In a dying act of defiance, Polish dancer and Holocaust victim Franceska Mann shot and killed SS officer Josef Schillinger.
Many social media users have encountered posts about the claim that in May 1945, Auschwitz prisoner Franceska Mann seized the gun of an unnamed Nazi guard and shot him dead as he attempted to lead her to a gas chamber:
By all accounts, Mann’s story was most prominently reported in Filip Müller’s 1979 book Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. An October 2016 text describes Müller’s testimony as the only bystander account of what has become a much-storied event in the intervening decades:
In actual fact, this woman’s name was Franziska Mann, stage name Lola Horovitz (Amann/Aust 2013). She was born in 1917, was a dancer and began her career in Warsaw before the war. She was among the best dancers of her generation in Poland. She was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, and later, like other prominent Jews, internet in Hotel Polski and in Bergen-Belsen. Rumours that she was a Nazi informer have never been confirmed. Her killing of SS man Schillinger in Auschwitz was described by the only surviving eyewitness of this scene, the Slovak Jew Filip Müller, a member of the Sonderkommando (Müller 1979; in English Eyewitness Auschwitz – Three Years in the Gas Chambers, 1979). Although Lustig could not know Müller’s report in the sixties, when A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzová was written and edited, his description of this event is much more authentic and impressive than later i Colette.
In January 2015, Holocaust survivor David Wisnau provided an eyewitness account of Mann’s act of rebellion to a Philadelphia news outlet in the course of a broader interview about his experience in the camps. Wisnau also provided a firm date for the incident:
“I sang in German for the cell-block leaders and entertained the SS in the main guard houses in Birkenau. It saved my life … I got a cushy job after the first year … I sorted the clothes. I was supposed to look for money.”
Wisnia was sorting clothes on Oct. 23, 1943, when he witnessed the unthinkable – the deadly revolt at Crematorium 4.
A group of prisoners, including the Polish Jewish dancer Franceska Mann, were taken into a room next to a gas chamber and ordered to strip.
Mann apparently grabbed the roll-call officer’s pistol, fatally wounding him in the stomach, according to some accounts. She also reportedly fired a shot that wounded an SS sergeant. A revolt by the other prisoners was broken up when guards mowed them down with machine guns.
In 2012, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency‘s “Revenge at Birkenau” cited I Found It In The Archives‘ discovery of a corroborating document. Associated Press journalist and researcher of the National Archives Randy Herschaft reported on that find among documents declassified roughly two years prior (i.e., in 2010):
It was one of the most celebrated acts of resistance by a Jewish woman at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp: an actress stripped naked and about to be gassed pulled a gun from a notoriously brutal guard and shot him dead.
A 33-year-old Polish timber merchant who was in charge of a filing system in his barracks told British intelligence about the woman’s act in a May 31, 1945 secret report, four months after the camp was liberated.
To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, we are posting here a copy of a rarely viewed 10-page report found in a U.S. Army intelligence file.
The guard was identified in the document as SS Sergeant Josef Schillinger, who was named in a U.N. War Crimes Commission report. The basic facts in the story have been validated by other scholars. The Jewish woman has not been unequivocally identified, but different accounts have said she was Franceska Mann. However, it may never be known who she was since she was killed after the shooting.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) hosted transcripts and footage from the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. The incident was mentioned in passing in June 1967 testimony at the war crimes trial of German Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann:
00:03:35 Describes Schillinger as committing the worst atrocities in Birkenau. Schillinger was murdered by a woman in transport [Note: accounts of his death vary].
Eichmann was found guilty and subsequently hanged in Israel on 1 June 1962. The variability of accounts of Schillinger’s death was highlighted in a 2010 book about sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust:
This is what was supposed to have happened: Schillinger, eager as always, was assisting that night on the ramp during the reception of a new transport of Jews, in the company of his crony Hauptscharführer Emmerich. Both of them, slightly drunk, accompanied the transport to the crematorium. They even entered the changing room, guided either by thoughts of a little stealing or in anticipation of the sadistic enjoyment of watching the timid, defenseless, undressed women who moments later were to die a painful death in the gas chamber.
The latter version seemed to me to be the more likely, if one considered Schillinger’s predilections, particularly when he was drunk. His attention was drawn to a young and reputedly beautiful woman who refused to undress in the presence of the SS men. Incensed, Schillinger went up to the woman and tried to pull down her brassiere. In the struggle she managed to snatch his pistol, with which she shot Schillinger dead and injured Emmerich, who had come to Schillinger’s aid, in the leg. Simultaneously, the other Jews tried to lock the doors from the inside. Upon hearing shots, the SS men who had been standing outside rushed into the changing room and, realizing what had happened, began to massacre everybody. Of this group of Jews, none died in the gas chamber; the enraged SS men shot them all.
The tale of Mann’s defiant act made its way into a 2004 profile of University of Utah Professor Jacqueline Osherow. Osherow described her surprise at hearing Mann’s story
from a source other than her former father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who was unnamed in the piece:
[Osherow] asked her father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor in charge of delousing at Birkenau (an extermination camp annex of Auschwitz, the Nazi’s largest concentration camp), if he knew any of the SS. He told the story of Josef Schillinger, an SS officer. In the tale, a woman brought to the gas chamber grabs Schillinger’s gun, killing him and three other guards before being gunned down herself. The story haunted Osherow until she wrote the poem. Since then, “Brief Encounter” has taken on a life of its own.
Last year, Susan Gubar released Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew, in which she discusses “Brief Encounter.” Gubar then mentions another account of the same incident: a Tadeusz Borowski story, “The Death of Schillinger.”
Osherow was stunned—and incredibly thrilled—to discover the story had a history beyond her father-in-law’s account. Merely searching online, Osherow found various accounts of the incident: It occurred in October 1943, and the woman was most likely a Polish dancer named Franceska Mann.
“My mind exploded,” Osherow recalls, still astonished. “I thought it was something that only existed in my father-in-law’s head and my head. Suddenly, there was external proof.” It also lends insight to the way Osherow writes poetry: It’s about conversations, stories and experiences, not historic research.
The same year, an account of Schillinger’s death at the hands of an unnamed female prisoner was published in the book We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz.
Multiple accounts (at least three separate ones from male purported eyewitnesses) told the story of a woman (sometimes not identified by name) who shot and killed Schillinger as he led her to a gas chamber. The earliest of the accounts was gathered in May 1945 from a Polish timber merchant and witness after the liberation of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Discovered in the National Archives in 2012, it matched contemporary claims about Franceska Mann. Although many versions of the tale varied in detail or failed to provide Mann’s name, numerous separate accounts exist that date as far back as 1945 and 1961. All of them indicated a female prisoner at Birkenau gained possession of a revolver (most likely Schillinger’s) and shot him dead and wounded one other Nazi guard as she was led to her death in a gas chamber.
In accounts where the woman is described by name, she was identified as “Franceska Mann” or “Franciska Mann.” Of the Holocaust records initially kept many were destroyed at the end of the war to conceal crimes committed and as such, details of eyewitness accounts were often difficult to firmly corroborate. But numerous men attested at different times and places to witnessing the death of Schillinger at the hands of a woman most frequently described as Mann. Descriptive elements of the incident (such as how the struggle began or how Mann obtained the gun) varied, but the basic details of the tale were consistent.