The unsung heroines of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Amid rumours of the Ghetto’s imminent liquidation, 78 years ago to this day the Jews of Warsaw rose against the occupying Nazis to write one of the war’s most heroic chapters.
Faced with overwhelming odds, success was never considered a possibility; instead, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was an action driven by pride – by a fundamental yearning to regain some semblance of the dignity that had been stripped away following years of persecution.
In this respect, POLIN, the Warsaw-based Museum of the History of Polish Jews, have led the line, dedicating their annual daffodil campaign to the female fighters that took part in the rebellion.
According to Zofia Bojańczyk, the coordinator of the action, it was a decision strongly influenced by the protests that rocked Poland last year.
“The idea to focus on women was first raised last November, just as the protests around Poland really began gathering pace,” she tells TFN.
“Clearly, you can’t compare the Ghetto Uprising to current times, but what we saw happening around the country did give us a huge amount of inspiration to take a closer look at the females that took part in the uprising.”
In the research that followed, Bojańczyk and her team discovered a complex web of stories.
“In the Ghetto,” says Bojańczyk, “women organized soup kitchens, distributed underground news and worked as doctors, nurses, couriers and smugglers. However, they also fought as well.”
That this has been traditionally overlooked is little surprise, says Bojańczyk.
“War and women don’t go together,” she says. “When we think of war, we naturally perceive women as taking a more passive role. Moreover, we now know that many women that survived actually hid the fact that they’d fought.”
Of the more prominent female resistance fighters, Zivia Lubetkin was one of the co-founders of ŻOB, one of two combat organizations to operate in the Ghetto.
Described by some as having “blazing eyes and a penetrating look”, she avoided certain death by escaping the final Nazi clean-up operation through the sewers. Later fighting in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, she settled post-war in Israel and testified at the trail of Adolf Eichmann.
Many more also served with distinction. Having first fled Warsaw in 1939, Rachel Lea Zylberberg decided to return to the Ghetto, leaving her newly-born daughter in a Vilnius orphanage so as to take up the armed struggle. Killed in ŻOB’s command bunker on Miła 18, it is likely that she was inspiration for one of the figures depicted on the nearby Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto Uprising.
“The monument shows a woman holding a baby,” says Bojańczyk, “and it’s believed that this is most probably meant to be a tribute to Zylberberg.”
In terms of lion-hearted courage, there are few biographies, though, that match that of Niuta Tejtelbaum. Using the alias Wanda Witwicka she became known to many as “Wanda with Pigtails” on account of her long, flowing locks.
Taking part in numerous sabotage operations, she escaped the Ghetto a few months before the uprising but supported the action on the other side of the wall.
“She’d dress as a village girl,” says Bojańczyk, “often wearing flowery scarves and carrying baskets of eggs. On one occasion, she approached a German officer and shot him using a gun that she’d concealed at the bottom of her basket.”
According to one story, following one failed assassination attempt she disguised herself as a doctor and tracked down her prey to a hospital where she shot him on the spot. Caught in July, 1943, she refused to give up her colleagues and was killed by the Germans.
Having been ignored for decades, these extraordinary stories are finally receiving the attention they merit – and not just domestically.
Already optioned by Steven Spielberg for a major motion picture, author Judy Batalion’s latest book, The Light Of Days, has become a best-selling sensation chronicling female resistance in the wartime ghettoes of occupied Europe.
“Witnesses to the brutal murder of their families and neighbours and the violent destruction of their communities, a cadre of Jewish women in Poland—some still in their teens—helped transform the Jewish youth groups into resistance cells to fight the Nazis,” says Batalion.
“With courage, guile, and nerves of steel, these ‘ghetto girls’ paid off Gestapo guards, hid revolvers in loaves of bread and jars of marmalade, and helped build systems of underground bunkers.
“They flirted with German soldiers, bribed them with wine, whiskey, and home cooking, used their Aryan looks to seduce them, and shot and killed them. They bombed German train lines and blew up a town’s water supply. They also nursed the sick and taught children.”
With the coincidental timing of Batalion’s book promising to lift the profile of the Ghetto’s female fighters even further, Bojańczyk is hopeful that a crossroads has been reached and that the women of the Ghetto will finally receive the recognition that they deserve.
“We tend to assume that it’s just men that fought, but we should never take history for granted,” she says.
“Unsuspecting in the way they looked and acted, they were incredibly dedicated and dangerous fighters who were able to use their often young, baby-faced, naïve and attractive looks to their advantage. This made them extremely valuable combatants.”
For certain, a watershed moment has been reached when it comes to the way we view the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Alongside the daffodil campaign, POLIN have also unveiled a striking mural outside the capital’s Metro Centrum dedicated to female figures, and this initiative has been complimented by a variety of online events taking place today such as documentaries and discussions.
Ultimately, this could pave the path for even more. “Currently it’s a big dream of mine,” says Bojańczyk, “but I’d love to see a day when the female fighters are properly commemorated in our urban spaces by way of having streets named after them in the same way like male figures such as Marek Edelman and Mordechai Anielewicz.”