The Sonderkommando Revolt
January 4, 2008 10:11 PM   Subscribe

1945. As the new year breaks in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the months-long SS torture of four women -- Ala Gertner, Roza Robota, Regina Safirzstain and Ester Wajcblum -- draws to an end. The women were being interrogated about their role in the Sonderkommando revolt of October, 1944.

19-year-old Ester Wajcblum and her 14-year-old sister Hana arrived at Auschwitz in spring of 1943. They were assigned to work in the munitions factory where they met Regina Safirsztain and Ala Gertner, women engaged in resistance activities. Together with Roza Robota, who worked in the clothes depot, they began to smuggle gunpowder to the men in the adjoining camp, sometimes using bodies of friends that were en route to the Sonderkommando for disposal.

The Sonderkommando ("Special Unit') were Jewish prisoners who worked the death camps in return for special treatment and privileges. Every few months, the current sonderkommando was liquidated and the first task of their successors was to dispose of the bodies of the previous group. Since a sonderkommando usually comprised men from incoming transports, their second task often consisted of disposing of the bodies of their own families. The sonderkommando did not participate in the actual killing -- that was carried out by the Nazis. The sonderkommando duties included guiding the new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterwards, shaving hair, removing teeth, sorting through possessions (much of which they were given as reward), cremating the bodies, and disposing of the ashes. Their knowledge of the internal workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Someone selected for the sonderkommando had a choice: die then or die in four months time.

As the time of their execution grew nearer, the members of the 12th Sonderkommando crystallized their plans of revolt and escape. Besides the gunpowder being smuggled by the women, which the men fashioned into crude grenades using sardine tins, there were some small arms that had been slipped through the fence by local partisans. In addition, knives and small axes had been made and hidden throughout the crematoria. Much of the gunpowder was used in creating demolition charges. There was talk of a general uprising that would coincide with the arrival of the approaching Soviet armies, but some sonderkommando were certain that they would not live until that day.

On October 7, 1944, at about 3 in the afternoon, the Poles in Crematorium 1 begin the revolt. Hungarians in Crematoria 3 and 4 join in while the sonderkommando of Crematorium 2 break through the wires of the camp. An especially sadistic Nazi guard in Crematorium 1 is disarmed and stuffed into an oven to be burned alive. Small arms fire rattles from the second floor of the crematoria until the Germans bring in heavy machine guns and riddle the wooden roof.

The guards counterattack and penetrate the buildings, indiscriminately shooting at all prisoners they encounter. The sonderkommando in Crematorium 4 drag their demolition charges into the oven rooms and detonate them in a defiant suicide. The revolt is quickly suppressed and the escaped men recaptured with the help of local citizens. Approximately 200 sonderkommando are forced to lie face down outside the crematoria where they are executed with single shots to the back of the head. Some of the men are spared for interrogation, but the bodies of the 12th Sonderkommando are soon disposed of by the 13th Sonderkommando.

The men give up names, including those of some women who were engaged in smuggling gunpowder. Despite months of beatings and rape and electric shocks to their genitals, the only names given up by the women are those of already dead sonderkommando.

On January 5, 1945, the four women are hanged in front of the assembled women's camp. Roza Robota shouts "Be strong and be brave" as the trapdoor drops.

Crematorium 4 was damaged beyond repair and never used again. On November 7th, 1944, the Nazis destroyed the gas chambers to hide their crimes. Twelve days after the hanging of the four women, the camp personnel forced 56000 prisoners on a Death March into what remained of the Third Reich; 7500 prisoners left behind were liberated by advancing Soviet armies on January 27th.

Anna Heilman, nee Hana Wajcblum, unindicted co-conspirator, survived the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Death March and lives in Ottowa.

(I've provided many links to what seem to be the same story. Careful reading of those links -- and others available via Google -- shows that there is much disagreement on the details of the Sonderkommando Revolt and about the four women, including some claims that Roza Robota was executed in 1944 and that Ala Gertner was the one who gave up the names of the other women. I've supplied the details that seem to have more corroboration than others, but I could easily be wrong. The salient facts are in every narration, however: there was a revolt by the 12th Sonderkommando and that several women involved in the conspiracy endured months of torture rather than betray their companions. That's what this post is meant to commemorate. A fictionalized account of the revolt is presented in the movie The Grey Zone; it depicts the role of the sonderkommando fairly well and is somewhat true to the details of the revolt (minus the appearance of the young girl) but fails in its presentation of the four women.)
posted by forrest (24 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Darn. I meant to post this on January 5th and forgot that Zulu time for MeFi is based on PST. It's after midnight where I am, so please forgive my faux pas.
posted by forrest at 10:20 PM on January 4, 2008

The history of Polish soil seems to be one desperate, heroic, and utterly hopeless fight against one foreign invader after another.
posted by three blind mice at 11:54 PM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Grey Zone also fails (quite spectacularly) in its presentation of consistent accents. I did think the finale was surely one of the bleakest endings in a film ever; it's so bleak in fact, it becomes almost comedic by default.

Derail aside, great post.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:56 PM on January 4, 2008

Anyone who has the chance should witness the camps in Oświęcim with their own eyes. I have a small stone from near the ovens of Birkenau that I carry with me, a little totem to keep me tied to that place and to help me remember. I stood right here. These things can happen, men will do these things to other men, never forget.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:16 AM on January 5, 2008 [5 favorites]

Thanks, forrest.
posted by honest knave at 12:20 AM on January 5, 2008

Thank you for this.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:05 AM on January 5, 2008

posted by DreamerFi at 1:39 AM on January 5, 2008

posted by tomcosgrave at 3:37 AM on January 5, 2008

What a moving story and what heroic people. Good to remember any time I feel overwhelmed by any hardships that may come my way. The worst of my troubles will never even compare to such horrors. Blessings and prayers for all of those who suffered.
posted by janetplanet at 4:06 AM on January 5, 2008

What an awesome post forrest. A beautiful and inspiring commemoration to these brave women who stood up, fought back and had an impact. Brava Ala Gertner, Roza Robota, Regina Safirzstain and Ester Wajcblum!

From your link about Anna Heilman, the last living survivor of the plot to blow up Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau, A Salute to Personal Acts of Resistance Against Evil, ordinary people who, during World War II, resisted and defied the Nazis in remarkable ways.

I think it's so important that people not feel disempowered but hear, know about and believe their capacity to change the world for the better. Your post does that for me, thank you.
posted by nickyskye at 6:55 AM on January 5, 2008

As a school child in the sixties I learned a lot about the evil of the Nazis (in fact my education vilified the entire German people), but portrayed the Jews as helpless, even complicit victims. I think of it now as an effort to keep us from thinking that the so-called powerless can (or should) have an effect on the world.

Thank you for educating me.

Following links in one of the stories led me to this. The girl on the left is the sister of one of these heroines. The picture was apparently taken after the liberation. The smile on her face is a beautiful testiment to the resilience of the human spirit, that she could smile after what she endured.
posted by nax at 7:01 AM on January 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by huskerdont at 7:56 AM on January 5, 2008

Thanks for this post.

posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on January 5, 2008

Thank you for this incredibly moving testament to human courage.
posted by misha at 9:18 AM on January 5, 2008

This was completely unknown to me; thanks.
posted by darth_tedious at 10:05 AM on January 5, 2008

Well done. My thanks.
posted by Lynsey at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2008

Yes, thank you.

Often, just when I begin to despair about the comments here (witness the sex offenders thread above) a post like this will remind me just why I read Mefi every day.
posted by jokeefe at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2008

posted by rosswald at 12:46 PM on January 5, 2008

posted by madamjujujive at 1:16 PM on January 5, 2008

posted by Netzapper at 1:36 PM on January 5, 2008

posted by sotonohito at 1:39 PM on January 5, 2008

posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:18 PM on January 5, 2008

posted by cass at 9:29 AM on January 7, 2008

I picked up a copy of The Grey Zone years ago in a bargain "Buy 3 get 1 free" or some such VHS bin along with several lighter movies. The summary on the back was extremely sparse, but it said the movie was about the only revolt at Auschwitz. I hadn't known there was one at all, so I was immediately intrigued. But then I've never been able to bring myself to watch it once I got it home. It's still in the plastic I think. Thinking of other stories from that place that I have heard makes me glance over it when I'm thinking of watching something. I'm disappointed to hear it doesn't depict the women well. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. When I do watch the movie, I'll know something about the true story now.
posted by Tehanu at 4:38 PM on January 18, 2008

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