Bronka Klibanski stood on platform waiting for the train to take her into the ghetto. She knew the German SS officer had spotted her and the suitcase she was carrying. She also knew it was too late to turn away.

She approached him and admitted she was smuggling butter and other food into the ghetto. Bronka was actually smuggling machine gun parts, but the officer didn’t search the suitcase or she would have been immediately arrested.

This is one story of the missions the female couriers in the Jewish resistance undertook on a daily basis.

Pacific Lutheran University hosted the ninth annual Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education Oct. 17-19. During the events students, faculty and community members alike listened to Holocaust scholars, students and survivors presented on the different roles women had during the Holocaust.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons Women in the barracks of the newly liberated Auschwitz concentration camp.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
Women in the barracks of the newly liberated Auschwitz concentration camp.

Renowned Holocaust scholar Lenore Weitzman’s keynote address focused on Bronka and many more brave Jewish women who risked their lives to save the people in the ghettos during the early days of the Holocaust.

This year’s conference focused on women and the Holocaust and included lectures about women as perpetrators, rescuers, resistance members and victims of sexual violence.

Beth Griech-Polelle, who organized the conference and is the Kurt Mayer chair of Holocaust studies at PLU, said she wanted this year’s conference to be an interdisciplinary conversation involving history, literature, religion and personal testimony. She mentioned she wanted the conference to bring in people from throughout the PLU community, not only historians.

“We’re all humans together, and it’s important to learn about this no matter what your background is,” junior Courtney Olsen remarked after attending the keynote address.

Post-lecture discussions embodied the idea of interdisciplinary conversation and learning that Griech-Polelle had hoped for because members from the PLU, Tacoma and Jewish communities participated.

“It never really seems like women play a large part; women are largely forgotten about,” senior Bastian McKeen commented after attending the conference.

Griech-Polelle said she chose to focus on women in the Holocaust this year because it hadn’t previously been discussed as a topic. She said focusing on women adds valuable insight into Holocaust studies.

“History’s supposed to give us a picture of the past, and you can’t take half of the population out of that picture and not talk about how they experienced it,” Griech-Polelle said.

It is significant that a Lutheran university would choose to not only acknowledge, but have conversations about the Holocaust. The Lutheran Church, as an institution, failed to protect Jews during the Holocaust, Griech-Polelle said.

She said many Lutherans in Germany during this time allowed for and often supported the practices of the Nazi regime. PLU is “not afraid to talk about that type of involvement, that type of support. And that’s a real testimony to the university’s mission about thoughtful inquiry,” Griech-Polelle said.

Studying the Holocaust is an opportunity to remember the atrocities that occurred in the past to prevent them from happening in the future. Olsen added, “learning from the past is important so we don’t make the same mistakes.”

Griech-Polelle said, next year’s conference will discuss the position of the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany and Jewish-Christian relations. ◼︎

Share your thoughts