Gizi Fleischmann, Anna Braude Heller, and Luba Bielicka – these are the names of three Jewish women who worked selflessly and tirelessly to save fellow Jews during the Holocaust. The stories of these women and others were given pride of place at a recent seminar held at Yad Vashem, entitled "If You Remain Silent at this Time" (from the Book of Esther) – on the subject of female Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust.
"The main idea initiated and developed by Nazi Germany and others was to break down Jewish society into molecules that lose the humanity, vitality and solidarity so familiar to Jewish life throughout history," Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev stated at the seminar's opening. "However, despite the tremendous difficulties, we did not fall apart, nor did we lose our humanity. One of the things that characterized this humanity among the Jewish people was maintaining solidarity with those around them. In the main, they not only preserved their unity, but they also expressed their willingness to help Jewish people beyond their own families. It is our duty to instill this knowledge in our own people, in the next generations, and in the entire world".
Referring to the subject of the seminar, Shalev explained that
"today we are talking specifically about female rescuers, because women displayed an extraordinary strength and an extraordinary willingness to act… When community leadership crumbled, the power that grew from the bottom was from women and girls who played leadership roles in the youth movements. These stories enrich our lives and constitute a real example to us all – and there are many such examples."
MK Merav Michaeli, who attended the event, said:
"Today, 70 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, we must understand that even when we were victims throughout history, we were able to perceive a place that was not one of victimhood, and even reach out from the inferno and save as many people as possible. We must understand that the division of Jews as victims and nations as rescuers is simply wrong, and that the Jews were there alongside their brethren in every way possible. This is part of our healing process both as a people and as a state."
Haim Roet, Chairman of the Israeli Committee to Honor the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust, endeavored to elaborate on this phenomenon – one that was historically far less prevalent in the public consciousness. "With the establishment of the State of Israel, there was little known about the rescue of Jews by Jews. The Yishuv [Jewish residents in Mandatory Palestine], which fought for its independence, generally valued the idea of fighters with weapons. It was hard for them to understand why the Jews in Europe did not fight as they did; how different the conditions were." Other explanations raised by Roet for the lack of public awareness of the phenomenon of Jewish rescuers during the Shoah: rescue activities were largely secret even for members of the same organization in order to prevent the leak of information about underground activities in the event that one of the members was caught by the Gestapo; and rescuers often felt guilty and regretful that they might have been able to save more of their Jewish brethren.
Naama Galil of the Commemoration and Community Relations Division spoke of a number of women who worked in rescue and aid services, including Anna Braude Heller, who ran a hospital in the ghetto. As conditions worsened in the ghetto, Braude Heller continued to care for the patients. Despite her ties with German and Polish colleagues, and offers to leave the ghetto, she refused to abandon the children in her care. She was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as she took cover with soldiers in a bunker.
In the ghetto, nurse Luba Bielcka, who worked with Dr. Braude at the hospital, continued to run her prewar nursing school. During the mass deportations of the summer of 1942, the students of the school were taken to the Umschlagplatz gathering point along with Bielcka's children. Luba was able to bring about the release of some of the students by virtue of their diplomas. She also smuggled the children away from the Umschlagplatz in an ambulance before the deportation. During one of the Aktionen, she hid in the cellar with the children and a few other nurses. Due to her connections with Polish nurses and members of the Communist Party, she managed to smuggle them out the ghetto along with other children. She survived the Holocaust, and passed away in 1973.
Other speakers at the seminar included Yochai Cohen, also of the Commemoration and Community Relations Division, who discussed the women in various partisan groups, and Dr. Tzila Hershko, who spoke about women in the Jewish undergrounds in France. Holocaust survivor Fanny Ben Ami, who as a 13-year-old personally rescued a group of 15 other Jewish children, bringing them safely over the border from France to neutral Switzerland, gave a riveting interview, and clips from her biographical film were shown.
Dr. Hava Baruch, Head of the Central European Desk at Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies, gave a fascinating account of Gizi Fleischmann, a Jewish mother of two who was a representative of the WIZO women's Zionist organization in Slovakia. Fleischmann helped many refugees who came to Slovakia, including 336 Jewish men from Prague who came to Slovakia thanks to her activities, and for whom she even went on to find suitable hiding places. With the deterioration of conditions, Fleischmann joined the "Working Group" that endeavored to save the Jews of Slovakia through bribing senior Germans to halt the deportations. For a brief period, and for a number of reasons, the deportees were halted, and this encouraged the Group to investigate the cessation of all deportations across Europe in exchange for bribes. Fleischmann met with many senior officials to test the feasibility of the plan, as well as with Jewish bodies continent-wide to discuss its funding, but the Gestapo began to monitor her and eventually arrested her for a period of four months, holding her in harsh conditions. During the period of her activity, Fleischmann received several proposals for her own escape from Nazi-occupied territory, but she rejected them all. In 1944, she was sent on one of the last transports to Auschwitz; she knew exactly where she was going.
On September 6, 1942, Fleischmann wrote to her daughter Aliza in Israel:
"Destiny wished us not to be together... but the same fate also required me to try to relieve this greatest of suffering of our people in its most difficult years… If I survive this grim period, I think I can say that I have not lived my life in vain. Therefore, you must bear the separation, since above all personal suffering stands the Jewish people itself. "