"Nasza Grupa" – "Hanoar Hazioni" Underground in Zaglembie

"An extraordinary group of people, whose rescue actions were guided by the principle 'All for one and one for all'. I can't recall coming across another group like this: So focused during all the years of the war, so independent and determined to help others, and to save friends and fight the Germans at risk to their own lives."

Manus Diamant wrote these words about his friends, members of the "Nasza Grupa" ("our group" in Polish), a group of young Jews, most 16-25 years old from the "Hanoar Hazioni" youth movement, who gathered together in early 1942 in the Zaglembie (Zagłębie) region in northwest Poland. The group sabotaged German property, attempted to prevent the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz, obtained false documents for young Jewish men and women, and smuggled escaping Jews across borders. Approximately 50 members of the group survived, including Manus.

Azriel-Jozek Kozuch, leader of "Hanoar Hazioni" in Sosnowiec, Zaglembie, and director of the youth department in the Judenrat, left his position at the Judenrat after refusing to cooperate in the organization of deportations from Zaglembie that began in the spring of 1942.  On 12 August 1942, during the "Big Punkt" Aktion (the deportation of some 12,500 Jews from Zaglembie to Auschwitz), members of "Hanoar Hazioni" worked to save Jews and to smuggle them from their houses, where they crowded together waiting for deportation.

Tusia (Esther) Herzberg née Gutman, an activist in "Hanoar Hazioni" walked around in a nurse's uniform during the Aktion:

"I was a nurse, which is what saved me during the war years.  For example, during an Aktion I was permitted to walk amongst people and offer them help […] I always wore two nurse coats.  The main, most important assistance was my coat […] I could give some girl, a friend or a woman my coat, and then she could walk around like a nurse."

In August 1942, activists in various pioneer youth movements in the area entered "Farma", a Hachshara (Zionist pioneer training) farm in Bendzin (Będzin), close to Sosnowiec, and decided to establish a resistance movement that would mount an armed struggle against the deportations.  This decision was inspired by Mordechai Anielewicz, who visited Zaglembie at the time.  The underground movement included groups from the "Hashomer Hatzair", "Gordonia", "Dror", "Hashomer Hadati" and "Hanoar Hazioni" youth movements.  They did not succeed in making contact with the Polish underground, and only managed to obtain a small number of weapons.  They came up against opposition from Moshe Merin, head of the central Judenrat in Sosnowiec and Chaim Molczadski, head of the Judenrat in Bendzin, who saw them as reckless youngsters whose actions would prove disastrous for all the Jews.  Merin handed ten underground activists disseminating anti-German propaganda over to the Germans, and they were deported to Auschwitz.

In early 1943, a rescue opportunity presented itself in the form of South American passports that members of the Hechalutz in Switzerland sent to Zaglembie.  These documents allowed Jews to enter detention camps for foreign citizens, where they could stay until the end of the war. Merin opposed this plan too.  Among members of the underground, there was a difference of opinion between those who favored armed resistance, and members of "Gordonia" and "Hanoar Hazioni", who were beginning to think that escape was the answer.  Information about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943 only served to deepen the rift, and an argument flared amongst the members of the pioneer underground as to how to move forward.  Members of "Dror" and "Hashomer Hatzair" wanted to continue the armed struggle in the cities of Zaglembie, whereas most of the members of "Hanoar Hazioni" saw the main focus as rescuing Jews and smuggling them out of Poland.

On 21 June 1943, after a hiatus of about one year, the deportation of Zaglembie's Jews to Auschwitz recommenced.  Shortly before that, Moshe Merin and some of his senior assistants were deported to Auschwitz.  On 1 August 1943, the liquidation of the ghettos in Zaglembie began, and some 30,000 Jews from Bendzin and Sosnowiec were deported to Auschwitz. The deportation lasted about 2 weeks, during which time, the underground actively resisted.

From late June 1943, the members of the "Nasza Grupa" embarked on a dangerous cross-border operation to rescue members by providing them with false papers and smuggling them from Poland, via Slovakia to Austria and Hungary, and from there to Romania as a conduit to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine).  They took with them some of their parents, and the parents of two of their friends who had been killed in the uprisings that took place during the liquidation of the Sosnowiec and Bendzin ghettos (Jozek Kozuch's father and Olek Glitzenstein's mother).  "Nasza Grupa" members  Leon Blatt and Carol Tochschneider were in charge of smuggling people out of the ghetto.  Zelig Bajuk's idea – rescuing Jewish youngsters by sending them with false papers as Poles, to work in Germany and Austria – came to fruition.  Fredka (Mazia) née Oxenhendler, Jozek Kozuch's widow, and Loleka Pommeranzenblum-Meitlis headed the smuggling network that transported girls to Germany and Austria.  Yaakov Rosenberg organized the transfer to Slovakia, where the escapees received assistance from members of the Working Group in Bratislava.

The first escapees reached Hungary in September 1943.  By the end of 1943, most of them had reached Budapest, and worked as a cohesive group.  This group joined forces with "Hanoar Hazioni" in Hungary, and inspired the youth movements in Hungary to engage in underground activity together with "Hashomer Hatzair" in Hungary.  They set up weapons training camps, forged documents, traveled to peripheral areas to warn the Jews of what was coming, and prepared bunkers for the eventuality of the German occupation of Hungary – which is indeed what occurred in March 1944.  In addition, they worked to find escape routes for the Jews.  "Nasza Grupa" member Pinek Trajman was one of those who located the escape routes to Romania. 

In Hungary, members of the "Nasza Grupa" were arrested and imprisoned time and time again, which necessitated their release and the issue of new forged documents for them.  Yaakov-Juzek Rosenberg relates:

"[Nasza Grupa member] Ruth Landau's parents and seven-year-old brother were caught when trying to cross the border posing as Polish Christians.  I told the German [a German officer whom Yaakov had befriended] about them and asked him to find out how they were […] I gave him money and explained how he should act […] We arranged that he would bring them to me, at the coffee house […] and the family did reach me […] Ruth's parents couldn't believe that they had been rescued.  Amazed, they asked, "How? What?", and wanted to know how I'd managed to organize their release.  All I said was, "Now find yourselves an apartment".

One group of the "Nasza Grupa" travelled towards the border with Yugoslavia, planning to join up with partisans, and they reached the border city of Mohács.  In April 1944, they identified a Jew who had collaborated in betraying Jews to the Nazis in Poland.  They sentenced him to death in absentia.  The task of carrying out of the sentence was given to three members of the group:  Alex Gutman-Gathmon, Tusia's brother; Emil Brig, born in Tarnow who joined "Hanoar Hazioni" in Hungary; and Dina Firstenberg-Gilboa, a member of "Hanoar Hazioni" in Sosnowiec.  When the body was discovered, approximately 16 members of the group were arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned.  Emil, Alex and Dina confessed, and the rest of those detained were released.  The three endured terrible torture and were handed over to the Hungarian authorities who transferred them to prison in the city of Pecs.  The Hungarians sentenced them to death.  Their comrades tried everything to rescue them.  Dina relates:

Tusia [Herzberg-Gutman], whose name featured on the list of people wanted for the same crime, reached the prison with the help of forged Red Cross papers to bring us an escape plan.  They let me meet her in an office.  When I saw her, I was sure that she had been arrested, and asked her in Polish: 'Did they torture you?'  She lifted her eyes, and said, quite naturally, 'My name is Jadwiga, I've come to help you Polish prisoners, if you need something', and passed me a bag of candies, at the bottom of which was the escape plan."

All the rescue attempts of the three detainees were unsuccessful.  The date of their execution was set for 29 November 1944.  Two hours before they were to be hanged, the Soviets arrived and liberated the prison.  All three survived.

More than 60 members of "Hanoar Hazioni" who were active in the "Nasza Grupa", were murdered in the Holocaust.  After the war, many of the group's survivors immigrated to Eretz Israel.  The friendship, common fate, solidarity and the feeling of extended family stayed with the group members in Eretz Israel too, and was a source of strength and support as they rebuilt their lives and contributed to the fledgling State and its security.  Members of the group were amongst the founders of "Masuah".  Emil Brig was awarded the title "Hero of Israel" for his bravery in the War of Independence.  Pinek Trajman, a sniper in the 7th Brigade, was one of the conquerors of Mt. Meron.  Manus Diamant took part in Eichmann's capture.  Alex Gutman Gatmon was an emissary of the Mossad, and commander of the secret operation to bring the Jews of Morocco to Israel. Tusia Herzberg was awarded the President's Medal for her volunteer work in impoverished neighborhoods, and for establishing the first after-school club for children in Israel.

For decades, members of the "Nasza Grupa" and their families have been getting together each year on 29 November, to mark the day that their friends Alex, Emil and Dina were saved from certain death.  In November 2019, three survivors of the "Nasza Grupa", Linka Rosenberg, Ruth Hilman-Landau and Shoshana Shalev held a gathering with their families and with members of the second, third and fourth generation members of the group. 

In 2020, "Nasza Grupa" survivors Fela Trajman and Linka Rosenberg, and Toshia Herzberg's daughter Rina Dayagi, donated photographs and documents relating to the story of the "Nasza Grupa" to Yad Vashem as part of the national project "Gathering the Fragments", some of which are displayed here.