If there is a single story of female resistance that amazes and intrigues me to no end, it would have to be the story of the intrepid women who served as “couriers” during the Holocaust. These Jewish women and girls traveled between isolated ghettos with nothing but forged documents and incredible moxie to protect them. They brought information and inspiration, as well as ammunition, to the Jewish underground movements trapped in the ghettos. It is safe to say that without these bold and fearless women, resistance in the ghettos might not have occurred.
The pronouncement made on New Year’s Eve 1942 gives context to this story. The pronouncement, one of the most powerful primary sources contained in Echoes & Reflections, can be found in the unit on Jewish Resistance. Abba Kovner, its author, was a young activist in the Vilna ghetto who became aware that tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered in the forest at Ponary in the fall of 1941. On New Year’s Eve 1942 Kovner stood before about 150 youth group members and called for armed resistance:
“… Hitler is plotting to annihilate all the Jews of Europe. […] [T]he only response to the enemy is resistance! Brothers! It is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of murderers.”
Kovner’s proclamation represented a turning point: it was the first time anyone had posited in writing that the murder of the Jews was more than just haphazard localized incidents; that there was a plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. It was also a turning point in the response it demanded: armed resistance against the Germans.
But how could this call for resistance be spread? Jews were trapped behind the walls and fences of isolated ghettos. They were not allowed to travel by train. They were marked by the Star of David so they could be easily hunted. Their mail was censored and they were forbidden to have radios. These German policies intentionally cut off contact among Jewish communities, and they were very effective. And even if the call for resistance could somehow be disseminated, how exactly were the Jews to resist? They had no arms, no ammunition, nothing but their bare hands.
In this seemingly impossible situation, there were those who stepped into the breach. We call them the “couriers”. The couriers were generally young women and girls who belonged to youth movements and were dedicated to the cause of resisting the Germans. They braved danger and death in order to serve as the lifeline between Jewish communities throughout war-torn Eastern Europe. Disguised as non-Jews, with braided hair, peasant kerchiefs on their heads and false names, they transported information, newspapers, money, and ultimately also ammunition and weapons across borders and into ghettos. They relied on forged travel permits and sheer chutzpah to bluff their way through multiple police inspections, document checks, and border controls. They were always at risk of being unmasked, and always under the threat of death. Their task required great courage, quick wits, and nerves of steel. It was said of these women by Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jewish historian and founder of the Oneg Shabbat archives in the Warsaw ghetto,“Nothing stands in their way. Nothing deters them. […] How many times have they looked death in the eyes? How many times have they been arrested and searched? […] The story of the Jewish woman will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war.”
Why were the couriers predominantly women? The Germans imposed the death penalty on any Jew found outside the ghettos. Jewish men on the streets generated suspicion – why weren’t they at work? In addition, men could easily be identified because they were circumcised. It was much easier for women: they had no physical sign of their Jewishness. They could stroll the streets, seemingly carefree. They were also more likely to speak the local language; many had been educated in secular schools in Polish, while their male counterparts had undergone religious instruction in Yiddish.
Vladka Meed, who appears in the Echoes & Reflections unit on The Children and Legacies Beyond the Holocaust, worked as a courier on the Aryan side of Warsaw. She smuggled weapons into the Warsaw ghetto that were later used to resist the Germans in the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which occurred 75 years ago this April. In her book, On Both Sides of the Wall, Vladka tells of having to quickly repack a carton of dynamite into smaller packages in order to pass it into the ghetto through the grate of a factory window. As she and the Polish watchman, who had been bribed, worked frantically in the dark, the watchman trembled like a leaf. When they finally finished, the watchman “stood there flushed, drenched in perspiration and unnerved. […] ‘I’ll never risk it again,’ the watchman mumbled. ‘I was scared to death.’” In addition to smuggling weapons into the ghetto, Vladka smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto, finding hiding places for them in the hopes of saving their lives.
The word “courier” does not do justice to Vladka and others like her. They were much more than messengers. They were the first to smuggle weapons into many of the Eastern European ghettos, risking their lives to do so. They brought hope, along with information, to Jews who would otherwise have been cut off from the entire world. They were incredibly brave and many died trying to fulfill their missions. They are icons of heroism, and they shatter many common stereotypes: that the Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter, and that women are less capable than men of resistance.
About the Author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.
For more information, please see the following resources:
For a more in-depth discussion about Abba Kovner and resistance, view the Video Toolbox film on Jewish Resistance.
The full text of Abba Kovner’s Pronouncement is contained in Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, Abraham Margaliot, eds., Documents on the Holocaust, Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981), p. 433.
For short films about the Oneg Shabbat archive, see The Oneg Shabbat Underground Archive In The Warsaw Ghetto and Emanuel Ringelblum.
Emmanuel Ringelblum’s full diary entry can be found in Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jacob Sloan, ed. and transl., (New York: Schocken Paperback, 1974), pp. 273-274.
Vladka Meed describes her travails in Warsaw during the Holocaust in her book, On Both Sides of the Wall (Israel: The Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1973), p. 129. Her testimony can be seen on the IWitness website.