While the Nazi genocide overwhelmed millions of Jews through devastating force and brutal efficiency, a small number of Jews managed to fight back, rarely successfully but always bravely.
These resisters included women, like Chajka Klinger and Zivia Lubetkin, whose stories are less well known but are essential to understanding the uprisings in the Warsaw and Bedzin ghettos during the Holocaust.
“Some people understood that this is the annihilation of European Jewry in its totality and there’s no way out,” said historian Shalmi Barmore, speaking in Whippany. “And the meaning of that was one: If there’s no way out, if we are going to die, let’s die now, let’s die fighting and get some revenge.”
Barmore, founding director of the Yad Vashem International Teachers’ Institute, discussed “Women of Valor: Unsung Heroes” as the keynote speaker at the opening reception of “From Memory to History,” an annual exhibit created and presented by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest that documents the experiences of survivors and liberators in the Greater MetroWest community.
The council is a department of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
He spoke on Feb. 11 on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus, where the exhibit is on display — with a new section on the “unsung heroes” — through April 30.
Barmore spoke of the mindsets of Jewish youth taking part in uprisings, and specifically about Klinger and Lubetkin, two of the organizers of the resistance movement.
The uprisings consisted primarily of young members of the Jewish underground. Though the leaders were energetic and dedicated to their ideals, they lacked real-world consistency and adaptation, Barmore said.
Zivia Lubetkin was 29 years old during the formation of the Jewish underground in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and eventually became one of its prominent leaders. Though she was initially committed to the idea of dying as part of the resistance, her views changed once the possibility of escape realistically presented itself. She opted to attempt escape and eventually made her way to Palestine.
“Lubetkin is a hero because she did something that is usually not done,” Barmore said. She “made this decision which is opposite to what they believed before…. You shouldn’t go blindly with your ideology; you should always react to the reality. And if the reality changed, then it’s a new game.”
Klinger, who was born in Bedzin, joined the armed underground established in that Polish town and dedicated her life to helping trapped children. Her involvement eventually brought her to Warsaw, where the headquarters of the movement was located. She fought until 1944, when she escaped to Palestine. She would retell the story of the resistance with the help of the diary she kept during her time in the Warsaw Ghetto. However, she never truly recovered psychologically and took her own life in 1958.
“Giving up the idea of resistance, for Chajka, was doomsday,” Barmore said. “By that time, they worked themselves up to this idea, with all the romance, that they’re going to die. And now it’s no longer. The turn that Zivia was able to make, Chajka was unable to make it.
“She could live through [the uprising], but she couldn’t live with that.”
Among the 80 people in attendance was Polish-born Nessa Ben-Asher of Short Hills, who not only survived the Holocaust but was able to help save other Jews as well.
While living in Warsaw, she escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and, with the help of her family’s former housekeeper, lived as an Aryan. In the city, she found a former nanny, and the two of them were able to hide, protect, and save many Jews behind a false wall in their apartment.
Ben-Asher called Barmore’s presentation “brilliant.”
“Because I passed through that, and I know what it was like,” she said.