Bearing Witness

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."

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."

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Beverly Beyette can be reached at beverly.beyette@latimes.com.

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