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On Holocaust Day We Forget . .
By Allan E. MallenbaumMay 5th, 2005 is a day for remembrance. The Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) established 27 Nissan as Yom Hashoah VeHagevurah (Devastation and Heroism Day). Nations throughout the world follow this designation, much as they follow the complex calculation instituted by the Catholic Church to determine the date of Easter.
Recently we’ve shortened the name, dropping the words and heroism, recalling only the devastation. We recall that six million of our brothers and sisters were slaughtered, burned, shot, hanged, starved, gassed, and tortured to death by the German civilization which found them guilty of the crime of born Jewish.
But we’ve forgotten the second part of the earlier designation, and heroism.
We’ve forgotten that there were proud Jews throughout Europe, men and women, boys and girls, who fought back against their German killers. They fought against the mightiest military force ever before seen, an armed war machine which over-ran countries like Poland and France in mere weeks, which conquered nations without firing a single shot. These Jews fought although they knew that under the German rule of collective responsibility, innocent civilians would be punished for their resistance. They fought alone, against hostile local populations who would not feed, shelter or give weapons to Jewish partisans. But they fought, actively and bravely, with every weapon at their disposal, in every circumstance imaginable. In order to understand the little-known activities of these Jewish heroes and heroines, we're going to examine in some detail just one such event within our rich, enormous, but little-known, History of Jewish Resistance.
Just as the term "Holocaust" is used as the paradigm of genocide at its worst, so the terrible word "Auschwitz" is used to represent the worst of the Shoah. But just what was this place called Auschwitz? Only those who lived through it can really know.
Within this killing factory were massive structures, built with the help of many German firms and local sub-contractors, all of whom had to know their intended purpose. When they were completed, these furnaces began to devour the bodies of the Jews who had been robbed of their breath by German cyanide inside the factory walls. Millions of Jewish bodies were efficiently reduced to ashes by German factories of death.
There was a detachment of prisoners assigned to remove the dead from the gas chambers and feed them into the ovens or open pits. This unit was called "Sonderkommando," "Special Command" or "Special Task Force." Each day shift and each night shift at each of the four crematoria in Birkenau - Auschwitz II - had about 84 prisoners, always men, almost always (97%) Jews, assigned to each Sonderkommando. After incinerating the bodies of their fellow Jews, the bones and ashes from the crematoria and burning pits were ground to a fine powder and scattered into ponds, a larger pond near crematorium IV, and a smaller pond near crematorium II. I’ve seen both ponds still there today.
This is the background. This the situation into which the Jews were forced. How could they resist? How could anyone fight back in such circumstances?
Resistance took many forms. Isaac Kowalski, himself a hero of the Vilna Underground, has devoted years of his life in Brooklyn, NY, to the compilation of a 4-volume anthology detailing Armed Jewish Resistance from 1939 to 1945. He has devoted almost 2,500 pages to groups of Jews who fought back, preserving the heroic histories of tens of thousands of Jews who took up arms against the Germans. Do you know any of their names?
For some of our brothers and sisters, it was an act of resistance to throw oneself on the camp’s electrified barbed wire. This was a supreme act of resistance, an act that deprived the SS of the pleasure of controlling the death of another Jew. Do you know any of their names?
For some, resistance was refusing to work in the Sonderkommando, as did an entire group of Greek Jews. These proud Jews from Greece declined to do the German's dirty work of murdering and burning their fellow Jews. For this they were all killed immediately. Do you know any of their names?
For some, resistance meant pleading for Vengeance – nekomo – in their own blood as death approached. Resistance meant stealing food or clothing for other prisoners, or sabotaging the production equipment in the slave-labor plants, or carrying messages for the camp underground. Resistance might even mean risking the death penalty by fasting on Yom Kippur. Do you know any of their names?
For some, for those fortunate enough to have escaped the deportations, resistance was direct, and costly to the German enemy. In virtually every country, proud Jewish men and women studied the art of war, learned to kill their people's killers, succeeded in fighting back with pride and with distinction. Do you know any of their names?
It’s been estimated that 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups in the forests of Eastern Europe. There were 30 all-Jewish partisan units, all-Jewish because many partisans hated the Jews more than they hated the Germans and sometimes even hunted down the Jewish fighters and killed them. But Jews did fight side-by-side with other anti-Nazis in 21 combined units in Europe; many of these units were Italian partisans who didn’t have the same anti-Jewish feelings that were so common in Eastern Europe. Of these tens of thousands of armed Jewish partisans, do you know any of their names?
Jews were rounded up and forced into more than 400 sealed ghettoes throughout Europe, ranging in size from Warsaw’s half million people, to smaller ones holding a few hundred. In every ghetto, there was Jewish resistance, sometimes only spiritual, often armed revolts. You’ve surely heard of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, maybe even of the Vilna ghetto uprising, but do you know the names of any of the leaders of the revolts in Kovno, in Minsk, Bialystok, Lachva, and at least 60 others larger ghettoes?
Jewish leaders formed active resistance movements - often Labor or Revisionist (Betar) youth members - in almost every extermination camp, work camp, transit camp, forced-labor camp, prisoner of war camp, and internment camp Do you know any of their names?
Let's turn the calendar back almost 61 years, to October 7th, 1944. That year it was a Saturday. The newspapers of the world reported that Allied invasion forces were pouring into Albania and Greece. U.S. Armed Forces were pushing towards the German industrial city, Cologne. Russian troops had invaded Hitler's satellite, Hungary. In a single day, more than 2,200 American aircraft struck war production centers in Berlin and elsewhere in the Nazi heartland. It was the start of the finish for The Führer's Thousand Year Reich.
There, on that day, in that vast Jewish cemetery called Auschwitz, at the killing factory called crematorium IV, something unusual happened . . . .
Although some of the details have been lost in the ashes, and other details are subject to disagreement by historians, we know that the Jews of Sonderkommando Squad 59 B revolted against their slave-masters. They attacked Germans. They blew up crematoria. They fled to the forests. Zalman Leventhal, who had been in the Sonderkommando since 1942, coordinated the plans for the uprising. He recorded various events in small notebooks, which he then buried in different places in the soil near crematorium III.
Eighteen years later, on Oct. 17th, 1962, the jar containing one of the notebooks was discovered. From it we learned many unfortunate details: that the help agreed upon by the Polish Camp Military Command, led by Poland's future prime minister, Josef Cyrankiewicz, somehow never appeared. The Jews had to fight alone. A Kapo walked in unexpectedly and the element of surprise was lost. The timing was unfortunate. And those who escaped were all eventually recaptured.
So what did their heroic revolt accomplish? In the final analysis, a gas chamber-crematorium complex - Crematorium IV - was actually destroyed. The Jewish Revolt in the heart of Auschwitz achieved something that all of the combined Allied Armed Forces were unable - or perhaps just unwilling - to accomplish:
They demolished a German factory of death, and stopped the gassing and burning of Jews there forever.
Other crematoria were set ablaze as well, and several SS men and a German Kapo were killed by the prisoners who were armed with little more than home-made hand grenades. These weapons had been manufactured from empty sardine-cans and from stolen schwartzpulver, "black powder," by Walenty Filatow, who managed to supply alarm clocks for parts, and by Godel Zylber, a mechanic, also from Ciechanow, who now lives in Canada. These members of the Jewish Underground were instructed by a Russian prisoner named Borodin who had some knowledge of ordnance.
Every active participant who escaped in the only successful uprising in the history of Auschwitz was recaptured and methodically murdered by the Germans. The Master Race was badly shaken. They were made fearfully aware that their end was fast approaching.
The full story of the history-making Revolt of the Sonderkommando really began eight months earlier, when Noah Zabludowicz, from the town of Ciechanów, a male member of the camp underground, made contact with a trusted young woman he knew from home. Zabludowicz worked in the camp as an electrician. This allowed him to move about to different sections of the camp Both he and the young woman had been members of one of the Zionist youth groups in their home-town, a rural community north of Warsaw.
Rosa Robota was then 21 years old. She came from a modest family, with one sister and an ailing brother. Her father had been a struggling shop-keeper in the Jewish section of town. She had been sent to the camp in 1941, probably on November 7th.
Unlike the other members of her family, all of whom were murdered, Rosa was selected as fit for slave labor and was assigned to sleep in the women's section of Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, in section B Ib, in block 6, a wooden barrack, not far from the Effektenslager, the Personal Effects Depot to which she was assigned. Rosa was a natural leader and had many friends in the camp. Among them were some of the young women and girls who worked in Weichsel Union Metallwerke, a munitions factory.
Rosa was eager to fight back, eager to avenge the slaughter of her family and of her people. What she did must have seemed only natural in that environment - not very "heroic" at all. At heart, she was a small town girl who signed the backs of pictures with sentimental wishes, wishes that the Nazis would soon make impossible to keep. So, over a period of time, young Rosa cautiously approached a few of these youthful slave laborers, those who worked in the carefully guarded "Pulverraum," the powder room.
Some of them categorically rejected her plan to steal minute quantities of schwartzpulver, that explosive black powder they carefully measured and inserted into each artillery fuse. Others hesitated, afraid that they wouldn't be strong enough to remain silent if they were caught and tortured. But a few of these brave young women, certainly fewer than a dozen, accepted this chance to avenge the injustices which they and the Jewish nation had experienced every day for years.
These gutsy Jewish saboteurs - usually fewer than five or six on each work shift - passed the pilfered material indirectly, through an elaborate network, to Rosa, who often arranged for unwitting accomplices to store the precious schwartzpulver until she could transfer it, in small lots, to the men of the underground. This is how the men of the Sonderkommando were armed for the revolt.
Two days after the revolt, Rosa Robota and three other women were imprisoned by the S. S., beaten, tortured, interrogated, and then mysteriously released. Two days later, the Underground's worst fears were realized. Rosa was imprisoned again, and tortured continuously in the infamous Blok 11 of Auschwitz-I. Rosa was the only one who could actually identify all of the men in the camp’s Jewish Underground. Would she succumb to the Nazi torture and expose the entire Underground network?
No! Throughout her ordeal, throughout weeks of torture worse than anything we can conceive of, Rosa revealed nothing.
After Rosa had been in the torture Blok for about 2 months, Rosa's friend from Ciechanów, Noah, was smuggled into her basement cell to speak to her - with the help of Jacob, the Jewish Kapo of the feared Blok 11. She had been beaten so badly that Noah couldn't recognize her. Rosa wasn't concerned about her own brutal treatment and about her own impending fate. In that final conversation before her death, Rosa felt compelled to assure Noah that she had revealed no one's name, and she begged him to continue the struggle against the German enemy.
On the 6th of January 1945 – 21 Tevet 5705 – Rosa and three of her suspected collaborators were hanged. Two of them were hanged in front of the assembled day shift, two of them before the assembled night shift, in the last hanging to take place before the Germans evacuated the camps only eleven days later.
If she had weakened under the German's torment, Rosa could have implicated dozens of men and women; the other three could have implicated all of their fellow workers. But they all remained silent.
Today, more than sixty years later, there are hundreds of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, living in Israel, in The United States, in Canada, France, Australia, and elsewhere, who would never have been born if Rosa and her three martyred fellow-prisoners had not summoned the courage to withstand those months of Nazi brutality without revealing the identities of their comrades.
On May 5th, 2005 we cannot recall solely the devastation without also proudly acknowledging the forgotten heroism. We Jews recall the Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh and refused to kill the newborn Israelites. We Jews recall the assimilated Persian Jewess, Esther, who risked death by approaching the king to save her people. We Jews recall the battles of Joshua, David, Bar Kochba. So how can we as Jews forget the sacrifices that these four young women made in the spirit of all of the other Jewish women and men of the Bible, thousands of years in the past?
The world must never forget that from the bowels of German terror, Jewish men and women, Jewish boys and girls, rose up and fought their enemies! The heroes and heroines of our history made Jewish Survival possible over the generations, over the centuries, over the millennia, even until this day, and we have not forgotten them.
So too, Rosa, Estusia, Regina and Alina, you have made us proud of the Jewish heroes of our own century, Jews who disregarded the odds and fought the Nazi beasts throughout Europe. Rosa Robota, Estusia Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, Alina Gartner, the nations of the world must remember you, and our nation can never forget you! That is the reason for Yom Hashoah VeHagevurah.
The Rosa Robota Foundation is seeking contact with any person who has any first-hand knowledge of the events described above, no matter how minimal. Please contact the Foundation at RRF@USA.Com, or at 1-516 349-0425, or at P.O. Box 24, Plainview, NY 11803-0024, USA.
© Copyright 2005 Allan E. Mallenbaum. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without this notice is prohibited.
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