Resistance in the Camps

There were courageous escapes from most of the death camps — Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka.

A daring escape was staged by Mala Zimetbaum, a young woman deported to Auschwitz in 1942. As she was multi-lingual (fluent in German, Polish, French and Yiddish), she was used by the SS as a Lȁn (runner). As such, she was able to move freely about the women’s camp in Birkenau. She used her position to help inmates, arranging to have some of them transferred to easier work, acquiring and distributing medications and extra bread rations to the sick and establishing contact between members of families.

Mala had access to documents relating to the operations of the death camp and stole them with the intention of publishing them abroad. She and her boyfriend, Adek Galinski, escaped from the camp in July 1944. As they attempted to cross the Czech border, however, they were captured and returned to Auschwitz. Mala was publicly hanged in August 1944, aged 22.

Birkenau Revolt
Roza Robota, 18, was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 with her family and other Jews from the Ciechanov ghetto. She was assigned to various work details, while some of the other girls from Ciechanov, including: Ester Wajeblum, Ella Gärtner and Regina Safirsztain, were assigned to forced labour in the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke — Vistula-Union-Metal Works, (a munitions factory) in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In 1943 the camp underground planned a revolt and the destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria. Their plan hinged on gaining the support of the Jewish women working in the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke. Previous efforts had failed, as the women were under constant surveillance. The underground decided to use Roza as an intermediary as she knew the women and was in contact with them. The women began to smuggle small amounts of gunpowder, wrapped in scraps of material hidden on their bodies and passed from hand to hand. In an elaborate network, it was given to the underground and then to the Sonderkommandos who the Nazis forced to work in the Birkenau crematoria. The explosion of the gas chambers and crematoria would signal the start of the revolt.

On 7 October 1944 the leaders of the Sonderkommados learned that most of them were to be liquidated. This prompted them to take action. They blew up Crematorium III, killing four SS men, and managed to cut the barbed wire surrounding the camp, allowing hundreds to escape. German troops eventually crushed the revolt.

The SS launched an investigation, identifying five women, including four — Roza, Ester, Ella and Regina — who had been responsible for smuggling the explosives to blow up the crematoria. All five were publicly hanged in January 1945.

In March 1943 the Chelmo death camp was closed as the entire Jewish population of the Warthegu district, with the exception of the Łódz ghetto, had been liquidated. It was reopened in April 1944 in connection with the planned destruction of the ghetto.

In September 1944, 50 Jewish prisoners were forced to exhume and cremate the corpses from mass graves at Chelmno as part of Aktion 1005 (the Nazi plan to obliterate all signs of mass murder).

On the eve of 17 January 1945, with the Soviet Army approaching, the Nazis began executing members of the 50 remaining Jews in the camp. Some of them resisted and three managed to escape. The others were murdered.

In late 1942 the Nazis began to implement Aktion 1005. The prisoners, suspecting the imminent liquidation of the camp, formed an underground movement in early 1943 and planned an uprising and mass escape. On 14 October 1943 the prisoners revolted and killed 11 SS men and several Ukrainian guards. Some 300 prisoners managed to escape, of whom about 100 were recaptured and shot. In the aftermath of the revolt, Sobibor was dismantled. About 50 of those who had escaped survived the Holocaust.

Several efforts at resistance were made at Treblinka, both by individuals and entire transports in which SS men and their Ukrainian collaborators were killed or wounded. Early in 1943 deportation to Treblinka came to an end and the Nazis began to dismantle the camp and implement Aktion 1005 to erase all evidence of mass murder. Prisoners were forced to open mass graves and cremate the corpses. The prisoners, fearing their own impending liquidation, organised a resistance network. On 2 August 1943 prisoners furtively seized weapons from the camp arsenal, but were discovered before they could take control of the camp. However, they managed to set fire to some of the buildings. Masses of prisoners stormed the main gate and many were shot by the guards. Some were recaptured and killed. The remaining prisoners were forced to dismantle the camp and obliterate all remaining evidence of its existence. Treblinka finally closed in late 1943. Of the approximately 750 prisoners who attempted to escape, 70 remained alive to witness liberation.