What is courage? Do we all have the ability to act heroically? When we decide to behave courageously, is it because we’ve already determined that the risk, danger, or potentially hazardous outcome is worth it? How about those whose actions are courageous, but motivation may be selfish? What responsibility do we, as educators, bear in humanizing acts of courage for our students?
Children hear endless stories of heroism and courage; where muscle-bound superheroes typify valor by saving the world, or ‘good guys’ take down ‘bad guys’ in an epic battle royale, standing up for those whose rights have been abused or trampled. This binary structure of good and evil evolves to encompass those who fight in wars against totalitarianism, champions of human rights and social change showing that progress, action, and tolerance can win a decisive victory against darkness. But does our veneration of courageous acts limit how a young person sees themselves in acting with empathy and action to change their world? Does this view attach itself to a narrative of heroism that may make these actions seem inaccessible to an everyday person?
As educators, it’s important to show courage not as a single definitive act, but as iterative, sometimes minute, actions that help others to live with dignity. Individual acts of courage and humanity serve as beacons of hope during times of upheaval and cataclysm, and in its most extreme, stand as testament to one’s ability to confront and resist extreme evil. During the Holocaust, there were individuals and groups who tried to help Jewish people at great personal risk; with punishments severe and in some cases under penalty of death. For instance, in Echoes & Reflections, we discuss the actions of the Danish citizens when hearing of the planned implementation of the Nazi’s Final Solution, standing as an example of how both individuals and communities can act within their own agency on behalf of others. Danes during the Second World War founded the Elsinore Sewing Club, and using speedboats, fishing boats, and other means of transportation ferried Jewish citizens to safety across the sea to neutral Sweden.
The idea that courage is singular, situational and momentary is fallible. The act of riding into battle or stopping a fight, or standing up for your values, all of this is predicated on the notion that to act courageously means to act with the conviction of a single moment. But courage is complicated. It’s sustained. It’s messy. We tend to venerate those who hid Jews during the Holocaust without knowing or understanding the parameters or motivation behind their actions. The Girl in the Green Sweater, for instance tells the story of a family’s survival in the sewers of Lvov during the Holocaust. Leopold Socha, a municipal sewer worker who smuggled the family food in exchange for a fee, helped sustain 21 people daily. If someone behaves courageously, but does so for money, protection, or capital gain, does it negate the good their actions have prompted? Is courage a morally neutral value?
To many during in the Holocaust, courage was not a single definitive moment in time, but a collection of moments – for those who hid Jewish families, courage was a daily test, and for those who hid, courage was fighting back through the simple act of remaining alive. As Miep Gies, who risked her life to hide the Frank family, once stated, “People sometimes call me a hero. I don’t like it, because people should never think that you have to be a very special person to help those who need you.”
As we discuss the concept of courage and its complexities with students when teaching the Holocaust, bringing in stories of a small kindness and large, momentous movements can help students contextualize how their everyday behaviors impact the lives of those around them, and how they can navigate the complex moral ecosystem of social life with empathy and goodness that may never be written about in text books, but may make a lasting imprint on the lives of those around them.
If there is a single story of female resistance that amazes and intrigues me to no end, it would have to be the story of the intrepid women who served as “couriers” during the Holocaust. These Jewish women and girls traveled between isolated ghettos with nothing but forged documents and incredible moxie to protect them. They brought information and inspiration, as well as ammunition, to the Jewish underground movements trapped in the ghettos. It is safe to say that without these bold and fearless women, resistance in the ghettos might not have occurred.
The pronouncement made on New Year’s Eve 1942 gives context to this story. The pronouncement, one of the most powerful primary sources contained in Echoes & Reflections, can be found in the unit on Jewish Resistance. Abba Kovner, its author, was a young activist in the Vilna ghetto who became aware that tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered in the forest at Ponary in the fall of 1941. On New Year’s Eve 1942 Kovner stood before about 150 youth group members and called for armed resistance:
“... Hitler is plotting to annihilate all the Jews of Europe. [...] [T]he only response to the enemy is resistance! Brothers! It is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of murderers.”
Kovner’s proclamation represented a turning point: it was the first time anyone had posited in writing that the murder of the Jews was more than just haphazard localized incidents; that there was a plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. It was also a turning point in the response it demanded: armed resistance against the Germans.
But how could this call for resistance be spread? Jews were trapped behind the walls and fences of isolated ghettos. They were not allowed to travel by train. They were marked by the Star of David so they could be easily hunted. Their mail was censored and they were forbidden to have radios. These German policies intentionally cut off contact among Jewish communities, and they were very effective. And even if the call for resistance could somehow be disseminated, how exactly were the Jews to resist? They had no arms, no ammunition, nothing but their bare hands.
In this seemingly impossible situation, there were those who stepped into the breach. We call them the “couriers”. The couriers were generally young women and girls who belonged to youth movements and were dedicated to the cause of resisting the Germans. They braved danger and death in order to serve as the lifeline between Jewish communities throughout war-torn Eastern Europe. Disguised as non-Jews, with braided hair, peasant kerchiefs on their heads and false names, they transported information, newspapers, money, and ultimately also ammunition and weapons across borders and into ghettos. They relied on forged travel permits and sheer chutzpah to bluff their way through multiple police inspections, document checks, and border controls. They were always at risk of being unmasked, and always under the threat of death. Their task required great courage, quick wits, and nerves of steel. It was said of these women by Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jewish historian and founder of the Oneg Shabbat archives in the Warsaw ghetto,“Nothing stands in their way. Nothing deters them. [...] How many times have they looked death in the eyes? How many times have they been arrested and searched? [...] The story of the Jewish woman will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war.”
Why were the couriers predominantly women? The Germans imposed the death penalty on any Jew found outside the ghettos. Jewish men on the streets generated suspicion – why weren’t they at work? In addition, men could easily be identified because they were circumcised. It was much easier for women: they had no physical sign of their Jewishness. They could stroll the streets, seemingly carefree. They were also more likely to speak the local language; many had been educated in secular schools in Polish, while their male counterparts had undergone religious instruction in Yiddish.
Vladka Meed, who appears in the Echoes & Reflections unit on The Children and Legacies Beyond the Holocaust, worked as a courier on the Aryan side of Warsaw. She smuggled weapons into the Warsaw ghetto that were later used to resist the Germans in the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which occurred 75 years ago this April. In her book, On Both Sides of the Wall, Vladka tells of having to quickly repack a carton of dynamite into smaller packages in order to pass it into the ghetto through the grate of a factory window. As she and the Polish watchman, who had been bribed, worked frantically in the dark, the watchman trembled like a leaf. When they finally finished, the watchman “stood there flushed, drenched in perspiration and unnerved. […] ‘I’ll never risk it again,’ the watchman mumbled. ‘I was scared to death.’” In addition to smuggling weapons into the ghetto, Vladka smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto, finding hiding places for them in the hopes of saving their lives.
The word “courier” does not do justice to Vladka and others like her. They were much more than messengers. They were the first to smuggle weapons into many of the Eastern European ghettos, risking their lives to do so. They brought hope, along with information, to Jews who would otherwise have been cut off from the entire world. They were incredibly brave and many died trying to fulfill their missions. They are icons of heroism, and they shatter many common stereotypes: that the Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter, and that women are less capable than men of resistance.
About the Author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.
For more information, please see the following resources:
For a more in-depth discussion about Abba Kovner and resistance, view the Video Toolbox film on Jewish Resistance.
The full text of Abba Kovner’s Pronouncement is contained in Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, Abraham Margaliot, eds., Documents on the Holocaust, Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981), p. 433.
For short films about the Oneg Shabbat archive, see The Oneg Shabbat Underground Archive In The Warsaw Ghetto and Emanuel Ringelblum.
Emmanuel Ringelblum’s full diary entry can be found in Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jacob Sloan, ed. and transl., (New York: Schocken Paperback, 1974), pp. 273-274.
Vladka Meed describes her travails in Warsaw during the Holocaust in her book, On Both Sides of the Wall (Israel: The Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1973), p. 129. Her testimony can be seen on the IWitness website.
On International Women’s Day, I want to share some insights about why it’s so important to study the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives who were caught in the maelstrom of the Holocaust. Many of these women exhibited unprecedented bravery, pluck, and daring. Theirs is a type of courage we don’t always recognize as courage – but we should.
The first question is whether it’s legitimate to study women in the Holocaust, since it’s clear that the Final Solution was meant to apply to all Jews without regard to their gender. I contend that it is. One of the goals of Echoes and Reflections is to tell the human story – to give the victims back their identities and their faces and to create empathy for them. We do this by bringing the overwhelming and anonymous statistic of six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust down to the story of one victim at a time. While Jewish women were intended by the Nazis to share the same fate as Jewish men, their experiences along the way to death were not always the same. Often their ordeals were shaped by their roles as mothers or daughters, or colored by their female sensitivities. As such, examining women’s experiences creates a more finely nuanced understanding of the human story of the Holocaust.
According to traditional prewar gender patterns, women were responsible for their homes and for the well-being of their families and needs of their children. But in a world where brutal persecution, ghettoization, dehumanization, and finally, extermination, shattered the life they had known, women were preoccupied with basic daily survival. How were they to provide food for their families, maintain hygiene, and stave off illness in the midst of mass starvation, catastrophic overcrowding, and pervasive filth?
Amazingly, as the chaos escalated in the ghettos and the camps, women found the mental and spiritual fortitude to continue loving their families and caring for their children. Some deprived themselves of food so that their children would not go hungry. Others smuggled food into ghettos, risking their lives, to the same end. Women were confronted with inhuman and impossible dilemmas: should they give up their own children, flesh of their flesh, to strangers who were not Jewish on the tiny chance that the child might survive? Should they continue to care for their older parents who would clearly be deported, or strike out on their own in hopes of staying alive, leaving their parents to their fates?
Women displayed humor, courage, and incredible initiative. They played a unique and important role in various resistance activities as fighters and as couriers. Since they were able to masquerade as non-Jews more easily than male Jews (who were doomed by signs of circumcision), they were able to move from ghetto to ghetto, bringing with them news, weapons, and many times, hope. Some escaped to forests and served in partisan units. The only armed uprising in the history of Auschwitz was made possible by a handful of incredible, fearless women who smuggled gunpowder into Birkenau with which primitive bombs were made.
A story close to my heart is the story of one woman in rural Poland who refused to passively accept the death the Germans planned for her. She hid her family in haystacks in the Polish countryside rather than be herded onto a cattle car speeding towards the death camp of Belzec. When the weather turned too cold to remain outside in the fields, she turned for help to a Polish farmer named Stanislaw Grocholski who miraculously agreed to hide her entire family – 8 adults and 7 young children – in his attic. And when her baby, on the verge of starvation, endangered the rest of the family by crying, she made a decision that no young mother should ever have to make: in the middle of a dark night she left her baby on the steps of the local Church, hoping that someone would have the heart to care for her. The decision took a tremendous toll on her for the rest of her life, but protected her family - most of them survived. That extraordinarily courageous woman was my grandmother, Tsivia Engelberg.
This is one deeply personal story out of many, but for me it expresses the importance of examining the unique experiences of women in the Holocaust, to see how they behaved, reacted, and fought to resist. For me, their stories redefine courage and give inspiration to us all.
Sheryl Ochayon currently serves as the Project Director for Echoes and Reflections at Yad Vashem.