Abstract | Background | The Couriers | The Fate of Jewish Women in Occupied Poland | Living a Double Identity in Perilous Times | Courier Profiles: Lonka Kozibrodska, and Why Women Were the Couriers | Havka Folman | Frumka Plotnicka…"Die Mameh" | Sima | Gusta Davidson Draenger | Mala Zimetbaum | The Destruction of Crematorium Number Four | What Sustained Them? | Conclusion | Endnotes | Bibliography

The Couriers

Warsaw Ghetto historian and archivist Emmanuel Ringleblum wrote the quintessential description of the couriers in his journal on May 19,1942. He had been observing their activities and achievements for three years. As the ghetto was progressively choked off by the Nazis, the couriers became the lifeline for the Warsaw ZOB. Their perseverance, resourcefulness and courage made a strong impression on Ringleblum:

The heroic girls, Chajka [Grosman], Frumke [Plotnicka] and others, theirs is a story that calls for the pen of a great writer. They are venturesome, courageous girls who travel here and there across Poland to cities and towns, carrying Aryan papers, which describe them as Polish or Ukrainian. One of them even wears a cross, which she never leaves off and misses when she is in the ghetto. Day by day they face the greatest dangers, relying completely on their Aryan looks and the kerchiefs they tie around their heads.

They accept the most dangerous missions and carry them out without a murmur, without a moment's hesitation. If there is need for someone to travel to Vilna, Bialystock, Lvov, Kowel, Lublin, Czestochowa, or Radom to smuggle in such forbidden things as illegal publications, goods, money, they do it all as though it were the most natural thing. If there are comrades to be rescued from Vilna, Lublin, or other cities, they take the job on themselves.

Nothing deters them, nothing stops them. If it is necessary to make friends with the German responsible for a train so as to travel beyond the borders of the Government-General, which is allowed only for people with special permits - they do it quite simply, as though it were their profession. They travel from city to city, where no representative of any Jewish institution has reached, such as Volhynia and Lithuania. They were the first to bring the news of the tragedy in Vilna. They were the first to take back messages of greeting and encouragement to the survivors in Vilna. How many times did they look death in the eye? How many times were they arrested and searched? But their luck held. 'Those who go on an errand of mercy will meet no evil.' With what modesty and simplicity do they deliver their reports on what they accomplished during their travels on trains where Christians, men and women, were picked up and taken away for work in Germany. Jewish women have written a shining page in the history of the present World War. The Chajkes and the Frumkes will take first place in this history. These girls do not know what it is to rest. They have hardly arrived from Czestochowa where they took forbidden goods, and in a few hours they would move on again: they do it without a moment's hesitation, and without a minute's rest.1

Warsaw had the largest Jewish population in Poland, including thousands of young activists. Using Warsaw as their home base, the couriers left on their missions into occupied Poland, where Nazis hunted Jews in every town, train, and at every checkpoint. Despite this, the couriers smuggled Jewish citizens from embattled ghettoes to partisan units in the forests and into hiding places in gentile neighborhoods. They smuggled weapons and money, and witnessed and documented the Nazi's liquidation of communities and deportations to the death camps.

Two segments written by courier Havka Folman from her book They Are Still With Me adds to Ringleblum's description of the couriers' exploits. The couriers delivered periodicals published by the underground, which eventually would be distributed to Jewish communities. The periodicals, which were published by the ZOB in Warsaw and other cities contained critical information suppressed by the Nazis: accounts of ghetto liquidation, descriptions of resistance activities, and calls to arms. In 1942, a Yiddish weekly was published by Dror, entitled Yedies. It included news heard on a secret radio and news received from other ghettos, often supplied by the couriers. Yedies also provided a forum for poets and other writers in the ghetto. In this segment, Folman discusses an intangible item the couriers also carried, that was as essential as anything else they smuggled, hope:

The couriers communicated with members of the movements from the various sites, letting them know they were not alone, ensuring that a national movement existed and functioned. The direct contact encouraged a feeling of support, belonging, assistance; relationships of human warmth and friendship. The female couriers brought with them true stories of what was happening in the occupied areas, as well as underground newspapers and movement circulars. They also brought pictures and documents for the preparation of forged papers and money. As guides, they transferred our people and ammunition from place to place directly under the watchful eyes of the authorities.

It should be clarified that the couriers functioned within the confines of their own movements. They did not transmit information and they did not alert 'Klal Israel,' the general Jewish community. This was handled by the leadership of the various movements, each in its own ghetto. One of the most difficult concerns that filled the hearts of Jews was the feeling that the entire world had forgotten about us, that we had no hope and certainly no future; this was loneliness and all its horror. With meager abilities, we young women worked to ease this feeling of loneliness, so that it would be less suffocation. We let them know they could depend on contact and activity.2

Underground publications were mimeographed on thin paper, so the bulletins could be more easily concealed beneath the clothes of the couriers. There were numerous underground newspapers printed by the youth organizations, which the couriers delivered. The couriers understood that the contraband that they carried had great import. Havka Folman wrote:

So I, as all the other couriers, carried on my body the makings of history and the preservation of history at one and the same time. When I was assigned to carry some special material, I felt exhilarated…I knew that immediately after I left, the members of the group would read the entire collection; what they read would give them strength. They would then begin searching for a more dynamic way to go on.

The couriers were a group of remarkable women who accepted a unique responsibility to their people and to history. Variously referred to as liaisons, runners, girls, and messengers, the couriers worked selflessly for the Jewish resistance in Poland through the duration of the Holocaust. Their pragmatic benefit was to smuggle guns, documents, money and encouragement. On another level, they represented the identity, existence and future of the Jewish people. They left a legacy of defiance to, and heroism within, one of the most oppressive system of terror ever developed.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
All rights reserved.