Love song for Chaika 1
In July, seventy years ago, Soviet partisans and a small Jewish partisan group were entering the just liberated city of Białystok in eastern Poland. In their first line: Chaika Grossman. Białystok was her hometown. 120,000 people had lived here before the invasion of the Germans, half of them Jews.
At the end of the eighties I translated „The Underground Army“, Chaika Grossman’s account of her participation in the Jewish resistance in Poland, into German. Chaika invited me to come and visit her. I stayed in her home, in the kibbutz. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship…
In 1992, I was making „Mir zeynen do“, a documentary about the Ghetto Uprising and the Jewish resistance in Białystok. Chaika agreed to come to Białystok for the shooting. Meir, her husband, who also came from Białystok and who, like Chaika, had lost nearly his entire family, accompanied her. On our first evening at the hotel, Meir quietly said to me: „For Chaika this is very difficult. We must take good care of her.“ The next morning, Chaika took me aside and said: „For Meir this is very difficult. We must take good care of him.“
During the shooting Chaika suddenly stopped and pointed at a crossroad: „Here was the collecting point. Here I saw my mother for the last time.“ Her mother was on the way to Treblinka. To the gas chamber. Chaika was on the way to her battle position. For on that day that the ghetto was to be liquidated, she and her comrades were going to rise against their murderers. A few dozen young men and women against 3,000 heavily armed SS and Wehrmacht soldiers. „Chaikele, wu gejst du?“ her mother had asked her. Where are you going? And Chaika had not known what to say to her. There was no chance to help her. And a few blocks away her comrades were waiting.
Later, after a long day of intense work on the film, Chaika looked at me, exhausted, and said in a low voice: „Maybe I should have gone with her? Could you let your beloved mother go to the gas chamber alone?“
Love song for Chaika 2
As a girl in Bialystok, Chaika Grossman had already been a member of Hashomer Hatzair, the leftwing Zionist youth movement. She had prepared herself to go to Palestine to establish a kibbutz, and eventually an autonomous State where Jews could live free. But then the Germans invaded Eastern Poland. Chaika built up the underground movement in the ghetto instead, traveling as a courier of the Jewish resistance from town to town, at constant risk of her life, gathering information and procuring weapons. Finally, she fought in the ghetto uprising and later with the partisans.
After the liberation of Bialystok, Chaika was looking for surviving Jews. She found a distraught woman who had crawled out of hiding. Of the 60,000 Białystok Jews, only a few hundred had survived. „The city was dead,“ she writes in her memoirs. „We were sad victors.“
For some time, she took care of Jewish orphans who had survived in the surrounding area in the woods and in hiding. Then she went to Israel. To the kibbutz where Meir Orkin, her fiancé, was already living. Had two children. Became a Member of the Knesset for the left Zionist Party, Mapam. And finally the Vice Speaker of the Knesset.
Chaika and Meir were friends with Palestinian neighbors, artists and politicians. Meir wrote the first (and to my knowledge only) history of the Shoah (Holocaust) in Arabic. Until her death, Chaika was engaged in encouraging a respectful and peaceful relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. „It’s difficult,“ she told me. „There are many fanatics. There is a lot of contempt. On both sides. But we must find a solution. One that both sides can live with.“
Chaika Grossman died in 1996, 77 years old. At her funeral, the mayor of the neighboring Palestinian village sat next to Itzhak Shamir, Chaika’s longtime political opponent. „Something like this,“ said Meir, „only Chaika could make happen!“
Love song for Chaika 3
On December 31, 1941 in Vilnius, members of the Hashomer Hatzair (left Zionist youth movement) and the Communists called for Jewish resistance – the first in German-occupied Europe. They urged the Jewish population, saying: „Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter.“ That, Chaika Grossman told me, was how they had felt then, and could not understand why „the Jews“ did not rise.
In January 1943, the ghetto underground in Bialystok learned what happenedin Treblinka, the camp to which the Germans again and again transported Jews from the ghetto in Bialystok. There, in 13 gas chambers, up to 2,000 people at once were being destroyed. Chaika and her comrades wrote a report which they distributed in the ghetto. But the people would not believe. Until then, there had not been something like the gas chambers. Why would that be? Logic told them: as long as the Germans can exploit us as workers, they would be stupid to kill us!
Meanwhile, Chaika told me, she could understand this approach. It appeared so much more reasonable than the riot, which they, the activists of youth movements, wanted to initiate. It is you, the elders accused them, who will provoke the death of the Jews – as penalty from the Germans!
„If someone asked you today, ‚why did the Jews not defend themselves against the Nazis? Why were there only so few who fought? `What would you answer?“, I asked Chaika.
„I would say,“ she replied: „First, that is not true. Second, what kind of people are we talking about? About a civilian population! How could the people defend themselves? Left alone, imprisoned in the ghetto, without weapons, without allies out there? We said to them: ´We will fight, we will draw the attention of the Germans, and you run away!` But even if they had succeeded in running away, where could they have gone to? Where?“
This has not really become a love song. Only a small tribute in prose. Which Chaika would have preferred anyway.
Chaika Grossman: The Underground Army
Ingrid Strobl: „Die Angst kam erst danach.“ Jüdische Frauen im Widerstand in Europa 1939 – 1945, Frankfurt/Main 1998
Ingrid Strobl: Mir zeynen do! Der Ghettoaufstand und die Partisaninnen von Białystok / The Ghetto Uprising and the Partisans of Białystok, 90 min, WDR and Kaos Film