Most dame stories are essentially happy stories. This one is not. This story talks about one of the worst, most cruel and heartbreaking periods in human history. But this horrific narrative did not crush the damery living inside so many women. In fact, it often illuminated it. Franceska Mann was one of those women.
Before the Nazis invaded Poland, Franceska Mann (born Lola Horowitz) was an accomplished prima ballerina. She placed fourth out of 125 in an international competition in 1939, and when things got increasingly unfriendly for Jews in the arts, she became a dancer at the Melody Palace nightclub in Warsaw. Mann was admired not only as a very beautiful and talented dancer, but for her determination and brains as well. All these qualities would play a role in the last few minutes of her life.
On October 23, 1943, twenty-six-year-old Franceska was part of a transport of nearly 2,000 prisoners brought from the Bergen-Belsen camp to in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were all under the impression they’d soon be free as part of an Allied exchange for German POWs. They were told Auschwitz was a pitstop on the way to Switzerland.
But the women among the group soon found themselves being led to the Nazi’s gas chambers. They were told they would first need to be stripped, cleaned, and registered. But the women were not registered; instead they were ushered into a room adjacent to the gas chambers and told to take off all their clothes. In the undressing room of Crematorium II, it became clear to Franceska that she and the others would not only not be set free, but they would not be leaving the building alive. Realizing that she and the others were headed to an ignoble, naked death, Franceska decided she would not go down without a fight.
We can’t be certain exactly what went down that day in October, but the story goes that as the women were separated from the men and thrust into a room and ordered to undress, Mann noticed two guards leering at them through the door. Facing death may have been new to the Polish dancer, but salacious men were not. The scared women had no weapons, no options, no hope. But Mann saw an opportunity and began undressing slowly, beckoning the officers into the room. She encouraged the other women to join her in enticing them by undressing slowly as well.
Men will be men, including Nazi officers, and Master Sergeant Josef Schillinger and Master Sergeant Wilhelm Emmerich were tempted into the room. Mann’s ‘man-chinations’ worked, and when the two men got within range, Franceska quickly pulled off her shoe and used it to hit Schillinger over the head. She then grabbed the gun from his holster and shot him twice in the stomach. A third shot hit the other officer’s leg.
Inspired by Franceska’s revolt, the other prisoners followed suit and attacked the two injured Nazis. It’s been been reported that “one of the officers had his nose torn off in the attack while the other was scalped by the angry mob.” The prisoners were outnumbered and out-Nazi-ed, and the sound of the revolt brought re-enforcements who turned on the gas chamber, trapping all the women inside the room. The remaining women were massacred with machine guns or taken outside to be executed.
Again, like 99% of stories that include the word “Nazis”, this one does not end happily. Yes these women died. But they did not go gently into that shitty night. They didn’t shuffle hopelessly into the waiting chamber. All these women went down swinging, and took Officer Schillinger with them. And Franceska Mann, determined to wrest her fate away from her captors, turned the gun she stole on herself. She literally took her life into her own hands. By doing so, she took something, and she owned something. And that thing was her life. She made her life her own, even in death.
There are probably countless unknown and untold stories of the strength and courage of women who faced and fought the Nazis. While we can’t know those stories and those women, we can have the story of Franceska Mann to represent all those dames who used their brains and bodies to fight the good fight. They refused to be told who they were, how to live, and in some cases, how to die.