How a Holocaust heroine is finally written into the annals of history
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How a Holocaust heroine is finally written into the annals of history

In bringing to light overlooked stories such as that of Haviva Reick, New York's Remember the Women Institute aims to rectify absence of women in recorded narrative

Haviva Reick (courtesy Return to the Burning House)
Haviva Reick (courtesy Return to the Burning House)

NEW YORK – The parachutist stood at the door of an American supply plane, wavy hair tucked underneath her helmet. Haviva Reick prepared herself to jump behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe to rescue Allied pilots taken prisoner of war and organize the 1944 Slovak uprising, an armed insurrection against the Nazis by resistance fighters.

Without hesitation or reservation she stepped off. The jump would be her last.

Born in 1914 as Marta Reick in the small village Nadabula in Slovakia, she joined the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. She loved zipping around the village on a motorcycle, an act that defied societal expectations for women in the 1920s and 1930s. Resistance was in her nature.

Reick left Slovakia in 1938 and founded a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in British Mandate Palestine. In early 1944 the British military recruited Reick from the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah, and sent her back to Slovakia where she served in British Intelligence and organized the remnants of a Jewish population living in Nazi occupied territory.

Together with three parachutists, Reick set up a camp in the Slovak mountains.
The Nazis caught Reick and her comrades in November 1944. She was shot in the neck on the edge of a mass grave wearing a British uniform and dog tags. At war’s end her body was transferred to Prague. Today she is buried in Mount Herzl.

Although a heroine of the Holocaust, Reick’s story is not well known

Although a heroine of the Holocaust, Reick’s story is not well known. Granted, in Israel there are streets named for her, but in America, “nobody to speak of knows about her,” said Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director of the New York-based Remember the Women Institute.

That few know Reick’s story speaks to a greater issue: the absence of women in history, Saidel said.

Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director of the New York-based Remember the Women Institute (courtesy)
Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director of the New York-based Remember the Women Institute (courtesy)

“Women have been left out of history since the beginning of history. In general women’s experience as women in the Holocaust and World War II have been overlooked in the historical narrative,” Saidel said.

“As far as analytical books and films go, there just isn’t a lot of information. Their experiences were different then men’s. That’s not to say they were worse, they were just different. From pregnancy and childbirth, to the way women experienced slave labor or were sexually abused in the camps; it’s all different,” said Saidel.

Enter the Remember the Women Institute. The non-profit encourages research and cultural activities that contribute to including women in history.

Last week’s New York premiere of “Return to a Burning House,” a Slovakian documentary with English subtitles about Reick, is one way Remember the Women hopes to change the narrative. The institute co-sponsored the screening at the Center for Jewish History together with Leo Baeck Institute and the Consulate General of Slovakia in New York.

‘Haviva Reick was a ‘common’ woman who recognized evil, understood what should be done and — what is most important — she also did it’

“Haviva Reick was a ‘common’ woman who recognized evil, understood what should be done and — what is most important — she also did it,” said the documentary’s producer,Mirka Molnár Lachka.

Lachka said this type of engagement and activism is still important today.

“We in Slovakia, in Europe, forgot about her but she deserves to be remembered. Our film brings Haviva back to our memory,” said Lachka.

The film draws from interviews and unpublished materials. It takes viewers through Reick’s life in Slovakia, London and Israel. It also uses Tehila and Zeev Ofer’s 2014 book “Haviva Reick: A Kibbutz Pioneer’s Mission and Fall behind Nazi Lines.” The pair served with the Palmach and Tehila appears in the film. Originally published in Hebrew, an English version is now available.

Remember the Women Institute hopes films such as “Return to a Burning House” will help restore Reick to collective memory. One of the institute’s mains goals is to illuminate overlooked stories of women in the Holocaust.

Haviva Reick at a WWII airfield. (courtesy Return to the Burning House)
Haviva Reick at a WWII airfield. (courtesy Return to the Burning House)

Both Holocaust and womens’ studies started in the 1960s, but it’s only in the past several years that the two have come together. At the same time, the narrative of Jews as purely victims of the Holocaust has shifted to include more in-depth look at resistance.

‘The story of Haviva Reick really brings together those two strands of Holocaust history – Jewish resistance and gender dynamics’

“The story of Haviva Reick really brings together those two strands of Holocaust history – Jewish resistance and gender dynamics — really well,” said Thomas Ort, assistant history professor at Queens College.

Saidel drew inspiration for Remember the Women from the lives of her grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and from a 1980 visit to Ravensbrück concentration camp.

“There was simply no indication that Jewish women were there,” Saidel said. She was working on her doctorate at SUNY at the time but started to investigate the issue as a side project. What she found was not only were women missing from the story of Ravensbrück, but also that women were missing from much of the history of the Holocaust.

Part of the reason for the historical gap is that many of these topics were, and remain, highly controversial, Ort said. Talking about pregnancy in the camps, prostitution in the camps, abortions and sexual abuse are uncomfortable subjects about an already painful topic.

Ravensbruck concentration camp, 1939. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-0417-15 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Ravensbruck concentration camp, 1939. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-0417-15 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)
“What it meant to be a woman in the camp is very different than what it meant to be a man,” Ort said. “People did what we might call morally reprehensible things in the name of survival. But I think we have to accept that people had to make absolutely horrible decisions to survive.

One recent Remember the Women project dealt with the identification of Holocaust survivors and witnesses of sexual violence. Together with Sonja Hedgepeth, Saidel edited “Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust.”

“It was pioneer research. The topic has been a taboo for many years and it was very controversial,” Nava Semel, an award-winning Israeli author and playwright, said in a phone call from Jerusalem. “The survivors did not dare to speak about it, they felt shame and wanted to protect their families from the past. Only in old age could they come forward.”

Author and journalist Nava Semel works with Remember the Women Institute. (Nitzan Lote)
Author and journalist Nava Semel works with Remember the Women Institute. (Nitzan Lote)

In 1985 Semel published the novel “A Hat of Glass, ” based on the testimony of her mother, Margalit Artzli, concentration camp survivor. The novel is about a lesbian Kapo because she had been a Fronthure, a prostitute for Nazi troops at the front, was able to secure medicine and other life saving measures for the prisoners.

Semel’s novel “And the Rat Laughed” delves into the topic of how Holocaust survivors hidden as children were sexually abused.

“We’ve come a long way in understanding men and women had different roles and survived in different ways,” said Dr. Eva Fogelman, an author familiar with Reick’s story.

‘Special attention must be paid to what I call the shadowy corners of the Holocaust’

It’s time for these stories, whether they are acts of resistance and defiance as overt as Reick’s or less known, like the Kapo in Semel’s novel, to be more widely known, Fogelman said.

Because the numbers of survivors are rapidly declining, the opportunities to give and share first-hand testimony are too dwindling. This gives a sense of urgency to the work of Remember the Women, Semel said.

“Special attention must be paid to what I call the shadowy corners of the Holocaust, it must be part of the discourse now,” Semel said. “The institute is fighting to give voice to those who are mute or were silent. The institute gives them a feeling before they leave this world that they are not alone in the world, that someone is out there for them.”

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