Former Jewish partisans reflect on women's participation in organized resistance groups during the Holocaust.
I was the girl who played soccer with the boys. I was the girl who rode the bicycle on the street in which a lot of Jewish girls didn’t do that. See, I was born a fighter. I am free. I was always free. When I was a child my father used to say that I am dangerous.
In the Second World War, approximately 30 thousand Jews escaped ghettos and worked and formed organized armed resistance groups to fight the Nazis. These groups were known as partisans, and within their ranks were thousands of women.
The German soldiers came into our town. It’s like the noise of the motorcycles, and it was so overwhelming. So of course, we found out then that this is the end. This is the way it was. We lived in fear, all the time. All the time we lived in fear. And the young men, especially the young boys, somehow tried to organize to get out of town, to go into the forest.
So my mother came up to me and she said, "Brenda, you must go into hiding." And I resisted. I said, "Where am I going into hiding?" I resisted, I said, "No, whatever, we'll be with everybody. The family will be with me." She said, "No, maybe one of us will survive." And she insisted.
When my mother died, was killed, I got tough, when my mother was killed. Before my mother was killed, I didn't even want to go to the partisan group because I wanted to follow my mother. Wherever my mother will go, I should go, that I should be killed with her. And it just happened that I was with her. And I wasn't killed.
So we came there. We sat down and we waited; waited a long time actually. And then came out a commander, and he started asking questions. He says, "So, where are your weapons?" We didn't have any weapons. "So how many trains did you dynamite?" We didn't. So I thought he was not going to take us in, but being that my uncle was a trained scout, they needed a scout to lead them in the vicinity where the partisans were. They were strangers in that part of the country, so they took us in because of my uncle.
That was beautiful. I see people with the guns and everybody is fully equipped with a horse and buggy, with ammunition on their horse and buggy, and everybody's just ready to fight. Well, officer came out strolling to us and . . . he said in Russian, you know, like I said to him, "Take us in. We want to fight." He said, "You are ready?" I said, "Yes." And he said, "Now or never." I said, "I'm going."
Despite the odds, women were able to join the partisans, comprising nearly 10% of all resistance fighters. Many were accompanied by their family members. Their work in the partisan camps ranged from domestic duties such as cleaning, cooking, and nursing, to reconnaissance, weapons transport, and even armed combat.
Women, yeah, what were they doing? Part of them used to go with us to fight. They used to go like— [laughs] The farmers couldn't digest when they saw a woman coming in with a rifle. They couldn't, they weren't used [to it].
We were not interested in getting involved in open battle fights because we were not equipped or trained for it. We were interested in getting involved in sabotage acts, to interrupt and disrupt the communication and transportation to the front.
Our objective was to fight against the Germans, and to strike at them, so that people would know, even in the city, that the partisans are resisting. And that was the most important part of these operations. To shake the confidence of the Germans.
The partisans' main objective was to fight a guerilla war against the Nazis and their collaborators. They fought against the Germans, targeted military and strategic sites, disrupted or destroyed rail, power, and communication lines, dynamited factories, stole weapons. There were two different types of armed resistance movements in which Jewish women were involved. The first was the almost all male, primarily non-Jewish unit, of which there were thousands throughout the whole of Europe. They comprised hundreds of thousands of fighters. The second were the all Jewish units, which were relatively few in number but more accepting of women.
I was called in actually to the commander's wife, and she talked to me. I was a youngster, sheltered, did not go out, didn't have any boyfriends or anything of the sort, and she started talking to me. And she said to me, "You're a young girl. There are very few women in the partisans, and I would advise you to select an officer. Life will go better for you." When the men went for missions, and they got clothes, girls sold themselves in order to get a dress or a pair of shoes or get the—I was lucky because I had my parents—my father and my brother, and they used to bring me clothes and food. So I didn't have to sell myself, but plenty of the girls did it because they had to do it in order to survive. Jewish women who ran away from the ghettos, they had a very tough time because they lost families, and they were not up to romantic relationships, and they suffered mostly. . . . You were given the two hours. In the two hours you had to bring the water, chop the wood, build the fire, prepare the food, cut, cook, and clean up. And in two hours, if you had no help, it wasn't possible to do. And they were always worried: what if they are not able to perform? They'll be thrown out of the partisans.
The same way like the boys raped that girl. The first one was a commander and he shouldn't make that example, and he was shot. We had all stood out in a . . . circle . . . and he was in the middle, and they talked about it ,and he was shot.
Groups like Frank Blaichman's Jewish unit had their own rules for the protection and respect of their female partisans.
In our groups, I feel we treated women very well, very nicely. When I first met my wife as a partisan, in the partisans, she was with me maybe two months, she survived together. I treated her like my own sister. And she behaved like a lady. It was just mutual, and I would never touch her because, you know, she was young, and I know the reason why she wanted to be with us: because she had no choice.
The Soviet partisans did not appreciate that women could fight as well as men. And indirectly, perhaps they were right. In these conditions, it really was more difficult for a woman to fight. But there were opportunities. For example, when we’d go out to blow up a train, we’d have to carry many kilograms of TNT. So, for a woman it was really difficult to walk for 50 kilometers with TNT. So the task would fall on the men, who then would have to take more. So our own people didn’t want to go with women, not just Soviets. Abbna [Kovner] pretty much forced them on each mission to take a female.
We took out the sentries by silencer. We went into the base and made a mess out of them. It's like an atom bomb erupted. While we were going into the base, a train was passing by, and we put it in the dynamite. The dynamite exploded, and all of them were waiting with machine guns and machine gunned them and that was the end of them. We went, two girls, there was a little bridge that was . . . wood, and that little bridge connected the Germans to go from one town to another for ammunition, for food, for things like that. And we were supposed to burn that bridge. We came into that Russian village and we said, "We need kerosene and we need straw in five minutes." "We haven't got. We haven't got." And we said "If you don't have, we'll kill the whole town. Either you give us or you're going to be killed." They gave us, in five minutes, kerosene and straw, and we put a fire underneath that bridge. The Germans saw it, a fire. They opened fire on us, with all the ammunition that they could do. We didn't chicken out. That bridge burned. When we came back, the commander said that we did it very good, and we got Order Lenina, a medal.
Sonia was our communications person. She introduced us to a policeman. And I went out, and walked with him like we were just taking a stroll. I was supposed to take a magnetic explosive and a detonator and stick it to the door of a power transformer. I placed three explosives. And after a few hours, we heard an explosion and the city went dark. And that was a big joy for us, and it had a real influence on the Germans. Because they realized that the partisans had reached all the way to the city. But they didn’t know that it was just a couple of Jewish girls and boys.
There were times when we had to cross a railroad, and from all sides there was shooting. I didn't even bend down my head. I wasn't worried I was going to get killed. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter. Not because I'm a Jew.
I don't remember ever being scared because . . . we lived for one thing. Either we'll survive, or . . . or we'll kill a few Germans. I didn't fear for my life. My life was nothing. Yet . . . you want to live.
Peter and I saved about a hundred people. This was my thing to do. I think that's the most important. That's the biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans is to survive, is to have survivors.
It made me feel very good. It made me feel proud of myself to be able to be a partisan, to be able to help in any way I was able to, [in] that mission to destroy the Nazi machine.