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

Living a Double Identity in Perilous Times

The couriers lived dual lives, as Yiddish speaking Jews in the ghettoes, then, shedding their yellow Star of David patches and armbands, assumed gentile roles the moment they were beyond the wall. They had to be convincing actresses outside the walls; their lives depended on it. They strove to fit in, unnoticed, in Polish communities that viewed outsiders with suspicion. They created elaborate, false identities for their own survival.

The couriers had experience adapting to their second identities. From their youth they had learned how to adapt to survive within the dominant, often anti-semitic society of Poland. For centuries, Jews were not allowed to assimilate into the mainstream of Polish society. It was second nature for the couriers to maintain a low profile in the Polish communities they now frequented during their missions.

Hebrew University scholar Dalia Ofer wrote of the challenges of the couriers' dual identities:

We can imagine these young women and their activities. Working with constant risk that their true identity might be revealed. Spending lonely hours on the trains traveling from towns and villages and finding them without Jews. Longing for the families who had perished, and constantly worrying about their friends in the ghetto. They were pretending all the time to be what they were not, and were constantly hearing the slanders heaped on the murdered Jews along with joyous comments on their disappearance, and they were forced to smile quietly or join the laughter with a broken heart.20

It was common for couriers to find temporary residence beyond the ghetto walls. With shelter on the Aryan side posing as Poles, they could continue to bring relief to the beleaguered souls trapped in the ghettos during Nazi Aktions and deportations. Chaika Grossman explained the risks living as a stranger in the Polish section Bialystock:

The ground was eroding under my feet. My landladies were watching and tried to find out how a young girl alone like me managed to support herself. The average citizen's attitude towards you was not determined by your appearance but by your social status. If you were a stranger, not known to some respectable person, you had no right to exist in an occupation regime. You became one of the suspected, maybe a Jew, or maybe a member of the underground.

Step by step the difficulties and sacrifices piled up. Step by step our hearts forged the ability to hold firm.21

Courier Adina Szwajger experienced a similar sense of displacement while assuming another identity in Aryan Warsaw. After taking a job as a "childminder," caring for kindergarteners in Warsaw, working with children brought so much joy into her life that, "…there were even moments when I forgot about my strangeness, about the fact that I was constantly acting."22

ZOB commander Zivia Lubetkin also wrote of the double identities that couriers maintained in Revolt:

It was forbidden for any Jew to be outside of the ghetto, to travel on the railroad, or to be found on the roads. To get out of the ghetto, you had to pass for a Pole, which meant 'looking' Aryan and speaking fluent Polish. Walking the streets to the train station was so fraught with danger. If you looked sad, you might be taken for a Jew. If someone treated you rudely and in a moment of weakness you lowered your eyes in shame, the die was cast, for whom but a Jew had anything to fear? When you entered a train and joined in the conversations, which were mostly about Jews, you had to listen and participate and agree, otherwise they'd realize who you were.23

Many compromises had to be made by the couriers in order to assimilate into the dominant Polish culture. Vladka Meed wrote of the depth of the charade which she and her sister couriers had to maintain, their level of composure, and attention to detail:

The so-called 'Aryans' had to blend with their surroundings, adopt Polish customs, habits and mannerisms, celebrate Christian religious holidays and of course, go to church. They had to watch their every movement, lest it betray nervousness or unfamiliarity with the routine and weigh their every word, lest it betray a Jewish accent.

Nevertheless, there were always trivial, but telltale signs that could not be controlled, and these could betray one's identity. For example, lack of known relatives or reluctance to cultivate friendships with Gentiles aroused mistrust. The eyes were a special danger sign. A careworn face might be transformed by a smile; an accent could be controlled, church prayers and customs could be learned, but the eyes…. How could one hide the mute melancholy, the haunted look of fear?24

For Havka Folman, the physical attributes she and other couriers possessed helped them remain incognito in their second identities:

Young women were chosen if their appearance was good-that was the term used for a non-Jewish appearance, (or 'Aryan' look) and whose Polish was fluent, with a flawless accent. Make-up was imperative. It is important to remember that playing a role, being an actress, often included the need to approach the Germans (and not only Poles). This was like talking into an abyss, because of a deep feeling of loathing when we had to brush against them, sit among them, talk, drink, pass the time, and also from the danger of discovery as a Jew under these conditions. This would have brought German revenge upon the deceivers.25

Even with crosses around their necks and adapting the physical countenance and language of the Poles, couriers couldn't show fear while false documents were checked during their missions. An experience related by Grossman in Underground illustrated the composure that couriers needed to survive and the one of the dangers they routinely faced: getting their papers checked. On a journey to Warsaw her train was stopped at a station and all passengers were ordered out. A woman in the line in front of her was suddenly taken by the authorities and escorted into a side room for interrogation. In mortal danger, Grossman calmly approached the counter for an official to check her papers. A single miscue in the forging process meant interrogation, torture and death. A peasant in front of her showed his papers to the rail officer and with a quick glance over his shoulder, Grossman knew the peasant's documents would not pass inspection. Couriers were experts in the nuances of a well-forged document. Next in line, Grossman handed over her counterfeit papers:

'Look,' the policeman said to the peasant and showed him my paper, 'that is the kind of document you need. Do you understand?'

The peasant apparently did not understand completely and only stared enviously. I, however, did understand and smiled at the policeman's stupidity. Thinking that I was smiling at him, he smiled back and investigated me no further.26

Grossman's chutzpah in the midst of a lethal situation was a quality that many couriers possessed. She also used another survival skill commonly employed by the couriers; her womanly charms; the smile used to manipulate a male adversary.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
All rights reserved.