Auschwitz survivor’s hidden letter details horror of Holocaust
Marcel Nadjari who died in 1971 secreted in flask his eye-witness account of mass murder
Foremost in German minds on November 9th is the glorious night the Berlin Wall was toppled in 1989, ending 28 years of post-war division.
But November 9th is a fated day here; in 1938 it was the night of the Nazi pogrom against German Jews, when synagogues burned and the dictatorship started down the road to Auschwitz.
In 1945, with the war lost, the Nazis tried to hide traces of the 1.1 million people killed there: demolishing the gas chambers and burning files. Holocaust deniers pounce on gaps as proof of the so-called “Auschwitz Lie”, which is why the rediscovered testimony of camp prisoner Marcel Nadjari is so important.
He described what he saw in a farewell letter to his family, hid it in a flask, wrapped it in a leather bag and buried it.
When the package was discovered in 1980 the flask was broken and the six pages inside were soaked through, leaving the handwriting barely legible. Until now. With the help of a new multi-spectral procedure, Russian historian Pavel Polian has reconstructed 90 per cent of the shocking eye-witness report from inside the Nazi extermination machine.
Nadjari was a Greek Jew brought to Auschwitz in April 1944. Two years earlier, his parents and younger sister, Nelli, were among the first Greek Jews to be deported and killed.
In Auschwitz, Nadjari became a member of the Sonderkommando who accompanied new arrivals to changing rooms where they were ordered to strip.
“After all were naked they went into the death chamber, where the Germans had attached pipes so they would think it was a bath,” he wrote. After about 3,000 people were squeezed in – “truly a sardine can of people” – the doors were sealed.
“The gas canisters always came with the German Red Cross car and two SS men . . . who shook the gas into the openings,” he continued. After “six or seven minutes’ martyrdom, they gave up the ghost”.
“After half an hour we opened the door and our work began. We carried the bodies of these innocent women and children to the lift that brought them to the room with the furnace where they were put in and burned without any fuel because of the fat they had.”
In sober language, he described how a person could be reduced to about 640 grams of ash, which was reduced further, sieved and disposed of in a nearby river.
“The dramas I have seen are impossible to describe, around 600,000 Jews from Hungary, France, 80,000 Poles from Litzmannstadt have passed my eyes,” he wrote.
Tormented by what he had seen, and what he had been forced to do, he asked himself in the letter how he could assist in putting fellow Jews to death. “I asked myself that at the start many times, considered going in with them and put an end to it,” he wrote.
“Almost every time they kill I ask myself if God exists and yet I have always believed in him and still believe that God wants this, that his will be done.”
By the time he wrote the letter – in itself a death sentence – Nadjari did not expect to live long. As part of the Auschwitz system, Sonderkommando members were regularly murdered and replaced by new arrivals. Facing almost certain death, he told his family in the letter he was only sad that he would not have a chance to avenge his family’s death.
“If you get a letter from my relatives abroad, please give them the suitable answer: that the Nadjari family was snuffed out, murdered by the cultivated Germans.”
Unlike almost all other Sonderkommando members, however, Nadjari survived: he escaped from the sealed area with the gas chambers and hid his identity from the camp guards. Two days before the Red Army liberated Auschwitz he was sent to another camp in Austria and eventually liberated there.
He returned to his native Thessaloníki but soon emigrated to the US with his wife, where he worked as a tailor in New York. Nadjari died in July 1971, aged 54, and left behind one daughter.
Historian Pavel Polian tracked her down and presented her with her father’s letter, deciphered after 70 years.
“It moved her very much, and the text was recently read out at the synagogue in Thessaloníki,” he told Die Zeit newspaper.
Just five Sonderkommando members left behind written testimony of what they saw in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but only Nadjari survived the Holocaust.