Monday, October 7, 2019
In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.
Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.
The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.
Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur in 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.
Tuesday, June 26, 2018
SS guards were quickly alerted about the revolt and, easily outnumbering the prisoners, opened fire on the insufficiently armed Sonderkommando. But the prisoners, who had also smuggled small guns into camp through connections with local partisan groups, were not easily defeated. After strapping explosives to captured guards, a group of prisoners blew up Crematorium IV, killing themselves and their captors. Some of the prisoners cut through the barbed-wire fence, creating a crucial escape route out of the camp.
The revolt was work of the prisoners in the 12th Sonderkommando – young, able-bodied men who were given the grisly task of working in and around the gas chambers. They escorted newly arrived prisoners to their deaths, searched the bodies for valuables, and disposed of them in the crematoria. For performing these duties, they were reviled by the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Furthermore, their knowledge of the inner workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Every few months, SS guards killed the old Sonderkommando and replaced them with new prisoners. Though the 12th Sonderkommando learned of their pending liquidation from the camp's underground military leaders only earlier that day, the revolt had been planned months earlier.
Despite the extensive preparation of the prisoners, the revolt was quickly subdued by the SS guards, whose superior automatic weapons were no match for the prisoners’ arsenal. The Nazis rounded up all the escapees. Another two hundred prisoners were lined up and executed as punishment for the revolt. One of the Sonderkommando revealed the names of the four women responsible for smuggling in the gunpowder - but despite months of torture, the women refused to reveal any other accomplices. On January 5, 1945, they were all hanged in front of the entire female camp population. “Be strong and be brave,” Robota shouted defiantly to her comrades as the trapdoor dropped.
This was the last public execution in Auschwitz – twelve days later, the camp was deserted as 56,000 prisoners were forced on a death march by the Nazis in a last attempt to destroy any evidence of their mass killings. On January 27th, the 7,500 remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet army.
Click here to learn more about women who participated in resistance against the Nazis.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
JPEF Education Manager Jonathan Furst recently returned from a trip to Prague for the ELMLE conference European International School middle-school educators. The trip included a pre-conference tour of the Terezin ghetto, and was followed by a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
Following the trip to Terezin, I realized that my journey would be incomplete – I would be incomplete – until I went to the heart of the beast: Auschwitz-Birkenau. I arranged to visit a few days after the conference.
The first thing to know about Auschwitz-Birkenau is that it is cold. On the day I went, the temperature was -30˚ Celsius on a windless day. Even in thermals and a heavy coat I was chilled. I took my shoes and gloves off to pray for 20 minutes – days later, my hands were still chapped and my feet felt painfully cold. How anyone survived there at all is beyond my understanding.
They say that no birds and no animals ever strayed near, and no plants grew there during the Holocaust. And I believe it. The ground is barren – the ruins of barracks (destroyed by the Nazis’ attempt to erase evidence of their crimes) lie behind stretches of 13-foot high barbed wire. Electrified barbed wire: something about that still stuns and enrages me, the mere fact that someone could conceive of it.
My overall reaction, though, wasn’t rage. Or even shock or sadness (although I felt all of those). Unexpectedly, I felt a defiant pride. The Reich that was supposed to last a thousand years didn’t even last twenty. But we still live on, after four thousand years on this earth. “You’re gone,” I thought, “and we are here”.
And even here there was resistance – even the armed kind. Very few people have ever heard of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Revolt, when a group of Jews overcame the guards and destroyed one of the crematoria. (Tiny amounts of gunpowder were smuggled into the Birkenau death camp by women who worked in the munitions factory in Auschwitz). The ruins of the crematoria are simultaneously horrifying and inspiring to see in person.
And then there were the latrines. Dysentery was rampant, yet inmates who were in a constant state of diarrhea were allowed to go to the bathroom only at two or three fixed times of the day, and for no more than a few minutes. The latrine is a vast barn with hundreds of crude holes placed over a trench, side-by-side and back-to-back, to be used by 32,000 people a day. It’s the little details like this that bring the horror home.
The smell must have been asphyxiating. In an attempt to humiliate intellectuals and other ‘troublemakers’, the Germans would assign them the task of cleaning out the filth. But the job of ‘Scheissekommando’ was secretly considered an opportunity instead of a humiliation. Not only could the enslaved workers relieve themselves as often as they needed, but the guards would refuse to go in do to the stench, so this was one of the few places where Jews could talk without being overheard. Here is where the resistance organized and made plans.
Even in the most desperate conditions such as this, one could unearth stories of resistance. Most of them will never be known, but some still survive. To find out more, visit the following links:
- Information about incidents of resistance from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum site.
- Auschwitz resistance at iearn.org.
*Until the end of the communist occupation of Poland, Birkenau was referred to as the place where 1.1 million Poles and other people, including Jews, were killed. Of those murdered at Auschwitz, approximately 75,000 were Polish. One million were Jewish.
All photos and videos taken by Jonathan Furst during his trip. Copyright 2012 JPEF.