German journalist and filmmaker Strobl uncovers the personal narratives of women who won quiet, small-scale victories against the viciousness of Nazis and their collaborators. Though their work has often been left out of official histories of the era, these were women who took their own instincts and impulses seriously, and acted on them.
In some French brothels, during the Nazi regime, prostitutes hid Jews and resistance fighters. The same women also served — it was their job — the officers of the occupying German troops. They risked their lives when they provided safe houses for the persecuted, and those whom they saved are still thankful today. Yet no one ever called this practical solidarity “resistance.”
Over the course of years researching Jewish women in the resistance, I also fell under the influence of the popular hierarchization of resistance. At first, I had only been interested in women’s participation in armed resistance until I conducted an interview with Yvonne Jospa. Under the aegis of the Jewish self-protection committee in Belgium, she had been responsible for the rescue of Jewish children and youth. I realized that the women who had organized and conducted the rescue of children and adolescents had probably provided the most important and, in any case, most effective form of resistance. Some of the women who had participated in the rescue of children even implicitly agreed with the historians, explaining, “But we didn’t put up any resistance. We only took care of the children, and that was just natural. We simply couldn’t allow them to be deported.”
Jewish women were involved in all forms and formations of the resistance. They were activists in urban brigades, the ghetto underground, and partisan units. They printed and distributed the illegal press; they forged papers; they transported weapons and themselves participated in armed actions. They organized underground movements and ghetto uprisings; they were political cadres and — rarely — military commanders of armed groups. They found hiding places for Jewish children and youth, brought them to these hiding places, provided them with clothing, money and food, and with forged documents and encouragement over months and sometimes even years. They smuggled groups of these children and youth across the Swiss border and they accompanied illegal transports of boys and girls over the Pyrenees to Spain, and from there to Palestine. Within the framework of the armed resistance, the task of liaison work and scouting was women’s domain. Women were able to move more freely and inconspicuously. They were checked less often than men, and they even succeeded in actively using genderspecific patterns of behavior against the adversary. Thus, female couriers for the resistance occasionally got German officers to tuck their suitcases full of weapons in the luggage rack of the train or to carry them through a roundup at a train station. Other women used pregnancy or motherhood as camouflage, tying pistols around their stomachs and transporting illegal printed material in baby carriages. The women liaisons arranged illegal quarters, food, and clothing for the members of resistance groups. They maintained contact between groups and commanders, and among the individual group members. They scouted targets to be attacked and observed potential victims. They procured weapons and explosives and transported them to the location of the attack. Without them, the armed groups would not have been able to carry out their actions.
Like liaison work, the actions to save children were above all the responsibility of the women. It was mostly very young women, often social workers, nursery school teachers, members of the Jewish Scouts, or Zionist Youth movements. They took on, without any relevant experience, work that was both full of responsibility and dangerous, and which cost some of them their lives. They brought children and youth out of the country or hid them in cloisters, boarding schools, holiday colonies, sanatoriums, or with private individuals. They compiled coded lists so that they would be able to find the children again after the liberation. As far as possible under the circumstances, they took care not only of children’s safety and their physical needs, but also of their psychological wellbeing. They transported letters back and forth between children and their parents; they thought up stories when letters from the deported parents no longer came. And they knew that, despite all of their efforts, they could not take away a child’s loneliness, solitude, fears, and doubts.
Some of these women not only risked their lives, but also knowingly sacrificed them for their charges. Marianne Cohn was imprisoned along with children she had brought to the French-Swiss border only a few weeks prior to the liberation. The resistance offered to liberate her from the prison. She refused, although she had been horribly tortured. She did not want to risk the lives of the children. She assumed, probably correctly, that they would be killed in revenge for her flight. And she hoped that the Allies would liberate the prison before the children could be deported. This is what happened, although she herself was raped and beaten to death before they arrived.
Women who worked for social or educational institutions found social work or childcare transformed into resistance. And young women active in the Zionist Youth or the Jewish Scouts in Western Europe grew into their resistance work almost naturally without making, at least at the beginning, a conscious decision. Denise Lévy, one of the leaders of the Jewish Scouts, was informed one day that a round-up of her foreign charges was imminent, so she had to find hiding places for them. Those hidden could not, in turn, survive long without forged papers, so she therefore began to produce forged documents. One thing led to the other. When asked about her motives, Lévy said: “We could not allow the children to be detained. Being detained meant being deported. We didn’t know at the time exactly what happened to those deported, but simply being deported was enough. We unconditionally wanted to prevent that.”
Many of the former Jewish liaison women I interviewed emphasized that, for the success of their work, a combination of quick-wittedness and instinct was decisive. Sarah Goldberg, for instance, remembered when, “in the midst of panic,” she did the right thing, although afterwards it remained incomprehensible, even to her, how she had come up with the idea to act. While she was conducting an assignment for her group of Jewish partisans in Brussels, she noticed that a known informer was coming towards her from the other end of the street. “Ahead of me were two Belgian policemen. I said to the two of them, ‘Please keep going’, and I pressed myself between them. They wanted to know what was going on and I said, ‘Please simply keep moving’ — as if they had arrested me. But they still wanted to know what was happening, so I said: ‘Listen, I am a Jew and there in front of us is an informer’. The two of them then put me in between them and went with me in that way past the man. When the danger was past, one of them said he was going to take his lunch and the other said, ‘Mademoiselle, if you need anything please come to me, I work in the commissariat of Foret.’”
This story not only makes clear that segments of the Belgian police sympathized with the resistance, or, at least, were against the anti-Jewish politics of the Germans; it also shows that a disciplined, experienced, and canny illegal like Sarah Goldberg “functioned” in this case without having to deliberate. Where this ability came from is something she cannot explain. However, she and other women who have similar memories of reacting spontaneously and instinctively in seemingly hopeless situations guess that this behavior occurred more often with women than with men. And conduct like that described by Sarah Goldberg would probably not have worked for a man: The policemen would very likely have reacted negatively or aggressively to a similar request from a man. The intuitive behavior of the women presumably often corresponded to an unconscious protective instinct in the man, or to his desire to impress a pretty young woman.
The female Jewish couriers occasionally consciously employed these gender-specific ways of reacting in their work. In a book on the Jewish resistance in France, Anny Latour tells a typical story about the legendary boldness of Betty Knout, a 16-year-old courier for the Armée Juive (the Jewish Army). She was quite often in transit with two suitcases full of weapons. The railroad bridge over the Loire had been destroyed, so, in order to reach Paris, it was necessary to get off the train on one bank, cross another bridge on foot, and take a train on the opposite bank. A German officer saw how the petite young woman was hauling the two suitcases and offered to carry them for her. When he lifted them up, he was astounded by the enormous weight and asked Betty Knout what she had inside of them. Butter? Cheese? Ham? She smiled at him conspiratorially and said, “Psst! It’s submachine guns.” In response, the German officer burst out in resounding laughter and, amused, carried the entertaining young woman’s two suitcases to the other bank of the Loire and onto the train waiting there.
The cockiness of this young woman, who gained her first experience with illegal activities in the resistance, is less astounding than the instinctual reactions of experienced communist militants like Sarah Goldberg and Yvonne Jospa. The latter also remembers “crazy” incidents that she cannot logically explain. Once, she learned there was an opportunity to house a larger group of Jewish children in a holiday colony. To do so, she had to take charge of the group at a specific time at the Gare du Luxemburg train station in Brussels. When she received this message, it was already too late to arrive on time. Jospa nonetheless got on the streetcar. She went forward to the driver and said, “Monsieur, I must be at the Gare du Luxemburg at such and such time.” The driver accelerated and did not halt at any of the upcoming stops, so that she arrived punctually at the train station. “I don’t know why I acted in such a way and I don’t know why he reacted as he did,” she said. “We both probably followed an instinct. He knew immediately that I was not a normal passenger who was simply in a hurry. And I knew, apparently subconsciously, that I could appeal to him. However, why this was so, I cannot say.”
What is interesting about these experiences is less the fact that the women had control over what they called “instinct,” than the fact that they allowed themselves to yield to this instinct. Such “illogical” and “emotional” behavior was at odds with the necessity, which they themselves also recognized, for revolutionary discipline and self-control. The fact that they allowed themselves to listen to their emotions, “instincts,” and “intuition,” also corresponds to other departures they made from the rules of conspiracy. They met with friends and comrades, although this was strictly forbidden; they took care of and visited their parents in hiding, although this also often contradicted the security rules; occasionally, they went secretly to the cinema; they even allowed, when it seemed right to them, orders from the leadership that they were supposed to relay, “to fall by the wayside.” They practiced what one woman called “illegality in the illegality.”
I think that it was precisely this occasional, situational “lack of discipline” that gave them an inner freedom; their occasional breaks with inflexible principles, even when they also shared them, enabled them, in the face of mass murder, to put up resistance against an inhuman adversary without themselves becoming inhuman.
Strobel is the author of Die Angst kam erst danach. Jüdische Frauen im Widerstand in Europa (The Fear Came Later: Jewish Women in the Resistance in Europe), 2005. This essay is adapted from Partisanas: Women in the Armed Resistance to Fascism and German Occupation (1936-1945), by Ingrid Strobl, AK Press, 2008. www.akpress.org Used with permission.