barbara Zając and Rafał Pióro of the Conservation Department awarded Stanisław Majsterkiewicz, the director of the Forestry and Ecology School in Brynek, a medal commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and a copy of the large historical study Auschwitz 1940-1945: Central Issues in the History of the Camp.
A Discovery 25 Years Ago
While clearing the area around Birkenau crematorium III of stub and roots on October 24, 1980, Lesław Dyrcz, a student from the Brynek Forestry Vocational School, found a leather briefcase buried about a foot deep in the ground. Inside was a thermos liner. When he cracked it open, he saw that it contained many sheets of paper covered in handwriting in a language that was unfamiliar to him.
The document turned out to be a 12-page letter written in Greek by a prisoner from the Sonderkommando—Marcel Nadjary, a Jew from Thessaloniki who had been deported to Auschwitz on April 11, 1944, in a transport of Greek Jews from Athens. Nadjary was one of the 100 prisoners sent to the Sonderkommando that operated the four Birkenau crematoria. His letter, with a forwarding address, contained information about the crimes committed by the Germans.
The Sonderkommando in Auschwitz
In Auschwitz, the term Sonderkommando designated a group of prisoners employed in burning the bodies of the people whom the Nazis murdered. It was made up almost entirely of Jews. Every so often, usually after a major extermination operation, the Jews in the Sonderkommando were also killed. They were categorized as Geheimnisträger—bearers of secrets—and isolated from the other prisoners in Auschwitz.
In the midst of the inexorable extermination, they attempted to pass their eyewitness accounts of the Auschwitz crimes on to posterity. A total of six manuscripts written by Jewish Sonderkommando members were found in the vicinity of the crematorium ruins between 1945 and 1980. The authors were Załmen Gradowski, Chaim Herman, Lejb (Langfus), Załmen Lewental, Marcel Nadjary, and one Unknown Author. Only Marcel Nadjary survived the war. He died in New York in 1971.
Only six former Sonderkommando members were alive in 2005. Gideon Greif interviewed some of them for his book We Wept Without Tears: Testimony of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz, describing their daily work burning the corpses. The book was published in 2001 by the Museum and the Jewish Historical Institute.