I know there are those who judge the Sonderkommandos. Sometimes people confuse them with the Kapos. In all honestly, I don’t judge them at all, because I was never put in the position they were put in. Especially the Sonderkommandos who were forced, on the threat of their deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. Many times they had to dispose of the bodies of friends and family.
On 7 October 1944, the Sonderkommando were preparing to revolt. Enough was enough. Having learned that the SS was going to liquidate much of the squad, the members of the Sonderkommando at Crematorium IV rose in revolt.
In the nearby Union explosives factory, a group of Jewish girls had collected small amounts of explosives and smuggled them to the plotters. Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, and Regina Safirsztain had been smuggling small amounts of gunpowder from the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex, to men and women in the camp’s resistance movement, like Róza Robota, a young Jewish woman who worked in the clothing detail at Birkenau. Under constant guard, the women in the factory took small amounts of the gunpowder, wrapped it in bits of cloth or paper, hid it on their bodies, and then passed it along the smuggling chain. Once she received the gunpowder, Róza Robota then passed it to her co-conspirators in the Sonderkommando, the special squad of prisoners forced to work in the camp’s crematoria. Using this gunpowder, the leaders of the Sonderkommando planned to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria, and launch the uprising.
They attacked the SS with stones and hammers, killing three of them, and set crematorium IV on fire with rags soaked in oil that they had hidden. Hearing the commotion, the Sonderkommando at crematorium II believed that a camp uprising had begun and threw their Oberkapo into a furnace. After escaping through a fence using wirecutters, they managed to reach Rajsko, where they hid in the granary of an Auschwitz satellite camp, but the SS pursued and killed them by setting the granary on fire.
By the time the uprising at crematorium IV had been suppressed, 212 members of the Sonderkommando were still alive and 451 had been killed.
Ella Gärtner, Róża Robota, Regina Szafirsztajn and Estera Wajcblum, more than likely these names mean nothing to you. But these four young women showed bravery that would make the bravery of any hardened warrior pale in comparison.
By 1943, the four women named above were all imprisoned in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Three of the women, Ella, Regina and Estera, were assigned to work in the munitions factory adjacent to Auschwitz. Recruited by Róża Robota, who worked in Auschwitz’s clothing depot (known as “Canadakommando,” these men and women had the awful task of sorting through the clothing discarded by murdered Jews)recruited them to smuggle tiny quantities of gunpowder out of the factory.
Inside the Sonderkommando, Salmen Lewental coordinated the plans for revolt. His record, written at the time in a small notebook and then buried in a jar under the earth, is the principal source for the events of 7 October 1944.
The Birkenau camp records show that four days earlier, on October 3, the number of Jews in the Sonderkommando at Crematorium II was 169, divided into a day shift and a night shift. At Crematorium III there were also 169 Sonderkommando on October 3, likewise divided, and at Crematorium IV a total of 154, also in two shifts. With the gassing at Birkenau coming to an end, the Sonderkommando were alert to any indication that their days too might be numbered, who in their gruesome task were given the privilege of ample food and blankets, and such “comforts” as they might need in their barracks.
On the morning of Saturday, October 7, the senior Sonderkommando man at Crematorium IV was ordered to draw up lists for the “evacuation” of three hundred men at noon that same day. Fearing that this was a prelude to destruction, he refused to do so. The SS ordered a roll call for noon. The purpose of the roll call, the Jews were told, was that they were to be sent away by train to work in another camp. As the SS Staff Sergeant called out their numbers, however, only a few men answered.
After repeated calls and threats, Chaim Neuhof, a Jew from Sosnowiec who had worked in the Sonderkommando since 1942, stepped forward. He approached the SS Staff Sergeant, talked to him, and gesticulated. When the SS man reached for his gun, Neuhof, loudly yelling the password “Hurrah,” struck the SS man on the head with his hammer. The SS man fell to the ground. The other prisoners then echoed Neuhof’s “Hurrah” and threw stones at the SS.
Some of the Sonderkommando at Crematorium IV attacked the SS so viciously with axes, picks and crowbars that several SS men fell wounded and bleeding to the ground. Other SS men sought cover behind the barbed-wire fence, shooting at the prisoners with their pistols.
Some of the prisoners then managed to run into their empty barracks, where there were hundreds of straw mattresses n the wooden bunks. They set the mattresses on fire. The fire spread at once to the wooden roof of Crematorium IV.
The arrival of SS reinforcements on motorcycles, from the SS barracks inside Birkenau, brought the revolt at Crematorium IV to an end. All those who had taken up weapons, and all who had set fire to the crematorium roof, were machine-gunned.
Crematorium 4 was damaged beyond repair and never used again.
Some of the men were spared from interrogation, but the bodies of the 12th Sonderkommando are soon disposed of by the 13th Sonderkommando.
The men gave up names, including those of the four 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 5 January 1945, the four women were hanged in front of the assembled women’s camp. Roza Robota shouted “Be strong and be brave” as the trapdoor dropped.
On 27 January 1945, the camp was liberated.