Sonia Olschanezky

Sonia Olschanezky

Sonya Olschanezky was born in Chemnitz, on 25th December, 1923. The daughter of a Russian Jew, Eli Olschanezky, although trained as a chemical engineer worked as a sales representative for a manufacture of ladies' stockings. He did well and in 1926 was asked to move to Romania where he took charge of a factory making silk stockings in Bucharest.

When Sonya was seven years old the family moved to France and her father opened a lingerie shop in Paris. Sonya was a good student but her main ambition was to become a dancer. After leaving school she worked as a au pair.

In May 1940 France was invaded by the German Army. It was not long before Sonya had joined the French Resistance and stationed in Châlons-sur-Marne spent her time carrying messages between Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents in the area.

After the French surrendered the new leader, Henri-Philippe Petain, cooperated in the persecution of the Jews in the country. In May 1942, orders were given for all Jewish men, women and children were ordered to wear a six-pointed yellow star on their clothing over the region of the heart. The following month Sonya was arrested and sent to a camp at Drancy where she awaited being sent to an extermination camp in Nazi Germany.

When her mother heard the news she contacted friends in Germany who managed to produce false papers that stated that she had "economically valuable skills" needed for the war effort. On the production of the false papers and the payment of a sum of money to the appropriate German official, Sonya was freed.

After her release Sonya returned to her resistance work and in 1943 joined the Prosper Network that included Andrée Borrel, Francis Suttill and Gilbert Norman. The network was betrayed and most of its leading members were arrested. Sonya remained free until being captured in January 1944. After being interrogated by the Gestapo she and imprisoned at Fresnes.

On 13th May 1944 the Germans transported Sonya and seven other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Madeleine Damerment, Odette Sansom, Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Vera Leigh, to Nazi Germany.

On 6th July 1944, Sonya along with Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Vera Leigh, were taken to the Concentration Camp at Natzweiler. Later that day they were injected with phenol and put in the crematorium furnace.

Primary Sources

(1) On 13th May 1944, Odette Sansom was moved by the Gestapo from France to Germany with Sonya Olschanezky, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beckman, Madeleine Damerment, Elaine Flewman, Diana Rowden, and Andrée Borrel. She was interviewed about these experiences by Rita Kramer for her book Flames in the Field.

We travelled from Paris to Germany together. We did not know each other before. We all did our training at different times, we all went to France at different times. I had never seen the others at Fresnes, although I heard the voice of one of them once. They were not in a solitary cell like mine and they were able to communicate a little with people outside through the top of their windows. We met for the first time in the Avenue Foch.

It was a lovely hot day, a beautiful day. And the Avenue Foch is beautiful, and the house where we were was a beautiful house. I remember little things. One of the girls had a lipstick and we all used it, passed it around and put it on. It was quite a treat. We were young women, after all. And we talked and talked and talked, of course. We talked about when we were captured, and what this one thought about it, what that other one had to say about it. I remember what one of them said because I had the same feelings. She and I, we had a feeling that something had been wrong. The others thought they had been captured because of the work they were doing or the people they were with. She had the feeling, because she had been arrested as soon as she arrived in France, that there was an informant. And I did too.

We were all young, we were all different, but we all had the feeling in the beginning that we were going to be - helpful. That was why we went into it. And to have impressed the people around them as they did is almost enough. They impressed everyone - the Germans, their guards. They behaved extremely well, those women.

Everybody tried to be a little braver than they felt. All of us had a moment of weakness, we did all cry together at one moment, there were a few tears, but after all it was a lovely spring day in Paris. Riding in the van from the Avenue Foch to the station we could get a glimpse of what was going on in Paris, people sitting on the terraces of cafes drinking their ersatz coffee or whatever. I was looking forward to the trip. I had spent a year alone in my cell and I thought. Now I am going to be with these other women.

On the train we were handcuffed, each one of us handcuffed to somebody else, so we were not free to move around or anything, but we did not look absolutely miserable. No, we made the best of it. I remember one of them even asked a guard for a cigarette, and he gave her one.

We were frightened deep down, all of us. We were wondering what was the next thing, a normal thing to ask yourself in those circumstances. Were we going straight to our death, were we going to a camp, were we going to a prison, were we going to - what? We couldn't not think of those things. Our only hope was maybe to be together somewhere.

(2) Brian Stonehouse was at the concentration camp at Natzweiler when Sonya Olschanezky, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and Andrée Borrel, arrived on 6th April 1944. He described her in a statement he made to a military court in 1946.

There was one tall girl (Andrée Borel) with very fair heavy hair. I could see that it was not its natural colour as the roots of her hair were dark. She was wearing a black coat, French wooden-soled shoes and was carrying a fur coat on her arm. Another girl (Sonya Olschanezky) had very black oily hair, and wore stockings, aged about twenty to twenty-five years, was short and was wearing a tweed coat and skirt. A third girl (Diana Rowden) was middle height, rather stocky, with shortish fair hair tied with a multi-coloured ribbon, aged about twenty-eight. She was wearing a grey flannel short 'finger tip' length swagger coat with a grey skirt which I remember thinking looked very English. The fourth woman (Vera Leigh) of the party was wearing a brownish tweed coat and skirt. She was more petite than the blonde in grey and older, having shortish brown hair. None of the four women were wearing make-up and all were looking pale and tired.

(3) Franz Berg, was a stoker a the Natzweiler Crematorium Furnace. He testified against Peter Straub, the camp executioner, during his trial in 1946.

Peter Straub told me to have the crematorium oven heated to its maximum by nine-thirty and then to disappear. He told me also that the doctor was going to come down and give some injections. I knew what this meant. At nine-thirty that night I was still stoking the fire of the crematorium oven when Peter Straub came in, followed by the SS doctor, who had come with Hartjenstein (the camp commandant) from Auschwitz.

I saw the four women going to the crematorium, one after another. One went, and two or three minutes later another went. The next morning the German prisoner in charge of the crematorium explained to me that each time the door of the oven was opened the flames came out of the chimney and that meant a body had been put in the oven. I saw the flames four times.

(4) A prisoner at Natzweiler overheard the killing of Sonya Olschanezky, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and Andrée Borrel and later told what he heard.

They were bringing a woman along the corridor. We heard low voices in the next room and then the noise of a body being dragged along the floor, and he whispered to me that he could see people dragging something on the floor which was below his angle of vision through the fanlight. At the same time that the body was brought past we heard the noise of heavy breathing and low groaning combined. Again and again we heard the same noises and regular groans as the insensible women were dragged away.

The fourth, however, resisted in the corridor. I heard her say Tourquoi?' and I heard a voice which I recognized as that of the doctor who was in civilian clothes say 'Pour typhus.' We then heard the noise of a struggle and the muffled cries of the woman. I assumed that someone held a hand over her mouth. I heard this woman being dragged away too. She was groaning louder than the others.

From the noise of the crematorium oven doors which I heard, I can state definitely that in each case the groaning women were placed immediately in the crematorium oven. When (the officials) had gone, we went to the crematorium oven, opened the door and saw that there were four blackened bodies within. Next morning in the course of my duties I had to clear the ashes out of the crematorium oven. I found a pink woman's stocking garter on the floor near the oven.

(5) Peter Straub, the camp executioner, later told Walter Schultz, about the killing of the four women.

He was very drunk on that day, and I put a direct question to him as to what had happened to the women, because on the next morning it was talked about in the camp that they were dead, and Straub told me that he had been for a long time in Auschwitz but had never seen such a thing before; he just said, "I am finished".

The women were told to undress in front of the doctor. They refused. Then it was said that they were going to be inoculated and they asked why, and then it was said it was against typhus, and then they laid bare their arms and were inoculated. They were taken singly into the room where they were inoculated, and they were taken back singly to where they had come from. As the second was taken back to the place, the first one was already in a kind of stupor.

He said they were finished. They were stiff, but the word "dead" was not mentioned. The fourth woman as she was being put into the oven regained consciousness. He showed me a few scratches on his face and said, "There, you can see how she scratched me. Look how she defended herself."

(6) (6) Hartley Shawcross attended the trial of the men charged with killing Sonya Olschanezky, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and Andrée Borrel.

The fearful cremations at Natzweiler had their counterpart a thousand times at Auschwitz. Hoess told us, 'The foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.'

I do not recall these grim matters of the past for mere morbidity. I mention them as a reminder that the men convicted of the murder of Miss Andree Borrell, F.A.N.Y.; Section Officer Diana Rowden, W.A.A.F.; Miss Vera Leigh, F.A.N.Y., and another gallant woman, were not isolated, exceptional killings. These crimes were not sporadic or isolated, depending on the brutality of some individual sadist. They were a part of that system which arises when the totalitarian state submerges the fundamental right and destroys the dignity of man. Month by month, day after day, killings like these went on by the thousand all over Europe.

But the mind which is lastingly impressed and shocked by a single crime staggers and reels at the contemplation of mass criminality: becomes almost impervious to horror, conditioned against shock. And as events recede into the past, those who did not themselves experience them begin to question whether these things could indeed have happened and wonder whether the stories about them are really more than the propaganda of enemies.