Czechoslovakian leader Gisi Fleischmann (1894-1944) worked tirelessly to rescue her fellow Jews during the Nazi Holocaust, organizing networks which allowed many to escape to safety.
Gisi Fleischmann was born in 1894 into an Orthodox Jewish family in Bratislava, Slovakia. As a young woman she became a Zionist. She developed rapidly as a Zionist leader and soon became president of the Bratislava branch of WIZO, the Women's International Zionist Organization. In this post she showed ability as an organizer and public speaker, as well as diplomatic skill. About the time of her introduction to Zionism, she married the merchant Josef Fleischmann. The Fleischmanns had two daughters.
Soon after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 Jewish refugees began to arrive in the Bratislava area. Many of these refugees hoped to go on to the British-held Palestine Mandate (now Israel), but hundreds were stranded in Slovakia. As a member of the Central Jewish Relief Committee of Bratislava, Fleischmann played a key role in providing for the needs of such people and helping them on their way. Many of them later remembered her with gratitude and affection.
In 1939 she was sent to London and Paris to try to persuade foreign governments to take in the Jews menaced by Nazism and to obtain more funds from Jewish relief organizations to deal with the refugee situation in Central Europe. But no government was interested in the rescue of Jews; and the organizations had no more money to give.
Meanwhile, Hitler had annexed Austria (1938) and much of Czechoslovakia (1939), but Slovakia proclaimed itself an independent state. The German leader decided to recognize Slovakian "independence," which was a matter of form only. Throughout World War II the country remained a staunch friend and ally of Nazi Germany. As the situation in Europe worsened, Fleischmann and her husband were able to send their daughters to safety in the Palestine Mandate. Like so many others, the family was never reunited. Josef Fleischmann died of natural causes in 1942.
Following the Nazi pattern elsewhere in Europe, the Slovakian government set up a nationwide "Jewish Council." Fleischmann and her friends joined the council. Although they understood that it was really designed to be used against Jews, they tried to use it instead as an instrument to save Jewish lives. Later they formed a secret resistance group within the setting of the council. This was known simply as the Working Group, and Fleischmann was its acknowledged leader.
In 1942 the Germans and Slovaks began deporting Slovakia's 80,000 Jews to Poland, where they faced death in work and concentration camps. Under Fleischmann's leadership the Working Group fought to end the deportations. Though they had little money, by bribery and promises to Slovak and German officials they managed to halt the transports to Poland while there were still 20,000 Slovakian Jews left. These 20,000 remained precariously safe for nearly two years.
Fleischmann's colleague Rabbi Michael Weissmandel then originated a plan to save all of Europe's remaining Jews by the payment of a large ransom. This, the Europa Plan, probably was the first effort by Jews to negotiate with the Nazis for the lives of their people. She originally opposed Weissmandel's plan. Later, though, when she became convinced that it was the only way to save large numbers of Jews, she became the plan's chief Jewish negotiator and its staunchest advocate with Jewish organizations.
Although some Nazi officers indicated an interest in the Europa Plan, it was never tried. The Working Group's rescue efforts never stopped, even while negotiations for the plan went on. Fleischmann and her friends organized a network to smuggle Jews, many of them children, out of Poland to safety. These rescues were known as "hikes."
In late summer 1944, as the result of a revolt in Slovakia, Germany took over direct control of the country and resumed deporting Slovakian Jews to Poland. Among the victims was Fleischmann. She was sent to the death camp at Auschwitz and was murdered there on or about October 18, 1944.
The noted Jewish lawyer Gideon Hausner wrote of her that her name "deserves to be immortalized in the annals of our people" as "a radiant example of heroism and of boundless devotion."
Gisi Fleischmann is mentioned extensively in Marie Syrkin's Blessed Is The Match (1947, 1976) and in Nora Levin's The Holocaust (1968). She is the subject of a pamphlet, Gisi Fleischmann: The Story of a Heroic Woman (1970), by her friend and colleague Y. O. Neumann.
Campion, Joan, Gisi Fleischmann and the Jewish fight for survival, Miami, Fla.: Dvorion Books, 1983.
Campion, Joan, In the lion's mouth: Gisi Fleischmann & the Jewish fight for survival, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987. □