It’s been two weeks since we last met here and the world is still going a little bit crazy. We are still in “shelter in place” where I live and that has proven to give more time to read about people during the Holocaust and how they made it through, if they made it through.
I learned about Franceska Mann from a post on Facebook one day and decided that I need to do a bit more digging into her story. Her story seemed so outrageous that it made me wonder if it could be true.
Franceska Mann was born in Poland in 1917. There is very little known about her early life. We know that she began her career in Warsaw just prior to the war, she was a ballerina. She was one of the best dancers of her generation and in her early years she became friends with Wiera Gran, who would become the Polish Edith Piaf and Stefania Grodzienska, who become the first lady of Polish humor.
Franceska won 4th place at an international dance competition in Brussels in 1939. She was dancer at the Melody Palace night club prior to the Nazi occupation.
She also spent time in the Warsaw Ghetto. Because of her prominence as a dancer, she was moved from the ghetto to the Hotel Polski where other prominent Jews were being held. The Hotel Polski was on the Aryan side of Warsaw. Most Jews there had purchased citizenship documents from neutral countries and were awaiting the time when they could emigrate.
The group was transferred to Bergen Belsen and then onto the Auschwitz. They had been told by the Nazi’s that they were part of a POW exchange that had been facilitated by the Allies and that Auschwitz was just a stop on the way to Switzerland. They were soon to learn that was a lie. The women were the first group to be sent to the gas chambers.
Now, the first eyewitness account of Franceska’s heroics comes from Filip Muller, who was a sonderkommando for crematorium four and tells the story in his 1979 book Eyewitness Auschwitz- Three Years in the Gas Chambers. The second comes from survivor David Wisnau in his interview with a Philadelphia new outlet. There are records describing the incident in the Yad Vashem archives, as well as it being mentioned during Adolf Eichmann’s trial.
The story is that on October 23, 1943 Franceska disarmed an SS guard and shot him, killing him. There are different accounts of how she disarmed him. One is that he demanded her to underdress and when she refused, he ripped open her blouse and forced her to undress and during this she managed to grab his gun and shoot him.
Another is that she seductively started undressing before the guards and one in particular, SS Josef Schillinger. She used her skills as a dancer to undress slowly. She took off her shoe and threw it at the guard, wounding him and in the ensuing chaos she stole the gun, shoots and kills him, as well as two others. This empowers the other women to rise up and fight the guards, it is rumored that camp commander Rudolph Hoss was summoned to the crematorium.
There is also the story from a 33-year-old Polish timber merchant who on May 31, 1945 told Mann’s story to British intelligence.
So, the overall story is that Franceska disarms and kills SS Josef Schillinger (enlisted with SS in 1939, was a known sadist), along with injuring two other guards before the group of women are killed by machine gun fire, and those that remained were sent to the gas chamber. Mann was just 26 years old at the time.
September 1, 2019, the 80th anniversary of the invasion of Poland, the Jerusalem Ballet performed “Memento- Franceska Mann’s Last Dance at Auschwitz”. The story, choreographed by Nadya Timofeeva, tells Franceska’s story from her early years in Warsaw to the Nazi invasion and on into the revolt that she is known for.
Timofeeva felt a connection to Franceska’s story and is quoted as saying “Mann proves that not all Jews went to the gas chamber like sheep to the slaughter”.
Franceska’s story is one of talent and courage. She fought through physical pain to achieve greatness on the stage and she fought to keep her life, even in the face of certain death. Her story shows that with great courage, you can change history. I hope that you will remember Franceska and continue to share her story.
Until next time. I hope that you will continue to share these stories with your friends and family and stay safe.