All humans are important, but none more so than those who bear witness to the atrocities humans commit against each other, because their testimony warns us of the bestial traits in ourselves.
One such witness died on Sunday at the age of 96, Hella Schuepper Rufeisen, one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish combat organization headed by Mordechai Anielewicz.
There were other Jewish resistance movements in the ghetto that fought as hard, but the best-known emanated from the bunker at Mila 18.
Rufeisen was the second of five children born to a Hassidic Krakow family. Her mother died in giving birth to Miriam, Hella’s junior by 10 years.
Hella went to live with her grandmother at the age of 10 and stayed, even after her father – a cantor and ritual slaughterer – remarried.
Despite her piety, the grandmother sent young Hella to a Polish public school, where in addition to secular subjects she learned Catholic prayers and traditions.
That, and her fluent Polish, spoken without a trace of Yiddish accent, stood her in good stead after the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Her grandmother died when Hella was 14, and she then moved in with an aunt and uncle.
Hella joined the ultra-nationalist Women’s Organization for Military Training where she remained for two years, but left when a female parliamentarian tried to outlaw Jewish ritual slaughter. That was not only seen as an antisemitic act by Hella, it threatened her father’s income.
Jewish friends who had been trying to get Hella back into their circle saw this as a good opportunity and persuaded her to join Akiva, a Zionist youth movement. Hesitant at first because of her background, she was assured by the group leader that Akiva, though far from a religious movement, was certainly not atheist.
The Polish nationalist movement to which Hella once belonged was all female. But Akiva was coed, and her family objected. They also feared the group would influence Hella to become lax in religious observance, and were just as frightening she might want to go to what was then called Palestine.
After returning from an Akiva summer camp, the family’s anger convinced Hella to leave home. She rented a room with two elderly women, with whom she remained, waiting six months until she and some colleagues could move to Palestine.
But that was not to be – at least not for several years.
The Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
Hella’s brother Josef who was a year older than she, and the two decided to leave Krakow, heading east. They quickly found that the Nazis were headed in the same direction and eventually returned to Krakow. Evading Nazis was far from easy and Josef was eventually apprehended and severely beaten. As a result, he decided to once again try moving east, but refused to take his sister.
The Krakow Ghetto was established in March, 1941, with a limit on population dictated by the Nazis of 15,000.
Hella was the only person allowed to enter from her family, with whom she had by then reconciled, and when they left Krakow she had no wish to stay.
Hella moved to Warsaw, where she joined fellow Akiva members until 25 people were living in one very cramped apartment. They established a group of some 300 young people who met in the evenings to socialize, strategize and study.
As difficult as the apartment was, the ghetto – rampant with disease – was worse. But the worst was yet to come, when from July 22 through September 12, 1942, the Nazis sent 265,000 Jews to Treblinka.
The Jewish combat organization began to take shape at the end of July, and Hella was charged with informing the leaders of Akiva in Krakow of the group’s planned armed struggle against the Nazis.
Thus began her career as a ghetto courier.
It would have been hard enough to smuggle herself in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto to contact people on the outside. But she also began going back and forth between Warsaw and Krakow, and the journey was always dangerous, especially by train. There was always risk of Nazi soldiers or Polish extortionists realizing she was Jewish and using blackmail to keep that a secret.
Fortunately, on those trips she was able to convince Germans she was a purely Polish, and the Poles she met apparently believed whatever story she spun.
Over time, Hella smuggled money, fake documents, weapons, explosives and more between the two cities. Her walk and appearance exuded so much confidence that hardly anyone suspected she was anything other than what she pretended.
A Polish policeman once suspected that Hella was Jewish and arrested her, but did not immediately search her. She took advantage of that break, said she urgently needed a toilet and once there, flushed the papers she was carrying. She finally convinced everyone that she was a good Catholic and was let go after being detained for three days.
After another arrest, she was left with only one German policeman to guard her and planned an escape, but the plan was not foolproof and the policeman chased her and shot at her, hitting her in the foot.
She managed to crawl to a dark alley without detection and found her way back to the Warsaw Ghetto. A few weeks later was Passover, 1943, by which time her wound had healed.
Towards the end of that week, Anielewicz ordered her to accompany people to the Aryan side – which she often did as a courier – and to update his deputy, Antek Zuckerman, who would wait for her there.
As always, she went through sewers, and again had to dodge bullets when she emerged.
She was not Zuckerman’s only source of information and on May 10, he told her the bunker at Mila 18 had been destroyed and everyone in it was dead.
A false rumor circulated that the Hotel Polski was a haven for Jews. Hella found her way there only to be arrested and sent to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. The inhumanity she witnessed there haunted her until the day she died.
Liberated by the Americans in March of 1945, but alone in the world, Hella thought the only reason she was alive was to tell the story. And over the years she told it many times.
She finally arrived in Palestine, six years later than she had first intended in September 1945.
At first she lived at Kibbutz Beit Yehoshua, where she met Aryeh Rufeisen, whom she married in 1947. Two years later they were among the founders of Moshav Bustan Ha-Galil in the Western Galilee, where they raised three children and where she continued to live after her husband died until her own death.
It is ironic that Hella Schuepper Rufeisen died just a few hours ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day.