Remarks delivered at the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, Sunday, April 19, 2015, on the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, edited for publication. The observance gave special prominence to the women in the Resistance, and included live music and two short documentary films.
LOS ANGELES – Earlier this week I had the honor to address a group of students at the University of Southern California’s Hillel Center. Most of them had been educated in Jewish day schools and had become bas and bar mitsve. Yet not a single one of those with whom I spoke had ever heard of the Resistance during the Holocaust. A single reference to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising made it appear as though it began and ended on the first night of Passover in 1943.
The women whom we honor today are twice denied their place in Jewish history: The Resistance does not appear in the consciousness of Jewish Americans and, as for the women, well, forget them.
Bear in mind that last Thursday was observed here and in Israel as “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” But when the day was established by the Israeli Knesset in 1953, it was named yom ha’zikaron la’shoah ve la’gvurah – the Day of Remembrance of Destruction and Heroism. In this country, even when the full Hebrew name is given, it is almost never translated in full. Yom ha’shoah and that’s it. Why is that so?
There is one answer that is frightening in its implications: that victimhood is more useful than heroism.
There is also another possibility: that the heroes – women and men – of the Jewish Resistance were, almost without exception, radicals of one kind or another: Socialist-Zionists, Bundists, Communists. In the second half of the 20th century, radicals were not “popular.” And popularity, acceptance, was what most Jews craved above all else in the second half of the 20th century.
Today, here, it is not popularity nor acceptance that we seek: it is memory. For it is in memory that we can find inspiration for our own times. It is the memory of those unsung heroines and heroes that can inspire us. We need to remember their courage, so that we can be courageous. We need to remember their deeds, so that we can be inspired to brave deeds of our own. And we need to remember the ideas and the ideals that inspired them. They dreamed of a world without hate and war. They dreamed of a world without exploitation and oppression. They dreamed of a world where children would grow up healthy and strong. We need to remember them. We need to be inspired by their courage to create the world for which they fought and died.
There are literally dozens of women whose stories we could relate and many of those stories are to be found in the archives in Warsaw and at Yad Vashem in Israel. Most are written in Yiddish. Too few Holocaust historians read Yiddish well, especially the handwritten notes written immediately after liberation. There is one outstanding exception: Yuri Suhl’s compilation of histories of resistance from all over Europe, from Belgium to Greece, that concentrates, of course, on the Eastern European centers of Jewish life and creativity: Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The book is They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe.
I have chosen just a few stories to recall – very briefly – in a few minutes.
In her memoir, in toyt un oyfshtand – “In Death and Uprising” – the ghetto fighter Tsivia Lubetkin writes of the young women who served as contacts, or “go-betweens,” connecting the ghetto and the Polish underground, as well as Jewish resistance groups across Poland:
“The women go-betweens were in danger at every turning. There was always the danger of a sudden raid, when the Germans would inspect every passenger and all their belongings. There was the danger of being caught and shipped off to a labor camp or a concentration camp. But the greatest danger was to be recognized as a Jewish woman. The Germans had their telltale signs: they would peer into the faces of passersby and if someone appeared extremely sad, they would immediately suspect her of being a Jew. So at the times of greatest tension, the women go-betweens had to show cheerful, laughing faces. Very often they found themselves at the very brink of death before they were able to carry out their missions. One after another, they fell into the hands of the Germans, and many were killed.
“I see before my eyes the image of Lonka Kozyebrodska…, who… when the war broke out…
came to us and declared: ‘I am prepared for anything and place myself in service to the Movement.’ “A pretty young girl, blond, with a gentile appearance, educated – she won the love of people and whoever came into contact with her loved and admired her. She fairly radiated youthful energy. But her most special attribute was her spirit. In addition to speaking Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew, with which she grew up at home, she mastered French and German at the university and also quickly learned English, Russian and Ukrainian. She knew no boundaries in her activity and there was no goal she was unable to reach.
“I remember that we would pack her valise and hide the dangerous materials in a hidden compartment, our hearts trembling at the thought: ‘Who knows what may await her?’ We were also worried about her parents. For months they would wait anxiously, fearing for the fate of their beloved daughter. Did we have the right to throw her continually into the face of countless dangers? Nevertheless, her parents never objected to her missions. To the contrary, they always strengthened her with their concern and love. Lonka would smile and cheer up both her parents and us: ‘Don’t worry, everything will be in order.’ She was certain about the justice of her deeds, her enthusiasm, her strong character and about her ability to quickly orient herself to the unexpected, and that she would carry out her missions successfully.”
Adina Blady Szwajger survived to write her autobiography, mer gedenk ikh nit: der varshever kinder shpitol un der yidisher vidershtand – “I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance.” She was responsible for saving the lives and sheltering two leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising after the Uprising ended – Marek Edelman and Yitskhak Tsukerman, known as Antek. Working with the Jewish Fighting Organization, she played a key role in helping other survivors live on the other side of the ghetto walls until the Red Army liberated Warsaw.
She was a blond, blue-eyed, married medical student when the war began. The medical school was closed. In March 1940 she began work as a nurse in the Jewish Children’s Hospital in the ghetto, which was finally sealed off from the rest of the city in November. Medicine and supplies – though scant – were smuggled in by ghetto children and the work crews that were taken out of the ghetto daily.
Adina caught typhus, recovered, and carried on. Not to break under this weight of grief, which was fresh every day as beloved patients died, was a matter of honor.
In that hellish place lay scores of children too sick to move, waiting to be thrown aboard the trucks or slaughtered on the spot by the Ukrainian guards. Adina took a flagon of morphine, went to the infants’ ward, and – one by one – assured that they would not be killed at the brutal hands of the enemy.
On January 25, 1943, Adina was assigned by Marek Edelman to leave the ghetto and become one of the couriers – the go-betweens – to serve as a contact between the Jewish Fighting Organization and the underground Polish Land Army. She became the doctor for other couriers and for Jews hiding on the “Aryan” side. She had to perform abortions on Jewish girls in hiding: The cries of newborn babies would have betrayed whole families.
“Little Wanda with the braids”
Finally, a story of a woman who is somewhat more familiar, even in the vast wasteland of ignorance about the Jewish Resistance. Part of her story – carefully redacted, of course – was even told in a film.
Niuta Taytlboym was born in 1917 or 1918 in Lodz, Poland. She belonged to the illegal Communist “Pioneer” children’s organization, and to the revolutionary youth organization, “Spartacus,” which led to her being expelled from several schools. In 1936 she began to study history at Warsaw University.
After the Nazis had driven the Jews into the ghetto, she escaped during the major liquidation action of 1942. Thereafter, she often returned to the ghetto as the contact of the Communist Polish Workers Party (PPR) and the “People’s Guard” resistance group. She brought arms, newspapers and information into the ghetto. She participated in many armed resistance acts against the Germans in Warsaw. There is this story told about her:
A young girl with pale, innocent eyes enters a German headquarters office. She wears a colorful peasant kerchief on her head, and two long blond braids hang down below her shoulders. There is a basket in her hand. She barely pauses at the entrance, declaring that she is there on a personal matter. Inside, a tall, broad-shouldered German with SS symbols on his uniform rises to his feet. He gazes in wonder at the girl and calls out, “Do you people also have a Lorelei?!” The girl takes a revolver from the basket, shoots him and walks out calmly.
The background of this encounter was doubtlessly the events of early 1943. “Wanda,” Niuta Taytlboym’s underground name, had shot three Gestapo agents who lived on Chmielna Street. One German survived. Niuta put on a doctor’s uniform and bravely entered the hospital, killing the police guard at the isolation ward and the surviving Gestapo agent.
The Gestapo called her “Little Wanda with the braids.” “They put a price on her head of 150,000 zlotys.
The day after the outbreak of the Ghetto Uprising, on the 20th of April, a detachment of the “People’s Guard” attacked a heavy machine gun squad that was firing from the ghetto wall on the ghetto fighters in the brushmakers’ district. They killed two German soldiers and two Polish policemen, then withdrew. Among that detachment of the “People’s Guard” was Niuta Taytlboym.
We live in a town that imposes our commercial culture on the world through film and television. We are awash in actual and aspiring writers for these mass media. How many exciting, action-driven films – complete with explosions and shootings – could be made from these and hundreds of other stories. And how much spirit, courage and inspiration could be stirred by such films and TV productions! To repeat what I said earlier, we need to remember the ideas and the ideals that inspired them. They dreamed of a world without hate and war. They dreamed of a world without exploitation and oppression. They dreamed of a world where children would grow up healthy and strong. We need to remember them. We need to be inspired by their courage to create the world for which they fought and died.
Photo: A group of Polish and Jewish Partisans in the Yanov Forests in Poland. Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation.