Born in Poland in 1920, Vitka Kempner spent her childhood and teen years in a society that was deadset on criminalizing and eventually destroying her people. As a Jew, Vitka watched the local regulations clamp down on Jewish people - first banning them from government jobs, then work as a doctor or lawyer. When she was nineteen years old, Germany invaded Poland (1939). The SS herded the Jews in town into a church. With the blessing of her parents, Vitka escaped through a bathroom window; she planned to meet up with them later. She never saw her parents again.
Vitka couldn't have possibly predicted the trauma of the next few years, yet smartly fled to a free city in Lithuania (Vilnius). She joined many refugees who were essentially on a waiting list, hoping that the British would allow more Jewish refugees to escape mainland Europe for the U.K. But only eight months after she arrived in Vilnius, the German military marched into town and seized control. Vilnius was no longer a free city.
After the German army once again rounded the local Jewish people into a ghetto. Sleeping in a crowded apartment, Vitka shared a bed with another woman - Ruzka Korczak. The two became best friends and started plotting their plans to resist.
Along the way, they were connected to Abba Kovner, the leader of the Jewish resistance in Vilnius. Luckily, Vitka had a perfect Polish accent with no hint of Yiddish, so she could pass as a Gentile. She soon became the group's spy - secreting goods in and out of Vilnius.
One day, a girl who had been taken to a "work camp" wandered back into town from the nearby forest. She told the Jewish community that she had survived being shot and falling into a mass grave. The ghetto leader, Jacob Gens, refused to believe her. Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka trusted that she told the truth. The seeds of internal division were planted and would bear horrifying fruit. As the resistance grew bolder and gained numbers, Gens still urged the Jewish community to be "model minorities" - that earning favor from the German military is how the Jewish people would survive the war.
Six months after the concentration camp survivor stumbled into town, Vitka led a group of resistance fighters miles into the forest to a bridge that carried railroad tracks. Quietly, they arranged explosive charges on the bridge, timing their work so they would ignite their bombs when a German train passed over the bridge. The resistance group was successful: hundreds of German soldiers died, the bridge collapsed, and the German military supply chain was disrupted.
Eventually, the German military lost their fight to hold the Eastern front. In fury, the SS began to root out resistance fighters in Vilnius. Jacob Gens betrayed one of the resistance leaders to the SS, and unleashed fury amongst the Jewish community. Again, Vitka's surreptitious nature served her well; she hid the resistance fighter from the SS. Finally, exhausted from internal strife, the resistance agreed to turn over their fellow fighter.
Two weeks later, the SS ambushed a resistance meeting point, inciting an all-out brawl for survival. Vitka serenely walked away from the tussle - not because she wanted to abandon her people, but because she needed to spread the alarm to the rest of the force.
The rag-tag group holed up in a nearby building, armed and replete with supplies. The German military bombed the neighboring building. Bullets flew between the German forces and the resistance, and Vitka dragged Ruzka to the building's bunker. A German soldier ran into the building with a bomb, but Vitka and Ruzka survived the attack. As the war grinded to a halt, a small faction of resistance fighters hid deep in the forest. The German military liquidated all the Jews remaining in the ghetto (approximately 10,000) to concentration camps. Eventually, D-Day came. The resistance returned to Vilnius to find Soviet secret agents were seeking out and destroying dissidents. Their days were numbered, so they again planned to flee. Ruzka went ahead, to share their story and gain allegiance from those who could help them escape. Back in Vilnius, Abba and Vitka began a relationship marked by darkness, anger, and revenge. Though Europe was no longer at war, Vitka and Abba felt they could not move forward until justice had been served. Together, they formed a small band of 50 men and women, Nakam (Hebrew for Revenge).
Nakam designed a plan to poison the waterworks of the cities most important to the Nazis, indiscriminately killing six million Germans. The number felt significant. Soon, Abba was caught trying to return to Vilnius with poision. He sent word to Vitka - it was time for Nakam's Plan B.
Under cover of night, a small group from Nakam invaded a bakery. They coated thousands of loaves of bread with arsenic until a dropped pan alerted a nearby guard. Many German POWs fell ill - reportedly, none died. Abba finally gave up the fight. He called the group to British Palestine (now Israel) and begged them to move on with their lives.
Vitka and Abba chose to move past their troubled past with intentionality. They married and bore two children - yes, this is why Vitka is one of the most Badass Mothers Of History. Ruzka and her husband lived only forty yards away. The friends spent forty years as co-conspirators, survivors, and eventually, neighbors. Abba died in 1987, Ruzka in 1988. Vitka lived until 2012, leading a quiet life as a clinical psychologist. Abba was a revered poet, and Ruzka is regarded as a respected historian.
Sometimes, Vitka recalls her past actions with regret - but more often, she chooses not to relive them at all. Instead of considering herself a survivor, she states that she is "strong" - I can imagine many of the badass mothers of history feeling the same.
“I lived life fully, actively, without dragging grievances and offenses behind me.”
Have you ever heard of Vitka's story before? Why do you think she's not more well-known? Send me your favorite Badass Mothers Of History on Twitter @pi3sugarpi3 with #BadassMothers.