November 29: A Day To Remember
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
November 30, 2017
I know it isn’t Purim yet. That jolly holiday of Hammentaschen (those wonderful poppy seed- or jelly-filled pastries), of make-believe and masquerades, won’t be for another three months or so. But Jewish history is filled with miracles, of days designated to be days of sorrow but which, somehow, at the very last minute, turn into joyful celebrations instead. And this evening I want to talk about one of those days: November 29.
Though it isn’t my birthday, I owe my life to that day, and to the heroes who made it happen.
The story goes back to 1944, but before I get into the story itself, you need to know something about my mother.
My mother was 16 when World War Two erupted and the Germans invaded Poland. Within a month the Germans overran the entire country, including her hometown of Katowice, in the southern part of Poland, not far from Krakow. The roundup of the Jewish population began not long afterwards. My mother’s journey of persistence and survival took her to several ghettoes and prisons, and took nearly five years to complete. She escaped four times from the grip of the Nazis, and finally succeeded in reaching Israel—called Palestine at the time and under the control of the British—in March 1944.
Holocaust survival was often a matter of luck and chance, but in the case of my mother—as well as a few hundred others—there was yet another reason. They were all members of Ha-No’ar Ha-Tzioni, a Jewish youth group that was organized yet before the war in order to prepare young men and women to make aliyah to Israel, to teach them the crafts and skills that they would need as they began a new life there. When the war broke out, however, the mission of this youth group changed drastically: they would resist the Nazis and establish escape routes for themselves and for their families. They organized into small units, each with its own dedicated purpose: to obtain weapons, forge passports, establish escape routes and set up safe houses along the way. My mother was put in charge of one of those units.
They called themselves Nasza Groupa—“Our Group”—a simple name that belies the complexity and greatness of who they were and what they did.
Three other members of this group were Emil Brigg, Danuta Firstenberg and Olek Gutman. They were higher up in the group, and their mission was to contact members of the Haganah—the organization that later became the Israel Defense Force. By then, the Haganah had set up a cell in Budapest, and from that secret location its members were coordinating rescue and resistance operations throughout Eastern Europe.
Along the way, however, the three comrades, Emil, Danuta and Olek, were given another assignment, with fateful consequences.
There was a man by the name of Victor Janikowski, a Jew who, along with another Jewish kapo—or Nazi collaborator—tricked Jewish refugees into giving him as much as $2000 a person (!) to lead them to safety. Janikowski, however, pocketed the money and secretly delivered the refugees to the German police. Soon his actions became known to members of the Groupa. Emil, Olek and Danuta (with assumed Aryan names and forged papers), were assigned to find and kill Janikowski.
It was a dangerous mission, and though they ultimately succeeded, the three were soon discovered and arrested by the Gestapo. They were brutally tortured for twenty-one days, but did not break and did not give away what they knew about the Haganah cell in Budapest and about their other contacts. Had they betrayed their friends in the Groupa, there is no doubt that only a very few would have survived. Only three weeks later, when they were sure that everyone else had managed to escape, did the three finally give up the information sought by the Nazis.
“You will all die tomorrow,” a Nazi officer informed them. They were even shown chalk marks drawn along a brick wall, where they would be made to stand and be shot the next morning, the morning of November 29, 1944.
But that was not to happen. Around midnight, these Jewish heroes of the Nasza Groupa heard the rumble of tanks driving past the prison. A few hours later, more tanks, going in the other direction. Then a complete silence, broken sporadically by scattered machine gun fire. As morning broke, still more tanks arrived. Looking through a window set high up in the cell, Emil saw that these were Russian tanks. They were saved. It was November 29, and it also happened to be Danuta’s birthday.
A day designated for sorrow had turned instead into a day of liberation and celebration.
But the story of this date does not end here.
Exactly three years later, a vote was held in the United Nations. On 29 November 1947 (70 years ago almost to the day), the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states: A Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish government accepted the decision; the Arabs rejected it, but the State of Israel was now on legal footing, and half a year later David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, would declare its independence, reestablishing for the first time in 2000 years a Jewish homeland, in its historical birthplace, for the dispersed and dispossessed Jewish People.
Perhaps—as some believe—certain days were designated by some higher power to be special days. If so, then November 29 must be one of them.
On the political stage, the Partition vote is still source of debate and contention, perhaps even more so now than it was then. But the date is also marked annually by survivors of the Nasza Groupa and their descendants, who for several decades now have been gathering every year on or around November 29th to celebrate and retell the miracle of their survival.
There is an epilogue to this story: After making his way to Israel, Emil Brigg joined the Israel Defense Force and, following the 1948 War of Independence, was awarded the army’s highest award, Gibbor Yisrael, “A Hero of Israel.” He passed away in 2002. May his memory be a blessing.
For two years, Olek Gutman, who changed his name to Alex Gatmon, conducted revenge operations against SS officers. Later, after serving in the Israeli Air Force, he joined Israel’s fabled secret service, the Mossad, and helped capture Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the Nazi Holocaust. He also was instrumental in the clandestine rescue of 35,000 Jewish refugees from Morocco, bringing them to safe harbor in Israel. He died in 1981. May his memory be a blessing.
Dina Gilboa—the Hebrew name Danuta Firstenberg adopted in Israel—lived a long life and established a thriving family. She died last year. At this year’s Nasza Groupa reunion and commemoration, held just earlier today in Tel Aviv, Israel, Dina’s daughter, Shuvit, spoke about her mother. May her memory be a blessing.
L’havdil—to make a thousand separations— with God’s help we will celebrating my mother’s 95th birthday this coming January 1. Last month, her eldest great-granddaughter, Opal, now 17 years old, went on a school-sponsored trip to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The airport she landed in was—of all places—Katowice, my mother’s hometown. Way to close a circle!!! She—fourth generation survivor—also spoke at the commemoration today, relating her experiences and reactions to what she saw, heard and learned.
And so it was that a day, the 29th of November, had turned from sorrow to celebration, from devastation to renewal. It could have ended otherwise, but instead it became the beginning of a new life—not only for me, but also for the State of Israel and for the entire Jewish People.
On Purim we hail Esther as the great hero who saved our people from imminent destruction. The truth, however, is that we are here today because of so many heroes, so many who gave their lives so that we could be here; so many men, women and children who endured untold torture and suffering to ensure the survival of our people. May their lives and deeds become a testament to human endurance in the face of devastation, and may we be worthy and deserving to carry forward the great responsibility they passed on to us: the continuity of the Jewish People and its epic legacy.
© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman