Utility Workers Who Shut Off Poor People Are America's Sonderkommandos

Sonderkommando say "I was only doing my job"

by Jacqueline S. Homan

Every May on Yom HaShoa, the international Holocaust Remembrance Day, millions all over the world stop to remember victims of the Holocaust. Let's compare the deadly, corporate fascist state of Nazi Germany to the deadly, corporate fascist state of AmeriKKKa today. Both have a genocidal agenda where the poor are targeted as disposable "surplus population" that are "useless eaters"; that are "lives unworthy of life." Both used illegal war and the invasion of other countries as a pretext to further the capitalist expansionist agenda. And both have their willing water boys to help them carry out their dirty work of deliberately killing society's poor and unwanted. Both have used media propaganda to dehumanize their victims as "less than."

The Sonderkommando were work units of German Nazi death camp prisoners who aided with the killing process during the Holocaust. Death camp Sonderkommando consisted almost entirely of Jews. Their job was to usher new arrivals into the gas chambers, reassuring them that after they showered and deloused they would be reunited with their families. Six million were reunited with their families all right...up the chimney. And it was the Sonderkommando who, albeit unwillingly, greased the wheels of the Nazi machine of genocide. The Sonderkommando issued the doomed bars of soap and instructed them to inhale deeply so the disinfection would be good for their health. They were told to remember the numbers next to the hooks where they were instructed to hang their clothing, and to tie their shoes together before going in. Of course, once they entered the showers it was Zyklon-B pellets that poured down on them instead of water.

After the gas chambers were cleared, those same Sonderkommando cleaned out the bodies and disposed of them in the death camps' industrial-sized crematoria. For their work, they enjoyed better conditions than their fellow death camp slave laborers. They were granted less disastrous living conditions. They were allotted their own barracks which were more comfortable than any other barracks in the camp. They were allowed to keep and use various goods — food, medicines, clothing, jewelry, cigarettes, and liquor —brought by those who were sent to the gas chambers for "special treatment." They lived much better than other Nazi death camp inmates, but far, far fewer Sonderkommando survived the war. Since the Sonderkommando had intimate knowledge of the Nazi's automated, technocratic mechanism of mass murder, they were routinely executed every three to four months by the Nazi death camp SS bosses and new Sonderkommando were selected from new camp arrivals to replace them. This occurred right up until the end of the war, after Europe had purged itself of 6,000,000 of its Jews, 700,000 of its Serbs, its disabled, its poor and unemployable women, children, and elderly, and its social justice agitators (socialists, communists, and trade unionists).

Each group of Sonderkommando aided and abetted in the racist, class-driven genocide carried out by the Nazi tools of the capitalist multinational corporations and bankers with false hopes that maybe — just MAYBE — if they worked hard enough at their jobs which were integral to carrying out the "Final Solution", they might be allowed to live. The few useless trinkets and baubles the Sonderkommando were allowed to briefly use and enjoy, the extra rations of food, and other death camp privileges bestowed by their Nazi bosses and the false hope of surviving the Holocaust were all part and parcel of Nazi capitalism's carrot-and-stick dominance. Similarly, 21st century globalist vulture capitalism exploits and ruthlessly discards the world's poor and working classes. Only this time, its unaffordable food and fuel prices and utility rates and a real lack of jobs and social safety nets that's being used to kill America's "untermentchen" — that shower trick wouldn't fool us again.
Make no mistake about it, the Nazi war machine and the Holocaust were products of classism.

The very structure of Nazism was the cruelest and most repressive form of capitalism in the modern era. The reason it was so efficient was its inherent tendency to pit members of oppressed groups against other members of oppressed groups in a vicious zero-sum game of "survival of the fittest."

Consider: the Sonderkommando who ushered their fellow Jews into the gas chambers of Auschwitz weren't monsters before World War II and the implementation of Hitler's "Final Solution." They were ordinary working class Jews who just wanted to be able to live.

The German engineers who worked for Topf and Son, the patent-holders, designers and builders of the death camps' special crematoria, were middle-aged middle class German men with families — men who could not afford to lose their middle class jobs in a bad economy. These men — Kurt Prufer, Karl Schultze, and Fritz Sanders — testified at their post-war trial in Erfart, Germany that they were "just doing their jobs" and just being good citizens who were "obeying their government." They had families, after all. And if that meant designing, building, and performing on-site routine maintenance on the industrial-sized special crematoria they knew were being used to destroy other families who had just as much a right to live as anybody, so be it.

Similarly, middle class utility workers who shut off poor people's electric, gas, and water claim they're "just doing their jobs." They've got families, after all...while knowing full well that by shutting off poor people's life-sustaining utilities, they're contributing to the deaths of vulnerable people who are dying from the cold, or in house fires as the result of desperate but unsafe alternative measures.

How many of these utility company workers who enjoy middle class wages, benefits, and 401(k) stock portfolios care about less fortunate members of the working class — people whose utilities they shut off and whose vulnerable family members die as a result?

How many don't care if "just doing their job" imperils the lives of the less fortunate, so long as they've got theirs?

How many don't care because they don't think a job loss or some other unforeseen emergency or just plain bad luck could leave them in the same situation as the poor whose utilities they've shut off?  How many don't think they could ever be in that same situation of being unable to afford their bills and end up facing the loss of their gas, electric, or water?

How many of these utility company employees have that same "Sonderkommando Syndrome?"

If you are a utility company worker who ignores the pleas of the poor single mother as you shut off her gas and electric, or if you are one of the Medicaid-accepting doctors (like the doctors in the St. Vincent's Physicians' Group in Erie, Pennsylvania) that refuses as matter of policy to sign letters of medical hardship for your poor disabled and elderly patients with health problems to prevent their utilities from being cut off; you're worse than the death camp Sonderkommando, you're a cold-blooded murderer.

Is that little bit of extra comfort and middle class status you're enjoying worth killing the poor  — disabled, elderly, women and children  — as part and parcel of having your good job, doing the bidding of fascist corporate fat cats' dirty work, really worth it?

Is your privilege of getting a middle class job more important than someone else's fundamental human right to life? Don't poor people deserve to be able to live just as much as you do? They didn't ask to be born in this society. They certainly don't deserve to have to suffer because of others' greed in our crapitalist culture.

Here is only a very small partial list of casualties of America's genocide against the poor; those who died (or were left injured and homeless) as a result of unaffordable utility bills  and a real — not hypothetical — lack of adequate help and a social safety net for those struggling with poverty:

Pennsylvania:  Since 2005, the price for natural gas more than doubled for Pennsylvania’s residential customers. More than 242,000 Pennsylvania households have had their utilities shut off for being unable to afford the bills. According to a financial filing by PP&L, the company anticipated producing electricity at a cost of $16/megawatt-hour while charging their customers $91.42/megawatt-hour. PP&L predicts a corporate earnings of $3.3 billion in 2010.

Dauphin County — Swatara Township:

Britton Donachy, age 2                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Onna Donachy, age 18 mos

Died in a fire caused by  a candle after PP&L cut off their electric.

Cambria County — Hastings: 

Delores “Dee” Holland, age 50                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Jordan English, age 3                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Alisha McConnell, age 15                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Lindsey Depto, age 14

Died in a fire sparked by a candle after Penelec shut off the electric to the rented home of Dee Holland and her disabled 57 year old fiancé, Jack Sexton, and Dee’s daughter, a poor single mother who, like her mother, worked for minimum wage.

Lancaster County — Lancaster:

August 9th, 2008: Cynthia Glassman (age unknown) died in a fire sparked by a candle after PP & L cut off her electric the day before. She struggled to meet PP&L’s payment arrangement plan, but was short the $7 late fee. Her electric was cut off for that $7.

May 3rd, 2008: Nine people were left homeless after a fire destroyed the apartment building caused by candles after PP&L cut off electric to the apartment of Kenneth Yaw in April of 2008.

Jefferson County — Brockway:

Ten people died in a house fire that broke out on April 3rd, 2008. The fire was caused by a space heater. National Fuel cut off their gas in 2005 and they had been without gas since May 2005. The only survivors were 20 year old Elizabeth Peterson and her father , Douglas Peterson II. Killed in the fire were three generations of the Peterson family:

Kimberly Peterson, age 40  (mother and wife of Douglas Peterson II)                                                                                                                                                                                             Rebecca Peterson, age 17 — and a poor single mother                                                                                                                                                                                                                Douglas Peterson II, age 13                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Isaac Peterson, age 8                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Grace Peterson, age 6                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Lillian Peterson, age 11 mos                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Domanic Delullo, age 4 (Elizabeth’s son)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Desiree Delullo, age 2 (Elizabeth’s daughter)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Jason Mowry, age 19 (Elizabeth’s fiancée)


More than 8,800 Philadelphia households had their gas cut off in the winter of 2009. On December 26th 2009, seven died in a house fire after the gas was cut off. The fire was caused by a kerosene heater that exploded after fuel for the heater caught on fire:

Ramere Dosso, age 8                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Mariam Dosso, age 6                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Zyhire Wright-Teah, age 1                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Elliot Teah, age 23 (Zyhire’s father)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Jennifer Teah, 17 (Elliot’s sister)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Vivian Teah, age 26 (Elliot’s sister)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Henry Gbokoloi, age 54 (neighbor)

California:   More than 288,000 California households have had their utilities shut off.

Natalie Rogers, age 2                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Nevaeh Nunn, age 2                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Keviana Morgan, age 1                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Robert Charles, age 4 (brother of Keviana and Nevaeh, and cousin of Natalie)

These children died in a fire sparked by a candle after PG&E cut off their electric when their parents, two sisters who were both poor struggling single mothers, couldn’t pay the electric bill.

Michigan:   More than 400,000 Michigan households had their utilities cut off because of unaffordable utility rates, with over 221,00 of those terminations in Detroit.

Bay City:

Marvin Schur, age 93 (a World War II vet)

Died from hypothermia after Bay City Electric restricted his utility service with a limiter, causing his furnace to shut down. Death from hypothermia is a very slow and excruciatingly painful way to die.

Detroit (July 2009):

Four members of the Reed-Owens family died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a generator they were using after DTE cut off the family’s electric. The wife, Marquetta Owens, and one of the children were asthmatic and relied on nebulizers to breathe; which require electric power.

Vaughn Reed, age 46                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Mar’Keisha Reed, age 17                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 DeMarco Owens, age 12                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   DeMonte Owens, age 8

Detroit (February 2010):

Marvin Allen, age 62                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Tyrone Allen, age 61                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Lynne Greer, age 58

The Allen brothers were both disabled and couldn’t walk. They were struggling on SSI. Lynne (Tyrone’s girlfriend) paid DTE the $108 fee to get service restored, but DTE never restored service. The three poor older adults died in a house fire started by a space heater.

Detroit (March 2010):  

Trávion Young, age 5                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Fantasia Young, age 4                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Selena Young, age 3

The Young children died when a space heater sparked a fire after DTE cut off the gas and electric to the rented home of Sylvia Young, a poor single mother struggling to survive on $675/mo welfare assistance. Her rent was $500/mo. The fire broke out only a couple hours after Sylvia Young pleaded with a DTE worker (who saw the children) to not shut off her utilities.

According to experts, other consequences of utility shut-offs include homelessness, ill-health, heart disease, heat stroke, poor child development, and the disintegration of families. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the link between utility shut-offs and deadly fires is clearly established. When utilities are cut off, people resort to unsafe methods such as space heaters to stay warm and candles for lighting. From 2003-2007, space heaters were involved in 72% of fire deaths and 62% of fire injuries  related to home heating and 24% of fatal candle fires occurred when electricity was terminated. Many families who have not yet been cut off use these methods to reduce unaffordable utility bills.

Nationwide, only 20% of the poor who are eligible for aid actually get any because none of the aid programs have resources to help even those who meet all of the stringent list of requirements for aid eligibility.

There is a direct relationship between unaffordable utility rates, deadly fires, and poverty. If these utilities were not unaffordable, people wouldn’t have their utilities shut off for nonpayment and the preconditions for these fatalities would not have been created. And some of these fires cannot be blamed on “energy theft” — illegal hookups exist because utility rates are unaffordable and because utility monopolies shut off service to the poor. These casualties occur because our fascist government — a product of our selfish, narcissistic society of “ME first” — allows utilities to influence residential zoning laws, then charge exorbitant rates and shut people off because they have no money because they couldn't get jobs that pay a living wage, but have no adequate social safety net either.

The Sonderkommando in Hitler's death camps at least had an excuse: they were forcibly conscripted into their jobs and forced under the barrel of a gun to do the dirty work of their Nazi bosses . But they never once said of their less fortunate death camp victims that "they deserved it" for being "losers" for not lucking out in the Holocaust lottery crafted with the devil's arithmetic.

But in our crapitalist country, selfishness is a virtue because greed is a cultural imperative. The utility employees and Medicaid-accepting "doctors" tell the less fortunate members of the working class who are among the ranks of America's extremely poor that if they couldn't be successful and compete for the too few good jobs that pay a living wage so that they could afford basic necessities  like food, housing, and utilities, it's their own damn fault. Too bad if it means freezing to death or dying in a fire because of the loss of utility service from unaffordable rates, lack of enough jobs that pay a living wage for everybody, and lack of any real "right to life" social safety net. (Can't have that, now can we, because that would be icky socialism.)

The "I was only doing my job" excuse didn't wash at the post-World War II trials, and it doesn't cut it today. If you're a Medicaid-accepting doctor, it's because you want the status and privileges and good living that being a doctor provides for you. If you are a utility company worker, it's because you want a middle class life and all the comforts, good money, and 401 (k) stock portfolios that comes with it. You're not forcibly conscripted for that job. No one is holding a loaded gun to your head and forcing you to collaborate with your corporate bosses in what amounts to committing murder in the Holocaust of America's poor. You don't have to help the rich murder the poor — your fellow Americans — just to make a buck. It's called morals. It's called ethics. It's realizing that someone else's fundamental human rights don't deserve to be sacrificed on the alter of the Almighty Dollar just so you can afford that wall-to-wall plasma TV, that boat, that country club membership, that sports car, or any other doo-dads of middle classdom.