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Bearing Witness

October 20, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dario Gabbai is one of the few who survive, one of those who for 55 years have borne the awful burden of having been what he calls "an eyewitness to the final solution of the European Jews."

For nine months in 1944-45, Gabbai was a sonderkommando at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. He was one of hundreds of inmates conscripted by the Nazis to work in the crematories, the final stop in the death factory that was Auschwitz.

Their job: to send hundreds of thousands of doomed prisoners, most of them Jews, on their way to the gas chambers, to feed their corpses into the ovens and to dump their ashes in the nearby Vistula river.

English is not Gabbai's native tongue. A Greek Jew, he was born in Thessalonica (now Salonika), Greece, to a Greek mother and an Italian father and educated in Italian schools in Greece. So the 77-year-old Brentwood man finds it "very tough to tell somebody after 55 years" what he endured.

But he handed over some handwritten pages, notes he wrote in his hotel room while in Krakow, Poland, this summer. He was there to be filmed, together with two cousins who were also sonderkommandos, for a British documentary: "Auschwitz: The Final Witness."

"The Italians say, 'la carta parla'--the paper talks--and the words, they fly," he explained. He had written, "Our work was nothing short of a nightmare." He had written of the "moral degradation" suffered by the sonderkommandos, of the way in which their repugnant task had distorted even their physical being and "made us coarse, repellent and disgusting."

Guilt is an issue that cannot be ignored. Should Gabbai and the other sonderkommandos have refused to do the Germans' bidding and died with the others? Gabbai reflected for a moment, then said, "There are no answers." It remains, for him, a moral dilemma.

He takes some solace in the fact that the sonderkommandos did not "go like lambs" at the Nazis' bidding. Gabbai was among those who, on the night of Oct. 7, 1944, staged an uprising, blowing up one of the crematories with stolen gunpowder.

Fellow sonderkommandos were chosen arbitrarily to pay with their lives, in keeping with the Nazi doctrine of collective responsibility, which discouraged resistance.

As the only enemy witnesses to the gassings and cremations, "we knew we couldn't survive," Gabbai said. "They used to change the sonderkommandos every six months because we knew how the final solution was done."

But, miraculously, he did survive, as did his cousins, Morris Venezia, now 78 and living in Salonika, and Shlomo Venezia, now 76 and living in Rome. Their parents, sisters and brothers perished at Auschwitz.

Although he lived, Gabbai said, part of his soul died there. "We became animals ourselves."

Revisited Auschwitz After 54 Years

The three men, brought together at Auschwitz for the first time in 54 years by British Sky Broadcasting for the as-yet-unreleased documentary, shared long-dormant emotions and the shock of the passing of years. They tried to absorb the realization that they are now old men--and lucky to be. That by all odds they should have died at this Godforsaken place with about 1.3 million others, 90% of them Jews.

But fate, and youth, had been on their side that April day in 1944 when the train that brought them from German-occupied Greece deposited them at Auschwitz.

"If you were not looking young and powerful, you went directly to the gas chamber," said Gabbai, who, like his cousins, was in his early 20s at the time. He demonstrated how an SS officer held up his fingers, making life-or-death decisions as the new prisoners filed by. "Ten times this way, one time that way. Ten times to the gas chamber, one time to work."

He watched helplessly as his mother and father were trucked off to the gas chambers, as his 12-year-old brother, Samuel, screaming and running after them, was taken away to die.

About 600,000 Jews would be exterminated during the nine months that Gabbai was a sonderkommando. He and his cousins were spared, but for a task that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

In the documentary, Shlomo Venezia recalls his first night in camp, the moment he realized that Auschwitz was no mere concentration camp. Because he spoke a little German, he was able to ask a Polish prisoner who spoke Yiddish where his mother and sisters had been taken. Pointing to the smoke coming from a crematory, the other prisoner said, "All those people who didn't come with you are coming out from the chimney."

"Day after day, thousands were dying, butchered and gassed," Gabbai said, "and we were doing the work. How can you find peace of mind? Inside of us now there is somebody else."

He remembers placing a foot on a female corpse while cutting off her hair for use in the German war effort. As he did, a horrible high-pitched squeal escaped her body. He remembers dead mothers with dead babies in their arms. "This is where my mind went blind."

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