Organized Resistance

Capt. Witold Pilecki

Eventually in most of the camps prisoner organizations came into existence. Most of these were started by the prisoners themselves as the camp populations included numerous prisoners who were previously involved in underground work. These included German political opponents of the Nazi regime, especially the members of the outlawed Communist Party and members of Polish underground organizations. Experienced in conspirational techniques they quickly set up secret organizations which eventually grew to included representatives of most of the ethnic groups held in the camps. This mixed character was often underlined by organizational names which include the adjective "International". However the creation of underground organizations was not always possible. In the German camps it took place rather quickly because of the lighter regime that existed inthese camps while in the camps in occupied Poland conditions were much more brutal. In fact in Auschwitz one of the first organizations came about only after the Polish underground inserted an agent, Capt. Witold Pilecki, into the camp.

The first aim of the organizations was to improve the conditions under which the prisoners lived. They developed channels for the smuggling and distribution of medicines, food and organized contact with the outside which, in the case of Auschwitz, resulted with a remarkably efficient courrier contact with the Polish underground in Krakow. They also sought to take control of the camp by taking over the administrative tasks the Germans assigned to prisoners. These tasks were initially filled by brutal German criminal prisoners who, through their brutal treatment of the prisoners, tried to gain favor with the guards. Thus the prisoners sought to discredit the criminals by, for example, uncovering their theft of valuables from the camp warehouses. This was not always successful but in Buchenwald it actually led to the camp administration turning over all of the posts previously held by the criminals to political prisoners - members of the underground. Prof. Dunin-Wasowicz was a member of the underground in KL Stutthof and in Against The Odds describes the role the organization played in providing additional food to the most needy prisoners which included a number of female Polish Home Army soldiers taken prisoner after the Warsaw Uprising.

The organisations also took a more aggressive stance in their fight against their oppressors in the way they tried to eliminate the informers which the camp Gestapo cell would use to try to identify members of the underground. In some camps this was so effective that once an informer was identified his fate was sealed and Against The Odds describes the methods used by the underground in this fight in detail.

Another way the prisoners tried to take the fight to the enemy was during the Thyphoid epidemic in Auschwitz when the organization devised ways to infect the camp guards with the disease. In Against The Odds Tadeusz Rybacki talks about his involvement in this attempt.

Lt. Jasinski

Eventually as the war continued and it started to become clear that the Germans were going to lose there appeared the possibility that the SS would exterminate the prisoners so as to eliminate the witnesses to their crimes. Thus, in case this took place the organizations began to prepare for uprisings. Of course any uprising could only be a last ditch effort as casualties would be horrenous as even if the prisoners did manage to take the camp over the vast majority of them were so weak that they could not hope to get away from the subsequent manhunt. However in a situation where the guards began exterminating the prisoners this would have been the only way to save at least some lives. Thus the prisoner organizations made their preparations and the Polish underground made plans on how to best use partisan units operating near the camp to assist in the fight. One of the Polish officers who took part in this was Lt. Jasinski, a Polish commando parachuted in from England. Unfortunately, wounded and captured during a patrol near Auschwitz he was imprisoned in that camp where he disappeared. Today only the engravings he made in a cell in the death block remain of this brave soldier.

The monument at the Sobibor death camp

However the feared mass exterminations did not take place as the camps were evacuated when Allied forces approached and in the end only two camp-wide rebellions took place. One was at the Sobibor death camp where the group of Jewish prisoners employed in running the camp realized that with the transports of Jews for extermination coming to an end they would soon be killed too. The prisoners thus rose up and fought their way out of the camp. Most were killed during the rebellion and the subsequent manhunt but some did survive with the help of Polish partisan units.

The other camp-wide rebellion took place at the Buchenwald camp. Here fortunately the prisoner casualties were low because most of the guards already fled and those who remained had no fight left in them. The prisoners actually liberated the whole camp just prior to the arrival of American troops.

Several smaller rebellions also took place in other camps and these were usually by the members of a penal company or the Jews working at the crematoriums and gas chambers - the Sonderkomando. Both the penal company and the Sonderkomando prisoners knew that they were shortly going to die so in desperation on several instances they fought their last stand so as to take a few of their oppressors with them.

Learn More About:

-Individual Resistance

-The Concentration Camps

-Capt. Pilecki and his secret mission to Auschwitz