Once upon a time, there was a defiant, nineteen-year-old Frenchwoman and mystic named Jehanne d’Arc who was burned at the stake in 1431. She has been revered as a martyr for freedom ever since…

Fast forward five centuries to a brave Jewish heroine named Malka (“Mala”) Zimetbaum who was possibly burned alive in a crematorium, as a martyr for freedom, but she’s largely unknown.

Malka Zimetbaum

Malka (or Mala) Zimetbaum is the Holocaust heroine who’ is honoured in Wanda Jakubowska’s 1947 remarkably realistic film “The Last Stage” in which Mala’s story serves as the basis for the central character Marta Weiss’s defiance. In the final scene, the hangman slips her a knife with which she slits her wrists and shouts to the watching crowd: “Don’t be afraid! They can’t hurt us. Hold on. The Red Army is near.” The furious camp commander approaches. She says: “You will soon be so small.” Then she slaps him and says, “You will not hang me.” At that moment, Allied planes appear in the sky and the Germans flee. “Don’t let Auschwitz rise again” are her last words, as she dies in the arms of another prisoner.

Given that Malka Zimetbaum was the first Jewish woman to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau and retain her freedom as a runaway for eight days, she ought to be famous for that unprecedented feat, but her escape has been overshadowed by the circumstances of her murder, or her suicide–accounts differ.

The memoirs of Sonderkommandos Shlomo Venezia and Filip Muller don’t mention her, so there is no proof that Zimetbaum was still alive by the time she was sent to the furnaces, after having slashed her own wrists, but her legend remains. Recaptured by Nazis, Zimetbaum was about to be hanged on a raised platform in the women’s camp, in front of all the assembled female prisoners, when she struck one of her SS guards (named Rutter) in the face. Then Mala further shocked her Nazi captors, and horrified the camp onlookers, by slashing her wrists, or wrist, with a previously concealed  razor blade.

Denying her captors the pleasure of hanging her was Malka Zimetbaum’s victory over them. There are variations as to what happened next. Some say she was placed in a cart and taken for medical treatment; others say she was brutalized and paraded around the camp in a cart as a showpiece for Nazi cruelty. Accounts also differ as to whether  she was taken to the crematorium alive or dead. Some allege she was taken to the ovens and burned alive; others want to believe a guard took pity on her and killed her before she was fed to the flames. Whatever the exact details might be, the beautiful and highly intelligent Mala Zimetbaum became legendary among Auschwitz survivors who had witnessed her acts of defiance.

Among the thousands of witnesses that day was the prisoner Lena Berg whose testimony here was included in Alexander Donat’s The Holocaust Kingdom (1963): “We were standing roll call when Mala was brought back to camp. She was to be publicly hanged as a warning to the other prisoners that no one could escape from Auschwitz, that the only way out was via the crematorium chimney. Mala stood in front of the SS men’s barracks, pale and calm, and the hearts of the thousands of women who watched her pounded with hers. She had disappointed them when her audacious dream of happiness and freedom had collapsed, but she was not going to disappoint them now.

“No one knew how Mala got the razor blade; it was said that some charitable soul had slipped it to her earlier, when she was being questioned. Now she suddenly produced it and, before everyone, quickly slashed both wrists, severing the veins. An SS man rang up to seize the razor blade and she punched him the face, screaming ‘Get away from me, you dirty [unknown]!’ The Oberkapo strode up to her and said, ‘You stupid Jewish whore, you thought you ‘d outsmart us, did you, that you could escape? You swine, is that how you show gratitude for our kindness?’

“Mala had fallen to her knees, blood spurting from her wounds. Suddenly, she staggered to her feet and cried out in a terrible, loud voice, ‘I know I’m dying, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are dying, too, and your gangster Reich with you. Your hours are numbered and pretty soon you’ll be paying for your crimes!’

“The SS men knocked her down and shot her. Then they dumped her in a handcart and several women were ordered to pull the cart around the camp so everyone could see it. Thousands of women stood there in the setting sun saying farewell to Mala. Later it was said that she was still alive when they threw her into the crematorium furnace…

“She had been our golden dream, a single ray of light in our dark lives.”

This is only one version of the story.

Malka (or Mala) Zimetbaum and her younger lover, Edward “Edek” Galiński inspired likely the first feature film about the Holocaust — made in 1947 — using the remains of the actual Auschwitz camp for a setting. This Polish movie directed and co-written by Wanda Jakubowska, The Last Stage  was re-shown in Poland 72 years later and promoted by the Polish Institute of Tel Aviv, leading to a review in the Haaretz newspaper in 2019. ] Malka’s tragic end equals in poignancy the fate of the Frankfurt-born, doomed diarist Annelies Marie “Anne” Frank but her unprecedented escape remains largely unexamined and uncelebrated in World War II history. The various Israeli school systems have instead elevated and venerated the soldier-poet-martyr and failed paratrooper Hannah Szenes as its most legendary and admired female from World War II even though Hannah Szenes’ one parachute jump behind enemy lines was a complete failure, resulting in her torture and murder.

MALKA’S ORIGINS

Born in Brzesko, Poland on January, 26, 1918, “Mala the Belgian” was the youngest of five children born to Pinhas and Chaya Zimetbaum. After their family relocated to Antwerp, Belgium, when Mala was ten, they lived on Marinistraat, in the Jewish quarter of Borgerhout. She excelled in mathematics and languages and became a pattern-maker by profession. She worked as a seamstress in a ladies’ fashion store, ‘Maison Lilian.’ Her elder sister Yochka remembers her as “the intellectual one,” as she spoke several languages, but soon Mala was obliged to take a job at a diamond factory when her father lost his sight. She was active in Hanoar Hatzioni, one of nineteen Jewish youth organizations in Antwerp.

As conditions worsened for Jews, Mala began to search for a hiding place for her parents and herself. The pressing need to find a refuge took her to Brussels. Upon her return to Antwerp she was arrested, at age 24, at the main train station on July 22, 1942.

Transport List

Transport List. Underlined was the transport that held Mala. The female prisoners were given the numbers 19821 – 19921. Her number was 19880. 

For the next five days she was detained with about 100 other women at Fort Breendonk, then transferred to Mechelen along with other potential female office workers. Mechelen’s Dossin Barracks had been transformed into a makeshift deportation terminal for Jews. There she and a few of her companions were forced to work as registrars to keep track of deportations. Reputedly, some 25,475 individuals (one-fifth of whom were under age 16) were deported between August 1942 and August 1944.

Eventually, a tenth deportation train left on September 15, 1942 and Mala was on it. This transport from the Dossin Barracks in Belgium reached Auschwitz on September 17, 1942. Only 313 of the 1048 deportees were assigned to hard labour; therefore the German Security Detachment (SS) decided that approximately two-thirds would be gassed as soon as possible. As one of the 101 women considered fit to live, Mala Zimetbaum received tattoo #19880 on her forearm and eventually met Wanda Marossanyi, born in Nowy Sącz in 1918. Marossanyi had been in Auschwitz since May 28, 1942 as prisoner #7524: “I met Mala in the winter from ’42 to ’43,” she recalled. “I know that she came with a Jewish transport from Belgium in September ’42 and entered the camp on the basis of selection. It’s just that young, healthy women would enter the camp and the old ones would be gassed. “

At the women’s camp in Birkenau, Zimetbaum’s proficiency at seven languages, including Yiddish, made her valuable to her captors. While accorded relatively comfortable accommodations and better food, she was simultaneously enmeshed in the camp underground resistance movement and was much-loved for always finding ways to help others. Primo Levi claims she was “generous and courageous.”

Screenshot from the movie, "The Last Stage," about Mala and Edek.

Screenshot from “The Last Stage” about Mala and Edek.

In Mala: A Fragment of a Life, Sichelschmidt writes, “Jewish prisoners were given the opportunity to write to their relatives. On a postcard dated August 25, 1943, Mala wrote to her elder sister: “Don’t worry, I am in good health, working as an interpreter… All the others are together with Etush.” To which one must add that Etush, Mala’s sister-in-law, had died before the war. Another postcard from Mala, dated October 25, 1943, read: “My dear sister, why don’t you write me? You know that every couple of lines from you will renew my courage to face life… Where are our dear parents; why don’t they correspond? What about the dear children? Thinking of it will drive me mad…” Mala’s misgivings were justified: Her parents and her three nephews, aged 3, 5, and 6, had been killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz long before.”

Similarly, survivor Tzipora Silberstein has recalled, “The young woman was pretty, indeed very beautiful. She spoke Polish, Yiddish, Flemish, French and German. She was charming. … This young woman did hundreds and thousands of good things for all of us. There were transports from Greece and she would stand near the Germans, writing things down. Many times, I heard that she only pretended to write, thus saving many people’s lives. She would bring medicine to sick people.”

Survivor Giza Weisblum has recalled, “One of Mala’s responsibilities was to assign the sick released from the hospital to various work details. She always tried to send the women who were still weak from their illnesses to the lightest type of work. Also, she always warned the patients of the coming selections, urging them to leave the hospital as quickly as possible. In this way, she saved the lives of many women.”

Zimetbaum’s siblings, Gitla, Marjem, and Salomon Rubin, survived the Nazi Holocaust. Gitla migrated to South America where she died in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

“EDEK & MALA” — THE ROMEO & JULIET OF AUSCHWITZ

Edward Galiński, Mala’s younger lover, was a Pole who was born on October 5, 1923. He had arrived in Auschwitz as a teenager within the first shipment of male prisoners and enemy aliens in June of 1940, as a political prisoner, and was accorded the very low inmate number of 531. Consequently, he knew a great deal about the camp. [Few “enemy aliens” sent to Auschwitz survived for four years so Galiński would have known inmate #88, Sigmund Soboleski, who had also arrived on June 14, 1940. Relocated to Canada, Soboleski eventually co-wrote Prisoner 88: The Man in Stripes, published with minimal publicity from the University of Calgary Press in Canada, in 1999, but oddly, there is no mention of Galiński in Soboleski’s memoir.]

Few other prisoners had accumulated more time in Auschwitz than Galiński; the multi-lingual Mala Zimetabaum had also accumulated a vast knowledge of Auschwitz as someone who was known as “the chief-translator at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Malka Zimetbaum was also remembered for the effective help she gave to others upon their arrival in Auschwitz, always urging her fellow female prisoners to remain strong and defiant. No doubt the possible success of five male escapees from Auschwitz-Birkenau [Lederer, Vrba, Wetzler, Mordowicz, Rosin] would have emboldened Zimetbaum and Galiński to enact Galiński’s daring plan of escape. Both were well aware that Nazi authorities would have returned any recaptured escapees to Auschwitz for visible punishment and execution, had they been apprehended.

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Galinski

Edward “Edek” Galiński 

Edward Galiński was a camp mechanic who at first had planned to escape with his friend Wieslaw Kielar, another Pole, until Kielar lost a pair of pants for an SS guard’s uniform that was essential for their escape plan. The details can be found in Kielar’s memoir, Anus Mundi: 5 Years in Auschwitz (Latin meaning: Ring of the World; alternate interpretation: Asshole of the World).

With Malka as a substitute for Wieslaw Kielar, the escape was scheduled for a Saturday, on June 24, 1944, because Edek thought there could be fewer guards during the weekend. Galiński’s plan was much aligned with the ruse Lederer had used, dependent upon the automatic respect Nazis accorded to someone wearing a uniform with a higher rank. Galiński had access to an SS uniform which had been obtained for him by Edward Lubusch, an unusually sympathetic SS Officer who was his supervisor in the camp locksmith workshop. Rather than tormenting the prisoners, Lubusch often helped them. With Zimetbaum’s wide-ranging connections, they were able to obtain a blank SS pass. With Galiński posing as an SS officer, he was ostensibly escorting a labourer, Zimetbaum, to undertake a basic maintenance job beyond the checkpoint.

Wieslaw Kielar as a young man.

Wieslaw Kielar as a young man. 

A different version of their story suggests that when Mala asked to accompany the two men, Kielar objected to the inclusion of a woman who was also a Jew. Logistically, a trio would have more difficulty and the Nazis would be far more motivated to re-capture a Jew such as Mala who had gathered vast knowledge of the camp. A disagreement between the two male friends led Edek to choose to take his chances with his Jewish lover rather than his Polish friend. The decision was made easier by the fact that Kielar had lost the pants to his officer’s uniform, which made his escape all that much more difficult.

Their ruse of a false work permit succeeded. In her summary entitled Mala: A Fragment of a Life, Lorenz Sichelschmidt writes: “By noon, Mala and Herta Roth, one of the messengers, approached the guardhouse, and while the messenger got the SS ward involved in conversation, Mala went to the washroom to change. The clothes had previously been hidden there, together with a porcelain washbasin, which Mala was to carry on her shoulders to conceal her face. Herta Roth remembers: “When she appeared, I helped her lift the washbasin, making sure her hair did not show. So she set off. I followed her with my eyes, and when she started tripping in ladylike fashion, I sang along in Slovakian so that she could hear it, ‘longer strides, longer strides,’ and she obeyed.”

“Giza Weisblum also describes the scene: ‘From a distance, I could see Mala leaving the guardhouse, bent under the weight of the washbowl on her head, her face almost completely hidden by it. Outside, Edek was waiting. He had concealed himself in a potato bunker not far from the guardhouse. Edek let Mala go first and followed a few paces behind her. This was the procedure for an SS man leading a prisoner.’ The couple would have to pass another sentry line before Mala could discard the washbasin and take off her overalls, so that they would give the appearance of an SS officer off duty with his girl friend.

Telegram announcing their escape

Telegram announcing their escape 

“The disappearance of Mala and Edek was discovered during roll call in the evening. Mala’s messenger friends were interrogated about her whereabouts. As they gave nothing away, they were stripped of their functions and assigned to the Strafkompanie (Penal Company). The next morning, the SS commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Josef Kramer, sent telegrams to police posts and checkpoints in the area.”

The lovers remained hidden in the woods and mountains near the Slovakian border. They had managed to reach the Beskids mountains along the Slovenian border only to fall prey to two of the escape errors that Vrba had wisely avoided. First, the pair had carried some pilfered gold with them. Secondly, they decided to take the risk of sending Mala into a store in order to buy bread. Purchasing bread with gold was a catalyst for immediate suspicion. A German border patrol was alerted and Zimetbaum was soon apprehended. Galiński could have escaped but watching Mala being arrested from a distance was more than he could bear. With a pathos that harkens one’s imagination back to the tragic fidelity of Romeo and Juliet, the pair had promised never to separate. Consequently, Edek proceeded to keep his promise, simultaneously knowing that doing so would cost him his life.

There are conflicting accounts of their escape and capture. Martin Gilbert’s version of the escape in a 1985 claims Galiński managed to steal the uniform of a female member of the SS, a camp guard, whereupon the lovers walked out of the main gate and boarded a train to Kracow.

Click to enlarge these photos.

Dreadful tortures followed for both of them upon capture. The pair was taken to Block Eleven in Auschwitz where they were detained for more than a month. This was extraordinary long time for anyone to remain inside The Bunker. Few people survived inside for a week. As Kraus and Kulka put it, “The SS styled it the ‘educational block’ and it represented the culmination of all their bestiality, known as ‘intensified discipline’.” The penal block was first in Camp BIb before it was in the men’s camp BIId.

The Death Block

Block 11, The Death Block 

Inside Block 11, even though they were detained in separate cells, the besotted pair remained connected. The story goes that they could whistle to each other down a hallway and a friendly guard passed notes between them. When the ever-gallant Galiński was allowed outside briefly for exercise he would stand beside what he thought was Zimetbaum’s cell window and sing an Italian aria. How such details were known and recorded is a mystery. They could be fanciful. Nonetheless, there can be no argument as to whether or not the couple’s teamwork in the face of overwhelming odds was inspiring. While their romance had blossomed inside the camp, other fellow prisoners did whatever they could to foster and protect it.

As well, there remains some concrete proof that their love story is real. Inside the house of horrors, Galiński scratched their names and prison numbers on a wall in Cell 20 inside Block 11 and the etching was discovered after the war. An image of Galiński’s painstaking etchings is provided here:

Wall etching by Galinski

“531 Galiński Edward + 6.VII.1944r. 19880 Mally Zimetbaum +” The inscription includes the prisoner numbers and the names of the escapees, as well as the date they were captured: July 6, 1944

After the pair steadfastly refused to kowtow to their captors, it has been suggested that the Nazis decided the lovers should be executed on the same day, September 15, 1944, in front of their respective male and female camps. This could be true. Possibly the Nazis did plan at some point to have Galiński hanged as a spectacle in the men’s camp; and Mala would be hanged in a similar spectacle for the women.

In their essential book, The Death Factory: Document on Auschwitz (1966), Auschwitz locksmiths Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka, both Czechs, allege that Malka (or Mala or Mally) was “secretly sentenced to be burnt alive.” If it was a secret, who knew? There are various storylines to consider as to the nature of Mala’s murder, as well as how Galiński was killed. Given that the details are grim, it stands to reason that a somewhat sanitized, storybook version might rise to the fore. Regardless of whether or not Malka knew her destiny, there is ample evidence to claim she remained defiant.

It has been assumed that the SS decided both Mala and Galiński must be publicly humiliated on raised platforms in their respective female and male camps–and this was probably true in Mala’s case. There are various eyewitness reports. Her fellow females prisoners were instructed to march past her. Ever defiant, Mala allegedly struck her SS guard (named Rutter, according to Auschwitz survivor-turned-historian Erich Kulka) in the face while he was looking away. She then slashed the veins of one wrist with a concealed razor blade, intending to bleed to death. The story goes that before she was accorded medical treatment, whether she wanted it or not, Zimetbaum slapped a guard’s face with her bloodied hand and allegedly shouted, “I shall die a heroine, but you shall die like a dog!”

Malka and Edek escape route

Mala and Edek’s escape route. 

Such quotes might be deemed apocryphal but there were some reliable witnesses for her heroism. The Auschwitz survivor Raya Kagan referred to Zimetbaum’s valour within her Session 70 testimony for the trial of Adolf Eichmann, delivered on June 8, 1961 and her recollections have been corroborated by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi in his 1986 book The Drowned and the Saved, (I sommersi e i salvati). Levi recalls Zimetbaum as a Birkenau interpreter and messenger who “enjoyed a certain amount of freedom of movement.” She was therefore akin to Vrba and Wetzler in that her multi-lingual abilities had made her valuable for the smooth running of the complex.

The French Auschwitz survivor Fania Fenelon recalls “Mala” (no last name was given) as “the chief-translator at Auschwitz-Birkenau.”  Sent to Auschwitz from Belgium in 1942, she was given a relatively desirable job as a courier and translator due to her fluency in German, Polish, English, French, and Flemish. Fenelon also purports to record a final conversation between Mala and an SS officer during which Mala supposedly asked to be gassed like her parents and so many others. This seems hard to believe. More credible is Fenelon’s record of Mala’s last words. As she was being dragged away in front of her fellow female inmates, Mala allegedly screamed, “Revolt! Rise Up! There are thousands of you. Attack them — they’re cowards, and even if you’re killed, anything’s better than this, at least you’ll die free! Revolt!”

Eduard Galinksi at right in Auschwitz metalworking shop

Galiński, at right, Auschwitz metalworking shop 

There are reports that a Nazi guard tried to silence her by grabbing her arm and breaking it, after which she was knocked to the ground and held down while her mouth was taped shut. After she had tried to cut the artery on one of her wrists, she was supposedly taken to the camp hospital, but nobody can verify the truth now, for certain. Others claim a guard took pity on her at the crematorium and shot her before she was incinerated. Kulka and his co-author Ota Kraus could not have witnessed the events on the platform. Nonetheless, they confidently conclude “they loaded her on a handcart and took her to the crematorium to carry out the sentence.” The dramatic inference is that Malka was burned alive. But one can never know for certain. The head supervisor of the women’s camp supposedly yelled that “this beast should burn alive in the chimney.” This, too, sounds apocryphal.

Here is another eye-witness testimony: “An execution by hanging was also planned for Mala. However, a young Slovak woman fellow prisoner described to Wieslaw Kieler what really happened:  “(…) When she (Mala) was already on the platform, while the sentence was being read, she cut her veins with a razor she had prepared beforehand, but as with Edek she was not allowed to die that way. Rapportfuehrer Taube ran over to her, and she slapped his face with her bloody hands. At the same time the SS-men practically trampled her to death before the eyes of the whole women`s camp. She died on the way to the crematorium.” — A-BSM, Collection of Testimonies, v. 9, p.123-126.”

Raya Kagan, in Hell’s Office Women, provides another version: “Mala got hold of a razor blade and quietly slit open her veins. … One of the blockführers grabbed her by the hair. Mala slapped him across the face with her bleeding hand. The SS man crushed her hand. Legend has it that she told him: ‘I shall die a heroine, but you shall die like a dog!”

In the Collection of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau there is also an extraordinary memento from the former concentration camp with the statement of Wiesław Kielar from 29th of January, 1968 attached to it: “I donate two locks of human hair to the Museum. They are wrapped in paper printed in German. On the edge of the paper is a pencil inscription: Mally Zimetbaum 19880, Edward Galinski 531. It is an inscription made by Galiński, and his hair and that of Mala Zimetbaum. The camp Lagerkapo, Jupp Windeck, who hanged Edek, gave me the hair and the note an hour after his death in the presence of Rapportschreiber Kazimierz Gosek, stating that it was the last request of the condemned that I should take it and give it to his father. That tragic memento went with me through all the camps, and I kept it to this day.” Statement of Wiesław Kielar dated 29th January 1968.

Zimetbaum-Galinski-hair

Different shades of hair that belonged to Zimetbaum and Galiński 

The story is less fanciful than Romeo & Juliet, and all the more credible. These were heroic spirits. A memorial message for Galiński succinctly states: “Those who knew him said he was very handsome, brave, and manly, a person who was willing to take risks. Despite his youth, he served in the Polish Army after the Nazi invasion of his homeland. He was arrested as a political prisoner and taken to the Tarnów prison sometime after Poland fell to the Nazis. On 14 June 1940, he was one of 728 male Polish political prisoners who made up the first deportation to Auschwitz, which at the time was “only” being used as a camp for criminals and political prisoners, not Jews and Gypsies as well. Edek was assigned work as a mechanic, a line of work which brought him into contact with several civilians who were working on the camp’s construction. His work as a mechanic also enabled him to have access to some of the sub-camps, among them the women’s camp at Birkenau, where in late 1943 or early 1944 he met and shortly fell in love with Mala Zimetbaum, who worked as a messenger, a very privileged position that enabled her to save many, many lives. Galiński reportedly tried to jump into the hangman’s noose before sentencing could be read on September 15, 1944. His last words were shouted in defiance, ‘Long Live Poland!'”

There is another version of how Galiński died that is most likely credible because it was provided by a member of the Auschwitz orchestra, 26-year-old Fania Fénelon, who had been deported from Paris to Birkenau in January of 1944 and wrote an autobiography, Sursis pour l’orchestre (1976). She was portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in the movie Playing for Time.

“On the other side, in the men’s camp, a gallows had been put up. Like us, the men prisoners were there, motionless, silent. Edek Galinski appeared, hands tied behind his back, unrecognizable. He who had been so handsome seemed no longer to have any face at all; it was a swollen, bloody mess.

“We saw him climb onto a bench. A snatch of the verdict in German, then in Polish, reached us; but before it was concluded I saw Edek move. He himself put his head in the noose and pushed back the bench. Jup, a camp kapo, intervened, took his head out, made him get  back on the bench. The speech was resumed, but Edek didn’t wait for it to end to shout: ‘Poland isn’t yet…’

“We would never know the end. With a kick, Jup, his friend, tipped over the bench. An order rang out in Polish and thousands of hands were lifted to raise their caps. In final homage, the inmates of the men’s camp bared their heads before Edek, who had been their hope.”

The subject of torture must not be overlooked.

At the very end of their book, The Death Factory, Kulka and Kraus provide an addendum that outlines the notorious cruelties of Wilhelm Boger. This grimmer viewpoint emanates from a Russian-born Frenchwoman named Dunja Wasserstrom who was deported from France to Auschwitz in June of 1942. Initially, after being separated from her husband on the platform, Wasserstrom was relegated to hard labour draining swamps, working the gravel pit and carrying bricks. Other times she was required to help carry dead bodies of other workers to the mortuary where she would have met Alfred Wetzler, the registrar. The story goes that she once talked an emaciated Greek girl out of committing suicide, then nursed her back to health. One day when the guards were asking if anyone could work as a Russian-Polish-German interpreter and typist, Dunja Wasserstrom volunteered to work within the Political Department of the Gestapo. Initially, she worked for an SS man named Draper in the Welfare (Fürsorge) Office. There she was obliged to provide false answers to letters forward by the Red Cross from people all over the world who were seeking news about their missing relatives, some of whom were in Auschwitz. The standard reply was, “Not in the camp.”

Wassertrom was then re-assigned to work for the sadist Wilhelm Friedrich Boger, nicknamed Tiger of Auschwitz. With the rank SS Hauptsturmführer (“head storm leader”), he was the head of interrogations from December 23, 1943 until the evacuation of the camp. His contribution to mankind was his invention of the so-called Boger Swing, an implement of torture that was described by his secretary Frau Braun. The hands of a victim were fastened behind their back, then fastened to the victim’s feet, as the victim was suspended to swing in the air from an iron bar that hung from the ceiling. Stripped naked, the victim swung from this bar, with their wrists manacled to their ankles, while Boger asked questions and a guard smashed the suspended victim on the buttocks with a crowbar. As one of Boger’s secretaries named Frau Braun reported: “As the swinging went on and on, and the wailing victim fainted was revived only to faint howling again, the blows continued—until only a mass of bleeding pulp hung before their eyes. Most perished from the ordeal–some sooner, some later. In the end a sack of bones and flayed flesh and fat was swept along the shambles of that concrete floor to be dragged away.”

On April 23, 1964, in Frankfurt, according to The Death Factory by Kraus and Kulka, Wasserstrom testified she witnessed Boger beat at least twenty prisoners to death. Then she confided: “I remember one autumn day. It was in November, 1944, after the gassing had been stopped. A lorry with children arrived in Auschwitz, and stopped just outside the Political Department. As I stood by the window, I saw a small boy, about four years old, jump down from the lorry, holding an apple in his hand. Boger and Draser stood by the door, watching. Suddenly, Boger went to the boy, took him by his legs, and threw him with all his strength against the wall, smashing the child’s head. Then he picked up the apple dropped by the boy… About an hour later, Boger called me in to interpret at an interrogation. He was eating the dead child’s apple.

It was Wasserstrom’s office job to take dictation and type, but she also was obliged to teach her boss Russian and French. She recalled that Boger was learning Russian because he hoped to command a small army of Russian prisoners from Auschwitz. Boger hated Poles more than he hated Jews. When Boger wanted to impress his new secretary Dunja Wasserstrom with his new invention, he called it “my talking machine.” He was particularly fond of interrogating Polish intellectuals on this swing. Consequently, when Mala and Galiński were recaptured after their escape attempt, Boger was keen to interrogate Galiński while Mala was forced to watch. Boger often like to beat men’s testicles until they died.

In The Death Factory, on page 278, we are told, “He died without saying anything. Then Boger questioned Mala…” This evidence was given by Dunja Wasserstrom in 1964 after she was flown from Mexico, at the court’s invitation, for the Frankfurt trial of Auschwitz criminals, during which author Erich Kulka also testified. After numerous eye witness testimonies, Chief Judge Hans Hofmeyer sentenced Boger to life imprisonment with hard labour for murder in at least 114 cases and as an accessory to murder in at least 1000 cases. The inventor of the Boger Swing died on April 3, 1977 in a German prison at the age of 70.

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While it’s tempting to accept the fanciful notion that Edek and Mala were the ‘Romeo & Juliet of Birkenau’—Shakespeare himself might have chosen to pitch their romance in that vein—the truth of their tragic tale is far too grim to be re-positioned as entertainment. Nonetheless, there is now a book hyped as “an absolutely heart-breaking World War 2 page-turner” by Ellie Midwood entitled The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz despite the fact that, after two years in Auschwitz (two years almost to the day of her escape), Malka Zimetbaum, at 26, can hardly be described as a girl. And her escape failed. The Auschwitz Museum has dubbed such tawdry fare as ‘airport fiction.’

You can watch the 1947 movie that was inspired by Malka on YouTube and you may add the subtitles in English by clicking on the red underlined rectangle underneath the video. Click here to watch The Last Stage.

A musical entitled Mala, The Music of the Wind was staged at the Pallas Theatre in Athens in 2002 starring Grecian pop singer Anna Vissi and written by Nikos Karyelas. A 27-song CD soundtrack is available.

“There Has Not Been Another Incident Like This, Probably, In The History Of The Camp.”

Excerpt of an interview with Anna Palarczyk nee Szyller, eyewitness to the suicide of Mala Zimetbaum

Although the translation has been garbled, here is an English version of an interview that was conducted with Auschwitz prisoner Anna Palarczykthat who witnessed Mala’s death. This interview was conducted on August 19, 1996 and has been posted by the U.S. Holocaust Museum. There is no introduction or packaging to signal the importance of its contents. Here is the portion that recounts how Mala took her own life rather than be hanged in a public spectacle:

Yes. so, Mala was put in block eleven, well, and there – I just…, just yesterday spoke to a girlfriend of mine from, from, from, from Oœwiêcim, with Mrs. Alicja Rel (ph), who was also in block ten at the same time as Mala. And, so, just yesterday I found out about…, I mean, the day before yesterday. So, then, Mala was conducting herself in an exemplary fashion in that block, which means… because, of course, they were being tortured to…, to admit about who…, who helped them. Obviously, someone must have helped them, because they were not able to run away [by themselves]. Mala left the camp in a cape of an SS-woman, no…, in a cape of an SS-woman, or in…, how…, in any event, these things have been described, so, it is better…, better known, than…, than I knew. (clearing throat) They were first kept in that block ten… nobody…, they did not give away any names.

A: Well, and then came the death sentence. Edek Galiñski was hanged in the men’s camp. Edek died very bravely, by this I mean it was considered such a Polish badge of honor in the men’s camp; not only in the Polish camp; because others did it, too; namely: when one stood on that little stool and the noose was on his neck and the hangman was ready to remove the stool from under him, they would shout something. Well, then, the Poles would shout: “Long live P…, – “Poland shall not perish!”, Communists would shout some…, something “We shall win,” something in…, something like that and then he himself would kick the stool from under, meaning, he did it himself…, not…, not allowing the hangman to hang him; so, then, Edek die like that. Well, but Mala was brought to the camp at Birkenau. And, now, suddenly, they called the roll call, such a sudden one, an unexpected roll call; all of us in…in “B-Einz-B right in front of block four, they all stood there, we all stood, this was during the, meaning, absent were still those who went to Aussenkommando (phonetic)(G), because they were working, but everybody else, all these [women] who worked in the camp, within the camp, were called in, stood in formations, came Aufseherin (phonetic)(G) Mandl, Oberaufseherin (phonetic)(G) Mandl (sic) and came Unterscharfuehrer Reuters (phonetic) – they brought Mala out.

We stood quite close and…, someone, one of the girls, I think it was one of the Lauferinen (ph)(G), it was, I think, Lea, managed to come up to Mala and give her a razor blade. Someone else maintains that someone else did this, in any event, I…, I think that it was Lea, and Lea – Maria – Mala was able to instantly cut her veins. Oberaufseherin (ph)(G) Mandl stood there with some kind of piece of paper and we presume that it was the sentence, I think so, because she started reading it, but did not get very far, because there started a commotion, because Reuters (ph) noticed that Mala, Mala has cut her veins and is bleeding and he broke her arm in such a way that the arm…, the bone cracked. And then Mala, with the broken arm, with the bleeding…, well, well…, slapped Reuters (ph) in the face. And I believe that this was one of the biggest events in the camp, that a woman prisoner, condemned to die, struck a uniformed, armed SS-man, who was performing his function, you know, because he…, he…, he…, and she struck Reuters (ph) in the snout.

This was…, there has not been another incident like this, probably, in the history of the camp. This was…, this was something high-spirited. Because she was bleeding profusely, but they still wanted her…, to kill her, – they…, to be able to kill her, then she was led…, they led her into the sick station, they bandaged her there and in the band…, in a wheelbarrow carted her out in the direction of the crematorium – that is what we know. We conjecture that Reuters shot her there. I speculate that he shot her, that she did not go to the gas, only that he simply shot her. This was also a better death – being shot, than that.

On the other…, besides…, because he was so humiliated by her, then, perhaps, maybe so…, but this I do not know for certain. On the other hand, it is not true the tale, that there stood in Oœwiêcim…, that there stood gallows in Brzezinka and that Mala was hanged on it – that is in the movie by Wanda Jakubowska, but that is not how it was in truth. And it is a characteristic thing that a whole line of Polish women prisoners swears, that there was the gallows, because the movie of Wanda Jakubowska was made very quickly after the camp, we all have seen it – these impressions, these recollections of the camp; and besides, it is a very faithful movie, because this film is very accurate, very, very close to the truth, that is how I would say it, (clears throat) it simply this…, it…, everything blends in together and a whole line of my girlfriends keep saying “but there was the gallows, there was the gallows.”

Not once in Oœwiêcim…, in Brzezinka in the women’s camp there was a gallows, not for Mala, not for any of those girls from Union (ph), who…, who were hanged. On the other hand, with these…, these gallows with that Mala, for example, the Slovak women…, do not remember the gallows, the German women do not remember the gallows, well, because they did not see the movie so right away and they were not so taken by that movie. This is something characteristic for human memory, how this one thing saddled itself on the other. For certain, with all certainty – I will say it, Wanda Maroszani (ph) will say it, a few other people will say it still — there was no gallows, only Mala, Mala, Mala was carted out in the direction of the crematorium and it ended like that.

Róża Robota 

https://jwa.org/sites/default/files/mediaobjects/Robota-Rosa_small.jpg

Róża Robota

Anna Palarczyk’s adamant contention that there were no gallows in the women’s section of Auschwitz-Birkenau [above] is a contentious one. Having provided gunpowder to members of the Sonderkommando for the unsuccessful uprising on October 7, 1944, four women who worked in the Kanada and Weischel-Union sections of the camp were eventually publicly hanged by the Nazis on January 6, 1945, two weeks before the camp was evacuated. Their names were Róża Robota, Ella Gartner, Ester Wajjcblum and Regina Safirsztain. A fellow underground member named Noah Zabludowicz persuaded the kapo of the torture bunker in Block Eleven, Ya’akov Kozelczyk, to let him visit Robota and he recalled: “I entered Roza’s cell. On the cold cement lay a figure like a heap of rags. At the sound of the door opening, she turned her face to me…Then she spoke her last words. She told me that she had not betrayed [anyone]. She wished to tell her comrades that they had nothing to fear. We must carry on. It was easier for her to die knowing that our actions would continue. It was a pity to lose one’s life and have to leave this world, but she did not regret her actions. She was not sorry that it was her lot to die. I received from her a note for the comrades outside. It was signed with the exhortation: Hazak ve-amatz (be strong and of good courage)! The time came to leave, and I left the bunker. This was the last time I saw Roza face to face, but I will never forget her.”

Janina Nowak

Accounts of women attempting to escape from Auschwitz are rare. The makers of this website believe that Rudolf Vrba would approve of reminding the world of the bravery of Malka Zimetbaum as well as the much-lesser-known Janina Nowak.

Janina Nowak

Janina Nowak first woman escapee.

Janina Nowak [above] has been cited as the first woman known to have escaped from Auschwitz. Born on August 19, 1917, from Będów near Łódź, Poland, Nowak became prisoner #7615 when she arrived at Auschwitz on June 12, 1942. According to the Auschwitz Museum, she escaped only twelve days later on June 24, 1942 from a Kommando labour unit of 200 Polish women who were working near the Soła River, drying hay. The Nazi guards pursued her in vain.

That night, back at the barracks, her fellow female prisoners had their hair cut in punishment. Only Jewish women had had their heads shaved prior to Nowak’s escape. The prison unit was sent the next day to an SS-controlled farm called Budy, six kilometres away. There they were housed in crude wooden barracks, surrounded by barbed wire fencing, and forced to do hard, physical labour (digging drainage ditches, for instance) as further punishment. Budy was the site for a women’s penal colony that had commenced with the transfer of Polish women on April 27 and May 28, relocated to a former school building. The first camp supervisor was SS-Aufseherin Elfrieda Runge and it was guarded by 25 SS men with dogs. The harsh conditions frequently proved fatal. In October of 1942, female guards used poles and axes to massacre approximately 90 Jewish women from France.

Nowak got as far as Łódz, where there was the largest Jewish ghetto in Poland–although according to the Auschwitz Museum in 2023, she was not Jewish. She remained at-large until her arrest in March of 1943. Brought back to Auschwitz on May 8, 1943, she received a new prisoner number, 31592. Later that year she was transferred to Ravensbrück and survived until its liberation at the end of April in 1945. Her subsequent years are largely undocumented but Marta Byczkowska-Nowak (born in 1984) has published a novel in tribute, What path to freedom? The story of the first woman to escape from Auschwitz, in 2021. A graduate of the Faculty of Polish Philology at the University of Lodz, Byczkowska-Nowak has worked as a television journalist and theatre critic.

Łódź ghetto residents courtesy of Zydowski Instytut Historyczny imienia Emanuela Ringelbluma

Łódź ghetto residents courtesy of Zydowski Instytut Historyczny imienia Emanuela Ringelbluma

Women of Auschwitz

Sources about Mala by women

Giuliana Tedeschi’s Questo povero corpo (Milan: Edizioni dell’Orso, 1946 / Yesh makom al pnei ha-adamah (Yad Vashem: 2000)
Raya Kagan’s Hell’s Office Women: Oswiecim Chronicle Merhavyah, Israel: Sifriat Poalim, 1947). As well, Mala was referenced in the testimony of Raya Kagan on June 8, 1961, during Session 70 in the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Kielar Wiesla’s Anus Mundi: Fifteen Hundred Days in Auschwitz-Birkenau (German) translated by Susanne Flatauer (New York: Times Books, 1980, 224–263)
Nomberg-Przytyk, Sara: Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land translated by Roslyn Hirsch (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Caroline Press, 1985)
Fenelon, Fania: Playing for Time (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997)

Sources about Mala by men

Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988)
Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka’s The Death Factory (London, New York, Pergamon Press, 1966)

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Marta Byczkowska-Nowak - Wprost

Born in 1984, Marta Byczkowska-Nowak is a graduate of the Faculty of Polish Philology at the University of Łódź

BOOKS BY WOMEN WHO WERE IN AUSCHWITZ OR BOOKS ABOUT INDIVIDUAL WOMEN WHO WERE IN AUSCHWITZ:

Schwalbova, M.: Eyes Extinguished / Vyhasmute oci (Bratislava – year unknown

Szmaglewska, S. Smoke over Birkenau / Dymy nad Birkenau (Warsaw) (Czytelnik Publishing House 1945)

Lingens-Reiner, Ella: Prisoners Of Fear (Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1948)

Zywulska, K.: I Survived Auschwitz /  Prezila jsem Osvetim (Warsaw); English version is I Came Back (1951) translated by Dennis Dobson

Matalon Lagnado, Lucette and Cohn Dekel, Sheila: Children of the Flames (William Morrow and Company Inc., 1991)

Lengyel, Olga: Five Chimneys (Academy Chicago Publishers, 1995)

Lasker-Wallfisch, Anita: Inherit the Truth (Giles de la Mare Publishers Limited, 1996)

Fénelon, Fania: Sursis pour l’orchestre (1976) /  Playing for Time (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997)

Kor, Eva Mozes: I Survived the Angel of Death (Tanglewood Publishing, 2009)

Eger, Dr. Edith Eva: The Choice (Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, 2017)

Perl, Gisela: I Was A Doctor In Auschwitz (Lexington Books, 2019)

Leibovitz, Sara and Elboim, Eti: One Girl In Auschwitz (eBookPro Publishing, 2020)

Byczkowska-Nowak, Marta: What path to freedom? The story of the first woman to escape from Auschwitz (2021)

Midwood, Ellie, The Girl Who Escaped From Auschwitz (Grand Central Publishing, 2021)

List compiled for this site by Alan Twigg and Michelle Madden; suggestions additions welcome.

 

Books on Women in Auschwitz
Books about women

Books about women

 

All text by Alan Twigg.

Next: GILBERT ON THE ESCAPE

 

The photos of prisoners in Auschwitz were mainly taken by Wilhem Brasse (1917-2012), a professional photographer who was prisoner #3444. After he was forced to take black & white portraits of approximately 60,000 inmates, he disobeyed Nazi orders to destroy them all towards the end of World War II. Some of his images were collected for a book, Photographer, 3444: Auschwitz 1940-1945 (Krakow: MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art; Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2012).

Ten years later, Penguin Books released a derivative trade edition of his work, The Auschwitz Photographer: Based on the true story of Wilhelm Brasse prisoner 3444, for which Luca Crippa and Maurizio Onnis are credited as authors. Brasse’s arresting images have since been colourized by photographers such as Marina Amaral, ostensibly to enhance them and make them more “believable” to younger generations. “When I see a black & white photo,” she says. “I feel that what I am seeing is not real.” Any attempts by “colourizers” to claim ownership of these historical images are specious, particularly when Brasse is not even credited.