The Nazi-Fighting Women of the Jewish Resistance

tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, Warsaw Ghetto, womens history

Dr. 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.

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. 

Read entire article at New York Times

comments powered by Disqus