Among the thousands of prisoners they helped herd into the Birkenau gas chambers were two Greek friends. Gabbai said, "We told them they were going to die. We told them where to go to die fast, where the gas was coming down" in the middle of the chamber. Later, they scooped the men's ashes from the oven and buried them in a can, reciting over them the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
One Day the Nazis Stopped the Gassing
Then one day in January 1945, Gabbai said, "All of a sudden an order came from Berlin to stop the killing. No more transports." With the Russian Army approaching, "The Germans were blowing up everything in sight, and especially the crematories, trying to erase any evidence."
(Returning to Auschwitz, Gabbai and his cousins found only ruins at Birkenau, but a chillingly familiar gas chamber and crematory intact at Auschwitz, where the administrative building is now a Holocaust museum.)
On Jan. 18, 1945, thousands of inmates, all those who could walk, filed out of camp on a "death march," Gabbai said. "The German Army was behind--whoever couldn't walk, they'd just kill them." It was snowing, and 23 degrees below zero, and many died en route. Gabbai recalled, "I survived the cold by closing my eyes and saying, 'Beautiful Athens in the sunshine.' As I repeated this, I began to sweat." Eventually, the prisoners were jammed into open railroad cars for the journey to Austria.
In Austria, Gabbai was put to work helping excavate tunnels and later interned at Ebensee, a concentration camp there. On May 6, 1945, he was liberated by the Americans.
Right after the war, he was "reluctant to remember anything." But he couldn't push from his mind some things, such as seeing 2,000 prisoners, all naked, being herded into a gas chamber built for 500, seeing them "all dead, standing up with their children, all black and blue" when the chamber door was opened 15 minutes later.
He sought psychiatric help in dealing with his demons but in time realized that he had to make his own peace.
"And I succeeded, most of the time, in having a normal life," he said. "The first 10 years were very tough. Time heals a lot of things, but there are certain things inside of you I don't think you can shake off."
Under sponsorship of the Jewish community in Cleveland, he came to America and, in 1951, relocated to California. He married an American woman, from whom he is divorced, and has an adult daughter. He is retired from the textile business and now works out at a gym seven days a week. It's therapy. "When I'm sweating, everything goes away . . . my problems are over," the memories recede.
By Surviving, They Were Able to Tell of Atrocities
He compared the lingering pain of what happened at Auschwitz to a virus that lies dormant until something triggers it. Many times, he said, he and the other sonderkommandos thought they would prefer to die but reasoned that if they lived "at least we could tell the world" about what happened.
In total, about 2,900 prisoners served as sonderkommandos at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. During Gabbai's internment, he was one of about 950, only 80 or 90 of whom survived. No one has a reliable estimate of the number who served in all the camps, according to Tobias Raschke of Yad Vashem, the Marches and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. But, said Raschke, aide to Authority historian Gideon Grief, "there are only 20 to 25 living today and every day it is less."
"Each one of their testimonies is absolutely critical," said Michael Berenbaum, a prominent Holocaust scholar in Los Angeles. The Greeks were in an unusual position, he added, because both their Yiddish and their Greek languages were different from those of the Eastern European Jews. "The experience as they recall it is often more vivid," pictorial rather than oral, he said. "They went through it almost as if they were deaf."
Were they traitors? No, said Berenbaum, who believes not one of them went over to the enemy side ideologically. Were they complicitous? "Complicitous is a tough word too," he said. He prefers to think of them as reluctant instruments of the killing process.
Yes, Berenbaum said, some Jews have been critical of the sonderkommandos, but "in my experience, they blame themselves far more intensely than any other Jew does."
Among Holocaust survivors, he said, "The guilty feel innocent and the innocent feel guilty. There's a tremendous amount of survivor guilt. And no non-survivor can fully understand what the circumstances were. Our categories of guilt and innocence are from a different universe."
Dario Gabbai knows: "We'll take it with us until our death."
Beverly Beyette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.