Introduction: Figuring the Sonderkommando in History
The introduction to the book offers a survey of the ways in which the Auschwitz Sonderkommando have been conceived over the post-war period, beginning with the writing of Miklós Nyiszli as a case study. Nyiszli was a survivor of Auschwitz, forced to work as Dr Mengele’s assistant and to provide medical attention to the Sonderkommando. The complicated routes and forms taken by his writings and the variety of uses it has been put to show the centrality of the Sonderkommando to the post-war memory of the Shoah. But they also show a reluctance to engage with the testimony of actual members of the SK, most notably demonstrated by Primo Levi in his essay ‘The Grey Zone’. We examine other possible approaches to the SK, especially those of Krystyna Żywulska (briefly) and Tzipora Hager Halivni (in more detail). Żywulska’s testimony and Halivni’s research into the SK show both an interest in what they have to say for themselves, and in how their lives intersect with those of women prisoners in Birkenau. This forms a basis for the approach taken by our book, which considers the SK’s testimony (both written in the camp and produced post-war) in terms of routes of transmission taken by testimony and gender.