Nineteen-year-old Ester Wajcblum and her 14-year-old sister Hana arrived at Auschwitz in the spring of 1943. They were assigned to work in the munitions factory where they met Regina Safirsztain and Ala Gertner, women engaged in resistance activities. Together with Roza Robota, who worked in the clothes depot, they began to smuggle gunpowder to the men in the adjoining camp, sometimes using bodies of friends that were en route to the Sonderkommando for disposal.
The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners who worked the death camps in return for special treatment and privileges. Every few months, the Sonderkommando were liquidated and the first task of their successors was to dispose of the bodies of the previous group. Since a Sonderkommando usually comprised men from incoming transports, their second task often consisted of disposing of the bodies of their own families.
The Sonderkommando did not participate in the actual killing – that was carried out by the Nazis. The Sonderkommando duties included guiding the new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterward, shaving hair, removing teeth, sorting through possessions (some of which they were given as reward), cremating the bodies, and disposing of the ashes. Their knowledge of the internal workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Someone selected for the Sonderkommando had a choice: die then or die in four months’ time.
As the time of their execution grew nearer, the members of the 12th Sonderkommando crystallized their plans of revolt and escape. Besides the gunpowder being smuggled by the women, which the men fashioned into crude grenades using sardine tins, there were some small arms that had been slipped through the fence by local partisans. In addition, knives and small axes had been made and hidden throughout the crematoria. Much of the gunpowder was used in creating demolition charges. There was talk of a general uprising that would coincide with the arrival of the approaching Soviet armies, but some Sonderkommando were certain that they would not live until that day.
On October 7, 1944, at about 3 in the afternoon, the Poles in Crematorium 1 began the revolt. Hungarians in Crematoria 3 and 4 joined in while the Sonderkommando of Crematorium 2 broke through the wires of the camp. An especially sadistic Nazi guard in Crematorium 1 was disarmed and stuffed into an oven to be burned alive. Small arms fire rattled from the second floor of the crematoria until the Germans brought in heavy machine guns and riddled the wooden roof.
The guards counterattacked and penetrated the buildings, indiscriminately shooting at all prisoners they encounter. The Sonderkommando in Crematorium 4 took their demolition charges into the oven rooms and detonate them in a defiant suicide.
The revolt was quickly suppressed and the escaped men recaptured with the help of local citizens. Approximately 200 Sonderkommando were forced to lie face down outside the crematoria where they are executed with single shots to the back of the head. Some of the men were spared for interrogation, but the bodies of the 12th Sonderkommando were soon disposed of by the 13th Sonderkommando.
The men gave up names, including those of some 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 were those of already dead Sonderkommando.
On January 5, 1945, the four women were hanged in front of the assembled women’s camp. Roza Robota shouts “Be strong and be brave” as the trapdoor drops.
Crematorium 4 was damaged beyond repair and never used again. On November 7, 1944, the Nazis destroyed the gas chambers to hide their crimes. Twelve days after the hanging of the four women, the camp personnel forced 56,000 prisoners on a Death March into what remained of the Third Reich; 7,500 prisoners left behind were liberated by advancing Soviet armies on January 27.