Sarenka, unsung hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Anielewicz is not, however, the only central figure in the monument. Above him, a bare-breasted woman is holding a baby high up in her arms toward the heavens – perhaps as an act of rebellion.

By URI MILSTEIN
January 26, 2019 07:27
Sarenka, unsung hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

RACHEL LEAH ZYLBERBERG (SARENKA).. (photo credit: OFER ALONI)

 
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On the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19, 1948, which took place just 21 days before the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the subsequent attack on Israel by seven Arab armies, the Ghetto Heroes Monument was inaugurated in the Polish capital.

This monument was created by sculptor Nathan Rapoport, who was born in Warsaw and was a member of Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement in Poland.

One side of the monument, which faces the spot where the Judenrat building used to stand, depicts subdued Jews being led to the slaughter. You can see a religious Jewish man who’s holding a Torah scroll and is apparently leading the procession. The faces of the murderers can be seen only in the background.

The second side of the monument is composed of seven insurgents who are bursting out of flames along with one of the uprising leaders, Mordechai Anielewicz, who stands with a grenade in his hand. Anielewicz was clearly identified on the monument by his protégé from Hashomer Hatzair, senior Holocaust scholar Prof. Israel Gutman.

Anielewicz is not, however, the only central figure in the monument. Above him, a bare-breasted woman is holding a baby high up in her arms toward the heavens – perhaps as an act of rebellion, or hope for the future.

This is perhaps the most famous monument in the world, and more groups on Holocaust trips and tourists hold ceremonies there than at any other location in the world.

In 2012, after his wife, Ruth, died, former Mossad agent Reuven Aloni moved into an assisted living facility.

His son, Ofer Aloni, who is an artist, exhibition designer and a philosopher, found an old tin box filled with photographs and letters written in Polish in his father’s attic, as he was sorting through his father’s belongings.

With help from other survivors, Ofer succeeded in identifying Anielewicz and his aunt Rachel Zylberberg, whom everyone called Sarenka (fawn in Polish), Zvi Braun, Moshe Domev and Aviva Anielewicz, Mordechai’s sister.

Mordechai Anielewicz was the leader of the Tel Amal division of Hashomer Hatzair, and the other four were also group leaders. The photograph had been taken by Ruth on Lag Ba’omer 1937.

SARENKA WAS born in Warsaw in 1920. She excelled in her studies and was active in Hashomer Hatzair. After the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Sarenka fled with her sister, Ruth, Ofer’s mother, to Lithuania, which by then had been overtaken by the Soviets. They went to live on Hashomer Hatzair’s Kibbutz Hamanof and later in Vilna, where Sarenka lived with her partner, Moshe Kopito, who was also a close friend of Anielewicz.

The movement granted Sarenka a permit to make aliyah to the Land of Israel, but she refused to leave Moshe behind, and offered the certificate to a colleague. In February 1941, their daughter, Maya, was born.

On June 22, the Germans attacked Soviet positions in eastern Poland in a mission called Operation Barbarossa, and within four days had occupied Lithuania.

 On June 24, Vilna was overtaken, with its strong Jewish community of 80,000 people which was one of the most important Jewish centers the world over. Many Polish Jews had reached Vilna as they fled the Nazis, and most kept on traveling further east toward the Soviet Union. Sarenka and Moshe, however, stayed put with their daughter in order to carry on with their Hashomer Hatzair leadership activity.

A week into the occupation, with help from Lithuanian collaborators, the Germans began sending groups of 500 Jews to Ponary, a small town near Vilna, where they shot the Jews to death inside huge pits the Soviets had dug to store fuel tanks. In July 1941, 5,000 Jews were killed in Ponary, and a total of 40,000 Jews had been murdered there by the end of the year. Survivors who managed to stagger back to the ghetto in Vilna told others about the massacre.

Prof. Dina Porat, the chief historian of Yad Vashem, writes in her book Beyond the Reaches of Our Souls, “The first survivors – mostly women – returned from the pits and described to us explicitly how they were murdering all the Jews.

"The Judenrat [the Jewish administration in charge of mediation between the Jewish community and the Nazi regime] refused to meet with the survivors, and many people had a hard time believing their outrageous stories. When Pesia Aronowitz reached the home of Dr. Mark Dvorzecki, she had a hard time convincing anyone that what she had experienced was the truth, although she did succeed in convincing the doctor. Once she realized everyone thought she was crazy, she stopped talking about it.”

Sarenka’s partner, Moshe, was murdered one day when he was out buying milk for their baby, and someone had informed on his whereabouts. At that point, Sarenka decided to place Maya with a Russian communist doctor, a friend of hers who ran an orphanage. Sarenka would visit her daughter when she could, but at one point she moved into hiding at the Polish Dominican Convent of the Little Sisters in the forest with Abba Kovner, his mother, Chajka Grossman and another 16 Hashomer Hatzair leaders.


Sarenka and her comrades, who were all in their early 20s, soon understood that the Nazis had begun carrying out a systematic plan to exterminate all the Jews.

In her book titled The Underground, Grossman writes how the Hashomer Hatzair leaders discussed how imperative it was that they create a fighting organization that could send emissaries to all the Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe to “tell them the bitter and cruel truth about the atrocities and the Nazi’s extermination plan. We had to encourage them to defend themselves.” In her book, Porat describes how Kovner claims that the first mention of a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place at the Little Sisters convent.

At a meeting at Kibbutz Ha’ogen in 1973 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Kovner vehemently criticized Polish Zionist leaders who fled from Poland to Vilna during the war, with specific mention of certain veteran Hashomer Hatzair members, which left Poland’s three million Jews without any leadership.

“All of the veteran Hashomer Hatzair leaders left Poland for the Land of Israel,” stated Kovner unequivocally, “leaving a serious leadership vacuum. Not even one emissary remained there during this crucial moment, and the young Jews had to face the atrocities on their own.”

According to Ofer Aloni, it wasn’t just plans for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that Sarenka and her Hashomer Hatzair comrades came up with during their time at the Little Sisters. Their ideas were a catalyst for youth throughout the world to engage in rebellions. This was especially pronounced in the second half of the 20th century, but can also still be felt today. It was the impetus for the Jews who sacrificed their lives trying to expel the British from Palestine and defending a young State of Israel against seven Arab armies.

“The amazing insights Sarenka and her comrades came up with at the monastery were the main engine that helped bring about the creation of the State of Israel just three years after the Shoah came to an end,” claims Aloni.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out on the eve of the Passover holiday, and continued for an entire month until May 16. It was the first revolt of the people during World War II. Despite the paucity of their weapons, the resistance fighters succeeded in holding their position against the Nazis longer than any other uprising had.

Two groups fought separately with minimal coordination. There was the leftist ZOB faction, led by Mordechai Anielewicz and other Hashomer Hatzair leaders, as well as the right-wing ZZW faction, led by Pawel Frenkiel. Sarenka served as a commander and fought alongside Anielewicz.

On May 8, when the Germans discovered the large bunker at 18 Mila Street, which served as the ZOB’s command center, most of the leaders and dozens of other fighters refused to surrender to the Germans. Instead, they all swallowed cyanide pills in a massive act of suicide. Although his body was never uncovered, it is believed that Anielewicz died on that day at Mila 18.

AS SOON as he discovered the bundle of letters, Ofer called me and told me the whole story over the phone. We met the same day, and he showed me everything he’d uncovered. We discussed what the implications of all this were.

He told me that it was imperative that he find his cousin Maya and share Sarenka’s story with the whole world. In the six years that have passed, Ofer has devoted a great deal of time, effort and money to this task. So far, he has obtained Maya’s birth certificate in Vilna and has given a number of interviews about his discoveries. He was even arrested for a few hours by the Polish police for disturbing the peace.

Ofer told me he took the letters and photographs he’d found in the tin box with him to the Ghetto Fighters’ House at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.

“The Holocaust survivors there pointed out my Aunt Sarenka in one of the photos. Then I went to Yad Vashem, where I met with Aliza Shomron, who told me of the shock everyone had experienced when Sarenka returned to the ghetto and told them about the Ponary massacre. The letters were all written in Polish, so I couldn’t understand what was written in them, so I took them to Prof. Israel Gutman, and he pointed out one picture he believed was of Mordechai Anielewicz.”

Aliza Vitis Shomron, 90, who lives on Kibbutz Givat Oz, is a survivor who spent time in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. She remembers the night Sarenka came back and told all the youngsters all the terrifying details of the Ponary massacre.

“We were all sitting on the floor, and then an emissary named Rachel or Sarenka arrived. She was only 22, but she had the hair of an old woman. She told us, ‘All of the Hashomer Hatzair leaders were gathered in an apartment when, all of a sudden, we heard German cars coming and then stopping outside. There were screams and gunshots as they began evacuating the buildings all around us. They were taking everyone to the nearby forest in Ponary, where they were shooting us. Thousands of Jews were killed. They lined everyone up in lines – men, women and children – and then shooting them.

I’ve come back to the ghetto to warn you. We have information that the Nazis are killing off everyone in all of the ghettos across Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. As a result, we’ve decided to get organized and defend ourselves. We will not go like sheep to the slaughter. Half of us will remain here in the ghetto, while the others will try to escape and join the partisans.’

“Sarenka’s words were so full of emotion, and at times her voice cracked. We just sat there silently, in shock, waiting for her to continue. Was it possible they were really killing all the women and children?”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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