Auschwitz inmate’s notes from hell finally revealed

Marcel Nadjari manuscript after processing
A page of Nadjari’s faded notes after processing – the original is on the right.  Copyright IFZ-MUENCHEN.DE

Chilling testimony from an Auschwitz inmate forced to help the Nazi murder squads has finally been deciphered, thanks to painstaking detective work and digital imaging.

On scraps of notepaper Marcel Nadjari, a Greek Jew, described how thousands of Jews were herded into the gas chambers daily. He saw them “packed in like sardines”.

In 1944, the 26-year-old was burning with a desire for revenge. He had heard from fellow Greek Jews that his mother, father and sister Nelli had died at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, in Nazi-occupied southern Poland, the year before.

“Often I thought of going in with the others, to put an end to this. But always revenge prevented me doing so. I wanted and want to live, to avenge the death of Dad, Mum and my dear little sister,” he wrote.

He was among about 2,200 members of the Sonderkommando – Jewish slaves of the SS who had to escort fellow Jews to the gas chambers. Then they had to burn the bodies, collect gold fillings and women’s hair, and throw the ashes into a nearby river.

Zyklon B canister with contents
Zyklon B cyanide pellets were used in the Auschwitz gas chambers.  Copyright Getty Images.

Industrial murder

Having witnessed Nazi Germany’s killing machine close up they knew it was only a matter of time before the SS exterminated them too.

So in November 1944 Nadjari stuffed his 13-page manuscript into a thermos flask, which he sealed with a plastic top. He then placed the thermos in a leather pouch and buried it near Crematorium III.

“The crematorium is a big building with a wide chimney and 15 ovens. Under a garden there are two enormous cellars. One is where people undress and the other is the death chamber. People enter it naked and once about 3,000 are inside it is locked and they are gassed. After six or seven minutes of suffering they die,” he wrote.

He described how the Germans had installed pipes to make the gas chamber look like a shower room.

“The gas canisters were always delivered in a German Red Cross vehicle with two SS men. They then dropped the gas through openings – and half an hour later our work began. We dragged the bodies of those innocent women and children to the lift, which took them to the ovens.”

The ashes from each adult victim weighed about 640 grams (1.4 pounds), he notes.

Marcel Nadjari in Greek military uniformImage Marcel Nadjari in Greek army uniform before he was sent to Auschwitz.  Copyright Pavel Polian.

Read more on the Holocaust:

The Holocaust year by year

Who are the missing million?

The hidden graves of the Holocaust

Survivor art depicts Auschwitz horrors

Life after death

It is clear from his notes that he expected to die in the camp – but this was his message to the outside world. A message that would have meant death for him had the SS found out.

Thirty-six years later a Polish forestry student by chance unearthed the thermos, at a depth of about 40cm (16 inches), during digging at the site.

Miraculously Nadjari survived Auschwitz and deportation to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria as the Third Reich collapsed.

After the war he got married and in 1951 moved to New York. He already had a one-year-old son, and in 1957 his wife Rosa gave birth to a girl, whom they named Nelli – after Marcel’s beloved dead sister.

In pre-war Thessaloniki he had worked as a merchant. In New York he made a living as a tailor.

Nadjari died in 1971, aged 53 – nine years before his Auschwitz message was discovered.

The wet soil had taken its toll: just 10% of the message was legible by the time Russian historian Pavel Polian decided to rescue it, using modern technology.

Such rare, direct evidence is “central” for documenting the Holocaust, Mr Polian said.

Auschwitz: Drone footage from Nazi concentration camp

High-tech success

Last month the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich published Mr Polian’s findings (in German). He is working on a new edition of Scrolls from the Ashes, a Russian book about the Sonderkommando evidence, including Nadjari’s text.

Four other Sonderkommando members had left written records, the most important being that of Salmen Gradowski, a Polish Jew. They had written mostly in Yiddish. Having been found earlier, they were in better condition.

Mr Polian received a scan of Nadjari’s manuscript from the Auschwitz Museum archive. After talking about its poor condition on Russian radio he was contacted by a young Russian IT expert, Alexander Nikityaev, who offered to help.

Mr Nikityaev spent a year experimenting with Adobe Photoshop’s digital imaging software to restore the faded text.

He used red, green and blue filters – red being the most effective – to achieve 90% legibility. That was done with commercial software, but multispectral analysis – technology used by police and secret services – is even more effective.

Mr Polian got the text translated from Greek into English by Ioannis Carras, a Greek-British scholar living in Freiburg, Germany.

Entrance to the changing room, of gas chamber and crematorium IIIImage Ruins of gas chamber and crematorium III: Entrance to the changing room.  Copyright

Counting the trains

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Polian said he was struck by Nadjari’s accurate estimate of the number of victims at Auschwitz: 1.4 million.

Historians say the Nazis killed more than 1.1m Jews at the vast camp complex, and 300,000 others, most of them Poles and Soviet prisoners-of-war.

“The inmates obviously discussed how many trains had arrived,” Mr Polian said.

“Nadjari’s desire for revenge stands out – that’s different from the other accounts. And he pays much attention to his family. For example, he specifies who he wants to receive his dead sister’s piano.”

Nadjari included an introduction, in German, Polish and French, asking whoever found the manuscript to pass it on to the Greek embassy, for forwarding to his friend Dimitrios Stefanides.

Nadjari witnessed a desperate revolt by Sonderkommando members, led by captured Soviet soldiers, who tried to blow up at least some of the five crematoria, using stolen gunpowder.

The Nazis crushed them – and Nadjari was not among the mutineers, so he survived.

About 110 Sonderkommando members survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, most of them Polish Jews. In most cases they were desperate to forget these horrors – few wrote about their ordeal.


Ahead of Time: The Extraordinary Journey of Ruth Gruber

Ahead of Time:
The Extraordinary Journey
of Ruth Gruber

USA, 2009, 73 minutes, Color, English & Hebrew with English subtitles
Directed by Bob Richman
Produced by Zeva Oelbaum

Buy Now

Arrange a Screening

Contact us at jewishfilm(at)brandeis(dot)edu
or call 781-736-8600 to book now

Public Exhibition Format: Beta, DVD

 As seen on Showtime and The Today Show

New York Times: “Ruth Gruber is remarkable… indefatigable… a riveting raconteur… an inspiration.”

Time Out New York: “A case study in pioneering feminist courage.”

Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan: “You could not invent Ruth Gruber… not even in a movie.”

Short Synopsis

For seven decades foreign correspondent and photojournalist Ruth Gruber didn’t just report the news…she made it! Born in 1911 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Gruber reported from the Soviet Arctic, escorted Holocaust refugees on a secret war-time mission, and changed the world with dispatches from the Palestine-bound ship Exodus in 1947.


“I am experiencing that feeling of zest which goes with exploration. I am in the thick of an historic moment. I am in an era in the making…” – First lines of Ruth Gruber’s initial dispatch from the Soviet Arctic, 1935

Born in Brooklyn in 1911, Ruth Gruber became the youngest Ph.D. in the world before going on to become an international foreign correspondent and photojournalist at age 24. She emerged as the eyes and conscience of the world. With her love of adventure, fearlessness and powerful intellect, Ruth defied tradition in an extraordinary career that spanned more than seven decades.

The first journalist to enter the Soviet Arctic in 1935, Ruth also traveled to Alaska as a member of the Roosevelt administration in 1942, escorted Holocaust refugees to America in 1944, covered the Nuremberg trials in 1946 and documented the Haganah ship Exodus in 1947. Her relationships with world leaders including Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, and David Ben Gurion gave her unique access and insight into the modern history of the Jewish people.

Through her own words and images, the film follows Ruth Gruber’s incredible journey as a student, a reporter, an activist leader and a prolific author. The film captures the drama of her life as she lent her camera lens – and her heart – to refugees of war. Ruth continues to travel all over the world re-connecting with many of the people who shared historic moments with her in Europe, in Israel, in the Arctic Tundra, in DP camps and refugee centers overseas and in the United States.


Audience Award, Teaneck International Film Festival 2011
Best Documentary, Miami Jewish Film Festival 2011
Best Documentary, Denver Jewish Film Festival 2011
Best Documentary, Berkshire International Film Festival 2010
Best Documentary, Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival 2010
The film was invited to participate in Project 20/20, a prestigious cultural exchange program, sponsored by the President’s Council for the Arts and Humanities.

Selected Screenings

Oregon Jewish Museum, 2016
Opening day for Ruth Gruber Photography Exhibit
Brooklyn College Library, 2015
Special guest Producer Patti Kenner;
Remarks by Brooklyn College President Karen L. Gould
JCC of Manhattan (NYC), 2014
Maine Jewish FIlm Festival, 2014
Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 2014
Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival, 2012
Cape Ann Jewish Film Festival, 2012
Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival, 2012
Hartford Jewish Film Festival, 2012
NoVa International Jewish Film Festival, 2012
Sacramento Jewish Film Festival, 2012
East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, 2012
Mobile Jewish Film Festival, 2012
Virginia Peninsula Jewish Film Festival, 2012
Teaneck International Film Festival, 2011
Beth Tzedec Calgary Jewish Film Festival, Calgary, 2011
Free Thinking Film Festival, Ottawa, 2011
Jüdische Kulturwochen Frankfurt, 2011
San Antonio Jewish Film Festival, 2011
Berlin Jewish Film Festival, 2011
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, 2011
Denver Jewish Film Festival, 2011
Toronto Jewish Film Festival, 2010
Munich Jewish Film Festival, 2010
Sarasota Film Festival, 2010
Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 2010
Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Berkshire International Film Festival, 2010
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, 2010
New York Jewish Film Festival, 2010
WORLD PREMIERE Toronto International Film Festival, 2009

Television Broadcast

YES TV (Israel)


Directed and photographed by Bob Richman
Produced by Zeva Oelbaum
Edited by Sabine Krayenbuhl
Executive Producers: Doris Schechter, Patti Kenner, Denise Benmosche, Henry Jarecki MD
Production Designer: Zeva Oelbaum
Composer: Ted Reichman
Original music composition over end credits: Reuben Chess, David Dawda
A Reel Inheritance Film Production
Voiceovers: Eli Wallach, Threse Plummer, Jody Shelton

Bob Richman, Director

Bob Richman began his career in film as a cinematographer working with the verite pioneers Albert and David Maysles. He recently won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Best Cinematography for The September Issue. His other credits as DP/cinematographer include Academy Award winner An Inconvenient Truth, Academy Award nominee My Architect, Metallica:Some Kind of Monster, and Paradise Lost:The Robin Hood Hills Child Murders. Richman was nominated for a Prime Time Emmy for Paradise Lost.

Zeva Oelbaum, Producer

Zeva Oelbaum is an award winning producer and the founder of Reel Inheritance Films. In addition to producing Ahead of Time, she has directed and produced short films which have screened at venues such as the International Center of Photography in New York. She was Executive Producer of Rene and I, a documentary film on twins Irene Hizme and Rene Slotkin who survived Josef Mengele at Auschwitz when they were only 6 years old.

Sabine Krayenbuehl, Editor

Sabine Krayenbuehl was nominated by the American Cinema Editors for an Eddie Award for My Architect. Her other documentary projects include Mad Hot Ballroom, The Bridge,and Picasso and Braque Go To The Movies, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Official Website:

Rotten Tomatoes:


Poland asked to explain naked Nazi gas chamber video

Grab from video
Image copyright Arthur Zmijewski.  Jewish groups want senior Polish officials to condemn the video.

BBC.  December 1, 2017.   Click for full report.


Holocaust survivor groups have asked the Polish president to explain how artists were able to film a naked game of tag inside a Nazi camp gas chamber.

The film shows men and women running around laughing at the former Stutthof camp, where 65,000 people were killed.

Game of Tag, shot in 1999 by Artur Żmijewski, was exhibited in Krakow in 2015 despite Israeli objections.

But the filming location was not known until this year, following a visit by the British Royal Family.

Experts compared footage from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to Stutthof and its gas chamber with the Polish video.

In their letter, groups including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which investigates Nazi war criminals, and the Center Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel asked President Andrzej Duda if Mr Żmijewski had had permission to make the film and whether there were rules of conduct at Stutthof.

They also said that “no comment or word of critique was heard from Polish official sources regarding the video” and asked President Duda to “clearly, properly condemn this so-called artwork”.

Catherine signed a message in the visitors' book
Image copyright EPA.  The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Stutthof in July.

“It’s really outrageous. I hope the Polish president will put in place regulations to make sure stuff like this doesn’t happen again,” the Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff told the BBC.

“It was banned in Germany, Estonia took it down when we contacted them. In Poland for some reason, which lost six million people – three million Jews and three million Poles – they didn’t get it,” he added.

Jerusalem-based lawyer David Schonberg first noticed that Mr Żmijewski’s video was shot in Stutthof after noticing that footage from William and Catherine’s visit in July showed the same stains on the walls, ledge along one side, plughole in the centre and doors at each end.

Experts at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem confirmed the finding.

Stutthof gas chamber

Mr Schonberg told the BBC that more important than the video itself was the “apparent indifference” to it in Poland.

“This is a problem that needs to be addressed. If people are not sufficiently sensitive to the terrible acts of the Holocaust and do not respect its victims then proper conduct in the sites in Poland cannot be properly secured,” he said.


“This also requires proper scrutiny of these sites and making sure that objectionable materials that are so insensitive to the memory of the Holocaust will not be brought on public display.”Mr Schonberg said the video’s reception in Poland was particularly hard to understand as the majority of those who died at Stutthof were Polish non-Jews.


The 2015 Krakow exhibition, Poland-Israel-Germany – The experience of Auschwitz, was sponsored by the Israeli embassy, which then called for part of the video to be removed after Jewish groups protested. But the Krakow Art Museum said it should be shown because it was a matter of freedom of expression.


A description of Mr Żmijewski on the Warsaw Art Museum’s website states that the people in the video are having fun, “but they are also very serious. They know where they are – in the gas chamber of a former Nazi extermination camp”.

The Baltic death camp where thousands perished

Stutthof concentration camp in 1939
  • Stutthof was the first Nazi camp set up outside German borders, established in September 1939
  • It was originally used for the imprisonment of the “undesirable Polish elements”
  • By 1942 it had become a concentration camp and grew to include 39 sub-camps which housed 110,000 men, women and children over its five years
  • Some 65,000 inmates – including 28,000 Jews – were killed by lethal injection, gas chamber, shooting and hanging, as well as disease and malnutrition
  • Stutthof was the last camp to be liberated – on 9 May 1945 by the Soviet Army
EDITORIAL FROM NEW YORK TIMES.  Click for full report.

Justice long delayed for Nazi collaborator


When an international tribunal last week pronounced the former Serbian commander Gen. Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and sentenced him to spend the rest of his days in prison, it reinforced a pillar of civilization: No crime against humanity, no matter how long ago it occurred, should be immune to cries for justice. And no criminal is too old to be deservedly punished.

This is so if the person is 75 years old, like General Mladic. It is so even if he is much older, 94, and said to be in poor health. We’re referring to Jakiw Palij, a Queens man who in his youth was a guard at Trawniki in Poland. It was a Nazi camp that trained men who carried out orders to round up Jews for extermination. They were volunteers in the Nazis’ killing apparatus.

Mr. Palij has insisted he was never a collaborator. But the United States government determined in the early 2000’s that he was, and that he lied his way into this country by claiming on arrival in 1949 to have been a Polish farmer. He was granted citizenship in 1957, but a federal judge revoked it in 2003. In 2005, a deportation order was issued. Yet he remains in Jackson Heights, Queens, and may well end his life there, for two reasons.

One, he is not subject to American jurisprudence because the crimes were committed abroad and he is no longer a United States citizen. Two, no country wants him. Logical destinations are Germany, Poland or Ukraine, which now controls the part of Poland he came from. But they all say no. At the prodding of a yeshiva on Long Island, members of the New York congressional delegation recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to, in effect, lean on those countries. Whether Mr. Tillerson will take their request to heart remains to be seen.

The pursuit of Nazi collaborators, principally by a division of the Justice Department, is nearly four decades old and has led to dozens of people being stripped of their citizenship and sent packing. With the enactment of a law in 2004 that prohibited human rights violators from finding a haven in this country, Washington began to crack down on abusers from all over. Thuggish generals from El Salvador were deported a quarter-century after being allowed to settle in Florida. A similar fate fell to officials who’d managed to find American shelter even though they figured in the troubled history of places like Rwanda, Peru, Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia, Guatemala and Argentina.

With those stained by their Nazi past, deportation was easier many years ago because some Eastern European countries were prepared to accept them. That has changed; the spirit there is no longer willing. The Justice Department says that since 2005 it has won deportation orders for 11 Nazi criminals, but only one was actually shipped out: the notorious John Demjanjuk, who died at age 91 in Germany in 2012. That was nearly a year after a German court found him guilty of taking part in the murder of 28,000 people at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Absent any countries willing to take the others, nine of the 11 died in the United States. That leaves Mr. Palij. He is, as a Justice Department official put it, “the last adjudicated Nazi criminal in the United States” — not to mention a man who should not have been allowed here in the first place.

‘Nazi Grandma’ in Germany will serve jail time

(JTA) — The octogenarian known as the “Nazi Grandma” will serve 14 months in a German prison for Holocaust denial after losing an appeal on one of several convictions.

Ursula Haverbeck, 89, was sentenced Tuesday by a district appeals court in Detmold for repeatedly denying the Holocaust, which is a crime in Germany.

In September 2016, a court in Detmold sentenced Haverbeck to eight months in jail on charges of sedition after she said Jews were never exterminated in Auschwitz. She also reportedly made offensive comments in the courtroom.

At the end of the trial she handed out leaflets to journalists, the judge and prosecutor titled “Only the truth will set you free,” which also included denial of Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. In response, the court increased her sentence by several months, according to Deutsche Welle.

A year ago, Haverbeck was sentenced by a Hamburg court to 10 months in prison for Holocaust denial after saying on television that the Holocaust was “the biggest and most sustainable lie in history.” She made the statement to reporters outside the trial of former SS guard Oskar Groening, who was found guilty for his role in the murder of 300,000 at Auschwitz.

Haverbeck, who was dubbed “Nazi Grandma” by the German media, has been convicted and sentenced to prison on several other occasions for writing articles denying the Holocaust and incitement to hate. She has appealed all the decisions, however, and has yet to spend any time in jail.

“Mr. Tuck had my son thinking all day about what he heard in school. He told me later that night about his one piece of bread in the morning and night. I am thankful for the hand out that was brought home, so I can read his story. This has been a priceless experience for my son, and I am so thankful that Mr. Tuck was able to visit.~ A Perkiomen Valley HS parent

Thank you for your support on #GivingTuesday

Thanks to your generosity, we raised $8,581 during Tuesday’s global day of giving!

Your contributions will

  • educate thousands of students about the consequences of hatred, racism, and bigotry in the Philadelphia area and around the world though Microsoft’s Skype in the Classroom.
  • guarantee the experiences of 32 Holocaust survivors, 5 liberators, and 1 resistor are not forgotten.

Last year, thanks to your support, 34,472 students in 277 schoolslearned about the Holocaust through eyewitness testimonies. This includes schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, California, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Maryland. And, for the first time, we spoke to students in England, Australia, China, Italy, and the Bahamas!

Thank YOU for partnering with us in this crucial work!
We could not do it without you.

Missed #GivingTuesday?
Donate via PayPal

Thanks to 37 amazing donors, we’ve raised 72% of our goal!

Dave Tuck, one of our Philadelphia-area Holocaust survivors who shares his testimony with students, was appalled at what he saw in Charlottesville this summer. “Nazi Germany and the Holocaust started like this. I speak to students today to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Please arrange more schools for me to speak at so I can share my experience with students.” We listened and, since August, Dave has spoken to 2,486 students. We’ll never slow him down because he is on a mission.
Your contribution today will help Dave and 31 other Holocaust survivors, 5 liberators, and 1 resistor share their experiences with students all across the Philadelphia area and around the world through Microsoft’s Skype in the Classroom.
Can we count on you to help Dave, along with other survivors like Itka, Manya, Michael, Ruth, Sarah, Frieda, and Don, share their testimonies with students?
%d bloggers like this: