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7 October 1944 Panel

Photo, left: Shown at the Center for Jewish History, during a panel discussion sponsored by Remember the Women Institute and American Jewish Historical Society, Giving Women Their Place In Holocaust History. Left to right: Marisa Fox, Rachel Lithgow, Rochelle G. Saidel, Elisa von Joeden-Forgey. Photo, right: Daughters of two of the heroines who smuggled gunpowder to help blow up the Birkenau crematorium attended the November 13, 2014, event. They are shown with the panel who discussed these women's courage, left to right: Arlette Adler, daughter of Marta Bindiger Cigi and Ariela Heilman, daughter of Hanka Wajcblum, shown with panelists Rochelle G. Saidel, Marisa Fox, Rachel Lithgow, and Elisa von Joeden-Forgey. Photos by Jeff French Segall

November 13, 2014, 7:00 PM
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York City

"Giving Women Their Place in Holocaust History"
A panel discussion presented by
American Jewish Historical Society and Remember the Women Institute

Panel participants:
Rachel Lithgow, Exhibit curator and Executive Director, American Jewish Historical Society
Marisa Fox, journalist for Haaretz and Second Generation author
Dr. Elisa v. Joeden-Forgey, Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Richard Stockton College, NJ
Dr. Rochelle Saidel, Executive Director, Remember the Women Institute

Ariela Heilman

Ariela Heilman showing her mother's book. Photo by Jeff French Segall

Remember the Women Institute and American Jewish Historical Society presented a special event, "Giving Women their Place in Holocaust History," on Thursday, November 13, 2014, 7:00 PM, at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York City, The event was held in connection with American Jewish Historical Society's ongoing solo exhibition, October 7, 1944, an artistic representation by Jonah Bokaer. The exhibit opened at the Center for Jewish History on October 7, 2014, and continues until December 30, 2014. The event and the exhibition mark the seventieth anniversary of the participation of brave young women in an uprising at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The event featured a panel of experts on women and the Holocaust: Marisa Fox, journalist for Haaretz and Second Generation author; Dr. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Richard Stockton College, NJ; Rachel Lithgow, exhibit curator and Executive Director, American Jewish Historical Society; Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, Executive Director, Remember the Women Institute. They discussed the courageous young women in Auschwitz who helped the men of the Sonderkommando blow up a Birkenau crematorium on October 7, 1944, as well as the omission of women's experiences from Holocaust history in general.

Róza Robota, Estera Wajcblum, Regina Szafirsztajn, and Ala Gertner, along with others, smuggled gunpowder to men working in the Sonderkommando in Birkenau. The men then blew up Crematorium IV, damaging it beyond repair. The four women were publicly hanged during the first week of January 1945.

The daughters of two of the young women who also participated in the smuggling were special guests at the November 13 event. Ariela Heilman, the daughter of Hanka Wajcblum (later Anna Heilman) spoke of her mother's struggle to make the story known. Her mother wrote a book entitled Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman. Arlette Adler is the daughter of Marta Bindiger Cigi, who promised the condemned Estera Wajcblum that she would take care of her younger sister Hanka.

Giving Four Heroines their Place in Holocaust History
An Essay for the Exhibition Brochure
by Rochelle G. Saidel, PhD.
Executive Director, Remember the Women Institute

The groundbreaking exhibition October 7, 1944 recognizes and presents Jonah Bokaer's artistic American response to the heroism of four young Polish Jewish women: Róza Robota (Ciechanów, born 1921), Estera Wajcblum (Warsaw, born 1924), Regina Szafirsztajn (Bedzin), and Ala Gertner (Sosnowiec, born 1912). Without the brave activism of these women, the men working in the Sonderkommando in Birkenau could not have blown up the crematorium there on October 7, 1944. Crematorium IV was damaged beyond repair and never used again.

In the Spring of 1943, Estera, Regina, and Ala were all assigned to work in the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory just outside of Auschwitz. Róza, who worked in the Auschwitz clothing depot, enlisted them to join a planned revolt by smuggling gunpowder from the factory. Roza, who had been a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland, was recruited into the camp underground by Noah Zabludowicz, who came from her hometown and youth group. The three young women and others in the Union began to smuggle gunpowder from the secure Pulverraum in the munitions factory to the underground in the Sonderkommando in Birkenau, the adjoining camp.

The operation was successful until one of the women was betrayed. Witness testimony points to Ala, who may have been duped by a Russian Jew named Klara or a Czech half-Jewish man (possibly named Koch), both of whom worked in the Union. Her arrest was followed by that of the other three women, and all of them were brutally tortured. They were released for a while, but then were publicly hanged in the first week of January 1945, just weeks before a death march out of the camp and then the camp's liberation by the Soviet Army.

The Union Kommando worked in night shifts and day shifts, and the women were hanged two at a time, forcing both of the shifts to serve as witnesses. The consensus of survivor testimonies is that Regina and Ala were hanged in front of the first group (the night shift), and Róza and Estera were later hanged in front of the day shift. Herta Ligeti Fuchs, an eyewitness to the hanging of Ala and Regina, said that the workers were told, "Union Kommando eyes front," and forced to watch. "Like dolls they were pulled up" on the gallows, she said, "and dangled, already two lifeless dolls." Róza Robota's last words, communicated by Zabludowicz, were "Be strong and be brave." Just as the the story of this courageous deed is often left out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau narrative, women's experiences have frequently been omitted from Holocaust history, and women have been edited out of history in general. This exhibition contributes to righting this wrong by integrating the names of Róza Robota, Estera Wajcblum, Regina Szafirsztajn, and Ala Gertner into the history and commemoration of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust. These four remarkably brave young women paid with their lives for resisting in Auschwitz. But according to eyewitness testimony by survivors from the Union Kommando, compiled by Auschwitz survivor and author Dr. Lore Shelley, the four were not the only heroines who participated in smuggling gun powder to the Sonderkommando underground. The names of other young Jewish women prisoners (and there may be more) who resisted in this way and survived include: Marta Bindiger Cigi, Lusia Ferstenberg, Herta Ligeti Fuchs, Chaya Cohn Kroin, Eugenie Frischler Langer, Regina Ledor, Rose Gruenapfel Meth, Irka Ogrudek, Hadassah Talmon-Zlotnicki, Hanka Wajcblum, Mala Weinstein, and Batsheva from Cracow. By extension, this exhibition also recognizes their heroism.

For media coverage of the panel and the exhibition, please see articles in Haaretz, The Jewish Daily Forward, and The Observer. Heather Dune Macadam, author of Rena's Promise, attended the event and wrote about it on her blog.

Complete list of 2014 Remember the Women Institute events
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