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[personal profile] glaurung_quena
Inspired by Marissa's rant about the removal of women warriors from documentaries about World War II over on her "This is Hysteria" blog, I recently re-read "A Girl Called Judith Strick" by Judith Strick Dribben (originally published in 1970 and now out of print, although Amazon currently has used inexpensive used copies available).

This is an unusual Holocaust memoir, in that only a fraction of it is concerned with the author's ordeal in the Nazi extermination machine. The book has 4 parts of roughly equal length. Part 1 ("Hardening Steel") follows Judith's career in the Polish/Ukrainian partisan resistance following the German invasion of Eastern Poland. Part 2 ("The Big Joke") covers her arrest and time as a prisoner of the Gestapo; in part 3 ("In the Shadow of the Chimneys"), she is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then eventually to a munitions factory as a slave. Part 4 ("The Homecoming") deals with her post-war career, first in the Soviet army, and then in Palestine, first as a member of the Negev (guerrilla fighters against the British colonial regime), then as a soldier in the Israeli army, and finally as a member of a kibbutz. And she did all of that in a space of only about 12 years.

Part 1:

Before the war, Judith lived in Lvov, then in Poland, now part of the Ukraine. Her city was briefly taken over by the Soviet Union after the Hitler-Stalin pact, then fell into German hands when Hitler tore up the pact and invaded the USSR. The first chapter is a flashforward; the second chapter opens with the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, and Judith is 17 years old. Her father was among the first batch of Jews in the community disappeared by the Nazis; in attempting to find out what had happened to him, she discovered that an old school friend, Peter, was a member of the resistance, and through him, she joined up.

Judith was an attractive girl with a facility for languages, including fluent German. So, her first job in the resistance was to help collect German uniforms and identity documents. She did this by posing as one of Poland's ethnic Germans, hanging out in places frequented by off-duty German officers, and, having chosen a victim, seducing him into "walking her home." Except that "home" was a house used by the resistance, and once she had lured the soldier inside the door, he would be subdued, stripped of his uniform, papers, and sidearm, briefly questioned, and then killed and buried in the root cellar.

Later, she branched out into intelligence gathering, watching comings and goings at various German headquarters. A comrade in the resistance helped her get a job as a housekeeper for some German women who were camp followers; her job required her to stay overnight when the women threw a party for their soldiers, and she tells of one time searching through the briefcase of an officer after everyone was asleep, memorizing the contents of his papers and copying secret military deployment maps onto paper napkins, then rushing to the resistance's safehouse once she was off duty to transcribe everything she could remember for transmission to their Soviet handlers.

She also tells of her combat work; when the resistance launched a major operation to bomb a munitions train, she (dressed as a nurse) and Peter (who was a police officer) "just happened" to drive up to the scene shortly after the explosives went off. Peter claimed to have seen which way the terrorists had gone and led the unwounded train guards off into an ambush in the woods. Meanwhile, after tossing a grenade into a railcar that had failed to blow up properly, Judith found the place where the wounded train guards had been taken and helped to bandage them. Then, once Peter had returned from helping to kill the guards in the woods, they gunned down the wounded together before driving home.

As the "Germanization" of Poland ratcheted up, she and her surviving family saw that they could not continue to live as Jews. They acquired false papers, and she moved to Krakow while her mother and younger brother went to live on a farm. She got another housekeeping job, this time for a German officer, and continued to work for the resistance.

Eventually, disaster struck: her employer took a two week vacation, and while he was out of town, she borrowed his uniform and turned it over to her comrades for an operation. But her employer unexpectedly returned home early, found his uniform missing, and turned her over to the Gestapo.

Part 2:

At first, Judith played innocent: she'd been taking some time off herself, she had nothing to do with the missing uniform and no idea how it had come to be gone. However, once they had her in custody, the Gestapo ran a check on her identity papers and discovered that they were fraudulent. At which point they ceased to care about the missing uniform, and she ceased to have much chance of ever being let go. Admitting to being a Jew, or to being a member of the resistance, both meant a death sentence. But Judith knew that the war was not going well for Germany; if she could just find a way to stay alive long enough, she could outlive the Nazi regime.

So she decided to spin a series of elaborate lies that would take a long time to check. The first lie was that she was a Frenchwoman in her mid-20's, from Dunkirk (a town Judith knew had been heavily damaged), who had been traveling all over Eastern Europe looking for her lost husband.

After a few weeks of checking, her captors found that the address she had given in Dunkirk was false, and so she turned to the second lie: that she was a Soviet spy who had parachuted into Poland to liaise with the resistance and gather intelligence. This lie was much pretty much impossible to check, and she continued to be held in prison for over a year, while a series of Gestapo and SS interrogators alternately tried and failed to crack her story, and tried and failed to get her to provide them with useful intelligence on the resistance or on the Soviet spy network.

Judith doesn't talk about it directly, but I suspect that her ability to prolong the investigation of her case so much depended in large part on her being young and pretty, on the one hand, and on the other hand, being totally unafraid of telling her captors the truth about the contempt and hatred she felt towards them, their ideology, and their leader. Reading between the lines, I think in sexual terms her interrogators found her fascinating, mysterious, and challenging. At the same time, if they chose to believe her story, as most of them did, then if only they could get her to cooperate, they would have scored a massive, career-making intelligence coup. They liked her too much to severely maltreat her (she mentions only one episode of serious torture, and that was by an outsider who heard about her case through the grapevine, not by any of the SS or Gestapo officers officially in charge of her case), or to send her off to a concentration camp.

Part 3:

Eventually, though, they must have given up on their fantasies of promotion, and/or of conquering her, because she and several other women from the prison were sent off to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In case it isn't clear by now that Judith was a very tough woman, she tells of surviving not just typhus, but also a bout of pneumonia with pleurisy in her time at Auschwitz. Her survival was in large part thanks to people who knew of her outspoken anti-Nazi stance and befriended her because of it. When she had pneumonia, they even managed to wrangle some drugs for her.

Eventually, she managed to get selected as one of a group of women sent away from Auschwitz to work in a munitions factory. There, her language skills got her assigned to working as a clerk, instead of in the factory proper. She talks about her fellow inmates' sabotage of bullets, and then, when that was discovered and they were put to work on rockets instead, their deliberate mislabeling of the different types of rockets. She mentions her unsuccessful attempt to kill Sonia, the factory's cruel and vindictive lageralteste ("senior camp inmate", ie, boss prisoner) by putting rat poison in her tea, and her discovery that the German officer in charge, a member of the nobility, was semiliterate, and needed her to write all his reports for him.

At this point, it was early 1945, and the war was in its last stages. The munitions factory had to be evacuated before the advancing Soviet army, and the women prisoners found themselves marching along a road, heading they knew not where. Judith and several other prisoners, after getting their guard to agree to fire over their heads if they started running, made a break for it one night. After a few days of walking east, she met with the advancing Soviet army.

Part 4:

After a brief stay in jail while her identity was checked, Judith was released and allowed to join the Soviet army as machine gunner for a tank crew. She was in Vienna when the war ended, and became part of the occupying force there, helping to find and arrest war criminals. She discovered that she was the only member of her family to survive - her mother and brother's cover identity on the farm had not stood up and they had been shot. Her almost-boyfriend in the resistance, Peter, was also dead.

With the war over, she thought about her future, and made inquiries about enrolling in a training program for the Soviet diplomatic corps. She also heard from her uncle, in Palestine, who offered to sponsor her immigration there (British restrictions meant that only relatives of Jews already resident in Palestine were being allowed in). The Soviet distrust and suspicion of anyone who had been a prisoner of the Nazis, and the fact that as a Jew she would not be allowed to become a diplomat, decided her, and once she was demobilized from the army, she made her way to the West (the Iron Curtain not yet having been established) and eventually to Palestine. Within a few weeks of arriving in Palestine, she had joined the Negev (one of the guerrilla organizations that fought against the British colonial government).

Once Israel became a state, she joined the Israeli army. At this point, the last 60 pages of the book, I found myself reading with a deeply divided mind, because I know that the war against the Arabs that she talks about was a war of conquest and an exercise in ethnic cleansing. Her racism, her inability to see how she was applying a double standard, and so forth were quite frustrating.

On the other hand, it was very interesting to read about her career in the Israeli army, how she constantly had to push back against attempts to assign her to gender-appropriate non-combat roles. Because her brother had been in the artillery, she demanded admission to artillery training, becoming the first woman to do so. Then, when she passed the course successfully and joined an artillery unit, they assigned her to administrative duties, and so she enrolled in intelligence training, because that would ensure that she would be assigned to combat duties.

The final chapters deals with her life after the army, on the kibbutz, where she met her future husband. All in all, it's a fascinating read, and very much recommended if you are interested in biographies of woman warriors or of Holocaust survivors.
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October 2017


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