In 2001, when Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicle of Anna Heilman was launched in Ottawa, Heilman said her “older sister Estusia” was:
not only my sister and my best friend. She is also my hero. But who she was and what she did have meaning for more than me, her sister. As a Jew, she was a hero for all Jews. As a woman, she was a hero for all women. As a human being, she is a hero for all of us. Though she is known to history for her part and her fate, Estusia’s story has never been told. It is time.
Estusia Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, Roza Robota, and Regina Safirztajn were hanged by the Nazis on January 5th 1945 in Birkenau, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, a huge death factory and industrial complex. The Nazis accused them of supplying gunpowder for the October 1944 Uprising of the Sonderkommando (special squad), male prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers, burning pits, and crematoriums. The four women were arrested because Estusia, Ala, and a small group of Jewish women including Anna and Rose Gunapfel had carefully smuggled a little bit of gunpowder at a time out of the Weichsel Union Metalwerke munitions factory, in which they were slave labourers. Anna and Estusia gave the gunpowder to Ala who passed it to Roza. Roza “deposited” it “at the wires near the crematorium” for her contact in the Sonderkommando. The Nazis also arrested Regina, the supervisor of the Pulverraum, a secure room in the Union factory where Estusia and Rose worked with gunpowder. Anna’s book reveals the courage of this small group who dared to defy the Nazis during the greatest crime “in human history,” the “genocidal” “murder” of “six million European Jews” (Evans “The Anatomy of Hell,” 1.).
The Wajcblum sisters were born in Warsaw Poland to a family of middle-class partially assimilated Jews. Jacob and Rebecca Wajcblum had three daughters, Sabina, Esther (Estusia), and Anna. The girls’ parents and their nanny were deaf, as were the workers in Jacob’s thriving factory that produced wooden handicrafts. Sabina, four years older than Estusia and eight years older than Anna, was her parents “spokesman to the outside world.” Anna and Estusia were best friends. In September 1939 the German army invaded Poland ending Anna’s happy childhood and the “vibrant dynamic community” of “Warsaw Jewry” in which the Wajcblums lived (Davies, Rising ’44 The Battle of Warsaw, 82).
From 1939 to 1941 German-occupied Poland was the “key ‘laboratory’ for Nazi experimentation in racial persecution.” (Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution, 169.) In 1939 Sabina and her fiancée, Mieczyslaw Zielinski, fled eastward, were arrested on the Soviet border, and held separately in the Soviet Union. The rest of the family stayed put, their lives increasingly restricted within the Warsaw Ghetto, which the Nazis sealed on October 16th 1941. Joseph’s factory was confiscated and the Ghetto, which at its peak confined 380,000 Jews, deteriorated into a “sea of starvation and misery” as the Nazis began to deport Jews to concentration camps. (Davies, 99.) Estusia and Anna knew their parents would not approve, so they secretly joined the Hashomer Hatzair, “a Zionist youth group” that “had a distinctly socialist orientation. Its goal was to establish kibbutzim (collective settlements) in Palestine,” a British Mandate. The sisters and their “comrades in the Hashomer Hatzair” were active in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that erupted in April 1943.
The next month the Wajcblums were one of the last families to be deported from the Ghetto. Anna and her family were among 170 Jews crammed into a cattle car; only 120 were alive when they reached the Majdanek Concentration Camp. Upon arrival Anna and Estusia were separated from their parents who, unbeknownst to the girls, were sent to the gas chamber. In September 1943 the sisters were shipped to Auschwitz “the centrepiece of the Nazis Final Solution machinery” where a million Jews were murdered. (Buse and Doerr, “Introduction” to Never Far Away, xviii.) They were always hungry living in subhuman conditions in the women’s camp, brutalized by the Schutzstaffeln (SS) and kapos, prisoners who were given privileges for co-operating with the SS.
Anna and Estusia were befriended by Marta Bindiger, a resourceful Slovak Jew. They were saved from certain death when they “volunteered” to work as slave labourers for the Union factory in Birkenau (Auschwitz II). As “essential workers” they were not subjected to the routine selections that sent those who were weak and unable to work to the gas chambers. In the factory they were to stay at their own work station, but eventually Anna found a way to move about. The sisters made friends with women who worked near them and a few from their barracks. This small circle gathered and visited late into the night, giving one another much needed “warmth and closeness.”
By the autumn of 1944 the Russian army was moving westward toward Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando, who were routinely murdered by the Nazis and replaced by incoming prisoners, knew their time was almost up so they planned an uprising in which outside resistance fighters would simultaneously attack the camp. Hearing about the planned revolt Anna suggested she and Estusia smuggle gunpowder out of the factory for the Sonderkommando. Estusia was aghast, but Anna convinced her. Since they were going to die in any case rebelling against the Nazis would give their deaths meaning. The Sonderkommando planned to blow up the five Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematoriums. On October 7th, 1944, the men in the Sonderkommando staged a spontaneous unco-ordinated revolt at Crematorium IV, which they blew up with the gunpowder. The men at Crematorium II also revolted and some escaped. Immediately “a whole detachment of SS men drove in armed with machine guns and grenades” (Gilbert, The Holocaust, 745). They rounded up the escapees and killed some 460 rebels.
When the SS discovered the gunpowder had come from the Union factory they arrested Estusia, Ala, Roza, and Regina and tortured them for months. The only names they gave were those of men in the Sonderkommando who were dead. When the four women were released more dead than alive Anna and Marta nursed Estusia, but suddenly they were arrested again and sentenced to hang. Marta cared for Anna who “went mad” after Estusia and the other three were hanged. Marta also cared for her during the Nazis’ brutal final evacuation of Auschwitz on January 18th and as the Nazis forced thousands on a 700 kilometre death march. Those who collapsed were shot or froze as the prisoners were pushed toward the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp north of Berlin. Marta “bodily took” Anna and “dragged” her along. They were moved to Neustadt-Glewe, a sub-camp, where they were liberated on May 2nd 1945 by the Russians who turned them over to the Americans.
The Red Cross flew Marta and sixteen-year-old Anna to Belgium to recuperate. They were moved to a recuperation camp where in June Anna rewrote from memory a diary she had kept in Auschwitz. Anna and Marta found jobs, but after a year in Belgium Anna managed to get into Palestine, a British Mandate. Sabina and her husband Mieczyslaw, who were already there, later settled in Sweden. Anna married Joshua Heilman in 1947. She had two daughters, completed high school, and did a social work degree while working full time. They moved to the United States in 1958 and settled in Ottawa in 1960 where Joshua was the principal of the Hebrew school and Anna was a social worker for the Children’s Aid Society.
When Marta visited Anna in 1988 she said the information about the Sonderkommando Uprising was so “incomplete and distorted” it did not even give the names of all the women who were executed. Anna later recalled that “Marta’s mission was to see justice done, and to have all four girls take their place in history.” Marta persuaded Anna to join her and a small group of women who had worked as slave labourers in the Union factory to lobby for a monument honouring the four women. Anna went to Jerusalem in 1991 when a monument, with all four names inscribed, was unveiled in the Memorial Garden of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Sabina and Anna lit the eternal flame during the ceremony.
When Anna accompanied a group of young people on a tour of Majdanek in 1993 she stood by a collective grave that was the final resting place of her parents and countless other victims. At last she was able to say a Jewish prayer of blessing over her parents. She had a vision of them and thousands of other victims urging her to tell their story. She did so from then onward, even though she felt guilty about surviving. In 1994 Estusia was posthumously honored by the Polish government with the Cross of Auschwitz. Anna did a lengthy interview at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which posthumously awarded Estusia the Medal of Resistance. Anna also gave interviews or made speeches to other organizations such as the Shoah Foundation and the Wiesenthal Center.
In Canada in 1991 during a casual conversation with Sheldon Schwartz, her son-in-law, Anna mentioned her Auschwitz diary. He urged her to translate it into English so her family could read it and convinced her to write about the events before and after the period covered in the diary. He worked with her for three years as she grappled with extremely painful memories while writing and he edited her manuscript. When publishers claimed Anna’s manuscript was one among many Holocaust memoirs they rejected it. Anna Feldman, a friend of Sheldon’s mother, put him in touch with me. I recognized that the manuscript was historically significant and suggested Canadian historian Alvin Finkel also read it. Knowing it was both a diary and a memoir, we had Sheldon contact the University of Calgary Press and we suggested an introduction by a historian who specialized in the Holocaust. Dieter Buse and Juergen Doerr, the Holocaust experts who wrote the introduction, say that Heilman’s book is valuable because it gives “information on how women witnessed a different world than males in the ghetto and especially in Auschwitz” and because it describes in detail how the women smuggled the gunpowder out of the factory for the Sonderkommando. (Buse and Doerr, xxiii-xxiv). Anna dedicated her book “to Marta, who saved my life, and Sheldon, who saved my story.”
Anna’s social and political activism continued until the end of her life. In May of 2010, even though she was not well, with the backing of the Canadian Jewish Congress, she lobbied a parliamentary committee to take action on the genocide in Dafur Sudan. She died of cancer on May 1st 2011 and was buried on May the 2nd, the 66th anniversary of her liberation in Europe.
Unless otherwise noted the direct quotations are taken from Heilman’s book, her 2001 speech, and her video-taped interviews held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Shoal Foundation. I am grateful to Sheldon Schwartz for reading earlier drafts, making helpful suggestions, and agreeing to be interviewed.
** “About Anna Heilman;” Anna Heilman, “Never Far Away,” a speech delivered in Ottawa, 27 November 2001; <http://annaheilman.net/About%20Anna%20Heilman.htm>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
** Anna Heilman, Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman, edited by Sheldon Schwartz, with an introduction by Dieter K. Buse and Juergen C. Doerr and an afterword by Joel Prager (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001).
** Anna Heilman, video-taped interview, Shoah Foundation Institute, <http://www.ovguide.com/anna-heilman-9202a8c04000641f8000000000f11207>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
** “Oral history interview with Anna Wajcblum Heilman,” 10 August 1994, USHMM oral history collection, RG-50.030*0258, a four hour video-taped interview, <http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504752>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazis Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 ( London: William Heinemann, 2004).
Judy Cohen, an interview with Rose Grunapfel Meth, “Women of Valour: Partisans and Resistance Fighters” 2001. <http://www.theverylongview.com/WATH/valor/rose.htm>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Norman Davies, Rising ’44 The Battle of Warsaw (Toronto: Penquin Books, 2003).
Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1996).
Richard J. Evans, “The Anatomy of Hell,” a review essay, The New York Review of Books, 8 July 2015, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jul/09/concentration-camps-anatomy-hell/?pagination=false&printpage=true>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Bernie M. Farber, “The heroines of Auschwitz,” The National Post, 27 January 2012, <http://news.national post.com/full comment/bernie-m-faber-the heroines-of-auschwitz>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Anita Gates, “A Salute to Personal Acts of Resistance Against Evil,” a movie review, The New York Times, September 10, 2004, <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/10/movies/a-salute-to-personal-acts-of-resistance-against-evil.html>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 2008).
—, The Holocaust : The Jewish Tragedy (London: Fontana Collins, 1986).
“Giving Women their Place in Holocaust History,” a panel discussion presented by the American Jewish Historical Society and the Remember the Women Institute, 13 November 2014. <http://www.rememberwomen.org/Events/2014/7oct1944_panel.html>, retrieved 2 December 2015.
Sandra Martin, “Auschwitz saboteur, resistance hero persuaded to tell her story in moving memoir,” The Globe and Mail, 16 July 2011, <http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20110716.OBANNAHEILMANATL/BDAStory/BDA/deaths/?pageRequested=all>, retrieved 24 January 2016.