March is Women’s History Month. I’d like to spotlight three courageous women whose stories we share with students: Stefania Podgorska, Dora Rivkina and Edit Schechter. No matter how many times I read their stories, I am inspired by the actions they took to save people. What each of them did was against the law. Their stories make me think deeply about how to behave ethically when the law of the land is profoundly wrong.
Stefania Podgorska was a 16 year-old Catholic girl, living with and working for the Diamants, a Jewish family in a small town in Poland. In 1941, the Diamants and other Jewish families were forced to leave their homes and live in a Jewish ghetto. Stefania suddenly had no place to live. She found an apartment outside the ghetto where she cared for her six year old sister, often trading clothes for food. A year later, she heard that all the Jewish people who had been forced into the ghetto were going to be rounded up and sent further away. She helped people escape and hide. Then she moved into a cottage so she would have space to hide more people. Eventually, 13 Jewish people were living in a secret space in Stefania’s attic. All of them survived the war.
Dora Rivkina grew up in Minsk, the capital city of Belorussia. She was an excellent swimmer and dancer. When the Germans invaded Minsk in 1941, Dora was 17. Her family was forced into the ghetto. Two years later, when everyone in the ghetto was forced out, Dora, then 19, escaped and joined a group of partisans—people who were living in hiding and trying to fight against the Germans. The partisans lived day-to-day trying to rescue Jews and avoid detection. One day Dora’s group was captured by German soldiers. The soldiers demanded to know who was Jewish. The group answered with silence. Then a guard said he would shoot them all if they didn’t speak. One woman pointed at Dora. The Germans bound her hands, tied a rock around her neck, threw her in a river and shot the 19 year old girl. Dora’s sister, Berta, was the only person in the family to survive. Read more about the partisans.
Edit Schechter was a member of a resistance movement in Hungary. The group was composed of young Zionists— European Jews who wanted to re-establish a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine. They were doing all they could to resist the German oppression of Jews. Activists like Edit created fake documents such as birth certificates and identity cards to give non-Jewish identities to people who would otherwise be rounded up and killed simply for being Jewish. They warned people when they were in danger of being deported and created false papers that could be used for safe travel. They smuggled young people across the border into Romania and Slovakia. They set up more than 50 safe homes for children.
The quiet courage of these women and others like them, saved many lives. Their legacies live on as they inspire us to care for others and to stand up against injustice.