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Extract from Revolutionary Yiddishland

by | February 1, 2016

Translated by David Fernbach

From the start of the war, the Jewish group of the MOI [Main D’Oevre Immigrée] was the best structured and most active; it would provide the cadres of the Organisation Spéciale, responsible for major acts of terrorism and sabotage; it would also supply almost all the militants of the Travail Allemand, the work of propaganda and demoralization among the German troops – work that was extremely dangerous, and internationalist par excellence, carried out for the most part by women. In cafés and other public places frequented by the Wehrmacht, young women who spoke German sought to make contact, starting with an anodyne conversation on how hard times were, the absurdity of the war, by way of which they sought to ‘situate’ their conversation partner: as a fanatical Nazi, indifferent, former Socialist or Communist, etc. If the exchange proved positive, the discussion could take a more open turn at the next  meeting;  sometimes  antifascist  leaflets  written  in  German were scattered, left on cinema seats, in restaurant toilets, etc. This work did indeed bear fruit, groups of German soldiers were formed in contact with the Resistance, information was transmitted, uniforms and weapons supplied to combatants. Sometimes too, militants of the Travail Allemand were denounced to the Gestapo and paid for this activity with their lives. Rachel Schatz, who was active in the Resistance in Lyon, recalls that the Parc de la Tête d’or was a favoured place for the Travail Allemand: women militants entered  into  conversation  with  soldiers,  leaving  leaflets  on  the benches and posting stickers:

One of my friends, too, went to work for the Germans. This was doubly dangerous work. On the one hand, she collected material and information under the cover of ‘doing the cleaning’; on the other hand, her Resistance activity required her to hang around in public places with Germans and be taken for a collaborationist, a soldiers’ girl, one of those whose heads were shaved at Liberation. But she brought round several German soldiers to work with the Resistance.

Throughout the war, in France, the existence of an underground Jewish press in both French and Yiddish, basically initiated by the Communists, attests to the existence of a Jewish Resistance. In May 1943 it celebrated the courage of the Warsaw ghetto fighters, whose insurrection had just been crushed. Many other indications also manifest the desire to emphasize the part played in the struggle by Jews. Thus, in 1944, an MOI circular designed for PCF cadres called for the creation of Jewish units with the perspective of the battle for the liberation of Paris. The argument here was particularly clear:

At this time, the thousands of Jews in the ranks of the FFI are seen as French, Polish, etc. citizens, not as Jews. We want to destroy the reactionary and fascist lies that  claim  Jews  cannot  be  soldiers  or  fighters.  At  the same time, we will break the chauvinist and wait-and see policy of the Jewish reactionaries. [The point is] to show the world that Jews, just like other peoples, have the right to life and happiness.

This was a somewhat premonitory text. After Liberation, the desire to wrap the Resistance up for posterity in the tricolour, and affirm  its  essentially  patriotic  character  to  the  detriment  of  its social dimension, often led memoirists and historians to push this ‘métèque’ face of the Resistance into the shadows – the Mémoires of Jacques Duclos, and Charles Tillon’s book on the FTP, scarcely speak of it, just to cite those Resistance leaders who were in direct contact with the action of foreigners, and Jewish partisans in particular, by force of circumstances. Does it damage the patriotic image  of  the  Resistance  to  accept  that  during  the  year  1943  the greater part of partisan actions in Paris were the act of foreigners, activists in the MOI, up to the great raid that came down on them in the autumn? Is it a sin against internationalism to recognize, behind the ‘Polish’, ‘Hungarian’, ‘Romanian’ or ‘Czech’ partisan, the Yiddishland revolutionary, the traditions of struggle he or she pursued, their culture, their language, and the particular resonance of their name? It was not because, on the infamous Affiche rouge, the Nazis exposed to public vindictiveness the ‘Hungarian Jew’ Elek and the ‘Polish Jew’ Rayman, making their Jewishness an argument against the Resistance as a whole, described as an ‘army of crime’, that the Jewish dimension of Rayman and Elek’s struggle and commitment became a factor best no longer alluded to. The intransigence of their antifascism, their courage to act, were clearly rooted in a consciousness for which the Communist ideal and the sense of their Jewish identity were indissociable. It was no accident that their action, that of the combatants of the Affiche rouge, became a symbol of the revolutionary spirit of the Resistance.

In the years after the end of the War this revolutionary spirit of the Resistance continued to disturb, and not only those whom one might logically expect to reject it. In 1951, Artur London, one of the leaders of the MOI, and responsible in particular for the Travail Allemand before being deported to Mauthausen, was arrested in Czechoslovakia in the context of the Slansky affair. He was stupefied to hear his interrogator demand he should acknowledge that the MOI, ‘whose three leading figures were Jews’, was ‘a section of the Trotskyist Fourth International’: ‘The very fact that despite being Jewish you returned alive [from Mauthausen] is proof of your culpability and proves us right.’†

As we have said, not all the Yiddishland militants involved in the Resistance were made of heroic material. They joined the struggle like anyone else, without pretensions, because this commitment struck them as a necessity at the time. Léa Stein, a Yugoslav Communist and veteran of Spain, joined the Resistance in  France  by  a  circuitous  route.  In  1938,  after  being  demobilized from the International Brigades (where she was a nurse), she found herself in Paris along with her husband, a brigadista of Austrian origin whom she met in Spain. She was pregnant. In early summer 1938, the situation of immigrants in France was aggravated by the new regulation that removed the few rights they had gained under the Popular Front: Léa Stein’s husband was assigned residence in a village in the south-west. When the war with Germany broke out, he was arrested along with other German citizens in France, antifascists and Jewish refugees included, and interned in a camp in the Pyrenees:

I was responsible for one new-born baby and I was pregnant again; I heard it said that it was possible to be repatriated to Yugoslavia from Marseille. I had a terrible desire to go home, so I left for Marseille with my baby and a bulging belly; Yugoslav and Italian comrades arranged things for me. In Marseille they were beginning to register Jews; I asked at the Yugoslav  consulate  for  a  repatriation  certificate, but I was refused this, as I was in their records as a Communist. What to do? I feared I would be arrested, so I decided to return to Paris, in the occupied zone. A smuggler got me across the demarcation line. In Paris I made contact again with comrades from the Yugoslav Communist Party, and obtained a foreigner’s residence card by using my sister’s papers. It was then that the Party, knowing that I spoke German, asked me to go and work in the Nazi administrative apparatus.

In the countries of western Europe, as we have seen, the Jewish Resistance was essentially integrated into the national Resistance, while often asserting its specific character and the special dimension of Jewish struggle against Nazism. In the East it was generally isolated and dramatically alone, even if, in Byelorussia for example, the Resistance in the ghettos was in contact with Soviet partisans.

The stubborn will to survive, however, could sometimes lead in these exceptional conditions to forms of resistance that were out of the ordinary. Shlomo Strauss‡ was mobilized into the Polish army in 1939. Wounded during the German invasion, he was taken prisoner and interned in a camp. When he learned that the detainees would be divided according to their national origin, he decided to forge a new identity; he was now called Timofei Marko, the illegitimate son of a Ukrainian laundress. He grew a long Cossack moustache to fit the part.

A commission of SS and medics arrived in the camp where he was held and selected a certain number of tall and fair-haired Ukrainians whose ‘racial purity’ they appreciated. Marko was among these. He was transferred to Austria where he was taught the trade of a turner. His knowledge of German led him to be appointed head of this group of newly promoted ‘Aryans’.

At Saint-Polten, in Austria, Marko established an underground Communist cell among his ‘compatriots’ and made contact with Austrian Communists. On the eve of the offensive against the Soviet Union, the Nazis sought to form a volunteer corps from these Ukrainian ex-POWs that would fight alongside them. This was how Marko learned that Hitler was getting ready to unleash hostilities against the Soviet Union. He went to the Soviet consulate in Vienna and conveyed this information. Without much result, it would seem.

Having become a skilled worker, Marko was posted to an aircraft factory at Obergrafendorf, close to Wiener Neustadt. The Communist cell that he set up carried out small acts of sabotage. Responsible for all the Ostarbeiter (Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Poles, etc.) in the factory, he maintained almost friendly relations with various German officers, who viewed him as a National Socialist. He took advantage of this position to try to improve the situation of the Ostarbeiter: abolition of corporal punishment, improvement of rations, etc. He helped some of his fellow workers escape and join the ranks of the Resistance.

Always acting in combination with the Austrian Resistance, Marko obtained and hid the plans of the Rotbach Neuenkirchen underground aircraft factory. But when the Red Army reached Austria, Marko was immediately arrested as a ‘collaborator’. Interrogated relentlessly by the NKVD, in a state of exhaustion he signed the paper he was handed. When he said that he was a Polish Communist, he was asked to show his card – of an illegal party dissolved by the Comintern years before. He was thrown into prison. In the end, he owed his salvation to chance: a Soviet prisoner-of-war whom he had helped when working in the aircraft factory. He was then interned in a camp of Soviet prisoners awaiting their repatriation – they would in fact be deported to Siberia. On return to Poland after the war, Strauss-Marko held high office in the police service before emigrating to Israel.

The combativeness of Jewish Resistance fighters was based on a paradoxical and dramatic combination of historical optimism and absolute despair; continuing to trust in the future, the basis of the pre-war revolutionary utopias, their Jewish historical optimism rested on the conviction that at the end of the day barbarism would be conquered, Nazism defeated, that the Jewish people would rise again, that a better world would be born on the ashes of the barbaric empire. Even the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto knew that, if their own battle was a desperate one, Germany had none the less begun to lose the war at Stalingrad; even those condemned to death by the Affiche rouge knew that a near future would justify them. On the other hand, however, there was the absolute despair of those witnessing a crime that as yet still had no name, that human consciousness and their Jewish consciousness were incapable of conceiving, who witnessed the disappearance of their world. In this dead of night they often had the impression of fighting against phantoms, in an absolute disproportion of forces; what could bullets do against a barbarism that the highest reason and historical understanding could not even name, no more than they could conceive the future beyond this catastrophe? That is the despair of the hero of Manès Sperber’s novel, at the time when the Nazis had finished razing the Warsaw ghetto:

He  felt  free  from  everything,  the  gratification  of  a useless freedom. The freedom to commit destructive acts, to shoot one of these gaping bystanders, to set fire to a cinema filled to bursting, to kill a German officer on the public road, to kill themselves with a bullet to the heart. But there was no freedom to dream of a future, to imagine a different tomorrow. He was not free to escape his helpless being.§

Hunted down, cast into illegality, forced to live with false papers, to obtain food and everything else necessary to survive outside the ‘normal’ circuits, to live underground, the Jews who rejected the law of their persecutors under the occupation were thereby made available for the Resistance; very often, therefore, the step was easily taken, particularly by young people, leading from the refusal to declare oneself at the local police station as a Jew to a more active opposition. In fact, the transition to organised resistance, if synonymous with increased risk, also meant for the new combatant the end of isolation, joining a dynamic collective with means of action and protection at its disposal.

The derailing of trains, the execution of ‘collabos’ and Nazi officers,  the  firing  of  fuel  dumps,  throwing  hand-grenades  in restaurants, sabotaging of industry and factories working for the occupation, the destruction of electricity pylons. These are wellknown images, clichés of Resistance action. There was no action of this type in which Jewish combatants did not take part, which they did not organise, by the dozen, on all fronts, at all levels. It was Jewish partisans who prepared an attack on the German commandant of ‘Gross-Paris’, von Schaumburg, and then liquidated the organizer of the STO in France, Ritter. It was Epstein, an exceptional military strategist, who perfected in 1943 the tactic of attacks in successive waves against the parades of German troops in the streets of Paris. But the Resistance was also the patient and painstaking work of people like Léa Stein:

Thanks to my knowledge of German, I managed to enter the Werbebüro, the recruitment centre at Pontoise. All the lists of persons due to be requisitioned for work in Germany passed through my hands; I warned the Resistance, or sometimes the interested parties directly – like the baker’s son who gave me bread until the end of the war as a token of gratitude. The Germans clearly  had  no  suspicion  that  I  was  Jewish.  In  1942, however, I felt that things might turn out badly. I had lost my connections with the Yugoslav comrades, most of whom had returned to their country to fight in the ranks of the partisans. I left Pontoise …

The Resistance was also the escape attempts from POW camps by the likes of Max Technitchek, where the solidarity of the detainees sought to block the discrimination that victimised Jews:

After volunteering in the French army, I was taken prisoner at the start of operations and deported to Germany. The Resistance was very well organized in our camp; we had our underground newspapers, we organized all kinds of sabotage, we prepared escapes. I twice tried to flee and was recaptured. I was unlucky, my second escape in particular had been very well prepared; I had money, papers and contacts to cross the frontiers into the ‘free zone’. But at Kassel I came up against an extraordinary control; my papers weren’t sufficiently ‘solid’ and I was sent back to the camp.

Hanna Lévy-Hass, for her part, had never held a gun; yet she played her part in the partisan struggle in Yugoslavia. A secondary school teacher in Montenegro, and a militant in the Communist Party, she was entrusted with a particular mission after the Italian occupation: to  teach  peasants  how  to give  first  aid  to  the  wounded,  with  the perspective of insurrection:

It was clear from the start of hostilities that the Yugoslavs were going to rise up. When the generals capitulated,  the  ordinary  soldiers  fled  back  to  their villages with their weapons; I saw these Montenegrin peasants returning with full boxes of munitions, I saw women building up stores in the cellars. From the beginning, the occupiers only held the cities. The mountains and villages were controlled by the insurgents who were lacking in everything, even shoes, but ready to fight.

The Italians launched an offensive against the partisans in our region. I found myself in the midst of the battle, the  towns  and  villages  were  bombed.  I  saw  our  first dead,  the  wounded  flooded  in.  After  two  weeks  we understood that the uprising in Montenegro would be crushed. The partisans fell back, leaving us with the wounded. The Italian army was approaching. We had to evacuate our field hospital. I saw our wounded leave under their own steam, with open wounds, they showed an amazing courage. We took refuge in the mountains, in a kind of citadel where we gathered our wounded, as well as a certain number of wounded Italians. When the Italian army arrived, we passed ourselves off as voluntary nurses acting out of humanitarianism. I spoke Italian, the officers wanted to know where the partisans were, but we kept silent. They took down our names but let us leave. On the plain, we saw the burning villages.

As a Jew, Hanna Lévy-Haas could no longer work as a teacher. After the defeat of the uprising, she found herself confined to the small town of Cetinje:

The Italian occupation was burdensome, but it was nothing compared with that of the Germans, which followed  in  1943.  When  they  laid  siege  to  the  town there were some thirty Jews there, including elderly and sick. I wanted to join the partisans. But the Jews begged me not to leave: ‘If you go,’ I was told, ‘if one of us disappears, we will all be shot.’ I gave in, and a little while after we were locked up in the town prison. We remained there for six months. We had not given up hope, we were still on Montenegrin soil, the Red Army was advancing westward, the Anglo-American armies had landed in Sicily, and the opening of a new western front seemed imminent. And then suddenly, the Germans loaded us into cattle-trucks … I arrived in Bergen-Belsen in August 1944. ¶

In the Lyon Resistance, the husband of Rachel Schatz was engaged in activity that she herself defined as ‘very dangerous’, without going into further detail. But ‘you just didn’t ask questions’. Her work was to rescue Jewish children, most of whom had come clandestinely from the occupied zone. This was a special commission run by women and linked to the MOI, which took responsibility for this delicate mission in Lyon:

The first thing was to see to the children whose life was threatened and place them in institutions, basically religious ones, or with peasants. It wasn’t easy work, you had to follow rules of strict security; we had false papers, so did the children whom we took to their refuges. Sometimes you had to take the train with a whole group, and it wasn’t easy to persuade a young child that he’s no longer called Moshe or Yankel, but Jean or Richard. I remember a trip from Lyon to Limoges when I accompanied a group of children; I’d rehearsed them and told them to pretend to be asleep if a police control was carried out on the train. There was indeed a control, I told the gendarmes some story or other, and everything went well. Were they fooled or not? Who knows?

We had set up networks for placing the children almost everywhere around Lyon. In the region of Villefranchesur Saône, for example, there was a network that operated very well in the surrounding villages, led by a Jew and a non-Jew.

My daughter was ten years old at the time, and also placed away from Lyon by the network. She told me much later that she had been angry at me for devoting my time and energy to other people’s children instead of her. She couldn’t understand.

Shlomo Shamli, a Bulgarian Jew, left Hachomer Hatzaïr for the Communist Party just after the invasion of Soviet territory by the German  armies.  In  Sofia  the  Communist  militants  had  collected weapons with the perspective of coming battles. Shamli took part in this activity, but Jewish men were soon requisitioned for forced labour by the Bulgarian authorities allied with Germany. He was sent from one camp to another, eventually to one close to the frontier with Greece. Bulgarian Jews were assigned to the construction of roads and railways.

The Communist Party had set up an underground organisation in the camp. It developed its propaganda among forced labourers and made contact with partisans in the region. The camp officers were Bulgarian. Shamli was in touch with one of these administrators who was a party member. The others lived in fear of an attack by the partisans.

Dynamite was used for railway construction. Shamli and his comrades got hold of some and passed it to the partisans, along with weapons, clothes and shoes that they obtained in the camp:

In March 1943 we saw trains pass close to the site where we were working, taking Greek Jews to Auschwitz. We managed to get an enormous rock to fall on the tracks. The  traffic  was  interrupted  and  a  train  blocked.  We stole food from the camp and took it to the deportees in the train, trying also to convince them to escape. But most of them refused, unable to believe that they were being taken to their death. Only fifteen of them listened to us. We hid them in the camp and they later joined the partisans in the mountains.

May 1943 saw the famous – and sadly, exceptional – episode of the demonstration that prevented the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Auschwitz. When it was announced that Jews would be transported to the Danube ports and from there to the camps, a demonstration was  called  in  Sofia.  It  was  held  on  24  May  and  attracted  more than 10,000 people, Jews and non-Jews alike. The police brutally intervened, arresting hundreds of people including the chief rabbi.

On 25 and 26 May, the Jews were taken to the ports of Lom and Svistov on the Danube, but the Bulgarian authorities were forced to abandon deportation in the face of the growing mobilisation of public opinion, particularly inspired by the Orthodox church, the Writers’ Association, lawyers and many personalities from the world of art and entertainment.

Pierre Sherf, in charge of the Romanian ‘language group’ of the MOI in Paris, saw to the ‘little tasks’ that made up the everyday activity of the Resistance militant: to circulate forged banknotes and ration tickets ‘expropriated’ by the combatants, to manufacture false documents of all kinds and organise solidarity with the families of the deported. Then he was entrusted with the task of organising liaison with MOI groups in the north and east of France, where Polish and Italian miners were particularly active. Rail tracks were sabotaged, electricity lines brought down, German soldiers disarmed and killed, strikes organised in the mines, and so on. Each month, Sherf ’s partner, who was also his liaison agent, visited groups, delivering political reports, ration cards, weapons, etc. Sometimes Sherf himself visited, sleeping in miners’ homes and leaving at daybreak: ‘They didn’t always know that it was the Communist Party,’ he says, ‘most of them were non-party, or just party sympathisers – but they knew what racism was…’ Sometimes too, he had to decide on a difficult problem, a case of conscience: ‘There was a partisan commander in the Briey basin, a Polish Jew, famous for his courage; one day he had two fighters who had refused to take part in an action shot. What should be done? Finally, we expelled him from the Party. Later, an MOI leader said that he would have decorated him for his courage then arrested him for his brutality.’


* Our thanks to Verso Books, from which Revolutionary Yiddishland is forthcoming, for permission to print this extract.

† From Artur London, The Confession.

‡ From Shlomo Strauss-Marko, Dam Tahor.

§ From Manès Sperber, Qu’une larme dans l’océan..

¶ From Anna Lévy-Hass, Bergen-Belsen 1944-1945.