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by Fred Skolnik
Gusta (Tova) Davidson Draenger, code-name Justyna, died at 26, in the prime of life. I discovered her in a group photo, taken in 1940. Aharon “Dolek” Liebeskind, the chief of the Akiba resistance group in the Krakow Ghetto, is on the far right, and Gusta is on the left, beside her husband, Shimshon “Marek” Draenger. They had married early in the year, after bribing their way out of the Troppau (Opava) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Gusta had gone there voluntarily to be with him, and now they were back in Krakow.
Born into an Orthodox family, Gusta had been with Marek since they were teenagers in the Akiba youth movement. The Germans had entered their city on September 6, 1939 and arrested Marek almost immediately, while thousands of other Jews fled or were expelled. By March 1941, 20,000 Jews remained in the city out of a prewar population of 60,000. These, along with thousands of others from the surrounding area, were now sealed into a ghetto. In the first week of June 1942, 5,000 were deported to the Belzec death camp and over 100 shot in the streets.
It was then that the young pioneers of Akiba, busy with the harvest at the Kopaliny training farm near Nowy Wisnicz, began to realize that their days were numbered. Akiba was a tradition-oriented Zionist movement, and the Krakow branch was its biggest in Poland. Gusta had been a group leader while attending high school, and then a member of the national movement’s central committee and editor of its Polish-language youth journal, Tze’irim. Now, coming in from the fields, she is called to a meeting by her husband, where a fateful decision is made: to close down the farm, to return to the ghetto, to resist, to fight. At Kopaliny they have led a somewhat idyllic existence, but have also engaged in underground activity, mostly disseminating anti-Nazi literature. Now they move quickly.
By August they are established inside the ghetto and begin a period of active resistance, joining forces with other Jewish groups under the aegis of the ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organization) commanded in Warsaw by Mordechai Anielewicz. By the end of October, another 6,000 Jews in Krakow are deported to Belzec and 600 are killed in the ghetto, half of them children in the orphanage. On December 22, the ZOB launches its famous grenade attack on the Cyganeria Café and other German meeting places in the city, killing and wounding dozens. Then the resistance begins to dissolve as the Germans strike back. Marek is arrested on January 18, 1943. Gusta immediately turns herself in, for they have vowed to die together.
In the Helclow Women’s Prison, next door to Montelupich where Marek is being held, in a cell holding up to fifty women, comrades from the movement along with Polish criminals and prostitutes, she begins, after severe torture, to write her memoir of the Jewish resistance, to preserve its memory and tell the story of those who are about to die. She writes mostly on pieces of toilet paper collected by her dozens of her cellmates. Sometimes she dictates to them. She painstakingly corrects every scrap of paper. The work survives, incomplete, a composite in different hands including Gusta’s, 207 pages in all: first published in Polish in 1946 as Pamiętnik Justyny, then in Hebrew translation in 1953 and as an English edition, Justyna’s Narrative, in 1996. Three of the nineteen chapters, the second, third, and fifth, have never been found.
I am drawn to her even before I read her memoir. I look at these old photographs and understand the immensity of what was destroyed. She is there, with her forthright look, a presence anchored in the world and embodying something that is in me, too. I feel the kinship and am overcome by profound sorrow.
“The sun was setting behind the forest that spread like a dark stain on the slopes of the distant mountains” near the Kopaliny farm. So Gusta begins her story, writing about herself in the third person as Justyna. It is the height of summer and the silence is so deep that she can almost forget for a moment the horrors of the war. She finds Marek and Hillel “Antek” Wodzislowski under a pear tree. Marek is somber. They are all going to die in this war, he tells them. No one will escape. People can delude themselves into believing that the cattle cars are taking them to labor camps, he says, but those who survive the journey are taken straight to the gas chambers, and go there like sheep being led to the slaughter, without raising a hand to defend themselves, tens of thousands, even healthy men, “and they are silent, the world is silent, even we are silent.” The Jews of Poland are doomed, he continues. They can no longer be saved. “We can only die with the others, or stay alive and avenge them. . . . History summons us to embark on a new road, and we shall take it.”
Once, Gusta reflects, such talk would have struck her as the purest pathos. But in June, 1943, after her father and sister have been deported, she had wanted to rush at the enemy and beat him to death. For the first time in her life she has experienced a thirst for revenge, wanting to lash out, to kill, “to spit in their dirty faces.”
And so it is settled: After Marek finishes his speech, Antek stands and shouts with a clenched fist, “We’ll tear them to pieces!”
Toward the end of the month, she is back in Krakow after a week’s absence, returning from Wisnicz after boldly extracting her mother and orphaned nephew along with Marek’s parents from the Aktion in the ghetto on August 22. Gusta is mentally and physically exhausted after days on the road, on foot and in farmer’s carts, and then the endless hours of waiting in train stations, and the sleepless nights and the unbearable anxiety — like thousands of other Jews trying to keep a step ahead of the next Aktion, fleeing from town to town and back again to stay alive another week or two. They have begun to lose their own people from Akiba: Paula Kurtz and Ella Berkowitz were taken in the June deportations. The Nazi law book must have been the only one in the world where the commonest penalty was death: for leaving the ghetto, for concealing one’s identity, for riding in a streetcar, coach, train, car. Still, she is home in Krakow, and feels a kind of joy to be back among her own people, see the familiar faces. She wants to take them all in her arms and feel their warm embrace.
Marek greets her but can only spare a minute. She realizes now that their private life has ended. When he looks at her, he is already looking past her to the next order of business. Then he is in Lwow, and it is she who is anxiously awaiting his return. They are all moving around, in and out of the ghetto with their false papers, on their various missions. It is not simple to pretend to be an Aryan, not even with dyed hair. A thousand years of history give the Jews away, in their speech, their look, their manner, their posture, their clothing. Everyone is looking for Jews on the Aryan side — the Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, informers, blackmailers. It is enough to lower your eyes and they have you.
Yet they carry it off, steeling their nerves, assuming a self-confident air that made people step aside. Denying who you were could have its price, she knows, making you despise yourself as you come to resemble the people you are trying to deceive. But for those who fight back, self-denial makes them stronger, for they remain proud to be Jews. They fear death, but only if it comes before they strike. Gusta wonders if it will be enough, in the event that they fail, simply to have resisted. She thinks it will, and that they will be remembered for the fact of having fought back, for having made things a little harder for the enemy.
Now Marek is back, climbing over the ghetto wall to get inside before the curfew, but again he has no time for her, he is off to a meeting, and she wonders if she is better off when he is away and she can look forward to being with him again or when he is actually there and yet so far away.
They are preparing to send fighters into the forest — an almost mythical place where they might link up with the partisans and join the real war. They are organizing themselves into fighting units, each to operate independently in the time-honored tradition of the underground, with no one from outside the cell privy to its plans. But there is a problem, Gusta confesses. They are not soldiers. They are a youth movement, without any military experience and without any idea of military discipline. Though they know they should not be seen together, whenever two of them happen to run into each other in the street, they are immediately joined by others and proceed to stride boisterously through the ghetto as though they owned it, attracting attention and exposing themselves to the wrong eyes. Who can blame them, Gusta asks, for their childhood has been stolen from them and only when they were together could they recapture it for a moment.
Their leaders, too, are exposed, meeting at ghetto headquarters, with anyone able to point a finger and identify them as the commanders of the underground. There are four of them: Dolek Liebeskind, Marek, Romek Leibowicz from the Dror youth movement, and the youngest, Maniek Eisenstein, from the Pioneer Youth Federation (Histadrut Hanoar Hechalutzi). Dolek, at 30, is the oldest. He and Marek have been close friends for years and worked together at Kopaliny, Marek as the farm manager and Dolek as supervisor on behalf of the Jewish Self-Help Society. Romek, too, is well-known to them, though he comes from a more radical, socialist movement. People like him, he is down-to-earth, a joker, seemingly carefree but also sober and pragmatic when he has to be. Around each of these leaders there has gathered a circle of young followers who look to them for parental support and guidance at a time when many are alone. The apartments where they stay are always packed with people, so they are reluctant to abandon them and disperse for their own safety.
Marek, however, has a special problem, as his work requires the utmost secrecy. Since he has some experience in printing and engraving, he has taken charge of the entire operation of forging documents: identity papers, work permits, passes, etc., without which it is impossible to move. It is necessary to supply people with every conceivable document that the Nazis have dreamed up. His assistant, Juda Tenenbaum, has connections everywhere and is capable of walking into a government ministry or police station and coming out with official forms and stamps or purchasing items in shops that are forbidden to civilians.
However, Marek has nowhere to work. He carries his materials on his person, then in a briefcase, then in two briefcases, and finally with someone following him around carrying the briefcases and an assortment of boxes and even a typewriter while he ducks in and out of various apartments to set up shop for half an hour before moving on. Gusta is given the job of outfitting an office for him in a safe house outside the ghetto.
Meanwhile, the first group of fighters has been organized. At the end of September, Hela Schipper arrives (photo at right), dressed to kill, with a brand new travel bag and a big smile on her face — the last person anyone would have suspected of being in the underground. Since the start of the mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto on July 22, she has been slipping in and out of the city as a courier, and now she has brought five handguns with full magazines. They wait until Marek gets there to take them out. For once, Marek lets his hair down – he was often difficult to get along with, restrained, serious, distant, while Gusta was exuberant, full of life – and he takes one of the guns apart like a child playing with a toy. When Dolek gets there they let their imaginations run wild with dreams of building up an entire arsenal with which to fight the Germans.
Their first attempt to make contact with the partisans is a disaster. Their group leaves at the end of the week with a guide supplied by the Communist PPR (the Polish Workers Party), with whom they are cooperating. The guide brings them to a cabin at the edge of the forest and then another guide takes over, leading them farther in before getting lost and abandoning them. After a day of wandering around looking for partisans, they return to the cabin, but in the night hear a dog barking and then see the police approaching. Have they been betrayed? They have no choice but to run into the forest again, where they remain for three days, with only a slice of bread between them and the police firing random shots but not daring to enter the forest themselves. Finally, hungry and exhausted, they slip away — but are so unhappy about having to report total failure that they decide to attack a police station. When they get there, however, they see that the police are securely barricaded inside, and since the greatest weapon of the partisan is surprise, they give up on that idea too, consoling themselves with the thought that the policemen are too frightened to come out and fight.
One of the men, Edwin Weiss, reports back to the ghetto, relates the entire saga, and is ordered to bring everyone back to Krakow. It is decided to end the partnership with the PPR, which seems to them to be less committed to the cause than they, and in any case capable of offering very little real support. Their connection had been brokered by Gola Mira (Lidka), a Communist activist and a cousin of Dolek’s wife. Gola had broken out of prison at the beginning of the war after serving three years of a fifteen-year sentence. Everyone admires her greatly.
Money is also a problem -– money for arms, mainly, but also for simple administration and all the traveling they were doing. Romek, in charge of finances, usually manages to cover expenses. One source of income is Marek’s forgery operation, which sells false papers to wealthy Jews. Another is forced contributions from the rich, sometimes at gunpoint.
Akiba branches are still operating in towns where deportations had not yet been carried out. The situation, in Gusta’s words, can be likened to one in which “tongues of fire had not yet reached every part of a building but . . . could not be extinguished and sooner or later would consume everything.” It is therefore essential to prepare the people for what was to come so that they won’t be taken by surprise. Mira Liebeskind, Dolek’s sister (at right in photo), worked in the Tomashow Mazowiecki branch for years, educating a new generation of pioneer youth, and now she travels back and forth, preparing them for the coming battle. She brings false papers, money for arms. She is fearless, lighthearted, almost childish. With her black hair and black eyes she sometime arouses suspicion, but her charm and steady gaze protect her in hostile surroundings. Now the leaders of the movement in Tomashow are slowly making their way to Krakow. The Krakow people have established a safe house outside the ghetto, on the other side of the Vistula River, at 26 Wialopola Street, and Alexander Goldfarb is permanently on duty there, distributing money, passes, operational orders to the dozens of people arriving in the city.
A second group is now in the forest making preparations for action — but the outcome is even more disastrous than in the first attempt. The surrounding villages are hostile, and with supplies running low, two of the four men, Banek (Baruch Waksner) and Ignasz (Yehuda Smerlowicz), break into a house. They are sitting at the table when they hear a loud knock and then see a gendarme in the doorway, and behind him a policeman, and in the hallway a forest ranger with a rifle.
“Get up!” the gendarme screams. “Papers!” And then: “Undress!”
Banek bends over as if he had all the time in the world, cool and collected, and pulls out his gun, firing a single shot. The gendarme falls to the ground. The other two remain frozen in their tracks. Banek fires again but misses. Another shot rings out and Banek topples over. Ignacz, who is unarmed, waits for the inevitable.
When the other two partisans go out to look for them in the morning, they run into a local farmer who tells them about the two intruders who had been shot and killed. “It was true that all their hearts were stricken with pain,” Gusta writes, “but they had to overcome it, to take courage and harden themselves. They had to get used to the idea of death.”
Despite their willingness to die in battle, however, they also think about survival, for it is difficult for them to reconcile themselves to the idea that at the end of the war no one will be left to tell their story. Marek and Romek want to smuggle a small group across the border, those who “looked too Jewish to be of much use in the underground.” It would be these who might testify. But Dolek objects. Their purpose is to fight, not to try to survive. No decision is reached.
Gusta has found a house in Makow. To the neighbors she is a Polish lady, and her husband a big cheese in some Krakow factory who commutes to work on the bus. Both of them have the manner. There follows another idyllic period in Gusta’s life: She sets up an office for her husband, where they can both work on documents in the evenings and nights, and nearby is her friend Hanka Blass, who is acting as a courier for Marek. Her 6-year-old nephew, Witek, the son of her deported sister, is there too and gives her much pleasure.
Toward the end of October, with another Aktion in the air, she hastened back to Krakow to get her mother out of the ghetto, to which the woman had returned after Gusta had brought her out, along with Marek’s parents, in August. With Elsa Lapa’s help, Gusta gets her mother to Bochnia and waits there for Mira Liebeskind and Dolek’s wife Rivka to arrive with their own parents. But Mira and Rivka do not show up. The next morning, October 28, Gusta returns to Krakow. Nothing seems out of the ordinary on the Aryan side; people in the crowded streets are enjoying a warm autumn day. She runs into Mira, who tells her that the Aktion is underway and that she had managed to get her parents out the night before, at the last minute. As they continue walking they see a long line of Jewish women marching in the street. They spotted Toshka Stark among them and manage to exchange a few words with her. Everyone not selected for work is being deported, she tells them.
When Gusta and Mira get to Alek’s place on Wialopola Street, it is crowded with people. The apartment, a dark, narrow, sparsely furnished room, is the hub of the resistance outside the ghetto. Marek arrives there, too, after working through the night in Makow getting papers ready, but he comes too late; the ghetto has already been closed. Dolek, Rivka and Romek have barely managed to escape. Everyone else, except for those at Alek’s place now, are trapped inside. The police have formed a human chain around the ghetto. In Tarnow there had been a massacre -– whole families machine-gunned in their yards -- but Krakow is a capital city of the General Gouvernement, with all eyes turned to it, so things are conducted in a more orderly manner.
The next day they learn the details: 7,000 deported. Of their own people, Poldek (Yehuda Maimon), dressed as a policeman, had been able to extract a few of the youngsters. Maniek Eisenstein, on the other hand, one of their leaders, had been caught and deported, as had his sister, who had miraculously escaped the Warsaw Aktion, and Frieda Hirsh, who had been ordered to leave the day before but stayed on at her anxious grandfather’s insistence.
With the failure of the forest episodes, and with winter coming on, a new plan of operations is now devised. Is it necessary, they ask themselves, to look for objectives far from home requiring big partisan forces? Would it not be better to operate locally, in their own small groups, in order to undermine Nazi rule? They cannot not wait for the spring, and decide to concentrate their efforts in Krakow.
There are scores to settle with collaborators, too, those who had sold out Jews, prepared the lists, cooperated with the Germans. The group would therefore have two bases now, one outside the ghetto and one inside — but the leaders would leave Krakow for their own safety.
Dolek and Rivka and Halina Rubinek find a place in Visnicz. Safe houses are also organized along the Krakow-Lwow and Krakow-Warsaw railroad lines. Juda Tenenbaum and Romek, on the other hand, take over an apartment in the German quarter of Krakow. Inside the ghetto, Shimon Lustgarten (Shimek) sets up an apartment at 13 Jozefinska St. The house becomes a magnet, with communal meals for those who have lost families and are now alone, and with Elsa Lapa serving as a kind of den mother. It also becomes a clearing house for abandoned or unwanted property, to be redistributed according to need.
There begins a period of intense operations: surveillance, ambushes. These are the best times. They relish the work. They are hiding in the ghetto right under everyone’s noses.
November is a busy month, with missions every night, “striking terror into the hearts of those who presumed to be lords and masters, the arbiters of life and death for millions of defenseless people,” in Gusta’s words. The turning point comes when Dolek and two other fighters kill a German soldier, “symbol of arrogance and hideous evil.” The Germans are now determined to put an end to the humiliating attacks. They cut back the curfew hour from 11 to 9 p.m., take hostages, and demand action from the Jewish militia. Dolek is not displeased. He looks forward to a confrontation. But it is time to go underground again.
At 13 Jozefinska, communal life goes on as usual. For years, Akiba has observed the tradition of greeting the Sabbath, lighting candles, sitting around a big table and breaking out in song. In those moments, Gusta writes, “they did not fear for the future, they were so happy, singing with all their hearts, song that united and strengthened each of them individually and all of them collectively.” This time, toward the end of November, they have some special guests. Dolek is there, but it is Anka Fisher who is the guest of honor, for she has just been released after being arrested, with an apology even; they hadn’t been able to break her and she hadn’t given herself away.
Dolek’s conversation has a special bittersweetness that will be etched in their collective memory and henceforth referred to as the Last Supper, for what he tells them is that it has become imperative to leave the ghetto. Too many people know them, too many people are talking about them, they will have to begin preparations immediately. “There is no turning back,” he says. “We are on the road to death. If you want life, don’t look for it here. We are at the end of days, and I have the feeling that this is the last Sabbath we will spend together.”
A few days later, he is arrested. The Jewish militia finds him sleeping in his parents’ apartment in the ghetto. They march him toward the station house, but Dolek draws his gun and the unarmed militiamen scatter, allowing him to escape. But that is not the end of it. A full-scale search of the ghetto gets underway. At 13 Jozefinska they understandd that their life there is now definitely over, and they begin to disperse. “It was a new day,” Gusta writes, “bleak and dreary.”
Here her memoir abruptly ends. On April 29, 1943, the Helclaw jailers came for Gusta, and for the others, to transport them to Plaszow for execution. In March, the ghetto had been liquidated, with 2,300 Jews sent to Auschwitz and others shot on the spot. That had been a fatal month: Dolek and Juda Tenenbaum had been killed in shootouts with the Gestapo. Many more were gone now, killed or deported. Maniek was killed on March 20; Martha Fuchs, Toshka Stark and Halina Rubinek were deported to Auschwitz; Mira Liebeskind was killed in Radom while bringing Akiba people to Krakow; and Hanka Blass was killed in Bochnia in April. Twenty women at the Helclaw prison had also been executed at Plaszow’s Hill of Death in March, including Marek’s sister, Shechora (Charnola), the youngest among them at 16. She had shouted to Gusta when she was taken away, “Don’t worry, I won’t cry.”
Now it was Gusta’s turn. Gola Mira, the Communist, was there too. She had suffered the most, perhaps, returning to the cell after the interrogations with her fingers crushed and her dress soaked in blood. Together with Gusta she had been a leader in the cell, keeping up the spirit of the others. They had organized study groups and poetry readings, sang together, celebrated the Sabbath, and Gusta made sure they cleaned and groomed themselves so as not to lose their self-respect. And this is the story that is told: On April 29, they were taken down to the prison yard and then through the front gate where a German was waiting. They were on the sidewalk now. The German crossed the street and waited at the truck that was there to take them to Plaszow. Another German was on their right. The women ran, just as they had planned it. The Germans and the guards opened fire. Most of the women were killed, including Gola Mira. Genia Meltzer escaped and would live to bear witness. Gusta escaped too. Wounded, she made her way to a pharmacy and got the wound dressed -– and then she was gone. Miraculously, that same day, the men in Montelupich had also been taken out, and Marek, too, had escaped (but not Romek and Alek, who were cut down as they ran).
Gusta has escaped. From Krakow she makes her way to Bochnia, where she runs into Hillel Wodzislawski, who directs her to one of the bunkers in the Wisnicz forest. Marek, meanwhile, finds shelter in Krakow, and then also arrives in Bochnia — where Hillel sends him to Gusta’s bunker and they are reunited.
In the forest, they resume their resistance work, reviving Hechalutz Halochem (The FIghting Pioneer), the Akiba journal that Marek had once edited, which now calls for revolt and is being sent out once a week to the ghettos and labor camps. Marek also organizes fighting units and goes out with them on hunts for Germans and the Poles who collaborate with them. At the end of October, they travel to Krakow. During that time, the Germans discover some of the forest bunkers. Gusta and Marek have nowhere to return to. Marek tries to arrange an escape to Hungary for the two of them, but is apprehended in the apartment of the go-between in nearby Wieliszka on November 9. When Gusta learns two days later, that Marek had been arrested, she bursts into tears and says she wanted to turn herself in. Marek has already addressed a letter to her, in accordance with their pact, and gave it to his Gestapo interrogators. When they arrive for her, she is ready. Their bodies have never been found.
This is the incredible story of Gusta Draenger and the Krakow underground. As she feared, and despite the occasional outbursts of bravado that broke through the fatalistic pall that hung over them, they accomplished very little, and barely got their “three lines in the history books.” Two or three hundred young Jews, many of them teenagers, had stood against “the greatest army in the world.” The outcome could not have been different. They knew it and they accepted it, giving the last full measure of themselves, and in the end it gave them a kind of freedom, a free and noble and consummating death.
These lived: Hela Schipper, Elsa Lapa, Genia Meltzer, Yehuda Maimon, Shimon (Shimek) Lustgarten, and Dolek’s widow, Rivka, all of them reaching Israel.
Fred Skolnik is editor-in-chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He is also co-editor of The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (2002) and senior editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (2001). He has published dozens of stories, poems, and essays in the past few years, as well as a novel, The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), set in Israel in the 1980s.
For film footage of the Krakow Ghetto, look below.