- ObituaryIn Memoriam: Filip Müller
No one who has heard Filip Müller’s voice can forget it. That voice was immortalized in the recording (released in 2004) of the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial and in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 original documentary film, Shoah. In Lanzmann’s masterpiece, Müller monumentalized the tragic murder of women and children in the Theresienstadt family camp on March 8–9, 1944. His moving fit of weeping and his futile request that the filmmaker turn off the camera was one of the most unforgettable and evocative scenes in the entire film—a scene that prompted a number of people to devote their attention to the Auschwitz factory of death.
Filip Müller and his moving 1979 report Sonderbehandlung: Drei Jahre in den Krematorien und Gaskammern von Auschwitz (Special Treatment: Three Years in the Crematoria and Gas Chambers of Auschwitz, published in the United States as Eyewitness Auschwitz) have shaped generations of Auschwitz researchers. This was the first German-published memoir of an eyewitness who had experienced mass killings in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria and gas chambers—in this case, over a period of 19 months—as a prisoner in the Jewish Sonderkommando and Krematoriumskommando. It is also the only report by a surviving former prisoner of the Sonderkommando to cover his entire experience in the camp system—32 months for Müller—and the first literary attempt at an overview of the history of the Sonderkommando. In terms of content, Müller’s work is in no way inferior to those of other well-known chroniclers such as Salmen Gradowski, Salmen Lewenthal, and Lejb Langfuss.
This accomplishment is worthy of great esteem and appreciation, not just because Müller, in writing his memoir, had to re-live the intense horrors of the murder factory. A modest man, he never wanted to appear in the spotlight; he did not pursue literary or historical success, or seek to profit from his recollections. This modest and quiet individual wanted to bring the truth to light, even if he had to contradict existing portrayals that were politically determined. This made him uncomfortable—another reason why he never received the attention he deserved.
Filip Müller was born January 3, 1922 in Sered on the Waag in Slovakia, and was deported with other Slovak Jewish men in mid-April 1942 on the fifth RSHA transport to Auschwitz. It is estimated that of the thousand men on this transport, ten survived. Shortly after his arrival, he was assigned, as punishment, to the infamous crematory work unit.
One month later, he managed to free himself from this death unit through bribery. Later, assigned to the construction of the IG Farben factory, he survived [End Page 348] grueling forced labor and a debilitating daily trek from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Monowitz. Müller had been one of the first prisoners sent to the newly established Monowitz sub-camp when it opened at the end of October 1942. In the spring of 1943 he survived a selection of Muselmänner and was transferred to the Birkenau extermination camp. He was able to conceal a life-threatening work injury and was saved by an unauthorized, secret operation in the Birkenau infirmary. A transfer to the potato-peeling unit, arranged by his friends, saved his life. His apparent security lasted only a short time, however. In July 1943 Müller was recognized by the deputy camp commander and, as punishment, was sent to join the Sonderkommando.
In this situation, too, he just managed to avoid death, since, as a bearer of secrets, he could have been killed as an escapee from one of the “isolated” units. However, as he was an expert stoker and skilled crematorium worker, the SS found him too valuable to kill. In the Sonderkommando he had to survive not only the daily horror of the death factory, but also the many dangerous situations that arose: acts of resistance by those who were about to be murdered, attempted escapes by fellow prisoners, smuggling attempts in other parts of the camp, secret meetings of the resistance groups in the Sonderkommando, five liquidations of portions...