The Revolt of the
Sonderkommando in Birkenau
On Saturday, October 7, 1944, there was great excitement in all of the
On that ordinary autumn day we were suddenly stunned by the sounds of blaring
sirens and shooting.
Flames and thick smoke were rising from the fourth crematorium building in the
grove called Brzezinka by the Polish prisoners.
The following amazing news spread throughout the camp: The prisoners of
the Sonderkommando have rebelled
they rose up to fight the SS men!
The armed uprising of the prisoners against the SS men had been planned a long
time before the 7th
The first of the Sonderkommando organizers was the Kapo of that unit, a
Lithuanian Jew named Kaminsky.
Kapo Kaminsky enjoyed the trust of the SS men, and, with various subterfuges,
he used his status to visit other camps [Auschwitz subdivisions].
The purpose of his visits was to make contact with the branches of the
Kaminsky concealed some 30 hand-grenades in the area of Crematorium 1.
One evening in August 1944, the prisoners of the Sonderkommando working in
Crematorium 1 were hurriedly summoned without prior notice.
The Kommandant of the crematoria, the SS man Mohl
[?] informed them that Kapo Kaminsky had been executed by firing squad a
He had been discovered as one of the first organizers of the underground which
was engaged in the preparations of an uprising.
Mohl further announced to the 200 prisoners that all of the details concerning
the organization was known by the SS and that they were prepared to eliminate
anyone who attempted to emulate Kaminsky.
The incident of Kaminsky's elimination was but a prelude to later events.
The SS appointed a new Kapo to replace Kaminsky, a German, a hardened criminal
who had come to Auschwitz from the Lublin-Majdanek camp and had been employed
there in a special unit as well.
The Sonderkommando numbered some 800 men at that time.
The Russian army was nearing Krakow and the transports from Hungary gradually
The Sonderkommando was [as a consequence] too large and unwieldy for the SS
since there were a significant number of prisoners who were eyewitnesses to the
mass extermination of tens of thousands of human beings.
These prisoners were forbidden to work anyplace else, and, according to the
mocking jibes of the SS, their path to Paradise was assured...
In the summer of 1944 there was a sudden order to clear out the hall of the
station in Auschwitz 1.
The windows were hurriedly sealed with bricks and plaster, but no one grasped
the purpose behind it.
Meanwhile, 300 men of the Sonderkommando at Birkenau were transported to
Auschwitz... All of them were brought under pretext to this hall, and after the
doors were sealed
all were poisoned.
Shortly thereafter, SS Kommandant Mohl was transferred to another camp.
Replacing him was the commander of the crematoria, the SS man Bosch [?].
He was more moderately disposed than Mohl and did not torment the prisoners,
but he also supervised the mass extermination faultlessly, and according to the
He often drank himself into a stupor in order to quiet his conscience.
The iron discipline that Mohl had instituted deteriorated significantly.
The conditions for the continued organization of the underground were now
The men of the last Sonderkommando decided to take up arms and to engage in
open battle against the SS personnel.
This decision was conveyed to the leadership of the underground movement in
In the meantime, the Sonderkommando was supplied with explosives, hand
grenades, and the required number of insulated wire-cutters to cut the
electrified barbed wire.
Moreover, the group was to wait until the preparations of the entire camp were
completed, and not to engage a force that was superior in numbers and weapons.
Only if the men of the Sonderkommando were in imminent danger of extermination,
were they to open hostilities.
This was the order of the underground organization's leadership.
That danger, however, came sooner than expected.
On Saturday morning, October 7, 1944, the intelligence unit of the underground
organization learned that the last group of the Sonderkommando, which had
survived after the extermination on September 29, 1944, was slated for
extermination in the next few days.
This information was immediately passed to the leadership group.
The prisoner, L. Werbel
[?] passed the information to Crematorium 2.
The local leadership immediately convened for consultations.
Suddenly, during these crucial deliberations, the Kapo of the Sonderkommando
The Green [triangular symbol of criminal prisoners]
the habitual criminal, was a German born in the Reich.
He caught on to a part of the conversation and threatened the group
that he would reveal everything to the SS.
There was no time left for hesitation.
They did not let the Kapo carry out his threat.
They seized him on the spot and threw him alive into the burning oven and the
The prisoners dug up the hidden munitions, tied up the SS men that were nearby
and relieved them of their weapons.
The teams of the other crematoria were alerted, and a second group in
Crematorium 2 began to fight.
The prisoner Paniecz
[?] from Lomza disarmed an SS man who was standing guard and also threw
the flaming oven.
The prisoners split up: Some opened fire on the SS guards, and others cut the
electrified barbed wires of the fence and escaped to the Budy
The shots, the explosions, and the blaring sirens summoned all of the garrison
of the SS, numbering some 3000 well-armed men.
On motorcycles and in motorized vehicles the SS rushed to the place of the
uprising, under the command of their officers.
Units of the SS organized in platoons surrounded the crematorium, and they
concentrated their heaviest fire on the grove behind Crematorium 4, where the
main group of prisoners were defending themselves.
The crematorium was going up in flames, but the SS men concentrated on
suppressing the revolt.
Along the chain of guard-posts the firing was so intense that there was
practically no possibility to escape from the area.
Only a small group of prisoners managed to kill six of the SS men and to break
through towards the Vistula.
The SS men in hot pursuit caught up to them near Rajesko
[?], some 10 kilometers distant from Birkenau.
The escapees were entrenched in a barn and opened fire on the SS, but the
latter set the barn on fire with flame-throwers and killed all the prisoners.
In this battle some 300 armed prisoners gave their lives.
Among them was
Z. Gradowsky from Suwalki.
The rebels, who were captured in the camp, in the courtyard of Crematorium 2
and the surrounding area were killed by the SS.
There were some prisoners who managed to hide, and several of them even
On that day, Allied airplanes flew over the camp.
The alert prevented the SS and the reinforcements that had been called in from
continuing pursuit and combing the area.
The leadership of the Auschwitz underground immediately dispatched the news of
the events at Birkenau to the surrounding districts, and demanded their
assistance to the rebels who had escaped.
One group, numbering 27 prisoners, moved westward under the leadership of a
Sonderkommando prisoner, a German Jew, reached as far as Germany.
They were apprehended by the Volkssturm (German Civil Defense) and
jailed in a small German town.
The prisoners were saved by their claim to have escaped a transport on the way
It was not possible to refute their claim, as this was a throughway of prisoner
transports, and the transfer lists were by that time in utter disarray.
The prisoners were sent to one of the remote camps in the area and remained
there until the day of liberation.
Meanwhile an investigation was underway at Auschwitz.
The SS were not satisfied with the cruel suppression of the revolt.
They wanted to discover all of the communication lines of the conspiracy.
In spite of the most drastic measures that were taken, they did not succeed in
unmasking the main organizers of the revolt nor their liaison units.
The SS started their investigations and torture of women who had been employed
in the munitions depots and in the Krupp munitions plant.
The young women who were interrogated displayed great courage and revealed
Four of them were jailed and cruelly tortured, since they were suspected of
having supplied the explosives to the men of the Sonderkommando.
When a prisoner belonging to the underground visited them in order to encourage
them and to get information on the continuing investigation, there was no end
to his amazement at their great fortitude.
These girls called on the organization to continue their struggle, and regarded
the loss of their own lives as their obvious responsibility in the struggle for
It was almost apparent that the [Red] army, which had swiftly advanced to Krakow,
would also rescue these brave girls.
There were only 14 days lacking.
A radioed order from Berlin, however, arrived to execute these four girls
immediately by hanging.
On January 5, 1945, the gallows were erected in the women's section of the main
camp at Auschwitz 1, and there they were executed.
The revolt at the Crematoria was the only armed revolt in Auschwitz, and had a
profound moral impact.
It encouraged the prisoners, aroused their faith and hope that they would be
privileged to see the end of the war.
My Participation in the Revolt at Auschwitz
Much has already been written about the heroic uprising of the
Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, when a group of Jewish camp inmates
attacked the crematorium in the middle of the day, on September 5, 1944,
exploded the facilities with dynamite, and threw two living SS officers of the
extermination Kommando into the ovens.
The screams of the burning SS men were heard in the surrounding areas because
it was the first time that the crematorium received living beings, not the
It was also the first time that the smoke which had always emerged only from
the tall chimneys now enshrouded the entire crematorium building.
The Jewish rebels soon afterwards cut the electrified barbed wire and ran off
in all directions.
Close to 20,000 SS men started off in pursuit to capture the fleeing rebels.
Unfortunately, they caught them all and shot them.
The crematorium, however, burned a whole day and night and was completely
The deathly function of this particular crematorium was brought to an end for
The question arises: Where did the rebels get the explosives, at a time when
the Birkenau camp was entirely isolated and cut off without any contact with
the rest of the world?
Not even a pinhead could be smuggled in from outside, not to speak of dangerous
materials such as explosives in wartime.
I can reveal this secret, because I and four other girls, my comrades Estushe
Weissman, Regina Sapirstein, Genia Fischer, and Chana Weissman, supplied the
rebels for eight months with powder and other ammunition which we
systematically removed from the Powder Room in which we worked.
This story began in January 1944, when two Jewish boys, prisoners at the men's
camp, introduced themselves to us as members of the underground who were making
preparations to carry out acts of sabotage in Auschwitz and Birkenau, but they
needed explosives which could only be supplied from the Powder Room.
Naturally, they demanded great discretion and trust, and only girls of
outstanding character could be considered to maintain secrecy under the
For a period of eight months, we, the five girls, hid, in our clothes and next
to our skin the needed equipment and explosives, and no one knew about this.
Only one Russian girl once noticed as Estushe Weissman was hiding something in
her bosom and was whispering to Regina Sapirstein.
We thought that this Russian girl, who herself was in dire straits, and her
country was engaged in a bloody struggle with the enemy, would keep silent and
tell no one of her suspicions.
Unfortunately, right after the explosion, she made some remarks that she knew
the secret, she probably wanted to curry favor with the murderers, and she
informed against Estushe Weissman and Regina Sapirstein, that they had removed
The murderers tortured the two girls in an attempt to extract information on
their accomplices to the crime, but they heroically bore up under the ordeal
and kept silent.
The punishment was terrible.
The Nazis hanged both of the Jewish girls and forced everyone to stand and
watch the execution.
May the names of Estushe Weissman and Regina Sapirstein be recorded in the
eternal memorial of Jewish heroes in history.
May I be permitted to record my family which was completely wiped out in the
German death camps, for an eternal memorial.
My grandmother Frumet, who lived to a ripe old age and was fully active and aware to the last
She was 86 years old when the Nazis liquidated the town of Zator.
She perished together with her son, my father R Shloime Zalman and my mother
Rivka Miriam and my other grandmother, Menucha Offen
They shared the same fate of all the [Jewish] inhabitants of Zator, and became
martyrs for the Sanctification of God's Name in the month of Tammuz 5702
My brother, Eliezer was married and lived in Krakow.
He was deported to Plaszow and later to Mauthausen where he met his death.
His wife and child perished in Krakow.
My brother Dovid perished in a German work-camp in Silesia.
My three sisters: Perel, Soreh-Ittale, and Chaitche worked in the Wadowice
ghetto and were, together with the youth of Wadowice, deported to Auschwitz.
They perished after a selection by the murderer, the SS
Tauber, on one of the Chanukkah nights in 5703
May their names be hallowed for all time.
She was young when the Germans entered Ciechanow and took her and her sister to
work cleaning the home of the former local governor.
The two sisters were severely tormented at hard labor.
Meanwhile their home was destroyed and their family moved to live with
relatives in the ghetto, until it was liquidated in November 1942, and most of
the inhabitants were transferred to Auschwitz.
Rosa, too, was among them.
In the camp she passed the terrible selection, where the fate of the prisoners
who to the gas chambers and who to work until collapse.
Noach Zabludowicz, who was in contact with her, tells how she devoted herself
with great enthusiasm to the underground efforts.
Her eyes were alight with the fire of revenge when she succeeded in doing
something against the oppressor.
Rosa was much beloved by her comrades in the camp, for she supplied them with
bread when all were starving.
In a short time she was able to gather to her dozens of young girls like
herself who would bring her gunpowder.
Rosa would safeguard the powder until it could be transferred to the men of the
This important and dangerous task she carried out with alertness and amazing
In the middle of 1944 the heads of the underground organization in Oswiecim
decided to revolt, such as would include all of the camps simultaneously.
They hoped for assistance from the A.K. [Armia Krajowa
the Polish Underground].
The organizers of the revolt had high hopes in the Sonderkommando, who worked,
as earlier mentioned, near the roads.
Some 600 men were employed in this accursed work, with the clear knowledge,
that the time would come for them to be liquidated by the Germans, just as they
had done with their predecessors.
Consequently they decided to fight their murderers to the last man.
The Sonderkommando uprising erupted suddenly, at a time unexpected by the heads
of the underground.
[?] details the following in his memoirs:
That day the word spread about a transport of men and men of the
Just a few minutes later and six hundred of the men of the Sonderkommando
Crematorium 2 went up in flames and the German Kapo, who excelled in cruelty,
was thrown into the burning oven.
In a battle at close quarters four SS men were killed and several others were
The area surrounding the crematorium turned into a battlefield.
The barrier around the area was destroyed and the rebels escaped.
All of the SS in the area were summoned to the camp.
The work gangs stopped their labors and were returned to their blocks.
A count of the prisoners was made.
The SS men ran around the camp like poisoned rats.
This was something they had not expected nor had it ever occurred to them that
they would have to defend themselves against Jews.
To our great sorrow, the hoped for assistance to the rebels of the
Sonderkommando from other parts of the camp never came.
The Germans took control of the situation, killed the rebels, including some of
the Ciechanow residents
and conducted a thorough investigation, accompanied by terrible tortures.
The investigation revealed, of course, that the explosives which had been used
by the rebels had come from the munitions plant.
The suspicion fell on some of the women who worked in the gunpowder department.
They were arrested and transferred to block 11 and severely tortured.
Rosa Robata was also among them.
The failure of the revolt, the torture and killings instilled fear in the
Each one thought that his end was nigh.
Depression enveloped the few remaining Ciechanowites, who were all very
attached to Rosa Robota, and aware of the great suffering and cruel torture she
Their great desire was to see her once more before she died.
With the help of a Jewish Kapo, he plied the SS man guarding Block 11 with
liquor and Noach Zabludowicz
I was privileged to see Rosa one last time, a few days before her
death, Zabludowicz writes in his memoirs.
At night, when all the prisoners were asleep, during curfew hours and the
strict prohibition against any movement in the camp, I went down to the cellar
of Block 11, passing through the darkened corridors and cells.
I heard the groans of the condemned prisoners and I shuddered.
I descended the steps, led by the Kapo, until we reached Rosa's cell.
Yakov, the Kapo, opened the door, led me inside, and disappeared.
When my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I made out a figure wrapped in
rags, lying on the cold cement floor.
The figure turned its head in my direction.
I barely recognized her.
Her face was marked from endless pain and suffering.
After some moments of silence Rosa began to tell me about the sadistic means
that the Germans had used against her during the interrogation and she said
that she had accepted total responsibility without naming anyone else.
Some days later the Germans assembled all the women who worked at the
Union factory to witness the hanging of four of their comrades.
Rosa was one of them.
The women told of her calmness, courage, and pride as the Jewish heroine from
Ciechanow walked to the gallows. This was at the end of November 1944.
I tried to comfort her but she refused to listen.
'I knew very well what I was doing and I know what is in store for me`, she
said, and she asked that the comrades continue in their work:
'It is easier to die`, she said, 'when you know that your work continues`.
There was a rustle at the door.
Yakov called me to come out.
I parted from Rosa.
That was the last time I saw her.
In the Midst of Hell
(A chapter of his memoirs)
One must suppress the feeling heart, dampen every painful feeling.
One has to out-shout the gruesome agony, which spreads like a storm over all
One must be transformed into a robot, and become unseeing, unfeeling, and
The feet and hands reported for work.
A group of comrades are standing, each assigned to his work.
One pulls, rips at the bodies with force to pull them out of the knot, one
pulls a hand, another a foot, whichever is easier.
One thinks that piece by piece, the constant pulling will also tear one's
The body is pulled along the dirty, cold, cement floor, and wipes up with its
nice, alabaster body, as with a broom, all of the dirt, all of the
filth it meets on the way.
One takes the body, now messy, and places it with the face upwards.
A pair of milky, limpid eyes look at you, as if to ask:
Hey brother, what are you going to do to me?
More than once you recognize a familiar face, with whom you spent time before
going to the grave.
Three people stand by and prepare him.
One with a cold pliers invades that lovely mouth and searches for a gold tooth,
and when he finds one, rips it out with flesh attached.
A second one cuts the curly hair
removes the woman's crown, and the third quickly tears off the earrings, and
sometimes they come out quite bloody.
Then there are the rings which do not come off too easily, which are ripped off
Now it is transferred to the windlass.
Like lumber the bodies are thrown by two people, and when they number 7
8, a signal is made with a stick and the windlass rises upwards.
Up there, by the winch, are four men.
Two on one side of the winch, to drag the bodies to the
reserve-room, and two who pull them directly to the ovens.
They are placed, two by two, near the oven doors.
Little children are lying on the side in a large pile
they are thrown to accompany two adults.
They are placed on the iron Tahara-board,
then the mouth of hell is opened, and the board is pushed into the oven.
The hellish fire draws its tongues, like open arms and immediately grabs the
body, as if it were a treasure.
To begin with the hair is aflame.
The skin swells and bursts in seconds.
The hands and feet then begin to move
since the tendons contract and this causes the limbs to move.
The body, all of it, is now burning well, the skin has burst, the fat drips,
and you hear the sizzle of the burning flames.
You don't see a body any more, only a pillar of hellish fire which surrounds
The stomach soon bursts.
The intestines and innards spill out rapidly, and in mere minutes there is no
trace of them left.
The head burns for the longest time.
From his eyes blue flames sparkle
the eyes are now burning along with the inner marrow, and from the mouth, the
tongue is still burning.
The whole procedure lasts twenty minutes
and a body, a whole world, has been transformed into ashes.
You stand, frozen, and watch.
Now they put in two more.
Two humans, two worlds, who had a place in the world, they lived and existed,
they acted and produced.
They counted in the world, and for themselves, laid a brick in the great
building, wove a thread for the world and for the future
and right away, in but twenty minutes no trace of them will remain.
Now there are two more lying there.
They've been washed clean.
Two young women who had once been gorgeous.
They had constituted two worlds on the earth.
How much good fortune and joy they had brought to the world.
Each smile of theirs was a comfort, their every glance provided happiness,
every word enchanting as a heavenly song, wherever they set their feet, they
had brought joy and contentment.
Many hearts loved them and now they lie here, these two, on the iron frame and
the maw will soon open and in minutes there will be no sign of them.
Now, three more are lying there. A child pressed to a mother's breast, so much
joy, so much happiness for the mother, for the father, at the time of their
They built a home, wove a future, their world was idyllic and soon in twenty
minutes there will be no trace of them.
The winch travels up and down, bringing countless victims.
Like an enormous slaughterhouse, piles of people lie and wait for their turn to
Thirty hellish maws are now blazing in the two large buildings and swallow the
It won't take them long and five thousand people,
five thousand worlds will be devoured by the flames.
The ovens, they flicker like stormy waves.
The fires were lit a long time ago by the hands of barbarians and murderers of
the world, who hope to banish the darkness of their gruesome world with its
The fire burns boldly and quietly.
No one interferes.
No one extinguishes it.
It continually receives countless victims, as if the ancient martyred
people had been especially born for it.
Will you, the great free world, ever see the great flame?
Will you, man, sometimes at dusk, stop in your tracks and lift your eyes high
towards the deep blue heavens, which are overcast, aflame
you should know, man, that this is the fire from hell, which burns here
Maybe your heart will warm itself from their fire, and your hands, cold as ice,
will come here some time and extinguish the fire.
And maybe, your heart will fill with courage and boldness, and grow wings to
change places with the victims facing the fire, the hell, which will remain
here forever, burning, and consume here in its flames those who kindled it.
- From the book They Defended Themselves published by Yad
Vashem and Beit Lochamei HagettaotReturn
- [Tr. note: See her photo on p. 422 of the Hebrew text, following the second
article on Zator.]Return
- From the book They Defended Themselves published by Yad
Vashem and Beit Lochamei HagettaotReturn
- Zalman Gradowsky organized the revolt against the SS in Birkenau-Auschwitz at
the end of 1944 (see earlier article on the Sonderkommando). Some of his
writings, in which he describes the gruesome details of the Auschwitz death
camp, were found buried near the crematorium, and are now published by H. Chaim
- [Tr. note: A gruesome allusion to the board on which the body is placed by the
Chevra Kadisha to prepare it in Tahara = purity before burial. The contrast to
the disposition here in utter impurity is devastating.]Return
Jewish Heroism – or Like Sheep to the Slaughter
Chaim Brenner, School Principal at Ramle
The great catastrophe of our time, during whose process of terrible
extermination many thousands were led to the slaughter without any apparent
reaction of resistance, fortified the conception of the enemies of Jews, ancient
and modern, that the people of Israel are by nature a timid and cowardly people,
lacking the courage to defend its honor and lives. Lately, there have been some
scathing remarks – not from anti-Semites, but from Jews, and especially from
the youth growing up and being educated in Israel. The Jews of the Diaspora are
accused of a lack of self esteem, that they allowed themselves to be led like
sheep to the slaughter, and that they submitted to those who degraded them
without any attempt at resistance. Many of the youth in Israel take exception to
these Jews and are ashamed of them, see them and all the generations of the
Diaspora Jews as spineless, lacking the will to guard and defend their human
dignity, and many of the older generation have become deeply perplexed by the
Let us examine the question of the character of the Jews of the Diaspora –
whether such a thing exists – from the long-term historical perspective. From
such a viewpoint we can determine by historical facts, and not just assumptions
– the character and capacity for response of the Jewish People under varying
circumstances, and perhaps arrive at some conclusions.
The Jewish People strode onto the stage of history as a treasured people; it
sees itself as the chosen people, and has believed in the depths of its very
soul, throughout all the generations of exile, that it is a special people. Ever
since it stepped into the arena of nations it appears as one bearing a sublime
conception of faith. The Jewish People. in all the ages sees itself as the
personification of the notion of truth, goodness, and human nobility; on its
banner it has emblazoned the concept of man created in the image of God. Within
the vast pagan world enshrouded in darkness, it shines as a blazing torch and a
great light, with the concept that the God of the world, creator of all demands
that man do the good and the just, and to respect each other. The pride of this
people are its marvelous doctrines which stand in great contrast to the pagan
world devoid of rational thought. The noble and lofty world view was placed in
opposition to the stupidity, foolishness, and wickedness of the great idolatrous
empires ruling the world.
Torrents of abuse have been poured on the head of this people throughout all the
generations without parallel in history. It was crushed and trampled, humiliated
in the dust, its blood shed without fear, maligned and slandered that the curse
of God lay upon it for eternity. It was slaughtered, butchered, and burned
alive, its blood spilled like water in all corners of the world, its children
pursued like mad, leprous dogs from country to country; it was denied all civil
rights, and any possibility for humane and dignified existence. Poisonous,
venomous hatred encircled it, scorn and animosity were its lot. Why was this so?
Whence did the viper suckle its venom? What was its source? The primitive beast
in man rises up against lofty human ideals, imaginary forces emerged from the
primeval forests to destroy the culture of altruism and the mutual respect of
man, which is opposed to the character and nature of the ravening, primordial
beast lodged within man.
This people was not broken. That is the greatest marvel of human history. From
what source did this people derive the strength and courage to stand up to this
floodgate of contempt and hatred, the abysmal malevolence and lust for murder
and annihilation? The absolute belief in the validity of the lofty ideals borne
by the people provided the colossal spiritual energies to withstand with superb
valor, sacrifice, and utter devotion. A cowardly people, lacking courage, would
long ago have been crushed and subjugated, would have relinquished all and
become extinct without leaving a trace. Only a people composed of courageous
individuals, imbued with the powerful awareness of the validity of their ideals
would have been ready and able to overcome the mighty waves of contempt and
terrible hostility and still remain alive, creative, and dynamic.
A person stands at the crossroads: Either the cross or the pyre of the
Inquisition, and with but one word of assent could remain alive and live in
opulence, but he preferred to be burned alive, since he did not want to deny the
ideals to which he was devoted, such a one cannot be called a coward. The
historical facts completely negate the libel of Jewish cowardice. A man who is
killed for the faith in which he believes, is a hero, not a coward. Were it not
for this marvelous heroism there would not have remained a trace of the People
of Israel; that is an undisputed historical fact.
If there is youth in Israel that dares to smear the Jews of the Diaspora with
cowardice, it is obvious that he has become detached from the generational
continuity and from the primary values of Judaism. He has no understanding of
the profound significance of the historic struggle taking place between Judaism
and Paganism and Christianity.
The Jewish People is a treasured people without arrogance, a chosen people,
loving all who were created in the image of God. In his prayer where he praises
God for not having made us like the heathen families of the earth, he continues
in his prayer to his Creator, adding the hope that the idols will depart from
the earth and that the world should be perfected under the reign of the
Almighty, and all mankind will call upon his name, and that his yearning is that
every existing being know that “Thou hast made it, and every creature realize
that Thou hast created it”. This was a modest people, convinced in the
validity of its faith and willing to die for it, and yearning that all the
nations would exert themselves to be worthy of the title of man created in the
image of God.
The struggle between Judaism and paganism is not over, it renews itself, and
takes a different form. Judaism has not despaired of its motto “Let every
existing being know that You have made it, and every creature realize that You
have created it”. It strives towards the perfection of the world under the
reign of the Almighty, its struggle and reckoning with the world's Christian and
pagan culture, is not over, it has taken a new form.
Youth that delves into Jewish history of all times, prepared to view
comprehensively and penetratingly in a thoughtful and conscious manner Jewish
creativity all along the past, will become convinced in the righteousness and
greatness of this historic struggle.
With respect to the Shoah, no one who has not been in that terrible situation,
the likes of which had never occurred in human history – has the right to
accuse the martyrs of the Shoah. One should understand that the planned,
premeditated trickery of the Nazis left at all times a ray of hope and the
possibility of survival, and when that ray and hope dimmed, the people had
reached the point where they were hardly alive, their senses had for quite some
time ceased to function in a normal physical way. These were only skeletons and
shadows of their former selves who by inertia continued to move and walk about,
as it were, for they had long since not been alive. Those that were human
beings, who had fled to the forests in good time truly proved their wonderful
courage and heroism. It would be a sinful crime for us to stand in judgment over
the martyrs according to the concepts of free, living, human beings. We do not
have the criteria that make it possible to understand their situation and
ability to react reduced to a mere shadow of their former selves, long since but
like the walking dead. Were we to add to this the hostile and appalling attitude
of the neighboring peoples among whom the Nazis carried out their designs, we
would understand how absolutely desperate and hopeless the situation was. No
people would or could have acted differently. These skeletons and shadows had
but one desire – to be rid of life and liberated from the suffering of the
ugly world in which it was not worthwhile to live and breathe. In this filth and
defilement it was impossible to want to live, and that was how they felt and
reacted, and one can understand them. There were some individuals who took up
resistance, and there were special circumstances which made it possible. They
were the glorious few who had special ability, but one may not accuse the whole
people nor be ashamed of them. It is a fact that those people, the survivors of
the Shoah proved their marvelous heroism in the War of Liberation when the
possibilities and conditions for struggle existed. Youth standing on the free
land of their birth, his own blue skies overhead, and possessing excellent
weapons – sins grievously if he were to scorn those who were totally
defenseless. This would be a complete misunderstanding of the awful suffering of
the martyred victims. Their memory shall always remain with us.
I Wandered Like a Lost Sheep
Ze'ev (Wowek) Peltzman
In 1937, anti-Semitism was pervasive in Oshpitzin, having burgeoned after the
death of Marshall Josef Pilsudski two years earlier. There was a Polish Gymnasia
[High School] in Oshpitzin which was off limits to Jews, aside from rare
exceptions, so that when we graduated from primary school we were faced with the
question: “What now?” in all its piercing cruelty. This was the major
problem for a large number of local youths. At the initiative of Kehilla
leaders, moves were made to organize a kind of Jewish Gymnasia. Mrs. Weinheber,
who had left her post at the Polish Gymnasia undertook the administration of our
school. Students from all sectors of the Jewish population, who viewed this
school as a step towards their future, were admitted. They received both a
Jewish and secular education. At this school we also began to organize in terms
of political action. My comrades: Avrohom Schwartz, Munik Riff, and I
pondered long as to which political group we should join, that would respond to
all the problems facing us and to prepare us for the future. We decided to
consult the leaders of the Po'alei Tzion in Oshpitzin, the Chaverim Yosef
Wertheimer, S. Jerut, M. Weinheber, and A. Ribner and they advised us to join
“Gordonia”. That is what we did. We were inducted by Ita Smolowitz and Meir
Bialik who led the movement. With their help and instruction, a group of youths
was organized and we began with various activities; the study of the Hebrew
language, Jewish history, Zionism, and prepared for Aliyah in whatever way
possible. From time to time emissaries came from the central organization and
instructed us in our activities.
Our membership in “Gordonia” started out as a secret from our parents, but
when the plans for Aliyah ripened and the directive from the national secretary
of the movement, Mr. Dov Friedman, arrived to be ready for Aliyah, some for
Aliyah Bet, and some for Hachshara for youth at Ben Shemen in Eretz Yisrael, we
could no longer keep the secret and each of us explained the real situation to
his parents. Thus we left our studies and devoted ourselves entirely to movement
activities and preparation for Aliyah. The head of our group, Meir Bialik, left
with Aliyah Bet to Eretz Yisrael, and I was instructed to get ready for the Ben
Shemen group. Due to the opposition of my parents to my Aliyah at that time, I
had to relinquish the plan. I took upon myself the task of leading the
activities of the “Gordonia” branch which was housed on Jagielonska Street.
We ran discussions about general matters, Eretz Yisrael concerns, and current
events, such as: The rise in anti-Semitism and the reports that reached us over
the border with nearby Germany about the persecution of and attacks on Jews.
Then came the “Zbonzhen” [Zbaszyn] episode, a small border transit town
between Germany and Poland where thousands of Jews resident in Germany had been
deported-dumped. They held Polish passports or were Polish citizens. The coarse
cruelty and brutality of the German hobnailed boots, coupled with the negative
attitude of the Poles towards the deportees constituted a warning and alarm
signal for us all to observe and learn our true situation in this boiling sea of
anti-Semitism and hate. At that time the tension along the border also rose, the
incitement and mutual recriminations increased. Hitler threatens – and carries
it out. On September 1, 1939, the Second World War breaks out, and on that same
day the first victims died in our town, and, ironically, they were innocent
civilians that were hit by the bombs dropped by the airplanes. Among the others
killed that Friday were two youngsters, Zushke Enger and David Schnitzer. Panic
spread among the townspeople who were completely bewildered. Next day, on
Shabbat, people began to flee without knowing where and what direction to take.
They trailed after the Polish army which was in flight and totally disorganized.
We also decide to escape from the city, rapidly becoming empty of its Jews, and
leave our birthplace to the plundering looters.
The roads to Zator and Krakow were full of men, women, and children, and in the
skies above, every once in a while, German planes drop their bombs and wreak
havoc and destruction. In this utter rout, people lose their relatives, and
families that had tried to stay together are separated; the young and healthy
flee ahead in order to distance themselves from the pursuing enemy. Everyone as
best he can, but the motorcycle-mounted Germans are much faster and soon
Our entire family, still together, reached Wieliczka where we separated; my
father, brother, and I fleeing onwards, and my mother, sisters, and two smaller
brothers remained behind, in the hope that the Germans would not harm women and
children. In our flight we met Polish soldiers “retreating”...When we asked
what was happening at the front? They answered: We will yet stop the German
beast. Thus passed days and nights for a two week period, and hundreds of
thousands were still crowding the roads. We had traveled several hundred
kilometers, and things still looked endlessly bleak. We had hoped to reach Lwow,
but the German beast outflanked us near Kolbuszowa, at the town of Mednik [?].
This was just before Rosh Hashono 5700. Like many of the refugees that reached
the town, we found shelter in the local synagogue. In the morning there were
rumors that the Germans had entered the town, nevertheless, we prepared
ourselves to hold the services and we, younger ones, stood watch outside. We
began to make the rounds in the nearby streets and when we reached the
marketplace we saw German soldiers acting as if they owned the place. The entire
marketplace had been turned into a gigantic storehouse and we were compelled to
unload the trucks laden with all kinds of crates and machinery. After an hour's
work, I saw the murderers marching in formation in the direction of the
synagogue. I sneaked away and hurried to the synagogue, where hundreds of Jews
were at prayer. They had begun saying: “Our Father and King, send a perfect
healing to the sick among Thy people”, when the murderers burst inside,
beating them, chasing them out while still wrapped in their Taleisim, now
bloodstained. It seems they did not sense that I was a Jew, and allowed me to
enter the synagogue. I was able to save something of our meager bundles and I
saw with my own eyes the great devastation, how they had plundered and
desecrated all that was holy to us. While they were stabbing with their bayonets
and ripping apart the Torah Scrolls, I stood, hoping that a miracle would
transpire in my presence and that the Hand of God would smite them – but the
miracle was not to be. They managed to destroy this sanctuary. As I said, I
succeeded in saving some of my things, among them my T'filin, which were a
treasured possession, as when parting from my mother in Wieliczka, my mother
told me to take the T'filin and keep them safe because T'filin protects us from
Next day, we decided to try progressing eastward, for the rumors had it that the
Russians were advancing towards Reishe [Rzeszow], but, already in Kolbuszowa we
were caught by German patrols who interrogated us and searched us. They found my
T'filin, and when they tore the seams and found the parchments, they said that
it was in code and accused me of spying. I was in danger of losing my life. With
difficulty and miraculously we succeeded in making our escape and to survive. We
fled the place at once, but this time in a western direction to return to
Wieliczka in order to find my mother and siblings.
After lengthy wandering, since the roads were packed with straying travelers, we
reached Krakow where we found my older brother, a soldier in the Polish army,
now detained in a prisoner of war camp at Kubierzyn [?] near Krakow. There
were hundreds of Jews among thousands of Poles, all looking completely
exhausted. A rumor was making the rounds that they were going to be released.
After a stay of several weeks in Krakow, we learned that my mother and siblings
were in Oshpitzin, so we decided to return there as well. After a difficult trek
we finally reached home. We found nothing whole, everything was ruined, many
homes were occupied by the Germans or Poles. There was a serious scarcity of
food and basic necessities, but we hoped that somehow things would slowly work
out and we would be able to exist.
At year's end, in 1939, we were instructed to wear a white armband with the blue
Star of David on our right arm. A curfew was enforced from six p.m. until
morning, and many other decrees were issued. With the start of 1940, a Kehilla
Council was organized, headed by Mr. Yosef Gross and Yosef Mannheimer. The
anti-Jewish decrees grew in number, youths were seized for various work-details,
searches were made in the homes, and people were afraid to leave their homes. As
Passover approached, everyone tried to somehow celebrate the holiday, despite
the terrible economic plight. On the first day of the holiday, I met my friend
Yosef Grubner on Sienkiewice [?] Street, and while we were standing there we
heard the call: “Jude, halt!” [Jew, halt!]. I fled from there to the home of
Dr. Tillinger, a dentist for whom my brother worked, I took off my coat and sat
down at the table as if I were in the middle of a meal. At once, an SS man
appeared at the door and shouted: “Where is the Jew that just ran away from
me?” I pretended to be dumbfounded, not understanding, and to my good fortune,
he apparently did not recognize me, and left the house. Next day, my father
received notice to report at the Kehilla Council as a painter. We decided that I
should go in his place. When I arrived there, I became frightened, since the
same SS man from yesterday was there. He only asked me if I was an experienced
painter. When I replied in the affirmative he told me to round up wagons in town
and to join him. Together we went to all the paint shops in town and he ordered
me to remove all the merchandise in each place. He then demanded 200 able-bodied
men from the Kehilla and marched us all off to the former Polish army garrison,
where I was instructed to paint the rooms of three two-storied buildings, and to
do so within three days. One day, an SS officer handed me a note to take to the
“Kultusgemeinde” [Kehilla Council]. The note was stamped: “K. L.
Auschwitz”. At that time we did not yet understand the meaning of these
initials. Some said that it was a prisoner of war camp, and the like, but no one
believed it to mean Konzentrationslager (concentration camp). Meanwhile,
prisoners began to arrive: German political dissidents, and Polish
intelligentsia. One day, as I was at work in the carpentry shop, the SS officer
in charge turned to me and ordered me to prepare crates measuring 2 x 2 meters.
To my question : What were they for?, he replied – to cremate people, and he
added that we will also destroy and cremate you. That was the situation, fear
reigned supreme and we were helpless. The rumors increased and the youth began
to organize for escape. The word came that a group was organizing to leave –
to travel to Eretz Yisrael. Chaver Yosef Mannheimer was in charge of this
operation. A group was chosen which would leave first for Bratislava, via
Cieszyn and Mosty Szlonska, including Mannheimer's daughter, the granddaughter
of Sedger [?], and myself, as the head of the group. We were to reach Mosty
and meet two Czech smugglers in one of the houses there, who would lead us
through the Beskid [mountain range] to Slovakia. We walked, ten of us with the
two Czechs who ordered us to proceed without turning around. The path was snowed
over and the going was hard, bur our morale was high knowing that we were
walking towards freedom and safety. After many hours of tiring hiking in the
mountains, at five in the morning we suddenly heard the sharp sounds of a
whistle. The Czech guides disappeared immediately, the noise around us
increased, and shots were heard. We scattered in all directions attempting to
escape, but soon found ourselves surrounded on all sides by German soldiers who
ordered us: “Surrender”. They rounded all of us up and led us back to Mosty
Szlonska, where they put us in jail. Two days later they sent us back home. This
was on Friday, and on Sunday, the police arrested the entire group and the
parents. We were kept under arrest for a number of days under terrible
conditions. One of those arrested was Yosef Mannheimer, and since he was one of
the Kehilla leaders, Moshe [Munik] Merin of Sosnowice, interceded in his behalf
to free him, and we, together with him, were all released.
One day, I was summoned by Moshe Mannheimer to come to the Kehilla Council
offices, where I found Szlamek Zimmerman from Bedzin, a “Gordonia” leader
waiting for me. We had a conversation lasting hours; we received information
about what was happening in the cities all over Poland, about the decrees and
the murders, and that there were places where the youth was beginning to
organize preparations to defend themselves. We learned that in Szrodula, near
Sosnowice, a Hachshara farm had been established by Zionist youth. At a meeting
with Czarna, Munik Merin's secretary, it was proposed that we should attempt to
set up a Hachshara farm in the Haber House in the Stawy village. This did not
materialize, because we did not get the authorities' approval. One fine day,
Chaver Zimmerman showed up with a group of people from Bedzin and Sosnowice:
Ahron Rotner, Zalman Tenenbaum, Kalman Lederman, and Paula Brafman who were to
be the founding members of the Hachshara group. These were assigned to stay with
local members until Yosef Mannheimer decided to assign a room in his home, and
in that manner the “Hachshara” came into being.
We maintained contacts with youths in all kinds of places and with the “Grojen
[?] Kibbutz” near Warsaw. We also received word from Nosen Schwalb in
Switzerland, and later we received parcels of food and clothes. The Chaverim
were sent out to work by the Kehilla which paid their wages. Osher Ribner took
an active and continued interest in our work. On one of the Sabbaths in the
summer of 1941, the entire group went out for a swim in the Sola River, not far
from the “Iron Bridge”, over which the trains passed. Chaver Kalman Laderman
was caught in a whirlpool and drowned. His body was recovered only two days
later. This was a severe blow for us, but we continued in spite of that to
maintain contact with the youth and to encourage and prepare them for coming
events, and to be ready, should we succeed, to make Aliyah.
As time passed the size of the concentration camp grew and expanded, swallowing
the villages in the area and also approached the city. The “Aussiedlungen”
[deportations] began. The Jewish Council got an order to supply hundreds of
youths to work camps in Silesia. Among the first to be sent to a “work-camp”
were a substantial part of our group. We were assembled in the “Hotel Herz”
where we parted from our families, and on the same day we are transferred to a
camp of barracks in Annaburg. We worked at building the “Autostrada”
[superhighway]. We tried to unite the group in one hut, and, in that fashion, we
were able to stay in touch with each other, and in some small way also with the
outside. Then, the black day came, the day when Himmler's commissioner,
Obersturmbannführer Lindner arrived and removed all who were in the infirmary
and transferred them to the Auschwitz Camp. Among these unfortunates were six
Bachurim from Oshpitzin, who we learned shortly thereafter were reported dead.
They were liquidated in a few weeks and their ashes were given to the Chevra
Kadisha in Oshpitzin in exchange for 50 Marks per box. Their ashes were buried
surreptitiously in the Oshpitzin cemetery. We, ourselves, began to realize that
it was not as we had been told at first, a work camp, but a camp designed to
destroy us physically. We were supposed to work from early in the morning until
late at night, at hard labor, in the freezing cold and snow, under the worst
conditions. They stopped giving us the letters sent from home and stopped all
contact with home and the world outside. Month after month went by and turned
into years. The hunger, humiliation, the tortures, and the hard labor depleted
our strength and we almost lost human form. People stopped thinking or showing
interest in anything other than just once having a complete meal or being able
to rest. Something strange then happened to me in the Gross Sarna camp in
Silesia. One night, we came back from work, broken, exhausted, and haggard. We
fell on our bunks, and suddenly, we heard faraway voices, strange, yet familiar.
I got up to find out what it was. The darkness was complete. I stepped out to
approach the sounds until I came to a hut where hundreds of prisoners were
crowded together. A solitary candle was lit in the corner and the men are
shaking to and fro – and they are praying. – Could it be Yom Kippur today?
– was my passing thought. The prayer continued for quite some time, perhaps
for hours (I lost track of time) and without anyone being worried that the
Germans were liable to appear at any moment, the rustling whispers of the
worshipers got louder, the groans stronger, and the weeping louder until the
service was ended with the mighty call: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Our group had disintegrated some time back, the people scattered, as they were
transferred to other camps, and who knows how many of them were still bearing
up. As the year 1945 approached, rumors spread that the front was coming closer,
and then the mobility of the prisoners increased. They led us from place to
place like sheep to the slaughter and treated us worse than animals. Driven and
deported, we dragged ourselves with our last bit of strength on the roads and
through the forests, in frost and snow, thousands fell on their last journey so
near the end. We arrived at Buchenwald. “This is your last stop” – we are
told. The situation here is utterly unbearable, some thousand men crowded into
one block, from which around a hundred bodies are removed every day to be
burned. The treatment of the French and the Czechs was completely different,
because we were, after all, Jews under sentence of death.
In the early part of March we were again called to report for another march,
this was the “March of Death” towards Theresienstadt. I was among the few
who didn't fall on the way, and I remained in Theresienstadt for two months
until the liberation on May 9, 1945.
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