Zelda Nisanilevich Treger
1920 – 1987
Zelda Treger was born in Vilna on June 16, 1920 to Genia Treger, a dentist, and her husband Zacharia, a businessman. When Treger was twelve years old, her father moved to Warsaw due to financial failure and her connection with him was severed. When she was fourteen years old her mother died and she moved to a relative’s home in Vilna, while her older sister Nehama (Mandelbaum) emigrated to Palestine in 1935.
From childhood Treger was a member of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir. In Vilna she studied to become a kindergarten teacher at the Tarbut seminar, and went to the Czestochowa hakhsharah to prepare for immigration to Palestine.
With the outbreak of war Treger returned to Vilna and joined the Halutz group. In June 1940 Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union and the regime outlawed the activities of Jewish organizations and political parties. The Zionist groups went underground and Treger started studying at the People’s University.
On June 22, 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Vilna was bombarded. That same morning a weak and exhausted Treger was released from the hospital after a prolonged case of typhus. To her amazement she found that most of her colleagues from the program had traveled to the east. In the diary which she began writing that same day she described her feelings of terrible loneliness.
After the Germans occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, anti-Jewish decrees were rapidly enacted: the wearing of the yellow badge, restrictions on movement and the seizing of Jews for forced labor. On September 6, 1941 the Jews of Vilna were forced to move into the two ghettos established in the city. When the selections began Treger decided to leave the ghetto. Blonde and blue-eyed, she succeeded in finding a job working for a farmer. While performing hard work, she developed a severe infection in her finger and the farmer had to take her to a clinic. Since she had no papers, he registered her as a member of his family and left immediately. Thus Treger acquired a completely Christian name, Sofia Warsacka, a tremendous benefit for a Jewish girl.
The treatment for her finger took a long time and she remained alone in the city, hungry, cold and with no place to go. Lacking an alternative, she appealed to the farmer’s brother, who allowed her to remain in his home until she was suspected of being Jewish. She found refuge with a Christian woman in exchange for work until fate once again intervened and, hospitalized for severe pain and fever, a cyst was discovered on her kidney. When the treatment proved unsuccessful and the pain and fever continued, the doctor decided that the infected kidney must be removed. With the last of her strength, Treger refused. Feverish, weak and homeless, she decided to return to the ghetto. She lay in wait for a group of people returning from forced labor and with the help of an acquaintance whom she recognized succeeded in returning to the ghetto with them. There she found several remaining colleagues from the movement, who welcomed her joyfully and were amazed at her ability to survive alone on the Aryan side for seven whole months. Nevertheless, they were unsure of her loyalty, but once they saw that this was total they admitted her into the Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisan Organization, FPO), an underground group in the ghetto which the members of the youth movement had organized. Miraculously, Treger recovered.
When Jacob Gens (1905–1943), the commander of the Jewish police, demanded the surrender of FPO leader Yizhak Wittenberg (1907–1943), an attempt was made to prevent it. Treger and several of her comrades were seized as hostages. She was beaten and released only when Wittenberg turned himself in and committed suicide. The Jews of the ghetto did nothing to prevent his surrender and even opposed the attempts to rescue him. The underground members realized that the Jews of the ghetto would not join the uprising they were planning as they had hoped. They therefore decided to move groups to the forest. The first group was discovered and about half its members killed. This failure showed that they had to prepare their departure, escape routes and the way to the forest properly.
The aktions continued and the ghetto faced liquidation. Since the members of the underground were stationed in various locations, couriers brought them orders and instructions. Treger served as a company courier in the FPO. On September 1, 1943, the great aktion—the expulsion of those who remained in the ghetto to Estonia, supposedly to work camps—began. The members were immediately mobilized under the code signal “Lisa is calling” (referring to Lisa Magun, a member of the underground who was captured and murdered on February 17, 1943 at the Ponary [Ponar] mass extermination site. The companies took positions and weapons were prepared for resistance. Surrounded by members of the murderous Latvian volunteer collaborators and by Gestapo, Treger’s group realized they would not be able to resist them. Humiliated, Treger escaped to a gathering point of members of the organization, hoping that there the fighters would resist until death. Miraculously, for some reason the fight bypassed them. Four days of aktion and the uprising that never happened made it clearer than ever that they must make their way to the forest. It was decided to take one hundred fifty people out. Treger, with her “good appearance” and her daring, was sent to the city and outside it to find routes. The goal of the escape routes to the Naroch forest lay about two hundred kilometers from Vilna. When she returned, she was given the task of smuggling groups from the ghetto out of the city, taking them along the railroad tracks that were guarded by the Germans, to meet with a guide who would take them further. She succeeded in taking out three groups. The weapons were concealed in a coffin and taken to the cemetery, where the fighters collected them. Those who went with Treger were impressed by her calm demeanor, her self-control, courageous spirit and expertise, which emerged to the full at difficult moments, when they thought they had been discovered.
On September 23, 1943, the ghetto was surrounded and the final liquidation begun. Seventy to ninety members of the FPO remained in the ghetto and it was decided to use the narrow sewer tunnels in order to get them out. Treger and Vitka Kempner were sent to the city via an escape hatch in order to find the sewer’s exit point and a hiding place in the city until departure for the forest. The intention was not to go far but to reach the Rudninkai forest, approximately fifty kilometers from the city, where a small Russian partisan unit was encamped. Contact with the city was made through Sonia Madjeskar, a communist and member of the FPO, who served in high-ranking positions in the city’s underground. Treger, Kempner and Madjeskar waited at the opening of the sewers for the escapees to emerge and smuggled them to the Kailis labor camp and the “Pushkin Palace.” Treger and Kempner obtained food and Treger also went out to look for stragglers and bring them to safety. In the evening she accompanied them to the Rudninkai Forest (Lithuania; also known as Rudniki, 29 km ssw of Vilnius).
In the forest, Treger belonged to the Nekamah (Vengeance) battalion, the Jewish unit under the command of Abba Kovner (1918–1987). As a courier, she was continuously sent to the city to obtain weapons, medicines, information on the army’s movements and even on rescue missions from the labor camp.
Treger went to and fro eighteen times, taking pathless routes through swamps and lakes in order to avoid the German and Latvian guards and groups of the Polish AK (Armie Krajowa) underground militia. She usually traveled alone, risking death at each step. She learned to use her sharp senses to become familiar with her environment, employing deception and nerve or a country woman’s innocence. Several times she was caught, but escaped. When she was captured by the Gestapo she claimed to be a devout Christian peasant on her way to visit her sick grandmother. When the Latvian police tracked her down, she pretended to be a stammering, mentally defective creature. Many times she carried weapons, even smuggling a machine gun to the forest, carrying a heavy package in the city like a simple peasant. She was in contact with the H.K.P. and Kailis labor camps where Jews were held in various workshops and tried, sometimes successfully, to transfer Jews to the forest. The camp physician, Dr. Moshe Feigenberg, gave her lifesaving medicines which she smuggled to the forest. Once she was even captured in her disguise as a Christian woman for forced labor in Germany but made a daring escape, seizing her papers from the soldier and disappearing into the crowd. Many Latvian farmers who never suspected she was Jewish allowed her to ride in their wagons and avoid checkpoints. Several times she was asked to prove that she was not a member of the “Red” partisans.
When the advance of the Red Army intensified German activity against the partisans, Treger was sent to Sonia Madjeskar in the city to obtain intelligence on the Germans’ actions. She also had to smuggle the city’s underground leadership to the forest since the Gestapo had tracked them down. Treger reached the appointed meeting place with Madjeskar, but when she noticed a strange man there and realized that she might fall into a trap, she passed by him slowly and at a leisurely pace. Afterwards she learned that Sonia had been caught by the Gestapo, tortured and murdered.
Together with her fellow partisans, Treger participated in the liberation of Vilna. She was given a dangerous mission: to transfer to the city all the wounded and disabled partisans who had been left behind, for fear that they might be captured by the “White” Poles.
After the liberation Abba Kovner sent Treger to search for surviving members of the movement and organize them for immigration to Palestine. On her way to Bialystok she met Haska Bielcka, who told her Haika Grosman was in the city. She told everyone she met about the nature of her mission.
When her comrades left Vilna, Treger was sent to Lvov in order to bring people from Vilna, Lithuania, to Romania via Chernovtsy by smuggling them from areas in the Soviet Union. She did this not only as an emissary of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir but also as the guide of every group that formed to leave the Soviet Union. In Lvov she learned she was known to the NKVD and that people in Chernovtsy knew details of the smuggling route. With no alternative, she used forged papers to bring the group of Lithuanian refugees to Lublin as Polish subjects.
When Treger reached Lublin, Kovner recruited her for his Vengeance movement. Together with her husband Sanka (Nathaniel Nisanilevich, a partisan in the Nekamah group), she was sent to Italy, where their task was to transfer funds to the revenge units, guard the revenge activists and be responsible for getting them to safety after operations. From there they went to Prague, where in April 1946 Treger received a revenge group after a mission. She helped smuggle groups from Europe to Palestine via the Berihah escape routes.
When Treger arrived in Palestine on the SS Wedgewood on June 15, 1946, she was taken to Atlit but released immediately. She and Sanka chose not to join the group of partisans who established Kibbutz Ein Ha-Horesh. They settled in Netanyah and later moved to Tel Aviv, where she helped her husband, worked as a kindergarten teacher and they raised their children, Gilad (b. 1948) and Dorit (b. 1958), and established a meeting place for their many friends. Zelda Treger Nisanilevich died on March 17, 1987.
Korczak, Roszka, Yehuda Tuvin and Yosef Raab, eds. Zelda the Partisan. Tel Aviv: 1989.