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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Franceska Mann (1917-1943)

Franceska Mann (b. Franciszka Mann, a.k.a. Rosenberg-Manheimer, Man, Mannówna) was born in Poland on 4 February 4 1917. Before WWII she was a young dancer in Warsaw who studied dance in the dance school of Irena Prusicka. Her friends at that time included Wiera Gran and Stefania Grodzieńska. In 1939 she placed fourth among 125 ballet dancers during the international dance competition in Brussels. She was considered one of the most beautiful and promising dancers of her generation in Poland, both in classical and modern repertoire. At the beginning of WWII she performed in Warsaw at the Melody Palace nightclub and was a prisoner of Warsaw Ghetto.

In several publications her name is mentioned as a German collaborator and is also associated with the Hotel Polski affair. She is mentioned in Filip Mueller's eyewitness account Eyewitness Auschwitz, Three years in the Gas Chambers, in Tadeusz Borowski's book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Jerzey Tabau, an escaped Auschwitz prisoner, in The Polish Major's Report which was filed for the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg {Document L-022) and in a book written by Eberhard Kolb that is sold at the Bergen-Belsen Museum.

At the same time she is mentioned in the context of heroic behavior in the Auschwitz concentration camp, based on an incident that occurred in October 1943.

On October 23, 1943 a transport of around 1,700 Polish Jews arrived on passenger trains at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp brom Bergen-Belsen. They had been told they were being taken to the Bergau transfer camp near Dresden, from which they would continue on to Switzerland to be exchanged for German POWs. One of the passengers was Franceska Mann, who had probably obtained her foreign passport from the Hotel Polski on the Aryan side*.

Muller was one of 18 prisoners brought to the crematorium to help with this transport. The new arrivals were assembled in the yard outside Kreme II and were told by Franz Hossler, acting as a representative of the Foreign Ministry, that this was their last stop before their departure for Switzerland. They were taken into a changing room next to the gas chamber and ordered to undress for disinfecting. Half of the prisoners who had already undressed were hurriedly herded into the gas chamber. The others became suspicious and were hesitant to undress.

Different accounts give different details of what happened next, but it appears SS guards Quackernack and Schillinger, were suddenly attracted by a strikingly handsome woman with blue-black hair who was taking off one of her shoes. According to Muller's story, this woman began to undress as though doing a strip tease. She then grabbed her shoe and slammed its high heel violently against Quackernack's forehead. As he covered his face with both hands, the woman grabbed his pistol and shot both guards. As a panic broke out and the SS men started leaving the changing room, another SS guard (Emmerlick) was also shot.

The lights went out in the changing room and the door was bolted from the outside. In the darkness, one of the prisoners in the changing room spoke to Muller: "I don't understand what this is all about. After all, we have valid entry visas for Paraguay; and what's more, we paid the Gestapo a great deal of money to get our exit permits."

The doors to the undressing room were flung open and the Sonderkommando prisoners, including Müller, were ordered out. Outside the door to the changing room, two machine guns had been set up. At this point, Commandant Rudolf Höss showed up, just in time to see the prisoners shot in “a terrible blood-bath,” including the beautiful woman. While all this was going on, the SS men had dropped Zyklon-B into the gas chamber and gassed the 500 people already inside.

Müller ends his story with these words: “The promises of the SS, ranging from work inside the camp to emigration to Switzerland, were nothing but barefaced deception, as they had proved to be for these wretched people who had wanted to emigrate to Paraguay.”

Following is the story told by Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss in the deposition which he gave to the British:

“Sometimes it happened that prisoners knew what was going to be done. Especially the transports from Belsen knew, as they originated from the East, when the trains reached Upper Silesia, that they were most likely (being) taken to the place of extermination.

When transports from Belsen arrived, safety measures were strengthened and the transports were split up into smaller groups which we sent to different crematoriums to prevent riots. SS men formed a strong cordon and forced resisting prisoners into the gas chamber. That happened very rarely as prisoners were set at ease by the measures we undertook.

I remember one incident especially well.

One transport from Belsen arrived, approximately two-thirds, mostly men were in the gas chamber, the remaining third was in the dressing room. When three or four armed SS Unterfuhrers entered the dressing room to hasten the undressing, mutiny broke out.

The light cables were torn down, the SS men were overpowered, one of them stabbed and all of them were robbed of their weapons. As this room was in complete darkness wild shooting started between the guard near the exit door and the prisoners inside.

When I arrived I ordered the doors to be shut and I had the process of gassing the first party finished and then went into the room together with the guard carrying small searchlights, pushing the prisoners into a corner from where they were taken out singly into another room of the crematorium and shot, by my order, with small calibre weapons.”

Note that Höss mentioned the dressing room, the gas chamber and “another room of the crematorium” which must have been the morgue.

The story as told by Jerzy Tabau has a few minor points that are different. According to him, the new arrivals were told that they had to be disinfected before crossing the border into Switzerland. They were taken into an undressing room next to one of the gas chambers and ordered to disrobe. The beautiful Franceska caught the attention of SS Sergeant Major Josef Schillinger, who stared at her and ordered her to undress completely. Suddenly Franceska threw her shoe into Schillinger’s face and, as he opened his gun holster, Franceska grabbed his pistol and fired two shots, wounding him in the stomach. Then she fired a third shot, wounding another guard named Emmerich, which crippled him for life. Schillinger died on the way to the hospital.

The story, as written by Tadeusz Borowski is based on hearsay, and it disagrees with the other stories almost entirely.

*Those parts of the city outside the walls of the Jewish Quarter were called Aryan. For example in Warsaw, the city was divided into Jewish, Polish and German quarters. Those living outside the ghetto had to have identification papers proving they were not Jewish (none of their grandparents was a member of the Jewish community), such as a baptism certificate. Such documents were sometimes called "Christian or Aryan papers". Catholic clergy in Poland forged on a mass scale baptism certificates, which were given out to Jews by the dominant Polish resistance movement Armia Krajowa (AK). Any Pole found giving any help to a Jew was subject to the death penalty.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gerda (Pohorylle) Taro ~ First Female War Photographer

For a young women, like Gerda Pohoryll, who had grown up in a German Jewish family in the midst of WWII, being in a war zone was no foreign experience. After Gerda's arrest in 1933 for distributing Anti-Nazi propaganda, the Pohoryll family fled Germany for Paris, where a stroke of luck lead Gerda to find the job that would become her passion.

Where Anti-Nazi propaganda had once been the tools of her opposition, the camera would become her ultimate statement of truth and protest. Finding a job as a picture editor for Allied Photo she met and fell in love with Andre Friedman, an Allied Photo photographer. Together the two photographed the first ever images of war that the world had seen, but selling that work as a woman and both as Jews was more than difficult. Together, they invented the famous war photographer, Robert Capa, whose work did sell. 

The secret of their true identities didn't last long, but by then, the strength of their work stood on its own and had opened the world's eyes to the true nature and horrors of war. It was then that Gerda assumed the last name of Taro and Andre that of Capa. Together Gerda Taro and Andre Capa left war torn France for Spain, then in the middle of a civil war that would put General Franco in power for the next 35 years. 

 In an unprecedented move, the two risked their lives daily to capture on film the lives lived and lost in the battle. It was in 1937 during the Battle of Valencia, a confrontation of which the world knew not the realities on the ground, that became her most famous. For they revealed with accuracy the struggle for power between the Republican's and the Nationalist's. It was in covering that battle that Gerda sustained fatal wounds, dying of her injuries on July 26, 1937. She had become not only the first woman to become a war photographer but also the first women to die as one.

Andre Capa went on to photograph more of the war in Europe, his most famous being the Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy. Many years later a suitcase was found in Mexico packed with film from both Taro and Capa. Their images live on today and remind us of not only the horrors of war but of their bravery in showing the reality of war to the world.

Found at AlexisGeorgeNovels.blogspot.com.