January 27th, which has been designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the day on which Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago. The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was a place of great terror. In the course of its far-too-long existence, there was only one armed attempt at a revolt.
The uprising, which took place only three months before Auschwitz was liberated, was organized by the Sonderkommandos, special units of (mostly Jewish) prisoners designated to work within the Nazi killing machine. They worked in the selection area, the gas chambers, the crematoriums, etc. The Sonderkommandos not only suffered the psychological horror of assisting the Nazi genocide plan, but being a Sonderkommando was a guarantee of their ultimate non-survival. To ensure that their forced assistants would never be able to bear witness to the atrocities, each Sonderkommandos unit was killed when they outlived their usefulness to the Nazis.
By the summer of 1944, the number of prisoners arriving in Auschwitz slowed, so the Nazis decided that it was time to thin the number of Sonderkommandos. That September, 200 members of Sonderkommando Unit 12 were executed. However, the organization of the revolt had already begun and the remaining Sonderkommandos of the unit proceeded to revolt. Several women working in the munitions factory had been smuggling tiny amounts of gunpowder to the Sonderkommandos, and outside rebels passed in small weapons and instruments such as insulated wire-cutters.
On the afternoon of October 7th, the uprising began at Crematorium 1, and the overseer was disarmed and pushed into the oven. A gun fight ensued, and the Sonderkommandos in Crematorium 3 and 4 joined the fighting. The rebels of Crematorium 2 began cutting through the wire fences, allowing prisoners to escape. While the revolt was quickly subdued, the Sonderkommandos had managed to irreparably destroy Crematorium 4, and some prisoners had managed to escape.
The Nazi vengeance was intense and brutal. The Sonderkommandos who survived the initial firefight approximately 200 – were summarily executed. Five of the gunpowder smugglers were captured and tortured. Three weeks before liberation, the women were hanged. Twelve days later, the Nazis forced around sixty thousand prisoners on the infamous Death March, less than two weeks before the Soviets arrived to liberate the camp. Fifteen thousand prisoners died on this march, just a few days before liberation.
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