THE COURIERS OF THE JEWISH
UNDERGROUND IN POLAND
DURING THE HOLOCAUST
The Destruction of Crematorium Number Four
Be Strong and Brave
Women liaisons were involved in another significant act of resistance at Auschwitz. The setting was the Union Werke factory, which manufactured V2 rockets parts. Only female inmates were selected to labor there. One room of the plant, the Pulverraum, was the only place at Auschwitz where prisoners had access to gunpowder. There, nine young women worked, handling the explosive material for the manufacture of trigger caps.
A plot was devised by Sonderkommandos to obtain the gunpowder from the Pulverraum. Through a series of links including prisoners Rosa Robota and Alla Gaertner, the "Sondermen" asked the women in the trigger cap factory to smuggle gunpowder to them. All of the women accepted the challenge, including Gaertner, the leader of the gunpowder unit. Among others who worked in the factory were Regina Saperstein, Anna Heilman and Rose Meth. Meth wrote of the event:
In March 1943, Estusia approached me. She told me that resistance was being organized and we were in a position to help because we were the only ones who had access to gunpowder. Would I be willing to risk the danger of being caught? Of course, I agreed right away because it gave me a way to fight back. I felt very good about it and I didn't care about the danger. None of us did.82
The young women smuggled out minute amounts of gunpowder in their mess tins (fitted with double bottoms), in the knots of the scarves in their hair, and in the seams and folds of their dresses. One of the conspirators of this undertaking, Anna Heilman wrote:
Inside our dresses we had what we called a little boit'l, a pocket, and the biot'l was where everybody hid their little treasures, wrapped in pieces of cloth. Often there were searches. When they conducted searches we used to untie the string and spill the gunpowder behind us on the ground so it wouldn't be found.83
Three women could accumulate approximately three teaspoons of powder in one day. Once successfully smuggled out of the factory the gunpowder was handed off, according to Anna Heilman, "through Marta to Antichka who was working in Birkenau. She ran between Auschwitz and Birkenau and gave it to Roza Robota."84
Roza Robota was a survivor of the transport of Jews from Ciechanow where she had been a member of Ha-Shomer Ha-tza'ir. She was the only member of her family not to have been gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz in November of 1942. Forced to labor in the Bekleidungskommando unit where confiscated clothing and personal possessions of prisoners were sorted, she organized a resistance group which distributed news obtained by the camp underground organization from radio broadcasts.
Roza made the initial contact with several women in the Schwartzpulver factory, who were also native to Ciechanow. Despite the dangers and difficulties the women agreed to steal the gunpowder.
Once it was smuggled outside the Union Werke the women passed the explosive material to Roza and Hadassa Zlotnicka who gave it to Asir-Godel Zilber, another native of Ciechanow. Zilber passed the contraband on to a member of the Sonderkommando and then the material finally reached the Russian "Sondermen," who fashioned the gunpowder into grenades and bombs. It took the women over a year to smuggle enough gunpowder to realize the conspiracy's goal: to destroy one of the crematoria. The finished explosives were buried near the crematoria until the proper time. On October 7, 1944 the Sondermen recovered the explosives and detonated Crematorium Number IV, putting it permanently out of commission.
Initially, the possibility that women could be involved in transferring explosives was inconceivable to the Gestapo, but eventually their investigation led to Alla Gaertner, Roza Robota, and the Pulverraum plant. Four women in the conspiracy were tortured and murdered: Robota, Gaertner, Regina Saperstein and Estusia. None of them betrayed their fellow conspirators. One of the leaders of the plot, Noah Zabladowicz, a member of the Jewish underground in the camp, stole a brief visit with Robota in punishment Block 11 before her death. She had endured torture, mutilation and lay dying on the floor of her cell. Roza urged Zabladowicz to encourage the members of the Auschwitz underground to continue their work. Her last message was a note scratched on a piece of paper smuggled from her cell: "Hazak V'Amatz: Be Strong and Brave."85 Roza Robota was twenty-three.
The remaining heroines who smuggled the gunpowder were forced to watch the hangings of their co-conspirators who all yelled Zemsta! (Revenge!) before their execution.