Obeying a last-minute command from a friend, Chaya jumped off a train filled with residents of the Swieciany ghetto, bound for the town of Kovno. Not long afterwards, in Vilna, she learned that everyone on the train – including her entire family – was murdered by the Nazis.
Swieciany (Švenčionys), the small town where Chaya was born, is located in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, 84 kilometers north of Vilnius. In June 1941, the Nazis forced all the town’s Jews into a ghetto. Chaya and her family became active in housing runaway Jews and their home became a meeting place for people who wanted to learn about the war. Chaya's sister Rochel, who was a registered nurse, worked in the secret hospital and was known as the “angel of the ghetto” for her tireless efforts helping the sick.
After she found out the Nazis murdered her family, Chaya turned grief into action by joining a partisan group led by Fedor Markov, a well-respected teacher from her hometown. Typically, women were not allowed to fight in resistance groups, but Chaya gained admittance by proving her usefulness with a small handheld Belgian gun she owned. Her group formed alliances with other Jewish partisan groups, and a Jewish unit was formed. They called it “Nekamah” – which means revenge in Hebrew. Markov boldly stated “You should be proud, you are young and very brave people.” Nekamah flourished into a thriving partisan outpost, with around ninety members, all living deep in the woods in zemlyankas (underground bunkers that held up to twenty people, carefully camouflaged into the forest floor). There were also smaller bunkers, including one designated for ill partisans.
Chaya's partisan group lived up to their name, as they participated in significant acts of retribution against the Nazis. Nekamah burned down an electric station, derailed trains, destroyed German weapons and food sources. They were also active in communicating news about the resistance and warning people in nearby villages and ghettos about the Nazis’ plans of mass extermination.
The small percentage of women – including Chaya – who had gained membership into partisan groups, experienced a different set of hardships than their male counterparts once they were accepted. Unwanted advances from male partisans were all too common. Women were often assigned to gender-related tasks like cooking and cleaning, instead of fighting.
Eventually, Nekamah was dismantled by the Soviets, who would not allow Jewish partisan groups under their watch. After liberation, Chaya went on to marry a fellow partisan, Simon and immigrated to New York City, where they opened up a jewelry business and spent the rest of their lives. They had two sons and remained active in assisting Holocaust survivors in finding employment.
To find out more about Jewish women partisans, please visit our curriculum page.
–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong