Resistance Reconsidered: The Women of the Political Department at Auschwitz Birkenau
Such were the pieces of evidence provided by the women of the Political Department. While often specific, detailed and exact, their evidence was also open, at times, to being excluded as failing to conform to the tests posed by the rules of evidence. It was clear to the prosecution and later to all in the courtroom who heard the stories recounted by these women that the undeniable result of the actions and crimes that they did see had to be the death of tens of thousands at the hands of many of these defendants. However, due to the stipulations of the murder laws, such imprecise accounts were often not enough. Determining where to draw the line between invalid testimony and important evidence was very often up to the judge later in the trial itself; for as presiding judge Hofmeyer stated tersely in a rebuttal to a defense attorney, "this is why we must ask many people for hearsay, in order to create a picture of the circumstances as they were there... because the dead can no longer speak."32 That the judge would take such a liberty demonstrated the difficulties he faced in reconciling the rigidity of the law with the extraordinary nature of the trial. It also showed that he was sometimes willing to practice his right to interpret the law rather than simply to administer it.
Kagan's memoirs provide the first real glimpses into the stories of Lilly Tofler, mentioned earlier, and Mala Zimetbaum, who was publicly hanged for attempting escape. These two women were among the very few secretaries in the Political Department who were killed for acts of resistance.33 They were punished because of the defiant and public nature of their attempts to resist. Kagan recounted the way Lilly was discovered to have written a love letter to a fellow prisoner. The letter was innocent and naďve, according to Kagan. It said:
My dear Janek,
This letter is most telling for two reasons: first, the extraordinary detail and accuracy with which Kagan reported it. She either took notes or committed it to her memory in order to make it permanent history. The will to recall and retell was important to her in the knowledge that she would probably not survive in as part of the HimmelfahrtsKommando. Bearing witness was not an act resorted to after the fact, but a conscious decision within the camp. It was most likely what kept her alive. Second, the letter itself seems rather harmless, but was clearly a dangerous move on Lilly's part, for which she paid dearly. Under the intense scrutiny of the Political Department, Lilly's letter writing was a risk of enormous proportions. We must keep this in mind when attempting to understand what it meant to resist.
According to Kagan, SS guard Woschnitza came to the women of the Political Department and demanded from each of them a sample of their handwriting. Kagan's depiction demonstrates the terror that reigned: "Our hearts were hammering against our chests as we wrote…. Then came the news, that they suspected that one of us wrote the letter that had been discovered."35 Tofler had also put the other women of the Political Department in danger. Was this a selfish act or a genuine oversight? It demonstrated the repercussions of one act of resistance for an entire group of people. It was quite typical for the Nazis to use collective retribution to punish the actions of one individual. This in itself was often the explanation for so few attempting open resistance, as they knew what could happen. The secretaries learned this too. Kagan wrote, "and we, we didn't guess as that time, that it wasn't just Lilly's fate, but all of ours, the fate of sixty Jewish women, that hung in the balance."36 By this she meant not only that all could be in danger, for the commandant of the camp had ordered that the entire group of women be sent to Birkenau, meaning the gas chambers. She was also referring to the organization of aid created by these women and the call they had now received to do something to help Lilly. Kagan described Lilly's best friend Jutzi, who had a good relationship with her boss, and attempted to intervene but had no luck. It was Jutzi who smuggled out the information that they were all to be gassed. Kagan also recalled Anni, a non-Jewish secretary for SS guard Caesar, who pleaded for mercy for Lilly. But according to Kagan, "It was the first time Anni came back from Caesar with empty hands. He told Anni, the Aryan, not to protect Jewish women, especially in such a serious case. Lilly found no saviour in her time of distress." She was sentenced to death and shot in the men's camp, probably to hide the identity of the shooter from the secretaries. Most women heard that it was Boger but this could not be confirmed. This incident had a profound effect on the women of the Political Department, for virtually all those who testified at the Auschwitz Trial mentioned her.
Mala Zimetbaum, another legendary figure, is a good example of unusual courage. Zimetbaum is an important symbol of active and spiritual resistance at Auschwitz in that she not only attempted escape, but deprived the SS of the chance to make an example of her by cutting her wrists before being hung and yelling out, "you will all die like dogs, but I shall die as a heroine!" Each witness described her story quite differently in the trial testimony. Kagan told of her in her memoir, and acknowledged the courage and higher meaning of Mala's attempted escape. Mala was the first Jewish woman to attempt such a feat. She was SS guard Drechsler's right hand, and according to Kagan, "the entire camp leadership... trusted her, and she was given permission to travel from one camp to another (from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II) without supervision. Mala lived in a clean house and could basically do as she pleased. Despite her special position and her power, she remained one of the few who was not obsessed with this power and who didn't have a hardened heart."38 Kagan described Mala as a saint-like figure who had saved many lives in her job, and her flight itself had generated many stories. According to camp talk, "it wasn't so much the urge for freedom that propelled her to do it, but the undeterable will to report to the world the happenings at Auschwitz and Birkenau."39
Another secretary who testified at the Auschwitz Trial about Mala was a woman named Jenny Schaner, who in her pre-trial testimony also recounted this story, adding "I was also told that when an SS-man tried to take the razor from her, she slapped him in the ear, whereupon he dislocated her arm. She was then brought unconscious to the Crematorium and burned in that state (i.e. alive)."40 Schaner was a German Jew from Berlin who worked in the registry office of the Political Department at Auschwitz with SS guard Quackernack as her boss. It was her job to write the death announcements into the Death roll books. After the war she moved to Switzerland and wrote a memoir entitled "I was Prisoner #10291."
In three different testimonies - her trial interrogation, her memoir, and a brief account for historical documentation - Schaner described her daily acts of defiance. First, upon getting this job, she ensured that her friend Dounia Wasserstrom would also be hired in the Political Department. It becomes clear when reading her testimony that the two did everything to protect each other and functioned as rescuers to one another. After evacuation, on the "death march," they pushed each other along so as not to fall behind and be shot. They eventually fled the march together and survived this way.41 In the Political Department, Schaner and her colleagues always looked out not only for each other but for prisoners in interrogation as well. Schaner described one occasion in which she was called to the room of a male prisoner who worked for Boger. This was a secretive yet regular event, in which one secretary would summon another and share food. Schaner was on her way to get some food from Boger's helper (and keep in mind interaction was strictly forbidden) when she was seen by another SS guard, Pery Broad (also a defendant at the Auschwitz Trial). Schaner's description of her close call and the aid of her friends is worth recounting:
About half an hour later Boger's secretary came and told me that I had to give her my number, as Broad had informed on me to Boger and I was now to be sent to the Punishment squadron. I knew, that this meant death. I know that the then secretaries for Boger, Lilly Majerczyk and Elfi... stood up for me.... Boger told the girls that this could not happen one more time, because he would then send me to the Punishment squadron.42Perhaps the simplest and yet most extraordinary acts of resistance were those of kindness and humility, which Schaner described quite matter-of-factly. The system of protection that the secretaries had created for each other certainly kept their spirits up and gave them a reason to trust, to go on. It becomes evident when sifting though the testimony that the survival of many of these women was actually due less to the favour of the guards and more to the community they had created. It was much more difficult to save the lives of prisoners who were brutally tortured by Boger and left to die. However, the women also risked their lives to provide comfort to these victims. Schaner described in detail the level of brutality that she witnessed. Although she was not in the room when Boger conducted his "interrogations," she saw the outcome. According to Schaner, "I can only say, that the prisoners were horribly mauled by Boger. Sometimes one couldn't even recognize anymore, that at one time this was a face."43 Still, in the presence of such brutality and fear, there was courage. Said Schaner, "because I knew that Boger was abusing these prisoners, during these "interrogations" I often went across the hall, for example to the bathroom, so that if possible, I could in some way help the prisoners after interrogation, for example by giving them some water."44 It is hard to imagine the magnitude of such a gesture in light of the surroundings and the sadists working in the Political Department. According to Schaner, however, this was quite normal and done by all the women in the Political Department "who could summon the courage."45
These women lived with the certainty that they would die, because they knew that they had seen too much to be allowed to live. Yet they continued to take risks: by smuggling letters, sharing food, avoiding or even refusing orders, and the daily act of lying. They extended the lives or at least improved the conditions of many, including their own. By examining and comparing their attitudes to authority - Maryla Rosenthal, for example, who coped with her consuming fear by shutting down completely, or Jenny Schaner, who boldly provided Boger's victims with water - by understanding the unique role of these women in the camp and in history, it is possible to understand better the wide range of reactions that constituted resistance. As historian Swiebocki states,
Although martyrdom and death were the rule, Auschwitz had another side, seen in the actions of inmates against the terror and depravity they faced: efforts of rescue, the fight for survival and human dignity. Often they were spontaneous, sometimes anonymous.46
Clearly, there are differences between the actions of men and women in the camp, and I am interested here in female forms of resistance. The activities of these women may have been on a different scale than the more spectacular organized actions of those who attempted bombings and mass escape, but many, by their very behaviour and disposition, were heroic. We must always keep in mind the diversity of experiences and conditions of the victims of the Holocaust - the time factor, location, the strength of the Nazi presence, outside attitudes and hierarchy within the camps all played crucial roles in determining the possibility for active opposition. For the women of the Political Department, survival for a few more days, helping others in pain, or simply lying was resistance in the face of what they perceived as certain death. Primo Levi summarizes this most aptly in "the Grey Zone:"
Precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, an we must defend it with all our strength, for it is the last - the power to refuse consent.47
The dialogue on survival and resistance has widened and extended to all possible definitions. The little told stories of these unusual women can only serve to further expand our definitions of bravery and dignity and will hopefully preserve our memories of what it meant, especially for women, to live and die at Auschwitz.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.