Seventy-six years have passed, but few people have ever heard of Mann, even though she could easily have become a hero and a symbol. Perhaps her story sounds too far-fetched; perhaps it was simply shunted aside by the many other stories of heroism and horror in the Holocaust.
But on September 1, the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, Mann will return to center stage for a few hours. The Jerusalem Ballet will be staging the world premier of “Memento – Franceska Mann’s Last Dance at Auschwitz,” at the Suzanne Dellal Center, in her memory; a second performance will be held at the Jerusalem Theater on September 7.
There are a few versions of what occurred during the final moments in the life of Franceska Mann, a Jewish dancer living in Poland. Given that everyone who witnessed the incident, on October 23, 1943, is no longer alive, we will probably never know what really happened.
Mann, who was 26 at the time, arrived at Auschwitz that day on a transport of 1,800 so-called VIP prisoners from Poland in Germany, who had been lured into thinking they were en route to freedom as part of an exchange for German POWs ostensibly organized by the Allies. The Germans promised that Auschwitz was merely a stop on the way to Switzerland, but the women among the group soon found themselves being led to the gas chambers.
According to one version of events, Mann 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. The SS soldiers standing across from her didn’t know how to react. Mann exploited their confusion, took off one shoe and threw it hard at one of them, hitting him in the forehead; the soldier began to bleed and collapsed. Mann jumped on him, stole his weapon, and shot him to death. Two other Nazis were wounded by the gunfire.
Zakład fotograficzny: “Van – Dyck”
Another account described a Nazi officer standing in front of Mann and ordering her to strip completely. When she refused to remove her undergarments, he yelled at her. In response, she took off her bra, threw it in his face, and jumped on him. In the chaos that ensued, she managed to grab his pistol and shoot him.
The other women who were about to meet their death were apparently spurred to attack the SS men surrounding them. According to one version, the camp commander, Rudolf Höss, was even summoned to the scene. In any event, the women’s fate was sealed; many were shot to death on the spot and whoever survived was gassed.
The Nazi officer who was by all accounts shot to death in the incident was Josef Schillinger, a butcher in civilian life who had enlisted in the SS in 1939 and was dispatched to Auschwitz. There, he was in charge of the men’s kitchen at Birkenau and later of the Jews who arrived in transports at the train platforms and were sent to the crematoria. Eyewitnesses described Schillinger as a sadist, and he was mentioned in one of the testimonies at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel.