Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ala Gertner (1912-1945)

Ala Gertner, daughter of a prosperous Jewish family, was born in Bedzin, Poland on 12 March 1912. She may have attended the gymnasium in Bedzin.

On 28 October 1940 she was ordered to report to the train station in nearby Sosnowiec, where she was taken to a Nazi labor camp in Geppersdorf (now Rzedziwojowice), a construction site where hundreds of Jewish men were forced laborers on the Reichsautobahn (now the E22 highway) and women worked in the kitchen and laundry. Ala, who was fluent in German, was assigned to the camp office where she would meet her future husband Berhard Holtz. 

Geppersdorf was part of Organisation Schmelt, a network of 177 labor camps under the administration of Albrecht Schmelt, a WWI veteran who joined the Nazis in 1930 and rose quickly to the post of SS Oberführer.

Schmelt built a highly lucrative slave trade. Over 50,000 Jews from western Poland were forced to work for German businesses, primarily in construction, munitions and textile manufacturing. The businesses paid Schmelt, who shared a fraction of the money with Moses Merin, the Jewish governor of the region. Almost none of it went to the Jewish laborers. Conditions varied, but were much better than in the large concentration camps: for example, mail and packages could be received in some of the Schmelt camps until 1943, when the Schmelt labor camps became part of Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen. (Oskar Schindler's camp was originally under Organization Schmelt.)

In 1941, Ala was allowed to return home and was employed in various local workshops and offices run by Moses Merin. She and Bernhard married in the Sosnowiec Ghetto of Srodula on 22 May 1943. They lived in the Będzin ghetto of Kamionka until sometime after 16 July 1943 (the date of Ala's last known letter) and were probably deported to Auschwitz with the remaining Jews of Sosnowiec and Będzin in early August,1943.

At Auschwitz, Ala worked in the warehouses at first, sorting the possessions of Jews who had been gassed. She became friendly with Roza Robota, who was active in the underground resistance. Ala was then assigned to the office of the munitions factory, where she and Roza became part of a conspiracy to smuggle gunpowder to the Sonderkommando, who were building bombs and planning an escape. She recruited other women to join the conspiracy, and passed the stolen gunpowder to Roza.

On 7 October 1944 the Sonderkommando blew up Crematorium 4, but the revolt was quickly quelled by the armed SS guards. A lengthy investigation led the Nazis back to Ala and Roza, and then to Estusia Wajcblum and Regina Safirsztajn, who were also implicated in the conspiracy. They were interrogated and tortured for weeks. On 5 or 6 January 1945 the four women were publicly hanged in Auschwitz. This was the last public hanging at Auschwitz: two weeks later, the camp was evacuated.

The Revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau

October 7, 1944

19-year-old Ester Wajcblum and her 14-year-old sister Hana arrived at Auschwitz in spring of 1943. They were assigned to work in the munitions factory where they met Regina Safirsztain and Ala Gertner, women engaged in resistance activities. Together with Roza Robota, who worked in the clothes depot, they began to smuggle gunpowder to the men in the adjoining camp, sometimes using bodies of friends that were en route to the Sonderkommando for disposal.

The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners who worked the death camps in return for special treatment and privileges. Every few months, the current Sonderkommando was liquidated and the first task of their successors was to dispose of the bodies of the previous group. Since a Sonderkommando usually comprised men from incoming transports, their second task often consisted of disposing of the bodies of their own families. The Sonderkommando did not participate in the actual killing - that was carried out by the Nazis. The Sonderkommando duties included guiding the new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterwards, shaving hair, removing teeth, sorting through possessions (much of which they were given as reward), cremating the bodies, and disposing of the ashes. Their knowledge of the internal workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Someone selected for the Sonderkommando had a choice: die then or die in four months time.

As the time of their execution grew nearer, the members of the 12th Sonderkommando crystallized their plans of revolt and escape. Besides the gunpowder being smuggled by the women, which the men fashioned into crude grenades using sardine tins, there were some small arms that had been slipped through the fence by local partisans. In addition, knives and small axes had been made and hidden throughout the crematoria. Much of the gunpowder was used in creating demolition charges. There was talk of a general uprising that would coincide with the arrival of the approaching Soviet armies, but some Sonderkommando were certain that they would not live until that day.

On 7 October 1944, at about 3:00 p.m., the Poles in Crematorium 1 began the revolt. Hungarians in Crematoria 3 and 4 joined in while the Sonderkommando of Crematorium 2 broke through the wires of the camp. An especially sadistic Nazi guard in Crematorium 1 was disarmed and stuffed into an oven to be burned alive. Small arms fire rattled from the second floor of the crematoria until the Germans brought in heavy machine guns and riddled the wooden roof.

The guards counterattacked and penetrated the buildings, indiscriminately shooting at all prisoners they encountered. The Sonderkommando in Crematorium 4 dragged their demolition charges into the oven rooms and detonated them in a defiant suicide. The revolt was quickly suppressed and the escaped men recaptured with the help of local citizens. Approximately 200 sonderkommando were forced to lie face down outside the crematoria where they were executed with single shots to the back of the head. Some of the men were spared for interrogation, but the bodies of the 12th Sonderkommando were soon disposed of by the 13th Sonderkommando.

The men gave up names, including those of some women who were engaged in smuggling gunpowder. Despite months of beatings, rape and electric shocks to their genitals, the only names given up by the women were those of already dead Sonderkommando.

On 5 January 1945, the four women were hung in front of the assembled women’s camp. Roza Robota shouted “strong and be brave” as the trapdoor dropped.

Crematorium 4 was damaged beyond repair and never used again. On 7 November 1944, the Nazis destroyed the gas chambers to hide their crimes. Twelve days after the hanging of the four women, the camp personnel forced 56,000 prisoners on a Death March into what remained of the Third Reich; 7,500 prisoners left behind were liberated by advancing Soviet armies on January 27.

Found at www.Jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

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