Opinion |

Female Spearheads of the Uprising

The untold story of the courier girls whose wit and daring made them key players in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Sharon Geva
Sharon Geva
In this 1943 file photo, a group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter
Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troopsCredit: AP
Sharon Geva
Sharon Geva

Next week will be the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which started on April 19, 1943 and became the symbol of Jewish heroism during the Holocaust. It was an organized struggle of young men and women in various movements who joined the underground organizations, which in turn became a family to them. Women filled various roles in these underground movements, most prominently as underground couriers (“kashariot”). In Israel, certainly among those who served in the army, kashariot are seen as filling a low-profile, supporting role. But in the ghetto underground it was frontline warfare.

An underground courier in the ghetto traveled illegally from city to city, ghetto to ghetto, disguised as an Aryan. She smuggled news, documents, money, revolvers, hand grenades, food and medical supplies. She often went on missions alone. The tasks were planned in advance, but carrying them out frequently demanded deviating from the plan, requiring resourcefulness, maneuverability and above all moral strength.

“Even during the hours of tension, on the verge of exhaustion, the couriers had to pretend they were gay and cheerful,” recounted Zivia Lubetkin, one of the leaders of the Jewish Combat Organization. “Many times they found themselves on the threshold of death before completing their task. One by one they were caught by the Germans and many of them were murdered.”

Historian Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, founder of the Oneg Shabbat project chronicling the Warsaw Ghetto, which became the most important archive created during the Holocaust, mentioned in his writing that “... the story of the Jewish woman will be a glorious page in the history of Judaism during the present war.”

In May 1942 he wrote: “These heroic girls are in mortal danger every day. Without a murmur, without a moment of hesitation they accept and carry out the most dangerous missions. Nothing stands in their way.”

“Whenever friends form Vilna, Lublin or other cities had to be saved – they took it on themselves. How many times have they seen death eye to eye? How many times have they been arrested, how many times have they been searched?” he wrote.

The “right” appearance was necessary for success, and women with Aryan looks who spoke fluent Polish with the proper accent were chosen for the task.

Prejudice protected the women: Nobody expected them to use weapons, so it was easier for them to pass roadblocks and checkpoints without being arrested. Physical strength wasn’t crucial to success and above all, their Judaism wasn’t marked on their body. As the deputy commander of the Jewish Combat Organization, Yitzhak Zuckerman (nom de guerre, Antek) said: “As a man, the slightest suspicion would be enough for them to take off my pants and see that I’m Jewish.”

But sending women on dangerous missions didn’t reflect a change in the attitude toward men’s and women’s roles. The meager personnel at the underground’s disposal made it imperative to use women, and their chances to succeed in missions outside the ghetto were better. But although they proved that women can do men’s jobs and excel, when the emergency was over, each one was expected to resume her traditional role.

The role of the underground courier, despite its vital contribution to the missions’ success, is relegated to the footnotes. Even in the underground, the courier’s job was to hand over something, not to decide – she wasn’t the commander. No wonder, then, that this task was almost exclusively reserved for women.

But reality in the ghettos turned the courier’s role upside down. The underground movements’ battlefield was the alleys and streets and railway coaches and stations. These women were not marginal or secondary. So 75 years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when these women’s acts in the ghetto underground and uprising are told, instead of saying “couriers” we should say “spearheads.” This term may demonstrate the role’s significance and perhaps help to know the women who filled it better.

In the book “Those Seven Years: 1939-1946,” Zuckerman tells about a courier who accompanied him on his travels. “Lonka was a very good courier; efficient and responsible. I made sure someone always accompanies me on trips, and traveled a lot with Lonka. The purpose was that if anything happens to me, I wouldn’t be like a stone that sank in the sea. ... If I get caught, at least my courier will know what happened to me.”

He fought in the Warsaw Ghetto, survived, and was one of the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot and the Ghetto Fighters House museum. His name is known and his life’s work and heroism will be remembered forever. Leah-Lonka Kozibrodska died in 1943. Don’t let her and her female colleagues be like stones that sank in the sea.

The book “To the Unknown Sister: Holocaust Heroines in Israeli society” by Dr. Geva was published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad.

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