uMi Yamut: 10 Female Martyrs

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at [her] predestined time and who before [her] time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning.” – From the prayers said on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

Many of our readers and contributors spent all of yesterday and the night before in Yom Kippur services. In many synagogues, people often read the stories of a group known as the 10 Martyrs. These are very compelling accounts of ten Jewish Rabbis who were killed during Roman rule by Emperor Hadrian (you know, the guy who built the pretty little walls in England and also murdered Jews in his spare time). All of them are very graphic, and include fates that I would not wish on most of my worst enemies (I’d be perfectly fine if someone like Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot were killed in some of these fashions).

Anyways, just as I walked out of services this year personally not at all pleased with myself or my repentance (while everyone else walked out relieved) and with the feeling that I need more time to atone as I suddenly remembered things I had done poorly in the past year after the Shofar had sounded and the “gates” had closed, I feel that while these stories we read are compelling, there are so many more stories that could be read if we really just wanted to make ourselves miserable all day (which I’m clearly into). Other people have expressed this, especially after the Holocaust, and such thinking got wider accounts from later times in Jewish history incorporated into the service in the Conservative movement.

The absence I noticed the most, other than the absence of stories from the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and other important catastrophic events in which many Jewish people were killed, was the absence of any women martyrs, even though I am sure there were women martyrs. Below is a list of women I would include in a supplement to the services for people who would want to include women when these stories are being read. I want to say that this is not a definitive “top 10 list,” but just as there is room for expansion on the original ten, there is infinite room for expansion on this list, since there are literally millions of female Jewish martyrs.

Hannah Szenes

1. Hannah Szenes (1921-1944): Hannah Szenes was a Hungarian Jewish woman who moved to Israel when it was still under the British Mandate, where she eventually became a parachuter. She was one of the 37 Jews trained to parachute to Yugoslavia in order to help Hungarian Jews escape from being deported to Auschwitz. Once they landed, they found that Germany had already occupied Hungary, so the men called the operation off. Hannah didn’t listen, and bravely went on to continue the mission to rescue some of her people. She was found by Nazi forces at the border, and was tortured for several days, beaten and clubbed for over three days, but did not give any of the information they were seeking. She was later executed for treason by a Nazi firing squad.

2. Ines of Herrera del Duque (executed in 1500): Ines of Herrera del Duque is a conversa woman who, in 1500, as a young girl, proclaimed the coming of the Messiah who “would come and redeem the conversos, carrying them, as in Exodus, to the Promised Land.” Her prophecies spread throughout Spain, giving hope to those who faced intense persecution. Countless of people, men and women, boys and girls, became her followers, and turned to her eschatological teachings for inspiration to persevere in their faith in private while their public faith had been banned. She wasw burned in an auto-da-fe in the same year. (Chaim Benart, in Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World).

3. The woman (maybe many women) killed via “the water cure” by Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition:  “The first level of torture employed by the Spanish Inquisition was the “water cure.” Water was poured into the accused’s open mouth. The linen cloth was washed into the opening of the throat, preventing the accused from spitting the water back out. The overwhelming sensation of drowning forced the accused to swallow the water. The rules of torture as written by Torquemada, a man whom historians have compared to Hitler, stipulated that no more than eight liters of water could be used in a single session.The torturer held the earthen jug in his arms, ready to follow the inquisitor’s orders. The woman cried and struggled for breath, anticipating the worst. The inquisitor stepped forward and spoke. ‘We shall begin.'”

4. Katarzyna Wieglowa (c.1460-1539): Katarzyna Wieglowa was a Polish convert to Judaism, imprisoned for ten years and was later burnt at the stake for refusing to profess trinitarian beliefs. Every day, Jews include the following phrase in their prayers: “Upon the righteous, upon the pious, upon the elders of your people of the house of Israel, upon the remnant of their scholars, upon the righteous converts, and upon ourselves, may Your compassion arise, O lord our God, and give good reward to all who sincerely believe in your Name. Include us with them forever, and let us not be ashamed, for we put our trust in You.” I will now think of people like Katarzyna Wieglowa when I pray this.

Nava Applebaum

5. Nava Applebaum (1983-2003): Nava Appelbaum American immigrant to Israel, who was killed by an Arab terrorist on the eve of her wedding, alongside her father, while they having a few final moments together at Cafe Hillel in Emek Refaim Jerusalem. I’ve actually eaten at this very cafe without knowing the specific story (I knew there had been a suicide bombing there), but this story, out of so many stories of young lives being taken by terrorism in Israel within this decade, stands out because of the horrible timing. Friends and family who thought they would be spending the next day celebrating her wedding spent the next day burying her. Parts of her wedding gown are now used as a curtain for the Torah ark at Rachel’s Tomb.

6.  Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, Ala Gertner, and Roza Robota (executed in 1945): This group of four women would nearly complete the list, but I will list them together to give room to other stories. These women met in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they participated in organized Jewish resistance within the camps, by smuggling gunpowder to the men’s camp, sometimes hidden in the bodies of their own dead friends, which was used to fashion grenades out of old sardine tins by members of the 12th Sonderkommando. On October 7th (which interestingly enough this year was Erev Yom Kippur), this gunpowder was used in revolts throughout the camp, including breaking through wires and burning alive a “particularly sadistic” Nazi Guard. Apparently, many of the men who were captured gave up the names of their co-conspirators when tortured, including the names of some of these women. The women, however, who underwent torture methods such as the electrocution of their genitals, did not give up the names of any living co-conspirators. As all four women were executed by hanging once found, Roza Robota yelled ““Be strong and be brave!”

Ethel Rosenberg

7. Ethel Rosenberg (1915-1953): Ethel Rosenberg was an American Jewish communist executed by the United States under dubious charges of espionage for the Soviet Union. Born on the Lower East Side, she met her husband, Julius, at a meeting of the Young Communist League in New York. Once tried and convicted, her and her husband were sentenced to the electric chair, the only two American civilians executed for espionage during the Cold War. Although people across the world recognized strong Anti-Semitic currents  in this sentencing, American Jewish organizations did not intervene on their behalf.

From Wikipedia: “Marxist Nobel-Prize-winning existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the trial “a legal lynchingwhich smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-huntsautos-da-fé, sacrifices — we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear… you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.”[37] Others, including non-Communists such as Albert Einstein and Nobel-Prize-winning physical chemist Harold Urey,[38] as well as Communists or left-leaning artists such as Nelson AlgrenBertolt BrechtJean CocteauDashiell HammettFrida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, protested the position of the American government in what the French termed America’s Dreyfus affair.[39]In May 1951, Pablo Picasso wrote for the communist French newspaper L’Humanité, ‘The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place.'”

Rosenberg was executed by the United States government on June 19, 1953, electrocuted until steam was reportedly rising from her head. More info available here.

8. Sol Hachuel (executed 1834): Sol Hachuel was a Moroccan Jewish woman, who was decapitated in Fez in 1834 for not converting to Islam. Although the specific reasons are not found in the records I consulted, it is likely she was executed for not converting to Islam after a Muslim male neighbor took an interest in her and tried to pressure her to convert. She was renamed “Sol la saqiqa” – A female “tzadik,” which is a huge honor for a man, and much more so for a woman (from Sephardim: The Jews from Spain by Paloma Diaz Mas).

9. Mariamme I the Hasmonean (54 BCE-27BCE): Mariamme I the Hasmonean was a wife of King Herod who was executed after producing five children. The charges against her are not clear from the historical record, but the various claims include alleged infidelity and an attempt to poison him. Interestingly enough, Salome is mentioned again in this story, as having a hand in Mariamme I’s execution. This Salome person sounds awful.

10. Liz Trobishi (1993-2009): Liz Trobishi, age 16, along with Nir Katz, age 26, was killed by a gunman in Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ community center in the summer of 2009. One of my friends, who was in Tel Aviv at the time, sent out an email to a listhost I was on in which she expressed the traumatic effect on the attacks on Tel Aviv’s gay community. I myself felt the echoes of this attack when I visited Tel Aviv in the following year. That year, after I had left, Jerusalem’s Pride Parade was largely organized as a response to this killing, as it galvanized many Israelis to march to the Knesset to demand protection and rights.

May their memories be a blessing and an inspiration to us all in the year 5772 as they have been in the years past.

PS: One particular part of a story from the original 10 Martyrs stood out from a gender perspective, in which Rabbi Yishmael the Kohen Gadol has seen Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel executed before his very eyes and picks the head of his beloved colleague up in sorrow and laments that the tongue that once taught Torah now lays in the dust. Immediately, the daughter of the emperor finds Rabbi Yishmael to be attractive, and asks for him to be spared, but in the end, this can not happen, so she gets very angry and asks for the face on his skin to be flayed. This reminds me of the play Salome by Oscar Wilde, (oh, and also the New Testament has this!) in which the same thing basically happens to John The Baptist. Would anyone like to discuss this theme? At the moment I don’t have anything that insightful to say about it, since it’s not the theme of this post, but it’s something that’s caught my eye. The trope I’ve observed is generally = Righteous, godly man is lusted after by daughter/sister of wicked king at the point of execution, whether the king is Jewish or non-Jewish, and when daughter can’t have, she decides to up the ante in terms of cruelty.

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2 thoughts on “uMi Yamut: 10 Female Martyrs

  1. LadyG says:

    I had forgotten the details of Hannah Szenes’s biography. Thank you for sharing.

    I find the trope of the lustful Gentile woman to be fascinating as well, although I have no concrete thoughts. see also: Phineas, Delilah, Jezebel; arguuably even Yael!

    I also always think of this story when I read about Rabbi Yishmael:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=Fm8UwBe-xj8C&lpg=PA43&ots=YmRv0q1wtO&dq=talmud%20story%20ugly%20rabbi%20wine&pg=PA43#v=onepage&q=talmud%20story%20ugly%20rabbi%20wine&f=false

  2. Sharon says:

    Thank you for this fascinating post.

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