by Isak Arbus
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, "Honoring the Jewish Resistance." Originally published in 1991.
IN AUGUST, 1944 I found myself on a freight train, overcrowded beyond capacity. Carrying several thousand Jewish prisoners, the train moved slowly and finally stopped at a siding. Most of us were too tired to move, but I managed to get to the little barbed-wire window. Peering out, I spotted, at some distance, a large group of women, their shorn heads kerchiefed, wearing the familiar striped clothing, working in a field. In another direction, I was able to decipher the name of the station: Oswiecim (Auschwitz), which, while vaguely familiar to me as a town in southwestern Poland, meant nothing special. As night fell, our group’s fate was decided by our captors. We moved on further west.
As I recall, the scene at the Auschwitz station was deceptively tranquil. Yet a scant two months later, a revolt broke out in the concentration camp, resulting in the destruction of at least one crematorium and, by Himmler’s orders, the final halting of mass gassings. Of the 650 prisoners, mostly Jews but also Poles and Russians, involved in the uprising, most paid with their lives.
There were also some SS men killed or wounded. In the aftermath of the rebellion, four brave Jewish women — Roza Robota, Ella Gartner, Tosia Wajcblum, and Regina Safirsztajn — accused of providing explosives to the rebels, were hanged in front of the assembled prisoners on January 6, 1945, only weeks before the Red Army reached the camp.
In trying to reconstruct the story that follows, I had to contend with sometimes conflicting information, which is understandable, given the scarcity of surviving witnesses.
THE AUSCHWITZ international underground resistance, known as the Camp Military Council, led by Josef Cyrankiewicz, the future premier of Poland, planned an uprising in the camp late in 1943, linked to a general revolt in Nazi-occupied Poland. However, the Jewish members of the Sonderkommando — a special detachment forced to work cremating the gassed victims — aware that their group was periodically liquidated, pressed for action.
Meanwhile, the situation in the camp was changing. After the bulk of Hungarian Jewry was destroyed, large transports were no longer arriving. The people of the Sonderkommando — Polish, Greek, Hungarian, Russian, and French Jews — felt there was little time to lose, but Cyrankiewicz argued that their action might provoke the murder of the entire camp population.
The Sonderkommando decided to act alone. Two members of the underground, Israel Gutman (who became a Hebrew University professor and Yad Vashem scholar), and Joshua Leifer, who worked in the Krupp munitions factory, were given the task of contacting the Jewish women working in the Pulwer Pavilion, where explosives were made. Because the two men were under constant surveillance, they decided to contact the women through an intermediary at Birkenau (a separate part of the Auschwitz complex), where the Krupp slave workers lived. Noah Zabludowicz, a member of the Jewish section of the underground organization and later a witness at Adolf Eichmann’s trial, contacted the 21-year-old Roza Robota, the best person for the dangerous task, since she knew all the women from her hometown in the explosives department.
Roza, a member of Hashomer Hatzair, was deported to Auschwitz from her native Ciechanow when, in November 1942, the local ghetto was liquidated. Some were sent to their death at Treblinka, the rest to Auschwitz, where most of Roza’s family was gassed. Roza was assigned to work in the clothing supply section at Birkenau. Other Ciechanow women were sent to work at the Krupp factory, operating around the clock in three shifts.
Eager to avenge her family and her people, Roza gladly agreed to obtain explosives. Soon she had about twenty women smuggling dynamite and explosive charges out of the factory. They carried out the little wheels of dynamite, shaped like buttons, in small matchboxes, which they hid on their bosoms or in little pockets in the hems of their dresses. From the barracks, the buttons were passed through an elaborate network to the Russian prisoner Borodin, an expert in constructing bombs. Empty sardine cans served as casings. The finished devices were moved for safekeeping to various hideouts. Roza forwarded them directly to the Sonderkommando, hiding them in the handcarts on which corpses of prisoners who died overnight were taken to the crematoria.
Zalmen Leventhal, a member of the Sonderkommando since 1942, coordinated the plans for the uprising. He recorded various events, including the details of what happened October 7, 1944, in a small notebook, which he buried in a jar under the earth. These notes were discovered on October 17, 1962 near Crematorium III, where Leventhal worked. He himself did not survive.
With the gassing at Birkenau nearing an end, the Sommerkommando was put on a high alert by the underground. On October 7, a Saturday, the SS sent a demand to the foreman of Crematorium IV to supply a list of three hundred people for “evacuation.” Fearing that this was the expected liquidation, he refused. The SS called for a roll-call at noon. What followed is not entirely clear. In the ensuing struggle, some SS men were killed and Crematorium IV was burned down. The people of Crematorium III saw the fire and either joined the struggle or attempted to escape. All were hunted down and killed. The revolt was over.
The SS on October 9 arrested the three women from the Krupp factory. The next day, Roza Robota and fourteen men from Crematoria III and IV Sonderkommando were picked up. All were tortured, but did not break down. None survived.
With the help of Jacob, the Jewish kapo of the notorious Block 11, Roza was briefly visited in her dark cell in a bunker in the block by her townsman, Noah. She assured him that she had betrayed no one. The only name she gave the SS was of a Sonderkommando member already dead. She managed to scribble a farewell message, which she concluded with the Hebrew greeting of the Hashomer: “Be strong and brave!”
Two of the women involved in the smuggling of explosives, Giza Weisblum and Raizl Kibel, survived the war.
Isak Arbus (1917-2014) was captured as a Polish soldier by the Germans in World War II. After being returned to the Warsaw Ghetto from a POW camp, he spent time in nine different concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. He worked as a senior reference librarian at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and was active on our editorial advisory council in the 1990s.