LOS ANGELES – Dario Gabbai, Holocaust survivor and the last of the Auschwitz Sonderkommandos, passed away at his home in Los Angeles on March 25 at the age of 97, the New York Times reported on April 11.
Born David Dario Gabbai in Thessaloniki on September 2, 1922, he was one of four children born to Victor and Rosa Beraha Gabbai. Gabbai attended an Italian school, his father, a newspaper typographer, was originally from Italy, the Times reported, adding that the young Dario also took clarinet lessons.
According to the USC Shoah Foundation, “Dario and most of his family were swept up in the destruction of the Holocaust, and he eventually became a prisoner at Auschwitz II-Birkenau with his two cousins, Morris and Shlomo Venezia. All three were among the Greek and Italian prisoners selected by the Nazis to be Sonderkommandos – Jews who were forced to usher people into gas chambers, and then haul out the bodies, take them to the crematorium, and clean up the room for the next group of victims. Most Sonderkommando were murdered by the Nazis; Dario and his two cousins were among the very few to survive the Holocaust.”
Gabbai “never wanted revenge on the perpetrators of the Holocaust,” the USC Shoah Foundation noted, adding that “he believed it is more impactful to have respectful dialogue to prevent discrimination and genocide, and to promote understanding among humanity.”
Gabbai told his story many times, including two testimonies for USC Shoah Foundation and several documentary films. He was part of the USC Shoah Foundation delegation at the 70th anniversary commemoration at Auschwitz and “placed a candle on the memorial at the end of the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, just steps from Crematorium II where he was forced to work during the Holocaust,” the USC Shoah Foundation noted.
After the war, Gabbai settled California and shared his story in Holocaust documentaries including The Last Days, the Oscar-winner for Best Documentary in 1999.
In another documentary, Auschwitz: The Final Witness (2000), he said, “In seeing the mass of people coming in and out day after day, butchered and gassed, and we did the work, how can you have peace of mind? No matter how our appearances are, inside us there is somebody else,” the Times reported.
“Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Dario saw his father, mother and youngest brother dispatched to the gas chambers,” the Times reported, adding that “a sister had died as an infant, before Auschwitz.”
“Athletic and muscular at 21, he was selected, along with his older brother, Jakob, as a Sonderkommando at nearby Birkenau,” and “soon he was disposing of the corpses of newly arrived Hungarian Jews,” the Times reported, adding that “more than 6,000 were killed each day,” according to Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
“In the few minutes that the gas chamber doors were locked, Gabbai could hear the hundreds of women and children screaming, crying and scratching the walls in desperate efforts to breathe,” the Times reported, adding that “when the doors opened, he and other Sonderkommandos had to climb over bodies piled five and six feet high to harvest glasses, gold teeth and prosthetic limbs, before hauling out the corpses and washing down floors and walls covered in blood and excrement.”
“Gabbai also recalled being handed scissors and ordered to cut the hair off the women, so it could be used to make blankets and socks for German soldiers,” the Times reported, noting that “when a sound emerged from a corpse, he said, he was so sickened that he said to himself, ‘Where is God?’”
“Gabbai and other Sonderkommandos would then drag the bodies to an elevator that would lift them one flight to the furnace floor,” and “there was also a dissecting room, where jewels and other valuables hidden in body crevices would be removed,” the Times reported, adding that “to endure such grim work, Gabbai told friends, he ‘shut down’ and became an ‘automaton.’”
According to the Times, “for these tasks, the Germans preferred less numerous nationalities like Greek and Ladino-speaking Jews, because they could not easily communicate the precise details of the factory-like slaughter to Polish, Hungarian and other European inmates.”
Gabbai said that “he survived the march by dreaming of warm days in Greece, distracting himself so forcefully that he remembered sweating in the freezing cold,” the Times reported, adding that “he wound up in a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria” and “when it was liberated by the United States Army on May 6, 1945, he weighed less than 100 pounds (45 kilograms).”
“He made his way to Athens, where he helped settle refugees for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee,” and “in 1951, he immigrated to the United States through the sponsorship of the Jewish community of Cleveland, and two years later he departed for California,” the Times reported.
Gabbai “worked for Lensol Fabrics for 35 years, retiring as an executive, and spent a brief period acting in movies; he had a small role as a Greek soldier in the 1953 Korean War film The Glory Brigade, starring Victor Mature and Lee Marvin,” the Times reported.
In the mid-1950s, Gabbai married Dana Mitzman, the couple divorced in the 1980s, the Times reported, adding that “they had a daughter, Rhoda, who survives him.”
In 2015, Gabbai said, “I have inside some stuff I can never tell. I saw so many things. Even now, I like to cry to get it out of my system. But it doesn’t go out,” the Times reported.