You might have heard of the Sonderkommando Revolt that took place in Auschwitz on October 7, 1944. You might know that on this day, a group of Sonderkommando—Jewish prisoners who were forced to haul bodies out of gas chambers and dispose of them in crematoriums—blew up Crematorium IV and cut through the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp, allowing two hundred prisoners to escape, albeit only temporarily. But you are probably not familiar with the four women who made the revolt possible by smuggling gunpowder from an Auschwitz munitions factory, where they worked as slave laborers.
“October 7, 1944,” a small exhibit at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, pays tribute to Roza Robota, Estera Wajcblum, Regina Szafirsztajn, and Ala Gertner—the female leaders of the Auschwitz resistance, who were ultimately tortured and hanged for their participation in the revolt. Their names, faded from the annals of history, are painted in stark white against one of the gallery’s dark walls. The centerpiece of the exhibit is “Four Women,” a film of interpretive dance by the celebrated choreographer Jonah Bokaer.
Bokaer shot the film in a sparse, grey warehouse, where four dancers took on the personas of Robota, Wajcblum, Szafirsztajn, and Gertner. Because the women were forced into manual labor, and because they hid illicit gunpowder under their nails, much of the performance is preoccupied with the dancers’ hands. They scrape at the ground, paw frantically at their fingertips, and grasp at each other in a desperate, sometimes violent way that evokes the terrifying circumstances of their relationship. For most of the performance, the dancers’ features are obscured by their long hair, until, in a jarring shift of focus, the film cuts between lingering close-ups of their faces. It is a powerful moment of revelation in a performance that strives to shine the spotlight on four courageous women whose stories are often excluded from histories of the Holocaust.
Another reel is projected on the opposite wall, a steady shot of the ruins of Crematorium IV, which Bokaer filmed during a five-day period of immersion at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The gallery also displays a series of documents that relate to the revolt with varying degrees of directness; among them are an Auschwitz logbook that contains the name of a man who is believed to be Szafirsztajn’s father, an eyewitness account of the work of the Sonderkommando, and another eyewitness account that describes dead bodies being carried out of a crematorium as a band of prisoner-musicians played in the background.
Though the four women at the center of the exhibit were not part of Auschwitz’s prisoner band, music is central to the installation. Bach’s Violin Partita in D Minor, which Auschwitz’s band was regularly forced to perform, plays in an incessant loop. Behind each glass case containing primary source documents hangs an illuminated sheet of paper, onto which Bokaer painted segments of the Partita’s score.
I know the significance of many of these details because I was given a tour of the exhibit by the museum’s director. But for those who peruse “October 7, 1944” unattended, the gallery offers little curatorial direction. There is no text explaining that the plinths in front of each primary source document are bricks from the ruins of Crematorium IV; no indication that the muddy ruins depicted in the exhibit’s second film are the exploded remnants of that very same crematorium; no hint that Bokaer chose Bach’s Partita as a soundtrack for his installation because it was one of the few melancholy scores to be played in Auschwitz (the others were jaunty polkas, meant to lull Jewish prisoners into a false sense of calm before they were gassed to death).
The decision to keep the exhibit free of textual explanations was deliberate, and there is certainly something to be said for unburdening art installations of belabored discussions about meaning and intention. But the relevance of so many poignant, thoughtful touches is lost as a result of the exhibit’s minimalism. Significantly, I left the gallery knowing very little about Robota, Wajcblum, Szafirsztajn, and Gertner, aside from their names. Though the brochure for “October 7, 1944” claims that the installation strives to “[give] four heroines their place in Holocaust history,” the gallery offers no biographical information about the women who sacrificed themselves for the sake of the resistance. They remain colorless figures, shrouded in the mystery of their hidden pasts.
And so I thought I would divert the course of this review to put forth what little information is known about these four brave women, who were hanged in the last public execution to take place at Auschwitz before the camp was liberated.
Estera Wajcblum was born in Warsaw in 1924. Both of her parents were deaf-mutes, and they were murdered immediately upon the family’s arrival at Auschwitz. After the revolt failed and Wajcblum was contained in a prison block, she smuggled a note to her little sister, who was also a prisoner in the camp. The note read: “Not for me the glad tidings of forthcoming salvation; everything is lost and so I want to live.”
Regina Szafirsztajn was born in Bedzin, Poland. She was deported to Auschwitz in 1943.
Ala Gertner, also from Bedzin, belonged to a wealthy family. She was well-educated, and fluent in German. In late 1940, Gertner was ordered to work at the office of a labor camp in Sosnowiec, Poland. There, she met a man named Bernhard Holtz, and the two were married in the Sosnowiec Ghetto in 1941. The couple was deported to Auschwitz in 1943. Twenty-eight letters that Gertner wrote to her friend Sala Kirschner are on display in a permanent collection at the New York Public Library.
Roza Robota was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist movement as a young woman living in Ciechanów, Poland. She liked to be called by her Hebrew name, Shoshanna. After being deported to Auschwitz in 1942, Robota worked in a clothing depot next to Crematorium III. She had connections to the underground resistance, and convinced Wajcblum, Szafirsztajn, and Gertner to join the movement and capitalize on their access to the camp’s munitions factory. Before the noose was tightened around her neck on the day of her execution, Robota called out to the prisoners assembled before the gallows: “Sisters, revenge!”
“October 7, 1944” runs through December 30 at Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in New York.
(Image credit: Janek Skarzynski/Getty Images)