In 1943, Niuta Teitelbaum strolled into a Gestapo apartment on Chmielna Street in central Warsaw and faced three Nazis. A 24-year-old Jewish woman who had studied history at Warsaw University, Niuta was likely now dressed in her characteristic guise as a Polish farm girl with a kerchief tied around her braided blond hair.
She blushed, smiled meekly and then pulled out a gun and shot each one. Two were killed, one wounded. Niuta, however, wasn’t satisfied. She found a physician’s coat, entered the hospital where the injured man was being treated, and killed both the Nazi and the police officer who had been guarding him.
“Little Wanda With the Braids,” as she was nicknamed on every Gestapo most-wanted list, was one of many young Jewish women who, with supreme cunning and daring, fought the Nazis in Poland. And yet, as I discovered over several years of research on these resisters, their stories have largely been overlooked in the broader history of Jewish resistance in World War II.
In 2007, when I was living in London and grappling with my Jewish identity, I decided to write about strong Jewish women. Hannah Senesh jumped immediately to mind. As I’d learned in fifth grade, Hannah was a young World War II resistance paratrooper. She had left her native Hungary for Palestine in 1939, but later returned to Europe to fight for the the Allied cause; she was caught and was said to have looked her killers directly in their eyes as they shot her.
That tale of audacity was exhilarating to me. I was the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who had escaped from Poland; in my family, flight meant life. I had grown up to be a runner in relationships, careers and countries. But Hannah had returned to fight. I wanted to grasp what had motivated her boldness.
I went to the British Library, looked her up in the catalog and ordered the few books listed under her name. One, I noticed, was unusual, bound in worn blue fabric with gold lettering and yellowing edges — “Freuen in di Ghettos,” Yiddish for “Women in the Ghettos.” I opened it and found 180 sheets of tiny script, all in Yiddish, a language I was fluent in. To my surprise, only a few pages mentioned Hannah Senesh; the rest relayed tales of dozens of other young Jewish women who defied the Nazis, many of whom had the chance to leave Nazi-occupied Poland but didn’t; some even voluntarily returned.
All this was a revelation to me. Where I had expected mourning and gloom, I found guns, grenades and espionage. This was a Yiddish thriller, telling the stories of Polish-Jewish “ghetto girls” who paid off Gestapo guards, hid revolvers in teddy bears, flirted with Nazis and then killed them. They distributed underground bulletins, flung Molotov cocktails, bombed train lines, organized soup kitchens, and bore the truth about what was happening to the Jews.
I was stunned. I was raised in a community of Holocaust survivors and had earned a doctorate in women’s history. Why had I never heard these stories?
“Freuen” was compiled for Yiddish-speaking American Jews in 1946 in an attempt to share this stunning history as widely as possible. But in the years that followed, these resistance narratives, like many historical contributions made by women, were sidelined or ignored for a variety of political and personal reasons.
Many women who told their stories in their own communities after the war were met with disbelief; others were accused by relatives of abandoning their families to fight; still others were charged with sleeping their way to safety. Sometimes, family members feared that opening old wounds would tear them apart. And many fighters suffered from survivors’ guilt — they’d “had it easy,” they felt, compared with others — and so in later years they remained mostly silent about their experiences.
Several other factors in postwar decades may have contributed to the relative obscurity of this history. In the 1950s, some say, many Jews had trauma fatigue; in the 1960s, the emerging horrors of Auschwitz and other camps became the predominant subject; in the “hippyish” 1970s, stories of violent rebellion were out of fashion; and in the 1980s, a flood of Holocaust books in the United States overshadowed many earlier tales.
My quest to learn more about these women turned into a dozen years of research across Poland, Israel and North America; in archives and living rooms, memorial monuments and the streets of former ghettos. I learned of the scope of Jewish rebellion: More than 90 European ghettos had armed Jewish resistance units. Approximately 30,000 European Jews joined the partisans. Rescue networks supported about 12,000 Jews in hiding in Warsaw alone. All this alongside daily acts of resilience — smuggling food, writing diaries, telling jokes to relieve fear, hugging a barrack mate to keep her warm. Women, aged 16 to 25, were at the helm of many of these efforts. I learned their names: Tosia Altman, Gusta Davidson, Frumka Plotnicka. Hundreds of others
At the center of “Freuen” was a striking testimonial by a woman identified only as Renia K.; it was composed at the end of the war, when she was just 20 years old. Her writing was descriptive, even witty. “For them,” she wrote of the Nazi officers, “killing a person was easier than smoking a cigarette.” I found her file at the Israel State Archives and used the book she published in 1945 and additional testimonies to fill out her story.
Her full name was Renia Kukielka, and she was brought up in Poland in the 1930s in a world of sophisticated Yiddish theater and literature, and some 180 Jewish newspapers. After Hitler invaded Renia’s town, Jedrzejow, and locked her family in a ghetto, Renia escaped and fled through fields. She leapt off a moving train when she was recognized, bargained with the police and pretended to be Catholic. She got a job as a housemaid, nervously genuflecting at weekly church services. “I hadn’t even known that I was such a good actor,” Renia reflected in her memoir, “able to impersonate and imitate.”
Helped by a paid Polish smuggler, she joined her older sister in the town of Bedzin. Before the war, Bedzin had been a largely middle-class Jewish community and a hub for Jewish political parties, which had proliferated in response to the question of modern Jewish identity. A vast network of Jewish youth groups was affiliated with these parties. These groups had trained young Jewish men — and women — to feel pride, live collectively, be physically active and question, critique and plan. They trained them in the skills necessary for “staying.”
After Hitler’s conquest of Poland, the youth groups formed militias. When Renia arrived, Bedzin hosted a burgeoning cell of rebellion organized by secular, socialist-leaning Jewish teenagers and young adults. Those who were forced to labor in Nazi uniform factories slipped notes into the boots urging soldiers at the front to drop their weapons. They constructed workshops where they experimented with homemade explosives and designed elaborate underground bunkers. “Haganah!” was their rallying cry: Defense!
Women who were selected for undercover missions were required to look “good,” or passably “Aryan” or Catholic, with light hair, blue or green eyes, good posture and an assured gait. Renia was one of those chosen. Fueled by rage and a deep sense of justice, 18-year-old Renia became an underground operative, “a courier girl.”
I learned that “courier girls” connected the locked ghettos where Jews were imprisoned. Being caught on the Aryan side meant certain death; despite that, these young women dyed their hair blond, took off their Jewish-identifying armbands, put on fake smiles and secretly slipped in and out of ghettos, bringing Jews information and hope, bulletins and false identification papers, and linking youth resistance groups across the country. They smuggled pistols, bullets and grenades, hiding them in marmalade jars, sacks of potatoes and designer handbags.
As women, they were well positioned to do this work: Their brothers were circumcised and risked being found out in a “pants drop” test. Before the war, Jewish girls were more likely than Jewish boys to have studied at Polish public schools (many boys attended Jewish schools and yeshivas). They were, over all, more assimilated than Jewish boys and spoke Polish without the Yiddish accent, making them excellent spies.
They also took enormous risks. Bela Hazan got a job working as a translator and receptionist for the Gestapo; she stole their documents and delivered them to Jewish forgers. Vladka Meed smuggled dynamite into the Warsaw ghetto by passing bits of gunpowder through a hole in the wall of a basement that lined the ghetto border. She later supported Jews in hiding, secretly bringing them money, medical help and trusted photographers to take their pictures for fake IDs.
Hela Schupper, a beauty who’d studied commerce, dressed up as an affluent Polish woman attending an afternoon of theater, wearing clothes she’d borrowed from a non-Jewish friend’s mother. In 1942 she met a “Mr. X” from the Polish underground on a Warsaw street corner, followed him onto a train and into a safe house, stuffed her fashionable jute handbag, and brought five guns and clips of cartridges to Krakow’s “Fighting Pioneers,” who then bombed a Christmas week gathering at an upscale cafe frequented by Nazi officers, killing at least seven Germans and wounding more.
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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