75th commemoration of the Sonderkommando Revolt at Auschwitz–Birkenau

Birkenau Crematorium IV 1943. Photograph: Chris Webb Private Archive

During the Second World War, the Sonderkommando [Special Working Group] was forced by Auschwitz-Birkenau’s SS commandantur to carry out the ghastly work at the gas chambers. This included leading the victims to their deaths, often unsuspectingly, and afterwards burning the bodies of those gassed on pyres, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. A crematoria was established in 1942, adding to the genocidal capacity of the Third Reich’s most murderous death camp.

Yet this factory of death also inspired heroic resistance. The most famous instance may have taken place 75 years ago, involving the Sonderkommando. The leaders of the secret fighting group in the area of the crematoria made contact with the Jewish girls in the nearby munitions factory, Union-Werke. It was from these resisters that the Sonderkommando’s leaders began to receive small quantities of explosives.

The gassing of more than 400,000 Jews from Hungary was nearly completed by the onset of autumn 1944. As was the norm, the life of the Sonderkommando was coming to an end, and all those who had taken part in the mass killings could expect to be liquidated. The atmosphere of anxiety grew from day to day.

On 7 October 1944, the camp underground sent an urgent warning that the SS camp leadership had decided that the murder of the Sonderkommando was to take place shortly. The Sonderkommando resistance group leaders at once met in Crematorium IV to decide when to begin the revolt.

During their deliberations they were surprised by a Kapo, a German criminal inmate-turned-block guard. Lest he should betray them to the SS, he was killed on the spot, and the signal was given to attack other guards.  Unfortunately the most important part of the plan, stealth, which might have afforded the revolt some chance of success, was not put into effect: fighting broke out during the day, instead of at night. Hope also vanished for any help from nearby partisan units. None had been contacted, and in any case could not possibly move in the vicinity of the camp in broad daylight.

At this point, the Sonderkommando prisoners in Kommando 59-B at Crematorium No.IV reached for the few weapons they had and disarmed the SS guards. Using the explosives in their possession they blew up the crematorium, which then burst into flames. After cutting the wires, the revolting Birkenau prisoners escaped into the nearby wood.

At the sound of the shots and explosions, Kommando 57-B at Crematorium No. II joined fight against the SS. The Reichsdeutsche Oberkapo and one SS-man were thrown into the burning furnace alive, while another soldier was beaten to death. The fighters then grabbed several weapons and cut the wires of their own fence as well as those of the women’s camp. They hoped that a mass escape would thus embrace the whole of Birkenau in having a better chance of success. Yet the escapees turned not north-east in the direction of the River Vistula, but south-west in the direction of the sub-camp Rajsko. They accordingly remained within the area of the camp’s jurisdiction and their chances of escape were minimal. Crematoria Nos. III and V did not join in the revolt, as the SS-guards were able to quell the uprising at once.

As the camp sirens wailed, within a few minutes heavily armed SS units with machine-guns and dogs drove up in trucks, surrounding the area involved in the revolt. After a skirmish in the wood near Crematorium No. IV, nearly all the prisoners who had attempted to escape lay dead. Those who had gone to the south were pursued and surrounded in a barn near Rajsko. Unwilling to take any risks, the SS-men set fire to the barn and shot the prisoners as they ran out.

A few hours later all was quiet. The bodies of the murdered men were brought in and laid out on the area of Crematorium No. IV. There were approximately 250 armed resisters, including Jozef Deresinski, Zalman Gradowski, Ajzyk Kalniak, Lajb Langfus, Lajb Panusz, and Jozef Warszawski, the leader.

When the remainder were counted, twelve prisoners were missing. The SS-men wanted to pursue them immediately, but at that very moment air-raid sirens began to wail. The chances of the twelve, who had managed to get away, immediately increased. Unable to pursue them for the time being, the SS-men shot, on the spot, approximately 200 prisoners from the crews of the two crematoria that had revolted. In the evening, when the all clear was sounded, SS-patrols with dogs set off in search of the twelve missing men. It transpired that they had managed to reach the other side of the River Vistula. Yet due to exhaustion they had hidden in an empty building, where they were discovered. They were murdered and their bodies were brought back to the camp. In all the prisoners of the Sonderkommando managed to kill three SS-men: Corporals Rudolf Erler, Willi Freeze and Jozef Purke, while wounding a further dozen Holocaust perpetrators.

The camp’s Political Department (effectively Auschwitz-Birkenau’s Gestapo) had uncovered some information about the outside contacts that the Sonderkommando had established to help them carry out the revolt. Three Jewesses in the nearby Union-Werke – Ella Gartner, Ester Wajsblum and Regina Safir – were arrested. The following day two more Jewesses were sent to their deaths. One of them was Roza Robota, who had acted as a messenger between Ella Gartner and Wrobel, a member of the Sonderkommando, who collected explosives from her.

That same day 75 years ago, fourteen men who worked at Crematoria III and IV, but had not taken part in the fighting, were also arrested. Among this number was Jankiel Handelsman, one of the uprising’s leaders. They were incarcerated and a cruel interrogation began. The SS-men, as usual, tried to find out who had organised the revolt and what their links were to the rest of the camp.  The two SS functionaries who carried out the brutal interrogations were Hans Draser and Karl Reinhard Broch. These interrogations proved to be fruitless, but none of those arrested came returned alive.

A skeleton Sonderkommando, now consisting of 198 prisoners, continued to work in two shifts at Crematoria Nos. II, III, and V. Four female prisoners Ella Gartner, Roza Robota, Regina Safir and Ester Wajsblum were executed by hanging on 6 January 1945, for providing explosives to members of the Sonderkommando to carry out the heroic 7 October 1944 revolt.

Mr Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Founder at Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.

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