Known as Sonderkommando, the prisoners were forced to assist in the mass killings of other prisoners, leading them from trains to the gas chambers and disposing of the mountains of corpses in the crematorium. If they refused, they themselves would be executed.
For months, Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, and Regina Safirsztain smuggled small amounts of gunpowder from a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex to men and women in the camp’s resistance movement. It was then passed it to the Sonderkommando, who made makeshift bombs and grenades.
The revolt began during a roll call in the afternoon when one of the prisoners attacked a Nazi officer with a hammer. The insurgents began to attack the SS from all sides with hammers, knives, and explosives. While the rebels killed three guards and blew up the crematorium and adjacent gas chamber, the Nazis defeated the revolt, killing 250 prisoners during the fighting, including mutiny leaders Załmen Gradowski and Józef Deresiński; another 200 prisoners were murdered after the mutiny was suppressed. While some prsio prisoners managed to cut through the fence and make it outside of the camp, some as far as the village of Rajsko, 4 kilometers away from the camp, they were apprehended by the SS.
The Sonderkommando consisted of 663 prisoners at the start of the rebellion. After the rebellion only 212 remained.
Following an investigation, the SS identified four Jewish female prisoners who had been involved in supplying the explosives used to blow up the crematorium. All four of them—Róża Robota, Ella Gaertner, Regina Safirsztajn, and Estera Wajcblum—were publicly hanged in January 1945, only three weeks before the camp would be liberated, when some 7,000 prisoners were set free. In the last moments before her death, Robota shouted, “Be strong and be brave.”
It is estimated that at least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of those, at least 1.1 million were murdered, including approximately one million Jews, 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.