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January 1, 1998 -- Vol.3, no.1

Mala's Last Words
by Stephen G. Esrati

When Menahem Begin, then leader of Israel's opposition, read Leon Uris's Exodus, Begin said: “The author turns reality into fiction; the reader turns his fiction into truth.” [1]

Begin, of course, was talking about a novel, albeit one based on history, including the history Begin had made.. Yet what is one to do with the literature of the Holocaust -- not just the fiction, but also what is written as history or as biography -- if even the most basic facts cannot be ascertained?

Mala's last words

Take the case of Mala Zimetbaum, one of the greatest Jewish heroines in history. She and a male companion escaped from Auschwitz in SS uniforms, to reach Zionist leaders to tell them about Auschwitz. As they entered Slovakia, they were recaptured.

The figure of Mala looms large in some Holocaust accounts and is totally omitted in others. Where she is mentioned, the accounts vary, conflict, or contradict each other. No wonder that Mala's martyrdom is almost forgotten. There are no monuments to Mala Zimetbaum, no postage stamps, only a small plaque on the house where she once lived in Antwerp, Belgium.

Although Mala made a lasting impression on many who have written about Auschwitz, it is difficult to sort out fact. Fania Fenelon, the French Auschwitz survivor whose life was portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in a movie, was there and gives eyewitness testimony in her autobiography, Playing for Time. Fenelon recalls Mala as the chief interpreter at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but gives her no last name. When Mala was recaptured after her escape, the prisoners were lined up and “in the middle, on her own, was Mala, half naked and covered in blood; we learnt that she'd been tortured and hadn't talked.” Fenelon then recalls this exchange between an SS officer and Mala:

“I'm going to shoot you as a reward for your exploits.”

“No,” shrieked Mala. “I want to be gassed like my parents and like thousands of other innocent people. I want to die like them.”

Fenelon then tells how Mala attempted to slash her wrists with a concealed razor, but the Germans wanted her alive.

As Mala was being dragged off, Fenelon recalls her screaming to the other prisoners: “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!” [2]

Obviously, Fenelon was not standing in the Appellplatz in Auschwitz with a reporter's notebook, taking down Mala's last words before she was killed. But Fenelon assures us twice that she can never forget Mala's words. Still Fenelon is unique: Only she recalls Mala's plea to be gassed. Other sources indicate quite the opposite, that Mala did not want to die at the hands of the Germans because she sought to deny them the ultimate decision over whether a Jew lives or dies.

Giza Weisblum, a relative of Mala Zimetbaum and a fellow Auschwitz prisoner, was also a witness. Her version agrees regarding the razor, and says an SS man named Riters prevented suicide, shouting: “You want to be a heroine! You want to kill yourself! That's what we are here for. That's our job.”

Weisblum does not mention a speech by Mala to the assembled prisoners, but quotes her in the hospital barracks later as she told a few prisoners: “The day of reckoning is near. You hear me? Remember everything they did to us.”

The SS taped Mala's mouth shut and she was taken to the crematorium compound. [3]

The last words of Mala Zimetbaum made an impression. Gidon Hausner, the attorney general of Israel who prosecuted Adolf Eichmann, writing in Justice in Jerusalem, says: “The saga of Auschwitz has it that she said, `I fall a heroine and you will die as a dog.' ” [4]

The confusion continues to grow if one reads Forged in Fury, a work of fictionalized non-fiction by Michael Elkins, Jerusalem correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Elkins, admits that he hid the identities of the people he wrote about (partly because he did not want to expose Jewish avengers to Nazi retribution). He renamed Mala as Rachel Baum and merged her historical role with that of another great Jewish heroine, Rosa Robota, who was instrumental in smuggling explosives into Auschwitz in the successful plot to blow up the crematoria.

According to Elkins, Mala's last words were: “Hannah, Little Sister! Avenge me!” [5]

Wieslaw Kielar, who described Mala's death in Anus Mundi: 1,500 Days in Auschwitz/Birkenau (New York, 1972: Times Books, pp. 255), was to have escaped from Auschwitz with Mala, has Edek shouting, "Long live Poland" as he was hanged. But Kielar could only report Mala's death on the basis of a report from "the little Slovak girl runner."

Mala was determined to prevent the SS men from executing the sentence. As she was standing on the scaffold under the gallows, while the sentence was being read out, she slashed her wrists with a razor blade. But as with Edek, they would not allow her to die in the way she had chosoen. Rapportfuehrer Taube rushed up to her, and she slapped his face with her blood-streaming hands. The enraged SS men almost trammpled her to death in front of the whole women's camp.

The sentence was duly executed but not in the way laid down in regulations. She died on her way to the crematorium on the handcart pulled by women prisoners, who were unable to spare her this last suffering. One of these women was the little Slovak.

Kielar described Mala as Edek's girlfriend and Edek was Kielar's best friend. Somehow, one would expect, he would have quoted her last words if there were any.

What is one to make of all these conflicting accounts, all apparently based on testimony by those who were there? Reuben Ainsztein, whose Jewish Resistance is an encyclopedia on the subject, does not mention Mala Zimetbaum at all. Neither does Lucy S. Dawidowicz, author of The War Against the Jews. Ainsztein, however, fleshes out the story of Rosa Robota.

Perhaps it is not really important to know what was done by Mala and what was done by Rosa, or who really smuggled the explosives into the Auschwitz crematory. The key point is that one of them did. This is the answer to the lie that the Holocaust is a Jewish invention because -- as charged in the scurrilous Myth of the Twentieth Century -- the Auschwitz crematoria could not have killed as many Jews as is claimed. It was a woman's heroism that made it impossible for the author of Myth to measure all the ovens of death.

The myth of the sheep

There is a Holocaust myth that the Jews marched like sheep to their slaughter. One of the letters received by Hausner during the Eichmann trial pointed this up: “I could not honor all my relatives about whom I had heard from my father. I loathed them for letting themselves be slaughtered.” [6]

To dispel the myth of the slaughtered sheep one must know not only that there was a Jewish resistance, but also what its goals and objectives were. If one expected armed combat, then one would have to conclude that there was no resistance; but combat was the last of the resistance's goals. The primary goal was typically Jewish -- to survive. In its simplest form, it was the need to have someone left who could say Kaddish, the mourner's prayer. Thus, the earliest form of Jewish resistance -- although few thought of it as such -- was the flight of the Jews of Germany to places of safety. Later, that flight split the Jews of Palestine, with David Ben Gurion appalled at Ze'ev Jabotinsky's call for the evacuation of the Jews of Poland. [7]

Reading books like Exodus today, one gets the impression that all Palestine Jewry was solidly behind illegal immigration (illegal in the eyes of the British). Alas, unanimity came only after it was too late, after the Holocaust, when ships bearing the names of Jewish heroes defied Britain and sought to bring the remnant of the Jewish people home. But no ships were named for Mala Zimetbaum or Rosa Robota, and there were so few survivors.

How, then, can one quantify the success of the Jewish resistance, for which survival was primary, when one is faced with the result that keeps screaming the number SIX MILLION as a measure of its failure.

Most authorities agree that the goals of the resistance -- with survival always uppermost -- led to three missions:

• To warn the Jews that they faced death, no matter what their leaders told them.

• To tell the world what the Germans were doing (and this is why Mala fled Auschwitz, to tell the world).

• To resist by force of arms.

The first was almost as difficult as the last. In almost all accounts of German roundups of Jews, we find a Jewish suspension of belief, an unwillingness to accept truths about man's inhumanity, a blanking out from memory of pogroms and two millennia of persecution. The Germans hid their intentions behind words like “resettlement” and “labor in the east” and “the final solution of the Jewish problem.” Jews had to be persuaded that these innocent terms meant death.

Nor was the second method easy. One must scream very loud to make those who feign deafness hear. The Evian conference of 1938 did not hear Jewish screams when it met in answer to Hitler's bet that no country would take in his unwanted Jews. Hitler won the bet; only the Dominican Republic let a handful of Jews come from Germany. No other country. In Canada, a nation that now prides itself on how it allowed U.S. deserters from the Vietnam War to come in, the rule was “None Is Too Many,” [8] the title of a book about Canada's prewar policy on Jewish immigration.

Jabotinsky called the Evian conference by its name spelled backwards, “the na•ve conference.”

The voyage of the St. Louis to Cuba (and up and down the Florida coast) produced no American visas. The sinking of the Struma found its way to few front pages. The truth about Auschwitz had to be told. It was made known -- and nothing was done. The Allies couldn't even bring themselves to bomb Auschwitz, saying they might have killed some innocent prisoners; and they couldn't bomb the railroad tracks that were bringing the Jews of Hungary to Auschwitz because they had to leave those tracks intact for the advancing Red Army. [9]

Muzzling the warnings

And, finally, there was armed struggle, and in this, too, there was success. But throughout the vast literature on the Holocaust, these forms of resistance are seldom explored.

The Germans were ever-cautious. They, misled the Jews, taking them to camps where the way to death had “waiting rooms” and “ticket windows.” A band was at the railhead playing merry tunes. And the story is told that when Sigmund Freud's sister arrived at Treblinka, she told an SS man she was too weak to work and he replied that she would get the next train out, “after you've had a chance to bathe.”

That's why the gas chambers were disguised as showers. A document entered into the Eichmann trial instructs the SS: “I should ask you to take pains to instruct the accompanying guards (on deportation trains) not to instill thoughts of resistance in the Jews by voicing in their presence suppositions about types of quarters, etc.” [10]

That is why the first mission of the resistance was to warn the Jews of what the Germans intended for them. In Vilna, Abba Kovner, leader of the United Partisan Organization (FPO), tried to issue the following warning:

“Let us not go to the slaughter like sheep! Jewish youth, do not trust the deceivers. Of the 80,000 Jews of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, only 20,000 remain. ... Where are the hundreds of men arrested by the police, supposedly to work? ... Those who were taken from the ghetto will never come back, for all the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary. And Ponary means death.” [11]

Kovner was unable to make that speech to the remnant of the Jews of Vilna. The Jewish leadership would not permit it, and every day Jews walked the road to the killing ground at Ponary, a road the Germans nicknamed “The Road to Heaven.”

But the mission was survival. That meant that the Jews of Vilna had to be told about Ponary, just as the Jews of Kovno had to be told about the Ninth Fort. In Kiev, alas, the Jews were never warned about Babi Yar.

Even at the killing ground of Ponary, there was a Jewish heroine, Sara Menkes, who survived the pit of corpses, dug her way out, returned to Vilna, and told the FPO what Ponary was. But the FPO was cautious. Nobody wanted to believe Sara Menkes. It was just too unbelievable. So the FPO sent Shmuel Glassman to Ponary to check her story. He never returned.

The FPO then argued for more than a month whether the Jews of Vilna should be told what Sara Menkes had seen and experienced. It was during that argument that Kovner made his speech, not to the Jews of Vilna but to the Jewish leaders. After more delay, Kovner's speech was printed and distributed to tell everyone that “Ponary means death.” [12]

Telling the world

It was equally important to tell the world. Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler, both from Slovakia, escaped from Auschwitz and tried to do just that. They got their message to the Jewish leadership in Slovakia, which transmitted it to the Jewish Agency in Geneva and to the papal nuncio in Bratislava. Word was sent to Dr. Israel Kastner, the Zionist leader of Hungary who was later accused in Israel of having collaborated with Eichmann.

Dr. Karmil-Krasnansky, a Bratislava engineer, had an architect draw sketches of Auschwitz, showing which sections should be attacked by Allied air attack. He added a recommendation to Allied governments to destroy the crematoria and the approaching roads. The report received wide distribution. The information that reached Switzerland was handed to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in June 1944. The bombings never took place. [13]

But that was not the only attempt to tell the world. David Szmulewski, who had fled Poland for Palestine and had served in the war against Franco in Spain, had himself smuggled into Auschwitz so he could photograph the extermination of his people. His pictures were smuggled out by the Polish underground companions of Jozef Cyrankiewicz, also an Auschwitz inmate. [14]

In 1960, Cyrankiewicz, then premier of Poland, presented Poland's highest award for bravery to Szmulewski.

But warning the Jews and telling the world did not stop or slow the destruction of a people. It did, however, save some. In Paris, for example, when the Germans began to round up Jews, warnings saved a few from the horrors of the Vel d'Hiv. [15]

Why didn't they fight?

Despite the heroism that such warnings required, one still asks: Why did they not resist?

In fact, they did. Take these Polish war casualty figures and examine them well. Poland reported 66,300 combat deaths on the western (German) front. Of this total, according to Polish statistics, 32,216 were Jews. In other words, half the Poles who died in battle were Jews! Still, this is only the statistical tip of a remarkable iceberg. Jews were not welcome in the Polish army and could not become noncommissioned officers. When Germany attacked, Poland called one and half million men to the colors, of which 120,000, nearly ten percent, were Jews. This means that with less than one-tenth of the call up, Jews sustained almost as many combat deaths as non-Jews.

This has never been explained, but it is known that most of the 80,000 to 100,000 Jews who were enlisted (not all who were called passed eligibility tests) served in the infantry as Polish cannon fodder, led by Polish offices and noncommissioned officers. But when their Polish leaders deserted them or surrendered, the Jews fought on, often under the leadership of Jewish medical officers. They knew that for them there was no alternative. [16]

What this means is that armed Jewish resistance began on the day World War II started. It never stopped. All over Europe, Jews joined the resistance movements of their countries, some of them in all-Jewish partisan formations. In France, twenty percent of all members of the resistance are believed to have been Jews -- in a country where Jews constituted less than one percent of the population.

Even in Hitler's Berlin, a Jewish resistance group operated as late as 1942. A monument bearing the names of the 27 members of the Herbert Baum Group, executed in 1942 and 1943, stands today at the western entrance to Berlin's Weissensee Cemetery. [17]

Where armed resistance was almost impossible was in the death camp and on the killing grounds. But it happened. There were revolts in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor, as well as on the killing grounds.

Though chained and shackled, a Sonderkommando unit (prisoners whose task it was to dig up the Jewish corpses and to destroy the evidence of German genocide) revolted at the mass graves at Babi Yar. All we now know about Babi Yar comes from those men, including many Jews. Two Jews, Vladimir Davydow and David Budnik, testified about Babi Yar at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Other Sonderkommandos revolted at Ponary and at the Ninth Fort.

Leon Weliczker led the revolt of Sonderkommando 1005 at the death camp along the Janowska Road near Lwow. Testifying at the Eichmann trial -- as New Jersey optometrist Dr. Leon W. Wells -- he told of the meticulous German attempts to erase the evidence of genocide. Weliczker had escaped execution by deceiving the Germans. Later, when his Sonderkommando had to dig up the graves, the Germans could not find Weliczker's body. [18]

“We dug for three days in search of my own body,” Dr. Wells told the trial in Jerusalem. [19]

This story may not seem like great heroism, yet it fulfilled all three missions of the Jewish resistance. Weliczker survived and ended in armed combat against the Germans. Wells bore witness.

Wells, in The Death Brigade, recognized this himself: “I feel, now, that I have fulfilled my mission. The last wish of my people, each as he died, was to let the world know what had happened. They felt and hoped that the world cared about them and their fate. Does the world care?” [20]

Causes of confusion

The confusion about the aims and methods of the Jewish resistance has been aided by some of the historians of the Holocaust. Lucy S. Dawidowicz writes: “Only in the Warsaw Ghetto did the Jewish resistance obtain its objectives.” [21]

Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, felt obliged to say something about Jewish heroism, so he writes about the heroism of Israelis: “European Jews surrendered to their fate only a few years before Palestine Jewry hurled back Arab invaders by force of arms. ... Preventive attack, armed resistance, and revenge are almost completely absent in two thousand years of Jewish history.” [22]

Perhaps because this was what he believed, Hilberg described the revolt at Sobibor in a most minimizing manner: “The Sobibor revolt by about 150 inmates was an almost exact duplication of the Treblinka break. The date of the battle was Oct. 14, 1943. The Germans lost an UntersturmfŸhrer in the fighting.” [23]

This led Yuri Suhl, editor of They Fought Back, to say: “Hilberg, leading exponent of the theory of Jewish passivity, dismisses the heroic Sobibor revolt in three sentences, two of which are factually incorrect, The one correct sentence describes the date.” [24]

But Hilberg's contemptuous statement does not even square with his own footnotes, where he says Germans (plural) were killed. The footnote omits that 38 Ukrainian SS men were also killed. Above all, Hilberg does not say that the revolt closed a death factory that had killed 600,000 Jews.

And the historians of the Holocaust, who are not writers of novels like Leon Uris but are our sources for the truth of what happened to to the Jewish people, even fight each other. Dawidowicz puts down Hilberg, “whose knowledge of Jewish history is not equal to his rashness in generalizing about it.” [25]

But if we read a first-person account of the revolt at Sobibor, we are left puzzled not only by the superficiality of Hilberg but also by Dawidowicz's “only in Warsaw” statement. For Sobibor was a revolt of men armed with hatchets against superbly armed guards. The inmates won.

It is Hilberg who fails the Jewish resistance most. In his comments about the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, Hilberg gives the German casualties as 16 dead, 85 wounded. If these figures were true, Dawidowicz's “only in Warsaw” would be senseless. But Suhl points out that Hilberg's figures came from German reports, straight from the self-praising Jurgen Stroop, the head of the “Juden-Sieger,” the conquerors of the Jews. [26]

Again, it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction, but some figures for the German dead are given at 360, and there are other figures.

In view of the fact that Dawidowicz and Hilberg have presented the two most comprehensive and most accepted accounts of the Holocaust, it should be noted that they have helped to perpetuate the myths.

Even the Jewish Establishment has helped to distort the history of Jewish resistance. Before the war it was mostly the Revisionist branch of Zionism that fostered illegal immigration to Palestine. For this it was attacked constantly by Zionist leaders and by the United Jewish Appeal, which sought funds for such work but did little of it.

UJA even ran an ad showing the Irgun ship Parita landing 850 illegals on the beach of Tel Aviv in 1938. UJA had absolutely nothing to do with the Parita. So UJA changed its tune and criticized the Irgun for the horrible conditions aboard its vessels. But when the Melk sailed down the Danube, UJA and other Zionist sources of funds would send no money to feed its passengers. [27]

But the most dramatic single story of resistance in the Holocaust came from Alexander Donat, who survived Auschwitz and Majdanek, who lived through the revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto, whose wife lived through Majdanek and later was sent to Auschwitz, only to be shipped out of there to Schindler's factory. Their story also tells the awful tale of their son, whom they hid with Catholics in Poland before the Final Solution began. They found their son again after the war, only to learn that he wanted nothing to do with them because they were Jews and had killed his Lord.

The Donats survived -- yes, even their son who returned to the Jewish faith. They resisted. And in The Holocaust Kingdom (New York: Holocaust Library, 1978), they told their dreadful story and effectively thumbed their noses at Dawidowicz and Hilberg.


[1] Esrati, Stephen G. The Jewish Times, Brookline, Mass., Dec. 22, 1960.

[2] New York, Atheneum, 1977. Sell also: Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, Summit Books, 1988, who partly agrees with Fenelon but admits that he was not there. His description, then, of these events may have been based on Fenelon's.

[3] In They Fought Back, ed. Yuri Suhl, New York, Schocken. 1975. Levi, op. cit., says she was thrown into the crematorium alive.

[4] New York: Holocaust Library (Schocken), 1968.

[5] New York, Ballantine Books, 1971.

[6] Hausner, ibid.

[7] Ben Gurion, David, “Our Account With the British,” in Rebirth and Destiny of Israel, New York: Philosophical Library, 1954.

[8] Abella, Irving, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948, New York: Random House, 1983.

[9] Laqueur, Walter, “Hitler's Holocaust: Who Knew What, When, & How.” In Encounter, July 1980.

[10] Quoted in Hilberg, Raul, ed., Documents of Destruction, Chicago: Quadrangle, 1971. (My emphasis)

[11] Quoted in Ainsztein, Reuben, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974.

[12] According to Elkins, op. cit ., but other references to Sara Menkes are not known.

[13] Kulka, Erich, “Five Escapes from Auschwitz,” in They Fought Back, op. cit.

[14] The photographs are reproduced in They Fought Back, op. cit.

[15] Levy, Claude, and Tillard, Paul, Betrayal at the Vel d'Hiv, New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.

[16] Ainsztein, op. cit.

[17] Mark, Ber, “The Herbert Baum Group,” in They Fought Back, op. Cit. Interestingly, the government of the former German Democratic Republic attempted to minimize the Jewishness of the Baum Group, claiming them as loyal Communists. Yet one of the great heroic deeds of the group was to hold a Yizkor service for a fallen comrade in wartime Berlin.

[18] Weliczker, “In the Name of Liberty,” in The Root and the Bough, ed. By Leo W. Schwartz, New York: Rinehart, 1949; and Wells, The Death Brigade, New York: Holocaust Library, 1978.

[19] Hausner, op c it.

[20] Wells, op. cit.

[21] Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, New York: Bantam Books, 1975. The statement is on Page 449 of the Bantam edition.

[22] Chicago: Quadrangle, 1967.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Suhl, op. cit.

[25] Dawidowicz, op. cit. The remark is in a footnote on Page 585 of the Bantam edition.

[26] Suhl, op. cit.

[27] Ben-Ami, Yitshaq, Years of Wrath, Days of Glory, New York: Robert Speller & Sons, 1982. Ben-Ami admits that the Melk's trip was organized by Adolf Eichmann, who at that time saw it as his mission just to get rid of the Jews..