Gusta Dawidson was born in 1917 in Cracow to an extremely religious family of Gur hasidim. She was a member of the B’nos Ya’akov youth movement of Agudat Israel. After graduating from the local school, she took supplementary courses at a school for foreign languages.
A member of the Akiva youth movement (a pioneer-oriented but Jewishly traditional group affiliated with the General Zionist Party) persuaded Gusta Dawidson to join and she became one of its active members, totally involved in educational work in the movement, first as a group leader and later as a member of the movement’s central committee in Poland. At the same time, she wrote for and edited the movement’s youth newspaper, Zeirim, and kept the movement’s records in Cracow. This proved an unexpected preparation for writing her own remarkable journal, later published as Justina’s Diary, which displays both her power of expression and her penetrating observation of people and situations.
When World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, three of the movement’s younger leaders—Aharon (“Dolek”) Liebeskind (1912–1942), Shimshon Draenger (1917–1943), and Dawidson—remained in the city. The older members managed to emigrate to Palestine before the war began. It seemed that the movement would recover under the leadership of the young people, but at the end of September 1939 Shimshon Draenger was arrested by the Gestapo for having been the editor of Divrei Akiva, the movement’s newspaper, which had given pride of place to articles by Irene Harand, an Austrian Catholic who befriended the movement and who fought the Nazis, founding an anti-Nazi organization called The Jewish Defense Movement. Gusta, who was by then engaged to Shimshon Draenger, asked to be permitted to go with him to the Troppau concentration camp near Opava in the Sudeten mountains.
At the beginning of 1940, an enormous bribe obtained their release, but they were placed under surveillance, obligated to report to the Gestapo three times a week and to sever all relations with their comrades and younger members of the movement. They nevertheless continued to meet in secret with the movement’s members in the home of one of them. Gusta and Shimshon married early in 1940.
Gusta Draenger loved Shimshon so much that she could not bear to part from him. On three occasions she gave herself up to the Gestapo, even though she was not wanted herself, when she found out they had arrested him. Despite the sharp contrasts in their personalities, there was a profound understanding between them, along with total devotion to the struggle against the Germans. With Gusta’s help, Shimshon forged identity documents for members of the movement, enabling them to move freely among the various ghettos. Sale of these papers to those who wished to leave the ghetto constituted a source of income for the underground.
Gusta Draenger searched for safe houses outside Cracow for this dangerous activity. In these apartments Shimshon forged the documents and printed pamphlets for distribution among members of the movement. Gusta even went on both personal and organizational missions for Shimshon. In his preface to Justina’s Diary, published in Polish in 1946, Josef Wulf recalled Shimshon Draenger as an “obstinate person who valued only a difficult life of principles and ideas. Such a man could like only an independent woman capable of making decisions who devoted herself to principles and to a spirit of sacrifice and fighting. As a result, her husband’s toughness frequently hurt her feelings.” Gusta hinted at this pain in her diary, but with understanding.
On January 18, 1943 her husband was arrested a second time when he arrived in Cracow after the Cyganeria operation (the underground’s attack on one of the exclusive cafés frequented by officers of the German army and Gestapo, which took place on December 22, 1942) to find out what had happened to his colleagues. Gusta Draenger set out to search for him, deciding to find out from the Gestapo whether he was in their hands. Discovering her relationship with him, they arrested her as well. While he was imprisoned in the notorious Montelupich prison, she was incarcerated in the Helzlaw women’s prison across the street.
Wulf recalled that Shimshon, his cellmate in prison, was taken to meet Gusta in the office of the prison’s Gestapo warden. The intention was that on seeing Draenger after she had been badly tortured, he would break down and reveal all he knew. But Gusta, as Shimshon told Wulf, proudly declared to the Germans: “Yes, it is true. I organized groups of Jewish fighters and I promise that if we are saved from you, we will do it again.” She hoped in this way to keep up her husband’s morale.
Like the men of the underground, Gusta Draenger remained in prison from January 18 until April 29, 1943, when she took part in the escape led by Shimshon and Avraham Leibovich (Laban) as they were to be taken to the “Hill of Death” at P?aszów. Among the women who participated in the escape attempt were Mire Gola and Genia Meltzer. Draenger and Meltzer were the only women who survived. Gusta Draenger made her way to Bochnia, near Cracow, where she found Shimshon. From there, they went to the bunker in the forest at Nowy Wisnicz (43 km ESE of Cracow), which their comrade Hillel Wodzislawski of Wisnicz had prepared in advance; there they continued their struggle under Shimshon Draenger’s leadership.
Here they held out, as is evidenced in an underground newspaper, He-Haluz ha-Lohem (The Fighting Pioneer), which Shimshon wrote and edited on a typewriter. At the height of battle, two hundred and fifty copies of each ten-page edition were printed every Friday. Until August 1943 they were distributed in the ghettos that still existed, Bochnia and Tarnow, and among refugees and Jewish fighters scattered throughout the forest. Gusta Draenger learned of a Jew with Hungarian citizenship who lived in Wieliczka and helped smuggle Jews across the Hungarian border with forged papers. Because the Polish fascists were closing in, Gusta and Shimshon decided to contact him and ask for his help in crossing the border. Draenger waited for a sign from her husband. They had agreed that she would join him, come what may. Shimshon Draenger arrived at the home of the Hungarian Jew, but was followed by the German commander, who entered after him, triumphantly shouting, “This time you will not escape!” Shimshon asked that his wife be brought and this was done. When the Germans arrived at her hideout with a letter from her husband, she immediately gave herself up. Presumably they were both immediately executed. Of them it may truly be said, “Neither in life nor in death were they separated.”
Gusta Draenger wrote her famous diary, known later as Justina’s Diary (Justina was her code-name in the underground) in the Helzlaw prison’s death cell, before her escape. Just as Shimshon Draenger brought high morale to his own cell, Death Cell No. 15, so Gusta Draenger, together with Mire Gola, did the same. One of her fellow prisoners testified later: “Her softness, femininity and gentleness of spirit won all the prisoners over,” including the Polish prisoners incarcerated with them on criminal charges.
Gusta Draenger strove to fulfill the movement’s mission: to tell subsequent generations about “the last and most daring rebellion of our lives,” as she wrote in the introduction to her diary, which was discovered later. Gusta Draenger never gave up. With fingers crushed by torture and in the horrible conditions of the prison, she still managed to write. Her diary is not the autobiographical story of one individual or group in prison, since this was not her intention. She described her goal in the introduction:
From within these prison walls, from which we shall certainly not emerge alive, we send you [their comrades in Palestine] this greeting, the last greetings of young fighters as we fall for our highest and most sacred goal. Our heart’s desire is that our memory be preserved for the future. We pray that these few memoirs, written on scattered pages, will give you a faithful picture of the last, most daring rebellion of our lives.
The diary is an account of the movement from the time the notion of struggle was mooted until the Cyganeria operation. However, this heroic section is not extant.
According to Pesia Warszawska, one of Gusta Draenger’s cellmates, she wrote “between interrogations, sometimes one might see her writing by moonlight, on toilet paper [supplied by members of the movement who worked as mechanics in the prison garage and made contact with them], her body bent over her work. Sometimes the women would sit and listen to parts of the diary as they were read aloud, dreaming that perhaps these pieces of paper would survive and tell the world about their struggles and their torment.” Occasionally, when Gusta Draenger’s hands were in so much pain from her tortures that she could not write, she would dictate her diary to her comrades. In order to keep her words from being heard outside, some of the young women would sing while others watched out for the guard. Draenger would revise her writing, “perhaps ten times,” according to Elsa, one of her cellmates who survived. The text was written in four copies simultaneously so that at least one of them might survive to be found by future generations. Today, only the fourth to the nineteenth chapters of the diary are extant, together with the first, which was found recently and appeared in Testimony (issue 1), published by the Ghetto Fighters’ House. The diary was written from February to the end of April 1943, near the time of the escape. It is not only a historical source, but also a first-rate literary work.
The Jewish mechanics learned about the diary from the women. Gusta’s request was that they do their utmost to find the diary in her cell, Number 15, after the liberation, but she did not reveal the diary’s precise whereabouts for fear that it would fall into the wrong hands.
When one of the Jewish slave laborers heard that a Polish builder had found some written pages under the floor of one of the cells, he asked the builder to give him the papers, which were incomplete. These papers were eventually given to the Jewish Historical Society of Cracow, which published the material as Justina’s Diary in Polish in 1946.
The manuscript itself was given to Dov Johanes, chairman of the Cracow Jewish Historical Society, who deposited it with the Ghetto Fighters’ House when he immigrated to Israel. Translated into Hebrew by Meir Zinger, a member of Akiva and A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.Kibbutz Bet Yehoshua, it was published by the Ghetto Fighters’ House in 1953 with notes by Nahman Blumental. A more revised and more complete edition, which contains the opening chapter of the Diary, is currently being prepared by the Ghetto Fighters House.
Dawidson, Gusta. Justina’s Diary (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1974.
Davidson Draenger, Gusta. Justyna’s Narrative. Translated by Roslyn and David Hirsch. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Meltzer-Schoenberg, Genia. Tenth Anniversary of the First Revolt (in memory of Tova Draenger [Justina]) (Hebrew). Ha-Boker 63 (1953).
Oral testimony (Hebrew) at the Avraham Harman Institute Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Elsa Lapa-Lustgarten 3 (188); Pesia Warszawska-Kallir 24 (188); Testimony of Genia Meltzer, 16 (188).
Peled (Margolin), Yael. Jewish Cracow 1939–1943: Resistance, Underground, Struggle (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1993.
Testimony, Issue number 1 (Hebrew). Ghetto Fighters’ House, June 1987.
Wulf, Jozef. The Organization of the Kopaliny Fighting Group and the Underground Operations (Polish). Introduction to Justina’s Diary. Cracow: 1946.
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How to cite this page
Peled, Yael Margolin. "Gusta Dawidson Draenger." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 15, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/draenger-gusta-dawidson>.