Destroyed Crematorium, Auschwitz-Birkenau
During the war, 1939-1945, millions of people, victimized and captured by the Germans, passed through an extensive network of thousands of camps established in greater Germany and the German-occupied countries of Europe. In addition to concentration camps (today, often mistakenly used as a generic term for all types of camps), there were extermination camps, work camps, forced-labor camps, transit camps, prisoner-of-war camps, and internment camps.
At least three million Jewish men, women, and children perished in the camps, most of them gassed soon after their arrival at one of six Nazi extermination camps, all located in German-occupied Poland or Polish territories incorporated into the Reich -- at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Majdanek-Lublin. Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek-Lublin also served as concentration camps, and there, as in other camps, a minority of Jews -- physically fit teenagers, men, and women without children -- were given a temporary reprieve from death as forced laborers.
Forced labor included performing totally meaningless tasks such as hauling heavy rocks from one place to another and back again. But increasingly, in 1942, after it became clear that the Germans were not going to win the war quickly, hundreds of satellite camps began to spring up in factories outside concentration camps, where Jews chosen for labor and other camp inmates produced war materials. Many of these prisoners died from exhaustion, exposure to the elements, starvation, and disease spread through overcrowding and unhygienic conditions.
Gypsies (Sinti and Roma) were also deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in family groups, and 23,000 are known to have been murdered in that camp by gassing. Many others, including Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, political and religious dissidents, homosexuals, forced laborers, and resistance fighters from across Europe, were also imprisoned in concentration camps and their satellites, and many -- exploited as forced laborers -- died from maltreatment. Unlike Jews and Gypsies, they were not systematically gassed.
The atmosphere of total terror and isolation in the camps, as well as the chronic starvation of most prisoners, severely inhibited the will of the prisoners and the possibilities of resistance. Barbed and high-voltage electrical wires and guard towers left little hope of escape. The daily routine in the larger camps was brutally regimented. It included an elaborate system of harsh punishments for the slightest infractions, close surveillance, and endless roll calls for counting prisoners. Those who attempted to resist or escape were killed when caught.
Still, despite these enormous obstacles, there were acts of resistance by members of the diverse camp populations. In many camps, underground groups formed, sometimes -- across the divergent political, ethnic, and language barriers -- members exchanged information and coordinated efforts to alleviate suffering of the inmates. While the conditions of imprisonment made armed resistance extremely difficult, it was not impossible.
The most dramatic examples of armed resistance were revolts planned and carried out by organized groups of Jewish inmates at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. As was the case with the ghetto revolts, the uprisings in these killing centers occurred with little hope of success against the superior German force. But like the ghetto revolts, the Jewish prisoners realized their days were numbered anyway.
Majdanek Camp Ovens
Unarmed Resistance in the Camps
Clandestine Political Organizations and Meetings:
Clandestine resistance groups formed in many concentration camps with political prisoners and captured members of national resistance groups often providing the leadership. For example, in 1940 many Communists and captured French resistance fighters united to form a resistance organization at Ravensbrück, a camp for women prisoners situated north of Berlin. Three women of different nationalities and political affiliations led the group. To raise the spirits of prisoners and give hope for eventual escape or liberation, the resisters traded newspapers, battle maps, and war information. They also held secret political meetings to share news and information about the camp. All these activities were extremely dangerous.
Attempts to Alleviate Suffering of Camp Inmates:
Many resistance activities in concentration camps centered on attempts organized by the underground to alleviate the day-to-day suffering of the camp inmates. These included gathering food, money, and medical supplies for those in need.
Before Auschwitz was fitted with gas chambers for the systematic murder of Jews in late 1941, it served as a concentration camp primarily for Polish prisoners, including army officers who served as leaders of the first resistance groups. Poles who had gained positions in the infirmary and administrative offices were well placed for resistance activities. They were also in the best position to make contact with free Poles who lived nearby and worked in the camp, as well as with Polish resistance groups.
In November 1942, members of the Polish resistance movement in Auschwitz secretly contacted the Polish underground in nearby Cracow about the lack of medical supplies in the camp. The amount of medicine dispensed in the camp infirmary only covered the needs of a small fraction of the prisoners. The Auschwitz underground sought to steal medical supplies from warehouses that also held victims' belongings. A group of Poles who worked for the underground in the Rajsko clinic, near the main camp at Auschwitz, organized an operation to smuggle medicine into the concentration camp. Despite their help, however, medical supplies remained woefully inadequate in the camp.
Attempts to Inform the Outside World about the Camps:
Other forms of resistance in concentration camps consisted of efforts organized by the underground to inform the world about Nazi brutality, the cruel physical conditions, and the Nazis' systematic annihilation of Jews in the extermination camps.
On April 7, 1944, two Slovakian Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg (who later took the name Rudolf Vrba), escaped from Birkenau. The motive for their escape was to warn the Hungarian Jews of the Germans' plans for their destruction. They hid in bunkers outside the camp fence near places where prisoners worked for three days, the length of the state of alert the SS imposed after any escape. After a journey of several days on foot, Wetzler and Vrba reached Slovakia, where they presented to Jewish leaders a long report illustrated with sketches describing installations at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including details about the gas chambers.
These reports and news of the first gassings of Hungarians at Auschwitz were confirmed in late May by two Polish Jewish escapees, Arnost Rosin and Czelaw Mordowicz. That summer, the reports reached the Allies, who had earlier (in late 1942) confirmed the news of the mass murder of Jews.
The Allies, however, rejected the request by certain Jewish activists in Europe that Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to the camp be bombed. The allies continued to make winning the war their highest priority. Some 437,000 Jewish men, women, and children were deported from Hungary on 148 trains between May 15 and July 8, 1944. Most -- as many as 10,000 each day -- were gassed soon after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Warsaw Stone, Treblinka
Killing Center Revolts:
Even in the death camps, in the shadow of the gas chambers and crematoria, Jews resisted against their oppressors. Three bold and daring uprisings occurred in the killing centers at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. As was the case with ghetto rebellions, those organized killing center revolts arose out of a sense of desperation and hopelessness, when it became clear that all Jews in these extermination camps were to be killed.
Almost all Jews -- children, the elderly, and physically fit teenagers and adults -- deported to the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps were gassed upon arrival. Few barracks existed for resident inmates. Camp guards temporarily spared small numbers of prisoners for use in special units called the Sonderkommando,which operated the crematoria and other camp facilities. But those Sonderkommando members realized that it was only a matter of time before they, too, would be gassed.
At Treblinka, an underground organization plotted an armed rebellion and mass escape. Learning about the Warsaw ghetto revolt from the last transports of Jews brought to Treblinka from Warsaw, the organizers decided the moment for revolt had arrived. On August 2, 1943, the underground fighters put their plan into action: to steal arms from the warehouse; eliminate the German and Ukrainian guards on duty; set the camp on fire; destroy the extermination area; and, then help the remaining prisoners escape to the forest. Many were killed during the rebellion, including all the resistance leaders, as the flames and reports of the revolt brought German reinforcements from all directions. But as many as 200 prisoners escaped to the neighboring forest, and perhaps twenty of those men survived German efforts to recapture them.
A few months after the revolt, Germans closed the camp, leveled it, and planted pine trees to hide all traces of the mass murders. At least 750,000 Jews perished at the camp between July 1942 and November 1943.
At Sobibor, Leon Feldhendler, the son of a rabbi from the nearby town of Zolkiewka, formed an underground organization in July 1943. By then transports to the death camp were slowing down and veteran Jewish prisoners sensed the end was quickly approaching. In September 1943, a new deportation of Soviet Jewish prisoners from Minsk brought a trained Soviet army officer, Lieutenant Alexandr "Sasha" Aronovich Pechersky to Sobibor. The Jewish underground recruited Pechersky and placed him in command.
Feldhendler devised a daring plan. Resisters would lure SS officers into storehouses on the pretext that they were to receive new coats and boots. Once inside, prisoners would attack them with axes and knives. The prisoners would then seize Nazi weapons and ammunition and set the camp ablaze during roll call. The insurgents would then break open the gate, and all prisoners would have a chance to run across the German mine fields toward the forest.
The revolt occurred in the late afternoon of October 14, 1943. Insurgents killed eleven of the Nazis in the camp, including the camp commander, and several Ukrainian guards. By dusk, about 300 prisoners had escaped. Nearly 200 of them managed to avoid recapture. Only a small number, however, survived to the war's end. Rumors that the escapees carried gold and silver made them easy prey for the local population, and few hiding in the forest survived the harsh Polish winter. Pechersky joined a partisan unit in the forest and survived the war; he later wrote a memoir about the revolt.
After the uprising, the Germans destroyed all traces of Sobibor. By the end of 1943, workers had plowed the death camp under and planted crops to cover the place where, between March 1942 and October 1943, the Nazis had murdered more than 250,000 Jews.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, an elaborate underground network of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners planned a revolt. By summer 1944, Soviet forces were advancing swiftly from the east, and the Allies from the west. Transports had slowed to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the Nazis had murdered more than one million Jews and tens of thousands of others.
Most of the non-Jewish underground backed out of the planned revolt after the failure of the Warsaw uprising by the Polish resistance in August 1944 and after the Polish underground outside of Auschwitz became aware that the Germans had learned about the plan. Underground leaders issued orders to give up the revolt.
But members of the Jewish Sonderkommando, sensing that the end was near and their usefulness to the Germans over, went ahead with the plan with help from some Soviet prisoners of war. On October 7, 1944, in a daring act of desperation, a group of prisoners blew up one of Birkenau's four crematoria using dynamite the underground had smuggled from a nearby munitions factory to the Sonderkommando. Six hundred prisoners escaped after the explosion, but all were either captured or killed as they fled.
On January 6, 1945, less than three weeks before the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, four young women accused of supplying the dynamite -- Roza Robota, Ella Gaertner, Esther Wajcblum, and Regina Safirsztain -- were hanged in the presence of the remaining inmates. As the trap door opened, Robota shouted defiantly, "Be strong; have courage!" Before her execution, guards had tortured her brutally, but she had refused to divulge the names of any members of the resistance.
Spontaneous Resistance by Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau:
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, camp officials set aside specific barracks in early 1943 to house Sinti and Roma family groups deported from Germany and other countries occupied by Germany. By the end of 1943, the Nazis had interned 18,736 Sinti and Roma in the Gypsy camp, and thousands of those men, women and children died in the gas chambers. Others, more fit adult men and women chosen for forced labor, were deported from Auschwitz to other camps.
On May 15, 1944, prisoners in the Birkenau Gypsy family camp learned that the camp administration intended to gas the 6,000 remaining Gypsy prisoners the next day. When SS guards armed with machine guns surrounded the camp and attempted to begin the transport to the gas chambers, they met armed resistance.
After stealing scraps of sheet metal, prisoners had sharpened the metal into crudely fashioned knives. With those improvised weapons, and with iron pipes, clubs, and stones, the Gypsies defended themselves. Guards shot some resisters. The final liquidation of the camp occurred in early August when guards moved 2,897 men, women, and children to the gas chambers in the dead of night.