Eta Chajit Wrobel
"The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive."
Eta Wrobel portrait, 1945.
Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation
When the train pulled to a stop, Eta Chajit watched as Gestapo agents filled the station. Fear drenched her as they surrounded the train. Though she wore a crucifix around her neck, Eta was Jewish. In her suitcase, she carried two guns wrapped in women’s clothing, weapons she was secreting to arm other people like herself, to the Polish resistance fighting the Nazi and Soviet occupation. She didn’t know how she’d make it out of the station alive.
Eta Chajit was born in Luków, Poland on Dec. 28, 1918, with a defiant spirit. “I was born a fighter,” she said. Profs. Laura Morowitz and Lori Weintrob wrote for Wagner College Holocaust Center, “Her father or Tateh (yiddish for “daddy”), Pinchas Ben Chaim Chajit, was a businessman and later a partisan. He and her mother, Shaindel Goldberg, instilled in her a spirit of courage and a desire to help other people.”
“I was the girl who played soccer with the boys,” Eta recalled in an interview with the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. “I was the girl who rode a bicycle on the street in shorts, which other Jewish girls didn't do that. I had no objections from my parents. We had a very good home.” Eta was one of 10 children in the Chajit home.
Eta was just 20 years old when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Within days, England and France honored agreements with Poland and declared war on Germany, but much of the Polish defenses were beaten before help could arrive. By October 6, Germany and the Soviet Union had full control of the country and began dividing regions between themselves.
Polish Jews like Eta were forced from their homes and into ghettos. Eta was one of the few surviving Chajit children after this first assault. The Gestapo shot one of her older sisters, who was pregnant when she died. Eta’s mother and younger siblings were killed in the gas chambers at Treblinka.
Now living in the ghetto, Eta and her father quickly became part of the partisan resistance to the occupation. Her father joined the Polish underground and Eta, put to work as an employment agency clerk, began forging identity papers for Jews. “I worked in their Jewish department,” she said. “My father told me then that ‘you are going in, so forget what I told you. Because you have to steal, lie, and cheat. You're going in there for a purpose, to find out when they're planning to come and get people off and what they're doing and to help others. Do everything you can to help,’ and that's what I did.”
Eta was caught and arrested for these forgeries. She spent several months in prison, suffering torture and interrogation, until her father and partisans outside the prison could orchestrate an escape. After, Eta soon began transporting guns from Lodz to her hometown of Luków. “He [her contact in Lodz] have me [take] two guns wrapped in women’s clothing and put them in my handbag. We decided it would be best for me to make several trips to pick up the rest ... taking only two guns at a time,” Eta said. On the first of these trips, Gestapo agents surrounded the train, prepared to search everyone aboard.
“I was terrified. I had no papers and if they searched my bag, I would have been shot on the spot,” Eta wrote in her autobiography, My Life My Way: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Jewish Partisan in WWII Poland. She tried to stay outwardly calm and not draw attention to herself, but a nun sitting across the aisle noticed her distress. She “looked into my eyes. I still remember how beautiful her young face was underneath the cowl of her habit. Suddenly, she got up and ordered me to take her suitcase. I obeyed without saying a word. She pushed her way past the Germans as I followed behind her like a maidservant. The Gestapo agents had no time to react to her leaving the train so quickly and never asked her or me for our papers—after all, she was obviously not Jewish, and I was wearing a crucifix.
“I walked with her for at least two blocks before she stopped, turned, and looked straight at me,” Eta said. “‘What are you up to?’ she asked. ‘I can see death in your eyes.’ She also saw the cross I was wearing, blessed me, and sent me on my way. She knew exactly what I was up to, and must have guessed I was a Jew, but yet didn’t give me up. That woman, whoever she was, saved my life.” After this, Eta made another two trips with guns from Lodz to Luków.
“We fought to survive," Eta said.
"We fought so that some of us
would get out of there and make
new families, to spit in
the Nazi’s eyes.
Our babies are our revenge.”
In October 1942, the “liquidation” of the Luków ghetto began. Eta and other Jewish families had lived for nearly two years crammed into too-small spaces and squalid conditions. Now, Gestapo agents arrived to burn these meagre homes to the ground with the occupants inside. In the chaos, Eta and her father fled into the woods. Her few remaining siblings were killed or taken to Treblinka.
Life in the wilderness was rough and dangerous. Eta became one of the organizers of a unit of nearly 80 people, all Polish partisans. “Only seven of them were women,” Profs. Laura Morowitz and Lori Weintrob wrote. “Refusing to cook or clean, Eta led missions. She mapped out strategies for planting mines to cut off supply routes and block German movement. She gathered information, including on German troop movements, while pretending to be a young Christian girl, Elizabeth.”
The community slept tight together in uncomfortable quarters, stole supplies to survive, and had next to nothing for medical care. “If somebody got sick, nothing happened,” Eta told the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. Those who fell sick—or who were injured—had to recover with minimal care. Eta experienced this for herself when she was shot during a mission. “I had a bullet in my leg,” she said. “I had a knife that the doctor gave me, and he told me I should put, you know, 100 percent Spirytus [Polish liquor] over it, and just look for it and take it out. And that's what I did. … Somebody was standing there, and pouring the Spirytus, and I took it out. It hurt, but what can you do? I did it to other people, too. It hurt, so what?”
On a mission with the military leader of the encampment, Yidl, Eta investigated the actions of the AK, the Polish Home Army. “Antisemitic fascist Polish nationalists,” Eta noted. Indeed, the invasion did not bring antisemitism to Poland; that sentiment had been brewing for decades. Historian Timothy Snyder argued that, prior to World War II, the leaders of Poland “wanted to be rid of most Polish Jews... [but] in simple logistical terms the idea... seemed to make no sense. How could Poland arrange a deportation of millions of Jews while the country was mobilized for war? Should the tens of thousands of Jewish officers and soldiers be pulled from the ranks of the Polish army?”
Once the fight against the invasion was lost, Polish Jews found themselves facing a homegrown enemy as well as a foreign one. During their mission, Eta and Yidl discovered evidence of an AK “Jew Hunt,” including the shallow grave of a Jewish woman and her two children. “They’d killed a Jewish mother and her two babies,” Eta wrote in her autobiography. She and Yidl evacuated the people living in a nearby town and then burned it to the ground in retaliation. “Saving Jewish lives meant punishing Jew-hating murderers; taking revenge on their tormentors was the highest level of resistance.”
In 1944, the German and Soviet soldiers left Poland, and Eta and other survivors emerged from hiding. Familiar faces in Luków knew Eta and urged her to become mayor.
It was during this time that Mayor Eta Chajit met Henry Heniek Wrobel. The two had grown up in the same town, though Henry lived a more rural life than Eta before the war. Online sources said they married Dec. 20, 1944, but their daughter Anna Wrobel placed their wedding in Spring 1945. (Anna also gave Eta’s birth year as 1916.) In a poetry reading for the Alabama Holocaust Education Center, Anna recounted the ways that her parents, though of different social classes, shared traits that aided their survival: they were both young, athletic, and spoke Polish without any obvious Yiddish influence.
Soon after marriage, the couple moved to the United States to escape the expanding Communist organizations in Poland. Together, they had four children: Hal, Shain, Anna, and Liza. Over the years, the family moved about the boroughs—first Brooklyn, then work in Staten Island, then a move to the Bronx, then to Queens. Eta participated in fundraisers for Jewish charities and was an active member of the National Council of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.
“We had ten children in our family, and I'm the only survivor. The only one,” Eta said in her interview with the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation in 2001. “I have no family whatsoever in my background, so... when we get together in the family there is that celebration, or a wedding or bar mitzvah or whatever there is, I have nobody. Everybody who comes, nieces, nephews, are all from my husband's side. That's the only thing I envy in my life—otherwise, I'm free.”
Eta was 90 when she wrote her autobiography, My Life My Way: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Jewish Partisan in WWII Poland. Anna intimated that she and her siblings were eager editors, helping their mother tell her story.
“We fought to survive," Eta said. "We fought so that some of us would get out of there and make new families, to spit in the Nazi’s eyes. Our babies are our revenge.” When she died on May 26, 2008, Eta had 11 grandchildren. In a comment on Eta’s Jewish Women’s Archive obituary, daughter Anna wrote, “How we miss this mountain of a woman that her ascendant children and theirs are still climbing.”
Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy: The Testimony of Survivors and Rescuers by Mark Paul
Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation: Eta Wrobel
Wagner College Holocaust Center: Heroine Partisan Eta Wrobel
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Eta Wrobel, Treblinka
Jewish Women’s Archive: Eta Wrobel
Wikipedia: Invasion of Poland, Home Army, Racism in Poland
The Hustle: This legendary Polish liquor will leave germs (and you) woozy
Alabama Holocaust Education Center: 2021, Anna Wrobel