Four Heroic Women from the Ammunition Factory Union
Resistance in Auschwitz
(Lotte is the sister of Claire Felsenburg. She is the
sister, who survived Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.
On January 6,1945, after the evening roll call and before the march to the factory for the nightshift, once more the order was given: "Roll- call!" We had to watch the execution of Alla Gärtner and Regina Saphirstein under the gallows by the SS-guards. After their return, the dayshift also had to watch the murder of Rosa Robota and Esther Weissblum under the gallows by the SS-Guards. Days before the flight of the SS, in view of the approaching Soviet-Troops and the dissolution of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, the SS took revenge on the four heroic women, who, with daring and adroitness, had enabled the uprising of the Sonderkommando For many months, the women smuggled gunpowder in minute quantities from the powder depot of the factory Weichsel-Metall-Union, one of the many factories, which had been established by the German war industry in the vicinity of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the assistance of the women and girls, who were forced to work there. The gunpowder passed through many hands. Often the participants involved did not realize what the minute packages contained. They conveyed the small packages, for instance, in the knots of their headscarves or in other similar ways, which reached the clothing depot, where Rosa Robota worked. From there the explosive powder was passed on to the men of the Sonderkommando, who fabricated in secret blasting shells with this material. The network of this Jewish resistance group stretched from the ammunition factory to the Sonderkommando, who had to work at the cremation plant. With their uprising, which would cost them their lives, the men working there wanted to destroy the crematoria to stop further mass murder. I, myself, worked in the control department of the Union. It was a long and painful path that brought me from Vienna, from where I had escaped to Belgium after the Germans took power in Austria, and from Belgium to Auschwitz. I had to leave Vienna as soon as possible because I had already been arrested as a 15 year old in the year 1935, as I was responsible for an illegal gathering and, as a result, was held under arrest by the police for three weeks. I had to spend these three weeks in the Elisabethpromenade prison, otherwise known as Liesl. I had been transferred to this prison from the Boltzmanngasse police station . My comrades in Vienna gave me the good advice to get out of German-occupied Austria as quickly as possible, because I was known to the police as Jewish and as an anti-fascist to boot and, therefore, especially endangered. In the years beforehand the police had detained me for a day and night on February 12, 1934, the date of an unsuccessful uprising. My youth comrades Fritzi Mutzika and Fredi Rabovsky, who were both convicted and beheaded for treason during the war in 1944, sold some of their few belongings to enable me to buy a railway ticket to Cologne, because I myself was without any means. From Aachen I crossed the border to Belgium illegally. In Brussels I soon established contact with Austrian political refugees. We formed an antifascist youth group and also tried to promote Austrian culture among interested Belgians. We held regular meetings with lectures by Alfred Klahr, Albert Hirsch, Moritz Margulies, Josef Sieder and others. Kurt Hacker was also a member of our group and I met him again in Auschwitz. Alfred Klahr and I also met in Auschwitz again. Juci Fürst, who I had known in Vienna, was also a member of our group. She was also deported to Auschwitz and with her I finally fled shortly before liberation, in the course of the evacuation from Ravensbrück. Only after the German invasion of the Soviet-Union in 1941, our group in Brussels started activities against the war in the form of anti-war propaganda amongst German soldiers. I was arrested by the German military police in June 1943 after passing an anti-war leaflet to a German soldier. I had been in contact for some time with this soldier, who came from Carinthia; we had discussed how inhuman this war was. I did not suspect that he would betray me. The interrogations with the usual Gestapo methods, now generally known, lasted for months, because I revealed neither the names of my comrades nor my own proper name. Because of the confession of a girlfriend, who had also been arrested after me, my actual identity became known and confirmed from Vienna. During the interrogations, I was in a single cell in the Cachot, a vault, in Malines, a deportation camp for the Jewish population of Belgium. In the cell next to mine was a man from Vienna named Toni Habel, who had deserted from the German army and when arrested as a civilian, declared he was Jewish, in order to avoid immediate execution by martial law. He had been on the front in eastern Europe as a German soldier and did not want to be involved in the atrocities of the German Wehrmacht. My friends Hertha Ligeti and Marianne Bradt were also in the Cachot and we were deported together to Auschwitz. The German camp commandant, Boden by name, told us we were being sent to work in the Netherlands, a few hours journey away, when we were put onto railway cattle wagons. Our journey lasted three days and nights without any washrooms or WC, without water or food in the cattle wagons, which were locked from outside. Deceived and cheated, we arrived in Auschwitz. The scenes on arrival have often been described often. The first two "selections", which I experienced in Birkenau, were decisions of life and death. Had the SS officer in charge turned his finger in the other direction, I would have landed in the gas-chamber, like millions of others. It is just by accident, that I am still alive. It was the intention of the Nazis, that I, a Jewess, should no longer live. In the third selection, I was sent to work in a factory. My job was in the control department of the Union and I had to check the screw threads of coned-shaped metal parts, obviously heads of grenades. We were about 25 girls and women on a long workbench, doing the same job. In spite of language difficulties we soon reached the agreement to sabotage this work by placing good threaded cones into the scrap box and spoiled parts into the quality box. Many of the girls had been brought from different ghettos in Poland to Auschwitz. Others like Alla Gärtner or Mala Zimmetbaum were from Belgium or other countries occupied by the Germans, and deported to Auschwitz. Some of them had survived the Warsaw ghetto uprising. At that time, an illegal international resistance organisation existed already in the camp and one prisoner in our factory, Robert, a former member of the Inter-Brigade in Spain, established contact with the resistance group in the male-camp. Soon after, Alfred Klahr came to see me in the factory. I did not know how long he had already been a prisoner in Auschwitz, but he informed me about the situation outside. An uprising was being planned with Polish partisan groups operating outside the camp to enable an escape from the camp. He asked us to try to obtain insulated cutting pliers to disconnect the electrically loaded barbed wire. We should also try to organise bottles with petrol. With the help of a prisoner, who was a plumber in the male-camp, we met Kurt Hacker again, who was also deported by the Germans to Auschwitz. Herta Ligeti and I were very happy to find a further confident, but he had very sad news for me. My good friend, Benedikt Senzer, was no longer alive. During one of the earliest leaflet operations next to a Wehrmacht barrack, he was hit by a German bullet and arrested. Kurt told us that he was together with him in Fort Breendonk, a terrible medieval prison, where the prisoners were most cruelly tortured by the Germans. From there they brought Benni to the coal mines in Monowitz, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. Days later he was murdered in the gas-chamber. We begged Kurt Hacker to obtain insulating cutting-pliers for us, which he did. A stubowa ( forewoman) in our barrack, Fanni Dutet, was also a confident in our group. She was not only able to hide the pliers, but also a petrol bottle. These articles were our hope for the uprising. Sadly, this uprising did not take place. With the help of Marie Claude Vaillant Couturier, a French comrade prisoner, we came into contact with Betty Wenz, a girl from Vienna in the "Arian" barrack. Betty worked as an office clerk and could therefore move about more freely in the camp. Through Betty, we came into contact with Herta Rotowa, a camp messenger, who cooperated closely with Mala Zimmetbaum. Betty and Herta helped immensely to hold our group together, by providing us with important information and many different necessary objects. Their status in the camp-hierarchy gave them access to many camp functionaries and many barracks and commands. They were ready to use their possibilities to help our group without regarding their own personal safety or advantage. Herta, for instance, used her connections to get me transferred from the factory job in the Union, to a job in the wool depot. I was told by the girls at our workbench that there were rumours that I was a member of a resistance group. Betty, again, had brought us a bag full of sugar, just as we had to assemble for the evacuation march, which then became the death march for so many. We shared the sugar with the prisoners around us. She organised this at the last moment, because she had contact to the women, who worked in the kitchen. This was an act of solidarity and with her unselfish deed, she most probably saved the lives of some of us. The uprising and the blasting of one of the crematoria by the Sonderkommando prisoners was achieved by the action of the four girls together with others. The four heroic women, who risked their lives to save others from death, had to die. Whilst we had to prepare for the roll call, to watch the murder of the four girls, Hanna Weissblum, the 15 year old sister of Esther, made a desperate attempt to rush to the gallows to die with her sister. With great pains, the prisoner comrades from her block prevented her from performing this desperate act. This is one of my most moving and exciting memories from this time Only days later the prisoners were forced together and chased from the camp as the Soviet army came closer. The Germans did not want to leave living witnesses behind, who could have reported the horror perpetrated by the Germans. Only very few prisoners were able to hide. Most of those prisoners, who were too exhausted to continue the march, were shot on the spot. In the bitterest cold winter a blood-drenched trail marked the path of the death march that January of 1945. The surviving prisoners were shoved onto open railway coal wagons and transported to the women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück near Berlin. The last hours in Auschwitz remain for me as a ghostly memory. The SS tried, in their panic-stricken endeavours, to hide the intensity of their crimes by destroying their notes, lists of prisoners, documents etc. Heaps of paper covered the ground between the blocks. One practically waded through paper. We were overjoyed that the end of our torment had come. We could not imagine what still lay ahead of us before our final liberation. In the course of the years one naturally tends to forget many details and data, but some of the occurrences from this unimaginably inhuman and heinous period in Auschwitz I cannot and am not willing to forget. We had to stand lined up to watch the execution of Mala Zimmetbaum at the women’s camp Birkenau, who had tried to escape together with her friend Edek Galinski. This should have served as a deterrent against further escape attempts. Just as her death sentence was about to be carried out, Mala was able to cut her artery with a razorblade she had concealed in her long hair, and in doing this under the gallows, she hit the SS-executioner, standing next to her in the face. Although Jewish, she had been allowed to keep her long hair, because she was a high ranking functionary. Without being hanged, she was quickly shoved to the crematorium. Mala was well-known and liked amongst the prisoners. She held the position of chief camp messenger, was fluent in a number of languages and had helped many prisoners and resistance groups. Her public execution was intended to humiliate and demoralise the prisoners. Her courageous behaviour, however, humiliated the SS and strengthened the will of many prisoners to survive. Whenever an escape was attempted in the camp, we had to line up for roll call and often had to stand for hours. Over and over we murmured: "Good journey ! Safe journey !" I can still remember the gypsy camp. It was a separate section in the Birkenau camp. Men, women and children were together there and I could watch from my block the colourful and lively atmosphere. The SS allowed the families to stay together. One evening, at the beginning of August 1944, the Lagersperre order was given. We had to stay in our blocks. Doors and windows had to be kept closed. The next morning when we were ordered to go to work, the gypsy camp was no longer: there was utter emptiness. All the people there had disappeared. There was a deathly silence. All men, women and children from the gypsy camp were all murdered in this one night by the SS in the gas-chambers and burned in the crematoria. One day, there was colourful liveliness and the next morning everything erased. This deathly silence. This I can not forget. And I cannot forget the murdering of more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews in the summer of 1944. Day after day the trains came into the camp and the people were driven directly from the rail ramp to the gas-chambers and crematoria. Day and night we saw them standing there and day and night the smoke blew from the chimneys of the crematoria. Men, women and children with no chance or possibility to resist. This murdering lasted for weeks and nobody could stop it. It was the most brutal and unimaginable mass-murder and I cannot and do not want to forget this. In spite of all the torturing and horrible interrogations the four heroic women did not reveal any of their accomplices: upright and courageous, full contempt for their tormentors and murderers, they went to the gallows. Their morale, their humanism and solidarity and their deaths are always in my mind and remain for me exemplary and a lasting commitment. Lotte Brainin
(Written in German about 1980, translated 2011)
see also: Zwischenwelt Nr. 4 (Jänner 2012) Literatur/Widerstand/Exil, s. 10ff (Theodor Kramer Gesellschaft)
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