Her courage and will to fight back was something not even the Nazis expected.
We’ve all been touched and moved to tears when listening to the different stories of resilience from several people who lived under the Nazi regime. Some managed to survive by making themselves unnoticeable to the sadistic nature of their oppressors, and others decided to fight back, even if it meant risking their own lives. Among the latter was Franceska Mann, a young Polish ballerina who, in an attempt to save her life as well as those with her, went against all odds and started a riot in Auschwitz, one of the most guarded Nazi camps.
Mann was born in 1917 in Poland. From a young age, she had dreamt of becoming one of the most prominent ballerinas in the world. She started her dance education in Warsaw, where she attended Irena Prusicka’s academia, one of the most important schools in Poland and where Mann developed her own dancing style. Just when she was being addressed by the critics as one of the most promising ballet and modern dancers of her time and ended in fourth place in an international competition in Brussels, the Nazis invaded Poland, shattering all her dreams and aspirations.
Photo by Forbert
By November of 1940, thousands of Jewish citizens were sent to what became the biggest Jewish ghetto in the Nazi-occupied Europe, and this is where Franceska’s story becomes a bit blurry. Now, it’s important to note that most of her story went into oblivion, so the few things we know about her life come from witnesses who survived. There aren’t really any written documents or records about her life. According to some versions, she started performing in a nightclub called the Melody Palace, an old building in the border of the ghetto where people went to ease their minds for a while and forget about the horrible life they were forced to live. In other versions, she’s often described as a German collaborator, but many have actually discarded that possibility based on what happened next.
The idea of the ghetto wasn’t really about secluding the Jewish and Romani population of Poland. It was just the first step to an extermination scheme that, sadly, proved to be quite effective. The daily rationing for the people of the ghetto was 186 calories. Can you imagine what’s like to live with that amount of food? I can’t either. People had to be creative to survive. By 1942 when mass deportations began, yet close to 100,000 people had died of hunger-related circumstances. In that year the German government had agreed on starting their Final Solution project, where millions of Polish Jews were sent to the camps to die. As we know, Auschwitz became one of the most known camps, but it was just one of the horrific extermination places the Nazis created.
Photo by Forbert
During the first deportations, which took about eight months, about 5,000 of the ghetto's citizens were sent to the worst place, the Treblinka Camp, just a few miles from Warsaw. This camp was created exclusively for extermination, so by the end of the war, more people had died here than in any other place. Although there were many resistance movements that emerged from within the ghetto, at some point, people knew what was going on and managed to escape and hide in other parts of the city. Going back to Franceska, she was one of the many who hid in what was called the Aryan quarter of Warsaw. By the time, there was a rumor saying that allied countries and groups had managed to negotiate with the Nazi, and in exchange of German war prisoners, they would agree to release Jewish citizens living in the ghetto and send them to South America. This passed to be called the “Hotel Polski affair.” The idea was that you had to check-in at the hotel. From here, you'd be taken out of Poland to Switzerland, where the exchange was taking place, and then, with the proper documentation and passports, you'd be taken to your final destination in America.
There are many theories about how this started. Some believe it was an actual proposal to save as many Jews as possible, but at some point, something went wrong. The general consensus, however, is that it was just a scheme made by the Germans to capture the hidden Jews remaining in the city. The thing is that in 1943, a convoy of about 1,700 Polish Jews arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Mann was one of them. This special convoy was made to exterminate them right away. The German soldiers continued their charade and divided the group into men and women and took them to the gas chambers. When Franceska’s group arrived at the room outside the chamber, they were told they had to be disinfected before crossing the Swiss border. They were asked to remove their clothes and walk into the door of the chamber. Some of the women did it as fast as they could, as if hurrying would take them faster to their new life. Others like Franceska already knew what was going on and decided to take as long as possible to avoid their terrible doom.
Photo by Forbert
However, as you already know based on the title, the young ballerina who was ripped off from her passion and life goal had just had enough of hiding and being submissive. She had to give at least one final fight. Noticing that the soldiers had paid special attention to her, she decided to use that in her favor. According to Filip Müeller, one of the prisoners that were sent to the chamber to help take care of the convoy, Mann started to strip provocatively to drag the attention of one of the soldiers. Once the soldier was close enough she hit him really hard on the head. Quickly, she grabbed his gun and shot him in the stomach. When she saw that a second SS soldier was approaching, she shot him as well, producing a lethal wound. Watching what Mann had done, the other women took courage and started rioting inside the room.
The lights of the changing room went down and the door was smashed. Meanwhile, a group of soldiers gathered at the entrance and installed two machine guns right at the entrance. The gas chambers were turned on and those who had already entered the room were immediately killed, all of a sudden the doors of the changing room opened and the guns started firing, killing everyone inside. And thus ended the short life of a woman with a bright future ahead and who decided to fight back, even in her last moments.
Illustration by Władysław Siwek
For more stories of outstanding characters in history, take a look at these:
Cover photo from Inglorious Basterds (2010)