The Jewish resistance effort did not end with the deportations to Auschwitz. Many prisoners continued their path of non-cooperation and opposition to the Nazi cruelty even within the death camps. Two young women from Będzin took matters into their own hands after they were deported to Auschwitz. They assisted in a mass uprising that resulted in the destruction of one of the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Sonderkommando (special squads) in Auschwitz-Birkenau consisted of mostly Jewish prisoners who performed the particularly horrifying tasks of disposing of bodies from the gas chambers and crematoria. In exchange, these squads received slightly better treatment and privileges, such as higher food rations. The Sonderkommando’s duties included leading newly arriving Jews into the gas chambers, removing and burning their bodies, and sorting through their personal belongings. Due to their knowledge of the inner violent workings of the Nazi regime, the Sonderkommando was liquidated every few months and new inmates were selected to take their place. Most Sonderkommando members knew that they would meet their deaths within a few months.
The twelfth Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau knew that they were marked for death, which is why they began planning an uprising in the fall of 1944. Young Jewish women working at a munitions factory in the Auschwitz complex began smuggling gunpowder to the resistance movement in Birkenau. These young women were Regina Safirsztain (who was born in Będzin and was the aunt of Rose Rechnic), Róza Robota, Ala (Ella) Gertner, and Ester Wajcblum (also from Będzin). They risked their lives to smuggle gunpowder to the Sonderkommando, often by hiding the explosives on the corpses of their friends who were sent to the Sonderkommando for cremation.
The smuggled gunpowder was used to make crude grenades and demolition charges. Resistance fighters also had access to some small arms that had been smuggled in as well as handmade axes and knives hidden throughout the camp. The uprising was initially planned to coincide with the expected Soviet liberation of the camp, but the Sonderkommando learned in October of 1944 that they would soon be liquidated. As a result, they hastened their plans.
On October 7, 1944, the Sonderkommando of Crematorium IV rose in revolt in the yard outside of the ovens. They managed to set the crematoria on fire, signaling to the rest of the resistors that the uprising had begun. The Sonderkommando from the other crematoria quickly rose in revolt, killing a Nazi officer by throwing him into the ovens. The Sonderkommando from Crematorium II broke down fences and escaped from the camp. Small arms fire and grenades littered the yard as many other prisoners rose up against their captors. Demolotion charges hidden in Crematorium IV exploded and damaged the facilities beyond repair.
The Nazis quelled the uprising quickly, shooting prisoners on sight and eventually breaking into the seized crematoria. Nearly 250 prisoners were killed in the fighting; guards shot another 200 after the uprising ended. The escaped members of the Sonderkommando were quickly returned by local citizens and executed. Some were kept alive for interrogation, at which time they gave up the names of the young women who had supplied them with the explosives. The women conspirators were rounded up and interrogated. After weeks of beatings and torture, the women (including Rose Rechnic’s aunt) were publically hanged on January 5, 1945. This scene is captured in one of the drawings of Ella Liebermann-Shiber. Their sacrifice resulted in the destruction of Crematorium IV. Twelve days after the executions, the Nazis evacuated the remaining inmates of Auschwitz and forced them on a death march.
Information on the Auschwitz uprising and Regina Safirsztain: