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

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 Sonderkommandowere also eyewitnesses to the process of mass killing, even able to record what they witnessed in photographs and documents smuggled outside the camp and to express and represent their subjective experience in writings 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.  Whether written during the event or produced after the war, all of their testimony presents far-reaching epistemological, ethical and aesthetical implications, challenging ideas of how the Holocaust, and especially the extermination process at Auschwitz itself, can be witnessed and represented. 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 history and, above all, their testimony. While a handful of historians (e.g. Gideon Greif) 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. New scholarly editions in French, German, Hebrew, Russian and Hungarian and studies of their writings (e.g. Chare and Williams, Matters of Testimony, 2016) have recently been published. A number of significant works of art on the Sonderkommando have also been made, 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 and their writings and placing them in a wider context, but also by gathering together all the specialists – editors, translators, literary scholars, historians, archivists – who have been working on their testimonies. Our goals are to:

  • First, 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.
  • Secondly, we want to situate the manuscripts in the wider context of the history of the Sonderkommando, including the retrospective testimonies of survivors who worked in the crematoria and consider the larger corpus of testimonies, historical studies and works of art on the Sonderkommando. Our purpose is to understand to what extent the misunderstandings in relation to their experience in the crematoria and the moral judgment they were subjected to also affected the interpretation of historians and Holocaust scholars and, on a wider scale, the representation of the Sonderkommando within cultural memory.
  • Finally, we aim to respond to the manuscripts’ challenge to conceptions of Holocaust testimony in arts, philosophy, literature and history. We would like to reflect upon the singularity of the written testimonies and interviews of the 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 invite proposals for 20-minute papers for this conference. The themes can include, but are not limited to:

  • the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando: their histories, writings and status
  • representations of the Sonderkommando in post-war culture
  • testimony, history and literature in the Sonderkommando writings and interviews
  • the status of the manuscripts as ‘things’, ‘objects’, ‘material remains’ or ‘material witnesses’
  • the debate on the “limits of representation” in history and art
  • thinking and conceptualising the specific nature of genocidal violence through the subjective gaze of the witness: philosophical challenges
  • ethics: resistance, witnessing and the ‘grey zone’

Please send 200-300 word abstracts plus a short biographical note to d.p.williams@leeds.ac.uk or kalisky@zfl-berlin.org by Nov 19th 2017.

Date: 
12 April 2018 - 13 April 2018
12 Apr 2018
13 Apr 2018
Europe/Berlin