From her liberation in 1945 until her death in 2011, Anna Wajcblum Heilman faithfully marked the anniversaries of two uniquely related Auschwitz events. The first was the Oct. 7, 1944 Sonderkommando uprising, during which Crematorium IV was blown up. The second was the Jan. 5, 1945, hanging of four young women – Ala Gertner, Roza Rabota, Regina Safirsztajn and Anna’s sister, Estusia – held accountable for smuggling gunpowder to the Sonderkommandos.
At Auschwitz, the Wajcblum sisters were passed from one kommando (slave labour unit) to another until they volunteered for a kommando at the Weichsell Metal Union Werke (the Auschwitz Munitions Factory). They were assigned to separate work detail – Estusia to the Pulverraum, where the gunpowder was manufactured, and Anna to a work table of 11 girls outside the Pulverraum. Each girl was handed a measuring instrument called a lehre (gauge) to check the accuracy of indentations created by a giant machine called the Presse.
To save herself from the tedium of the robotic assignment, Anna dared to sneak over to the Presse to see how it worked. She discovered that the distance between her table and the machines was incredibly short, and she stored this information at the back of her mind.
As work at the factory continued, the girls learned that the Polish Home Army (PHA) was in contact with the Polish Underground in Auschwitz (PUA). There was a plan in place for the PHA to attack the camp from the outside while the PUA and other prisoners would do what they could to help from the inside. Reminded of their Hashomer Hatzair (Zionist youth group) resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, Anna and Estusia joined the insiders to collect and hide whatever implements they could find for the future revolt, including hammers, ropes, axes, knives, insulated wire-cutting shears and even guns.
To keep up their spirits, the girls talked long into the night. One evening, Ala Gertner revealed that the Sonderkommandos, male slaves responsible for leading prisoners to the gas chambers and removing the corpses after they were showered with poisonous gas, were also planning a revolt in conjunction with the PHA. (Every few months, the Sonderkommandos were liquidated, shoved into the ovens by their replacements.)
In her diary, Anna wrote: “We didn’t have weapons. What we were collecting was better than nothing, but not much… I talked to Estusia about trying to steal gunpowder from the factory and passing it to Roza. Estusia was aghast. She wouldn’t hear of it. It was impossible, ridiculous, forget it. I wouldn’t let her be. Finally, with trepidation, she gave in.”
The gunpowder was slate grey with the consistency of coarse salt. Estusia’s seat was the first leading to the inside door of the factory. Anna writes: “Once a day I used to walk in with an empty box, give it to Estusia, and get a box full of debris to be emptied into the garbage bin. Estusia would put small quantities of gunpowder wrapped in pieces of knotted cloth, hidden among the garbage.”
Back at the work table, Anna stuffed the gunpowder into small pouches sewn inside her dress. The smugglers returned to the camp in groups of three, always trying to be in the middle of a column, never at the end, never at the beginning, so that when they heard the dreaded word “inspection,” they had time to spill the hidden gunpowder and grind it into the ground. They succeeded in bringing back substantial quantities of gunpowder to the camp, passing it from one insider to another until it reached Roza Rabota, who deposited it at the wires near the crematorium for her lover to pick up.
As they waited for their password, the Sonderkommandos made crude grenades from metal shoe polish tins, packing them with the stolen gunpowder to be ignited by small wicks of braided cotton. But when an informer told the SS of the impending plot, they decided to act on their own, blowing up Crematorium IV on Oct. 7, 1944. Analysis of the gunpowder traced it to the union factory.
Interrogations began. Rozyczka (Rose Meth), who worked in the Pulverraum with Estusia, was terribly beaten. She revealed nothing. During an inspection of the union factory’s night shift, Klara, a Russian (whom Anna and Estusia had never trusted) was questioned when she was found with a parcel of bread that her boyfriend had given her. Instead of betraying him, she told the SS guards that if they let her go she would name one of the girls involved in smuggling the gunpowder. Klara betrayed Ala Gertner. After a terrible beating, she broke down and denounced Roza Rabota and Estusia, who were taken to the bunker, a prison in the men’s camp under the control of the Jewish kapo, Jacob. A few days later, they were released, more dead than alive. In December, Estusia, Ala and Roza were taken back to the bunker with Regina Safirztajn, the supervisor of the Pulverraum.
Marta, who worked in the packerai (post office) in the men’s camp, became the messenger for the two sisters during Estusia’s final torture sessions. With Jacob’s orders from Berlin to hang the girls, one last note came from Estusia: “I know what is in store for me, but I readily go to the gallows. I only ask that you take care of my sister Hanka, so that I may die easier.” Marta responded, “Estusia, I promise that I will never abandon Hanka.”
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On June 19, 1991, in the memorial garden of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, a monument was dedicated to Ala Gertner, Roza Rabota, Regina Safirztajn and Estusia Wajcblum. Anna and her oldest sister, Sabina, were given the honour of lighting the eternal flame.
Anna Wajcblum Heilman died on May 1, 2011. She was buried on May 2, exactly 66 years after she was officially liberated. Whenever she spoke about the gunpowder plot, she bore witness reluctantly, with the ghost of her beloved sister hovering close by.
Sharon Abron Drache’s most recent book is Barbara Klein-Muskrat then & now.