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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish Partisan Experience and the Rebirth of Contemporary Jewish Life

This year we celebrate the “New Year for Trees” on February 11th. Tu B’Shevat is an agricultural holiday celebrated on the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar. In contemporary times we most closely associate it with eating fruit and planting new trees, but it holds tremendous significance when considered together with the history of the Jewish partisans.
Partisans in the Forest
The trees were indispensable allies of the Jewish partisans. The vast forests and swamps covering most of the Eastern front became home to countless partisan groups, providing them with dense coverage - shielding their escape and harboring them in relative safety. The forest canopy protected large numbers of people from detection by aircraft, allowing groups, like the Bielski brigade, to harbor greater numbers of people, including children and the elderly. The forest was an essential infrastructure for the cohabitation of thousands. “No forests – no partisans,” asserted Faye Schulman, Jewish partisan photographer.
Partisans often had intimate knowledge of the forests in their area and were able to leverage that in their war effort against the Nazis, as in the case of Norman Salsitz and the Bielskis. The terrain suited itself well for purposes of camouflage and deception: “In the forest, ten partisans seemed like a hundred to those on the outside,” remembers one partisan. During the notoriously harsh winters of Eastern Europe, the forest provided firewood and the raw materials for shelter – little underground huts called ‘zemlyankas’, where the partisans would huddle together to escape the cold and avoid detection.
“Without the forest, we could not survive.” said Norman Salsitz in his interview with JPEF. And indeed, the very memories of escape and freedom for many partisans - including Mira Shelub and Jeff Gradow – are inextricably linked to the woods, where they ran to hide, and the trees that gave them cover from the pursuant bullets of the Nazis.
Studying about Tu B’shevat in the classroom, and discussing the importance of trees in Jewish tradition, presents an ideal opportunity for educators to focus on Jewish pride and introduce students to the Jewish partisans. Guidelines and lesson plan ideas for incorporating the Jewish partisans into the study of Tu B’shevat are found in JPEF’s downloadable study guides for Strengthening Jewish Pride and Living and Surviving in the Partisans.
Today, Tu B’shevat represents the broader shape of contemporary Jewish renewal. It is one of the clearest examples of the rebirth of rooted Jewish life after the Shoah. The charred site of a forest fire slowly gives birth to new growth and now, more than 70 years later, a new forest stands in its place. Each of the elements of that forest grew from seeds that survived the fire; yet the forest itself has its own unique characteristics.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Murray and Frances Berger - With Courage They Fought

Guest writer, Ralph Berger shares insights into his parent's riveting memoir.
With Courage Shall We Fight:
The Memoirs and Poetry of Holocaust Resistance Fighters

Frances “Fruma” Gulkowich Berger and Murray “Motke” Berger
Edited by Ralph S. Berger and Albert S. Berger
“With courage shall we fight,” a line from one of my mother’s poems, “Jewish Partisans,” is a fitting title for the memoir of Murray “Motke” and Frances “Fruma” Gulkowich Berger’s incredible story of survival. Miraculously, first individually and then together as fighters in the Bielski Brigade, they escaped from the Nazis and certain death and literally fought back, saving not only their own lives but those of others as well.
Growing up, I never knew any of the former Partisans to be reticent about speaking of their experiences. My parents were passionate about Holocaust education and about educating people to the fact that Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. They wanted the world to know that when they could, Jews fought back, physically and spiritually. In writing this book, my brother Al and I sought not only to honor our parents, but to continue their mission of educating people about their experiences, as well as the experiences of others, during the Holocaust.
My Dad, Murray Berger, was born in a shetl called Wseilub, in what was then Belorussia, White Russia. My Mom, Frances Gulkowich Berger, was raised in Korelitz, Poland, a shetl in the county of Novogrudek. The world that my parents lived in was destroyed by the Holocaust.
Sensing that a massacre was soon to take place in the Novogrudek Ghetto, my Dad was determined to escape. He and others wanted to join the Partisans, guerrilla fighters, and fight the Nazis. They wanted to do this despite the fact that there was tremendous anti-Semitism among the Russian and Polish partisans. Many of them would readily kill a Jewish fighter for a good pair of boots. But then word came that the Bielski Brothers were forming a Jewish partisan unit.
My father was among the first seven men to escape from the Novogrudek ghetto and join the Bielskis. Another eight, including my uncle, Ben Zion Gulkowich, followed soon thereafter. Those fifteen men elected Tuvia Bielski to be their Commander. The Bielski Brigade was born. Both independently and along with Russian detachments, it fought the Nazis. It engaged in sabotage, blowing up bridges and rail lines, destroying telephone lines, bombing Nazi police headquarters and, at times, engaging in open combat. And, very importantly, the Bielski Brigade rescued other Jews. The Bielski detachment grew into a forest community of more than 1200 Jews. It was the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews.
In the summer of 1942, the Nazis massacred over 4,000 Jews from the Novogrudek ghetto. My Mom and my aunt Judy Gulkow survived by hiding in a cesspool for six days, without food or water. They were rescued by my uncle, Ben Zion. Shortly thereafter, with about two dozen others, they escaped and joined the Bielski Brigade. My Mom was the first woman in the Brigade to be issued a weapon.
With Courage Shall We Fight is a compilation of my parents’ writings and my Mom’s poetry, as well as a pictorial history. It tells about their lives before, during and after the War. It is first person testimony in my parents’ own words. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum described With Courage Shall We Fight as a memoir of “defiance, determination and resistance.” I agree. But it is also a story of love and of hope.
The picture on the cover of the book was taken in 1945 in a displaced persons camp in Romania nicknamed “Kibbutz Tulda”. All are former members of the Bielski group. My Mom is the one with the hat, my Dad the one in the cool glasses. We chose this picture because despite what they all endured, they look so happy, happy to be alive.
- Ralph S. Berger, Co-Editor
Copies of With Courage Shall We Fight are available from the publisher at www.comteqpublishing.com, the Museum of Jewish Heritage at www.mjhnyc.org, and from amazon.com. All royalties are donated to support Holocaust education.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Max Cukier (z"l), born on January 23, 1918

"We had food what can eat thousand people, we were going in special my group what I was with the commander. We were going in to farmers where they lived close to big cities, but they never, Russian partisans was afraid, we not afraid, we're going in. They have food, so much of it, and pigs, cows. We took 10 pigs, you know, the meat in the summertime was too hot you no can eat, it's too hot, the meat. We have so much to eat."
— Max Cukier.
Max Cukier was born into a Hassidic family in Ryki, Poland, on January 23, 1918. Growing up as a pacifist, Max never imagined he would carry a machine gun, but this changed with the outbreak of the war. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Max fled to Soviet occupied territory, eventually ending up in Belarus. For the next two years he lived as a Polish refugee, persecuted by the Soviet government as a non-citizen. When the Nazis began their attack against Russia in 1941, Max went into hiding, traveling from village to village in search of food and shelter.
Early in 1942 Max saw that hiding in villages was becoming too dangerous, and he took to the woods. In the forest, he made contact with other Jewish refugees, as well as some escaped Russian POWs. Eventually he joined the famous Bielski Brigade, a combination partisan unit and family camp. Taking initiative, Max began to organize small units and lead missions, bombing bridges and masterminding a daring attack on a German bunker using an abandoned Soviet tank. During this time Max met and married his wife, and she began to accompany him on missions, becoming his lookout.
After liberation, Max first joined the Red Army and then defected from the USSR, escaping into Italy. In Italy he became involved with several Zionist organizations, becoming an acquaintance of Golda Meir, Israel's future prime minister. He traveled to Israel, and in 1948 came to the U.S. under the auspices of the Zionist Cultural Congress.
Over time, Max focused on building a new life as a civilian, started an importing business, and eventually moving to Los Angeles, where he raised three children and three grandchildren.
Max passed away January 17, 2011.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Max Cukier, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Celebrating the January 13th Birthday of Jewish Partisan Mira Shelub

"Somehow, you know, when we came out from them, from the ghetto, I cannot tell you how good it felt to breathe the fresh air, to know that we are free, to know that we can go. Okay, there were difficulties, obstacles, but we knew that we can go, that nobody will stop us, to breathe the fresh air, to see the trees . It was something, a special, special experience and then we came to the forest. We came to the forest and then, and we were lucky enough, I mention again that we were nice, young, pretty so they accepted us, and we joined the Partisans."
— Mira Shelub.
A Polish Jew born in what is now Belarus, Mira Shelub joined a partisan group that operated in the forest near her native Zdziedciol at the age of 18. With her family, she escaped Zdziedciol’s ghetto in 1942 as the Germans began killing off the population.
Mira’s group engaged in sabotage against the Nazis and their Polish collaborators by disrupting communications and transportation to the war front. They blew up trains, attacked police stations, and stole food that had been provided for the Germans by peasants.
In Mira’s group, women comprised about a quarter of the partisans. They did the cooking, took care of the laundry and provided other vital support.
Nochim Shelub
While working with the partisans, Mira met her husband Nochim, who was the leader of the group. Nochim had first been in a mixed group run by Russians. However, anti-Semitism was common among the non-Jewish resistance fighters, and so he decided to form his own unit, though he still continued to coordinate activities with the Russians.
On a few attacks Mira carried extra ammunition for her husband’s machine gun, but usually stayed behind to help with work at the camp. In summer the unit slept on the ground in the open forest; in winter they took refuge in underground huts (called zemlyankas), or with sympathetic peasant families. Constant movement was a necessity to avoid detection. When it snowed, they had to alter their tracks into confusing patterns so that they could not be followed. Mira recounts,
“In the frost we did not only fight a physical battle, but also a spiritual battle. We were sitting around the fire, singing songs together, supporting each other and dreaming about betters days and a better future… a better tomorrow.”
After the Russian liberation in 1944, the couple made their way to Austria, then finally to the United States, where Mira had contacts with relatives. They settled in San Francisco, and soon after Norman opened a sandwich shop near the Embarcadero. They had three children: a daughter and two sons. Mira lives in San Francisco and continues speaking with students and educators about her Jewish partisan experience.
Mira recounted the extraordinary story of her partisan experience in her recently publish memoir, "Never the Last Road: A Partisan's Memoir".
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Mira Shelub, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Celebrating Chanukah: An Act of Jewish Resistance

On a Friday evening in December 1932 before the start of Shabbat, the Posner family prepared to light the 8th candle on their Chanukiah as they had done on each of the preceding nights. Across the street from their home stood the town hall, a large and imposing work of old-world German architecture. A Nazi flag prominently hung from the side of the building, flapping in the cold December wind.

Already a powerful political party in 1932, the Nazis did not shy away from using antisemitism as the driving force behind their politics; Rachel Posner considered this as she looked at the menorah prominently displayed in her window in juxtaposition to the flag. Committing one of the earliest documented acts of Jewish resistance to Nazi oppression, she took this photograph, which was subsequently published in a local newspaper.
Rachel Posner was married to Rabbi Akiva Posner, a doctor of philosophy and the only rabbi for the small Jewish community in Kiel, a north German harbor city. Kiel’s congregation of around 500 was not particularly religious, according to Akiva and Rachel’s granddaughter Nava, but Shabbat services were well-attended by Jews and non-Jews alike who wanted to hear Rabbi Posner’s lectures. Though the Nazi party was gaining strength and routinely paraded through the streets, the Posners “were not afraid”, says Nava. It would take another year for that to change.
One year later, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, marking the official start of the Third Reich’s twelve-year reign of terror and oppression. That night, the Nazis organized a torchlight parade; thousands poured into the streets to celebrate the appointment, cheering their new Chancellor and waving the flag bearing the Nazi Party’s dreaded emblem – the infamous black swastika.
Two Symbols
Though the swastika had been an ancient symbol of auspice and power1 in use throughout the entire world for well over ten thousand years, the Nazis co-opted it to symbolize Germany’s racial heritage, connecting with it the racial mythology of the ‘Aryans’ to their future destiny under the Third Reich as conquerors of the world. Nazi propaganda eventually went as far as to state that the swastika in the new German flag symbolized the “victory of the Aryan peoples over Jewry”.
By contrast, the Chanukah menorah – known as the Chanukiah – has a clear and unambiguous meaning. The miracle of the oil burning for eight days is one of the more popular stories in Jewish tradition, and continues to enjoy almost universal recognition today. The true miracle of Chanukah, however, is the act of defiance and the victorious struggle of a small band of Jewish warriors led by Judah Maccabee2 against Greco-Macedonian oppression. The Chanukiah should be proudly displayed in one's window to signify the miracle of the Maccabees' victory. However, this was difficult for Jewish communities in Europe, where the danger of anti-Semitic hostilities was a constant threat.
* * * *
Incorporating a line from a popular Nazi youth party anthem of the time, Rachel wrote the following lines on the back of the photo she took:
"Chanukah, 5692.
‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.
‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

(note that the actual Jewish year was 5693)
The Posners left Germany in 1933, not long after Hitler was given Chancellorship. In the prior spring, the murder of a local lawyer by a Nazi mob during a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses shocked the Posners. (Rabbi Posner had to personally see to it that the man was buried properly.) Shortly before he left, Akiva warned his congregation of the Nazi menace and of the ruin it would bring to the German nation, urging them to leave. After the speech, several congregants told him that he was already a marked man.
Kiel’s Jewish population heeded Posner’s advice – of the 500 Jews that lived in Kiel, only eight died in the concentration camps; the rest had emigrated. After leaving, the Posners eventually settled in Jerusalem, where Akiva helped build a synagogue and a library, and where their descendants live to this day.
The swastika symbol, heralding death to Judaea, is banned in many European countries, and its use is illegal in Germany. The Chanukiah that sat in the Posners’ window in Kiel is on year-round display at Yad Vashem – except for the eight days of Chanukah, when the family proudly displays its lights in the window of their home.

Akiva Baruch Mansbach, the great-grandchild of Rabbi Akiva Baruch Posner (z''l) and a soldier in the IDF, salutes the family Chanukiah.
JPEF's Education Manager Jonathan Furst interviewed the family, who gave us the details and permission to use the photo. The original photograph will be featured in our upcoming Tactics of Resistance lesson plan and E-Learning module – watch our blog for updates in 2013!

1. The origins of the swastika are shrouded in speculation – its twisted form is hypothesized to represent the sun, the seasons, the elements, or perhaps even the tail of a comet. To the Kuna people of Panama, it is the octopus that created the world. Though Hitler “personally” adopted the symbol in the 1920s, it was in use by German populist – or völkisch – movements long before that (including the quasi-occult Thule society, which had numerous ties with the Nazi party). The aforementioned Kuna – who assumed autonomy from the rest of Panama in 1930 – are the only ones who still use the swastika on their flag. In 1942, they added a nose ring to the center to distance themselves from the Nazis.
2. It is said that Judah received his surname, which may be interpreted as “hammer”, because of his ferocity in battle.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Jewish Partisan Frank Blaichman Celebrates his 94th Birthday - Sunday, December 11th

"Those who could not come with us, that could not fight, we found shelter for them by farmers, some of them, who made bunkers for them; and they lived there until the area was liberated. And then in Parczew Forest there were maybe 200 Jews like that, in the forest, living until the end. They were under our protection. All the bandits knew if they were going to touch them, they were going to be punished for that."
— Frank Blaichman.
Born in the small town of Kamionka, Poland on Dec. 11, 1922, Frank Blaichman was just sixteen years old when the German army invaded his country in 1939. Following the invasion, German officials issued regulations intended to isolate the Jews and deprive them of their livelihood.
Frank took great risks to help his parents and family survive these hardships. With a bicycle, he rode from the neighboring farms to nearby cities, buying and selling goods at each destination. He refused to wear the Star of David armband and traveled without the required permits, but his courage and fluent Polish ensured his safety.
When word spread that the Jews of Kamionka were to be resettled in a nearby ghetto, Frank hid in a bushy area outside of town. He stayed with a friendly Polish farmer and then joined other Jews hiding in a nearby forest. In the forest, the threat of being discovered was constant and Polish hoodlums beat any women who left the encampment. Frank encouraged the men to organize a defense unit. He obtained firearms by posing as a Polish policeman, using an overcoat he had found.
After a German attack on the partisans' encampment killed eighty Jews, the survivors left the forest to hide with sympathetic farmers. Always on the move, they killed German collaborators, destroyed telephone lines, damaged dairy factories and ambushed German patrols.
Frank’s squad joined a larger all-Jewish unit, with strong ties to the Polish underground and Soviet army. They were responsible for protecting 200 Jews living in a forest encampment. Only 21, he was the youngest platoon commander in the unit and escorted the future prime minister of Poland to a secret meeting with Soviet high command.
“I’m very proud of what I did all those years,” he says. “The reality was we had nothing to lose, and our way to survive was to fight.”
Frank Blaichman's memoir, Rather Die Fighting, was published in 2009 by Arcade Publishing.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Frank Blaichman, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan, as well as the Frank Blaichman: A Partisan Leader's Story study guide.
You can also read a JPEF interview with Frank Blaichman here, as well as a Q&A with schoolchildren from Toronto (click to read part one and part two of the series). Frank Blaichman is also one of JPEF's featured partisans on Facing History and Ourselves new web pages featuring Jewish resistance during the Holocaust at https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/resistance-during-holocaust.

Young Frank (left) with his friends.

Frank's wife Cesia (z''l) in 1945.

Frank Blaichman with Defiance director Ed Zwick

Frank Blaichman with Jewish partisans Rose Holm (center) and Isadore Farbstein (left).

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Jewish Partisan Walter Marx (z''l) Lost His Family Home on Kristallnacht

"I believe that the Italian partisans were very effective in pinning down a certain amount of German troops...And of course, the Italians, partisans, were ultimately in a position to arrest Mussolini and to put an end to the fascist regime in Italy... I believe that the Italian partisans did a lot to reestablish the good name of the Italian people by wiping out some of the bad things that the fascist had committed. And by putting themselves on the side of the allies, they negated the portion that Italy had played in being part of the, uh, fascist axis comprising Germany, Italy, and Japan."
–Walter Marx
Walter was born on February 27, 1926 to a family of wholesale paper merchants in Heilbronn, an industrial hub in southern Germany. When the antisemitism he experienced from his classmates and teacher became unbearable, 9 year old Walter was sent to Luxembourg to live with relatives and attend school there. When the Nazi Aryanization laws came into effect in 1938, Walter’s father was forced to relinquish control of their business; on Kristallnacht, the family home was destroyed and his father was taken to Dachau, where he lost a finger to frostbite after being made to stand out in the rain all night. The Germans eventually released his father and both parents left the country to join Walter.
But only 10 days after Walter's family managed to secure an apartment in Luxemburg, the Nazis invaded, eventually expelling Walter and his family down to the southern coast of France, where they lived in an apartment until 1942. Walter was 14 at the time, and found work as an errand boy to support the family. In 1942, the Germans occupied the town and the family got word that Jewish males were being arrested, so they fled to the village of Lamalou-les-Bains, in the interior of France. There, the French police arrested Walter's father and he was never heard from again - they eventually found out he was sent to his death at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland.

The remaining family got word that the Jews were relatively safe in the Italian-occupied part of France, so they made their way to Nice, where they were directed by the local Jewish community to a nearby village by the name of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, which became a safe haven for Jews1.
You could hear Yiddish. You could hear French. You could hear Polish. You could hear Russian. You could hear any language, any European language, you know and people were standing in the street talking loud and nobody could touch them because the Italians were protecting us. This was fine and this, these were probably the best days of my life. I was 17 years old at the time and also my father was missing. You know, he had been deported before. We were pretty happy.
But those days came to an end in autumn of 1943 - Mussolini was deposed, and the Italian army capitulated to the Allies. Having no reason to remain in France, the Italian army started simply walking back home across the Alps. Having heard that the Germans were heading for the village, Walter's family - along with around a thousand other Jews - followed the retreating army over the mountains into Italy.
There were no roads. People were carrying children. People were carrying suitcases which they abandoned after a short while and we walked for two or three days until we descended on the other side...
The first small town in Italy they reached was Borgo San Dalmazzo. It had already been absorbed by the German army, and Walter was warned to flee by an innkeeper's daughter he befriended, as the Germans were rounding up all foreigners, and anyone who failed to report to them will be shot. Exhausted by the trek, the family decided to flee no more and reported to the German authorities. They were put in a camp with 350 other people, and Walter was put to work clearing out equipment and supplies left behind by the fleeing Italian army in their barracks. One night, he broke one of the vertebrae in his spine, and was hospitalized for months. "I screamed and I lost consciousness and I remember waking up as my companions, with a German soldier, with an SS actually, an SS man, were carrying me to a hospital," he remembers. While he was in the hospital, the same innkeeper's daughter would come to visit him every few days. It was she who informed him that his mother and cousin were deported to a concentration camp along with the other 350 prisoners, where they were both killed.

At the end of his convalescence, the hospital director told Walter that the SS were inquiring if he was fit enough to be transported, so Walter fled to Genoa, where the bishop of Cunio was supposed to arrange for help. However, the arrangement fell through, and Walter had no choice but to return to the inn at Borgo San Dalmazzo. Though his young acquaintance there was not able to shelter him, she promised to introduce him to the Underground, as his thick German accent would have raised some suspicions if he had tried to go there by himself.
Walter joined the Underground in 1944. Because his spinal injury left him unable to walk without a cane, his primary responsibility was to solicit food from Italian farmers and manage paperwork. They lived up in the mountains in groups no larger than 20-25 people. The area was under partisan control: the local population was largely supportive, and the local authorities issued most of the partisans fake ID documents. To explain his thick accent, Walter's ID stated that he was born in France, near the German border.
One day, Walter was rounded up while attempting to buy food and taken to a jail in Cunio. After several days, as he was being taken to interrogation, a man walked up to him and offered to help him if Walter would act as an Italian interpreter for the German SS. Walter agreed, and to his surprise, the policemen that were escorting his group to interrogation simply let the strange man lead him away, out of their sight. As an Italian interpreter for the SS headquarters, he gathered critical intelligence, which he would relay every night to his liaison - a double agent working for the Underground. With the intelligence he learned, Walter even captured an Italian spy sent to locate Jews and partisans hiding in the mountainside. His unit actively engaged the Germans, once stalling a convoy of troops from advancing on a strategic road to France by employing mortar and small arms fire.

Walter after the war
After the war, Walter studied to be a dental mechanic in a school outside Paris, and eventually immigrated to the United States in October of 1946. He married his wife Ellen in 1950, and settled down in New York, finding work with a freight forwarding company in lower Manhattan.
In 1997, Walter was invited by the Italian government to be honored for his role in the Underground. The woman who hid him in her parents' hotel - now in her 80s - was there in the crowd as he gave a speech, and when he mentioned her role in his story, she raised her hand and shouted, "I was that lady!" Walter eventually invited her to New York, where she spent a week with his family. This touching story made the front page of the New York Times.
Walter passed away on August 13th, 2013. He is survived by his wife, three sons, and five grandsons.
Speaking about his odyssey through war-torn Europe, Walter would often tell his children, "the experience has helped me face life with a lot of courage, and surviving has given me a sense of pride.”

1. Due to the efforts of Angelo Donati, an influential Jewish banker who used his military and diplomatic connections to get the Italian authorities to protect the Jews from the Germans and the French, the Italian authorities of Nice sent any Jewish refugees to Saint-Martin-Vésubie, where they lived under the protection of the Italian army.