THE COURIERS OF THE JEWISH
UNDERGROUND IN POLAND
DURING THE HOLOCAUST
Our movement was large and strong and it was beautiful, even in its defeat. You must know how to live, and more than that, how to die. We knew that by our death everything would not have ended, that our death would become a symbol upon which a generation would be educated. And I want to tell you this… the heroes of the people are not necessarily its recognized political leaders. The true heroes of a nation are small people, silent, unknown.
Lonka Kozibrodska, and Why Women Were the Couriers
The saving of a single soul is worth the risk of one's own life.
Antek Zuckerman called Lonka Kozibrodska "a born courier." She had grace, Aryan features, and like most couriers, was multi-lingual. Lonka spoke Polish, German, English, French, Byelorussion and Ukrainian to go with her native Yiddish and Hebrew. This helped her outwit adversaries: the Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians. Vera Laska wrote of Lonka in Voices of Interpretation: "Speaking the native language in the place of an operation always meant a multiple insurance for a successful mission."41
When the ghettoization of the Jews began in Warsaw, Lonka, who had been active in the youth organization Ha-Shomer Ha-Tza'ir, went to Antek Zuckerman and Zivia Lubetkin. "I am ready to do anything and everything that the Movement may ask of me,"42 she told them. Consequently, Lonka became one of the principal couriers of the HeHalutaz and Dror movements throughout occupied Poland. She often accompanied Zuckerman on his journeys from Warsaw to establish and renew contacts with other youth organizations.
In A Surplus of Memory Zuckerman explained one reason why women were better suited than Jewish men to be couriers:
Unlike a circumcised Jewish male, a check by a German soldier could not reveal a young woman's Jewish identity. As a man, if they got suspicious, all they had to do was to pull down my pants to prove I was 'Yitzhak, son of Abraham.' That was why the girls played a central role in maintaining contact between the parts of the Jewish organism, which was split into so many cells.43
Havka Folman echoed Zuckerman's point of view, and added two other essential reasons why women became couriers:
It was more likely that females would not fall into the hands of the Germans, since women are less suspected of illegal involvement. However, the most obvious reason is that it was more difficult to identify a female as being Jewish. In every instance when a male was suspected of being Jewish, he was told, under threat, to lower his trousers, even on a public street. If he was circumcised, he was shot immediately.
Women could be less identifiable in other ways. Many Jewish women such as Lonka "looked" Aryan, but also dyed their hair, wore makeup and "Polish" clothes. Their excellent command of the Polish language helped give them considerable anonymity outside of the ghettos.
Polish resistance leader Jan Karski cited other reasons why women became couriers. To Karski, women were better suited than men for espionage: "They were quicker to perceive danger, more optimistic of the outcome, and could make themselves less conspicuous; they were more cautious and discreet, had more common sense and were less inclined to risky bluffing."45
Karski singled out for praise the "liaison women" whose lot was the hardest, yet whose contributions were least rewarded: "They were more exposed than the organizers, planners, or executors; they often carried incriminating materials of anti-Nazi literature for distribution."46 One of Karski's couriers visited 240 places a week. Women had another advantage in their underground activities. Vera Laska wrote: "It was to the advantage of women that most of their adversaries were male, and women were less suspected of illegal activities by them-the old male underestimation of the power of a woman."47 German soldiers, officers, and railway workers who never knew they were carrying contraband when they transported her luggage, helped Lonka. She often arrived in a town or city bearing the message to organize and resist, sometimes on the day that the Jews were being deported, and communities liquidated. When deportations to death camps were completed in an area, Lonka remained active in rescue activities, bringing support to those in hiding. She transferred important papers from Krakow to Warsaw for Emmanuel Ringleblum's Oneg Shabbat archive, which documented the Nazi policy of extermination in the Warsaw Ghetto and Poland. Couriers like Lonka provided the documentation and evidence of the machinations Holocaust as eyewitnesses, relatively safe in their Aryan disguises.
The couriers were chosen for their devotion to the movement, the content of their character and their leadership qualities. Zivia Lubetkin wrote this vignette of Lonka in the Warsaw Ghetto:
All of our women liaisons were like Lonka… Her arrival in the ghettoes was a holiday for the members of the movement. They surrounded her in awe and she told them about Jewish youth unwilling to accept the humiliation imposed upon them; Jewish youth who dreamed of a better life, or even of a more noble death.48
Lonka and Antek Zuckerman had many experiences in which she provided Zuckerman with emotional support, a function that many couriers fulfilled. "In the hardest times, when I was on the brink of madness, I would call on Lonka,"49 wrote Zuckerman.
In June of 1942 Lonka was apprehended by the Germans at a checkpoint while traveling from Bialystock into the General-Government sector. She was brought to Pawiak Prison in Warsaw and then transported to Auschwitz where she died of typhus and hunger.
In a tragic twist of fate, two couriers, Lonka and Havka Folman, were placed in the "Revier," the infirmary in Auschwitz. As Folman wrote in her memoir, They Are Still With Me:
I became ill with typhus. This was common in our barracks. Three girls lay in the same bunk. Once I woke up and I discovered that I was sleeping with a dead woman; she had died in her sleep. I discovered that near my bed lay the courier Lonka Kozibrodska, whom I knew and whom I had heard even more. From my bed I could see her dying. She was almost entirely unattended. She became bloated. She couldn't eat and asked that they give me her soup. I was grateful, but my heart broke to see Lonka's suffering. On March 18, 1943 she passed away. Lonka was 26.50