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There were many jobs that Jewish slave laborers had to perform at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. However, there was one job that was the most despised and that was the job of Sonderkommando – a member of the “special unit” that told men, women, and children to undress for the gas chambers, and dragged their bodies to the crematories.
Sonderkommandos did this work for nearly three years under threat of execution, while incurring the contempt of fellow prisoners. Some of these 2,000 Sonderkommandos even had to dispose of the corpses of their relatives and neighbors.
Every six months the Germans would replace Sonderkommandos, therefore, only 100 survived the war. These Sonderkommandos were eyewitnesses to the “exterminations that Holocaust deniers challenge.” One of the last and certainly most prominent men to be a Sonderkommandos has passed away.
Dario Gabbai was a Greek Jew. After the war, he settled in California and described the heinous work he did in multiple Holocaust documentaries, including “The Last Days,” which won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1999.
Gabbai died on March 25, 2020, at a residence in Los Angeles. He was 97 years old.
Holocaust scholar and friend to Gabbai, Michael Berenbaum confirmed Gabbai’s death.
Gabbai was known for his debonair appearance. He went to the gym regularly and drove a dark-colored Mustang convertible. He was haunted by the work he did in Auschwitz for the remainder of his life.
“In seeing the mass of people coming in and out day after day, butchered and gassed, and we did the work, how can you have peace of mind? No matter how our appearances are, inside us there is somebody else.”
David Dario Gabbai was born on Sept. 2, 1922, in Thessaloniki, a city in Greece that had a community of 50,000 Sephardic Jews. The Jewish population was so essential in Thessaloniki that the port was closed on the Sabbath.
His parents, Victor and Rosa Beraha Gabbai had four children. Dario was sent to an Italian-themed school for clarinet lessons. Victor was from Italy and worked as a newspaper typographer.
In the spring of 1941, Germany invaded Greece. In February 1943, the Germans confined the Jewish people to two ghettos. Shortly after, the Germans began to transport people to Auschwitz. The Gabbai family was one of the last to be taken by the Germans. In April 1944, they began their 11-day journey crammed into cattle cars with little food and no toilet.
Once the Gabbai family arrive at Auschwitz, Dario saw his father, mother, and youngest brother sent to the gas chambers. Dario was 21 and muscular, therefore, he was selected along with his older brother, Jakob, as Sonderkommandos at Birkenau nearby.
Next, Gabbai was disposing of the corpses of Hungarian Jews who had recently arrived at the concentration camp. Each day, over 6,000 Jewish people were killed, according to Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
After Gabbai locked the door to the gas chamber, Gabbai could hear the women and children screaming, crying, and scratching the walls in “desperate efforts to breathe.”
Once the doors were opened, Gabbai and the other Sonderkommandos had to climb over bodies pile five and six feet high. Then they would harvest glasses, gold teeth, and prosthetic limbs before hauling out the dead bodies and scrubbing the floors and walls covered with excrement and blood.
Additionally, Gabbai recalled being handed scissors because he was ordered to cut the hair off the women, to make blankets and socks for German soldiers. Gabbai said he heard a sound emerge from a corpse. “He was so sickened that he said to himself, ‘Where is God?'”
“I saw people I just saw alive, the mother with the kids in their arms, some black and blue from the gas, dead. I said to myself – my mind went blind, how can I survive in this environment?”
Gabbai and the other Sonderkommandos would drag the dead bodies to an elevator that would lift them to the furnace floor. There was a dissecting room, where jewelry and other valuables would be removed. To survive, Gabbai “shut down” and functioned on automatic pilot.
Germans preferred less common nationalities like Greek and Ladino-speaking Jews for these tasks. They could not easily communicate the precise details of the “factorylike” slaughter to the Polish, Hungarian, and other European inmates.
Berenbaum said, “They had seen too much and known too much.”
There were benefits to being a Sonderkommandos: They could scavenge for food left behind in the undressing rooms and during the bitter, cold winters, they could sleep near the warmth of the crematories.
As allied forces neared Poland, Nazis destroyed the gas chambers in hopes of obliterating evidence of mass murder. Then, at gunpoint, they herded frail inmates by the thousands on a death march along roads covered in deep snow. The Nazis marched the frail and weak to trains that would take them to other concentration camps in Germany and Austria. Hundreds of Jewish people died along the way.
According to Gabbai, he survived the march by daydreaming of warm days in Greece. He distracted himself so forcefully that he actually began to sweat in the freezing cold. He ended up in a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. When the concentration camp was liberated by the U.S. Army on May 6, 1945, Gabbai weighed less than 100 pounds.
Gabbai made his way to Athens and helped refugees for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1951, through the sponsorship of the Jewish community of Cleveland. Two years later, Gabbai left for California – for “its beautiful beaches, beautiful women and sunshine,” according to Berenbaum.
The former Sondokommandos worked for Lensol Fabrics for 35 years. When he retired, he was an executive. Additionally, he spent a brief period acting. Gabbai had a small role as a Greek soldier in the 1953 Korean War film, “The GLory Brigade,” starring Victor Mature and Lee Marvin.
In the mid-1950s, Gabbai married Dana Mitzman. They were divorced in the ’80s. The two had a daughter named Rhoda, who survived her father.
In the 2000 documentary, “Auschwitz: The Final Witness,” Gabbai returned with two cousins to the concentration camp who had also been Sonderkommandos. They three recited the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead near the ruins of the crematories.
The visit ended at the Vistula River, where the Germans dumped the ashes of those they murdered. “It was as close as the three men could get to actual burial grounds for their family.”
In 2015, Gabbai stated, “I have inside some stuff I can never tell. I saw so many things. Even now, I like to cry to get it out of my system. But it doesn’t go out.”
Gabbai did not have COVID-19 but visitors are not allowed in the hospital, so he died alone.
By Jeanette Vietti
The New York Times: Dario Gabbai, a Final Witness to Auschwitz, Is Dead at 97
Jewish Journal: As Loneliness Grows, What We Can Learn From Holocaust Survivors
Image Courtesy of Russell Yarwood’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License