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Zina Portnova: Young Avenger and Real-Life Teenage Nazi Killer

If you’ve ever thought back to what you were up to when you were 15 then, like me, you probably felt a little underwhelmed with yourself. I know I split most of the time toggling between Tumblr and DeviantArt and obsessing over my sinking physics grade.

However, some people in history spent their sophomoric years being actually productive, and one of those people was a girl named Zina Portnova.

Zina was born in 1926 in the former Soviet Union, in what is now Belarus. She grew up in St. Petersburg in a factory family, but by 1941, had moved to her grandmother’s farm in the countryside where the two of them lived alone. This would be the same year the Nazis would invade their country.

When a troop of German soldiers swept through their town seizing food and property, Zina was forced to watch as soldiers beat her grandmother for their cattle, solidifying a deep and resounding hatred for the Nazis in her 15-year-old heart.

Within a year, Zina had joined an underground resistance movement called the Young Avengers, where she distributed anti-German leaflets, smuggled weapons for Soviet soldiers, and spied on German troop movements.

Within a few months, she had graduated up to demolitions and sabotage runs, helping to blow up local occupied water pumps, power plants, and brick factories, killing nearly a hundred German soldiers in her efforts.

When she was 17, Zina finagled herself a job in the kitchens at a nearby Nazi garrison in Obol. After remaining a sleeper agent for a few months, she found her opening and poisoned the food for several high-ranking officials.

She was immediately suspected, however, but to prove herself clean, Zina calmly ate a whole portion in front of the accusing officers, smiling through the nausea and effects of the poison. She was soon released and promptly left work for her grandmother’s house where she vomited and made herself the antidote. She survived the poisoning—many of her target officers did not.

After the poisoning incident, Zina was relocated for her safety and worked that autumn committing sabotage and guerrilla attacks on German supply lines. However, by January of 1944, she was ordered back to Obol on a scouting mission and was quickly recognized as the poison suspect who had disappeared; she was recaptured by the garrison and imprisoned.

Zina wouldn’t live to see the next week.

During her interrogation with the Gestapo, Zina managed to steal a pistol off the investigating agent and shoot him dead on the spot, quickly killing the two guards who rushed in after hearing gunshots. She escaped the Nazi compound and managed to reach the nearby woods, almost losing her pursuers in the river, but was caught just before she could dive in.

She was tortured and blinded for information about her organization, but refused to give up any details on the scouting ring she worked for or the Young Avengers unit in Obol. On January 15,1944, she was taken into the forest and executed, a month before her 18th birthday.

14 years after her death, Zina was awarded the Order of Lenin and declared a Hero of the Soviet Union. Of the 12,775 people ever awarded the title, only 95 were women, and of those 95, Zina was the only one underage.

Today there are two monuments standing for her, a bust in Minsk near where she was born and an obelisk in Obol where she was killed.

Zina’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, but in the letters she wrote home to her parents in the last two years of her resistance, it was clear that she was prepared for the death she received. Ultimately, her goal of taking out as many enemy soldiers earned her the distinction of her country and the victory of her people.

Ellie Baker

Chapel Hill '21

Ellie Baker is a junior studying English and Film Production and minoring in Writing for the Screen and Stage. When not working on a writing project, she can often be found buried in a sketchbook, rifling through thrift shops, or working as a pirate guide down at Bald Head Island.
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