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Andrea Bonilla

Auschwitz-Birkenau: Resistance

Throughout most of World War II, part of the Germans’ Final Solution involved an efficient, expedient way of ridding themselves of the Jewish population: death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau where members of the religion would become participants in mass executions where, due to human nature, there was the instinctive urge to fight death and resist the blow that fate was dealing the victims. It is questioned whether or not the Jews walked to their deaths like “sheep to a slaughter”, or with the fear and indignity that came with the knowledge of what their immediate futures held (Landau 138).

Needless to say, the conditions of the Nazi camps were horrific and outrageously unsanitary, forcing the people to live in disease-ridden quarters while having the constant awareness of exactly how precariously their lives were hung in the balance. From the outset, Auschwitz was designed to be a place where mass murders were able to be performed in cycles, quickly killing hundreds of people. The principal tools used for the genocide were the gas chambers which led to the crematoriums. In this specific case, the gas chambers were divided into two types: Leichenkeller (“corpse cellars”) were large, underground structures which, tightly packed, held approximately 2,000 deportees. The other type was the Badeanstalten (“bath houses”), smaller chambers which were located above the ground. Crowds of Jews were falsely told by SS guards that they were all going to a shower room in order to be thoroughly cleansed and disinfected for their stays at the camps. In truth, they were thrust into one of the chambers, where a lethal combination of hydrogen and cyanide would permeate the air and, over time, asphyxiate every last one of the prisoners. After being stripped of any valuables, the bodies then were cremated in several of the 46 ovens meant precisely for burning bodies. At its peak, the camp was burning 500 bodies every hour in these ovens. The entire process was manned by SS guards as well as Sonderkommandos, teams of Jewish prisoners who were forced to labor in the chambers by the Nazis until they were killed; this was done every four months so that no prisoner could publicize the atrocities and crimes of their commanders with which they had become so intimate (Laska 174). Understandably, someone at risk of being deported to a death camp such as these would make the utmost effort to avoid their capture. Take for example the case of Itzhak Katznelson and his 18 year old son, Zvi. His wife and daughters having previously been deported, Katznelson attempted flight with his son at his side. They hid in a bunker which had been dug underneath a hothouse just outside the ghetto to which they had been confined. With false Hondurian passports in hand, they reached Poland before they were arrested, after which they were sent to Vittel. Ironically, this occurred merely three weeks before the Germans ceased the deportation of those with Latin American passports.
The effort against the inhuman extermination of the Jews came from within the gates of the camps as well as without. In such a context, suicide may be seen as a sort of resistance in itself, with people preferring to take their own lives than to experience the misery inflicted upon them. Whatever the motivation, suicide was what claimed a large number of prisoners. Others, desperate for their lives, would attempt escapes that seldom took them to safety. On the part of the prisoners, resistance was largely disorganized and frequently spontaneous. However, it was a common concept, and the methods were widely varied (Swiebocka 25). Escapes needed to be devised in a way where the safety of the other prisoners was ensured, as others were punished for missing inmates. Resistance by Jews did not only appear in the form of suicide and escapes, however. Simply the act of doing something that went against the established rules. For example, some would pull their own gold-capped teeth in order to trade them for food so that they would not perish from starvation. Others refused to comply with the orders of the SS and continually smuggled coded notes out of camp by sewing them into clothes, hiding them inside other objects, or by burying them for later recovery (Swiebocka 26). Although plots to escape or to overpower the SS were mostly ill-conceived and ultimate failures, there was one which left and indelible impression on the history of the Holocaust. As above mentioned, the Sonderkommandos worked more closely with their Nazi dictators than any of the other prisoners did. Knowing what their fate would be after the period of four months was over, they conspired to create a plan in which they would bomb one of the crematoria. In preparation for this, four women smuggled explosives into the camp to the workers, and the men proceeded to destroy Gas Chamber and Crematorium IV while at the same time killing several of the SS. Eventually the four women were caught and hanged; nevertheless, they had succeeded in rendering inoperative one of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s four gas chambers. The date of this revolt, October 7, 1944, has much significance as a day of great victory on the part of the victims (Laska 175).
Aware of the desperate situation inside of the death camps, several organizations devoted themselves to try to rescue them as soon as possible and with the least amount of deaths possible. One great frustration in relation to outside efforts was the June 1944 proposal of the War Refugee Board that the railway lines from Hungary to Auschwitz be bombed by them. Members of the Czech underground provided routes, train schedules, and advantageous bombing locations. The ultimate goal was to slow down and then stop deportations. However, the War Department repeatedly turned down the idea for a variety of reasons, from impracticality to lack of military capacity, and many others. Although the War Refugee Board continued their attempts to interest the War Department in their strategy, the scheme was never approved. Officials were not yet fully aware of how desperately the prisoners needed to be rescued until three escaped prisoners made the crimes against humanity public (Landau 211-13).
Despite the fact that most people in the time of World War II had absolutely no idea of the gravity of the deportees’ situation, the push to end the Nazi cruelty gained momentum as the war continued. All over the world people were speaking out agains the German crimes under Hitler, and measure being taken against them. Although help came much too late, this is a period in history which should not and will not be erased, as that which is not learned is doomed to be repeated.

Works Cited

Landau, Ronnie S. The Nazi Holocaust. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.

Laska, Vera. Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: THE VOICES OF EYEWITNESSES. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983. 152-189.

Swiebocka, Teresa. Auschwitz: A History in Photographs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. 13-27.