February 22, 2019

Remembering Four Women of the Holocaust

I worked at Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation for many years. It is now the USC Shoah Foundation and continues to do important work. I am very proud to be have been a part of this organization and look back on my years there with laughter, tears, hope, and fear.  It was the most challenging and fulfilling job I have ever had and it shaped who I am as a mother and a Jew.

I met some really wonderful people working at the Shoah Foundation and remain friends with many of them to this day. It was a remarkable place to work and in the early years it felt like we were part of something magical. Only now, in retrospect, are we able to fully comprehend what we did. This archive of testimonies is historically significant in ways that are still being discovered.  I connected to Judaism during my time there.

One of the incredible people I worked with was Rachel Lithgow. She is brilliant and after leaving the Shoah Foundation continued with her career in holocaust education. She has done remarkable work for the past 15 years and is currently the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Rachel just opened an exhibition in NYC that she also curated, called October 7, 1944 which attempts to give voice to the 4 women hung for their role in an attempted Auschwitz revolt.

The exhibition is avant-garde, gorgeous and very spiritual. The exhibit is open until December 30th and I will be seeing it when I am in NYC this December. Rachel wrote the following article about the exhibit and the story that inspired it. I am happy to share it with my readers and hope that you will visit the exhibition if you are in New York City before the end of the year. Thank you to my friend Rachel for sharing and for the work you do. You remind me to remember the wonderful past we share and to never forget what it means to keep these stories alive. You are keeping the faith.

Giving Back the Names of Four Women

By Rachel Lithgow

Ala Gertner, Róża Robota, Regina Szafirsztajn and Estera Wajcblum.

Have you ever heard of these women? I'm sure you could rattle off each Kardashian, or the name of Mila Kunis's new baby. Here is why these are the names that should be on your lips this week. By 1943, the four women named above were all imprisoned in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Three of the women, Ala, Regina and Estera, were assigned to work in the munitions factory adjacent to Auschwitz. Recruited by Roza Robota, who worked in Auschwitz's clothing depot (known as “Canadakommando,” these men and women had the awful task of sorting through the clothing discarded by murdered Jews), recruited them to smuggle minute quantities of gunpowder out of the factory.

This they did, almost daily, smuggling the powder in secret pockets sewn into their camp issued dresses, even under their nails. Roza would then collect the powder, wrap it in small rags and send it through the underground network of the camp. Groups of Jewish men, Polish, Hungarian and Greek, known as the Sonderkommando (perhaps the most horrific job of all, they were forced to work the death installations and crematoria of Auschwitz; pulling the bodies out of the gas chambers and burning them) held the powder in anticipation of a camp-wide revolt, in which they planned to blow up the crematoria, ALL of the crematoria in Auschwitz (there were five operating all day and night), making it possible for a camp-wide escape and revolt.

Of course, you haven't heard of this revolt, have you? It happened October 7, 1944 at about 3 in the afternoon. The small amount of gun powder the women managed to secret away was used to blow up Crematorium IV. The Sonderkommando who worked there dragged their homemade demolition charge into the oven rooms and detonated them in a defiant suicide. The revolt was quickly repressed, and the few men that escaped were captured with the help of local Polish citizens.

But back to our “Four Women.” An investigation was launched and the women were betrayed. Despite months of torture, they refused to name anyone else in the plot. Mere weeks before Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945, Ala, Roza, Regina and Estera were publicly hung, two at a time. Regina and Ala were hanged in front of the night shift workers returning to their barracks at dawn. Roza and Estera were later hanged in front of the day shift. An eyewitness to the hanging, forced to watch the horrific crime, described it this way: “Like dolls they were pulled up on the gallows, and dangled, already two lifeless dolls.” According to the last man to speak with Roza, an old friend of hers from Poland, her final words of encouragement were “Be strong and be brave.”

These women were not remarkable in any way. They weren't necessarily glamorous, or beautiful, though Ala radiated a confident smile, Roza had a kind face, Estera had quite an innocent quality about her and the only image I've seen of Regina, grainy though it is, shows that she has a mischievous glint in her eyes. Because they were murdered before the age of 25, we will never know what their life's accomplishments would have been. It is a truism that these women were four out of thousands of women that were involved in resistance movements throughout Europe, but most of us don't know their names either.

Why should you commit these names to memory, or tell your friends and family about them? It is because these women are illustrative of all the women that history has forgotten. Their contribution was remarkable, their sacrifice ultimate. They gained nothing from participating in this resistance, and paid the supreme price. It is these women that deserve our honor, our memory banks and our gratitude. 

In a new exhibit, commissioned by The American Jewish Historical Society (in cooperation with Yeshiva University Museum) entitled October 7, 1944 there is at last an attempt to commemorate these young women. Internationally acclaimed media artist and choreographer Jonah Bokaer has crafted an incredible response to this little known historic event, and more importantly, to these magnificent women. Seventy years after the thwarted rebellion, Bokaer's video Four Women is the story of resilience and the triumph of the human spirit. The exhibit marries archival material, music, choreography, film and visual art to give these women their names back, and let their legacy be known to you.

The exhibit is at the Center for Jewish History at 15 W. 16th Street, New York New York, and runs through December 30th. For more information, go to http://ajhs.org/exhibitions. Now that you know their story, share it with others. Tell your daughters. Learn from their sacrifice, and make the most of today, and every day.