Shlomo Venezia was one of the first Jews to climb out of the freight car when it came to the end of the line at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland on April 11, 1944, his mother crammed behind him. Two blows from a German guard’s baton struck him in the back of the neck.
“When I turned around to try to find my mother, she wasn’t there anymore," he recalled. “I never saw her again, she wasn’t there, and neither were my two little sisters ..."
Venezia, an Italian Jew who died at 88 on Monday in Rome, would enter what Primo Levi, the writer and fellow Auschwitz survivor, called “the gray zone," where terrorized victims survived on the fringe of collaboration. A sturdy 20-year-old, he was ordered into the Sonderkommando, a unit of prisoners forced to direct thousands of other victims into the gas chambers and to bear their bodies into the crematories. For nearly 50 years he remained haunted and virtually silent about his role in the horror.
“Not because I didn’t want to talk," he said, “but because people didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to believe it."
That changed in the early 1990s, when right-wing extremism reared again in Italy and, Venezia said, “swastikas began to appear on walls." He began to speak at conferences, to reporters, to schoolchildren — and most notably to Beatrice Prasquier, a journalist with whom, in 2007, he published “Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz." The book offers a harrowingly matter-of-fact account in which he describes loading corpses into the ovens 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Originally published in French as an oral history in the form of an interview with Prasquier, “Inside the Gas Chambers" has since been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
About 500,000 people, 90 percent of them Jews, were killed during Venezia’s nine months at Auschwitz, which ended on Jan. 18, 1945, when thousands of inmates were forced into a “death march" toward Germany.