Women and the Warsaw Ghetto: A Moment to Decide
Marjorie Wall Bingham
There is a striking difference between the photographs of women in the Warsaw Ghetto as they appear in books and on websites and the written descriptions of women in memoirs and histories. Visually, the women appear frightened, passive, often in a state of surrender. And no wonder, since the photographers were Germans documenting their version of the defeat of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising. But in written sources, women appear decisive, constantly devising strategies for living, as Halina Birenbaum put it, "where death had its hands full." 1 Irene Sendler, a Christian who knew the Ghetto well, wrote, "Every day, every hour, every minute of the long years spent in that hell was a battle."2 "Every five minutes," Helen Foxman remembered, "there was something else." 3
Reading the memoirs, I was reminded of that nineteenth century hymn with lyrics by James Russell Lowell. "Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side…." Lowell was, of course, protesting the 1848 Mexican War and the expansion of slavery, a defining moment of conscience for many Americans. In the Warsaw Ghetto, however, there was often not one defining moment, but many and these often signaled fundamental values of who you were. Jewish resistance leader Yitzhak Zuckerman wrote, "Sometimes you learned about a person in a single moment as if he were illuminated in a single flash."4
These decisions may be organized in three ways: 1) measured decisions, thought about but eventually forcing choice; 2) role-playing decisions which fit the persona being played; and 3) spontaneous decisions, the "single flash" that Zuckerman described. Yet it was not only Jewish Polish women who had to make choices in the ghetto. The late Stephen Feinstein, of the University of Minnesota Holocaust and Genocide Center, urged me to include non-Jewish Polish women in this essay. Members of the Polish underground group AK (Armeia Krajowa) had a subgroup designed to aid Jews, Zegota.5 For its members, the era also meant a testing of conscience, opportunity, and resourcefulness.
Why the Warsaw Ghetto and not others—Vilna, Krakow, Lodz? Warsaw was the largest ghetto, at the beginning holding about 400,000 Jews, with an increasingly more diverse population as German Jews and Gypsies, Dutch, Greek, Romanian, Hungarian, Russian, and near by Polish Jews moved into the city. It was also a place where Russian, German, Austrian, Ukrainian, Latvian, Italian, and British military forces played parts in Warsaw's fate. Within the ghetto itself, in its early day from 1940 to 1942, some twenty or more newsletters circulated from different Jewish groups. Israel Gutman, a resistance member and later historian, wrote that "Warsaw symbolized all that was both sublime and tragic during the war—and the ghetto was the heart of the tragedy." 6 And women, as Gutman knew, were an important part of it all.
Each day presented measured decisions, a bit, Leah Silberstein said later, "like playing Russian roulette." 7 Just take the daily task of going for bread. Who went to get it? If men went, they were often subjected to physical harassment or forced labor. In the beginning, at least, women chose to go, protecting the men, trying to obtain the meager rations allotted (Jews one/tenth that of Germans) or to find smuggled goods. What could be taken to bargain with smugglers; what would a fair price be? Should the women of the family try to smuggle through the walls or send their children on such dangerous missions? Or even to steal? One desperate mother beat her son on the street because he did not learn to steal bread from passers-by. 8
By 1942, squads of German and Jewish policemen tried to fulfill deportation quotas of people to send from Warsaw to Treblinka, a death camp. Women and children became increasingly vulnerable to attack and the major question each morning became "What is it like out today?"9 As Naran Zelichower put it, "Danger could swoop down like a hawk." 10 So a woman had to chose her route carefully. A particularly sadistic German nicknamed "Frankenstein" controlled a narrow passage between parts of the ghetto. He delighted in killing people or wounding them to watch them bleed to death. Another consideration in planning a route was the likelihood of meeting beggars who might steal or stretch the limits of compassion. Uri Orlev remembered his mother refusing to go out into the street because "she couldn't stand the sight of all those children begging for bread when she had none to give them."11 Sandra Brand found "I was riddled with guilt," passing starving people because her family tradition was one of charity. 12 The family member sent for bread had to be the one strong enough to resist robbery or sympathy.
Once the food was securely home, mothers had to decide how the bread was divided. Some crusts, particularly in the early days of the ghetto, might be set aside to pay for a son's tutoring or for concerts or plays. As the starvation diet became more severe, mothers had to decide where to hide food and how to divide it. Many mothers were reported as diminishing their portion so their children could get more. Her healthful activity, however, was often the center of the family's survival, so the choice was hard. Perhaps one of the most poignant descriptions of an attempt to keep others alive is the small beggar girl who, given a small dried fish, broke it in two to give part to the sickly baby she held in her arms. 13 In the early days of the ghetto, there were less heartbreaking choices. Women were involved in soup kitchens for the poor, nursing school, theatricals, children's education, painting, and poetry. The building of a wall around the ghetto, the bringing in of non-Warsaw Jews, the decreased chances for smuggling, and a terrible typhus epidemic increased the vulnerability of a "wrong" decision.
Beside daily decisions, there were also long range measured ones. One major question was whether or not to try to escape from the ghetto. There were limited choices in early 1940. Poland, after its defeat by Germany, had been split between Germany and the Soviet Union. Many Jews left western Poland to go to the Soviet east where, in theory at least, Jews would not face discriminatory laws. One Warsaw woman, Wanda Wasileska, for example, escaped to the Soviets, became a Red Army colonel, and had the ear (some say the bed) of Stalin on Polish issues.14 Reports, however, came back of Soviet confiscation of property and the deportation of thousands of Jews who, by refusing Soviet citizenship, were sent to Siberia and Central Asia. Conditions were so unstable in the USSR zone of Poland that, when given a brief chance, 70,000 Jews signed up to go back to Warsaw. 15 Religious mothers, fearing Soviet "godlessness," were often reluctant to take their daughters to Russia. Later, standing in a selection line for deportation, Stefania Staszewska's mother told her, " Yes, Stefcia, you were right. All we needed was a backpack and some good shoes, and we could have saved ourselves back in 1939 and gone to Russia. But we stayed and took our chance in this terrible lottery." 16 So many Poles died in Soviet cattle cars carrying them to Siberia, however, that, as one Zionist leader put it, it was only a choice "between a death sentence and life imprisonment."17
Others, particularly younger, single Jewish women, might choose to go to Germany—which may seem an unlikely choice. With fairly Aryan Polish looking features, a woman might volunteer as one of the 1.6 million Poles acting as laborers in Germany. For men, a physical examination might reveal circumsion and therefore such labor was not generally an option. As conditions in the ghetto worsened, women would even accept the harsh conditions of war munition plants, field labor, or domestic service in increasingly bomb torn Germany.18 A few lucked out and were maids in luxury hotels and passed a tense, relatively well-provisioned war.
The most likely option for escape from the ghetto was going over to the non-Jewish side of Warsaw. Yet this choice had to be weighed against many considerations. What were her chances of survival from the blackmailers and Poles of German descent who made money off of escaped Jews? First, did she have an Aryan appearance? If Jewish looking, where could she find a hiding place as opposed to living openly as a Pole? Who could be trusted to hide her—friends, receivers of money, or underground contacts? How would other family members react? Women in the family supported Mary Berg's decision to leave, but male members and her boy friend tried to stop her from going. 19 Sandra Brand was told by her brother that she was "selfish" to leave. 20 Others, even when friends offered assistance, chose not leave their families or, as in the case of Ewa Rechtman, felt "I can't endanger you like that."21 No one expected life to be easy outside the ghetto, but Alicia said her departure was "as if I was on a train and I was going to jump off."22
If the woman herself did not chose to leave the ghetto, what about sending a child of the family? For Vladka Meed, a resistance courier, there was no sight more heartbreaking than the tears of mothers who entrusted their children to her to take them away. 23 Much went into such decisions. For some, religion was the primary consideration. Helena Szevszcusha was told by one woman "I'd rather see him among the dead than see him betray his religion."24 Another woman held different views, "I would rather have her become German than go to death at Treblinka." 25 If the child were given up, there were no absolute guarantees of well-being or of being raised as a Jew. The child, just to pass in a non-Jewish world, would need to learn Catholic prayers and proper church behavior.
There is little evidence in the memoirs that the mother's own survival played a decisive part in sending the child outside the ghetto. But it was the case that a woman with a child at selections was generally doomed. Children almost always went with the mother, not the father, so she would be the parent immediately taken to the gas chambers at Treblinka. Most mothers stayed with their children, but not all. One of the doctors in the ghetto went to the deportation point after the trains left to collect children abandoned by their mothers. 26 Some may have been hidden by their mothers, but others were deliberately abandoned. Grandmothers offered to take children to save their daughters since women over 35 or 40 were generally sent to the doomed side. Children, aware of the fates involved, would try to separate themselves from their mothers to save them. In one case, bystanders watched heartbroken as a ten-year-old boy tried to run away from his mother to save her. Even though a guard tried to hold her back, she still ran after her son.27 They were both sent to Treblinka. The bond between mother and child was thus often tragic. Mrs. Igdal refused to send her daughter with rescuers, despite an opportunity. "What happens to me, will happen to my child," she said. Both were caught in the deportations. 28
For young, unmarried Jewish women one of the major choices was whether or not to join the underground and to decide on which party fit their ideology best. 29 To join such groups, the woman separated herself from her family and joined tight-knit groups who lived in close proximity to each other. Anne Heilman, very sympathetic to underground work, felt her first duty was, however, to her family.30 Zivia Lubetkin, like others, chose the underground, but later realized that if she had had a child, she never would have joined the resistance.31
Though Lubetkin was in leadership positions in the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zhidorwka Organizatsia Boyora: ZOB), most women in the underground were couriers. 32 Women couriers are generally much praised in histories of the ghetto, but the term "courier" implies a transmitting of messages and not the complicated set of duties most couriers faced. 33 Zivia Lubetkin detailed more of their duties; couriers: "encouraged, organized, searched for safe sites, distributed newspapers, gave oral reports, accompanied, set up partisan bases, developed programs, obtained guns." 34 They also gave comfort and security. Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the resistance leaders, wrote he always felt safer traveling with one of the women couriers. 35 The amount of decisions being made in their jobs—from emotional to logistical support—made the choice of being a courier a particularly demanding one, since many of the tasks were public. 36
When things went very wrong, one of the decisions women had to consider was suicide. More than a few women carried cyanide tablets with them, though as one woman said, "I really didn't know how I would behave." 37 Some women chose suicide over deportation and elderly couples took poison together. One of the underground couriers stationed outside the ghetto, Franja Batus, killed herself after so many of her colleagues were killed in the Uprising of '43. Others, like Mira Fucher at Mila 18, had discussed suicide as a statement, uniting their fates against the Germans with those of the famous Masada Jews who killed themselves rather than become Roman slaves. Not all approved of such suicides. Resistance leader Marek Edelman, for example, said, "You don't sacrifice a life for a symbol." 38
A contrary argument, the importance of the survival of the Jewish people, led others to consider survival beyond the ghetto, but how good was the woman as an actress? Many decisions were improvisations and involved several considerations. Did the woman have a "Polish" look, blonde and blue-eyed preferred? " Happy" eyes might get you through with marginally "Polish" features. Parents told their children leaving the ghetto, "No sad eyes." 391 One Jewish courier was stopped by a German who claimed she had "Jewish" eyes, but then she laughed, flirted with him, and he let her go. Along with eyes, Germans and blackmailers looked for hand gestures as a give away. Until she got acclimated the other side of the wall, Sandra Brand used a muff instead of mittens to keep her hands still. 40
Language was another important issue. Most of the Jews in Warsaw (80%) spoke Yiddish, but girls were more likely to speak Polish than boys. Parents would try to send their sons to Hebrew schools while girls were sent to public, or even Catholic, schools. If woman could not speak Polish, she had to find a hiding place or pretend to be a deaf mute. Since Yiddish was relatively close to German, she also had to act as if she did not understand when questioned in German. The courier Lonka Lozibrodska was so blond and had such excellent German, however, that she often pretended to be an arrogant wife of a German officer. She could, therefore, travel on German trains and be much less likely to be searched.41
Playing the blonde courier, however, was risky. "The most challenging and dangerous role I would ever play," said Chaika Raban Folman.42 She learned to throw friendly, coquettish smiles at questioners. Vladka Meed surprised some of her Jewish contacts by her rakish hats and her off-the-shoulder blouses. 43 Others played their roles differently. Chaika Grossman tried indignation; "Why are you creeping at me like a smelly dog?" she told one pursuer. 44 It was dangerous to be too good looking as Polish women were taken off the streets for labor service in Germany. Further, German soldiers frequently saw Polish women as sexual fair game. A Gestapo pamphlet warned German troops that Polish females "were a great danger…the most experienced and dangerous of all European women." 45 Rapes and sexual harassment did, however, continue. Underground leaders tried to exploit the attraction of their blonde couriers for some of the most dangerous missions. In one of the most extreme examples, in the dying days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Devorah Batan was ordered to go first out of a bunker in hopes her beauty would distract Germans long enough for others to come out firing. 46 As Adina Szwajger wrote, "Those with 'good' looks were supposedly the lucky ones. They were able to walk the streets, buy all the necessary things, a few of them even work. But in reality, they were threatened at every moment." 47
Beside role-playing decisions, women had spontaneous choices for which they could not have prepared. One of these was falling in love. 48 Most of the memoirs of the ghetto are written by women who were fourteen to forty at the time of the Uprising. Females younger or older mainly died at Treblinka. For the young, as Mary Berg put it, "having a close friend helps us conquer dejection."49 Vladka Meed mentioned how important her future husband Benjamin Meed was in sustaining her amidst the loneliness of the non-Jewish side, especially touching when he brought her lilacs. 50 For women brought up in strict Jewish homes, sexual attraction posed a dilemma when there seemed no future for them. One young woman came to Bernard Goldstein wondering if it would be "immoral" for her and her boy friend to have sex. "Take your sweetheart without shame and be happy," he advised. The couple later died in the deportations. 51
A day might bring love and attraction or something else. As resistance leader Moredi Aienelewicz said, "All that happened around us in those days was a matter of chance."52
Germans came; Jews were hidden; a baby cried. Several autobiographies mention a mother smothering her child to save the rest of the group. As Ukrainian troops near the Children's Hospital, does the doctor let the children be taken or does she administer morphine to spare them the trip to Treblinka? Adina Szwajger administered the morphine, but from that day on, she said, "I was always different from everybody else."53
Other decisions made on the spot concerned saving lives. Tosia Altman, one of the couriers, was wounded and her colleagues planned to carry her through the sewer from the burning Ghetto. Her choice was to let them or to endanger the speed of the journey by their efforts. She refused to go. The truck at the sewer opening was loaded with escapees, but there were more people yet in the tunnel. Zivia Lubetkin raised a gun to prevent the driver from leaving, but then her colleague Simha Roten pulled his and insisted all lives would be at risk unless they left immediately. Halina Birenbaum was so shocked by her being selected for the "wrong" side, that she indignantly protested, "Me?! A guard thought she was so funny that he sent her over to the labor side.54 Indignation did not always work. One woman caught smuggling protested to the German soldier, "What are you going to do, shoot me?" And he did. 55
In such an arbitrary world, Adina Szwajger felt, "there was no god, only chance." Zivia Lubetkin, on the other hand, believed that fate could be faced with a "just do it" spirit. When her future husband Yitzhak Zuckerman was indecisive, she told him, "You don't know what to do? Kick yourself in the behind and yell "Hooray!"56
Jews and Germans were not the only ones making decisions about the ghetto. Ethnic Poles also had to decide about their conscience and the terrible reports circulating concerning the Holocaust. There were, however, many arguments against support for the Jews. One was that Poles generally had undergone several major catastophes in the years 1939-41, (the major deportations to Treblinka began in October, 1942). 57 One historian has concluded that in those years, non-Jewish Poles had been murdered at a ratio of 10:1 to murdered Jews. 58 There were casualties from fighting the Germans; deaths from the German deportation of Poles from western Poland; 15,000 officers and policemen killed by the Soviets; thousands of deaths from the deportation of 330,000 Poles to Siberia by the Russians. Further, both the Soviets and the Germans practiced what historian Yehuda Bauer has called "selective genocide" by arresting and executing Polish professors, teachers, priests, labor, and business leaders. 59Auschwitz was originally built to imprison the Polish establishment.60 Further, over a million and a half Poles were taken to Germany as essentially slave laborers. Polish women stormed the trains with Polish children being taken to the West to be "Germanized" and adopted by German families.61 The Poles escaping abroad continued their fight militarily against the Germans, often suffering heavy losses in the Italian and D-Day campaigns. In the Battle of Britain, 1940=41, ten per cent of the RAF pilots were Poles. Thus a reason for not helping the Jews was, "We Poles had enough on our own with the brutal way we were being treated."62
Many Poles did not know Jews personally. Speaking Yiddish and living in segregated Warsaw neighborhoods, Jews seemed to some not to be truly "Polish." A Polish underground member said that before the war, Jews wanted nothing to do with him, but during the war," they wanted my help." 63 Much of this segregation, however, had to do with the long-standing anti-Semitism endemic in Poland, particularly with the Catholic emphasis on Jews as "Christ-killers."
This anti-Semitism was deepened by the response of some Jews to the Russian takeover of Eastern Poland. Many Jews welcomed the Soviets, seeing them as less prejudiced than other Poles and certainly the Germans. Jews were often placed by the Soviets in security forces (NKVD) positions since the Soviets did not trust non-Jews with such authority. In the eyes of many Poles, Jews had collaborated with Poland's "second enemy" and were not actively offering resistance to either the Soviets or the Germans. 64
Against their two enemies, Poles tried to set up an underground led by what remained of Polish leadership. Most of these Poles also had relatives in labor camps, prisons, missing, or fighting abroad so they were already at risk by their involvement. As historian Stefan Korbonski has stated, the history of the women involved in this underground has yet to be written.65 Women were eighty per cent of the couriers; they often acted as "aunties" to shepherd and protect downed Allied airmen, or, like Maria Pyttel, planned escape routes to the West. Later in the Uprising of 1944, women were ten per cent of the fighting forces. To take on the rescue of Jews would doubly increase danger for both the underground people and the Jews. Some families engaged in both activities, but others turned down Jewish friends because they were already hiding guns or people at risk.
Further, the punishment for hiding Jews was particularly high in Poland. In France a person doing so would be arrested; in Germany sent to prison; but in Poland not only would the person be killed but also her/his family. An estimated 3000 Poles were killed for aiding Jews and thousands more were arrested and sent to labor or concentration camps. Yet people did so. A "secret city," to use historian Gunnar Paulsson's term, was set up in Warsaw in which 70,000 to 90,000 people helped, in one way or another, 28,000 Jews to live outside the ghetto. 66 Zuckerman wondered about these people, "Why was the proportion of [Aryan Polish] women so especially large?" 67
Some women made measured decisions to help Jews as a continuation of the war against Germany. Many were wives or daughters of Polish officers missing, dead, or prisoners of war and chose to join the Armia Krajowa (AK or also known as the Home Army). A branch of the AK called Zegota was designed to help rescue Jews. Some women were members of political groups and had shared views with participating Jews. Irene Sendler was a socialist and had protested against anti-Semitism in Poland. At the university, for example, she had deliberately sat with Jews in segregated lecture halls. A former social worker, Sendler had the necessary contacts on the Aryan side to save eventually over 2500 Jewish children. On the other hand, one of the founders of Zegota—Zofia Kossak—had earlier written anti-Semitic literature. The suffering of the Warsaw Jews led her to change her mind dramatically. She published a pamphlet "Protest" in which she called for Catholic Poles to help Jews. "We are all Pilates! God demands this protest (against Jewish discrimination) from us!" 68Another Catholic woman, Irene Adamowizc, was leader of the scouting movement and her involvement added to the couriers available to Zegota.
Also seeing a religious responsibility for the Jews were Catholic nuns, some of who were expelled from their convents or arrested. Generally, convents were organized with the nuns' right to vote on significant issues so the decision to take in Jews was a joint one. Mother Superiors could, however, have a major impact on the vote. Sister Wanda Garczynska chose a reading, John15: 13-17—on the necessity of laying down your life for another—just before one vote was taken. The sisters sat in silence, realizing that their lives and the continuation of the convent were at stake. Then, according to Sister Maria Ena, they voted without discussion and went to the chapel where "we felt light and joyful, though we realized the gravity of the situation. We were ready." 69Some of the most Jewish looking children were taken to convents where there might be more hiding nooks available. Though Zegota had an understanding with Jewish parents that the children's religion would not be changed, some nuns were tempted to "save souls" and the sheer necessity of the children's learning prayers and church behavior had an impact on some children.70
Once the measured decision was made to aid Jews, Christian Polish women also had to decide how to play their roles. Even Mother Superiors learned to—if not directly lie—obfuscate. When a German officer pointed out to one mother superior that she had "a lot of different faces" in the children present, the nun replied in perfect German, "What else do you expect?"71 One beautiful nun even resorted to flirting with a German to distract him from the egg basket she was carrying, one with a false bottom and a Jewish baby below.72 As one Polish woman said about flirting with the Germans, "If you are only a girl, this is how you destroy the enemy."73
Physical disguises were also chosen. Sofia Korbanski recalled, "Never before have I seen oversized busts as in Poland at this time."74 Tucked into their bodices, Polish women put underground newspapers, identity papers, food, military orders, and even grenades. 75Zegota couriers had a particular money problem. Funds from Britain and the United States arrived by various underground routes, but then the money had to be taken from a central drop-off place to hundreds of apartments hiding resistance members and Jews. Brief cases were likely targets of searches, so Zegota members had to pretend to be pregnant with sacks of money at their waist. They had to learn to dress, act, and walk as if they were on the edge of birth. Another role they learned to play was that of a "loose woman," the sort to have different men arriving at their apartment for their favors or engaging in loud parties. Anything to distract from the serious underground contacts being made. As even young teenagers were couriers, they too learned how to dissemble. Panina Wywiad said that she "playacted" to overcome her fears by imagining being part of the neighborhood where she met Jewish escapees from the ghetto.76
Some of the most striking rescue acts for non-Jewish Poles were spontaeous ones. Jewish memoirs often contain instances of those single moments of character illumination that Zuckerman described. A few examples among many may illustrate how quickly women decided to help Jews. A Jewish woman, passing as non-Jewish at a governmental office got flustered and signed her real name to a false identity card. The female clerk quietly told her that card was "smeared" and found her another blank one. 77 A young Jewish smuggler was chased by the Germans, but a Polish woman upset her apple cart in front of the pursuers to allow his escape.78 When Marysia Szpiro was pointed out as a Jew in a market, most of the crowd yelled to the police, no, she was Polish. One of the women customers offered to walk her home. As they rounded several corners, she said, "I know you're Jewish, go wherever you need to go."79 As Morris Wyszogrod tried to escape from a labor camp, he slipped into a Polish labor detail where a woman vouched for his presence. Once they are further along, she told him, "Now that you are out, run like hell; I know that you are a Jew."80 Another Jewish man chased by police, rushed into a building and then turned as if coming out of the dentist office. The pursuing policeman asked a woman exiting if the man had been inside. The woman said, "yes." Jan Nowak, one of the underground couriers, commented on this anonymous woman, "She understood in an instance that someone's life was at stake."81 Sometimes the Poles did more than react to an immediate situation. Janina Bauman and her mother found refuge several times in their hiding by simply knocking on doors and finding someone to take them in.82 In all these situations, the Polish women were at risk if their stories had been checked.
There were, however, also times of instant betrayals by women. It was a woman who yelled "Jews" and forced resistance fighters to leave behind some members trying to escape in the sewers from the ghetto. With quick insight, women blackmailers might pick out the vulnerable or raise the rents for hidden Jews. As Zuckerman put it, "One swine could betray 100 Jews to the Germans. But to save one Jew you needed the participation of 100 Poles."83
Sometimes all the Christian Poles could offer were their prayers. Penalties for protesting arrests were high; one Polish woman was killed by a policeman when she cursed him for killing a Jewish child smuggler.84 Therefore, women could often only show their support by weeping publicly or even kneeling to say a prayer. Contrary to Czeslaw Milosz's poem "Campo dei Flori" about Poles cheerfully riding a merry-go round outside the burning ghetto, Zuckerman remembered, "I saw Poles crying, just standing and crying." 85
Books on the Warsaw Ghetto frequently end with the destruction of the ghetto. But there is much more to the complicated history of Jewish and Christian women and their entangled fates. Jews, about 1000 of them, were part of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Germans, among them ZOB women like Lubetkin.86 Zegota members became couriers, nurses, and soldiers in the fight to liberate Warsaw, daily expecting support from Soviet troops just across the Vistula River. Women, as major participants in the Polish Home Army, took the same pledge as male soldiers. Indeed, when the Poles were defeated and the Soviets still waited, Polish women soldiers insisted on being treated officially as prisoners of war. 87Their later story, some sent to Ravensbruck and some to Stalag Vi at Oberlangen, is a long and bitter one. 88Some Jewish women, like Chaika Raban Folman, survived by being embedded with these Polish women. Women civilians were either part of the 240,000 Poles killed in the battle of 1944 or of the thousands deported by the Germans from Warsaw.
The Warsaw Jews who survived generally left Poland after 1945 because anti-Semitism increased after the war with the Soviet take-over of Poland. Most eventually found their way to Israel or the United States. 89
Zegota members were considered part of the Polish Home Army, which the Soviets were determined to crush either by imprisonments or executions. Zofia Kossak was forced into exile, even though her organization had saved relatives of the new Soviet security director, Jacob Berman. Irene Sendler, who had been arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, was told to keep a low profile and her children were refused university study. Other Zegota members were imprisoned. Their treatment was a major historical example of the ironic thought, "no good deed goes unpunished." It was not until after the fall of the Soviet regime that a monument was finally erected to Zegota in Warsaw in 1995 and, in 2000, a movement began to nominate Irene Sendler for the Nobel Peace Prize.90 One of the earlier Nobel Prize winners, Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, wrote a line about his characters, which might apply, to Zegota. "While unable to be saints, but refusing to bow down to pestilence, [they] strive their utmost to be healers." 91
After the defeat of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Wladyslaw Szpilman, known later for his book and the movie "The Pianist," wandered about the ruins of the city. There he saw the body of a blond haired woman soldier, her armband showing her AK status. He reflected on her courage, then thought of his two sisters taken in 1943 in the deportations. At least, he thought, the Polish woman would eventually get a burial, but where did he search for the ashes of his sisters? 92 According to historian Gunnar Paulsson, one-fourth of the Christian population of Warsaw and ninety-eight percent of the Jewish residents died in World War II, making its losses of 720,000 the "greatest slaughter of a single city in history."93
Yet some women did survive, often by navigating between choices that were either bad or worse. Yehuda Nir ends his memoir about these years with a description of his sister Lala who managed to arrange her, his, and their mother's survival. He dedicated his book to Lala for "her quick wit, audacity, intelligence, and above all her courage."94 The same might be said for many of the women of Warsaw.
Much contemporary history writing reflects a commitment on the part of scholars to give voice to the voiceless, such as marginalized genders and other groups. For this reason, one of the premier world history sites is the Women and World History site at George Mason University (http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/). The story of the Women of the Warsaw Ghetto adds thrust to this effort, particularly emphasizing Eastern European women's history (see virtual exhibitions at http://lii.org/cs/lii/view/subject/12811 and also http://www1.yadvashem.org/exhibitions/warsaw_ghetto/home_warsaw.htm. But it is also a story that easily can enliven a classroom. It certainly can be used as a short supplement to the Holocaust memoirs or stories written by men (for example, Elie Wiesel's memoir Night (first published n 1958) is widely used in world history courses.). It can also stand alone as a story of inter-cultural relations (Jews and non-Jews in Poland) and the complexities of resistance to tyranny. The emphasis on a "moment to decide" may also influence students to consider how quickly their decisions may put themselves and others at risk or benefit—that an individual's actions do matter. A select bibliography intended to assist students engaging in their own investigation into those issues in regard to the Warsaw Ghetto follows.
Marjorie Wall Bingham received her Ph. D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. For many years, she taught history at St. Louis Park High School in Minnesota and at Hamline University. Active on several national history committees, including the Bradley Commission, she was the founding vice-president of the National Council for History Education. With Susan Gross, she wrote a series of thirteen books on women in world cultures and founded the Upper Midwest Women's History Center. Her most recent publication is An Age of Empires: 1200-1750 for Oxford University Press (2005). Her involvement in Holocaust studies includes a summer seminar with the AFT-Jewish Labor Committee, studying in Israel at the Ghetto Fighters' House and Yad Vashem. There she met two of the Warsaw couriers mentioned in the article, Vladka Meed and Chaika Folman Raban, to whom this essay is dedicated.
1Richard Lukas. Did the Children Cry? Hitler's War Against Jewish and Polish Children 1939-1945. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2001.
For on-line stories and testimony relating to the Warsaw Ghetto with
unforgettable images, maps and graphics, please go to:
2 "The Valor of the Young." Dimensions 7/21: 21.
3 Brana Gurewitsch (Editor). Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1998: 38.
4 Yitzhak Zuckerman. A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Berkeley: University of California, 1993: 343.
5 The Polish Underground was the only European resistance movement to have a specifically designated branch for Jewish aid.
6 Israel Gutman. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991: xi. Gutman's books contain more descriptions of women's actions than in most others, perhaps because he, and Zuckerman who also includes women, were actual participants in the Ghetto Uprising.
7 Nechama Tec. Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
8 Samuel Kassow. Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelbaum, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Bloomington: University of Indiana, 2007:259.
9 Michal Grynberg (editor) Words to Outlive Us: Eye Witness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto: New York: Henry Holt, 1988: 46.
10 Grynberg, 47.
11 Uri Orlev. The Island on Bird Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981: viii
12 Sandra Brand. I Dared to Live. Rockville: Shengold Books, 2000: 18.
13 Kassow: 258.
14 Her career, helping to form the Soviet Polish Brigades and wining Stalin prizes in literature, is an exceptional one. The Poles, however, see her largely as a traitor to Polish freedom. For more see: Marci Shore: Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation's: Life and Death, 1918-1968. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
15 Not all made it back to Warsaw and these were seen as suspect by the Soviets and deported to Siberia. A German, seeing some of the 30,000 or so who were on the trains returning to Poland, called to them, "Jews, where are you going? Don't you realize that we will kill you?" Some Jews did leave the train after the warning. Jan Gross. Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002: 206.
17 Kassow: 228.
18 Chaim Lazar. Muranowaska 7: The Warsaw Ghetto Rising.Szereszewska Tel Aviv: Massada P.E. C. Press, 1966: 59.
19 Mary Berg. The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007: 158.
21 Sendler: 21.
22 Lenore J. Weitzman, "Living on the Aryan Side in Poland," in Women in the Holocaust. Edited by Dalia Ofer and Leonore J. Weitman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991:191. Alicia's last name is not given in the text.
23 Vladka Meed. The Other Side of the Wall. New York: Holocaust Library, 1979: 111-113.
24 Szereszewska, Helena. Memoirs from Occupied Warsaw 1940-45. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1997:6.
25 Ruth Altbaker Cyprys. A Jump for Life: A Survivor's Journal from Nazi-Occupied Poland. New York: Continum, 1999:84.
26 Adina Blady Szwajger. I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children's Hospital and the Jewish Resistance. New York: Touchstone, 1988: 52.
27 Alexander Donat. The Holocaust Kingdom. New York: Holocaust Library, 1978: 92.
28 Donat: 199.
29 To describe the choices of competing Jewish organizations is beyond the scope of this essay. Popular choices were between Dror and Hashomer Hatzair, Zionist groups, or the Bund, a Jewish socialist group emphasizing international cooperation.
30 Heilman later had her chance at underground activity when she was in on the plot to blow up the crematorium at Auschwitz.
31 A member of the Bialystok resistance expressed another sense of lack of awareness of what her choice might mean. Her family was killed and she wrote later, "I was not at their side in the last and worst moments of their lives. Since then, I have searched for them in every mound of earth that covers the soil of the former death camps in the Polish territory." Bronka Klibanski. "In the Ghetto and in the Resistance." Ofer: 177.
32 One of the best sources for couriers in their roles in several ghettos is: Leonore J. Weitzman. "Women of Courage: The Kashariyot (Couriers) in the Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust." in Lessons and Legacies IV: New Currents in Holocaust Research. Edited by Jeffry M. Diefendorf. Evanston: Northwestern University, 2004.
33 Emmanuel Ringelblum. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. Berkeley: Publisher's Group West, 2006:273-4. His praise for the courier's "heroic" activities is often repeated.
34 Zivia Lubetkin, In the Days of Destruction and Revolt. Ghetto Fighters House: Israel, 1981: 79.
35 Zuckerman, 106-107.
36 These women deserve a book just on their activities. Here are a few of the Warsaw women mentioned in histories for their particular bravery: Vladka Meed, Chaika Raban Folman, Frumke Plotnizka, Tema Schneiderman, Chaika Grossman, Tosia Altman, Leah Perstern, Reginka Justman, Mira Fucher and Lonka Kozybrodska. There were also couriers in other Polish cities and Polish women during the "44 Warsaw Uprising.
37 "Irena," in Barbara Engleking, Holocaust and Memory. London: Leicester University Press, 2001: 128.
38 Hanna Krall. Shielding the Flames: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman. New York: Henry Holt, 1977:6.
39 Tec: 68.
40 Tec: 218.
41 Zuckerman: 106.
42 Jehoshua Eibeshiz and Anna Ellenberg-Eibeshitz. Women in the Holocaust, Vol. I. Brooklyn: Remember, 1993: 124.
43 Donat: 244.
44 Chaika Grossman. The Underground Army: Fighters of the Bialystok Ghetto. New York: Holocaust Library, 1987: 115. Grossman is primarily associated with Bialystok but the incident took place in Warsaw where she came for meetings.
45 Simon Wiesenthal. Krystyna: The Tragedy of the Polish Resistance. Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1992: 191.
46 There are several versions of this incident. Lubetkin's (page 25) is that she survived this attack, but was killed the next day. Other versions state that Batan was killed immediately.
47 Szwajger: 160.
48 Here are some of the couples mentioned in histories of ZOB: Zivia Lubetkin/Yitzhak Zuckerman; Rachel Foelman/Dov Berger; Frumke Plotnizka/Hirshke Korsher; Miriam Heinsdorf/Yosef Kaplan; Tema Schneiderman/Mordechai Tennebaum; Mira Fucher/Mordechai Snielewicz; Rivka Saperstein/David Nowodworski; Frany Beatus/David Shulman; Rivka Moszkowicz/ Tuvia Borzykowski; Sara Biderman/Adam Granach; Luba Gewisser/Jurek Grossberg; Ada Margolis/ Marke Edelman; Vladka Meed (Feygl Peltel)/ Benjamin Meed.
49 Berg: 103.
50 Tec 243, Meed: 214.
51 Bernard Goldstein. Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto. Edinburgh: AK Press/ Nabat, 2005:82.
52 Miriam Marianska Peleg and Mordecai Peleg. Witness: Life in Occupied Krakow. New York: Routledge, 1991: 19.
53 Szwajger: 58.
54 Eibeshitz: 132.
55 Danny Dor. Brave and Desperate. Israel: Ghetto Fighters House Museum, 2003: 52.
56 Zuckerman: 238. Lubetkin's career, both in Poland and Israel, continued to show spirit and it's probably no wonder that their granddaughter was Israel's first woman combat pilot.
57 Historian Phillip Rutherford referred to this era as a "battle of nationality." Phillip T. Rutherford. Prelude to the Final Solution: The Nazi Program for Deporting Ethnic Poles 1939-41. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2007:11.
58 Ewa Kurek. Your Life is World Mine: How Polish Nuns Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children in German Occupied Poland 1939-45. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1992:17.
59 Yehuda Bauer. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982: 285.
60 Laurence Rees. Auschwitz: A New History. New York: Public Affairs, 2005:17-30.
61 For more on Polish and German women's' roles in these "Germanization" programs, see: Elizabeth Harvey. Women and the Nazi East: Agents and Witnesses of Germanization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
62 Irene Gut Opdyke. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. New York: Dell, 1999: 84.
63 Lukas: 152.
64 Lukas: 149.
65 Stefan Korbonski. The Jews and Poles in World War II. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1989: 172.
66 Gunnar Paulsson. Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002:5.
67 Zuckerman: 459.
68 Wladyslaw Bartoszewski. The Warsaw Ghetto: A Christian's Testimony. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987:27.
69 Kurek: 48-49
70 The commander of the ship Exodus, for example, noticed Jewish children from convents saying their rosaries as they traveled to Palestine. Yoran Kanik. Commander of the Exodus. New York: Grove Press, 1999:110. For the complications in child's life hidden in a convent, see Janina David A Square of Sky: A Wartime Childhood from Ghetto to Convent. London: Eland, 1992. For example, David resented as a child the poor food the children received at the convent. Only later was she told that the Germans had restricted convent rations because the mother superior had refused to release the older girls for forced labor in Germany.
71 Kurek: 146
72 Kurek; 66.
73 Opdyke: 246.
74 Lukas: 34.
75 Jewish courier Chaika Folman Raban described carrying grenades in her underpants and wondering what would happen if some gentleman asked her to sit down. Havka Folman Raban. They Are Still With Me. Israel: Ghetto Fighters Museum, 1997:82.
76 Eva Fogelman. Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of the Jews During the Holocaust. New York: Anchor Books, 1994:229.
77 Peleg: 160.
78 Lukas: 190.
79 Grynberg: 309.
80 Morris Wyszogrod. A Brush with Death: An Artist in the Death Camps. Albany: University of New York, 1999:35-36.
81 Jan Nowak. Courier from Warsaw. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982: 169.
82 Janina Bauman. Winter into Morning. New York: Free Press, 1986. The Polish women who hid Bauman and her mother illustrate the cross-section of Poles involved in protecting Jews. Among them were: a countess, drug addict, mother of an underground leader, storekeeper, a husband and wife team also hiding weapons, a pianist, midwife/abortionist, elderly retired teacher, canteen manager, sculptor, and a peasant woman.
83 Adam Polonsky. "My Brother's Keeper?": Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust. Oxford: Routledge, 1990:148.
84 Abraham Lewin. A Cup of Tears: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988: 44.
85 Zuckerman: 491.
86 The most complete history of these events is Norman Davies. Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw. New York: Viking, 2003. The author describes the valor of many Polish women.
87 This POW status seems to have been the first time in history that women soldiers were so designated. There were three important reasons for POW designation: 1) their rights were to be protected under the Geneva Convention. Polish women previously had been used for medical experiments (injecting typhus into their legs) at Ravensbruck concentration camp. 2) As POWs they were not supposed to be used for labor which supported the war industry, a patriotic point since other Polish women had been forced to labor in German munitions factories. 3) They could then receive Red Cross food packages that made their survival more possible. Some Jewish women's memoirs mention that the food shared from these packages also sustained them.
88 The website on the Polish resistance and the AK (www.polishrestisnce-ak.org) includes helpful articles on this topic, including: Janina Skrzynska. "A Brief Outline of Women POWs from the Polish Home Army (AK) Held in Stalag Vic at Oberlangen After the Warsaw Uprising" and Marke Ney-Krawicz. "Women Soldiers of the Polish Home Army."
89 Two members of ZOB who did stay in Poland were the doctors Marek Edelman and Adina Swajger and both later supported the Solidarity movement, which eventually toppled the Soviet regime.
90 Sendler died May 12, 2008, and Al Gore won the year she was nominated.
91 Albert Camus. The Plague. New York: Vintage, 1948:308.
92 Wladyslaw Szpilman. The Pianist. New York: Picador, 1999: 186.
93 Paulsson: 1.
94 Yehuda Nir. The Lost Childhood: A World War II Memoir. New York: Scholastic Press, 2001:284.
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