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A Critical Mind - an interview with Prof. Avihu Ronen

Prof. Avihu Ronen is a historian and a retired lecturer of the Tel-Hai Academic College in Israel. His research focuses on the history of Jewish youth movements during and after World War II. His most important work is Condemned to Life: The Diaries and Life of Chajka Klinger – the book about the leader of Jewish resistance in Będzin (and the historian’s mother). In 2013, the academic received the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research for this ground-breaking work about the history of Zagłębie Dąbrowskie. Prof. Avihu Ronen was a special guest of the 6th Silesian Science Festival KATOWICE.

How did you get involved with the history of Jewish youth movements during WWII?

When I was a doctoral candidate in Tel Aviv University, I rediscovered the diaries of my mother, Chajka Klinger, which had been published when I was 10 years old. There were some questions about the manuscripts, so I decided to study the original diaries. I gradually became more involved in research on my mother and youth movements in Zagłębie, which changed my whole academic career.

Chajka Klinger came from a traditional Jewish background. Why did she choose a different way of life?

It was typical for the generation of young educated Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, who became aware of the possibilities of the modern world. Chajka abandoned the tradition, read a lot and attended a modern school. This opened many doors for her, but also caused a real antagonism with her father.

What was the importance of Gimnazjum Fürstenberga in Chajka’s life?

The school was a consequence of the modern Jewish community in Będzin. Education had always been important for Jews, but traditionally it was the study of Torah and Talmud, while in the 1920s and 1930s they turned to the study of languages, science, modern ideas. The school was bilingual: Polish and Hebrew. Some of its graduates, like writer Stanisław Wygodzki and historian Joshua Prawer, went on to study at the best universities and became famous. It was an important institution for shaping the minds of young Jews.

What kind of organisation was Hashomer Hatzair and why did Chajka join it?

Hashomer Hatzair represented modern ideas, calling for a revolution of the Jewish people. The organisation was based on three main pillars: scouting, socialism and Zionism. These three ideas combined were attractive for the young Jews who were trying to find a new identity. I think Hashomer Hatzair was the best choice for Chajka, with her critical mind. 

The definite purpose of Hashometr Hatzair was to prepare young people for emigration to Eretz Israel. They didn't just want to be good Zionists; they wanted to live a productive life in Israel. They spoke about shaping a "new Jew" as opposed to the "traditional Jew": a strong worker, connected to his land, living in the countryside.

Chajka’s departure to Eretz Israel was scheduled for September 1939. When the war broke out, she became a central figure of the youth movements in Zagłębie, which carried out their activities in the so-called ‘Farm’. What kind of place was that?

In the first years of the occupation, a supply of vegetables to the Jewish community in Zagłębie was reasonable for German authorities, so the mayor of Będzin gave a permission for the Judenrat (wartime Jewish council) to open an agricultural enterprise. The Judenrat left the management of the Farm to the youth movements, which began to run it in early 1940. The young Jews learned there to cultivate soil and organised events such as memorial days for Zionist leaders, parties and dancing, as well as some illegal, anti-German activities. Chajka wrote that it was an island of freedom. When I show photos from the Farm to my students, they cannot tell whether they were taken in a kibbutz in Israel during the 1920s or in the Nazi-occupied Poland.

What were the origins of Jewish armed resistance in Zagłębie?

Until the summer of 1942, the Jewish youth movements in Zagłębie were occupied with Zionist education and preparing themselves to become productive farmers in the post-war Palestine.

Then came the news of the annihilation of Jews. Thanks to the network of delegates and curriers, the youth movements were the first people in the region to hear about the death camps. At first they couldn’t understand why Germans wanted to destroy the whole population, especially that the Jews in Zagłębie were very productive, manufacturing items for the German army. But when they learnt about the destruction of the Jewish nation, all their ideas were turned upside down. Chajka wrote that all of a sudden they had to turn into black ravens, telling their nation that the end was coming.

The decision to establish armed Jewish resistance in Zagłębie was made in August 1942. It was a revolution, because Hashomer Hatzair had been quite a pacifist movement. In a couple of weeks, the young Jews who dreamed about being farmers in Eretz Israel became guerrilla fighters, facing the strongest army in the world.

Okładka książki Skazana na Życie

Cover of the book 'Condemned to Life: The Diaries and Life of Chajka Klinger' by Avihu Ronen


The ghettos in Będzin and Sosnowiec were established soon after that. How did the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB) members operate there?

They continued to prepare themselves to resist the Nazis although with many difficulties and failures. Several female curriers and a group of 20 young Jews who went to join the partisans were captured by the Germans.

Two factors had a great impact on the underground: the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the possibility of rescue. They contradicted each other: ŻOB wanted to follow the example of Warsaw and fight, but they also had two options to get out: one was to use fake South American passports which came from Switzerland, and the other was to cross the border to Slovakia.

What happened to Chajka during the ghetto liquidation in August 1943?

Chajka was captured in one of the underground movement bunkers. Because she was a woman, the commander put a revolver in her wallet, thinking that maybe the Germans would not look for a gun there. However, it was discovered, and she was taken to the Gestapo, cruelly interrogated and tortured. Chajka did not inform the Gestapo about the underground. She was ready to die, but the Germans decided to save the bullet and send her to Auschwitz. They put her in a temporary camp that was established in the empty ghetto to collect Jewish property and clean the area. Chajka stayed there for several days, and then escaped and joined her comrades, who were already in hiding.

What was the role of the Kobylec family in rescuing Chajka and her comrades?

The Kobylec family lived in Michałkowice (now a district of Siemianowice Śląskie). They hated the Germans and decided to help Jewish resistance survivors. Chajka’s group was well-organised: they had curriers, money and connections abroad. The Kobylec family provided shelter and food for about 20 to 30 people hiding in their house at the same time (the overall estimated number of people supported by the Kobylec family is 50). The hideout lasted for four or five months without being discovered. This story is amazing, and we still keep in touch with the descendants of the Kobylec family. 

Hiding in Michałkowice, Chajka began to fulfill her mission as ‘condemned to life’. How was she chosen by her comrades to tell the story of the resistance movement?

Several Jewish undergrounds in the ghettos chose a person whose duty was to survive and document the history of resistance, because the fighters assumed in advance that most of them would die in battles, which is exactly what happened. Those chosen for such missions were called ‘condemned to life’.

Chajka was very conscious about her duty, and felt that its burden was heavy. It was a paradoxical situation. To write and document the history of ŻOB in Będzin was the justification of her existence. On the other hand, this duty was killing her, because she had to relive all the events, to document them clearly. It is not a coincidence that several Holocaust authors, such as Tadeusz Borowski and Paul Celan, committed suicide. The struggle to document such memories is a killing one.

When she completed her diaries in hiding, she was relieved, feeling that she had fulfilled her mission. In a way, she successfully faced this awful obstacle: to speak the unspoken, or to write the unwritten.

How did Chajka get out of Nazi-occupied Poland and came to Eretz Israel?

In December 1943 the Kobylec family helped the group of survivors to find contacts with smugglers and cross the mountain border to Slovakia. The weather conditions were very harsh, but over 100 people in different groups (including about 25 assisted by the Kobylec family) escaped in this way. Chajka was lucky: some other groups were captured by the Nazis and disappeared.

In Slovakia, she found a member of Hashomer Hatzair, who was the main currier of a secret group of Slovak Jews which organised a network helping Polish Jewish refugees. They met in Liptovský Mikuláš and fell in love with one another. His name was Yakov Rosenberg: Chajka’s first meeting in Slovakia was with the person who later became her husband (and my father). At that time Zionists in Istanbul already knew about her diaries, and the international Jewish underground network helped her get to Eretz Israel in March 1944 via Budapest, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. She was very important not only as one of very few resistance survivors, but also because of her diaries, which documented what happened in Zagłębie as well as the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Chajka was one of the first people to tell the world about the Jewish resistance and Warsaw ghetto uprising. However, instead of telling the story all over Israel, she soon began a quiet life in a kibbutz. Why?

At first, she was invited to several sessions and conferences in Israel, so she travelled from one kibbutz to another and told her story. I interviewed several people who attended those meetings, and they said that everyone was listening for hours in silence. Nobody dared to move, some were weeping.

Chajka spoke critically about the Jewish leadership in Eretz Israel and their lack of help for Jews in the ghettos. Many survivors voiced similar opinions, but she was the first. At that time her comments on these issues were not acceptable for a lot of people.

However, this was not the reason why Chajka disappeared from the public arena. She was 28 and wanted to start all over, give birth to kids and have a peaceful life. She settled in a kibbutz with her husband, and never advanced to any political or organisational position.

At the same time, Hashomer Hatzair in Palestine wanted to publish her memories. She rewrote them, but at one point stopped working on it, probably for a number of reasons. She became pregnant with my elder brother. It was the second time when she had to come back to her memories, and her letters show that it was very hard for her to relive those awful circumstances. I also think that the publishing house which had pushed her to rewrite the diaries was not satisfied with the results. She was too critical and refused to glorify the Holocaust story. The diaries were not fully published at that time, but in my opinion it was not a disaster for Chajka. As far as I think about her, she had a full life from 1944 to 1958: raising three children, working, and building a new kibbutz in Eretz Israel. There was no place for the unfinished book. It was only later, near the end of her life, when she was asked to write for the anthologies on ghetto uprising, that she felt she hadn’t completed her mission.

How was your book received in Israel?

I thought it would be too complicated to read. I couldn't write the book about my mother without facing my own experiences, so there are three intermingling narratives. One is the diaries of Chajka, where I give voice to her, because that was the original goal of my studies. The second narrative is a historian trying to tell the story of Chajka, but also of other individuals and the Jewish communities in Zagłębie and Poland. And the third narrative is my personal tale about the impact it had on me.

It was complicated. For Chajka, the Jewish uprising was the fulfilment of the dream of a "new Jew" who fights their enemies and protests the annihilation of their nation. For me, as a person born in Israel who went to the army, became an officer, and took part in three wars, it was different. I became very critical about the destiny of my own generation. I still find it paradoxical how Israel became so militaristic, occupying another nation for about last 55 years. What is my role in all of it? How do I serve the regime that I don't identify with anymore?

Confronting the narratives of Chajka and of Holocaust with my personal story led to many questions. I was very surprised that people liked the book, and that, in a way, my questions and the questions of Chajka turned out to be questions asked by the whole generation.

It must have been hard for you to write the story of your mother and what she went through.

It wasn’t that difficult. I had no mother for many years, because Chajka committed suicide when I was 9 years old. I had to rediscover her, and the diaries were not satisfying, because their first edition, published one year after she died, was censored and badly edited. So when I started my research at the age of 35, I was finding out who she was, and who I was in relation to her story. This gave me a lot of insights about her and about myself as well. There were only a few times when I felt it was difficult for me, but the more I spoke with the witnesses who were still alive it the 80s and 90s, the more I read, the more I found myself fulfilling the Socratic imperative: "know myself". The scholar’s drive to learn more and the son’s drive to know more were involved together and gave me a kind of satisfaction. I don’t know everything, but I know more about my mother, about myself, about the Jews in Zagłębie and the Holocaust.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Interview by Tomasz Grząślewicz

The interview was published in 'Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ (USil Magazine)' (issue no. 5 [305] February 2023).

Główna grafika: 
Profesor Avihu Ronen i redaktor Tomek Grząślewicz
Tło nagłówka: 

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