Unsung Saviors

By Heather O'Dell
Orlando, Florida


 

One day a young woman walked up to two German guards in front of a Gestapo building in Warsaw and, glancing at them innocently, whispered the name of an important Gestapo officer and added, "I have to see him about an important matter."

 

She was twenty-four, but her thin, attractive figure, and lengthy blonde braids falling under a flowered kerchief on her head, gave her the appearance of a sixteen-year-old girl. The guards smiled at her considerately, gave her the officer's room number, and ushered her into the building.

 

Approaching the open door, she hesitated, as a proficient-looking German arose from behind his desk. He gazed at the girl in amazement for a long moment and then called out, "Gibt es bei euch auch Lorelei?" (Do you, here, also have a Lorelei?)

 

The girl did not reply, but rather, quickly drew a revolver from her handbag and shot the German point blank. She left the office and calmly walked toward the exit. As she passed the guards again, she inoffensively lowered her eyes and smiled bashfully. A moment later she was completely out of their sight.

 

This young, brave woman was Niuta Teitelboim, a Jewish girl from the Warsaw Ghetto, whose underground name was "Wanda." This was not the only death sentence she had carried out for the underground. On another instance, she surprised a Gestapo officer in his own house while he was still in bed. When the startled German saw the girl with a revolver in her hand, pointed directly at him, he ducked under his quilt. Wanda shot straight through the quilt, and quickly disappeared.

 

Though she primarily operated in the Warsaw area. Wanda became a legendary name throughout Poland, a symbol of heroic resistance to the German occupation forces. By Gestapo groups, she was infamously referred to as, "Die kleine Wanda mit die Zopfen" (Little Wanda with the braids) and she became one of the German most wanted "bandits", their term for underground fighters (Suhl 52).

 

Wanda was active in countless resistance groups and uprisings. As the Gestapo intensified its hunt for "Little Wanda with the braids," her colleagues in the underground begged her to cease her activities and go into hiding because the Gestapo was trailing her. Wanda did not heed their advice.

 

One day in July, 1943, Wanda came home to find Gestapo agents awaiting her in her room. She attempted to poison herself to avoid falling into their hands alive but did not succeed. She was immediately arrested and taken to the torture chambers of the Gestapo. Before she was executed, she managed to smuggle a note to her comrades underground, promising them that she would not betray them.

 

An underground leader who worked closely with Wanda in her courageous days of resistance recalls her saying this: "I am a Jew...my place is among the most active fighters against fascism, in the struggle for the honor of my people, for an independent Poland, and for the freedom of humanity." To the very last moment of her life, she tried to live up to this credo (Suhl 52).

 

This is but one of many tales of courage and bravery during the Holocaust of World War II. It is the other side of a horrific genocide which American Heritage Dictionary defines as: Great or total destruction by fire; a conflagration (Morris 629).

 

Hitler tried desperately to hide from the world the true nature of his concentration camps in Poland--they were actual death camps. He was successful in subduing his victims' shrieks but he could not disguise the smoke and flames blown into the skies near the crematoriums. As Hochhuth pointed out in The Deputy, "the pall of smoke and the glow of fires [were) visible to a distance of thirty kilometers..." The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why didn't the Allied Air Command bomb the gas chambers and crematoriums of the death camps out of existence? Or why didn't they bomb the railway lines that carried victims to these camps? (Suhl 2)

 

Louis Tursky asks these questions in his article "Could the Death Camps Have Been Bombed?" and presents a plethora of evidence supporting, that from a military standpoint, it was possible to do so. Yet, early in 1944, when the Western Allies were asked by a representative from the Jewish agency to bomb the rail-lines leading from Hungary to the death camps of Poland, they were told their request was "technically unfeasible" (Sub] 2).

 

What the Allied Command failed to do with its ample technical resources was attempted successfully at least twice by the Jewish underground. With limited means and conditions of incomprehensible terror, two of the most notorious death camps in Poland, Treblinka and Sobibor, were put out of operation, thanks to vanquishing revolts. These revolts gave inspiration to the weary, hope to the hopeless, and a helping hand to those drowning in a sea of death and despair (Suhl 2).

 

Who would have thought it possible for a Jewish underground organization to exist, much less function, in the heart of Nazi Germany? Yet one operated in Treblinka, the second largest extermination camp, where a disheartening 800,000 Jews perished (Suhl 128).

 

What it took for the Jews to create a successful revolt in Treblinka was extraordinary bravery, a little luck, and advance preparation. Their plan was to get ammunition and arms from the camp's arsenal. Luckily, a Jewish locksmith was sent to repair the broken lock of the armored door to the arsenal. The locksmith took an imprint of the key, and four months later a duplicate was ready (Suhl 131).

 

Once they had an opportune time to get into the arsenal, a select few cut a pane out of an unguarded window. There, under a pile of bricks and debris, they loaded twenty hand grenades, twenty rifles, and several revolvers with loaded cartridges (Suhl 131).

 

The disinfector of the camp also belonged to the underground group. His job was to disinfect the camp with a sprinkler-like apparatus. A mechanic and comrade of the group had gotten them gasoline from a garage, which they poured into the apparatus, and dispersed it all over the camp (Suhl 132).

 

On a certain signal, the previously "disinfected" objects were detonated. An enormous fire broke out in the whole camp. The arsenal exploded and everything burned, including approximately 550 workers on the campgrounds (Suhl 132).

 

Covert operations like these carried with them such magnificent repercussions that it would make one wonder why someone would risk his own life to help save the lives of countless others he had never met. They can never balance the horrific story of evil, however, they do exemplify the goodness that still remains in the human spirit. When asked why they helped, most respond, "It was the right thing to do." Their acts were the results of proper upbringing, religious and moral beliefs, and opportunity (Geier

15).

 

Not only were there efforts to save Jews and their entire race during World War II, there is still a struggle today for a similar cause. However, this time, it is a struggle to keep alive the memories of those Jews who were not among the fortunate survivors. Just one of many writers of literature about the Holocaust, Jack Eisner tells an unusual story about his indomitable spirit as a young child growing up during the Holocaust--driven by a will to survive, a vision of resistance, and the courage to risk death in the gamble for life.

 

In his powerful prologue of The Survivor Eisner writes:

 

"If you saw me at a distance, you would think I was an ordinary person.

Even if you got closer, you still couldn't tell.

Maybe if you observe me very carefully, you might notice that I seem somehow alone, even in the middle of a crowd. You would be right.

But you would also be wrong. For I am never truly alone. Thousands of people are always with me.

 

My head is so crowded with ghosts I sometimes think it will burst.

My dreams flame with horror.

My memories are gray with ash.

I am a survivor.

 

It is my story...

...It is also the story of my friends and family. People who are not here to tell it themselves...

...They are all living in me. They stay with me so they will not become part of the faceless, nameless dead.

Only I can mark their passing.

I am their gravestone, because I am a survivor."

 

Whether it was individual efforts of defiance, courageous involvement in ghetto uprisings, or speaking out to let the story be heard, all are heroes and models of extraordinary bravery. Because of such people, countless thousands of lives were saved, and dreams of freedom were realized.

Works Cited

 

Eisner, Jack. The Survivor. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980.

 

Geier, Arnold. Heroes of the Holocaust. Miami: Londonbooks/USA, 1993.

 

Morris, William, ed. American Heritage Dictionary. New York: American Heritage and Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

 

Suhl, Yuri. They Fought Back. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1967.

 

 


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Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.


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