Fortnightly logo

Gray Zones: The Sonderkommando

On February 1944, just 60 years ago, Primo Levi, a Jewish chemist, was deported from Italy to Auschwitz. Few essays about the Holocaust are more important than the one he wrote about "The Gray Zone," which explores circumstances in which moral ambiguity and compromise were pronounced. Levi's account pays particular attention to the Sonderkommando (special squad) that the Germans created in Auschwitz. The prisoners in the Sonderkommando were required to work in the gas chambers and crematoria.

Levi's account suggests that there were many zones and degrees of "gray" during and after the Holocaust. Following his lead, Gray Zones, the inaugural conference (February 5-7) sponsored by the Claremont McKenna College Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights, explores a variety of those situations, beginning tonight with an analysis of the circumstances and dilemmas confronted by the Sonderkommando.

The program will open with conference keynote remarks by Michael Berenbaum, a renowned scholar of the Holocaust, who returns to the Athenaeum after serving as CMC's 2003 Podlich Distinguished Visitor. Joseph Russin, a distinguished filmmaker, will present Evidence, an important documentary about the Sonderkommndo. Also featured are Gideon Greif, a historian from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Israel, who is the author of We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz (1999), and a special friend of the Center, Dario Gabbai, who was conscripted into the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. He is one of the very few survivors of that "special squad," whose conception and organization, Primo Levi said, "was National Socialism's most demonic crime."

With presentations by more than twenty internationally known Holocaust scholars, the Gray Zones conference continues on February 6 and 7. The public is cordially invited to attend without charge. Cosponsors of the conference include the Holocaust Educational Foundation and Lessons and Legacies (Skokie, Illinois); the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, and the Podlich Distinguished Visitor Program at CMC; and the Department of Sociology at Pomona College.