Anniversaries & holidays

Anniversary of the Sonderkommando revolt in Auschwitz

Brama główna i wartownia obozu Auschwitz II - zdjęcie archiwalne, czarno-białe
Brama główna i wartownia obozu Auschwitz II - zdjęcie archiwalne, czarno-białe, fot. Archiwum Państwowego Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Sonderkommando were a group of Jewish prisoners forced by the Nazis to operate the gas chambers, and also to search the victims’ belongings for valuables, and to burn their bodies. On 7 October 1944, members of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau launched a rebellion against their executioners.

In 1944, the Auschwitz-BirkenauNazi death camp worked at its highest capacity. In the spring of this year, 350,000 Hungarian Jews died in the gas chambers—they made up one third of the total number of camp victims. At the end of the summer, however, fewer and fewer transports came, and the Sonderkommando inmates realized that it would soon be their turn to die, being the eye witnesses to the crimes. This gave birth to an initiative to organize a rebellion and escape that would spread across the entire camp. The Sonderkommando was headed by Polish Jews: Załmen Gradowski, Lejb Langfus, Załmen Lewental, Abram and Szlomo Dragon, Jankiel Handelsman and Józef Dorębus. Thanks to their contacts with the camp's underground organization they managed to get some explosives, from which they constructed primitive grenades.

The prisoners' fears were not unfounded. Already in September, the Germans murdered 200 members of the Sonderkommando, and on 7 October the conspirators gained information about the planned transfer of another 300 supposedly to another camp. This forced them to act immediately. On that day, around 1 p.m., the Germans ordered a roll call of prisoners assigned to crematorium IV, calling out those to be transported according to their numbers. Threatened prisoners began to throw hammers, crowbars, axes, and stones. Some escaped to the crematorium building, which they set on fire. A fight broke out, which ended in a massacre of prisoners.

At the same time, at the sight of the flames and the sound of shots, the prisoners working in crematorium II attacked the guards, recognizing that an uprising was breaking out in the camp. Oberkapo and one of the SS men were thrown alive into the crematorium furnace, while another SS man was killed on the spot. Several dozen prisoners managed to get out of the camp and reach the village of Rajsko, 4 kilometers away. Surrounded by an SS group, they all died.

Probably as a result of betrayal, the Germans were expecting a rebellion, and therefore had the manpower to pacify it immediately. About 250 prisoners died in combat and during an attempted escape, while another 200 were killed by the Germans as part of repression. On 7 October 1944, the Sonderkommando consisted of 663 prisoners; after the rebellion mere 212 remained, 451 prisoners died. The Germans lost three men, and over a dozen were wounded. As a result of an investigation carried out after the revolt, the Germans established that four Jewish female conspirators employed in a munition factory supplied the explosives: Róża Robota, Ella Gaertner, Regina Safirsztajn and Estera Wajcblum. They were publicly hanged in the camp in January 1945, three weeks before the liberation of Auschwitz. During the evacuation of the camp, some members of the Sonderkommando managed to slip in with other prisoners to avoid liquidation. About 80 of them survived the war.