Resistance, Page 2Jennifer A. Nielsen
The new year, 1940, brought the tightening of the noose. My father lost his business and most of his savings. We sold my mother’s china, my father’s typewriter and books. We traded extra clothes and household items for food, and my brother and I worked endlessly for Polish families, cleaning or doing odd jobs, to earn less than a tenth of what we could have charged before the war. Then we were told our neighborhood was to become part of a German-only district and we would have to leave.
A member of the Jewish governing council of Krakow, known as the Judenrat, suggested that my father ought to seek housing for our family in the Podgorze District, set aside for the Jews. Thousands of others would soon be trying to get in, they warned us. Every apartment would be shared by four families, but the crowding was better than homelessness. Once winter came, that would be a certain death sentence.
“Four families per apartment?” my mother asked, her voice thick with concern. “That’s uncivilized.”
“War is uncivilized,” came the reply. “Take what we’ve assigned you, or the next family will.”
My family had never been wealthy, but our home was always clean and comfortable. The Judenrat directed us to a rickety apartment building that should have been torn down years ago. It had no heat or running water, and the room we were to share with another family was little more than a large closet.
“Five of us won’t fit in that space,” Papa protested.
“But four of you will.” The Judenrat official in front of him shifted his eyes to me, and I will forever remember the tone of his voice as he spoke: without emotion, or concern. Perhaps already, with his soul pieced away to his Nazi overseers. “A new order has come from the Germans. Most of the Jews still in Krakow must leave the city. Your daughter’s name will be on tomorrow’s list.”
That’s when my world caved in. I was being sent away from my family, my city, the only life I’d ever known. My name was only one on a long list, but it was the only name I saw through my teary eyes. The next morning, others left mostly by wagon or on foot, hoping to stay with family members elsewhere, or to find other ghettos that might admit them.
“Your grandmother will take you in, if you can get to her home,” Papa suggested.
If I could. She lived a very long way from us.
“I can get there,” I said, fully aware that I probably couldn’t get that far on my own. But from the looks in my parents’ eyes, they needed to believe I would end up somewhere safe. I hugged each member of my family good-bye, lingering longest with my mother, who couldn’t seem to let me go any more than I could release her. Then I picked up my handbag, the remnants of what few possessions I had left, and took my first step into the countryside, entirely alone, with little chance for survival and no idea of where I should go next. Those steps marked the end of my second life.
A few days later, my third life began, though in a most unexpected way.
April 25, 1941–October 5, 1942
Kopaliny Farm, Poland
I didn’t make it as far as my grandmother’s. For the first three days after leaving Krakow, I wondered if I’d make it anywhere at all. Papa had warned me to be careful about who I trusted, so I trusted no one. I stole eggs from untended chicken coops, hid whenever a car or wagon passed by, and slept in cold ditches at night, covered with reeds or grasses, wondering how long I could last this way.
Not long. I’d known that since the moment I left Krakow.
Then on the third day, I wandered past a sign for the village of Kopaliny, and a memory sparked within me. A farm there was run by a couple named Shimshon and Gusta Draenger, both in their early twenties. Before the war, they had been the leaders of my Jewish scout group, Akiva, which taught us about our culture and history, and who we might become one day. I’d lost track of them after the invasion, though I had heard Shimshon was arrested for a while for some of his anti-Nazi writings.
Late that night, I showed up on the Draengers’ doorstep, tears already rolling down my cheeks. I hadn’t seen them for two years. What if they didn’t remember me? What if they did … and couldn’t take me?
By the time Gusta answered the door, I was almost shaking with worry. She was a pretty woman with a serious nature and a warmth that immediately began to calm me. “Chaya Lindner?” she said, clearly surprised.
I took a deep breath, hoping that what I had to ask wasn’t too much. I knew it was. The last thing anyone needed these days was another mouth to feed. “Will you let me stay the night? I can leave by morning if—”
“Nonsense!” Gusta wrapped an arm around my shoulders and led me inside. “Of course you’ll stay here, for as long as you want.” If there was a way to love her more in that moment, I didn’t know it.
I did stay, and it wasn’t only me. One by one that first summer, other Akiva scouts came to the farm, all of us suddenly on our own, but slowly becoming family. We worked the farm during the day and gathered each evening to socialize and study. It was a good life.
Until we thought of those we had left behind. Of our true families, most of whom were now trapped inside the ghetto during what turned out to be a very cold winter, locked behind walls with too little food and too much disease. The problems worsened with every new wave of Jews brought in from other areas of Poland. Then selections were made, and hundreds disappeared by train or were simply shot down in the street. So far, my family was not among them, but I saw other Akiva members crying, and prayed that I would never have to fully understand how they felt.
Most of the news about the ghettos came to us from another Akiva leader, a man a little older than the Draengers whom everyone called Dolek. I’d heard it was a fake name, but I never asked him about it. If he was hiding his true identity, there had to be a reason.
Where both the Draengers looked distinctly Jewish, Dolek had more Polish features. Thanks to Shimshon’s forgeries, he was able to travel nearly anywhere in the country and returned as often as possible, telling us of a war that seemed to be spreading all over the world, of Jewish resistance groups forming up in Warsaw, or worst of all, what happened to those who were taken away by train.
Which meant I was already anxious on the day he arrived from Krakow and motioned me over beside him on a bench at the back of the house. It was early in the summer of 1942, and I’d hoped the warmer weather would bring better days ahead. How wrong I was.
Dolek had just come from the Podgorze Ghetto, where my family lived.
No, it couldn’t be that.
Surely there was another reason why his mouth looked grim, his eyes so heavy, why the tone of his voice was flat when he said, “I have some terrible news for you.”
My heart constricted, enough that I could barely mumble, “Please don’t say it.”
He paused. Too long. And if he was struggling to force the words out, then it was even harder to make myself sit here, when what I really wanted was to run, somewhere, anywhere, and to keep running until the war couldn’t touch me anymore. Where it couldn’t hurt me, or those I loved.
But that was impossible.
Finally, he said, “It’s about your brother and sister. I’m so sorry.”
I stopped breathing, and the corners of my vision blurred. This wasn’t happening. Not this.
He continued, “Sara was taken away on a train … to Belzec.” Dolek’s tone was gentle, but his words struck me like a blow to the chest. “I thought you should know.”
“What is Belzec? A labor camp?”
At first, he didn’t answer. He only furrowed his brow, his somber expression full of compassion. “I’ve told you what I’ve seen there, Chaya. You already know what it is.”
A death camp.
Sara was barely eight years old. She knew nothing of war or violence. She’d fallen victim to a level of hatred she couldn’t begin to comprehend.
Enormous tears spilled onto my cheeks, which I was certain would never dry. But he wasn’t finished. I squeaked out, “My brother?”
“The same night as
your sister was taken, your brother failed to return home.”
Yitzchak was twelve at the time. He loved to build things with his hands, but my father had hoped Yitz would join him in his shoe repair business instead. Like my mother, he used to sing.
Maybe he was still alive.
We might never know for sure.
On the day my little sister was sent to her death, I had been planting seeds in the ground, congratulating myself on having escaped the worst effects of the war. That evening, when Yitz disappeared, I’d been laughing with my friends here, planning the feast we might have when the harvest came in.
I was utterly ashamed of myself, and vowed in that very moment to find a way to remember them, to honor them. A way to bring some meaning to their loss, if I could. I just didn’t know how to do it.
My answer came later that same night as we gathered around the supper table. Dolek reported on what he’d seen and heard around Poland. About the mass graves of Jews shot dead in the forests. Our people packed so tightly onto the trains that many never survived the trip to the so-called labor camps. And if they did survive, they were likely killed upon arrival anyway.
“We know the truth,” he said. “But most of the Jews do not. They refuse to believe it, or can’t comprehend such horrors.” His eyes flicked to me. “Even when it touches their own lives.”
Then Dolek told the others about my family. There were tears and expressions of sympathy, but I was hardly the first to receive such news. Only the latest in a long line of Akiva members who were mourning friends and families still trapped in the ghettos.
Or … not in the ghettos. Not any longer.
Shimshon stood. “Our situation is becoming clear. It is time for Akiva to make a choice. Do we remain a scout group, pretending the war isn’t happening to us and never will? Or do we become something more? Let us decide our fate before it’s decided for us.”
Standing beside him, Gusta said, “Let’s be clear. Any decision we make will end with our deaths. If we do nothing, if we wait here, it’s only a matter of time before the Germans come for us and put us on the same trains.”
Dolek leaned forward to add, “Or there is a second option. What if we die on our feet, fighting back?” He grinned. “What if we prove to the Nazis, prove to the world, that not all Jews will go like lambs to the slaughter?”
Shimshon clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We will join other resistance groups. We will disrupt the Germans when we can. Above all, in every way possible we will try to save the lives of our people. If you all agree.”
As I lifted my eyes to him, I was flooded with competing emotions: fear and doubt swirling with my sadness and guilt, blending strangely into something I could only describe as excitement. I didn’t understand why I should feel such eager anticipation. None of us had military experience, or for that matter, life experience. We had no money, no connections, and no training. Our Akiva leaders weren’t pretending we had any chance to succeed.
But if we did nothing, if we continued living behind this sheer veil of safety, then we would certainly fail.
More important, I owed something to Yitzchak and Sara, and to my parents, who might eventually be forced into the death camps too. I wanted revenge for every single Jew who had already fallen, and a chance to save the life of every Jew still standing.
I was one of the first to raise my hand and say, “I’m in.” Other hands followed, both boys and girls, the youngest of us teens, and our leaders not much older. I didn’t know how someone like me could possibly make a difference, but if this was my way to honor Yitzchak and Sara, then I would do whatever my leaders asked of me.
Their request came that same night. After everyone else had left for bed, Gusta pulled me aside. “Have you heard of the couriers, Chaya?” When I shrugged, she added, “The courier’s primary job is to get in and out of the ghettos. To get in, you’ll have to forget everything that makes you Jewish.” She pursed her lips. “I’ve noticed your accent is less Jewish than the rest of ours.”
“We lived in a Polish district … before,” I said. “My parents sent me to the public schools with Poles.”
She smiled, obviously pleased. “Were you often mistaken for being Polish?”
“More than I was thought to be Jewish.” In contrast to many Jews, my hair was blonde, my complexion a little lighter. I spoke Polish as fluently as I did Yiddish, the language of most Jews in Poland, and I even spoke a little German.
Gusta’s face became grim when she said, “I won’t lie to you, Chaya. This is a very dangerous job. As a courier, you will smuggle in food or money, maybe forged identification papers or items of greater risk. At all times, you will have information about the resistance. If you are caught, you might be shot on sight. More likely, you will be tortured first.”
My eyes widened. “Tortured?”
She didn’t hesitate. “The invaders will do whatever they can to extract the information they want. If they don’t succeed with you, they will threaten your loved ones or fellow prisoners. They might kill them right in front of you. But under no circumstances can you ever tell them what you know. Not one word, Chaya, or everything we are doing here is lost.”
I couldn’t pretend that her words didn’t frighten me, and she saw my hesitation, quickly adding, “Focus on the goals of the resistance. Remember why we are doing this. If you can focus, you will lose the fear. Lose the fear, and you will save lives.”
“What about my friends?” I asked. “Jakub, Rubin …”
“Boys cannot be couriers—with the circumcision, it’s too easy to identify them as Jewish. And only a few specific girls can do the job. Girls with your look. Girls with your courage.”
Girls like me with little to lose. Which meant my decision was made.
“I’ll do it.”
My training began immediately. Within a month, I had completed my first successful mission inside the Lublin Ghetto. The second month, I smuggled in my first weapon. By the third month, I was arranging safe houses for Jews in hiding. And now it was October 1942, a month after my sixteenth birthday, and I had just made it inside the Tarnow Ghetto to undertake my most dangerous smuggling operation yet.
October 5, 1942
I didn’t have to wait for long inside the Tarnow Ghetto before a tall, gangly boy approached me. He might’ve been my age, sixteen, but his bony face made him look older than he probably was. He looked at me as if he knew who I was, and I gave him a distinct nod of confirmation.
“Did Dolek send you?” he asked cautiously.
“He did.” If this boy knew Dolek’s name, it was enough proof that we could trust each other.
The boy sighed, obviously relieved. “My name is Fishel. I arranged this meeting.”
Fishel probably wasn’t his real name either, but I wouldn’t ask for anything more, nor would I tell him my name. Information was a dangerous currency. We were better off knowing as little about each other as possible.
He added, “We expected you here earlier. We’re running out of time.”
Maybe he wasn’t aware that among other challenges of living in an occupied country, the Nazi soldiers were hardly going to make it convenient for a Jewish courier to smuggle stolen items in and out of a sealed ghetto.
But I pressed my lips together, reminding myself that he couldn’t know that. Fishel was trapped in here, as isolated from the outside world as any other resident. I only said, “Then let’s not waste time standing here.”
Fishel immediately led me deeper into the ghetto, obviously in a hurry. “Is there any news from outside?”
“No good news. Is the … package ready?” The question set my heart pounding. Smuggling out of a ghetto was far more dangerous than smuggling in.
“It was. I hope nothing has changed.”
We passed a boy lying on the street, half-clothed, without shoes, and so still that I’d thought he was dead. But his eyes trac
ked us as we passed. Why were we just passing him by?
I touched Fishel’s arm. “Should we—”
“He’ll be gone by morning. Our efforts must be for those who can be saved.” Fishel’s tone wasn’t cold, just realistic, which was almost worse.
We left the boy behind, but his eyes would follow me forever. He wasn’t the first person I’d seen who was starving. First, they begged on their feet, then they sat, then all they could do was lie on the ground, as this boy was doing. In ordinary times, I would never have walked away from someone in such desperate need.
But these were not ordinary times. How often must I be reminded of that?
“Someone will collect his body tomorrow.” Fishel had chosen his words carefully, and I understood them. The boy wouldn’t be buried tomorrow. A burial required the Judenrat to make a record of his death. But if a family kept his body in hiding, they could use his ration card to get an extra share of food. Use his death to give themselves a better chance for life.
We entered an apartment with crumbling plaster walls and a door with a spray of bullet holes through its center. “There was an Aktion last month,” he explained, still in that matter-of-fact tone. I tried not to look, tried not to think about who had hidden here and why, and how futile it had been. Anywhere outside the ghetto, this building would have been condemned long ago, but here, the Judenrat was forced to consider these adequate living conditions. They wouldn’t be adequate for one’s worst enemy.
Trying to survive the ghettos was like treading water. You might keep your head up for a while, but if you didn’t get out, eventually you would go under.
“Is that her?” A woman stepped from the shadows, squinting against the light and looking as ghostly as if she had been an actual apparition. She had a rash on one arm that spread up and across her neck. When she began coughing, my suspicions were confirmed.
This woman had typhus, the plague of the ghettos. Whenever possible, we tried to smuggle in vaccinations, but even if I’d had one, they were almost always kept for the children.