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In the 2001 drama a group of Jewish men are given the choice to help kill Jews at a death camp in exchange for a few more months of life. (HistoryNet Archives)

What would we do to stay alive?  Probably anything.

That’s the message of The Grey Zone, a 2001 film directed by Tim Blake Nelson. As a film about the Holocaust, it is almost unique in its focus on neither the perpetrators nor the victims, but rather on the Sonderkommandos—Jewish men who assisted in the systematic slaughter at the death camps. The SS expended much effort into making the Jews, who arrived in trainloads called “convoys,” believe that they were simply being relocated, and until the final seconds of their lives they could cling to this hope. The SS made no such attempt in the case of the men they selected from the convoys to serve as Sonderkommandos. This group of men was informed of the exact nature of the death camps and given a terrible choice. They could shepherd men, women, and children into the gas chambers, shove their dead bodies into ovens, and dispose of the human ash. Or they could be killed on the spot.

This was not a chance for survival. It was a stay of execution, a four-month extension on life, all of it spent cooperating with a monstrous evil. Yet they chose to cooperate. The Grey Zone unflinchingly explores the cost of this choice.

The film deals with an event that occurred at Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 7, 1944.  The men of Sonderkommando XII plotted and carried out a plan to destroy the death camp’s crematoria. This sounds heroic, but to call it such utterly misses the point. As depicted by Nelson, the plan is a desperate attempt by the men, horrified by what they have done in exchange for a few more weeks of life, to make their deaths mean something.

As they receive weapons from the Polish Resistance and gunpowder smuggled by the female slave laborers at a nearby ammunition plant, a handful of Sonderkommandos think in terms of escape. But most do not. It isn’t just the realization that an escape attempt would almost certainly fail; it’s that they don’t want to escape. Schlermer, the uprising’s leader (played by Daniel Benzali), says that he has no wish to survive because he could never live with what he has done.

And we can understand why. The Grey Zone is unrelenting in its graphic portrayal of the horror in which Schlermer and the other Sonderkommandos have immersed themselves so completely that they no longer cough when they breathe in the floating gray ash of the human beings they have incinerated. Some audience members, even those who have managed to view Schindler’s List, will find the images too horrible to watch.

Midway through the film a team of Sonderkommandos escort dozens of men, women, and children into the anteroom of the showers—really the gas chambers, of course. In a well-rehearsed patter, they instruct the people to strip and place their clothing on numbered hooks, all the while telling them not to forget their number, that good hygiene is vital in the camp, and that in just a few minutes they can retrieve their luggage. One man refuses to believe them. He berates the treachery of Jews who would collaborate in the murder of their own people. One of the Sonderkommandos, Hoffman (David Arquette), tries to shut the man up, and then in a sudden fit of rage beats him to death. An SS officer casually shoots the man’s wife for screaming hysterically at the murder of her husband. The remaining Jews, now terrified, are then herded into the chamber.

A short while later Hoffman labors with his comrades to take the corpses to the crematorium and among the naked bodies discovers a girl about 15 years old who has almost inexplicably survived the gassing. (This event actually occurred, though at a different time.)  She is barely clinging to life, but Hoffman saves her nonetheless. His fellow Sonderkommandos agree with his decision, although the attempt to hide her greatly increases the risk that the SS guards will discover their plotted uprising. They send for a doctor, Miklós Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), a Jewish Hungarian who has survived by assisting Dr. Josef Mengele in his ghastly medical experiments. He revives the girl, who becomes the focal point for the Sonderkommandos’ effort to achieve one final act of decency.

“It’s so easy to forget who we were, who we’ll never be again,” Hoffman later tells the sad-eyed, silent girl.  “I want them to save you…I pray to God we save you.”

They can’t, of course, although they save others by slowing the process of industrialized death when their brief, desperate uprising destroys one crematorium.  In doing so perhaps they save some fragment of their own souls. Then they are captured, killed, discarded. And, in voiceover, the spirit of the dead girl pronounces their elegy. 

This column was originally published in the February 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.