Anna Heilman, born Hana Wajcblum, referred to in other sources as Hanka or Chana Weissman, is one of the Auschwitz ex-prisoners who was in on the plot to blow up the crematoria. She, her sister Esther (Estusia was a nickname), and other women smuggled gunpowder out of the Union munitions factory and passed it from insider to insider until it reached the Sonderkommando. The women involved in the gunpowder smuggling chain include Roza Robota (who had direct contact with the men of the Sonderkommando), Ala Gertner, Regina Szafirztajn, Rose Grunapfel Meth, Hadassa Zlotnicka, Marta Bindiger, Genia Fischer, and Inge Frank.
Anna was born on December 1, 1928 into a middle class assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, to Jakub and Rebeka Wajcblum, who were both deaf. They had two children before Anna: first Sabina, then Estusia (all three of their children had normal hearing). Jakub was born in Warsaw in 1887. He owned a factory (Snycerpol) in Warsaw that employed deaf workers to make wooden handicrafts. He went to the Paris World Exposition to exhibit the factory’s products in 1936. His products were also shown at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Rebeka was born in 1898 in Pruzany, Poland. When the children were younger, they had a nanny who was also deaf.
Sabina escaped the Holocaust with her former tutor and future husband, Mietek. They survived by fleeing to the Soviet Union and subsequently settled in Sweden.
Anna, Estusia and their parents lived in an area that became part of the Warsaw Ghetto, in an apartment building on 38 Mila Street, just down the street from 18 Mila Street, headquarters of the ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bjojowa - Jewish Fighting Organization), led by Mordecai Anielewicz.
Anna was part of Hashomer Hatzair, a youth movement. She had a dilemma. She wanted to stay with them and fight in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but she also wanted to stay with her parents. She finally chose to stay with her parents.
Anna, Estusia and their parents were among the last deportees from the Warsaw Ghetto when they were taken to Majdanek in May 1943. Anna’s parents were murdered upon arrival at Majdanek. Estusia and Anna were sent to Auschwitz in September 1943.
In her online memoir, Heilman talks about the idea to smuggle the powder to the Sonderkommando. A quote from her online memoir: Out of this friendship evolved the ideas of resistance. I can't tell you who initiated it ... The idea was what could we do, each one of us, to resist? I thought, "You are working in the Pulverraum. How about taking gunpowder?" We started to talk about the idea. The gunpowder was within our reach. We thought, "We can use it!" Somebody in the group knew that the Sonderkommando was preparing resistance. We said, "Let us give the gunpowder to them!"
They found many ways to smuggle powder out, including making “grenades” out of shoe polish cans filled with gunpowder from the Union munitions plant. They were regularly searched.
The Uprising occurred on October 7, 1944. It was quickly put down. All of the Sonderkommando were killed, but not before their crude bombs severely damaged Crematorium IV. It was never used again, saving many lives.
Estusia was betrayed along with Roza, Regina, and Ala, and were taken to the “Bunker” inside the main camp and tortured for months. They never gave up Hana’s name. They only gave names of Sonderkommando members who were already dead.
Estusia, Regina, Ala and Roza were hanged on January 5, 1945, just under two weeks before the advancing Soviet Red Army reached Auschwitz. The entire women’s camp was forced to watch the executions. The women were executed as Jewish resistance fighters, under direct orders from Berlin. The four were murdered as were millions of others, but their act of defiance and courage forced the Nazis to recognize them as individuals, as they wanted to make an example out of these four to make sure no one else would do what they did.
Auschwitz was brutally evacuated on January 18, 1945, as the Soviet Army continued its advance towards Germany.
Heilman kept a journal after the war, which was locked in a drawer for several years until her relative found it and Heilman finally decided to publish it.
Anna was sent on a forced march to Ravensbrück where they stayed until February 1945, then they were at Neustadt-Glewe until the Soviets liberated them on May 2, 1945. After a brief stay in Belgium, she emigrated in May 1946 to Palestine under the British Mandate. She was reunited with Sabina, met her extended family, and finished high school.
On March 7, 1947, Anna married Joshua Heilman. Joshua had left Poland for British Mandate Palestine to pursue his university studies one week before the outbreak of World War II. His younger sister Rose was also interned at Auschwitz and survived the war. The rest of his family was murdered.
Anna obtained a degree in social work in Israel. Anna and Joshua had two daughters: Ariela, born in 1951, and Noa, born in 1953. Joshua went to the United States as a Hebrew teacher and brought the rest of the family to Boston in March 1958. The family emigrated to Ottawa, Canada in August 1960 where Joshua found work as a Hebrew school principal. Anna worked with The Children’s Aid Society in Ottawa as a bilingual (French-English) social worker until she retired as supervisor of the English/French unit in 1990. Anna lives in Ottawa. Their daughter Ariela lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Their daughter Noa lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband and two children. Joshua Heilman died in October 2005.
Anna Heilman is featured in Unlikely Heroes, a 2004 film about Jewish resistance during WWII.
Heilman died in May 2011.