Ella Gärtner. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Anna and Joshua Heilman
Róza Robota. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives
View of the entrance to the main camp of Auschwitz (Auschwitz I). US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej
By September 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the only remaining Nazi killing center still in operation. The Operation Reinhard camps—Treblinka, Sobibór, and Belzec—had been closed down. Chelmno, originally closed in 1943, reopened for a brief period in spring-summer 1944. At the end of July 1944, Majdanek was liberated by Soviet troops.
For the prisoners at Auschwitz, liberation seemed close at hand. The Soviet army had moved deep into German-occupied Poland, and US planes had begun bombing the I.G. Farben synthetic oil and rubber factory located near Auschwitz III, less than five miles from Birkenau. In Warsaw, the Polish Home Army had risen up in revolt against German occupation forces. Within the Auschwitz complex, the resistance movement—composed of Jews and non-Jews alike—made plans to launch its own uprising.
For months, young Jewish women, like Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, and Regina Safirsztain, had been smuggling small amounts of gunpowder (schwartzpulver) from the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex, to men and women in the camp’s resistance movement, like Róza Robota, a young Jewish woman who worked in the clothing detail at Birkenau. Under constant guard, the women in the factory took small amounts of the gunpowder, wrapped it in bits of cloth or paper, hid it on their bodies, and then passed it along the smuggling chain. Once she received the gunpowder, Róza Robota then passed it to her co-conspirators in the Sonderkommando, the special squad of prisoners forced to work in the camp’s crematoria. Using this gunpowder, the leaders of the Sonderkommando planned to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria, and launch the uprising.
On October 7, 1944, having learned that the SS was going to liquidate much of the squad, the members of the Sonderkommando at Crematorium IV rose in revolt. Setting fire to the crematorium, they attacked the SS guards with hammers, axes, and stones. Seeing the flames rising over the building as a signal for the camp uprising, those of the Sonderkommando at Crematorium II went into action, killing a Kapo and several SS men. Several hundred prisoners escaped from Birkenau, almost all of whom were caught and killed by the SS. Later that day, an additional 200 prisoners who took part in the revolt were executed.
In their investigation of the incident, the SS traced the gunpowder to the “Union” factory and arrested Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, and Regina Safirsztain. Róza Robota was arrested shortly thereafter. Though brutally tortured, the four women refused to name their comrades. On January 6, 1945, they were hanged in front of the assembled prisoners from the munitions factory.
Prior to their deaths, Ester Wajcblum and Róza Robota smuggled messages to their comrades in the underground. To a friend, Ester Wajcblum wrote: “I know what is in store for me, but I go readily to the gallows. I only ask you to take care of my sister Hanka. Please don’t leave her, so that I may die easier.” Róza Robota’s final message to her comrades in the underground was, “Hazak v’ematz,” “Be strong and have courage.”