Magneto and the Holocaust Q + A

by Rivka Jacobs and others (

Alara here. This appears to be Rivka answering a series of questions about Magneto's background, based on her Holocaust research. Most of the questions, with answers, were forwarded to me directly and I do not know who the original questioners were. I included her answer to my own question about the Sonderkommando rebellion at the bottom.

Originally appeared on AOL on 1/19/97. Reprinted with author's permission.

<< Okay, so Did Mags not go through puberty (at the right time) because of the abuse he suffered at Auschwitz....>>

<< Malnutrition can delay puberty. He was likely not fed very well while in the camps....>>

Totally true. And while some comic said something about "Hepatitis" being the cause of Erik's delayed onset of powers, you can only laugh at that -- I mean, the boy was in Auschwitz, for gosh sakes! One of the nearest examples of "hell on earth" in the history of the human race! "Hepatitis" ? Yeah, maybe, after he got over the "...epidemics of lice, typhus, dysentery..." and influenza and every other disease the human body is heir to. The lice were so thick, that prisoners were constantly covered in infected sores. They were always starving. They were always sick.

From Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp: "... Every day in the life of a prisoner was filled with unbearable tension and superhuman effort, emotional turmoil and terror, continuing without respite for months on end. The prisoner's day was also hollow, empty, and mirthless.... Despite the stress, with the ever-present danger the Auschwitz prisoners could never lower their guard, all their energy going to maintain permanent vigilance. Furthermore, the prisoners enjoyed no privacy: day and night they remianed in tangible proximity to others. Spoiled food provided no nourishment. Incessant hunger was also a source of ceaseless torment and anguish."

From Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved" " In fact, even apart from the hard labor, the beatings, the cold, and the illness, the food ration was decisively insufficient for even the most frugal prisoner; the physiological reserves of the organism were consumed in two or three months, and death by hunger, or by diseases induced by hunger, was the prisoner's normal destiny, avoidable only with additional food."

Torture was commonplace. For the Jewish prisoners, no matter where in the camp, death was a certainty; torment, torture, beatings could happen at any time, for any reason. The "universe" of Auschwitz was your worst nightmares about the worst most sadistic people you know being in charge of your life and destiny. Exceptions, for a while, were the Gypsy Family Camp and the Czech (Jewish) Family Camp. But these people ended up starving, and being beaten and murdered all at once. As if they were spared the usual hour-to-hour agonies of the rest of the camp, and it all came down on them at once -- in the Gypsies case, in August 1944, when the people left in the Family Camp were attacked, beaten, herded to the gas chambers, and murdered.

Okay, within the camps (Auschwitz I, Birkenau, and Monowitz or Auschwitz III) there were hierarchies that could affect your survival and how much food you got. What squad you were assigned to, who you knew in the camp offices, if you were a communist (among the Polish prisoners it helped a lot -- the Polish camp underground was largely a communist Polish underground), and of course, your national origin. Some kapos also had favored prisoners, who they helped.

Details: "Theoretically, each prisoner was entitled to a daily ration of 350 grams of bread, half a liter of ersatz coffee for breakfast, and one liter of turnip and potato soup for lunch. Also, four times a week each prisoner was to receive a soup ration of 20 grams of meat, but in practice meat rarely reached the bowls from which the prisoners ate.... " Actually, much of the food was plundered by the SS-guards and the kapos before the prisoners ever got it. An analysis done after the second World War showed that the average daily calories for prisoners performing hard labor was 1700... yet that pertains to those prisoners WHO SURVIVED! Who found a way to get extra food.

Young Erik would have started out in one of the usual work squads. He would have been dead in a few weeks, if he hadn't had the personality, the WILL, to get extra food somehow.

Erik could have had a "protector" who was a kapo, and I don't want to think about that. But sometime in late 1941 or early 1942 he was probably chosen for the Sonderkommando, maybe as a punishment. No one wanted this job. The first gassings started then, but the bodies had to be buried. Burning the bodies didn't start at Auschwtiz until 1942.

In the "Special" squad, he could have gotten extra food. As the transports of Jews were brought in (the people told they were going to be "resettled") and the victims were herded into the changing rooms, they left all kinds of food stuffs amid their clothes. Most members of the Sonderkommando pilfered this. There were other things to "organize" also -- like cigarettes, jewelry, wine, any number of items that could be traded for food. Erik wouldn't have been high-ranking enough, or strong enough, to find much for trading (at first). But he probably could, and did, find enough extra food to stay alive. Later, as he survived several waves of destruction of different Sonderkommndo squads, and he got older and became a veteran, so to speak, he may have been able to organize the items he found among the clothing of the condemned, and thus was able to get enough food to help OTHERS survive (as testified to in UXM #199) and also, perhaps, bribe enough kapos to keep Magda from being sent to the gas chambers with her family in August of 1944. (Move her among the Hungarian Jewish women, perhaps, so she'd survive.)

Getting extra food in order to survive, still means he suffered from malnutrition and severe, SEVERE abuse. A boy going from 13 years to 17 or 18 years old under these conditions, would have many physical and emotional problems. I believe that LEX is correct, and New Mutants #49 could very well be the truth -- he steered the bullets that were meant for him, away, with nascent magnetic abilities. But the traumas and abuse he suffered simply put his powers on hold, for a number of years. I like the fact that Claremont said, his powers didn't come back for MANY years. This would be logical, given the severe stress his body and mind were under in Auschwitz.

In the Spielberg Shoah Foundation special that was on TV a few months ago, one of the survivors who was a child at Auschwitz said, in essence, we went in at one age, and physically time passed for us, but when we came out, although we were a few years older chronologically, we had not aged or changed emotionally from the time we went in. So that a 18-year-old young man in 1946, named Erik Lehnsherr, was still struggling to survive with the emtional age of a 13 year old. Same with Magda. It would take them several years of quiet, peaceful living to catch up.

Something about life in the Sonderkommando, again, for those who are Magneto fans and want to know what it was like for him (what it was really like, not what some Marvel writer who hasn't done his research might say it was like):

From Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved" re: the Sonderkommando: "The SS treated the newly engaged members with the same contempt and detachment that they were accustomed to show toward all prisoners and Jews in particular. It had been inculcated in them that these were despicable beings, enemies of Germany, and therefore not entitled to life; in the most favorable instance, they should be compelled to work until they died of exhaustion. But this is not how they behaved with the veterans of the squad [the Sonderkommando]; in them, they recognized to some extent colleagues, by now as inhuman as themselves, hitched to the same cart, bound together by the foul link of imposed complicity." And, a Nazi doctor describes a soccer game he witnessed, organized by the SS, between a group of SS crematorium guards and SK (Sonderkommando). "Other men of the SS and the rest of the squad are present at the game; they take sides, bet, applaud, urge the players on as if, rather than at the gates of hell, the game were taking place on the village green.

"Nothing of this kind ever took place, nor would it have been conceivable, with other categories of prisoners; but with them, with the 'crematorium ravens,' the SS could enter the field on an equal footing, or almost. Behind this armistice one hears satanic laughter; it is consummated, we have succeeded, you no longer are the other race, the anti-race, the prime enemy of the millenial Reich; you are no longer the people who reject idols. We have embraced you, corrupted you, dragged you to the bottom with us. You are like us, you proud people; dirtied with your own blood, as we are. You too, like us and like Cain, have killed the brother. Come, we can play together."

Now, think of Magneto, and how Claremont told us why Erik Lehnsherr became the terrible threat to humanity that he did. Compare this to the offal that are pages 17, 18, and 19 of Unlimited #2, and consider the authentic and stunning drama that someone at Marvel tried to destroy in those pages. Think again of the boy Erik Lehnsherr, a Jew, a mutant, thrust into this hell and this deal with the devil in order to survive; what an incredible character, what an incredible background. How perfectly this fits with Magneto's mad pain and obsessions concerning mutants and their future on earth!

I do apologize. I'll lighten up, really I will.

<< My point was -- when he escaped where did he get food? Did a villager help him? Did he pick berries or something? >>

Well, it was January 1945, so I doubt they picked berries. Magda says, "I couldn't stomach the food you found...." so I assume that Erik was scrounging for food in a war-torn country overrun by Russian soldiers, Polish communist partisans, Polish non-communist partisans, and other fleeing former Nazi victims. I imagine Erik stole food from farmhouses and cottages, caught animals maybe with his bare hands -- anything he had to do to keep Magda and himself alive.

As for the rest of your question, it's all there in Classic X-men #12 and Magneto #0. Erik and Magda somehow made it south into the Carpathian Mountains, most likely to an area that was inside Russian territory, because of the ease with which they later moved on to Vinnitsa -- remember this was the era of the Cold War, it wasn't easy to move from one country to another, even one communist country to another.

And Erik Lehnsherr actually worked with his hands. He was a carpenter, a builder, a person who could fix things. That's how he initially earned their living. But he was NOT satisfied with that at all! His brilliant mind was not satisfied. He wanted more, he wanted an education. That's why he moved his family to Vinnitsa. (Classic X-Men #12, again.)

Originally appeared in private email to Alara Rogers. Reprinted with author's permission.

Alara says: << I'm confused about the Sonderkommando. I'd been reading about a rebellion in the Sonderkommando which destroyed one of the crematoriums, and all the people involved were executed. If Erik had been Sonderkommando why wasn't he executed then?>>

This is going to be a bit long, and I have to type it, since I don't have a scanner. But the short answer to your question is: 451 of the Sonderkommando were killed in the rebellion. 212 of them remained. Crematorium IV was made useless for gassing. And, there were several Sonderkommando survivors. One, Filip Muller, whose book I have -- survived right until the liberation of Auschwitz/Birkenau on Jan 27, 1945. Others were evacuated during the death marches of Jan. 18, 1945. Those who were sent to Mauthausen, were sent to be gassed -- but they changed their tattooes slightly and gave false names, so that they fooled the record keepers, and were not gassed. Others escaped during the transportation to Mauthausen. I've seen interviews with four survivors of the Birkenau Sonderkommando. There are others, according to my books, who have never spoken out. (Magnus being one of them, I guess. I like to think he wrote his experiences down, under an assumed name, and handed the account over to the Yad Vashem -- the official Israeli Holocaust Authority.)


" Upon the completion of the massive extermination actions, most of the inmates who worked as Sonderkommandos were gassed. The exceptions were the specialists, such as those who knew how to work the ovens." [Remember how, during Legion Quest, Magnus remarks how he's got a special affinity for working with metals? And how, during his first years with Magda, he specializes in building and fixing things? I think even as a boy in the Sonderkommando, Erik could *fix* things -- he could work the ovens, and fix anything that broke down. I think the SS needed him, and kept him alive.

As I said, a few of the Sonderkommandos were left in the camp, and were liberated by the Russians on Jan. 27th. That's why I imagine that Erik and Magda escaped sometime between the massive evacuations of Jan. 18th, and the liberation of Jan. 27th. Also from ANATOMY OF THE AUSCHWITZ DEATH CAMP -- "Among others, 70 Sonderkommando prisoners worked to liquidate the installations of mass murder. In addition, two special woman's labor squads were formed. On December 1, 1944, a special group, initially comprising 100 women prisoners, began dismantling crematorium III. On December 5, 50 more women were incorporated into the squad. At the same time, another squad of 50 women was formed. Its task was to remove the ashes from the incineration pits, fill them in, and cover them with turf." [This is how Magda happened to be in the camp, after evacuation, in my opinion. She was chosen as one of the 200 women.]

"On January 20, 1945, an SS detachment that had been dispatched to Auschwitz shot about 200 Jewish women prisoners and ordered another group of prisoners to move crates with dynamite to crematoria II and III. Both buildings were blown up the same day. Crematorium V, the last to remain in operation, as late as January, was blown up on January 26, 1945, one day before the liberation of the camp." [This is the scene you see portrayed in Classic X-Men #12, the backup story. The SS soldier who is about to shoot Magda is one of those sent back to eliminate the women who were covering up the evidence of mass murder. Erik, would have been one of the last Sonderkommando left, servicing Crematorium V, and helping to dismantle and destroy the other crematoria. He would have been out near the incineration pits -- close to the woods -- when he saw Magda about to be killed. It most likely was from that area of the camp that they escaped, probably on Jan. 20, 1945.]

Okay, the Sonderkommando rebellion. Details-- (And I too have been thinking about this, and fitting Erik into the events. I'll say from the start, that I think Erik was in on the plan, but was in Crematorium III when the rebellion prematurely began.


"After the SS converted Auschwitz to a death camp, it assigned prisoners to a special detachment, the Sonderkommando, to work in the crematoria and gas chambers. The prisoners they chose were mostly strong young people who didn't know the camp because they had just arrived on an RSHA transport. Under orders from Adolf Eichmann, most Sonderkommando members were killed after every death campaign because they bore Nazi secrets. Only skilled workers, such as stokers, mechanics, and inmate officials, were exempted, according to Hoss's testimony at the Warsaw tribunal." Spring-Summer 1944 -- "Head kapo Kaminski, who was deported to Auschwitz in a transport of Jews from Bialystok in the summer of 1942 and assigned to the special detachment, played an extraordinary role. Dov Paisikoviz described Kaminski as small, of above-average intelligence, and between 30 and 40 years of age (old for a member of the detachment)." [If you're writing fanfic, you'll want to remember Kaminski. He was one of the only Jewish kapos, and tried to protect the men under him. He was the leader of the rebellion of Oct. 1944. Also notice, he was in his mid-30s, and was considered OLD for the Sonderkommando! Most of the SK were late teens to mid-20s in age.] "The return of Hoss to Auschwitz on May 8, 1944, fully empowered to carry out the death campaign, were strong signals to the prisoners. Additionally, the number of inmate members of the Sonderkommando was increased. Its highest documented level was 952 prisoners. More than half were Hungarian Jews, 200 were Greek Jews, and the remainder were Jews from Poland, France, and Czechoslovakia. After the death campaign against the Hungarian Jews, the size of the special detachment was reduced, as was the routine. Two hundred prisoners from the special detachment were killed with Zyklon B on September 23. The SS tried to keep the truth about the killings from the special detachment members by telling them that the murdered members had been transferred to the outlying camp at Gleiwitz (Gliwice). The detachment, however, learned the truth."

"At that time, Kaminski, who had prepared a revolt along with two Greek Jews, decided to wait no longer. One of the Greeks, said to be named Alexander Hereirra (or Errera), pressed the resistance movement in the camp to initiate a coordinated operation." [The Auschwitz resistance, largely Polish and non-Jewish, refused to help. They were not threatened with immediate death, and did not want to rock the boat.]

"A Jewish group of resistance members, including Union workers, supported the revolt by smuggling out gunpowder on women who worked in the powder pavilion. Although the young Jewish women who worked there were very strictly supervised, Roza Robota, a 23-year-old member of the group, found ways for the women to smuggle out tiny amounts each time they left work. Wrobel, a Polish Jew assigned to the special detachment, received the gunpowder, and a Russian technician named Borodin fashioned a kind of hand grenade. Porebski, an electrician who had access to the special detachment through his work, acted as liaison between them and the resistance members in the camp. He described the crude armaments as 'small lead containers, filled with powder, small stones, crumbled bricks, and a fuse.' " "Kaminski, the kapo, did not live to see the revolt. It appears that he was betrayed. The SS grew suspicious and shot him, letting it be known in the Sonderkommando that he was shot because he tried to kill an SS member. But plans for the revolt continued. Members of the special detachments of all four Birkenau crematoria were to break out simultaneously and attempt to destroy the crematoria. In the event, however, it happened differently."

"On Saturday, Oct. 7, 1944, the Sonderkommando recieved a report from Battle Group Auschwitz that another 300 members were soon to be 'removed' (killed). At that time the total strength of the detachment was 663. The 300 (whose names had been released by the SS) decided to revolt. A German kapo surprised the conspirators at midday and threatened to expose them. The conspirators immediately killed him and began a rebellion in crematorium IV without the planned simultaneous actions."

"When the SS came to take the 300 away, 'they showed incredible courage, in that they would not move. They raised a loud cry, and threw themselves on the guards with hammers and axes, wounding a few of them and beating the rest with whatever they could, and threw stones at them.' "

"Further details of this heroic rebellion, the only major rebellion in the history of Auschwitz, cannot be exactly recounted. None of the members of the special detachment in crematorium IV survived. It is known, however, that the rebels blew up and set crematorium IV on fire. The members of the special detachment in crematorium II heard the explosion, saw the flames, and managed to overpower the German kapo and throw him, sitll alive, into one of the ovens.... They also threw an SS member, whom they had disarmed, into an oven and beat another SS member to death. They tore down the fence around the crematorium and the wire entanglement that separated them from the women's camp and broke out."

"Sonderkommando members in the other crematoria were surprised by the timing of the outbreak.' Without preparation, without the help of the prisoners of the entire camp, and in broad daylight, it was difficult even to believe that someone, even a single individual, would be able to save himself. Therefore we had to wait. Perhaps this would continue until evening, and then, if we thought it urgent, we would do it.' These are the words Lewenthal used to describe the situation from his vantage point in crematorium III. He added: 'It was not easy to hold back the Russians who were with us.' Alarms rang out, and the SS immediately moved to cut off the escapees' route. The escapees barricaded themselves in a barn in Rajsko. The SS set it on fire and slaughtered everyone. Members of the inmates' fire department who turned out to extinguish the blaze in crematorium IV witnessed the slaughter of all the special detachment members near the crematorium. Later the firefighters had to extinguish the barn in Rajsko."

"The ranks of the Sonderkommando had been reduced to 212 prisoners; 451 members had been killed in the rebellion. The SS reported that three SS officers were dead. One of the few surviving Sonderkommando members recalled that 12 SS members were wounded. Crematorium IV could never be used again for gassing."

And, from Martin Gilbert's THE HOLOCAUST--

"There had also been preparations for revolt among the Sonderkommando of Crematorium III, across the ramp from Crematorium II. There, explosives had also been hidden, thanks to the girls at the Union factory. Most of the prisoners were in the attic of their barracks when the break-out from Crematorium II took place. Coming out as they heard the sirens, they saw the SS troops had surrounded 'their' crematorium. A few moments before the SS entered their barracks, they were able to move the explosives from thier hiding place and pour them down the latrine. The leader of the SS troops ordered all prisoners locked up in one room and the barracks searched, but the explosives were not discovered. The men of Crematorium III were then marched across the ramp to Crematorium II and ordered to burn the six hundred corpses that were still lying in the gas-chamber. Later that afternoon, the bodies of those who had been shot trying to escape from Crematorium II were brought to Crematorium III, stripped, and burned in the ovens." [I think this is where Erik was, in Crematorium III -- he and his squad were prepared to participate in the rebellion, they even had the explosives, but the rebellion started too soon, without them, and they had to dump the explosives. Can you imagine what it felt like to have to burn the bodies of their fellow prisoners who they had failed to support in the rebellion?]

"...Fourteen men from the Sonderkommnado who worked in Crematorium III and V were also arrested on October 10, among them another of the leaders of the revolt, Jankiel Handelsman, who, with Jozef Dorebus, had been deported from Paris to Birkenau in March 1943. All the arrested men and women were tortured, but none broke under torture. None of the men survived the interrogation, but Roza Robota managed to smuggle out a message from the cell in which she was being held: 'You have nothing to fear -- I shall not talk.' " [So, Erik's leaders, men he must have looked up to, were arrested at this point, and didn't survive the torture. But they did NOT talk, and none of the remaining Sonderkommandos were implicated.]

And again, from Martin Gilbert's THE HOLOCAUST--

The final dwindling of the Sonderkommando-- "On November 25, at Birkenau, the demolition of Crematorium II was begun. "It is interesting,' a member of the Sonderkommando wrote, 'that first of all the ventilating motor and pipes were dismantled and sent to camps -- some to Mauthausen, others to Gross Rosen.' The writer added, in a note dated, 'Today, November 26, 1944' : 'We are going to the zone, 170 remaining men. We are sure that we are being led to die. They elected 30 persons who will remain in Crematorium V.' "

Except for those 30 final members of the SK, according to Gilbert (and 70 men according to the ANATOMY OF THE AUSCHWITZ DEATH CAMP article by Fransiczek Piper -- it's hard to find any true figures -- let's say somewhere around 50 men as an average), the remaining 204 members of the Sonderkommando were put to death on November 26, 1944. Erik was one of those few who were selected one last time, to help dismantle the apparatus of death. One can imagine that the Nazis thought his skills working with machinery would help, maybe, in dismantling some of those gas-chamber mechanisms that were sent on to Mauthausen and other camps. Also, Crematorium V was still in operation, as mentioned above, right into January of 1945, and Erik might have been working there, too.

Some time in December 1944, is when the Jewish women (and Magda, who was disguised as a Jewish woman among them, thanks to Erik who managed to save her from the gas-chamber when the Gypsies were all killed in August of 1944) were selected to begin helping in the cover-up of the mass murder.