A number of manuscripts, written by prisoners at Auschwitz and buried in the ground during the period of its operation, were found in the years after the camp’s liberation. The last of these to have been discovered was a 12 page text written by Marcel Nadjari. Found in 1980, it was a further four decades before technology had advanced to the point that its water-damaged pages could actually be read. In it, Nadjari described the operation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and sought to inform his relatives of the fate of their families.
Nadjari was a Greek Jew, born in 1917, who had, before his capture and deportation to Auschwitz in 1943, fought with the Greek Army and later with communist partisans. At Auschwitz, Nadjari was selected to join the Sonderkommando, those Jews forced to work in and around the gas chambers and crematoria. In an act of extraordinary bravery, he got hold of enough paper to write an eye witness account of some considerable detail, and he buried it in a flask, placed within a leather briefcase, in the grounds of Crematorium III.
The forestry student who found it, some 36 years later, couldn’t read the little legible Greek text on the six sheets of notepaper. He had no way of knowing what had he had unearthed. But here was another of the so-called “Scrolls of Auschwitz”, one of the several dozen manuscripts thought to have buried in the grounds of the camp, only eight of which have ever been found. The most famous was that of Zalman Gradowski, author of a vast text found in 1945, republished in English by the imprint of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 2017 as From the Heart of Hell; the Museum has followed this in 2020 with a short book reproducing the Nadjari manuscript and detailing the restoration process.
The manuscript that came out of the ground was damaged by moisture to the point of almost complete illegibility. The reproduced MS pages, all of which are included in the book, show that only scraps of the original Greek handwriting were readable, even after conventional restoration. Under light from beyond the visual spectrum, however, the pages revealed far more text than had previously been thought possible. Multi-spectral imaging allowed researchers to ultimately uncover almost all of the text, and the results of their work are shown in the book alongside the originals and the text in transcript in Greek, Polish and English.
What has emerged is a long letter, which Nadjari wrote in the hope that it might delivered, that it might carry news of his relatives and compatriots, but also that it might record a crime to which he was a central witness and which he imagined had already consumed all the Jews of Europe:
Today came a transport from Teresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, but, thank God, they didn’t bring them to us, they kept them at the Lager, it is said that an order came to no longer kill Jews and it seems it’s true, now that the end is approaching they have changed their minds, now that there is no Jew left in Europe.
Manuscript p6; p77 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum publication.
The date on Nadjari’s manuscript indicates it was most likely written after the key event in the history of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, the revolt on October 7th 1944, which succeeded in rendering Crematorium IV unusable, but ended with the deaths of 450 prisoners. Nadjari describes a process of murder still in full swing at the camp, almost a month after these events:
Underneath a garden, there are two large, vast underground chambers. One is used for undressing and the other [is] the chamber of death, where people enter naked and, after 3000 have filled in, [its doors] are closed and they them and, after 6-7 minutes of suffering, they yield up their souls.
MS p3; A-B p57.
The anguish of Nadjari’s position is clear from his description of his role in the preparation of the Nazis’ victims as they approach their last moments:
Our work was first to welcome them. Most didn’t know their fate. The laughed or cried. They were told they were going to take a shower and they went clueless to [their] death. To date, my dear ones, I don’t tell them they they are going for a shower, although I can lie to them, I only told them that I didn’t understand the language they spoke, and to the comrades, men and women, that I realised were doomed I told the truth.
MS p3-4; A-B p57 & 65.
A strong streak of defiance runs through Nadjari’s letter, indicating that rather than suppressing their emotions and acting like unfeeling zombies, as some witnesses alleged after the Second World War, some, or maybe many Sonderkommando harboured ambitions to avenge those whose deaths they witnessed. Nationalism was also part of this response, as this extract demonstrates:
At least as far as the Greeks [are concerned], we’re determined to die as true Greeks, as every Greek knows how to die, showing till these last moments, despite the superiority of the fiends, that through our veins runs Greek blood, as we showed in the Italian War.
My dear ones, reading what work I was doing you will ask how I, Manlios or anybody doing this work, was able to burn my coreligionists, I too at the beginning thought many times to enter [the furnaces] with them and end [my life], but revenge always held me back.
MS p7-9; A-B p83 & 89.
Those Greeks imprisoned at the camp clearly took heart from the news, in October 1944, that Greece had been liberated by Allied forces. Nadjari, touching too on the issue of faith in a situation such as his own, writes:
Almost every time they kill, I wonder if there is a God and yet I have always believed in Him and still believe that God wants it, let His will be.
I’m dying content, since I know what at this moment, our Greece is Free. I will not live, let others live, my last words will be
Long Live Greece.
MS p10; A-B p101.
In the latter part of his letter, Nadjari addresses the relatives he hopes are still alive in Greece and making some requests about what should happen to his possessions after his death. He makes one very interesting observation about the numbers of people he believes to have died at Auschwitz – his figure of 1.4 million is relatively close to the now-established estimate of 1.1 million who perished at the complex of camps. What’s remarkable is that his estimate is so much closer to the reality than are the figures of 4 or 5 million which circulated in the years after WW2, indicating the level of information that must have passed between the many generations of Sonderkommando at the camp.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s new publication of the manuscript is a small book; its 113 pages include 21 with substantial English text. It is primarily a reproduction of the manuscript and a transcription of its contents, though there are short chapters introducing the document and the multi-spectral imaging process that led to its deciphering. The text lacks, though, any mention of the roles of Pavel Polian, who has written extensively about the manuscripts found at the camp, or Russian IT expert Aleksandr Nikitjaev, whose initial experiments with Photoshop revealed much more of the text that had ever been readable before. More information about that process can be found in this National Post article and this article at Medium.com.
Marcel Nadjari did not die in Auschwitz; in fact, he was one of the few Sonderkommando members to survive their time at a Nazi death camp. He wrote about his experiences in greater detail in 1947. Unfortunately, this second manuscript has only been published in Greek, and there is nothing about its contents here. He married and settled in New York, where he lived until his death in 1971, aged 54.
Nadjari’s manuscript is a remarkable document and the recovery of its contents a major addition to the human story of the killing process at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In some ways, the circumstances of its creation means that reading this manuscript places us at the heart of the Nazis’ appalling crimes, but Nadjari’s words remind us also that, for anyone other than a direct witness, the realities of his experience are literally unimaginable: “I’m not afraid of death, is it possible to be afraid after what my eyes have seen?”
Image of Marcel Nadjari used with kind permission of the Jewish Museum of Greece.