Franceska Mann and the myth of The Dancer of Auschwitz

Ballerina Franceska Mann became legend when she killed an SS guard on the way to the gas chamber. But who was she? And what does her mythologising truly tell us about life as a woman during the Holocaust

On October 23 1943, 26 year old ballerina, Franceska Mann, transformed. Overnight she became the stuff of legend. Not through her deft pointe work or an ovation worthy performance, but because of her death.

That dark October day, Franceska, along with 1,700 over Polish Jewish people was dragged off a transit train and pushed through the gates of Auschwitz. You don’t need me to tell you what a death sentence that was. Franceska knew the odds, knew her time was up and she refused to go quietly into the night.

Franceska Mann
Franceska Mann

Franceska Mann was exceptional. A dancer at a night club in Warsaw, she was known for her talent and beauty. It was this that caught the attention of two of Auschwitz’s SS guards, Josef Schillinger and Wilhelm Emmerich.

Along with a large group of women, Franceska was led to the undressing room next to the gas chamber and told to strip. As the women undressed, the SS Guards, including Schillinger and Emmerich watched, their gaze soon honing in on Franceska. She noticed them watching and looked them directly in the eye.

She lent down to take off her shoe and the men started to approach. Then quick as a flash, Franceska attacked, using her high heel to beat a guard down. Seizing his gun, she shot. Killing Josef Schillinger and wounding Wilhelm Emmerich.

As the other SS guards bore down on the vulnerable women, they followed Franceska’s lead and fought back with everything they had. One woman reportedly bit off a guard’s nose, as machine gun fire tore through the room.

It lasted minutes. If that.

Most of the women lay dead, those that weren’t were taken outside and shot.

But their story lived on.

Artists interpretation of Franceska Mann shooting Josef Schillinger
Artists interpretation of the shooting – not exactly accurate but you get the gist

Becoming a legend

The tale of Franceska Mann and the women that resisted spread like fire through the camp. It bought hope; the guards now knew there was the threat, however small, that the next time they struck, the prisoners might hit back. It was a grain of resistance and in this veritable hellscape, that was so needed!

Which is why Franceska’s story become mythologised. Feverishly passed around the prisoners, its details becoming blurrier and blurrier.

Soon enough, the story was that Franceska had performed a strip tease. Luring Schillinger and Emmerich towards her with a flash of thigh and seductively pulling her blouse away. Only when the two men were lulled into a sense of lusty security did she strike. Turning the tables on her abusers.

It’s this version of events that has prevailed. Through accounts of Auschwitz survivors and even those that were at camps miles away, yet had still heard the tale.

Though popular, many historians have agreed that this version is incredibly unlikely. Yes, there was an attack of Schillinger and Emmerich, but it’s highly unlikely it was precursor’d with some light stripping. It’s an embellishment and one we continue to glean onto.

But it’s not just the strip tease that’s been added on. There are arguments that it may not have been Franceska Mann, but another woman. In different tellings Francesca morphs into everything from a Greek dancer, to an actress and even a whole mob of women taking the guards down as a unit.

Though it’s now agreed it was most likely Franceska Mann who shot down Schillinger and Emmerich, it’s undoubtable that this incident took on a life of it’s own, becoming more fiction than fact.

BUT WHY?!? What’s with all this twisting and mythologising?

Well, the answer is simple and very bleak (this is the Holocaust after all).

Women in Auschwitz II, 1944
Women in Auschwitz II, 1944

Surviving sexual abuse

To understand the root of this ever twisting tale we need to talk about the sexual treatment of women during the Holocaust.

The Nazi’s kept virtually no records of the rape and sexual abuse that went on inside concentration camps, however we now know that it happened. And it did so with horrifying frequency.

To be in a concentration camp meant you were immediately stripped of your human rights, made more vulnerable than you could ever have believed. For women, this also meant they were vulnerable to sexual attack and abuse.

One of the most notorious abusers was Josef Schillinger. 

Schillenger was by all accounts sadistic beyond even SS standards. Teaming up with his mate Wilhelm Emmerich, to wreak all kinds of horror on the prisoners under his watch.

And if you were in any doubt whether or not both men were the literal worst, here’s a quote from Wieslaw Kielar (a polish resistance fighter also imprisoned at Auswitchz) about what led the pair to Franceska Mann and the other women on that fateful October night:

‘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, defenceless, undressed women, who moments later were to die a painful death in the gas chamber.’

So it’s understandable then that the news of Schillinger’s death was met with celebration, especially when prisoners found out a woman had killed him.

The vulnerable had become ferocious. They’d bitten back and shown that there was a price to pay for the abuse dealt out to them. To women living not only with the constant threat of death, but of sexual assault too, this was hope beyond hope.

It’s no wonder, that in the subsequent game of Auschwitz whispers, the tale of Francesca Mann was not only embellished, but tailored into countless shapes that could be clung onto by each woman. She was hero when one was needed most.

Which is why it’s so important that this is all remembered when we tell the story of Francesca Mann and her resistance. Because what made her a legend wasn’t just her act of bravery, but the desperate hopes of thousands of others. And none of those women should ever be forgotten.

Further reading: Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel. This book is incredible and really worth a read. Shedding light on this too often undiscussed chapter of history.

 

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The Edelweiss Pirates: the teens that bought down Hitler

Gertrude Koch wasn’t like other 17 year old girls. What with her living under Nazi rule in Cologne, Germany, during WW2, that’s not exactly surprising; after all, her days were spent recovering from the latest air raid and picking her way through bombed out streets.

But that wasn’t what made Gertrude stand out.

See, at night night Gertrude would risk her life to shelter allied soldiers and escaped prisoners. Yeah… not so normal.

Gertrude Koch
Don’t let the awkward teen visage fool you, she’s badass to the core

Together with other rebel teens, Gertrude rained anti-Hitler leaflets down from the roof of Colognes Train Station, helped break into food warehouses to feed the imprisoned and daubed anti-Nazi slogans on every building she could.

Gertrude was an Edelweiss Pirate and she and thousands of teenagers like her risked everything to tear down the Nazi regime in any way they could.

Yet the Edelweiss Pirates remained largely forgotten by history – until now…

Lets do this thing!

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Prepare yourself for some awesome forgotten history

In the late 1930s bands of teenage resistence groups sprang up throughout Germany.

Created by teenagers who wanted nothing to do with the Hitler Youth or League of German Girls; they called themselves, The Edelweiss Pirates (which btw is a way better name than Hitler Youth!)

Almost all were working class. These teens worked in factories and mills in the day, then as soon as their shift was over they’d don their metal Edelweiss pins and head to the hills to frolic with their mates.

Now this may sound super wholesome… but it was also super illegal.

You see outside of the state sanctioned youth groups, it was illegal for teens to go outside set zones within their regions.

It was a ridiculous law and the pirates happily stuck two fingers up to it, proudly heading off on hikes, carrying guitars so they could sing anti-Nazi songs round the campfire.

The Edelwiess Pirates .jpg
I present the definition of no fucks being given.

As the Nazi regime grew, so did the law breaking pursuits of the Edelweiss Pirates.

They were soon painting buildings with anti-Nazi slogans, jokes and messages. One official reported:

‘These youths who have been inscribing the walls with the slogans “Down with Hitler”, “The OKW (Oberkommande des Wehrmacht) is lying”, “Down with Nazi brutality”.

Unsurprisingly the Nazis (not known as history’s fun-sters) wanted to crush the troublemaking teens.

Edelweiss Pirates were quickly rounded up by police; then they had their heads shaved and were thrown in prison.

But of course… that didn’t stop them.

Edielwess Pirates with guitars
‘Oh these? These are our about to fuck shit up short shorts’

As the war ramped up so did the Pirates.

They were now giving shelter to escaped prisoners of war, Jewish people, and even allied troops.

They didn’t stop there.

The Edelweiss Pirates started to militarise themselves and within months they were running armed raids on Nazi bases for the supplies needed to distribute food and aid.

Soon they were planning missions to destroy Nazi weapons and attack Gestapo bases.

You can imagine how happy the Nazis were about this…

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Yeeeeah… just to reiterate: The Nazis. Not histories most chill guys

In one night in 1942, over 1000 Edelweiss Pirates were arrested by the Gestapo.

Gertrude Kloch was one of them. Aged just 17 she was roughly interrogated and thrown into prison.

She was lucky.

The Pirates has proven themselves to be an unceasing thorn in the regimes side and the Nazis weren’t shitting around anymore.

In 1944, 12 teens and young men were publicly hung in Cologne; at least 6 were Edelweiss Pirates.

Anecdotal evidence from former pirates suggest that many more were executed without trial, their deaths never recorded. Edielwiess Pirates

Yet, despite the deaths in their ranks, the Edelweiss Pirates never stopped.

They steadfastly remained a constant pain in Hitlers arse, right until the end of the war.

cheering.gif
Seriously. These kids – just the best god damn teens in history

After the war, the Pirates refused to take the allied side. The only thing they wanted to do with their new occupying authority was to work out a patrolling rota so they could go back to keeping their local streets safe.

See, the pirates weren’t interested in backing one allied authority over another.

They warned against making things about politics again; understandable since last time Germany had done that… you know… Hitler happened.

Sadly, however reasonable the Pirates argument, the allies were not having it.

They shunned the pirates and as such, didn’t remove their previous criminal records (from the Nazi regime) which meant any pirates with criminal records from this period remained ‘war criminals’

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Yeah… don’t try to look for logic in that

It would be literal decades until the Edelweiss Pirates had their criminal records wiped and were officially (AND FINALLY) recognised as resistance fighters (this happened in 2005 for you date lovers)

Sadly many Pirates weren’t there to see their names cleared.

but 81 year old Gertrude Koch was.

Sure, Gertrude was happy to finally have the recognition the Edelweiss Pirates deserved… but she hadn’t lost her fighting spirit. So she stood up and declared to the awaiting press:

‘We were from the working classes. That is the main reason why we have only now been recognised’ 

which ya know … true

Gertrude then picked up a guitar and headed off to join Colognes surviving Edelweiss Pirates as they proudly sang their anti-Nazi anthems once more.

Surviving Edelwiess Pirates .jpg
The last of Colognes Pirates in 2005, singing anti-nazi songs after being officially being declared resistance fighters. By 2016, Gertrude was the last surviving member of the group. She died that year, aged 92… of course one of the last things she did was recount her badass days as a pirate to a journalist, so that the Edelweiss Pirates could live on.
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