You were almost right, Dad – Jewish underground in Krakow

Reiza SHoshana Klingberg Cohen“Father looked out of the window and said that the Germans will finally lose and Hitler will die, but we will hear of it only when someone shouts it into our graves. And now I sit here, in Auschwitz, in my block. The Russians are knocking at the gates.” The memories of Reiza (Shoshana) Klingberg, later Cohen, who was my mother-in-law. She survived Auschwitz, where she stayed, not because of being Jewish but because of her membership in the Jewish underground.

In 1942, her father said: “The Jews are suffering so much, yet they usually know to get along so well that if no one on these trains sent a letter or gave a sign of life, they are all dead. In what way, how – I do not know.” His words, along with letters from her friends describing the shipments and hunger, combined with the rumors in the Jewish community, brought Reiza to the understanding that the German occupation meant death to Jews everywhere. She decided that if she was doomed to die, she would die as a fighter of the Jewish underground, brave and worthy.

She didn’t belong to any Jewish organization. On the contrary, she came from an orthodox Hassidic home. Her grandfather was Shem Klingberg, Kabbalist and Admor of Zaloshitz, a mastermind in the Kabbalah who wrote a commentary on the “Zohar.” When the Nazis reached Krakow, Shoshana and her family fled to a small town, Kosice, which was considered safer. As a graduate of “Beth Jacob Seminary,” Shoshana managed a small school. As she was determined to become a Jewish underground fighter, she went back to Krakow with her family’s blessing and the aid of one of her former students. She was astonished to find her beloved hometown; the beautiful open city had become a ghetto surrounded by a wall.

Reiza joined the Jewish underground in the ghetto, HeHalutz HaLohem (“The Fighting Pioneer”), and her primary role was as a contact woman to the operations officer Abraham Leibovitz named Laban. She was provided with a fake ID by the name Maria Kalina and her “Aryan” appearance: blonde, tall, and erect, with blue eyes and white skin, legitimized her and helped her in her going in and out of the ghetto while smuggling information, food, and even people. Sometimes she entered through the ghetto’s legitimate entrance, and sometimes she used Tadeusz Pankiewicz Pharmacy, which had a secret door to the ghetto.

The height of the Jewish underground activities was on 22 December 1942, as they conducted multiple attacks on the Nazis’ recreation places. The most famous is the attack performed at “Ziganeria” coffeehouse, where the Nazi officers loved to spend their time drinking. Reiza was responsible for gathering the fighters after the attack and leading them to a secret meeting place. They never got there as two of their members became squealers and gave them away, so the Gestapo raided their gathering site.

The people were captured and taken to “Pomorska,” the Gestapo headquarters, and later transferred to Ontlopi prison, notorious for its conditions. The Nazis interrogated her repeatedly about her hooking up with Jews since she is Christian. They did not accept her explanations that she was Jewish. She tried to convince them that she was Jewish, hoping to be sent to the camp where her family members were. After a harsh questioning, she was transferred, along with four other political prisoners, to Auschwitz, where she stayed till the liberation.

The Soviets liberated the Auschwitz camp on 27.1.1945. A date that became an International Memorial Day for the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews alongside 33 million civilians and 24 million soldiers. The day after her release, thirty-four years later, Rieza-Shoshana celebrated the birth of her eldest grandchild. She completed her victory over the Nazis by raising a family, though she did not have any graves to yell into to tell her father that Hitler was dead and Nazi Germany lost the war.

The last word: “So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” Deuteronomy, 30:19.

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