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The Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando Revolt

On 7 October 1944, a blue and cloudless day, the largest and most remarkable uprising in Auschwitz history took place, when the Sonderkommando – labourers forced to immolate corpses – succeeded in sabotaging a crematorium. 


Auschwitz had a well-established underground, in contact with the Polish Home Army outside the camp, and the revolt was long in the planning. Preparations commenced when Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, and Ella Gartner began smuggling gunpowder from the Auschwitz munitions factory, and passing it to the Sonderkommando via Róza Robota, who worked in the clothing detail.

However, the plan was repeatedly stalled by non-Jewish underground figures, who hoped they would stand a better chance of survival as the Red Army drew closer. Eventually the Sonderkommando took matters into their own hands, with the aid of some Soviet prisoners. As Sonderkommando Shlomo Venezia recounted:

"Our hope was not so much to survive as to do something, to rise up, so as not to keep on as we were. It was obvious that some of us would perish in the attempt. But whether we died or not, revolt was imperative. Nobody wondered whether it was really going to work or not; the important thing was to do something!"

 Failing to assemble that October morning, SS soldiers arrived at Crematorium IV in search, only to be pelted with rocks. The SS began shooting blindly and as the Crematorium was set ablaze, the workers in Crematoria II and III promptly joined in the fight. Salman Lewental, who buried his testimony in the camp, recounted:

"They set up a loud shout, hurled themselves upon the guards with hammers and axes, wounded some of them, the rest they beat with what they could get at, they pelted them with stones."

Throwing a grenade into a group of guards, prisoners cut through the fence and hundreds escaped. Three SS guards were killed, with dozens injured.

Sadly, the escapees were hunted down, and none of the active participants in the uprising survived. Wajcblum, Safirsztain, Gartner and Robota were tortured, but kept their silence, and were later publicly hanged. According to some reports, they shouted a word together as they stood at the gallows: “Nekamah!” (Revenge!).