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Female Leadership during the Holocaust: Female Resistance Fighters

This LibGuide showcases women as central figures in the Jewish resistance movement during World War II.

Jewish Partisans

Jewish partisans Ruzka Korczak, Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner. Photo by Ilya Ehrenburg. Shown here after the liberation of Vilna in July 1944, after which all three made their way to Kibbutz Ein Ha-Horesh in Palestine.

Jewish women in the partisans

During World War II approximately thirty thousand Jews escaped ghettos and work camps and formed organized armed resistance groups to fight the Nazis. These groups were known as partisans. Despite the odds, women were able to join the partisans. Their work in the partisan encampments ranged from domestic duties such as cleaning, cooking and nursing, to reconnaissance, weapons transport, as well as armed combat. Women made up approximately 10% of the partisans.

For more information, please see Jewish Women Partisans

Sara Fortis

Sara Fortis

Sara Fortis (born Sarika Yehoshua) was born in 1927 in Chalkis, a small town near Athens, Greece.  Sara knew it was time to leave her hometown when the Germans arrived in 1941.  Sara formed a band of female partisans that became indispensable to the male fighters, transforming young village girls into women. On their first mission, they were ordered to throw Molotov cocktails to distract the enemy and allow the partisans to attack. Impressed by their skills, the male partisans invited the all-female group to join in many missions. They burned down houses, executed Nazi collaborators, and aided the men in a way no group of females had before.  Sara became a prominent and well-respected figure in the andartes movement in Greece. By age 18, she was known as 'Kapetenissa [Captain] Sarika.'  After the war, she immigrated to Israel, where she met her husband and settled down.

For more information, please see Sara Fortis

Brenda Senders

Brenda Senders and friend 1945

Brenda Senders, on left, with a friend after war.  Date:  1945  Source:  JPEF archives

Brenda Senders was born in 1925 in Sarni, Poland. She was the daughter of a forester, an upbringing that would help her survive during the war. Sarni fell under Soviet control in 1939.  When the Germans invaded Sarni in 1941, they forced the Sarni Jews into a ghetto. In 1942, the ghetto was closed, and the Nazis sent the remaining ghetto inhabitants to a death camp.

Someone managed to smuggle a pair of wire cutters into the camp and cut a hole through the fencing, allowing Brenda, her sister, and hundreds of other prisoners to escape.  After several months in hiding, Brenda connected with a large Soviet-backed partisan unit, made up of 1,600 people. "Take me in. I want to fight," she told them. Though she was unarmed, Brenda's determination to fight and keen familiarity with the local forests convinced the partisan general that she was fit to join.  Brenda's unit occupied villages, conducted ambushes, shot passing German troops, blew up bases, and obliterated bridges and train tracks.  After the war, Brenda left Russia and escaped through Slovakia into Austria.  She moved to the United States in 1945.

For more information, please see Brenda Senders

Eta Wrobel

Eta Wrobel

Born December 28th, 1918 in Lokov, Poland, Eta Wrobel was the only child in a family of ten to survive the Holocaust. In her youth, she was a free spirit who defied authority.  In early 1940, Eta started working as a clerk in an employment agency. Soon she began resisting the occupation by forging false identity papers for Jews. In October 1942, Eta's ghetto was 'liquidated' and the Jews were forced into concentration camps. During the transition, Eta and her father managed to escape into the woods.

Life in the woods around Lokov was extremely treacherous. Eta helped organize an all-Jewish partisan unit of close to eighty people.   Eta's unit set mines to hinder German movement and to cut off supply routes. Unlike the other seven women in the unit, Eta refused to cook or clean. Her dynamic personality and military skills allowed for this exception. She was active on missions with the men and made important strategic decisions.  In 1944, when the Germans left Lokov, Eta came out of hiding and was asked to become mayor of her town.  She moved to the United States in 1947.

For more information, please see Eta Wrobel

Vitka Kempner

Vitka Kempner

Vitka Kempner was born in Kalish, Poland on the Polish-German border, in 1922. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna, Lithuania. In 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, attacking the Soviet Union and neighboring countries. Vilna was soon occupied, and the Jews were forced into a ghetto. Hearing the rumors about the death camps, Vitka decided to take destiny into her own hands.  

Vitka joined the Vilna chapter of Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsa'ir, a Zionist youth group. The group transformed itself into a resistance cell, led by Abba Kovner. The group was instrumental in organizing the larger Vilna resistance movement known as the United Partisans Organization (FPO). Vitka later helped to establish the 'Avengers,' which would go on to become one of the most famous and successful all-Jewish partisan units during the war.

Vitka was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage: smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The group began to arm themselves, smuggling weapons through the sewer system. Eventually, Vitka became one of Abba's chief lieutenants; they would marry after the war.

After a failed uprising, Vitka helped the FPO to evacuate much of the population through the sewer system to the surrounding forests. Several of the escapees became soldiers in their unit.

Besides avenging the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, Vitka and Abba also reached out to the survivors. They helped smuggle hundreds of European Jews into British-occupied Palestine. Vitka and Abba followed in 1946, settling at Kibbutz Ein Horesh, where they raised two children.

For more  information, please see Vitka Kempner