He spent two years in the extermination camp at Auschwitz. According to his own reluctant account, he came this close to going up a smokestack of a crematorium there: I had just been assigned to the Sonderkommando, he said to me, when the order came from Himmler to close the ovens down. Sonderkommando means special detail. At Auschwitz it meant a very special detail indeed--one composed of prisoners whose duties were to shepherd condemned persons into gas chambers and then to lug their bodies out. When the job was done, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed. The first duty of their successors was to dispose of their remains. Gutman told me that many men actually volunteered for the Sonderkommando. Why? I asked him. If you would write a book about that, he said and give the answer to that question, that 'Why?'--you would have a very great book. Do you know the answer? I said. No, he said, That is why I would pay a great deal of money for a book with the answer in it. Any guesses? I said. No, he said, looking me straight in the eye, even though I was one of the ones who volunteered.He went away for a little while, after having confessed that. And he thought about Auschwitz, the thing he liked least to think about. And he came back and he said to me: There were loudspeakers all over the camp, he said and they were never silent for long. There was much music played through them. Those who were musical told me it was often good music--sometimes the best. That's interesting, I said. There was no music by Jews, he said. That was forbidden. Naturally, I said. And the music was always stopping in the middle, he said and then there was an announcement. All day long, music and announcements. Very modern, I said. He closed his eyes, remembered gropingly. There was one announcement that was always crooned, like a nursery rhyme. Many times a day it came. It was the call for the Sonderkommando. Oh? I said. Leichentärger zu Wache, he crooned, his eyes still closed. Translation: Corpse-carriers to the guardhouse.In an institution in which the purpose was to kill human beings by the millions, it was an understandably common cry. After two years of hearing that call over the loudspeakers, between the music, Gutman said to me, the position of corpse-carrier suddenly sounded like a very good job.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.