The Legacy of a Holocaust Hero Condemned to Life

Researcher Avihu Ronen's journey in search of his mother, Warsaw ghetto fighter Chajka Klinger, is extraordinary for being a combination of a fascinating history book, meticulous research and a very poignant memoir.

Nidona Lehayim: Yomaneha Vehayeha Shel Chajka Klinger (Condemned to Life: The Diaries and Life of Chajka Klinger), by Avihu Ronen.

The University of Haifa and Yedioth Books, 630 pages, NIS 118

It has been nearly 73 years since the outbreak of World War II, and we are approaching the day when the story of the Holocaust will be told only by the descendants of survivors, and by historians and fiction writers.

Indeed, this process has already begun. To prevent the story from becoming remote, frozen in the last century, as it were, many contemporary artists attempt to cast its shadow over the present day. Take “Sarah’s Key,” a realistic but fictional novel from 2007 (which was turned into a movie three years later) that interweaves the experiences of Sarah, a Jewish girl lost in Vichy France, and a non-Jewish journalist in the present who retraces Sarah’s story. In this way the Holocaust does not become trapped in the terrible period of 1939 to 1945, but can touch subsequent generations with its ripples and echoes. As does “Sarah’s Key,” “Condemned to Life” contains two stories: that of the girl in the Holocaust and that of the researcher who gradually discovers her tale. In this case, the researcher is Avihu Ronen, who teaches Jewish history at the University of Haifa, and the girl is his mother, Chajka Klinger, whose diary entries are incorporated into Ronen’s thoroughly researched biography of his mother.

Ronen did not grow to maturity in the care of his mother. She died on April 18, 1958, when he was just 9-years-old. On the first anniversary of her death, he read her book, “Ghetto Diary,” describing her experience in the ghetto and published that year by Sifriat Poalim. But only at age 14 did he discover that she had not died of heart disease, as he and his two brothers had been told, but had hanged herself.

Much later he realized that his mother, a member of the underground in the Polish city of Bedzin who maintained contact with her comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto, chose to take her life exactly on the 15th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and to join her dead comrades.

Ronen’s journey in search of his mother is extraordinary for being a combination of a fascinating history book, meticulous research and a very poignant memoir. It is no surprise that the book was, very justly, awarded the University of Haifa’s coveted Bahat prize for a nonfiction academic book. Ronen investigated, compared, cross-checked and verified different versions of his mother’s diaries and other writings in Polish, examining her historical truth in light of the sometimes conflicting information and commentaries that have been collected over the years. He supplements his portrait of the puzzle of her life and death with interviews conducted with people who knew her.

Ronen leads the reader through the Europe of the 1930s and ‘40s, which is the heart of the book, and its most important part, toward 1950s Israel, and Chajka’s attempts to find meaning in her life on a kibbutz. Then onward to 1985, when Ronen began researching his mother’s life and considered turning it into the subject of his doctoral dissertation; and, finally, to the present day when, after 25 years of work, he finished the book. It is almost paradoxical that few children ever know their parents as deeply as Avihu Ronen grew to know his mother, although the years they actually spent together were few.

Invasion of Poland

It is hard not to marvel at Chajka Klinger. She was born in Bedzin, Poland, in 1917, into a poor Hasidic family. Her parents owned a small grocery store that barely supplied them with a living. As a young woman, she discovered education, secularism and the socialist Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. She joined an agricultural training group in preparation for settlement in Kibbutz Galon, on the coastal plain, but the September 1, 1939, the German invasion of Poland prevented the group’s immigration to Palestine, which had been planned for September 5. Bedzin and Sosnowiec were the leading towns of the Zagemblie (or Zaglebie Dabrowskie) region, which, rich in mines and heavy industry, was annexed to Germany.

Klinger and her friends from Hashomer Hatzair, the cream of Jewish youth, occupied themselves with education and welfare activities in an impossible situation of persecution, torture and starvation. The German regime ordered all educational institutions to shut down; Klinger and her friends established an underground nursery and school, teaching Hebrew and providing food and clothing to the children, because “a new generation has arisen: street children,” she wrote in a diary excerpt Ronen quotes in the book. “We won’t allow them to be a generation of dunces.” At the agricultural station they erected near the city, “we conducted memorial ceremonies for [Theodor] Herzl and [Haim Nahman] Bialik. ... Two young women from Palestine are here with us; they came to visit their parents and the war caught them by surprise. They sing songs for us about the Galilee, the Kinneret: songs of struggle. And suddenly our sorrow and longing disappear.”

Klinger wrote in detail about everything that happened in Bedzin, and about her family and the youth movement. With great writing skill and a sharp eye, with a Marxist perspective and a critical view of society, she described the ghetto, the black market, Jews who cheated fellow Jews, small children disguised as Aryans and working as smugglers (“The children here are good at business. While walking down the street, you will hear the price of a gold dollar, a paper one, the pound sterling. ... The children are being corrupted.”).

She was especially repelled by the Judenrat, the Jewish council used by the Nazis to carry out their orders, and the man who oversaw the councils in the Zaglembie region. Mosze (Moniek) Meryn was “a former card player, adventurer and frequenter of night clubs, one of those daring enough to place all his hopes on one card,” Klinger wrote. “Now he collaborates with the Germans.” She was one of the few prominent opponents of cooperating with him. She was distraught about the Judenrat sending the children of the Bedzin orphanage to the death camps, and about the younger people who sought to evade deportation and “turned over their old father or mother [to go in their place]. ‘Why should the whole family suffer,’ they would say.”

Klinger eluded the mass selections and the murder of the thousands of Jews in Bedzin and Sosnowiec with great difficulty. In August 1942, “hatred of the Jewish police is deepening,” she wrote. “The time will come to settle accounts with them. They have already accumulated fortunes. They receive payment for forwarding a letter to someone who has been deported. They understand nothing except the language of money. Some of them have helped us, but they are in the minority.

Now the Judenrat reveals its true face everywhere. We have always known that it blindly carries out all the German orders, and serves as a tool to mislead the Jews. They poison the Jewish public every day, distracting it from the tragic end that is coming, and weakening its power to resist and rebel.”

Klinger, who was a close friend of Mordecai Anielewicz, who led the Warsaw Ghetto resistance, joined the underground in her region. Simultaneous uprisings were planned for Bedzin, Warsaw, Bialystok and Vilna. She saw the goal as engraving resistance in the annals of history. “We don’t want to defend ourselves, because we won’t succeed, but to die honorably as human beings. We have taken on a social role: We won’t let them sleep in peace, allow them to thrive on illusions, to murder an entire people. We must bring the truth into the open ... the mass murder of the Jewish people.” She was badly tortured by the Gestapo when she was discovered carrying weapons; she barely survived, and bore the scars for the rest of her life.

Klinger wrote about what she viewed as the movement’s moral decline in the face of death. (“We started getting drunk; we even became permissive about sex.”) She wrote about informers in the Jewish community and the Zionist movements in Bedzin, naming the culprits. It’s embarrassing to read that emissaries of the pioneer movements in Palestine hurried out of Europe to save themselves and abandoned their flocks to their fate.

‘Please notify Grandpa Meir’

In his biography, Ronen reproduces diary entries written by his mother that had previously been censored by the publisher in the 1950s because they did not toe the Hashomer Hatzair line or paint a picture of solidarity between its members, in Bedzin and in Palestine. No doubt Klinger was not helped by her own critical view of the comportment of the Hashomer Hatzair leadership during the period when she and her friends in Poland were begging for weapons, money and moral support.
Klinger was the person who delivered the bitter news of the death of Mordecai Anielewicz and his comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in a coded, hair-raising letter that arrived in Palestine in May of 1943: “I am writing to ask you to please notify Grandpa Meir that his dear children who worked for the lady of the house Toussia, Mordecai and Mira have traveled to Yosef Kaplan. You did not know Mordecai. He was an extraordinarily talented man. He was the father of Hagana [Hebrew for “defense”] and loved her as no man ever loved a daughter. Grandpa can be proud of his children.” This was Klinger’s way of letting Grandpa Meir (Meir Yaari, the ideological leader of the Hashomer kibbutz movement) know that his “dear children,” the heads of the Jewish uprising, had fallen. The fact that it took the letter’s recipients a long time to determine the identity of Mordecai Anielewicz is proof of the distance and alienation between the leadership in Palestine and the movement’s members in Poland.

With the death of most of the members of the resistance, the noose began to tighten around Chajka Klinger. In a letter from the summer of 1943, she wrote that “we believe that we will soon move with our whole family to live with Mr. Mavet[death]sky.” At a certain stage, the last of the surviving members of Jewish underground decided that Klinger would be condemned to life, so she could tell others what had happened effectively overruling her argument that leaders should die with the people they led rather than abandon them to save themselves.

Rejected all her complaints

In March of 1944, Chajka Klinger became the first female ghetto fighter to arrive in Palestine. Shortly after she arrived, she spoke at an executive committee meeting of Kibbutz Haartzi and reproached the movement for “not showing great concern for the Jewish community in Poland.”

“We wanted help, weapons, people,” she said. “We didn’t want you to lament us.” Yaari received her coolly. “I don’t accept the claim that we abandoned the movement abroad,” he said, and rejected all her complaints.

Klinger, who had never been fearful or allowed anything to get in her way, began to lose strength. It is painful to read Ronen’s book and learn how this opinionated and energetic woman, a leader of the underground who was known in the ghetto as La Pasionaria (after the heroine of the Spanish Civil War), was struck dumb and began to fade. Only small sections of the diaries that were so important to her were published, attenuated by heavy censorship.

As her public role diminished, Klinger started a family with Benito Rosenberg (later Hebraicized to “Ronen”), a Holocaust survivor from Slovakia. They lived on Kibbutz Galon, and afterwards on Kibbutz Haogen, where she worked at various odd jobs. She had been involved with the education of children in the ghetto and wanted to be a teacher or a child care worker, but was not allowed to do so. After the birth of Avihu, her second child, she began to suffer from depression and was hospitalized. Her third pregnancy and childbirth brought about another, more difficult crisis. In his research, her son discovered that “during treatment she was made to recall being tortured by the Gestapo.” She refused to be hospitalized again, then relented.

The night before she was to go, Avihu recalls being visited by her in the kibbutz children’s quarters. “Mother wore a long coat, like someone preparing for a journey. They told me that she wanted to say good-bye before she left,” he wrote in his book. Avihu and his brothers went to bed reassured. In the morning she was found hanging from a tree. It was the 15th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Condemned to Life” is not only a hair-raising personal testimony from the Holocaust that had been partly silenced, and is not only a meticulous historical analysis of the bigger picture. It is also a book that is very much about a family living in the shadow of a mother’s suicide. At first her image fades, but it is gradually restored. The fragments of her character are distributed among her three sons and the grandchildren she didn’t live to see.

“Each one of us has fought in two or three wars,” Ronen writes of himself and his brothers. “We were granted arms and the military training she sorely lacked in the ghetto. The three of us became officers. But our mother’s legacy was never militaristic. She was a rebel. Consciously or not, we have followed in her footsteps.”

He and his brother Arnon refused to serve in the territories during the intifada, and three of Klinger’s grandchildren refused to serve in the Israeli army at all. Fifty years after her death, they have become reconciled with her memory. At a recent memorial ceremony for Klinger, her descendants decided not to sing the Song of the Partisans, originally written in Yiddish: “After all, we live [in Israel] now, and no longer need [to sing] ‘Our step beats out the message: We are here!’” writes Avihu Ronen.

Eilat Negev is the author, with Yehuda Koren, of “In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe a Dwarf Family’s Survival of the Holocaust,” published by Carroll & Graf.

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