WARSAW – When she arrived at Treblinka on one of the last transports from the Warsaw ghetto, Ruth Dorfmann was 20. It was a bitterly cold day in January 1943. The last person to speak to her was Samuel Willenberg, the prisoner in charge of shaving the heads of women bound for the gas chambers. Dorfmann had no illusions about what awaited her, he would later recall.
She sat naked and shivering on a bench as he cut off her long, beautiful locks. And as he would testify years later, during this brief encounter she asked him how long it would take until the gas took effect.
When he failed to reply, she pressed on. “Will it hurt?” she asked.
Willinger did not answer that question, either. But before heading to her death, Dorfmann turned to him and made one final request. “Please let the world know that there was once a young girl name Ruth Dorfmann,” she said. “Let the world know that this girl dreamed of becoming an architect one day and that she wanted to live so badly.”
Not one of us had heard of Ruth Dorfmann before this visit to the grounds of Treblinka. But she would not be the first woman we would be introduced to during the course of this trip whose story – as much as it deserved to be known – had somehow fallen between the cracks of history.
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Just the day before, in fact, we were presented with perhaps the most glaring example of all.
We had been roaming through the vast Jewish cemetery in Warsaw when we came upon a statue we all recognized immediately. It depicted a man carrying a child in his arms, with a group of children trailing close behind. How could anyone coming from Israel not be familiar with Janusz Korczak, the great Holocaust hero who run the Warsaw ghetto orphanage and volunteered to accompany his charges to the gas chambers of Treblinka? After all, there is hardly a city in Israel that doesn’t have a street or some institution named in his honor.
But as we gathered around the statue, our group leader and guide informed us we would be skipping over the story of Korczak. Clearly, she noted, we were all well versed in the details. Instead, she would be telling us the story of the woman who worked side-by-side with him at the orphanage and boarded the very same train bound for Treblinka.
The big difference is that hardly anyone knows the name of Stefania (“Stefa”) Wilczynska. And as our guide noted, “You won’t find any statue of her here.”
Two months ago, I participated in a first-of-its-kind organized trip from Israel to Poland. We were all women on this trip, 26 of us (not counting our Israeli guide, our Polish guide and our bus driver), ranging in age from 18 to 75. What brought us together was a common desire to dig up and highlight stories such as these about the many women – rescuers, survivors and victims of the Holocaust – often overlooked by history.
Most of us, it would later emerge, had experienced similar reservations over the years about traveling to Poland. It was something we had always planned on doing but never quite got around to it, mainly because we couldn’t find a trip that was the right fit. The cookie-cutter-style organized tours lacked appeal, but neither were we adventurous enough to do Poland on our own.
All of us wanted something different, but couldn’t quite put our fingers on what it was until it came along.
Our sisters we do seek
Michal Rosolio, our Israeli guide, had been leading trips to Poland for more than a decade – largely high school and army groups. But it had always been her dream to plan and run a trip for and about women. “It seems to me that whenever stories of women come up during these trips, it’s always through the prism of mothers,” she said. “There’s a tendency to ignore the more wide-ranging experiences of women during the Holocaust.”
No sooner had word gotten out that such a trip was in the making than it was fully booked. We called our group “Our Sisters We Do Seek,” inspired by the biblical passage referencing Joseph’s search for his brothers (Genesis 37:16).
We were an eclectic bunch, women from all over Israel, including a psychotherapist, an English teacher, a law professor, a Pilates instructor and an aspiring mayor. There were two pairs of sisters and two mother-daughter duos.
A few of us were children of Holocaust survivors, but most were not. A fair percentage of us did not even come from European backgrounds. We met only once before our trip for an orientation session where – as part of the initiation into our difficult subject matter – we heard from a spunky Israeli grandmother in her late eighties who, against all odds, had survived Auschwitz.
We touched ground in Poland in mid-April, just as tens of thousands of Jewish high school students from around the world were flying into the country to participate in the annual March of the Living event.
In order to avoid the huge crowds and noise, we had decided in advance that we would travel in the opposite direction from them. Since the March of the Living participants were starting their trip in Krakow and ending it in Warsaw, we would start in Warsaw and end in Krakow. In retrospect it turned out to be a wise decision, since for most of the trip we had the most heavily visited sites in Poland virtually all to ourselves.
From Chopin Airport in Warsaw, we headed straight to Lodz – the site of the longest-existing Jewish ghetto during the war. Our first stop was the new memorial in the city commemorating Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Gathered around a plaque in her honor, we heard how Leokadia Jaromirska, a Polish-Christian woman, had rescued an abandoned Jewish baby in October 1942 and raised her as her own. But then, about three years later, the child’s father showed up unexpectedly to claim her. Leokadia, who had no children of her own, never recovered from the heartache of losing this child, who eventually moved to Israel with her father. Just how deeply attached she remained to her was evident in the last letter she sent to Israel before she died, which, as Michal relayed to us, was signed “Mama.”
Less than a dozen meters away was another plaque, this one much bigger, commemorating two Polish rescuers whose names I recognized instantly. I discovered it almost by chance, and summoned Anya, our Polish guide, to translate the text written beneath their names. This is what it said:
“Franciszka Halamajowa and her daughter Helena, after the liquidation of the ghetto and until the Germans were expelled, sheltered in the outskirts of the town of Sokal three men, five women and five children.”
One of those five children, I proceeded to tell the group, was my father.
Our stop at this second plaque hadn’t been included in the original itinerary, but it fit the theme of our trip perfectly.
Unsung female heroes
Back in Warsaw, on a tour of the old Jewish cemetery, we visited the graves of prominent Jewish intellectuals who lived and died in this city before the war. We made a point of spending extra time, though, at the tombstone of Esther Rachel Kaminska, widely hailed as the mother of Yiddish theater and a woman who pursued her dreams before it was acceptable to do so. Kaminska was barely a teenager, we learned, when she ran away from her shtetl home to launch an acting career in the big city.
Strolling through the remains of the Warsaw ghetto, we paused to hear the story of Zofia Rosner, a little girl who had lived here during the war and was extremely attached to a doll her mother had made. This doll was her only companion during the long hours of the day she remained at home alone, while her mother was away working in a slave factory.
Eventually, a plan was put together to smuggle Zofia out of the ghetto. It almost fell through at the last moment, when the little girl realized on her way out that she had left her beloved doll behind. Zofia refused to budge until she had retrieved the doll. She eventually survived the war and moved to Israel. But by then, as we learned, she had lost both her parents. We also heard about the unsung female heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt – women like Tosia Altman and Frumka Plotnicka, who operated as couriers and smugglers, maintaining contact with Jewish resistance groups outside the ghetto and bringing in essential supplies as well as weapons.
At Majdanek concentration camp, we traced the steps of Halina Birenbaum, who was aged 15 when she was separated from her mother outside the women’s showers here. We read her detailed description of the scene of pandemonium inside, as documented in her memoirs, as well as her gut-wrenching account of discovering she would never see her mother again.
I’m not sure how many tours of Auschwitz-Birkenau devote time to the women’s outdoor toilets. But ours did. It was an opportunity to discuss some of the daily humiliations specific to women in this hell on earth. How, for example, were women supposed to cope with menstruation when they had no access to sanitary products? And how could any woman raised with basic etiquette and norms of modesty ever get used to relieving herself in public like an animal?
The Holocaust was our overriding theme, but not our exclusive focus on this trip. We also met with our non-Jewish Polish peers, many of them active in preserving Jewish memory and culture in their country. We heard from leaders of a Jewish-Polish dialogue center in Lodz, for example, and from a Hebrew language scholar from the University of Warsaw. We held a memorable Shabbat dinner in Lublin that included the traditional kiddush and challah-blessing ceremony, all run by women. And thanks to our resident psychotherapist, we took advantage of the long hours on the bus to play icebreaker games.
On our last night in Krakow, gathered around long tables in a café, we talked about which of the many stories we had heard had impacted us most.
So this was mine: It was the story of a woman whose name will probably never be known. We heard about her during our visit to Block 25 in Birkenau, a nondescript brick building where female prisoners were kept waiting before they were sent to be gassed.
Prisoners marked for death in the infamous “selections,” often too sick to work, would be sent to Block 25. In order not to waste any Zyklon B, the Nazis – known for their efficiency – would wait until a large transport had arrived at the camp and then add prisoners from Block 25 to the group headed to the gas chambers.
While they waited for the next transport to arrive, these doomed prisoners were left to lie naked in the barracks, often without any food. In the case of this one particular woman, she was so weak by the time the next transport arrived that the prisoner who was ordered to fetch her had to lift her and place her on a truck because she could not even walk. As he held this poor naked woman in his arms, he would later recall, he began to cry. Much to his surprise, she responded by thanking him.
When he asked her why she was thanking him, she told him she would now die happy, knowing she had meant enough to someone in this world to cause him to shed tears for her.
I know I was not the only woman on the trip haunted by this story.