Eta Wrobel (1916-2008)
Possessed of incredible bravery and pluck, Eta Wrobel refused to allow her destiny to be determined by others. Through her extraordinary acts of defiance--escaping deportation, smuggling weapons and leading her partisan unit-- Eta took back her fate as both a woman and a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. She is one of over 3,000 Jewish women who fought in the partisans against the Nazis. Eta is exceptional for her leadership skills and enduring commitment to remembrance.
Born into a family of 10 children in Lokov, Poland on December 28, 1918, Eta Chajt was the only child to survive the Holocaust. Before war broke out, she was valedictorian of her high school. Her father or Tateh (yiddish for “daddy”), Pinchas Ben Chaim Chajit, was a businessman and later a partisan. He and her mother, Shaindel Goldberg, instilled in her a spirit of courage and a desire to help other people. Eta put these lessons to use after the Nazi invasion, forging false identity papers for Jews, resulting in her arrest.
At age 23, she began to smuggle guns from Lodz, Germany back to her hometown. She worked as a slave laborer in a poultry factory. Her family’s hiding spot behind the ovens in their bakery was discovered. She was forced to watch as a Gestapo officer killed her sister Mara, who was eight-months pregnant. When her ghetto was brutally liquidated in October of 1942, only Eta, her father and three siblings escaped the deportation to Treblinka. She was aided by several unusually kind Poles, including a doctor who cured her of typhus in 1943. In May 1943, she decided to escape with her father to the woods.
Fearless, Eta became commander of a Jewish partisan unit of nearly 80 people, living in constant danger. Only seven of them were women. Refusing to cook or clean,Eta led missions. She mapped out strategies for planting mines to cut off supply routes and block German movement. She gathered information, including on German troop movements, while pretending to be a young Christian girl, Elizabeth. Eta became known as “the Peddler from Warsaw.” In hiding from Nazis standing just below her hiding spot one time, she was completely covered with mice, unable to move or scream despite having rodents sniffing her ears and creeping through her clothing. When Eta was shot in the leg and had no access to medical care, she dug the bullet out with a knife, pouring vodka on the wound to sterilize it.
One fascinating chapter in her memoirs My Life, My Way is entitled “Bittersweet Revenge.” It shows her working alongside the military leader of the group, Yidl, making plans at a farmhouse and defending themselves against an attack by the AK (the Polish Home Army “antisemitic fascist Polish nationalists”) Exploring information about an AK “Jew hunt,” they uncovered a shallow grave of a Jewish woman and her two children. In retaliation, they evacuated and burned a nearby village. Eta writes: “They’d killed a Jewish mother and her two babies. Saving Jewish lives meant punishing Jew-hating murderers; taking revenge on their tormentors was the highest level of resistance.”(p.88) In contrast, Raul Hilberg writes in his seminal The Destruction of European Jews that “preventative attack, armed resistance and revenge were almost completely absent in Jewish exilic history.”
Her most profound vengeance was survival. "We fought so that some of us would get out of there and make new families, to spit in the Nazi’s eyes. Our babies are our revenge." In 1944, the Germans left and Eta returned from hiding. At the urging of her hometown Eta became mayor of Lokov, then fled to New York with her husband, Henry, to escape Communism. Henry had fought in the Soviet Army during the war. They had four children, and eventually, eleven grandchildren. The family lived in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx; Henry founded a successful real estate business in Staten Island. They often attended meetings of WAGRO (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Resistance Organizations). Active in many survivor groups and Jewish charities, she was awarded by YIVO for her work in promoting the persistence of the Yiddish language. At the age of 90 she wrote her memoir, fittingly titled My Life, My Way, with the assistance of Jeannette Friedman
A woman of irrepressible courage and spirit, Eta Wrobel was an agent of history and of her own life, a fighter and a hero in every sense of the word.
Written by Profs. Laura Morowitz and Lori Weintrob
Anna Wrobel, “The Continuity Between Victims and Resisters in the Holocaust,” Jewish Currents, Fall 2015
“Eta Wrobel,” The Holocaust Encyclopedia. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
“Eta Wrobel,” Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation.
Khalid Elhassan, “Eta Wrobel: The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of WWII”
History Collection. Dec 8 2019
Eta Wrobel, My Life, My Way: The Extraordinary memoir of a Jewish Partisan in World War II Poland, with Jeanette Friedman. New York: The Wordsmithy, LLC/YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2006