Conventional Wisdom vs. Unconventional Women: Zivia Lubetkin

Conventional Wisdom vs. Unconventional Women: Zivia Lubetkin

National Library of Israel, Schwadron collection

The following is a reflection by Aliza Wasserman as part of #TeamBrandy’s Conventional Wisdom vs. Unconventional Women series.


Today marks the 75th anniversary on the Jewish (lunar) calendar of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After 2,000 German soldiers re-entered the ghetto in 1943 on the eve of Passover, they were faced by hundreds of Jewish resistors combating them for nearly a month through the final liquidation of the ghetto. The Germans burned down the ghetto, forcing the last of the Jewish fighters to escape through the sewers by gassing their bunkers.

Zivia Lubetkin was the only female leader in the command structure of the uprising, and helped found the anti-Fascist bloc, the first organization in the Warsaw Ghetto to engage in armed combat in fighting for their lives against the Germans. A founder and leader of the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB), which organized the uprising, Lubetkin was previously a leader of Jewish youth movements who smuggled many Jewish teenagers out of Poland, where my ancestors came from just 30 years prior. On May 10, 1943 she went through the sewers with the last of the fighters and became an emissary of the movement and its legacy until her death in 1978.

Zivia was part of a group of mostly female couriers, or Kashariyot, who traveled on illegal missions in and out of ghettos and towns in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, using false papers to conceal their identities. Sharing news and information across the areas occupied by Germany and smuggling identity cards, newspapers, medical supplies and their fellow Jews. Most of the couriers were female, because the social roles for Jewish women in Poland at the time made women better suited for this role –being out in public during the day was more normative for women, they were less likely to be sent to forced labor camps, and they were more likely to have secular education in Polish schools. Earlier in the German occupation they had organized meetings and educational spaces for young Jews to learn about the history of resistance.  As heroes who risked their lives often anonymously and secretly, “the kashariyot were not conventional fighters: they did not use conventional weapons and they did not fight in conventional battles. Their times called for daring innovations and different modes of fighting the Germans.” The resilience exhibited by these female couriers also played a symbolic role in keeping hope alive, just as hearing about their efforts these days helps to push back against the current acceptance of a default passive bystander status.

Since most of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews—there had once been nearly half a million– had already been killed or sent to death camps or labor camps, Lubetkin and her comrades knew their armed combat wouldn’t be able to stop the Nazi machine. However, she hoped that the fighting spirit would inspire more Jews to fight back and earn more support from the Polish Underground.

In her memoir In the Days of Despair & Destruction, Lubetkin wrote “It would be wrong, painfully wrong, to assume that the resistance displayed by the youth during the stormy days of destruction was the response of a few individuals…Our fate would have been very different had we not been members of the movement…We were able to endure the life in the ghetto because we knew that we were a collective, a movement. Each of us knew that he or she wasn’t alone…the feeling that there was a community people who cared about each other, who shared ideas and values in common, made it possible for each of us to do what he or she did. This was the source of our strength to live. It is the very same source which keeps the survivors alive even today. The Jewish people stood the test.”

Throughout history, unconventional women have fought back against oppression against all odds. These women provide the inspiration for the next generation of women heroes and leaders. Now is our time to fight back against oppression in our communities – from housing discrimination to worker exploitation to violence against people of faith – together, we will rise.

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