Sonderkommando Revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
On This Day in Jewish History: October 7, 1944
The Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau revolted against their Nazi oppressors after months of secretive arms and demolition materiel smuggling.
The Sonderkommando, "Special Units", were Jewish prisoners who worked in death camps with the primary purpose of disposing the bodies in the gas chambers, bringing them to the ovens for cremation, and preparing the chambers for the next group.
Most did not survive beyond 4 months as the Nazis murdered and replaced them - very few survived the war from these groups. They were forced to lead Jewish men, women, and children from the trains to the changing rooms, shave their hair, help in undressing them, and lead them into the gas chambers, remove the bodies afterwards, sort possessions, remove golden teeth and transfer bodies to the ovens or burning pits.
For a grueling representation of the Sonderkommando and this specific revolt, see the award winning Hungarian film, "Son of Saul". Young Jewish women in the camp like Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, Regina Safirsztain, and Róza Robota had been leading the charge in smuggling gunpowder from Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex. Given that they were under intense supervision, they would smuggle small amounts in bits of cloth or paper and passed it along a chain. Roza Robota would be the last to receive the gunpowder and she would bring it to the Sonderkommando at Crematorium IV men who began to accumulate it to blow up the crematorium.
A group of brave Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau had completed their plans for revolt with smuggled gunpowder, crude grenades, and small arms from nearby partisans. The gunpowder had been molded into demolition charges and small knives had been hidden around the camp.
The impending Soviet arrival that was rumored to coincide with the revolt did not occur. Ultimately, #onthisday, the revolt began. Quickly, the Nazis brought in heavy machine guns and began their counterattack. Indiscriminate shooting of any prisoner they encountered began and the Sonderkommando in Crematorium 4 brought their demolition charges into the ovens where they blew themselves and the itself (see image above).
The guards, with the help of nearby Polish citizens, quelled the revolt and executed 200 Sonderkommandos with single shots to the back of the head. Interrogations went on for months and 4 of the women involved in the smuggling only gave up names of already dead Sonderkommando.
We remember all of their lives in blessing and use this event as another reminder that not all Jews walked to the slaughter in our darkest hour.