The name Szymon Drenger, a leader of an underground group during World War II, isn’t exactly a household name. Other anti-Nazi heroes such as Mordechai Anielewicz and Abba Kovner have overshadowed him.
The fact that Drenger’s group was the first to resist the Germans — even before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — didn’t forge him a place in Israel’s collective memory. The fact that he took part in a daring revenge attack that killed 20 Germans didn’t transform him from an anonymous Holocaust victim.
Late last month, 73 years after the group's founding, people who remember the members of Hechalutz Halochem — the Fighting Pioneer — gathered in Netanya. For the first time, a street in Israel would be named after them.
“We were the first to act in Europe. Can you imagine the courage required of anyone in those days to do this? Especially for young people, the oldest of whom was 24,” says 91-year-old Yehuda Maimon, one of the few partisans still alive.
“It was enough to be seen on the street for any German to kill you on the spot. In those days, when Jews were hunted and killed, this was supreme bravery. Every Jewish boy should know about these people. You can’t break human dignity — that should be the legacy.”
The group, which had about a hundred members, was established in Krakow in August 1942 after the deportation of 6,000 of the city’s Jews in June. Drenger was a member of the four-person command.
His specialty was forging documents such as ghetto exit and entry permits, rail-travel permits and Polish identity papers. In this way members of the underground could move around.
The group killed German soldiers and Gestapo police and took their weapons. They destroyed rail lines, took shoes and clothes from warehouses, and called for revolts in other ghettos.
“These brave young people knew they didn’t stand a chance against the German enemy, but they wanted to put three lines in the history books. That’s their legacy we’re trying to fulfill,” says Lili Haber, who heads a forum of Jews from Poland.
She borrowed “three lines in the history books” from Aharon Liebskind, one of the group’s leaders. In the winter of 1942 he told his comrades: “We will fight for three lines in the history books, for this is the fight of our youth rather than going to the slaughter like sheep. It is even worthy to die.”
A few weeks later, on December 22, the group carried out its biggest operation. In those days Krakow, the capital of Polish regions not annexed to Germany — was full of German soldiers celebrating Christmas. Hechalutz Halochem attacked a favorite café of the Germans in the city center. The fighters used grenades and Molotov cocktails, killing 20.
“This was when Nazi Germany’s power was at its peak,” wrote historian Yael Peled, an expert on the group. “Following two Aktionen — roundups and deportations to death camps — by the Germans in the Krakow Ghetto, feelings of revenge surged among Jews.”
Maimon, who was then called Poldek Wasserman, took part in that operation. “Our men left that evening with a smile — it was the happiest day of the war,” he says.
“We knew we were justified in our deeds and that only through an armed operation that would cost us our lives could we show the world that disregarded Jewish lives that we hadn’t forgotten the meaning of dignity — Jewish dignity.”
Drenger and his wife Gusta (Justyna) Davidson fell into German hands three times. The first time was when Krakow was taken by the Germans; they were arrested but released for a ransom. The second time they were captured by the Gestapo but escaped. The third time, in November 1943, they were murdered. This brought an end to the underground.
The two left abundant written material that reflects their mood and thoughts.
“We've always striven for a life of freedom, but if we have to die we’ll fall as combatants to achieve a proud and worthy death. We didn’t set out to be victorious. We set out to defend our souls, which the enemy hasn’t murdered,” Drenger wrote.
“We achieved our goals. We took up arms. We didn’t want to be driven like sheep to the slaughter. We didn’t want it to be said that Polish Jews died abjectly.”
Davidson, meanwhile, left behind a diary where she recorded the underground's operations. She wrote it on toilet paper that was smuggled into her cell and hidden inside cracks in a wall. Several pages survived and were published in book form after the war. They are now kept at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel.
An ode to Israel
Further testimony can be found in pamphlets put out by the Hechalutz Halochem between August and October 1943. Drenger typed the pages while hiding from the Germans.
“It’s easier to die knowing that when we’re no longer alive people there will be the only ones to remember us with sincere emotions,” wrote Drenger on one of the sheets. By “there” he meant prestate Israel.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Rachel Dolev is Davidson’s niece. Dolev, who was born a decade after her aunt was killed, took part in a symposium during an evening commemorating Gusta. It was held at the Diaspora Museum following the ceremony in Netanya.
Dolev said her aunt taught her an important lesson: “In that chaos they took their fate into their own hands. Their legacy is that human life, dignity and liberty are paramount.”
Dolev stressed the fighters’ “unwillingness to accept the reality that was imposed on them; they would be masters of their fates, not the Germans. They didn’t leave their fate to luck or the heavens but were masters of their lives and deaths, even at that terrible time.”
There is a street in Petah Tikva named after the Drengers. Now they are commemorated in Netanya as well. There are several answers to the question why Drenger never got the recognition he deserved.
It could be because of his extreme approach — he believed that Jews had no chance of surviving the Nazi occupation so they had to “die so that the ignominy of slavery doesn’t tarnish Jews.” And maybe it’s because he wasn’t a member of the left-wing movements that dictated Israel’s collective memory in the decades after 1948.
At the symposium, the son of Drenger’s cousin also spoke — Prof. Benny Drenger, the head of the orthopedic anaesthetic department at Hadassah Medical Center.
“He believed that Jews had no chance of surviving the Nazi hell, but that their tenacious struggle gave meaning to their death,” Drenger said.
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