Three partisans in the Vilna ghetto, from left: Rozka Korczak, Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner.
Three partisans in the Vilna ghetto, from left: Rozka Korczak, Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner.

Yom HaShoah and the strength of our ‘Wonder Women’ 

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The 2017 film “Wonder Woman” opens with a flashback: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) receives an old black-and-white photograph in which she is posing with her posse of freedom fighters, framed by a war-torn village. Wonder Woman looks straight into the camera, clutching her sword and shield, with her coat open to reveal her Amazonian armor.

The black-and-white image is strikingly similar to surviving pictures of Jewish partisans and resistance fighters after World War II.

Take the image of three partisan fighters in the Vilna ghetto: Abba Kovner, the resistance hero and future Israeli writer; Vitka Kempner to his right (later to marry Kovner); and Rozka Korczak, looking straight into the camera with a defiant smirk on her face.

These three had fought for their dignity, for their humanity, and in the words of Kovner, to show that Jews would not be led “like sheep to the slaughter.”

It is not surprising that a project associated with Gal Gadot would recall the partisans — Gadot’s grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. What is perhaps more telling is that the notion of Jewish women fighters continues to captivate our attention.

Why has the image of the female resistance fighter remained so powerful 70 years after the Holocaust? And how has our understanding of the “feminine” influenced the shape of Holocaust remembrance?

Women were the central targets of the Nazis in their genocidal plan to annihilate the Jews; in addition to killing women and children through mass shooting and gas chambers, the Nazis aimed to prevent reproduction by splintering the home and the basic family unit.

In some cases, men were sent off to forced labor, leaving women to bear the entire responsibility of the household. In ghettos, Nazi policies of stripping wealth from Jews, intentional starvation and deportation actions decimated family units and separated loved ones. In the Lodz Ghetto, for example, 14-year-old Rywka Lipszyc (whose diary was discovered in the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau and first published by the JFCS Holocaust Center in 2014) detailed the loss of her father to a Nazi beating, her mother to illness and starvation, and two of her three younger siblings to deportation.

In times of powerlessness, the notion of female partisans taking armed action in the forest is inspiring, and even romantic.

Hannah Senesh, the Hungarian-born paratrooper who was caught and tortured by the Nazis, quickly became a hero in the early years of Israeli statehood; the poetry she had written in British Mandate of Palestine was turned into anthems that we sing today on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Oh Lord, my God,” Senesh wrote, “I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart.”

Senesh refused to confess to the Nazis, spoke at her own trial and was executed.

We, too — the message is — have some ownership over our surroundings.

I’m laughing at the entire world — I, a poor Jewish girl from the ghetto — I’m laughing at the entire world … because I believe!

Yet freedom fighters were not the only ones who defied the Nazis over the course of the war. Women also excelled at what historians call “spiritual resistance:” insistence on the self in the face of dehumanization. Rywka Lipszyc, young and orphaned in the Lodz Ghetto, derived her strength from Jewish traditions and communal study.

“God and the Torah,” Rykwa wrote in 1944, “Father God and Mother Torah! They are our parents! Omnipotent, Omniscient, Eternal!!! … I’m laughing at the entire world — I, a poor Jewish girl from the ghetto — I’m laughing at the entire world … because I believe! … God, I’m so grateful to you!”

Whether women worked, prayed, penned diaries or hid precious documents, they defied expectations and orders, saying, like Wonder Woman, “What I do is not up to you.”

Women also have guided the Jewish community through post-Holocaust trauma.

After the war, theologians, echoing conversations among survivors, began to debate how the Jewish God could have “masked his face” to such a degree. Scholar Melissa Raphael has suggested that the notion that God was absent during the Holocaust was perhaps a characteristic of male trauma in particular.

Indeed, she argues, women and men before the war experienced traditional Judaism and God in different ways. Men looked for an “omnipotent God-King,” whom they encountered in Torah study and prayer; women cared for the home in the absence of men. If the Holocaust exposed the limitations of a “monarchical” God, Raphael proposes an alternate image: a God both loving and flawed, whom women themselves “uplift” in caring “tikkun [mending or repair].”

El Malei Rachamim, the prayer of mourning traditionally recited on Yom HaShoah, uses the kabbalistic term of “shekhina,” the divine presence often associated with the feminine. The text asks that the souls of the departed find their true rest under God’s wings. God, in this image, is not Elie Wiesel’s God who “chose to be silent” in Auschwitz — God is Raphael’s feminine, more nuanced God who, in “in her abjection,” serves as “eschatological comforter, witness and judge.”

During this time of pandemic, we all perhaps aspire to be Wonder Woman, a mythical hero who finds her true power through loss and suffering. The pandemic has been particularly hard on women, who have exited the workplace in large numbers.

Yet even without taking up sword and shield, we can summon up the tradition of women’s resistance as a source of strength.

In this year of Zoom services and Zoom seders, our sanctuaries have shifted to the home. Let us summon the tradition of women’s domesticity to care for those without a home — the immigrants and children who are flooding through our borders; all those unable to pay rent and threatened by eviction.

World-renowned scholar Deborah Lipstadt and Anita Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, are the speakers at an upcoming virtual Yom HaShoah commemoration presented by the JFCS Holocaust Center in partnership with many other organizations. Each woman serves as models for how we can speak out against antisemitism and on behalf of truth.

In the midrash, the copper of the Tabernacle had a particular origin: It was melted down from the mirrors donated by women outside its gates. These women, the midrash says, had pioneered the concept of spiritual resistance as slaves in Egypt. When Pharaoh prevented them from having male children, they lured their husbands to procreate by reflecting their beauty in their mirrors.

May we approach this Yom HaShoah with the strength of the Israelite women and with the power of critical reflection.

“Yom HaShoah: We Remember”

April 7: Reading of the names at 5 p.m. Commemoration and Lipstadt-Friedman talk at 7 p.m. April 8-9: Survivor testimonies, conversations and workshops. Presented by JFCS Holocaust Center. All events are virtual. Free, with registration.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Yedida Kanfer

Yedida Kanfer, Ph.D., is the director of community education at Jewish Family and Children’s Service’s Holocaust Center, where she teaches high school students in the Next Chapter program, leads the Pell and Manovill University Fellowship and manages the Tauber Holocaust Library and Archives.