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Saturday July 16, 2011

Auschwitz saboteur, resistance hero persuaded to tell her story in moving memoir

Anna Heilman's life was a testament to finding joy and meaning after surviving the intolerable

Most of us lead lives that slop messily from one phase to the next. Not Anna Heilman, the Auschwitz saboteur and resistance hero. As a child she led a privileged cultured existence in Warsaw before the Germans began their maniacal march through Europe; as a teenager she fought for survival in the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz; as an adult, she settled in Israel, married, raised two daughters and moved to Canada, where she was employed as a social worker for the Children's Aid Society in Ottawa.

That's the way she wanted it, said her elder daughter Ariela Heilman in a telephone interview. "Her life was very much before and after, and that is the life she shared with me, her daughter - the joy of her life before the war - not the during." As for their own mother's heroism, it remained a mystery, until the three parts of Anna's life began to coalesce in 1988.

That's when her Auschwitz friend and protector Marta Cige (née Bindiger) came to Ottawa to persuade her to tell the full story of the Sonderkommando uprising at Auschwitz in 1944 and the heroic parts she and her sister had played. As slave labourers, Anna and her sister Esther (Estusia) had a higher degree of safety than the old, the infirm and the very young who were routinely killed on arrival at Auschwitz. They were willing to put that at risk as conspirators in a plot to destroy part of the Nazi killing machine because they assumed they would be killed eventually anyway. Why not, as Anna said later, "let us die for something, let us die with meaning."

The Sonderkommandos were the primarily Jewish prisoners who were forced to empty the corpses from the crematoria. They were planning an uprising in conjunction with Polish partisans outside the camp. When they heard, on the morning of Oct. 7, 1944, that they were about to be killed, they decided to act on their own. (The Sonderkommandos had better conditions than most inmates, but they were routinely killed and replaced with fresh arrivals from the transports in an attempt to keep direct news of the extermination program from reaching the outside world.)

They attacked the SS camp guards with axes, knives and homemade grenades, managing to damage one of the five crematoria and to kill three SS officers before they were overpowered. The reprisals were fast and brutal; hundreds of Sonderkommandos were summarily executed. In the aftermath, four female prisoners, Roza Robota, Ala Gertner, Regina Safirsztajn, and Anna's sister Estusia were betrayed, interrogated, tortured and condemned to be hanged before the assembled inmates. The deaths were brutal, but they were not in vain, for by partially destroying Crematorium IV they saved the lives of several hundred new arrivals.

What was intolerable to Anna was to survive while her beloved sister was executed. Waiting for the noose to be tightened around Estusia's neck overwhelmed her psychologically. Marta, her camp sister, persuaded the doctors to admit Anna to the infirmary under a pretense of illness so she was spared the sight of her sister's execution on Jan. 5, 1945, but not the sound of "the thud of drums, a groan from thousands of throats." Estusia's death was "the defining moment" of Anna's life, said her daughter. She never got the sound of that collective gasp out of her mind.

Thirteen days later, as the Soviets approached Warsaw, the Germans evacuated Auschwitz and forced the surviving inmates on a 700-kilometre death march in bitter winter conditions to Ravensbruck, north of Berlin, and then to Neustadt-Glewe where they were finally liberated and handed over to the Americans. Marta saved Anna's life during that march. She fed and washed her and often carried her along the tortuous route. Now she wanted something in return: a request that Anna, no matter how painful she found the past, couldn't refuse.

The story of one of the girls, Roza Robota, was known, but the parts that the other three women had played in smuggling gunpowder from the munitions factory where they worked had been forgotten. Marta cajoled Anna into joining a small group of other survivors from the munitions plant in lobbying for a monument to them to be erected at Yad Vashem in Israel.

Anna began to speak about her sister and her own role as a co-conspirator and in June, 1991, she and her family travelled to Israel for the unveiling of the monument. (There are now memorials in several places including Auschwitz, Ottawa and Washington.) But honouring her sister and the other victims was only part of disinterring the past.

One of Anna's sons-in-law, Sheldon Schwartz, persuaded her to dig out the diaries she had written from memory in a displaced person's camp in 1945 - the originals had been destroyed after a search at Auschwitz - and translate them for her children and grandchildren who don't speak Polish. They worked together for 10 years, she as writer and he as editor, on her memoir Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman. The book, which won the city of Ottawa Book Award in 2002, is dedicated to "Marta, who saved my life, and Sheldon, who saved my story." It is a fascinating narrative that imparts inspiring lessons about how to confront evil, but it is Anna's life which is the testament to finding meaning and joy after surviving the intolerable.

The middle of three daughters of Jacob and Rebecca Wajcblum, she was born in Warsaw on Dec. 31, 1928. Her parents, who were both deaf, he from an accident and she from scarlet fever, met as students at the Deaf-Mute Institute in Warsaw. After graduation, Jacob opened a factory, called Snycerpol, which employed deaf artisans from the school in the production of hand-carved wooden plates, animals and objects.

Sophisticated and well-travelled, the Wajcblums lived a comfortable life, went to the opera, attended synagogue on the High Holidays and sent their three daughters to a private all-girls Catholic school. Anna, a small child with curly black hair and a swarthy complexion, was conspicuous among all the blond blue-eyed girls in her class. She even washed her eyes with soap after another pupil complained about her "dirty" eyes. Her mother used to tease her, saying she had "stolen" Anna from a gypsy camp.

Whether she is describing her squabbles with her older sisters, Sabina (Saba) and Estusia, their appropriation of the patterned parquet floors in the dining room for hopscotch, or their explorations of Warsaw in furtive detours on the way home from school, Anna writes with cinematic detail, immediacy and a disarming candour.

As readers we know what is going to happen when Germany invades Poland in September, 1939, but Anna amplifies the horror by infusing the narrative with her child's perspective of the creeping deprivations and restrictions that destroy her family's comfortable life. Saba and her fiancé, Mieczyslaw Zielinskia, fled east to the Soviet Union, eventually making their way to Sweden where they survived the war. Anna's mother, as unbending as her tightly laced corset, refused to leave Warsaw. The other girls are expelled from school and her father comes home wiping tears from his "tortured" eyes and carrying the useless German receipt he has been given for his confiscated factory.

More than 60 years later, Anna still remembered how so many Poles collaborated with the Germans, giving the invaders a welcome "beyond their wildest dreams." As the persecution ramped up, Anna, unbeknownst to her parents, became an active member of a socialist Jewish group, in which members talked about Palestine, the Zionist movement and the value of life and death. "In retrospect," she writes, "there is no doubt in my mind that these discussions were the seeds for the future Warsaw uprising, when the conclusion was that death by resistance was preferable to death by slaughter." She carried that spirit of defiance, that unwillingness to die quietly, with her to Auschwitz.

Her family, encased in the Warsaw ghetto, eluded the early deportations to concentration camps, survived the Jewish insurgency, the brutal German reprisals, and were among the last to be rounded up and deported in May, 1943 to Majdanek, a concentration camp near Lublin, southeast of Warsaw. Nearly a third of the 170 people who were crammed into their cattle car without food or water, died during the two-day rail journey.

On arrival, Anna's parents were shunted aside and murdered by the SS; she and Estusia were stripped of their paltry possessions and sent to the women's barracks. In August they were transported to Auschwitz, where they were tattooed and registered. Anna's number was 48150, considered lucky because the digits added up to 18, which when coded to Hebrew letters, spelled chai, or life. And so it proved to be.

The girls - Anna was only 14 - slept eight to a slatted wooden bunk and were roughly roused for roll call and inspection in the early mornings, sent out on hard physical labour details all day, fed meagre rations, and returned to the barracks at night. By the following summer, the girls were assigned to the munitions factory at Auschwitz. The Germans, who were near defeat, were still intent on annihilating European Jewry, but their more pressing need was to force relatively healthy, robust and well-educated prisoners, such as Anna and Estusia, to power their faltering war machine.

That's when they hatched their plan to smuggle the gunpowder in tiny bits of cloth and paper out of the munitions factory. In the crackdown, Anna was questioned but not tortured and none of the other conspirators gave up her part in the uprising, which added to her survivor's guilt.

After the war ended, Anna went to Palestine, finished her education by acquiring her social work credentials and married Joshua Heilman, a Polish refugee, on March 7, 1947. She was 18 and had suffered enough for three lifetimes. With their daughters Ariela and Noa, the Heilmans travelled to the United States in the late 1950s and to Ottawa two years later after Joshua was offered a teaching job in a Hebrew school there. That's when Anna started working for the Children's Aid Society. None of her colleagues knew she was a survivor of Auschwitz let alone a resistance hero because she wore long sleeves to cover the tattoo on her left forearm.

All of that changed when Marta reappeared and persuaded her to reconnect with her past, her murdered parents and her executed sister. After Anna's memoir was published she appeared in the documentary film, Unlikely Heroes, as one of seven ordinary people who defied the Nazis, and she became a vocal and articulate witness about the Holocaust in general and the four murdered girls in particular.

Early this spring, the past caught up with her in a different way. While she was in the Auschwitz infirmary waiting for her sister's execution, somebody had given her a cigarette to calm her nerves; ironically smoking became a lifetime addiction and eventually precipitated her death from lung cancer at age 82 on May 1, 2011. Following Jewish custom, she was buried the next day, on the 66th anniversary of her liberation.

Anna Heilman leaves two daughters, four grandchildren and her sons-in-law.

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