However, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor - three of the four most deadly Nazi extermination camps - the relatively static labour force meant that prisoners were able to plot acts of sabotage, escape and revenge.
There were immense obstacles; escapees embarked on what David Cesarani described as a “tortuous odyssey”, emerging into isolated forests with the SS in pursuit, and locals often unwilling to help. However, against all the odds, a number of prisoners used astonishing ingenuity and courage to survive or to strike back.
In April 1944, Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, Jewish Slovaks who had endured two years at Auschwitz-Birkenau, executed a daring escape and broadcasted the camp’s horrors to the world.
Permitted to move between camps due to their administrative roles, Vrba and Wetzler made careful mental notes of the layout and operation of the camp, and after stealing a map and the label from a can of Zyklon-B, the pair put their plan into action.
After they failed to show up for work one day, an alarm was triggered and the search began. The pair spent three punishing days hiding under a log pile, sprinkled with tobacco and petrol to mask their scent from the hounds.
Slipping out at nightfall after the alarm had ceased, they embarked on the arduous walk into Slovakia, helped by Polish and Slovak peasants along the way.
Vrba and Wetzler detailed the camp’s processes into the 32-page Auschwitz Protocols, which also contained the recollections of the escapees Arnost Rosin and Czesław Mordowicz. Initially disbelieved, the report was received by British intelligence in June, and whilst the accounts of Witold Pilecki and Jan Karski had preceded them, the Auschwitz Protocols was picked up by the international media, breaking news of the camp to the world.
Vrba and Wetzler both fought with a Czechoslovak partisan unit for the remainder of the war. Wetzler went on to work as a journalist and newspaper editor in Bratislava, dying in 1988, and Vrba became a successful professor of pharmacology, passing away in 2006.
THE AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU ROMANI UPRISING
On 15th May 1944, Auschwitz Commander Rudolf Höss gave the order for the killing of the entire ‘Gypsy Family Camp’, in order to house a new consignment of Hungarian Jewish prisoners. SS Officer Georg Bonigut, despite his role as commander of the Romani camp, appears to have had some sympathy for the prisoners, and warned them that the entire camp was soon to be massacred and that they should resist at all costs.
Assembling whatever weaponry they could muster, including shovels, pipes and stones, the 6,500 remaining inmates prepared to face down the troops who would escort them to certain death. Some of the German Sinti prisoners had previously served in the Wehrmacht, and had therefore had some combat training.
When the 50 to 60 SS troops arrived, they were astonished to find that the residents had barricaded themselves into their accommodation and were refusing to come out when ordered.
As Hugo Höllenreiner, then 10 years old, recalled:
Dad shouted out - the whole building trembled when he shouted - 'We're not coming out! You come in here! We're waiting here! If you want something, you have to come inside!'
The shock factor clearly worked, as the heavily-armed guards departed without firing a shot, despite massively outgunning the rebellion.
The immediate threat was withdrawn and the Family Camp was to survive for another three months. On 2nd August, having gradually separated all working-age inmates from the rest, the order was finally given for the liquidation of the remaining inmates, primarily women, children, the elderly and infirm.
The brave stand of the Family Camp against all possible odds has become a focal point of commemoration, with May 16th known as ‘Romani Resistance Day’.
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!).
THE TREBLINKA REVOLT
At Treblinka an astonishing 800,000 Jews were killed, alongside 2,000 Romani and Sinti people, between the summer of 1942 and the autumn of 1943.
Jankiel Wiernik, a Jewish camp labourer, vividly recalled the nightmarish conditions of Treblinka, but also individual moments of defiance, recounting the story of a woman who wrenched a rifle from a Ukrainian guard and gunned two down before she died. “She was our nameless heroine”, Wiernik wrote.
In the summer of 1943, a number of Jews with military experience arrived at Treblinka, bolstering the burgeoning underground. Merceli Galewski, a kapo (labour supervisor), formulated the plan to sabotage the camp, escape, and broadcast the horrors they had witnessed. Wiernik, able to move between sites, passed messages between the lower camp and the execution area. He recalled their resolution to fight:
We knew what lay hidden beneath the surface of this soil. We were the only ones left alive to tell the story. Silently, we took our leave of the ashes of our fellow Jews and vowed that, out of their blood, an avenger would arise.
On 2 August, the plan was set in motion. After obtaining an impression of the armoury key, weapons were raided and passed to groups strategically poised to take out the watchtower guards. However, provoked by the arrest of a member, a prisoner opened fire an hour before schedule, sparking the revolt. Prisoners set the fuel depot ablaze with Molotov cocktails, and mayhem ensued. In the smoke and commotion, inmates clambered over the gates and fences, or else cut through them.
Less than a third of the 500 prisoners escaped into the woods after surviving the heavy fire and the minefield, and only 50 were ultimately able to survive after reaching the forests. Several escapees joined partisan units. Samuel Willenberg travelled to Warsaw and fought in the uprising. During his time in the city he made contact with Wiernik, who had written his account of the camp, which was circulated in New York in 1944.
The Sobibor Escape
Between 1942 and 1943, more than 250,000 perished at Sobibor. However, on 14 October 1943, it would also become the site of the most successful revolt in all of the death camps.
Leon Feldhendler, the former chairman of a Jewish council in Lublin, was at the centre of the existing camp resistance, with detailed knowledge and contacts throughout the camp. However, he lacked military training. When Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, a Jewish Red Army lieutenant from Rostov, arrived in September with dozens of Soviet soldiers from Minsk, Feldhendler immediately sought out his contact.
Whilst many of Pechersky’s men wanted to launch a smaller escape through a tunnel, he insisted on a mass breakout. Pechersky had already endured terrible suffering at the hands of the Nazis, and was determined to strike back. Overcoming the language barrier, Pechersky and Feldhendler devised “a plan of great subtlety and utter ruthlessness”, in David Cesarani’s words. Pechersky later said of his plan:
"My main goal was to kill the fascists, those who had killed all those people. Perhaps only ten or fifteen would be able to escape and get to freedom, and to tell the world the truth."
When the commandant was offsite, the group assassinated the deputy in his office, leaving the camp without leadership. As planned, the underground then killed roughly a dozen guards within an hour, luring them into buildings and setting about them with knives and axes, seizing their weapons. The insurgents then cut the camp’s communication cables.
Feldhandler then attempted to gather the 600 labourers into a roll call. Unfortunately, an SS man grew suspicious, and he was instantly killed by a prisoner. His death was witnessed by the guards in the watchtowers, who began gunning down the prisoners. Unable to breach the gate, the escapees scaled the fence into a minefield. Ada Lichtman recounted the events:
"Suddenly we heard shots […] We heard shouting, and I could see a group of prisoners running with axes, knives, scissors, cutting the fences and crossing them. Mines started to explode. Riot and confusion prevailed, everything was thundering around […] We ran out of the workshop. All around were the bodies of the dead and wounded. Near the armoury were some of our boys with weapons. Some of them were exchanging fire with the Ukrainians, others were running toward the gate or through the fences."
Of the 550 prisoners, 320 made it out into the woods, roughly a third of whom were soon captured. Of those who evaded capture, some joined partisan units. Roughly 60 survived WWII.
After several days, Pechersky led a handful of the armed survivors of his unit towards Russia, effectively abandoning the Polish Jews in the woods with a single rifle. He later justified his actions to Toivi Blatt, another Sobibor escapee: “My job was done. You were Polish Jews in your own terrain. I belonged in the Soviet Union and still considered myself a soldier. In my opinion, the chances for survival were better in smaller units”.
Feldhendler survived the Final Solution, but was killed in Lublin in April 1945, reportedly by antisemitic Polish nationalists.Pechersky rejoined the Red Army and engaged in frontline combat. He would eventually fall foul of Stalin’s antisemitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans”, but was released after an international outcry. He died in 1990 at the age of 80.