Face to Face with Death: The Sonderkommando – Public Lecture, Michael Berenbaum

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Date(s) - 23/08/2016
7:30 pm - 9:00 pm

Caulfield Campus, H116, Monash University





Face to Face with Death: The Sonderkommando

Public Lecture – Professor Michael Berenbaum

Tuesday 23 August, 7.30pm
H1.16, Ground floor, Building H
Monash Caulfield Campus
900 Dandenong Rd, Caulfield East

Sonderkommando, those men who worked – often only for a brief time – in the gas chambers and crematoria. Sonderkommando were intimate with the act of killing. They observed the murderers directly, closely, and over a long period of time. They were in the presence of the condemned in their last moments, when they entered the undressing room, when they lined up to go into the gas chambers, and moments after they were gassed, when their bodies were removed from the chambers and they were processed. Gold teeth were pulled, inner cavities were searched for hidden valuables, wedding and other rings were removed from fingers, and hair was shorn and bundled. They were with the remains of the victims as they were burned either in open pits or in the ovens of the crematoria. They were with the victims’ remains as bones that had not been burned were crushed; the ashes were accumulated and then brought to the Sola River, where they were deposited in the river to flow downstream and be scattered. They were not the killers – only the SS dropped the gas or started the engines. Zyklon B arrived in Red Cross trucks, SS doctors pronounced the dead deceased.

Who were these Sonderkommando? How did they handle their task? What can we learn from their testimony about the killing process, about the humanity of the victims and about those selected for the most gruesome of tasks.

Michael Berenbaum is a writer, lecturer, and teacher consulting in the conceptual development of museums and the development of historical films. He is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University  where he is also a Professor of Jewish Studies.  He is in Australia as Visiting Scholar, Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, University of Sydney

He was the Executive Editor of the Second Edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica that reworked, transformed, improved, broadened and deepened, the now classic 1972 work and consists of 22 volumes, sixteen million words with 25,000 individual contributions to Jewish knowledge. 

For three years, he was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.  From 1988–93 he served as Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, overseeing its creation. Berenbaum oversaw and was responsible for the exhibition and for the films as well as for the development of the Library, Archives and Educational Center. He was also the author of its catalogue as well as the major Museum texts. He has consulted with many museums on specific projects and special exhibitions.

Berenbaum is the author and editor of twenty books, scores of scholarly articles, and hundreds of journalistic pieces. His most recent books include: Not Your Father’s Antisemitism, A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors.

In film, his work as Co-Producer of One Survivor Remembers: The Gerda Weissman Klein Storywas recognized with an Academy Award, an Emmy Award and the Cable Ace Award. Over the past several years, Berenbaum was a historical consultant or chief historical consultant for:

  • HBO’s Conspiracy, recently nominated for 10 Emmy awards,
  • NBC’s Uprising
  • The History Channel’s The Holocaust: The Untold Story, which won the CINE Golden Eagle Award and a Silver Medal at the US International Film and Video Festival.
  • About Face, a film on German Jewish refugees who fought for the Allies During World War II.
  • Empty Boxcars on the rescue of Bulgarian Jews but only after the Bulgarians had deported the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia to Treblinka/
  • Swimming in Auschwitz, the story of six women survivors of Auschwitz that was broadcast on PBS.


 Admission free; no prior bookings

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