Little Left to Lose

A few days before Christmas, in 1942, members of the Akiva youth movement undertook a suicidal act of revenge

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"We are fighting over three lines of history just so that it not be said that our youth went like sheep to the slaughter." With this sentence, Aharon Dolek Libeskind concluded the last Friday night gathering of his Akiva group members who became active in the Hehalutz Halohem underground movement before they embarked on a revenge mission in 1942.

"The Akiva movement taught its members to preserve human dignity, the most basic value undermined by the Germans," Yehuda (Poldek ) Maimon, a member of the movement and subsequently the underground, said this week. "Humiliation is worse than death and given these values, we decided to take up arms. We did not go like sheep to the slaughter."

Members of the Akiva youth movement in Krakow in 1924.Credit: David Bachar

Recently, The Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies obtained a collection of photographs from Dov Yohannes, a member of the Akiva youth movement leadership, documenting its activities in the early 1930s. Akiva was the largest Zionist youth movement in Poland, with 1,200 members, and was active in Krakow since 1924.

The movement's primary goals in ordinary times were to teach Hebrew and provide classes in Bible and Jewish history. Later on, its leaders were among the founders of the Jewish Fighting Organization, which was active in the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. Maimon, 87, a Krakow native, joined the movement shortly after the start of the war, when he was 15. After a few meetings, the members found themselves in a completely changed reality. "With the start of the war, people dispersed and Shimshon Drenger, one of the movement's leaders, started gathering the members who remained in the area," recalls Maimon. "Youth, by nature, are resilient, but there were only a few dozen left. I was a member of the group led by Libeskind, who gave up his immigration permit to Palestine because he did not want to leave his charges behind."

In March 1941, roughly 20,000 Jews were moved into the Krakow Ghetto. In early 1942, rumors of genocide began circulating. The older members refused to believe the rumors, but the younger members understood that it was time to take action. "In August 1942, a decision was made to form an underground," recalls Maimon. "That's when Hehalutz Halohem was established. As someone with Polish features, I was the contact between the headquarters and the military wing of the Communist party which cooperated with us. We carried out various operations such as taking over trains that transported food to the front. When the first deportations to the Belzec death camp began, we knew we didn't have a lot of time, and at the last Friday night social gathering, we planned a major operation. Dolek said, 'Jews must fight for Jewish dignity and whoever is worried here about staying alive doesn't belong with us.' We knew there was not much chance that we would survive."

In December 1942, two days before Christmas, the underground members knew that the local cafes, including the popular cafe, Zingaria, would be filled with senior Gestapo officers. They went out and tossed homemade grenades at them, causing significant losses to the Germans. But then someone turned them in, and Gestapo men were waiting and arrested most of them. Libeskind, who had killed two Gestapo men, committed suicide in order not to fall into German hands. "I stayed alive, and when I returned to the hut where the underground members were arrested I met two Gestapo men who left me alone thanks to a bribe of cigarettes," says Maimon. "After that we needed money. So we did some robberies wearing Gestapo uniforms, and then I was arrested. In jail I met a few other members of the movement."

In April 1943, Maimon was sent to Auschwitz, where he became ill. After three weeks, he was hospitalized, and it seemed that he was destined for the crematorium. "I thought I was the last of the fighters and that no one would know about our group," he recalls. "So I approached a male nurse who was working there and started to tell him about what had happened and discovered that he was an Akiva member. He helped me stay in the hospital."

Maimon managed to escape from Auschwitz, and in February 1945, a month after the liberation of the city, returned to Krakow. "The movement instilled in us values that brought only a few of us to Israel, a dream we never imagined we would have the privilege of fulfilling, but we focused on action. Now the only thing that remains for us is to tell the story so that the history and these values are preserved."

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