Women in the Jewish Resistance to Nazi Occupation
Like many other middle-class Jewish women, Mrs. R3 began to sell family possessions such as jewelry and, household items. When they were forced out of their home and into the ghetto, the family's situation deteriorated. still further. At this point, Mrs. R3 became determined to find a job; as she explained to Slepak, she felt unable to remain inactive.
Her goal was to become superintendent of one of the apartment buildings on Leszno Street - a position that commanded a monthly salary of fifty zloty a month, paid by the Judenrat. At first, despite various connections with the Judenrat, Mrs. R3 failed to gain the post. It went instead to a middle-aged musician, who lived with his son's family. Mrs. R3 refused to accept this situation. Capitalizing on the fact that many thefts were taking place in the building, she organized a petition to replace the superintendent and eventually succeeded in gaining the position for herself
Mrs. R3's organizing abilities now became even more apparent. She proved to be extremely hard-working in her new job, working each day from 5:30 a.m. until late in the evening. She maintained a clean and well-run building, and kept beggars, thieves and other intruders far away -- assisted in all these tasks by her two sons and, occasionally, by her husband. Her sons, for instance, developed a system (based. on the brief time tag between the knocking on the building's entrance door and its opening) to warn young male tenants of upcoming nighttime raids, which became more frequent in the spring of 1942. In these raids, conducted mostly by the SS but sometimes assisted by Jewish police or informers, people were either murdered, arrested or seized for forced labor. Mrs. R3 also cultivated a good working relationship with the Jewish police who periodically came to check the building's level of cleanliness and efficiency. By serving as the tenants' intermediary, Mrs. R3 spared the people in her building from excess harassment and the need to pay bribes.
Mrs. R3's many connections, resulting both from her job and from the location of her building, enabled her and her sons to become middlemen in various business transactions between residents of the ghetto and Poles. As such, they received a percentage of all goods or money that changed hands. Mrs. R3 also showed an altruistic side, helping to trace the relatives of Jewish children who were sent from other ghettos to Warsaw after their families had been deported.
Are we witnessing in this story a form of resistance that was typical to many other women of middle and lower middle class? The answer of research is positive. The most significant changes in family relations came about in consequence of women's working outside the house and the resultant declining position of the husband as chief provider. For some, this was a shift that occurred at the beginning of the war when many family businesses were destroyed or badly damaged. Husbands lost their source of income for the weeks and months it took to make the necessary repairs -- and by that time, many of the ghettos were already being set up. Barred from their former places of business, Jewish men were now at risk whenever they walked on the streets - fair play for harassment, or for being seized and taken away for forced labor. Sometimes they were taken for local work, but they could also be sent outside the city, returning home weeks or months later, often broken physically or in spirit. Fearing the consequences of being seized, many Jewish men stayed off the streets during daylight hours. In one way or another, a sizable number of ghetto families found themselves without an adult male provider.
Thus women, in particular, were forced to take the initiative. Some took their husbands' place in selling merchandise or else leased equipment or vehicles such as a horse and cart, which were then hired out. Before the ghettos were established, they petitioned the authorities for permission to reopen or start new businesses, and pleaded for the right to send clothing and medicine to husbands who had been arrested or deported. They took care of home repairs and, when necessary, found new temporary quarters for their families. All of these tasks were unfamiliar to women, and were part of the initial confrontation with the violence and chaos of the occupation. Children, who were out of school for months at a time, helped. as well, holding a place in lines for food and water or taking care of younger siblings. In the ghetto, many of them became smugglers.
From here I would like to move to the better-known phenomenon of armed resistance.
Henri Michel the French historian identified a number of necessary conditions for a resistance movement to develop and survive. Among them were: the availability of arms and experienced military personnel; support of a government inside or outside the occupied territory to supply means and information; an authoritative chain of command; and the support of the population to provide shelter and cover for the resistance members at risk. It was of utmost importance for the resistance to become part of a general plan to fight the enemy (Germans). These essential elements help to explain why the resistance movements in Europe began in the last two years of the war, when the signs the victory of the democracies were clear.
Jews, however, lacked almost all of the requirements for launching an armed. resistance, while at the same time, they were the only group 'intended for complete annihilation. In spite of this, the first major uprising against the Germans was in the ghetto of Warsaw. In smaller ghettos in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union many other attempts to fight the Nazis took place earlier, in 1941 and the beginning of 1942.
What was the nature of the Jewish armed resistance? It consisted mostly of young people who were part of the Zionist, Bundist, and Communist youth movements. Armed resistance emerged in the last stages just before or after the community experienced mass deportations. A long process of realization of the true meaning of Nazi policy had preceded it. One of the first preparatory stages for resistance was the establishment of communication lines between the isolated ghettos through which information, decisions, and arms were exchanged. These lines of communications were formed from the beginning of the occupation when the Jews were confined to the ghettos and barred from using trains and other means of transportation.
Even when armed revolts took place only in a few of the ghettos, with only a very small group of young people being involved, in the eyes of the resistance leaders the meaning of the revolt embraced the total Jewish community. The chance of being rescued and surviving after an armed resistance were very slim. The motivation of the resistance members did not result from any hope of rescue, but rather was a decision of how best to die. It was a rejection of being captive in the Nazi death plan for the Jews. And an added value was to kill as many Germans as possible in the process of dying.
It is in this spirit that we should read Mordechai Anielewicz's last letter of April 23, 1943:
It is impossible to put into words what we have been through. One thing is clear, what happened exceeded our boldest dreams. The Germans ran twice from the ghetto. One of our companies held out for 40 minutes and another - for more than 6 hours. The mine set in the "brushmakers" area exploded. Several of our companies attacked the dispersing Germans. Our losses in manpower are minimal. That is also an achievement. Yechiel fell. He fell a hero at the machine gun. Great things are happening and what we dared do is of great and enormous importance. The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality . Jewish armed resistance and Revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent heroic fighting of Jewish men of battle."