Franceska Mann: The Battling Ballerina of Birkenau

My thanks to Montreal burlesque performer Velma Cabriole for tipping me off about this incredible, inspiring, if ultimately grim story. It concerns Franceska Mann (Franciszka Manheimer, 1917-43), a Polish Jew who was considered one of the most promising dancers of her generation in her native country (and internationally as well — she placed 4th in an international dance competition in Brussels in 1939, beating out 120 other ballerinas). Mann had been a student of Irena Prusicka, one of the top dance instructors in Warsaw at the time. She was headlining at the Melody Palace nightclub in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi invasion.

Mann’s fame and prestige availed her nothing under the Nazi regime. She was one of 400,000 Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, suffering hunger and privation for months stretching into years. It is believed that she was one of the thousands tricked in the Hotel Polski Affair, a plot to get Polish Jews to come out from hiding by making them believe they could get transit to safe havens in the west, such as Switzerland.

Mann’s story ended spectacularly on October 23, 1943, in an event which has now passed into legend. There were multiple eyewitness accounts, sufficient to satisfy historians of the basic truth of what went down, although differences in minor details cloud the picture somewhat. On this date, Mann was one of a train full of Polish Jews that were unloaded at Auschwitz-Birkenau, believing it to be a transfer point en route to Switzerland. They were still dressed in their civilian clothes, that’s how hastily this incident went down. Immediately upon detraining, men and women were separated and marched toward undressing rooms to prepare for showers. The whole thing was so suspect that the people immediately smelled a rat. And this is where Franceska Mann went out in a blaze of glory. According to numerous accounts, Mann performed her disrobing as a beguiling burlesque style striptease, beckoning a confused SS guard to come closer to her. When he was in just the right spot, Mann removed one of her high heels — and attacked him in the face with it. She then removed his pistol from its holster and shot two guards, killing one, injuring another. The women around her also rose up and attacked guards, maiming at least a couple of them.

This moment of triumph was brief, naturally. All of the women were either shot to death on the spot, or subsequently gassed. But they hadn’t submitted tamely, and it all began with a dance, and that for me is the inspiration and the poetry of this moment, however hopeless their effort was. There are numerous articles about this event online; just search the name Franceska Mann.

To learn more about the variety arts, including continental cabaret and burlesque, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,