The United Nations General Assembly designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005. This date was chosen to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on Jan. 27, 1945.
Over 1.1 million people, including close to one million Jews, were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of World War II, six million Jews — almost a third of all Jews alive in the world and two out of every three European Jews — had been murdered.
When we include other groups targeted by the Nazis and their collaborators — Roma, Soviet POWs, disabled people, gay men, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholic Poles and political prisoners – the total of those killed approaches 11 million.
It is impossible for us to fully comprehend the extent of the horror. The numbers are overwhelming.
It is often through individual stories that we can begin to grasp the enormity of the destruction and to honor the memories of those who perished as well as those who survived.
While there have been many individual accounts, most famously The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, there are stories yet to be told and stories with which many of us are unfamiliar.
One such story is that of women who were members of the resistance against the Nazis. Judy Batalion introduces us to some of these courageous women in her book The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos.
They were part of the greater Jewish resistance to the Nazis, which was widespread: 90 European ghettos had armed Jewish resistance forces, and about 30,000 European Jews fought as partisans.
Batalion discovered that women, most of whom were between the ages of 16 and 25, were central figures in many resistance efforts.
Some were “courier girls” who — because of their Aryan appearance and fluent, unaccented Polish — were able to move between ghettos, supplying false identification papers, connecting youth resistance groups, and smuggling guns, bullets and grenades hidden in jars of food and potato sacks.
These women blew up German supply trains, led Jews from ghettos to safe hiding places, and smuggled dynamite into the Warsaw ghetto. One worked as a receptionist and Polish translator for the Gestapo, stealing documents and delivering them to Jewish forgers.
These women took enormous risks. For a courier girl, being caught on the Aryan side of the ghetto walls was often a death sentence.
Renia Kukiełka, just 18 years old, was one of these girls. Renia conducted missions in which she transported grenades, false passports and cash — strapped to her body or hidden in her undergarments or her shoes.
She guided Jews trapped in the ghettos to safe places and negotiated with a black-market arms dealer in a cemetery. A reward for her capture resulted in Renia’s incarceration in a Nazi prison, where she was beaten repeatedly.
Renia masterminded an escape, in which she and other courier girls distracted their guards with cigarettes and whiskey and were able to slip away.
Hela Schupper borrowed elegant clothing from the mother of a non-Jewish friend. As a result, her meeting with a man from the Polish underground on a street corner in Warsaw did not draw suspicion.
The man led Schupper onto a train and then to a safe house, where she loaded guns and ammunition clips into her fashionable handbag. She transported these to a group of resistance fighters in Krakow, who used the weapons as part of their attack on a café popular with Nazi officers.
Stories of defiance include spiritual resistance. In ghettos and concentration camps, Jews continued to worship in secret.
Clandestine schools were established to make sure that children would be educated. Books were smuggled into ghettos so that lending libraries could be created; the Theresienstadt ghetto, near Prague, had a 60,000-volume library. Plays were performed, in defiance of Nazi orders.
Archives were kept in several ghettos, including Warsaw, that were hidden in metal boxes and milk cans, buried and discovered after the war. The archivists wanted to make sure that what their communities had suffered would never be forgotten.
In the Warsaw ghetto, each of the 60 archivists — only three of whom survived — wrote their last will and testament, including them with the artifacts, records and first-person accounts of life in the ghetto.
David Graber, 19, wrote the following in his will: “May this treasure fall into good hands. May it survive until better times. May it alarm the world to what happened in the 20th century. Now we can die in peace. … Our mission has been accomplished. … Let history bear witness to that.”
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, may we remember those who perished and those who survived, and may we continue to tell their stories.
May we draw strength from their physical and spiritual resistance, and may we take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The previous articles are:
Several Remembrances Needed on Holocaust Remembrance Day | Jack Moline
How to Make a Difference When Facing Overwhelming Evil | Lee Spitzer
Rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia. Prior to entering rabbinical school, she was a clinical social worker in out- patient mental health clinics in the DC area as well as in private practice for over 20 years..