The extraordinary story of Jewish ballerina who gunned down SS beast before being murdered
Franceska Mann was 26 years old when she arrived at Auschwitz from Bergen-Belsen on a transport with 1,800 other Jews.
Unusually, the group had travelled not in the normal sealed goods wagons but in regular passenger carriages as this was not an ordinary transport.
Mann was part of a small group of Jews who had been tricked by the Germans in what is known as the Hotel Polski Affair into paying huge sums to obtain foreign passports that they were told would give them safe passage to South America.
As part of the ruse, her group was told 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. In fact they were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed.
Filip Müller, a Slovak Jew and member of the Sonderkommando working in the crematorium, recalled in his book ‘Eyewitness Auschwitz – Three Years in the Gas Chambers’ that the new arrivals were assembled in the yard outside crematorium.
In his account, an SS officer acting as a representative of the German Foreign Ministry told them that this was their last stop before their departure for Switzerland. They were taken into a undressing room next to the gas chamber and ordered to undress for disinfecting.
Most of the arrivals who had already undressed were hurriedly herded into the gas chamber. The others, including Mann, became suspicious and were hesitant to undress.
What happened next in the cold concrete undressing chamber breaks all the stereotypes of Jews marching like sheep to their own deaths. In one account two SS guards, Walter Quackernack and Josef Schillinger, were suddenly attracted by a strikingly beautiful woman with jet black hair who was taking off one of her shoes.
Mann is said to have undressed slowly, using seductive dance movements. First she lifted her skirt. Then she removed her blouse, and leaned against a pole to remove her high heels.
As the guards approached, she then grabbed her shoe and thrust the heel violently against either Quackernack's or Schillinger’s forehead. As one of the guards took their service revolver from its holster, Mann grabbed it and fired two shots into Schillinger’s stomach.
Another account says that the shots served as a signal for the other women to attack the SS guards; one SS man had his nose torn off, and another was scalped.
The women were locked in the crematorium and reinforcements were summoned and the camp commander, Rudolf Höss, came with other SS men carrying machine guns and grenades.
Reports vary as to what happened next. Some say that the women were removed one by one, taken outside and shot, others say that the SS gunned down all the women there and then in the undressing room, while others say they were all forced inside the gas chamber and gassed to death.
What is certain though is that Josef Schillinger died of his wounds and all the women were murdered.
Although the Germans were thorough in destroying a lot of camp records in order hide their crimes, we know from German sources that an incident largely matching the one described took place.
Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss, after his arrest, described an incident that occurred on October 23, 1943 when a group of prisoners from Bergen-Belsen was sent to Birkenau to be gassed: “One transport from Belsen arrived, approximately two-thirds, mostly men were in the gas- chamber, the remaining third was in the undressing room. When three or four armed SS guards entered the dressing room to hasten the undressing, mutiny broke out.
“The light cables were torn down, the SS men were overpowered, one of them was stabbed and all of them were robbed of their weapons. As this room was in complete darkness wild shooting started between the guard near the exit door and the prisoners inside.
“When I arrived I ordered the doors to be shut and I had the process of gassing the first party finished and then went into the room together with the guard carrying small searchlights, pushing the prisoners into a corner from where they were taken out singly into another room of the crematorium and shot, by my order, with small calibre weapons.”
The killing of Schillinger and the ensuing revolt would have shaken the camp authorities to the core. The whole procedure for processing arrivals was designed at every point to ensure that panic did not break out.
Schillinger himself had been a butcher in civilian life and enlisted in the SS in 1939. He was in charge of the men’s kitchen at Birkenau and was known and feared among prisoners for his sadistic beatings. He later supervised the arrival of Jews in transports at the train platforms and their gassing in the crematoria.
His death at the hands of a woman is corroborated by testimony given at the trail in Israel of chief Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann.
The witness Dr Aharon Beilin, a Jewish doctor from Białystok and a prisoner at Auschwitz, said under oath: “Schillinger told the women to undress, and one woman said she did not undress in front of men. In consequence of this he raised his whip, his cane - he always walked around with a cane - and he wanted to strike her.
“At this point, she drew a revolver and killed him with one shot. From the time we received this information Schillinger never appeared in the camp, naturally, because he had been killed.”
But was it in fact Franceska Mann who used seduction as a weapon to make the SS-men drop their guard for a moment? As with the other details of the story, certainty is a precious commodity.
Adding doubt to the Mann theory is the report of a 33-year-old Polish timber merchant and Auschwitz prisoner, who told British intelligence in May 1945 that a guard named Schillinger had been “shot dead with his own revolver by a French Jewish actress who had already been stripped naked and was about to be gassed”.
Whoever actually pulled the trigger, news of Schillinger’s death at the hands of a woman had an electrifying effects on inmates at the camp.
Auschwitz survivor Wieslaw Kielar stated in his memoir, ‘Anus Mundi: Five Years in Auschwitz’: “The incident passed from mouth and embellished in various ways grew into a legend. Without doubt, this heroic deed by a weak woman in the face of certain death, gave moral support to every prisoner. We realized all at once that if we dared raise a hand against them, that hand might kill; they were mortal, too.”