On October 23, 1943, Polish Jewish ballerina Franceska Mann died at the Auschwitz concentration camp after initiating an uprising among female Jewish prisoners and killing the SS officer, Josef Schillinger.
A young dancer residing in Warsaw before the Second World War, Franceska Mann was considered one of the most beautiful and promising dancers of her generation in Poland. After the outbreak of the war, Mann started working as a performer at the Melody Palace nightclub in Warsaw,
Following the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, Franceska Mann is believed to have been among those wealthy Jews who were tricked by the Germans into believing that they could pay to obtain foreign passports and be given safe passage to South America in what came to be known as the Hotel Polski Affair.
Mann and 1,800 other Jews who had come out of hiding left the hotel and boarded an ordinary train believing that they were being taken to a transfer camp near Dresden, from which they would continue on to Switzerland to be exchanged for German POWs. Little did they know that they were in fact being taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland to be gassed.
The new arrivals were immediatly told that they had to be disinfected and cleaned before crossing the border into Switzerland, and were taken into the undressing room next to the gas chamber and ordered to undress.
According to some accounts, Franceska Mann became suspicious and is said to have began undressing slowly and seductively to distract the SS officers present, even leaning against a pole to remove her high heels. And as the guards approached, she took off her shoes and threw it hard at one of them, hitting him in the forehead. She then picked up his pistol and shot another guard, SS Josef Shillinger, twice in the stomach.
According to another account, Mann simply refused to strip completely, jumped on the SS officer and, in the chaos that ensued, managed to grab his pistol and shoot him. Her shots then served as a signal for the hundred of desperate women who attacked the dozens of guards.
Reinforcements were summoned, camp commander, Rudolf Höss, came rushing in with other SS solidiers armed with machine guns and grenades, and they gunned down all the women there and then in the undressing room. Other reports claim that they were all forced inside the gas chamber and gassed to death.
While Schillinger died the same day on his way to the hospital, some claim Franceska Mann took her own life with the stolen pistol. But given that everyone who witnessed the incident is no longer alive, we will probably never know what really happened.
But like all great legends, Mann’s story lived on in fiction. Arnošt Lustig’s 1964 novel A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova, adapted into a movie in 1965, centers around a young dancer held to ransom by the German authorities in wartime Italy. Realizing she would die after all, she shoots her captors at the gas chamber door.
Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski’s novel This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen includes the short story The Death of Schillinger, in which the guard is similarly outsmarted by an attractive woman and shot in the stomach with his own gun.
Found guilty of being responsible for the death of three and a half million Jews before the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, Rudolf Höss was executed by hanging in 1947 in the same death camp he had commanded – in Auschwitz.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.