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Prisoner mutinies

Prisoner mutinies

The resistance movement in the camp planned and made preparations for an armed mutiny against the SS by the prisoners. The Polish underground outside was to join in the combat against the camp garrison and German units stationed nearby, and worked out the details with the prisoners. Preparations reached an advanced stage, but the camp underground never gave the green light for the revolt because the fight would have been too unequal. In the case of a mass escape, there would have been no practical way to shelter tens of thousands of prisoners in the area around Auschwitz.

The mutiny and escape by Polish prisoners in the penal company

On June 10, 1942, Polish prisoners in the penal company mutinied and attempted to escape while working on a drainage ditch in Birkenau. Only a few of them made it to freedom. In reprisal, the SS executed 20 prisoners by shooting and murdered more than 300 Poles from the penal company in the gas chamber.

Soviet POWs also mutinied and escaped from Birkenau on November 6, 1942. Under cover of fog and falling darkness, they forced their way past the SS guard posts into a part of the Birkenau camp, still under construction, that had not yet been fenced off. However, the majority of them were shot or caught during the escape.  

The mutiny by Jewish prisoners in the Sonderkommando


On October 7, 1944, the biggest and most spectacular mutiny and escape attempt in the history of Auschwitz occurred. Jews in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz II-Birkenau organized it. They set one of the crematoria on fire, causing serious damage, and attacked the SS men in the vicinity. Some of the prisoners managed to cut through the fence and reach the outside, but unfortunately the SS managed to pursue and surround them, murdering them all. A total of about 250 Jews died fighting, including mutiny leaders Załmen Gradowski and Józef Deresiński. The SS lost three men killed and more than ten wounded. Later, four Jewish women who had stolen explosive material from the Union-Werke armaments factory and supplied it to the Sonderkommando conspirators were hanged in public.

Cases of resistance on the ramp and in the gas chambers

The majority of the Jews deported to Auschwitaz were murdered immediately after arrival and therefore did not have any chance or even any time to organize resistance. Nevertheless, there were cases in which they mutinied and put up a fight.

A transport of Jews arrived from Bergen-Belsen in October 1943. The SS sent them to the gas chambers immediately after selection. In the undressing room of crematorium II in Birkenau, the antechamber to the gas chamber, one of the women realized the danger they were in and seized SS man Josef Schillinger’s pistol. She shot him and wounded him badly, and also shot a second SS man, Wilhelm Emmerich. This was a signal for other women to attack the henchmen. However, the SS suppressed the mutiny and killed all the women. Schillinger died on the way to the hospital. Emmerich survived, but was disabled.

There were cases in which Jews being led to their death escaped from the crematoria and gas chambers. Several hundred men, women, and children from a transport brought from Hungary attempted to escape on the night of May 25/26, 1944. They hid in the nearby woods and in ditches.

The SS tracked the fugitives down and killed them.