The Self-ing of Shlomo Venezia

“If you had your life all over again,” Roger George Clark off-handedly inquired of the silver-haired gentleman in the darkened study, “would you prefer to be a non-entity but with a clear conscience or somebody who was famous, or notorious?” “I would prefer to be famous,” came Albert Speer’s response. [1] A shocking admission from a Holocaust perpetrator who escaped death at Nuremberg only through luck and theater. Yet Speer’s praise of infamy is fundamentally indicative of the kind “self-ing” he spent his later years engaged in; he wished to make himself into a man possessing the intellect and comparative self-awareness that rendered his services integral to Adolf Hitler, but just barely lacking enough complicity in Nazi crimes to be lumped in with the likes of Martin Bormann. Speer’s deliberate confusion of the roles of perpetrator and witness in his narrative is a testament to a universal practice of “self-ing” in Holocaust autobiography undertaken by all parties, from perpetrators like himself to rescuers like Abba Kovner and, finally, victims like our subject, Shlomo Venezia.

In narrating his traumas at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Shlomo Venezia demonstrates the essential qualities of an autobiographer by undergoing a process of self-ing through which he places himself into a victim role. This can first be proven by how Shlomo’s reliance on memory and lived experience characterize his autobiographical approach and self-ing process as a victim. Next, we will observe how Shlomo utilizes emotional trauma in his narrative to contextualize his victimhood. Finally, we will show how his handling of questions of complicity illustrate the threat they pose to his central self-ing process and indicate his aim to take on the role of a victim.

One important quality that designates Shlomo’s narrative as the autobiography of a victim is his focus on himself, particularly through the lens of memory. Discussing his initiation into the Sonderkommando, Shlomo says, “Birkenau was a real hell; nobody can understand or grasp the logic of that camp. That’s why I want to tell the story, tell it for as long as I live, by relying only on my memories, on what I am certain I saw, and on nothing else.” [2] In defining his experience at the camp through events as he sees them, Shlomo assumes the qualities of an autobiographer by
making himself the central part of his narrative and the things happening to and around him as its plot points. The gravitas he awards his memory is consistent with the self-ing practices of victims who tend to place a heavy emphasis on recollection as fact. One of the ways Shlomo uses memory to personalize his autobiography is through his healthy use of anecdotes. For instance, Shlomo recalls a Dutch SS guard catching him playing the harmonica and rather than beating him, complementing Shlomo’s skills and attempting to play it himself. [3] Later, he details how a woman pretended to be his sister to receive extra rations from him. [4] Stories like these have a subtle function of contextualizing Shlomo’s experience by spotlighting his memories, adding to the effectiveness of his autobiographical self-ing.

Shlomo’s memory is pivotal in demonstrating the explicit recollection of trauma as an aspect of his victim autobiography. Leading into his description of barbarous scenes of mutilated corpses in the gas chambers, Shlomo says, “I’ve never talked about this until now; it’s such a weight, it’s so heartrending, that I find it difficult to speak of those visions of the gas chamber.” [5] In conveying his emotional strain in discussing what he saw in the gas chambers, Shlomo qualifies his continued visions from his time in the Sonderkommando as an enduring source of torture whose recollection is laced with trauma and distress. Emotional retellings of experiences of torture like these are a distinctive feature of victim narratives. Shlomo’s recollections of his tasks in the Sonderkommando, such as using a fork to dislodge pieces of flesh stuck to hot iron in the ovens, also serves the broader self-ing process in his autobiography, wherein he contextualizes his specific experiences to illustrate what sort of role he played. [6] Shlomo is essentially saying, this is what I was forced to do, and this is what defines my story, therefore I am a victim in this narrative.

Of course, Shlomo’s actions as part of the Sonderkommando lead us to the final problem central to his autobiographical narrative: that of complicity. Much of his narrative is dedicated to wrestling with the innumerable crimes he committed (or was forced to commit) for his survival. For instance, Shlomo recalls undressing people lined up to enter the gas chambers, saying somewhat defensively, “I don’t know whether we can call it ‘collaboration’ when we were trying to reduce, to however small a degree, the suffering of people who were about to die. For example… I tried to stop people from being hit.” [7] It is perhaps a testament to his consternation about ensuring the genocide of ethnicities “would happen as calmly as possible” that Shlomo brings up the word “collaboration” at all despite his interviewer not mentioning it. [8] But it is also indicative of a partial impulse to absolve himself of “gray zone” crimes that is common in victim narratives. Shlomo’s defensiveness takes a more drastic tone when he recalls holding people in place and bending their necks as the Nazis shot them: “in this case, I acknowledge that I feel a bit complicit, even if I didn’t kill them. We had no choice, no other possibility in hell! If I’d refused to do so, the German would have jumped on me and killed me.” [9] In this instance, Shlomo takes two different approaches in self-ing as a victim rather than a perpetrator. First, he minimizes the crime by acknowledging only “a bit” of complicity, with the addendum, “I didn’t kill them.” Then, he describes himself as having lost free agency, innocent of complicity because the death sentence of resistance gave him no other choice. All those arguments are consistent with the narrative of victims, who ultimately seek to convey that that something was done to them rather than by them. Admitting the latter would endanger their entire self-ing project by depriving them of innocence.

Given all the aforementioned qualities of his narrative, it is clear that Shlomo undertakes a self-ing project as an autobiographer wherein he plays the role of a victim. The autobiographical nature of his narrative can be proven by observing the importance he places in memory and how that plays into his victimhood. His victimhood can also be contextualized by how he recounts trauma as a proxy to torture and, finally, by his struggles over questions of complicity and survival.

If we consider Shlomo to be playing the role of a victim despite having led people to the gas chambers and helped the Nazis cover up their genocide by disposing of the bodies, then the definitions of collaboration, complicity, and perpetration become far more confused. This raises the question: is it antithetical for a person to be victim while also being a collaborator or a perpetrator? Could Shlomo, if placed before a court of law, be considered innocent of the genocidal crimes he admitted to taking part in due to his victim status? Can he be innocent of responsibility because he was coerced with threats of death, as his defensive posture throughout his narrative toward notions of complicity seems to suggest? Or can Shlomo still be guilty as a collaborator or a perpetrator of genocide while also being victim to the psychological, emotional, and physical torture of participating in those roles?


[1] “Meeting Albert Speer.” Roger George Clark. Accessed March 13, 2021. https://rogergeorgeclark.com/pages/meeting-albert-speer.; Roger George Clarke, interview with Louise Hidalgo, Witness History: Hitler’s Architect, podcast audio, August 24, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3cswsft.

[2] Venezia, Shlomo, Prasquier Béatrice, Simone Veil, Marcello Pezzetti, and Umberto Gentiloni. Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz. Edited by Jean Mouttapa. Translated by Andrew Brown, 59. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] Ibid., 105-106.

[5] Ibid., 64.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Ibid., 74.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Ibid., 79.

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