Woman of Valor is a remarkable and true story of bravery, compassion, and rescue during the Holocaust. Eta Chait, a young Jewish woman, lived with her parents and siblings in Lukow, Poland. In 1939, the country was invaded by Nazi Germany marking the start of World War Two. Under the Nazis’ brutal occupation, the Jews of Poland were rounded up, and segregated into ghettos. At first, they were able to work outside of these areas; within a short time, however, their movements were severely restricted and their food supplies limited. As Eta and her family found themselves crowded into one of these ghettos, they watched as their Jewish neighbors were pulled out of their homes, imprisoned, or summarily executed in the streets. Facing this oncoming brutality, Eta joined a resistance group within the ghetto to escape. After fleeing, she returned to help free the rest of her family with unexpected consequences. From there, Eta and her remaining family made their way into the Polish woods for safety.
From that moment, Eta’s mission was clear—she would do everything she could to defeat the Nazis and save as many Jews as possible. The dense Polish forest served as a relatively safe haven for Poles fleeing from the Germans. It also served as the base of operations for the organized resistance. Eta quickly joined an all-Jewish armed resistance unit, which was part of the Polish Partisan fighters made up of Jews and non-Jews. Through her cunning and bravery, she rose to become one of the leaders of an all-Jewish partisan unit. Led by Eta and others, this unit went on missions outside the forest. These units were armed and ready to engage in combat and defense activities against the Nazis and their collaborators. Because of their success, they became a top target of the Nazis.
To change from daughter into the role of a young soldier is no easy transition; however, this heroic evolution is at the heart of Eta Chait’s story. Woman of Valor follows her journey, from the horrors of the ghetto into the hardships of survival in the woods under the most extreme conditions. And then through her eyes as a fighter, we witness the struggles and fears of those who were trapped by the Holocaust. This is the moving story of a young woman who refused to give up—who chose to put her own life on the line in order to save the lives of others from certain death. Amidst the many tragic stories of the Holocaust, Eta’s tale serves to remind us of the good in people.
1. The Beginnings in Lukow, 9
2. Poland and Its Jews Prior to Eta Coming into the World, 19
3. The Interwar Years in Poland, 27
4. War Comes to Poland, 41
5. Beginnings of Resistance and Its Challenges, 49
6. Struggles and Loss, 61
7. The Beginning of Partisan Life, 79
8. The Partisan Unit Comes to Life, 87
9. Building the Rescue Network, 99
10. Challenges and Close Calls, 109
11. Devastation to Liberation, 121
12. Life After Liberation, 131
About the Author, 153
Who doesn’t like a good story? Stories can entertain us, but they can also inspire and educate us. In fact, stories can give us important messages and teach valuable lessons for our lives today and in the future. I’ve got such a story for you here. Imagine This Scenario To start, imagine the following situation with its three aspects. Think how you would deal with the situation if you were in it. Your country has been invaded and swiftly conquered by a foreign power. This power has a reputation for cruelty. While your home and your family, as well as your relatives living nearby, are fine at the moment, the invasion caused much destruction in towns and cities as well as civilian casualties. Just go out your front door and you can see the death and destruction in your own community. How would you deal with this situation? In addition, this conquering power has designated a small percentage of your country’s population as part of the Other and segregates these Other people into their own enclaves. Movement in and out of these enclaves is restricted, and food supplies have become limited in them. These enclaves have been set up in different cities around your country, including in your own town. By the way, you, your family, and extended family members have been designated as part of this Other group and are now crowded into one of these enclaves. How would you deal with this situation? Furthermore, much of the rest of the population of your conquered nation is indifferent to the plight of those in the Other group, and some are downright hostile to them. In fact, some of your fellow citizens have gladly joined in to assist the administration of this foreign power to regulate and control the activities of the Other people. The message from this new administration is that anyone who tries to help these Other people will be arrested and imprisoned, and these Other people will be fine as long as they cooperate and join in work details. Yet you have seen in your own town some from the Other group who went off into a work detail and never returned. The word out there is that these people were executed. How would you deal with this situation? If you are struggling to come up with good answers on how you would deal with this scenario, you are not alone. Even if you thought about escaping your enclave into the dangerous and hostile unknown, where would you go? Who could you count on to help you? What would you do with your family members, especially children and elderly parents? This imaginary scenario was once real, and it happened in a period known as the Holocaust. The Holocaust began in 1933 in Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party gaining power. Before World War II broke out in Europe during September 1939, Austria and Czechoslovakia had been taken over by Nazi Germany. By the time the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Nazi Germany had conquered and controlled most of Europe. The mass murder phase of the Holocaust was now in full operation. That small percentage of the European population now trapped under the grip of Nazi Germany, those of the Other group, who were the number one target on Hitler’s list of inferiors and undesirables, the Jews. They faced the impossible odds described here. Eta Chait was a young Jewish woman in her 20s at the time. Despite these most difficult circumstances, she not only escaped her enclave—the ghetto—but was also involved in an all-Jewish armed resistance unit and was even part of its leadership. The Uniqueness of This Story Eta Chait’s story is not only unique because it is about resistance in the face of a nearly impossible and extremely adverse situation, but also because many of the stories of resistance in the Holocaust have not received much attention over the years. In particular, the subject of the Holocaust covered through books, education, and even films falls into three categories: ● The history of the tragedy and the evil psychology of its perpetrators. Many big thick books have been written in this first category, which is often the main emphasis in school textbooks and what gets taught in history classes. For learning about what happened in this tragic period, all are very important. ● The individual stories of survivors or those who did not survive. As Holocaust survivors have aged and started to pass away, many now have been willing to share their tragic stories. The two most widely read books in this second category are Night, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s horrific story of surviving the concentration camps, and The Diary of Anne Frank, the journal of a young Jewish girl’s attempt to survive in hiding. In fact, these books have been the two most widely read book of all Holocaust genre and are often found in the curriculum of many English classes at the middle school and high school levels. These individual stories of survival and loss are also very critical to a thorough understanding of the struggles of those entrapped by the Holocaust. ● The stories of resistance and rescue. This third category on the subject of the Holocaust is least recognized, least known, and least taught. It contains the stories of the Jews and non-Jews who stood up against the Nazi tyranny to try and save the lives of Jews from certain death. These are the stories of ordinary people, not governments, or armies. They are the people who fought back despite the tremendous odds against them, or who worked to help Jews escape to safe destinations, or who helped Jews hide from the Nazi authorities and their collaborators. This book represents my second book in this category of resistance and rescue. My other book in this category eventually led me to write this story about Eta Chait. The Righteous Few: Two Who Made a Difference is the true story of a young married Dutch Christian couple named Frans and Mien Wijnakker. During World War II when the Netherlands was under the brutal occupation of Nazi Germany, this couple got involved when most people did not, and saved the lives of more than two dozen Jews from certain death. It is a story in which I also have a meaningful personal connection, as you will discover when you read the book. The Righteous Few: Two Who Made a Difference has put me on an unexpected journey, now ten years and counting. I have had hundreds of events including speaking engagements and book discussions on this story across multiple cities in the United States and one in Canada, too. As the journey has evolved, I have given other related presentations under the umbrella of Heroes in the Holocaust, focusing on Jews who offered forceful resistance and other non-Jews and Jews who worked to rescue Jews from the clutches of Nazi tyranny. For the last few years, Eta Chait’s life has been one of the people of resistance and rescue I have included in these talks. These engagements have been in a wide variety of venues: places of faith, places of work, places of learning, places of service, and many others. Whether I have spoken directly on my first book in this area or about other Holocaust heroes and heroines, I commonly receive these comments: ● Amidst the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust, I didn’t know there was anything positive. ● Thank you for these inspirational stories of courage and compassion. ● How come we haven’t been hearing stories about these courageous people; they are very important for people to know about. ● Keep sharing these stories. They teach valuable lessons and remind us of the good in people. ● In today’s often polarizing political climate, these stories of people standing up for themselves and for others and doing the right thing are needed now more than ever. These comments apply to Eta Chait and her resistance story. She became part of the leadership of an all-Jewish partisan unit in the forests of Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. Partisan was the term used for those Jews and non-Jews who went underground, taking up arms to engage in combat and defense activities against the Germans and their collaborators throughout all of Nazi-controlled Europe. By the time the United States got directly involved to fight in World War II, at the start of 1942 when the war in Europe was already over two years into it, Nazi Germany and its allies in the Axis Powers controlled most of Europe. Beyond a few countries allowed to remain neutral at this time (Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Turkey), only Great Britain and the Soviet Union were still standing trying to fight Germany and its allies. Both were losing badly at the time, before the United States even began to get its military involved in the fight. As a consequence, the odds were stacked against anyone who got into any kind of partisan unit in German-occupied areas, even more so, Jews who were the top target of the Nazi extermination list. The Importance This Story Provides This book has an added importance. It is meant to counter the appalling bias that has gone on for many years that “the Jews went like lambs to the slaughter.” This blame-the-victim bias is not typically applied to other people who became victims in this genocide or any other ones that have occurred before or since the Holocaust—Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda. For example, during the Holocaust in the fall of 1939 in Poland, the Germans initiated what Nazi officials referred to as Intelligenzaktion. After Poland had succumbed to the invasion of Nazi Germany by the end of September 1939, over the next three months some 60,000 people who the German conquerors viewed as part of Poland’s political and social elite, predominantly Catholic Poles, were rounded up and murdered. This intelligentsia or elite consisted of former government officials, former military officers, professors, teachers, priests, doctors, and wealthy landowners. This action was before Germany carried out its murderous plan of the Jews. So did these members of the Polish intelligentsia go like “lambs to the slaughter?” No victim of the Holocaust—Roma, Sinti, gay, disabled, communist, political dissident, person of Slavic heritage, Red Army prisoner of war from the Soviet forces, and Jew—asked, “What line do I go on so I can be killed?” Such bias of blaming the victim tends to absolve the murderers and their helpers of their responsibility for committing these heinous acts on innocent people. Before terrorism became the widely-used term applied today to rogue groups around the world, there was Nazi Germany. It was a terrorist state that by 1942 had its murderous grip on nearly all of Europe. And the Germans had help. In nearly every country they conquered throughout Europe during the war, the Germans had much help from the local populations in the roundup, deportation, and execution of Jews. These were the collaborators—members of local law enforcement, members of government, and regular citizens who marched along and actively participated in the persecution and genocide. Furthermore, the Germans commonly used imports, especially Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Romanians, in helping run the concentration camps and serving in the murder squads, known as the Einsatzgruppen, throughout Eastern Europe. In addition to the German perpetrators and their collaborators in these crimes were vast millions more in these conquered countries who looked the other way and even reported Jews on the run to the authorities. Bystander is the term commonly used for these people in Holocaust education efforts today. Do we hear blame about them for allowing the lambs to be slaughtered? This blame-the-victim bias perpetuates the great myth that there was little to no Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. This is a wrong assumption and all the more reason for Eta’s story to be shared so as to repudiate this myth of ignorance. All the more reason that this book will provide you with a broader picture of what was happening to Jews during this period of Nazi terrorism that makes any resistance and rescue effort an amazing feat—one that should be publicized, applauded, and never forgotten. So I introduce you to Eta Chait. To most of her friends and family members, she is better known as Eta Wrobel, her married name. Chait is her maiden name. She was, after all, married to Henry Wrobel for more than 60 years and lived most of her adult years with Henry in the New York City area, where they raised three children. She passed away in 2008 at the age of 92. But the crux of this story is about her time before she emigrated to New York in the late 1940s. It’s about her time growing up in a place called Lukow, Poland and, in particular, her time in that country when it was conquered by Nazi Germany. This was a time, when despite great risk and danger, she actively made efforts to resist this tyranny and help others, especially Jews. In May 1943, Eta escaped the Lukow ghetto as it was going through its final liquidation and made her way into the forests. She became, by age 27, one of the leaders of an all-Jewish partisan unit there. Through this time period of the war and through all the harrowing and amazing experiences she went through working to battle and save others, experiences she never asked for, this remarkable young woman was known as Eta Chait. So Despite insurmountable odds and tragedy all around, there were thousands of Jews who resisted the terrorism of Nazi Germany and all its collaborators. Eta Chait was one of them. Enjoy the journey getting to know this woman of valor.