As the bloody conflict of World War II rages across Europe, those in command of a Nazi extermination camp send hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths. And when next to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a beautiful young woman is forced to undress. But rather than meekly comply, she decides to stand and fight – thus ensuring her place in the history books for generations to come.
On February 4, 1917, Franciszka Mann was born in the newly founded kingdom of Poland. At the time, much of Europe was still in the grip of World War I and, to further their control of the region, the emperors of Austria and Germany had ordered the country’s creation.
In the period of relative peace between the wars, however, Mann began studying dance at Irena Prusicka’s school in Warsaw. The institution was one of the biggest in the city at that time, and Mann soon made friends with singers and actresses who would go on to great things.
Among those friends were Wiera Gran, a low alto singer who performed at Paris’ famous Alhambra-Maurice Chevalier music hall, and Stefania Grodzieńska, an actress who would become renowned as the “First Lady of Polish Humor.” However, according to a contemporary source, it was Mann herself who was one of the brightest stars of her generation.
Indeed, in 1939, Mann had done well at a global dance contest in Brussels. Apparently, she was skilled at both modern and classical dance, and her beauty, too, was of great renown. Had she been born in a different era, she might well have had a great career.
However, that same year, Europe found itself caught up in another war. And the conflict would have a substantial impact on Mann’s life. While she had managed to capitalize on her obvious talent by performing at the Warsaw nightclub Melody Place, in German-occupied Poland her Jewish heritage meant that she was confined to a small section of the city.
At that time, the Nazis had begun forcing the Jewish residents of occupied cities into closed-off sections known as ghettos. Once there, they were kept as prisoners, often barred from leaving on pain of death. Throughout the course of the war, moreover, more than a thousand such areas were set up in eastern and central Europe.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of those created by the Nazis during World War II. At just 1.3 square miles, it was home to some 400,000 Jews. And for its inhabitants, life was grim, as they were forced to survive on little food and were crammed several people to a room.
However, life within the ghetto was better than what awaited outside. That was because, across Europe, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were grimly slaughtering all those who didn’t meet their ideals. For some six million Jews, this horrifying process would eventually end in death.
To this end, Nazi Germany began constructing concentration camps where it could house those whom it deemed to be undesirable. The first was built in Dachau, Germany, in 1933. Over the course of the war, moreover, another 23 major camps came into being across Europe.
Beginning in 1942, the Nazis started emptying Europe’s ghettos and sending the inhabitants to concentration camps. And for those who survived the grueling journey, an even worse fate was in store. The camps were hotbeds of starvation and disease, and many of them were stop-offs on the way to gas chambers, where Jews were slaughtered en masse.
And Mann, tragically, made the same journey as many millions of others. On October 23, 1943, she arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a camp near the town of Oswiecim in occupied Poland. Mann was among a group of 1,700 Polish Jews who had been informed that they were headed to Switzerland for a swap with Germans who were being held prisoner.
Sadly, that was a lie, and the group was instead taken by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although nobody knows for sure how Mann received the documents necessary for travel, it is thought that she obtained them through Warsaw’s infamous Hotel Polski.
That year, the hotel had become a temporary home for Jews with foreign citizenship documents and those who came to buy such papers, all of whom were waiting to leave Warsaw. They thought they would leave to begin new lives in South America. The scheme, however, was a trap, and the residents ended up in concentration camps.
On their arrival at the camp, meanwhile, Mann and her party were herded towards its gas chambers and ordered to undress. The Germans claimed that this was part of a necessary cleaning process before continuing their journey to Switzerland. However, the newcomers’ suspicions were aroused.
According to one eyewitness, Mann began to distract the guards by undressing in a provocative fashion. Then, while their attention was elsewhere, she wrestled a pistol away from its owner and opened fire. One officer, Josef Schillinger, would die of his wounds; she is also said to have shot a sergeant named Emmerich.
Unsurprisingly, violence erupted after Mann’s action, and the women began to riot. It’s not clear what exactly happened in the chaos, or whether any other Nazis were hurt, as some claimed, with talk of a scalping and a man losing his nose.
Sadly, though, the story had a tragic ending. When Rudolf Höss, the camp’s commander, arrived on the scene, he ordered the slaughter of the prisoners. Guards then soon brought the riot to an abrupt halt in a hail of gunfire. There were no survivors, and so Mann’s brave stand came to a bloody end.
However, her story lived on, and it has been told and retold many times over the years. It was even reprinted in various survivors’ accounts, including that of Filip Müller, the Slovak Jew who wrote 1979’s Eyewitness Auschwitz – Three Years in the Gas Chambers.
More recently, the tale of Mann’s defiance has reached a new audience as it echoes around the web. That’s despite the fact that interrogations of Nazis and others have told us only that Josef Schillinger was fatally shot by a woman at Auschwitz, with her name unconfirmed. Nevertheless, Mann’s legend is sure to remain a part of history for many years to come.