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Shlomo Venezia dies; Auschwitz Sonderkommando survivor was 88

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Shlomo Venezia, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp who came forward decades after the Holocaust with a rare eyewitness account of the inner workings of the gas chambers, where Nazis forced him to help shepherd thousands of other victims to their deaths, died Oct. 1 at his home in Rome. He was 88.

He had a respiratory ailment stemming from tuberculosis, which he contracted at the end of World War II, said his wife, Marika Kaufmann.

Mr. Venezia was among the few people to emerge alive from Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando — the special detail of inmates forced to carry out the last step of Hitler’s Final Solution. Under threat of execution, the Sonderkommando helped usher new arrivals into the gas chambers, where they died en masse. The Sonderkommando then disposed of the corpses in crematoria and prepared the chamber for another use.

His memoir, first released in French in 2007, has been translated into nearly two dozen languages. An English-language edition, “Inside the Gas Chambers,” was published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“The significance of these types of memoirs really has to do with the fact that there are so few of them,” said Peter Black, the museum’s senior historian. “There are so few people who survived and had the courage and the wherewithal to put their stories to paper.”

Many survivors kept silent after the war because they feared no one would believe them. Some felt burdened by guilt. An Italian Jew, Mr. Venezia began talking about his experience only in the early 1990s, when he sensed a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

In his account — a dialogue with journalist Beatrice Prasquier — Mr. Venezia recalled his arrival at Auschwitz on April 11, 1944, and his first sight of the gas chamber where the strapping 20-year-old man was selected to work.

“My natural curiosity impelled me to go up to the building to try and see through the window,” he recalled, according online excerpts. “I was left completely paralysed by what I saw. Bodies heaped up, thrown on top of one another, were just lying there.”

Mr. Venezia quickly learned the Nazis’ murderous routine. Prisoners selected for gassing were gathered in a large room and ordered to disrobe and proceed to a “shower.” A meal awaited them after they bathed, they were told. Sometimes Nazis gave the duplicitous instructions; other times the task fell to the Sonderkommando.

Once full, the chamber was sealed. Prisoners from the Sonderkommando lifted an overhead trapdoor. “Sometimes, it was me, sometimes others,” Mr. Venezia recalled. “It’s painful to admit that we had to lift the lid and put it back, once the gas had been introduced. But that’s how it was.”

Within 10 to 12 minutes, he wrote, the cries in the chamber fell silent. In went the Sonderkommando to shear the victims’ hair and collect any gold teeth. Sometimes the inmates recognized their relatives as they hoisted the bodies into the crematoria.

“We had turned into robots, obeying orders while trying not to think, so we could survive for a few hours longer,” Mr. Venezia said. “Nobody can understand or grasp the logic of that camp.”

Week after week, for as long as 12 hours a day, the labor went on for the Sonderkommando inmates. Then they, too, went to the gas chambers. More than a million people, including 960,000 Jews, died at Auschwitz from 1940 to 1945, according to the Holocaust museum. Hundreds among the dead had previously worked in the Sonderkommando.

“We were the last ones,” said Dario Gabbai, 90, Mr. Venezia’s cousin and fellow inmate in the Sonderkommando, who today lives in Los Angeles. “We lasted.”

Salome Venezia was born Dec. 29, 1923, in Thessaloniki, Greece, in a poor Jewish-Italian community. His family called him Shlomo. Many of his relatives, including his mother and sisters, died at Auschwitz.

In January 1945, Mr. Venezia left the camp in one of the Nazis’ infamous death marches. He subsequently was interned in Mauthausen, Melk and finally Ebensee, a concentration camp in Austria that was liberated on May 6, 1945.

After the war, he settled in Rome and spent his career working in hotels and as a store manager. Besides his wife, whom he married in 1956, survivors include three sons, Mario Venezia, Alessandro Venezia and Alberto Venezia, all of Rome; his brother, who also worked in the Sonderkommando; and six grandchildren.

In the past two decades, Mr. Venezia returned to Auschwitz dozens of times with students and scholars. Marcello Pezzetti, a noted Italian Holocaust historian, recalled a story Mr. Venezia once told him.

One day at Auschwitz, Mr. Venezia recognized his cousin in a group of inmates selected for the gas chamber. He begged a Nazi to spare the man’s life, to no avail. All Mr. Venezia could do was give his cousin a can of sardines, so that he did not die hungry.

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