Auschwitz was the largest Nazi death camp, and by October 1944 it the only one still operating in Poland. Jewish Sonderkommandos (or special commandos) performed slave labor at Auschwitz, removing corpses from the gas chambers and burning them in crematoria ovens. These Sonderkommandos were killed every three months, both because the harsh work left them severely weakened and because the Nazis were unwilling to leave witnesses.

The Auschwitz Sonderkommandos planned an uprising with the help of Rosa Robata, a Polish Jew who worked at the Krupp Union ammunition factory at Auschwitz. It was she who smuggled explosives to the Sonderkommandos.

The uprising began on October 7, 1944. The Sonderkommandos killed an SS guard and blew up Crematorium Three at the Birkinau death camp. Some 500 prisoners tried to escape, unsuccessfully for the most part. SS troops quickly surrounded and killed the Sonderkommandos. The SS later tortured and hanged Rosa Robata and three Jewish women who helped her.

Another uprising took place at Treblinka, the second largest death camp. Led by Marcel Galewski, nearly two hundred prisoners escaped. Most were hunted down, but fifty survived the war. Years later, some of these fifty survivors testified at the war-crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, identified as Ivan the Terrible, a former Ukrainian camp guard at Auschwitz. Extradited from the United States in 1986, Demjanjuk was tried in Jerusalem and found guilty of murder, but his conviction was overturned by the Israel Supreme Court in 1993 because of doubts about his identity. Demjanjuk returned to the United States, but was deported to Germany in 2009, where he was charged with 27,900 counts of acting as an accessory to murder.