These women were so unlike me — they were the fight to my flight — and I was becoming increasingly obsessed with them.
Renia ran missions between Bedzin and Warsaw. She moved grenades, false passports and cash strapped to her body and hidden in her undergarments and shoes. She transported Jews from ghettos to hiding spots. She wore a red flower in her hair to identify her to underground contacts, met up with a black-market arms dealer in a cemetery, and slept in a cellar, wandering the city by day to gather information. She smiled coyly during searches on the train, and befriended one border guard to whom she “confessed” about smuggling food to distract him from the real contraband that was fastened to her torso with belts. “You had to be strong in your comportment, firm,” she wrote in her memoir. “You had to have an iron will.”
In Vilna, Ruzka Korczak found a Finnish pamphlet in a library on how to make bombs — it became the underground’s recipe book. Her comrade Vitka Kempner put a rudimentary explosive under her coat, slipped out of the ghetto, and blew up a German supply train in 1942. The Vilna resistance fled the ghetto to fight in the forests, where both women commanded units. Their comrade Zelda Treger completed 17 trips transporting hundreds of Jews out of ghettos and slave labor camps to the woods. In a different forest, a 19-year-old photographer named Faye Schulman joined the partisans, participated in combat missions and performed surgery — she was once forced to amputate a soldier’s wounded finger with her teeth. “When it was time to hug a boyfriend, I was hugging a rifle,” Faye said of her wartime adolescence in a documentary film.
Renia, through cunning and luck, managed to fend off prying Nazis and Poles who attempted to turn her in for a reward — until one border guard noticed her fabricated passport stamp. Imprisoned in Gestapo lockups that prided themselves on their medieval torture strategies, Renia was brutally beaten alongside Polish political prisoners. She masterminded an escape, helped by other courier girls who plied the guards with cigarettes and whiskey. Renia was able to slip away, change her clothes and run. Using an underground railroad set up by Jews, she crossed the Tatra Mountains by foot, then reached Hungary hidden in the locomotive of a freight train. The engineer expelled an extra puff of smoke to hide her departure from the engine.
Renia finally arrived in Palestine, where she was invited to lecture about her experience, and she published her memoir in Hebrew in 1945 — one of the first full-length accounts of the Holocaust. But in her life after the war, she remained mostly silent about it. For many female survivors, silence was a means of coping. They felt it was their duty to create a new generation of Jews. Women kept their pasts secret in a desperate desire to create a normal life for their children, and, for themselves. Renia’s family home after the war was not filled with stories of the resistance, but with music, art and tango nights; she was known for her fashionable tastes, and for her sharp sense of humor. Like so many refugees, the resisters wanted to start afresh, to blend into their new worlds.
Some 70 years after the war, I went to speak with Vitka Kempner’s son, Michael Kovner, on the outdoor terrace of a Jerusalem cafe. “She was someone who went toward danger,” he told me. “She didn’t care about the rules. She had true chutzpah.”
Researching these women, I’ve learned that my family’s narrative is not the sole option for confronting large and small dangers in the world. Running is sometimes necessary, but at other times I can stop and fight, or, at least, pause and discuss. Renia and her comrades were brave and powerful and paved the way for the generations that followed — not just the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs, but also women like me and my daughters. My children should know that their legacy includes not just fleeing, but also staying, and even running toward danger.
When I left the cafe, I found myself on a quiet side road. I looked up and saw the street sign with a name I would have never recognized a few years before: Haviva Reik Street. With Hannah Senesh, Haviva had joined the British Army as a paratrooper, helping thousands of Slovak Jews and rescuing Allied servicemen. Strong female legacies were all around us; if only we noticed, if only we knew their stories.
Judy Batalion is the author of the forthcoming “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” from which this essay is adapted.
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