They stare at us from across the ages: three smiling young women posed in a frozen second of their lifetimes.
You look at their radiant faces and can imagine them enjoying a pleasant evening, rife with anticipation as they undoubtedly draw the attention of the gallant young men you would expect were attending as well.
The reality not seen in this photo, though, is that these women needed to carefully maneuver, ever so delicately, to reject the interest of potential suitors, as these were no ordinary men. More importantly, these were no ordinary women.
While a picture may tell a thousand words, it does not, cannot, tell the whole story. You look at this photo, and it tells you nothing of the valor, heroism and bravery hidden behind the smiles they forced themselves to present. For these women on that night bravely walked in the valley of the shadow of death, engaging with evil itself.
In December of 1941, Tema, Lonka and Bella were three Jewish women in their early 20s, invited to the Christmas party of the Nazi Gestapo headquarters in the then Polish city of Grodno. Disguised as Catholic Polish girls, they had more than just their identities to hide. They had to mask their fear, muster their courage, control their anxiety and overcome their contempt so not to reveal in any way that they were not who they appeared to be. To not unwillingly expose that they were, in fact, members of the Jewish underground.
They could have been our daughters, our sisters, our friends. They were no different than any of us. As you reach your 20s, life is full of promise. It is the age when the sky is the limit. You expect to live for eternity. And they most likely wanted no more than what we all want: to experience life. To do the simple, obvious things—meet someone, marry, raise a family. Have a career, do something you enjoy, maybe even do something special in life.
Life as it does, had its own idea of what special would mean in their case. Their time in history coincided with the madness of World War II, which would require of them extraordinary courage. (We could say inhuman courage, but these young women were very much human.) Nothing in the few years that made up their lives up until then would point to how remarkable they were to become.
Tema was born in Warsaw in 1917 to a non-religious Jewish family, though also not assimilated into Polish society. She was orphaned of her mother at a young age, and had to grow up quickly and to be independent. She cared for her family—a trait that would lead her to care for others as well. She studied nursing and began to work in a hospital.
Lonka was born in the town of Pruszków, near Warsaw, in 1916 to a Zionist family. She studied in Polish schools and mostly socialized with Poles. She was active in the Polish socialist youth movement and was far removed from the concerns of Jewish youth. From an early age, she showed a proficiency in languages. In addition to Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew, which she spoke at home, she was fluent in French, German, English, Russian and Ukrainian.
Bella, the youngest of the three, was born in December 1922 in the town of Rozyszcze, in Poland at the time. She had eight siblings; her family was very religious. She was orphaned of her father when she was just 5 years old. Despite the family being poor, her mother made sure that she gained an education so she would make something of her life.
The women were also members of their local chapters of HeHalutz-Dror Jewish youth movement. As often happens in life, what you are looking for or believe you are doing ends up leading to or being something altogether different.
The membership they originally saw as a means for socializing and, to some degree, as preparation of perhaps one day immigrating to Eretz Israel, became an important part in determining the role they were destined to fulfill. Once the war broke out, the youth movements—with their elaborate network of connections—proved to be an unexpected asset for the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe that were purposely isolated by the Germans.
Tema, Lonka and Bella—like several other female members of the youth movement—were the natural choice to serve as the link between the communities, known as the “Couriers” (or the “Kashariyot” in Hebrew). Disguised as non-Jews, they risked their lives to move from ghetto to ghetto, traveling through treacherous territory, transporting documents, papers, money, ammunition and weapons across borders and into ghettos.
By the time this photograph was taken, the women were already seasoned veterans in the shady undercover world. Bella established a safe house in Grodno and had infiltrated the Gestapo headquarters working as an interpreter. Tema and Lonka were using the house as a stopover as they went between locations in performance of their assigned missions.
Not long after that evening, the dangers of the tragic era would inevitably catch up with them, and their luck would run out. First, Lonka, who in June 1942 was caught at the border crossing at Malkinia. She was interrogated as a Polish Underground woman and held in the Pawiak prison in Warsaw.
When she failed to arrive at her expected destination, Bella set out to look for her. She, too, was captured at the same border crossing and also sent to Pawiak.
Of Tema’s fate, it is known that she was transferred to the Treblinka extermination camp after being captured in the Warsaw Ghetto on Jan. 18, 1943, during one of her many daring excursions to the place. She most likely perished there.
Bella and Lonka never revealed their identities, never broke, never exposed secrets though tortured severely. They never broke from character either.
In November 1942, they were transported to Auschwitz. Both were held at Birkenau and assigned to the same block of Polish female prisoners. Bella worked initially in the fields, while Lonka worked as an interpreter in the SS office.
As happened to so many of the prisoners in the concentration camps, they both contracted typhus. While Bella recovered, Lonka’s condition worsened; she came down with mumps and dysentery as well. Bella cared for her devotedly, doing everything she could to ease her suffering.
On April 13, 1943, at the age of 27, Lonka passed away in her friend’s arms. As she lay dying, her last words to Bella were: “You will survive and tell about us.”
Bella carried Lonka’s body to the camp’s crematorium. Cradling her, she quietly muttered the mourner’s Kaddish prayer over the body of her young friend so her beautiful soul would leave the horrors of this world as a proud Jew.
Bella would survive and was liberated from the camp after enduring the death march to other camps in Germany. She lived to experience the miracle of the rebirth of the Jewish people. She saw the redemption unbelievably unfold as she came to the Land of Israel and took part in its rebirth.
Most importantly, she got to experience life. To do the simple, obvious things we all take for granted. Bella married Hayim Zaleshinsky, who later changed his last name to Yaari, and had two children, Esther and Yoel, and eventually also five grandchildren. She never forgot her friends. And tell about them she did.
Bella fulfilled Lonka’s dying wish, presenting testimonies about her experiences during the Holocaust, including her autobiography titled, They call me Bronislawa, after the Aryan name she went by under her falsified identity.
Bella Chazan-Yaari died in Jerusalem on Jan. 18, 2004, at the age of 82—some 61 years after her friends Tema and Lonka.
My only guess as to why this story has never become the stuff of literary or Hollywood galore is that the sheer magnitude of what they were called upon to do—what they did and the risks they endured—is impossible to grapple. The extent of their heroism and daring seems beyond human comprehension. Especially in an age when the terms “resistance,” “defiance” and “heroic” are so cheaply bestowed upon any act of simple protest.
We must heed the lesson of the young women and do our duty. Ours is much simpler than what they were called upon to do. We owe it to them, to give back to Tema, Lonka and Bella, as well as to all the fighters and heroes of the Holocaust. To do what Lonka asked for, and what Bella did but is no longer here to do. To talk about them.
It is our duty today to tell their story, so that their bravery is never forgotten and finds its rightful place in the annals of Jewish history. The story of the Kashariyot—real-life “Wonder Women.”
And more than anything, we owe it to them so to preserve the eternity that was in their hearts.
(Special thanks to Bella’s son, Professor Yoel Yaari, for his assistance and whose article in “Yediot Ahronot” on 6.4.18 was the inspiration to write this column.)
Daniel Seaman is the editor of the English edition of Mida.org online magazine.
You can find more in depth articles on Israel and the Middle East @en.mida.org.il.