The world needs heroes. During the horrific Nazi-era of WWII, it was full of them. Anyone who resisted Hitler – in whatever manner – is a hero to me. Most knew they’d never live to tell their story. Yet they did it anyway. It is up to History to tell their truth. This is the story of the Auschwitz Revolt and the 4 brave women who stood up to Evil.
Yetta cast a furtive look around then poured a pinch of powder down her blouse. She’d been pilfering it in tiny bits for months now. Last month two girls had been caught during an inspection after work. They’d been hanged that night as a lesson to the rest. She was still petrified but resistance was the only thing she had left. If she did nothing, she’d be just another hapless lamb awaiting slaughter.
Yetta represents the twenty women who worked at the munitions factory inside the vast complex of Auschwitz. Someone had devised a “trapdoor” pocket system inside their clothes that could be tripped if it looked like they were going to be inspected. Thankfully, she’d never had to use hers. Each night she’d meet up with a young Polish Jew inside the women’s barracks and dump her cache into the collection box. Róza Robota was her name. On October 7, 1944, she stepped into history.
Word had spread that the SS was stepping up its date to kill most of the Sonderkommandos. Since the huge influx of Hungarian Jews was now handled, the need for over 800 ‘cleanup’ men was past. The Sonderkommandos was a special unit of Jews forced to dispose of their fellow prisoners bodies in the ovens once they’d been gassed. Each man knew when he’d been assigned to the unit that he had 3 to 4 months before he, too, would be liquidated. It was the Nazis’ way of keeping wraps on their terrible secret.
But Auschwitz’s underground had its own secret. They’d spent months gathering enough gunpowder to make the hundreds of small grenades they’d need to destroy the camp’s four crematoria and gas chambers – simultaneously. A Russian POW munitions expert had fashioned the explosive devices using sardine tins and shoe polish cans. These were hidden all over the camp. With the rumors of imminent death now circulating, the Sonderkommandos were out of time.
On October 7, 1944, the crew of Crematorium IV rose up in revolt. They blew up the ovens and attacked the SS guards with hammers, axes and stones. They tossed two SS men alive into the ovens. Their screams could be heard all over camp. The explosion alerted the Sonderkommandos of Crematorium II who then kicked into action. Within minutes, hordes of SS arrived in cars and motorcycles to quell the uprising. Those who escaped were hunted down and shot. The crews of Crematoriums III and V managed to pour their explosives down the latrine before the SS discovered it, thereby saving themselves. Out of 874 Sonderkommandos, 250 were shot in the fight and another 200 were executed once the revolt was suppressed.
But the Nazis weren’t finished. They wanted to know where the explosives had come from. Under the infamous torture tactics of the Gestapo, names started to emerge: Róza Robota, Regina Safirsztain, Ella Gartner, and Esther Wajcblum. Other women – like Yetta – were involved but because of the courage and grit of these four, the others were spared. Esther’s 15-year old sister – Hana Wajcblum – was one of them. The Pole who’d recruited Róza bribed his way into Block 11 to see her one last time. She lay on the floor half-dead, barely able to speak. When she did, she told him what the torturers had done to her: months of beatings, rape and electric shocks to her genitals. Despite everything, the only names she or the others gave up were those already dead.
On January 6, 1945, Róza Robota, Regina Safirsztain, Ella Gartner and Esther Wajcblum were hanged in front of the entire women’s camp. Just before the trapdoor dropped on her, Róza Robota yelled out: “Hazak v’ematz!” – “Be strong and have courage!”
Two weeks later, the Soviets liberated the remaining prisoners. Of the millions killed in Auschwitz, few prisoners have been recognized for their heroic deeds. Róza Robota is one of the few. The other three deserve the same veneration. All of them stood for their beliefs. All kept their integrity to the end. All deserve a spot in history.
“Be strong and have courage.”
– Róza Robota, Jewish Freedom Fighter
A 2002 movie, “The Grey Zone” tells the story of the Sonderkommando Uprising of October.