Zivia Lubetkin by Tikva Fatal-Kna'ani
“She had blazing eyes and a penetrating glance,” recall those who knew Zivia Lubetkin, adding that she “was simple and direct, demanding the maximum of others and of herself. For her, thought and action were one.”
Zivia Lubetkin was born on November 9, 1914 to a well-to-do, traditional Jewish family in the town of Beten in eastern Poland, where in 1880 her father, Ya’akov-Yizhak, who ran a small business, had also been born. Her mother, Hayyah (née Zilberman), was born in 1882 in Useten. During the Holocaust Zivia’s parents went into hiding but were discovered in 1942 and shot on the spot.
The Lubetkins had six daughters and one son: Shelomo reached Palestine with a Polish army contingent; Szifra (1903–1942) resided in Baranowice before the war and was married to Leibl Epstein; Meita (1906–1942) married Simha Mirsky; Golda (1909–1942), who married Shelomo Klibanski, shared the fate of her parents, as did Bunie (1919–1942); Ahuvah (Luba, b. 1923) emigrated to Palestine in 1938.
Zivia Lubetkin studied at a Polish government school and received education in Hebrew from private tutors. From early childhood she was a member of the Zionist-Socialist youth movement Freiheit (Freedom), which sent her to the Kielce kibbutz. There, together with other young people, she studied and worked (in the bakery, the laundry, the latrines and in the fields). She answered the call to work for He-Halutz in Warsaw, where she was appointed coordinator of the training department and travelled from place to place, teaching and offering encouragement.
She was one of the flag-bearers when Freiheit joined with He-Halutz Youth in 1938. This unification later brought about the founding of the Dror movement, as well as an increase in the number of people who joined the united movement. In the winter of 1938–1939 she worked mostly in renewing and restaffing the training centers, which effectively gave her leadership status in the movement. She was also greatly admired both by the young people and by her colleagues in education and administration.
In 1939 she traveled to Geneva for the twenty-first Zionist Congress as a delegate from the Erez Israel Labor bloc, returning shortly before the outbreak of World War II. When the war began, the central committee of He-Halutz decided that the emissaries from Erez Israel should return there and elected a replacement board, which included Lubetkin, to preserve the movement and prepare it for future eventualities.
Lubetkin went to Kowel, which served as a hub for members of the He-Halutz central committee and training groups, who moved eastward to the areas conquered by the Soviets on September 17. From there, she reached Soviet-controlled Lvov and participated in the movement’s underground activities there. It was here that the pioneer movement decided on its policies in its new, underground environment.
Lubetkin was one of the pioneer group that left the Russian-controlled area for that under German control. In January 1940 she reached Warsaw and continued her underground activity in the Dror house at 34 Dzielna Street, which served as a support and information center for the members of Dror and Gordonia, and also as a public kitchen. In the ghetto Lubetkin was responsible for the organizational system and communications with the outside. She negotiated with the Joint Distribution Committee and the Judenrat for funds for the everyday needs of the movement members and their dependents. Within the movement, she was a decision-maker at critical moments. When the situation in Lodz deteriorated, she demanded that the women members who remained there be evacuated so as not to endanger their lives. She also took an active part in the discussions on establishing agricultural farms that would provide members with work, an income and a social milieu as well as some distancing from the degradation of ghetto life.
In autumn 1941, the arrival in Warsaw of a joint delegation of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir and Ha-No’ar ha-Ziyyoni crystallized Lubetkin’s attitude towards the overall extermination. Realizing the extent of the annihilation, she decided to resist. “After we heard about Vilna on the one hand and about Chelmno on the other, we realized this was indeed systematic. … We stopped our cultural activities … and all our work was now dedicated to active defense,” she testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann (1960–1962).
During the aktions and the killing she was among the founders of the anti-Fascist bloc, the first organization in the Warsaw Ghetto to engage in armed combat against the Germans. On July 28, 1942, during the mass deportation from Warsaw, she was among the founders of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ZOB), a member of its command and among those who planned its organization. She was also a member of the Jewish National Committee (Zydowski Komitet Narodowy), the ZOB’s political leadership, as well as a member of the Jewish Coordination Committee (the committee that coordinated with the Bund). Lubetkin participated in the ZOB’s first resistance operation in January 1943 and in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943.
After the first days of fighting during the April 1943 rebellion, the fighters trapped in the bombed and burning ghetto were doomed to weeks of death and extermination. During this period Lubetkin served as a liaison to the groups of fighters who, together with the general population, had dug into the bunkers; she went between the various bunkers and maintained communication between the leadership of the rebellion and the fighters who remained in the burning ghetto. The day before they were discovered by the Germans, the ZOB command, located at 18 Mila Street, decided that Lubetkin should set out in order to find a connection to the outside via the sewage tunnels that led to the Aryan side. On May 10, 1943 she went through the sewers with the last of the fighters. To the end of her days she was haunted by the thought that she had abandoned her remaining friends to certain death. Until the end of the war she hid in Polish Warsaw, serving in the underground and in the rebellion there from August to October 1944, part of a ZOB company that joined the fighting units of the Gwardia Ludowa (the People’s Guard, a Polish underground army organization). Together with the last of the fighters, she was rescued from a hideout in November 1944.
Upon the liberation of Warsaw in January 1945, she arrived there together with Yizhak (Antek) Cukierman (Zuckerman, 1915–1981). Among the strongest advocates for revival of the movement and its rapid transfer to Palestine, she searched for every Jew, meeting the trains carrying returnees upon their arrival from the Soviet Union and establishing kibbutzim and training places. “However, apart from all the different approaches, we were all aware of one thing: we could not rebuild our ruined lives in Poland. … We saw before us tens of thousand of Jews and knew that the only solution for them was to get them out to Erez Israel immediately” (The Last Ones on the Wall).
On learning that there were fifteen thousand Jews in Lublin, she and Cukierman moved there, meeting the surviving members of the pioneering group who had gathered with Abba Kovner (1918–1987) and his group, and also with He-Halutz members who had arrived from the Soviet Union. Kovner presented his vision of a great exodus from Europe, while Lubetkin decided to immigrate to Palestine as quickly as possible. On March 1, 1945, equipped with a Greek refugee certificate, she left Lublin together with Kovner and the members of his group on the way to Romania. They were stopped at the border, arrested, questioned and released by a Jewish NKVD officer. When they reached Bucharest, they learned that the way to Palestine from Romania was blocked. Lubetkin returned to Warsaw, forced to wait more than a year to reach Palestine.
The first conference of The Erez Israel Workers’ Group took place in Lodz in June 1945. Cukierman, Lubetkin and Haika Grosman worked to create the frameworks of Youth Aliya to rehabilitate the survivors and absorb those who came from the Soviet Union, their intention being to ensure the political unification of the entire pioneer community. From October 1945 the Dror center operated in Lodz. Cukierman and Lubetkin’s office served as both a social and a movement center, where emissaries from Palestine also found their first home. Lubetkin guided the emissaries sent by the United Kibbutz Movement in their first steps in Poland’s complex political reality. As in the past, she was an important support for the members of the emerging group of young trainers and for the Yishuv’s emissaries, who described her and Cukierman as the “spiritual leaders of the survivors.”
From the first, Lubetkin defined the rehabilitation of She’erit ha-Peletah (Holocaust survivors) as the duty of the Yishuv, stressing the inability of surviving leaders of the rebellion to cope with the complex problems that were emerging. In effect, she imposed the responsibility for the returnees and the He-Halutz movement in Poland on the emissaries from Palestine. To implement her desire to immigrate to Palestine, she left Poland in May 1946, traveling via Alexandria and in June arriving at her destination, where members of the Labor Movement, the Haganah, the Palmah and colleagues gave her an extraordinary reception. The excitement at Lubetkin’s arrival recalled the eulogies delivered upon her supposed death in 1943, which combined in her all the prominent symbols of the Zionist renaissance, from the courage of Masada through the heroic battle at TelHai to the pioneer uprising in the ghettos.
In June 1946 Lubetkin delivered a speech at the United Kibbutz Movement conference in Yagur. For a full day she stood in an enormous tent, giving her account of “the days of destruction and revolt” ( as she later entitled her book on this topic). The main part of the meeting with the Yishuv, her speech was received by the leadership of the workers’ movement as a symbol of pioneer heroism. Her account, conveyed clearly and firmly, became the declaration of the pioneer movement during the Holocaust. Many people heard the terrible story, which also included information on the fate of an individual and a family—a fate shared by many of her listeners. Her story was serialized in the publications of the workers’ movement. The weekly Devar ha-Shavua published her photograph on its front page, together with two quotations that showed the connection between her testimony and the Yishuv. The United Kibbutz Movement realized that Lubetkin and Cukierman had great influence on those members of the kibbutz originating from Poland, who arrived from DP camps in Germany and whose settling in Israel was important to the movement. The couple themselves did not know which kibbutz to choose. Zivia went to Yagur and it is possible to perceive her arrival there as the start of the social group of ghetto fighters. The first core group that later became Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta’ot (the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz) formed in Yagur at Lubetkin’s initiative and through her energetic efforts. Alone or in small groups, survivors came to Yagur and gathered around her. In June 1947 this group, together with Lubetkin and Cukierman (who were married that year), comprised fifty-two members, who together with “the core group in memory of the ghetto fighters,” numbered one hundred and forty. On April 19, 1949 the establishment of Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta’ot (4 km. north of Acre) was announced. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Ever since, two separate ceremonies have been held: one in February, to commemorate the kibbutz’s groundbreaking, and the other on April 19, the date of the laying of the cornerstone on the anniversary of the uprising. Lubetkin and Cukierman built their home and raised their family at Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta’ot and the central group formed around them, together with Havka Pullman, Sarah Nashmitand Zvi Shinar. Lubetkin attended the Zionist Congress in Basel in 1946 as a representative of the United Kibbutz Movement. As she stepped onto the podium, the Congress rose to its feet to cheer the pioneer and fighter. She was embarrassed, but also deeply disappointed that the Congress discussions did not relate at all to the Holocaust apart from a ceremony devoid of any representative of the ghetto fighters.
Lubetkin became an emissary of the movement and was later active in the secretariat of the United Kibbutz Movement, the Histadrut and the Zionist Organization. She combined manual labor on the kibbutz with public activity. Although she was one of the founders of the Itzhak Katzenelson House of Testimony on the Holocaust and Rebellion, she chose not to occupy herself with memorializing and documenting. She likewise chose not to be a public figure. After a brief period during which she served as director of the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency, she returned to work in the kitchen, the chicken coop and accounting department. She served as kibbutz secretary several times, longer than any other member. In 1954 she studied at the first seminar in Efal, the learning center of the United Kibbutz Movement. She lived as an ordinary member of her kibbutz home until her death on July 11, 1978, at age sixty-four. Her children, Shimon (b. 1947) and Yael (b. 1949), were born in Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta’ot, where they still live.
Lubetkin’s book In the Days of Destruction and Revolt was published in 1979. In 1980 her speech at the kibbutz convention at Yagur appeared in several editions in Hebrew and other languages.
Barzel, Neima. Sacrificed Unredeemed (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1998; Dror, Zvika, interviewed and edited.Testimonies of Survival: Ninety-Six Personal Interviews from Kibbutz Lochamei ha-Getta’ot (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1984, 328–345; Lubetkin, Zivia. The Last Ones on the Wall (Hebrew). Ein Harod: 1957; Lubetkin, Zivia.In the Days of Destruction and Revolt (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1979; Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta’ot. Pages: The Journal of Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta’ot–Zivia (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1978.