Tonia Lechtman’s Life Embodied the Struggle for Human Dignity

Tonia Lechtman was a Polish Jewish communist who was deprived of her freedom by five different dictatorships. Her resilience in the face of oppression was built on a determination to build a world fit for human beings.

From the cover of An Ordinary Life? The Journeys of Tonia Lechtman, 1918–1996 by Anna Muller. (Ohio University Press, 2023)

Tonia Lechtman, a Polish Jewish woman living in the early twentieth century, could be any one of us. A member of a minority who continuously seeks space in mainstream society. A single mother overwhelmed with the shrinking possibilities of keeping her children safe. A migrant who left her home country hoping that her next destination would bring more options. A woman who became a refugee in a country she had chosen for her home, which now considered her an enemy. A woman who insisted on a right to a home. She was an ordinary woman who lived in extraordinary times.

My work on An Ordinary Life? The Journeys of Tonia Lechtman, 1918–1996 coincided with me beginning to teach jailed men in the United States, as well as working with formerly incarcerated men and women. I had just finished a book on the life of political prisoners in Stalinist prisons in Poland in the years following World War II; I thus moved from thinking and writing about the darkness and violence of the Stalinist government that sentenced Polish patriots to ten years’ confinement, to interacting with men in the United States who carried thirty- or forty-year sentences (or even life sentences without any possibility of parole) for drugs or gang violence.

Such crimes often emerged from the circumstances in which many of these men of color were destined to live; some among them were also wrongfully convicted. What I have learned from a select group of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people was the power of self-reinvention and hope, and a deep sense of responsibility: for their families, for the students I brought to learn with them, and for their various real and imagined communities. I also learned that humanity is best discernible through vulnerability and a conscious decision to share life with others. This is where Tonia’s story fits in.

Tonia Lechtman experienced different forms of confinement six times at the hands of five different dictatorships. She was imprisoned either because of her identities (a Jew, a communist, a single mother) or because of her insistence that ideas and actions can change the world. She was both similar to and different than the incarcerated men I met. The reasons for their imprisonments as well as the choices they made in life could not be more different, but the drive to navigate difficult circumstances, the urge to reinvent hope, and the reasons to ask for (even demand) a right to full participation in the world were similar. At times, while facilitating conversations inside prison, I wondered what Tonia would say to these men who sought ways to redeem themselves, who attempted to understand their crimes and societal roles, and who embraced interdependence. The responsibility for each other and the critical value that we should attach to the recognition of individual dignity speak to us louder in moments of suffering. Tonia understood this well.

Growing Commitment

Tonia Lechtman (née Bialer) was born in 1918 into a Jewish family of well-off industrialists in Łódź, Poland. Early in her life, at the threshold of her childhood and teenage years, she embraced communism as a form of engagement with the world. Communist ideas matched her youthful idealism and sensitivity to social justice, while also grounding her by providing her with multiple social circles. Her commitment to communism strengthened in Palestine, where her parents moved in 1935 in the hope of escaping growing antisemitism in Eastern Europe.

It was in Palestine where she engaged seriously with communist networks: she wrote communist slogans on walls, distributed flyers, and did propaganda work among Zionists promoting the view that the main enemy of the Jews was not Arabs but the British Empire. Doing this work she met and fell in love with a man — Sioma Lechtman — also committed to communism, and also experienced her first interrogation and imprisonment. Her first imprisonment was a menacing but also formative experience: she remembers it as a time of female solidarity, preparing and sharing food with Arab women prisoners, joining in back talk to the guards, and caring for people who had less. It was a moment of no return. The prison offered a lesson in persistence, community building, and strengthening commitment, despite the fear.

As pro-communist political prisoners, both Tonia and Sioma were expelled from Palestine. With only transit visas, they traveled to Paris — the epicenter of world democracy, the place where the promise of equality was pushing forward hope. It was in Paris where the couple wanted to build a new life for themselves and a better world. That audacity was perhaps arrogant, but it was driven by a need to lessen helplessness. If fascism was on the rise and the world was crumbling in front of their eyes, then joining movements that tried to stop these developments was the only logical conclusion. One of the couple’s most intense desires was to leave for Spain, to fight fascism there. But Tonia’s pregnancy forced her to reconsider her involvement. While in December 1937 Sioma traveled to Spain, Tonia remained in France, supported by multiple people who offered help — people who fed her, helped her find a temporary home, and, in July 1938, took her to a hospital when her time came to have her baby. These supporters kept her hope in communism alive while feeding her understanding of it as a responsibility for one another.

Life was already overwhelming for a single mother with no French-language skills, stable job, or family support. Her situation deteriorated when, at the beginning of World War II, almost overnight, Tonia turned from a migrant into a refugee who needed to run for her life. First, she ran toward the border with Spain, where she hoped to reconnect with Sioma, who was confined in Gurs, a camp for former members of the International Brigades that had fought in Spain. She visited him briefly a few times, one visit resulting in her second pregnancy. Her second child was born in March 1940, a few months before France fell to the Nazis. The Nazi-collaborationist and increasingly antisemitic Vichy regime assigned people like Tonia — both Jewish citizens and foreigners — an inferior position. People like her belonged to “camps of concentration,” as French officials often called them.

After trying to place her children for some time in a shelter for Jewish children in Limoges, she ran again, this time to Switzerland. She and her children spent the rest of the war there, first in various camps for refugees, then under the protection of a woman who ran a shelter for the displaced. The atmosphere of isolation and suspicion did not leave her for the rest of the war. A sense of exile accompanied her daily. To use the words in which Hannah Arendt described the refugee condition, Tonia had lost her “language, the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”

Promised Land

In the early postwar months, Tonia learned about the death of her husband, who was killed in Auschwitz in January 1945. She had planned to change the world with him and for people like him — displaced and persecuted minorities. Now that he was gone, the only thing that made sense was to return to the place where he died, to Poland. That return was supposed to end her rootlessness. Poland in 1946 promised a new and better future. This war-ravaged country was rising from the rubble while claiming its victory over fascism. It needed and also offered hope. Though it was largely a Soviet creation, the communist rule that had firmly established itself by 1948 appeared as an answer to all her dreams. Sioma was not there to witness it. But it was in Poland where she believed she could raise her children while following their shared dream.

She returned to work on reinstituting, with American financial help, a trauma hospital in Upper Silesia, and then moved to a job in public administration in Warsaw. Yet, as historian Marci Shore writes, “the promised land of Communism was also the hell of Stalinism.” Once again, Tonia’s dreams were shattered. The same communist state that she fought so hard to serve crushed her. In 1949 she was imprisoned as an enemy of the state (faced with orchestrated suspicion of conspiring against the Polish state) and kept under interrogation for five years. Before the war she was imprisoned for being a communist, during the war she was interned for being a Jew, and after the war she was confined because the Stalinist government considered her suspicious and untrustworthy. This third and last incarceration was no longer a lesson in strength and persistence, and not even a training in solitude. If anything, it was a school of how to mentally survive by believing herself and in herself, despite being imprisoned by people she had considered comrades, perhaps even friends.

After several years, she left prison still believing that communism — or an ethical sense of responsibility for each other, one that can nullify racial and national inequalities — was worth fighting for. She left prison both physically and mentally spent; a few years after leaving, she had a gallbladder attack, similar to one she experienced in jail. To deal with the pain, she ran on a square the size of her former cell, similar to what she did while incarcerated during her first painful attack. Although she left prison, the prison never left her. What ultimately broke her came a few years later: illnesses that affected her grandchildren with which Polish doctors in the context of the late 1960s could not deal. Poland looked increasingly like a caricature of a dream she wanted to dream. Withdrawing even further into herself, in 1971 she left Poland for Israel. She died there in 1996, surrounded by a family bewildered by the role that communism had occupied in her life.

Living the World Through Others

When I was writing and then editing this book on Tonia, the world was seemingly falling apart again. It began with COVID-19 and continued through the Black Lives Matter protests, the consequences of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine: more pain, more death, more refugees, but also more signs that the struggle for dignity never dies. The country where Tonia was born and one that I call my home — Poland — closed its borders to Syrian refugees while opening them to Ukrainian refugees just a few years later.

“The pandemic is a portal,” said philosopher Arundhati Roy in 2020 while watching growing suffering and hoping for it to become an opening to a new and better future, as if pain could become a conduit of change. The rupture of COVID — or perhaps the multiple ruptures that followed it — was supposed to make us rethink the kind of normalcy we wanted to return to, but it seems as if our prejudices and hatred have walked through the portal with us. Now, almost everywhere we look, the world looks grimmer. “There is something wrong with the world,” said Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020 as she called on us to narrate the world not through oneself but through others — exactly the way Tonia wanted to live her life.

In summer 2022, I traveled to the frontier between Switzerland and France near Geneva to try to find the spot where Tonia crossed the border. On the French side, to my surprise, I ran into a historical marker with a quote from Rosa Luxemburg: “La liberte c’est toujours la liberte de l’autre” (Our freedom is always the freedom of others). Tonia survived her lonely life in France, Nazi roundups, an illegal and dangerous crossing to Switzerland, and separation from her children in Switzerland thanks to numerous and often anonymous gestures of help. Various people supported her when all else was failing. A family of German socialists offered her a home in the last months of her pregnancy. A French policeman warned her about an imminent roundup. A soldier protected her from being caught by the Nazis when she embarked with two small children on a journey into the unknown. A guard on the French-Swiss border fed her and her children. Are people that good and ready to help, or did she simply decide to remember what was good in her life, rather than reflect on the losses?

While in times of crises almost boundless suffering and pain arise, some good also emerges. Amidst overwhelming misery and suffering, help often goes unnoticed. Early on during her life in Paris, Tonia found herself in a circle of women — a new generation of social activists who worked with young women living in various shelters and who believed that by creating the right conditions one can help those who appear to be lost. Hannah Eisfelder Grünwald, for example, thought about her social work as a mission aimed at restoring an individual’s sense of worth and not just offering passive help. Margaret Locher fought hard for Tonia and her children while trying to move them from a refugee camp to her home. Lily Volker, in beautiful Ascona surrounded by Swiss lakes and mountains, decided to turn her family business — a hotel — into a place for refugee children, which at the time meant Jewish children. Love and respect were supposed to help them to move past war traumas. No monuments are devoted to these women; they are hardly ever mentioned or remembered as harbingers of good in dark times. In Ascona, by accident I came upon the grave of Volker, which has the inscription “Lily Volker. Ciao and Grazie” and a globe with silhouettes of children. Help to one is help to us all.

Tenderness, Against Alienation

Tonia built her world from a place of vulnerability — as a minority, woman, migrant, single mother, and refugee. She recognized this vulnerability and welcomed any assistance she could receive, but she also lived to assist. She chose life with others and through others. Was communism a necessary or the even only ethical and moral framework for her? Probably not. At the time of her youth, socialism and communism were only some of the responses to Jewish exclusion from the mainstream. Communism was Tonia’s choice in response to being pushed to the margins and a growing fear of fascism. As a means of dealing with fear and alienation, it was also her response to solitude, a means of feeling grounded in the world and embracing fears with newfound courage and tenderness. As an ideology, communism is distrusted in the part of the world Tonia and I come from, and stories of committed communists make many people uneasy. A story of Tonia’s trust in communism can make others question her reasoning.

Tokarczuk calls for tenderness as an antidote to alienation in the world: it “is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.” Tenderness should guide us through our attempts to understand people unlike us, those who make different choices, those who follow an idea that is incomprehensible to us, and those who fail and attempt to stand up again. Placing people and their choices in their contexts is a big part of that process.

Tonia saw happiness not only as an emotion or psychic state but rather as a way of acting in the world. That acting also meant accepting her dependence on others, which feminist Lynne Segal sees as embracing our humanity. Accepting the fragilities of life means being fully human. Sharing her vulnerability and committing to protect others who were also vulnerable, Tonia made an ethical and political decision — a responsibility for others because it is the quickest way to changing the world. She remained fearless in believing that only with others and through others, in small and big gestures of tenderness, in consciously deciding that the personal is political, she could remain faithful to herself, her late husband’s ideals, and all the people who died — or did not have a chance to fully live — because their own state, society, and the world failed them. Her story — a story of someone so ordinary — teaches us to give and receive and to participate in sharing small gestures of tenderness, which can be life-sustaining. It takes courage to give and receive these gestures on a path to rebuilding oneself.