It is a forgotten act of suicidally-brave wartime heroism. A desperate act of resistance in the dark heart of Hitler’s genocidal machine. On 7 October 1944, 77 years ago, a group of Jewish Sonderkommando rose up and took the fight to the Schutzstaffel (SS) guards in Auschwitz death camp, killing some of their captors and briefly allowing their fellow inmates a gasp of freedom.
It is a forgotten, yet deeply inspiring moment of wartime history that ought to sit alongside that of D-Day and Arnhem in terms of importance.
When people arrived in Auschwitz, often after days of tortuous, crowded railway journeys on which they were denied food, sleep or information, they staggered off the trains, utterly confused as to where they were. This deliberate strategy made it easy for the authorities to herd them and defuse potential resistance.
Most women, young children and the old were separated; the rest were told they would be reunited and then hustled elsewhere. The former group were then processed speedily, stripped, shaved and then sent into gas chambers to be murdered.
Some were forced to become Sonderkommando. These prisoners would help the camp guards push doomed Jews, and other proscribed groups, to their deaths. They shaved victims, took their gold teeth, removed possessions, and then cleared the bodies after their gassing.
Sonderkommando knew exactly what was happening, and they were, therefore, far too dangerous to be left alive. Every few months they would be murdered, and a fresh group conscripted.
In late summer 1944 the SS killed a particularly large batch of Sonderkommando and the rest knew that they did not have long to live. Incredibly, they dared to dream of rebellion, to fight back against the most complex and powerful machine of genocide the world had ever seen.
Helped by a group of Jewish girls and women who worked in the adjacent munitions factory, they built up a stash of gunpowder. Teenage sisters Ester and Hana Wajcblum along with Regina Safirsztain, and Ala Gertner smuggled powder to Roza Robota a resistance activist who worked in the camp clothing store. She in turn got it to the Sonderkommando.
Demolition charges and primitive hang grenades were made, weapons fashioned from any discarded detritus and from things handed through the wire by Polish partisans.
The hope was they could combine an uprising with the approach of the Soviets. It was not to be.
On the afternoon of 7 October, months before the guns of the Red Army were heard, the SS began to round up the Sonderkommando. The moment had come.
The inmates launched themselves at the astonished guards. They used hammers, axes and fists against the troops of one of the most powerful military orders on the planet. The uprising spread. Jews fought with all the ferocious determination of men who knew that death had marked them out years ago. It was only a matter of how.
In crematorium II a particularly sadistic German prisoner – a kapo – was killed and thrown into a furnace. Two SS men were killed and several wounded. The wire was breached. Inmates tasted freedom. But it was too brief.
The SS responded with massive force. Every escaper was hunted down and shot. Heavy machine guns were brought to bear on any occupied structure. Prisoners were executed indiscriminately. Hundreds lined up on the ground and summarily shot.
In crematorium IV the Sonderkommando set fire to the interior, bringing the hated building down upon themselves. The brief flash of resistance was snuffed out.
A few Jews were spared for questioning. The SS tortured them to death and they gave up the names of the women who had helped them stockpile the gunpowder. These women were then beaten savagely but did not give the names of anyone who was not yet dead or in the hands of their torturers.
On 5 January 1945 the four women were hanged in front of the inmates in the women’s camp. Roza Robota shouted “be strong and be brave”, in the seconds before she dropped to her death.
The SS themselves destroyed the gas chambers just a month after the uprising, eradicating the evidence of their monstrous criminality before abandoning the site ahead of the arrival of the Soviets. The story of what happened at Auschwitz throughout the war cannot, thankfully, be as easily erased, although that has not stopped people trying.
The story of the revolt of the Sonderkommando, the bravery of the Jews who fought and supplied the weaponry, the unimaginable determination of the women must be shared for as long as people speak of the war, of D-Day, of Stalingrad, of Pearl Harbour and Iwo Jima. In fact, for longer.