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Monday, October 15, 2018

Don Felson (z''l) Dynamited Railroads to Disrupt German Conveys Carrying Supplies

Don Felson was born October 12th, 1925 in Glubokie, Poland. A small town about a hundred miles northeast of Vilna, the town sits on a low plain amidst hills in present-day Belarus. In 1941, the Germans invaded Glubokie, and promptly established a ghetto for the town’s Jewish inhabitants.

Don, who had a job at a German POW infirmary at the time, was tipped off about the first massacre by a sympathetic German doctor, who warned him not to return to the ghetto on the night of the raid.
As Russian POWs began to escape from the camp where Don worked, rumors of partisan units hidden in the forests spread throughout the village. In the fall of 1942, Don’s older brother Stan left for the forest – he convinced a Jewish partisan who was seeking recruits to take him along, despite the fact that he had no combat experience and no weapon.

The Felson family: Stan Felson on the left, Don Felson on the right

Six months later Stan returned for Don. Though Stan made it seem like joining the partisans was a matter of survival, Stan’s haggard and disheveled appearance made Don skeptical. At first he declined, but with his mother’s urging, he agreed to join Stan. He brought their mother and younger brother along with them, sequestering them in a friendly village while the two teenagers went off to join the Panomorenko company. However, a few months later the SS murdered Don’s mother and brother – along with the entire village – after having learned that a mother of a partisan was living there.

Filled with the need for vengeance, the boys dynamited railroads and ambushed German convoys, killing soldiers and building a reputation for valor. They also supplied the group with food by taking it from the local population and smuggling it back into the camps. As the war progressed and the German army was beaten back from the Russian interior, the Soviets began to airdrop short wave radios, weapons, and other much-needed supplies to the partisans in White Russia. The partisans were even able to evacuate their wounded behind enemy lines. Finally, when the Soviet army liberated the area, they enjoyed their hard won victory as the Germans beat a hasty westward retreat.
As was the case with most partisans, the Felson brothers were assimilated into the Soviet army, but soon became separated when Don was discharged for an ulcer he developed. Stan continued to fight in the Soviet Army, but soon reunited with Don when they met back in Glubokie, where they both made plans to flee westward. Staying clear of the Soviet army, they escaped through Poland to American-occupied Germany, where they ended up at a DP camp.
Back during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, Don’s great-uncle Saul was stationed at the front; afterwards, he managed to cross the Pacific and settle down in San Francisco. The two brothers hoped to join him there. From the DP camp, the brothers used their network of family and friends to secure visas to the United States. They arrived in San Francisco in 1947 and went to work for Saul’s contracting business. Not long after, Don met and married his wife. Their three sons took over the family business after Don passed away in 2002.
For more on Don – including 9 video clips of him reflecting upon his time as a partisan – visit his bio page on the JPEF website.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Mourning the Loss of Jewish Partisan Sonia Orbuch (z''l)

“I didn’t even bend down my head, I wasn’t worried that I was going to get killed, If I was going to get killed I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew.”
— Sonia Orbuch, during JPEF interview.

Sarah Shainwald was 14 years old and ready to begin high school when the bombs began falling on September 1st, marking the official start of World War II. The Soviets invaded Poland from the east and Luboml was handed to the Russians under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland between the two powers.

For two years, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war with worries about her family’s future. Then in 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family were confined to the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.

When the Nazis began killing Jews in the ghetto, it did not take long for the news to spread. Sarah's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but this group only accepted young men – so the open forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.

Eventually, Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, her uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group. Thus Sarah began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for sabotage and resistance missions.

Sarah was renamed Sonia by the partisans, for 'Sarah' is not a common Russian name and would have exposed her to danger from various anti-Semitic elements. Early on, Sonia was assigned guard duty and tasked with providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.

In the winter of 1943-44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. The camp had several thousand members and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital. Sonia recalls her day-to-day experience there:
“During the daytime, the fights were terrible...you didn’t take off your shoes, you didn’t wash; you barely ate. You just worked very hard providing whatever comfort your could...I was frightened, horrified at the numbers of people we lost.”

To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades with her at all times, “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”

In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house. They were unaware that the house was infected with typhus, which soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.

As the war ended, Sonia focused her energy on getting to America. Sonia eventually moved to Northern California. But the past was never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia always said. “I see them always before my eyes.”

In her JPEF interview, and during many classroom visits and Yom HaShoah presentations, Sonia defiantly proclaimed. “I want young people to know we were fighting back and that you can always find a way to fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter and not because I am a Jew. That itself gave me strength to go on."

Sonia realized that while terror was raging around her, kindness always managed to shine through. “I feel great respect for the Russian people who were so brave and helpful to us,” Sonia said “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”

Sonia vividly recounts her struggles and perservance during the war in her memoir Here There Are No Sarahs.

Sadly, Sonia passed away on Sunday, September 30th, surrounded by family and loved ones. She was 93 years old. During her lifetime, she inspired those whose lives she touched. The Board and staff of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation extend their deepest condolences to Sonia's family and friends.

Sonia is survived by her son Paul Orbuch and daughter-in law Lisa King, her daughter and son-in-law Bella and Dan Whelan, her granddaughter Eva Orbuch, and her step-granddaughter Fraya King.

May her memory be a blessing.

Sonia was the subject of JPEF's 2012 Youth Writing Contest and is pictured below with the winner EJ Weiss:
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about the Sonia Orbuch, including seven videos of Sonia reflecting on her time as a partisan. You can also download our study guide Sonia Orbuch: A Young Woman With The Russian Partisans.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Featured Jewish Partisan - Marisa Diena, born on September 29th

"They didn’t know that I was Jewish. It didn’t cross my mind because there, like I said, everyone thought that I was Mara... But there was also Ulisse, Polifemo, Lampo, Fulmine ... they all had battle names. You didn’t know anything about anyone. It wasn’t important. So most people didn’t know that I was Jewish."
— Marisa Diena.
Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy, on September 29, 1916. Marisa was eight years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy and was taught to love Fascism. In 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, which banned Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.
After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique; since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion. As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to her commander. In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.
In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25th, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa remained in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children. She passed away on May 8th, 2013.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Marisa Diena, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Jewish partisan Charles Bedzow Fought with the Bielski Brigade


Charles Bedzow was born Chonon Bedzowski in 1924 in the town of Lida, located in present-day Belarus. Once the Germans occupied Lida, Charles and his family were stuffed into an overcrowded, disease ridden ghetto within the town. He and his family suffered under the constant threat of starvation in the gradually worsening conditions. In the spring of 1942, he watched as his fellow townspeople were methodically slaughtered, but by a miracle, his immediate family was spared.
Fortunately, partisan leader Tuvia Bielski was a family friend to the Bedzowski family – the two families had been close before the war. After the occupation, Tuvia sent a message to the Bedzowski family – the message urged them to escape the liquidation of the ghetto by fleeing into the nearby woods, where the Bielskis had set up camp after the liquidation of their own village. Charles escaped to the woods and joined the Bielski Brigade. Because the Bielski camp allowed refugees regardless of their age or gender, Charles was joined by his mother, Chasia, his older sister Leah, younger sister Sonia, and younger brother Benny. Almost the entire family survived the Holocaust – an extreme rarity.
The Bedzowski family’s escape into the woods was complex and extremely dangerous. They traversed the treacherous landscape, crawled under fences and walked through the woods for two days, exhausted. Charles reported his thoughts upon arriving at the Bielski camp: “This must be one of the few places in all of Europe where Jews can move in total freedom.”
Despite the fact that like many partisans, Charles was only 17 when he entered the Bielski Brigade, he was quickly entrusted with dangerous work. His missions included the gathering of supplies for the group, scouting, sabotaging German efforts, and participating in ambushes. One such ambush occurred on January 28th, 1944. A group of Bielski partisans went to a local village, pretending to be drunk. Their raucous noise alerted the locals, who notified the Germans nearby. 150 partisans lay in wait for the Germans, and they killed 26 policemen and eight Nazi officers during the ambush.
Unfortunately, the Bedzowski family’s participation in the partisan movement was not without a price. On one of her missions to bring medicine and Jews to the brigade from a nearby ghetto, Charles’s sister, Sonia, was caught by enemy forces and sent to the Treblinka death camp, where she died.
Following the war, the remaining members of the Bedzowski family wound up in a displaced persons camp in Torino, Italy. Charles married a fellow partisan from Poland, Sara Golcman, in 1946. In 1949 he and his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he started a successful international real estate firm. Charles and Sara had three children; his surviving brother and sister went on to raise families of their own, and his mother, Chasia, not only survived the war, but went on to live with Charles until her death in 2000.
Charles is JPEF’s Honorary International Chairman. His story is featured in We Fought Back, an anthology of partisan stories from Scholastic publishing. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Charles Bedzow, including three videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sukkot, the Holocaust, and Spiritual Resistance

As Sukkot 1941 approached, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto were in tremendous peril. Food was running scarce, and Jews were desperate to gather whatever resources they could, no matter the cost. But for a few days of that fateful year, the crowds did not seek food, form lines to exchange heirloom jewelry for sundries, or stand for hours for a chance at obtaining enough sustenance for their families Instead, they waited to bless the miraculous appearance of the four species celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkot: etrog, lulav, hadas, and aravah.
In the spirit of true non-violent resistance, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto chose to celebrate in the face of loss, death, and violence. The leader of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to gather the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrogs (citron) were not only scarce, but practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time. However, as though it too intended to take its part in the resistance, the etrog appeared and was brought back into the ghetto.
Though outlooks were becoming grim due to recent violence and worsening conditions, Jews from all classes and levels of religious commitment came to stand under the makeshift sukkah. Despite the severe scarcity of firewood in the ghetto, an amount was specially set aside to build the sukkah. A single act of celebration became a moment of courageous resistance, with residents of the Lodz Ghetto choosing not only to celebrate holidays in defiance of Nazi policy, thereby endangering themselves, but also by dedicating precious resources for ritual use.
This Sukkot, standing underneath your own sukkah with etrogim, think not only of a bountiful new year’s beginning, but of the atmosphere in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941: frigid, destitute, oft hopeless, and yet, under the sukkah, brave, defiant, and proudly Jewish.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Spiritual Resistance on Yom Kippur - Ruth Szabo Brand (1928 - 2011)

Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.
In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.
Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.
The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.
Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur, 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Citizens of Denmark Foiled the Nazis' Deportation Plan on Rosh Hashana

Their mission was supposed to be easy – armed with a list of addresses, small teams made up of men from the SS and one Danish guide were supposed to fan out across Copenhagen and northern Zealand. They were tasked with rounding up Denmark's 8,000 Jews who would be at home with their families observing Rosh Hashanah. They planned to send the entire population to Nazi extermination camps across Europe.
The second day of Rosh Hashana fell on October 1st, 1943, roughly a month after the resignation of the Danish government – the last political obstacle between the citizens of Denmark and Hitler’s plans to implement the “Final Solution” and eliminate all Danish Jews.
In most cases, however, the round-up teams found empty houses and apartments waiting for them. The entire Jewish population had been warned days in advance to go into hiding and to spread the word about the planned deportations. By the time the SS began knocking on doors, most of the country’s Jews were either in hiding, or on their way to the coast. Most eventually made it safely across the Øresund strait into neutral Sweden.
The majority of Denmark’s Jewish population escaped Nazi persecution, and their casualties were the lowest in all of occupied Europe. How were the Danes so successful in such a blatant act of resistance against the Nazis?

“A model protectorate”

Because of the tolerant and inclusive climate Jews have enjoyed in Denmark since the Napoleonic Wars, Danish society, by and large, considered Danish Jews to be Danes, first and foremost. Danish Jews were granted full citizenship rights almost a hundred years prior to World War II. The Danish monarch, King Christian X, defiantly insisted on visiting the central synagogue in Copenhagen even after Hitler came to power in Germany, becoming the first Nordic monarch to visit a synagogue. (However, the popular tale of the king wearing the yellow star in solidarity with Danish Jews is a myth1.) As a result of such a social climate, the people of Denmark, and the Danish Underground, naturally rallied together to hide and smuggle their fellow citizens without any friction. Many smugglers did not charge for passage, and even the Danish police helped in the rescue effort.
Germany was reluctant to pressure the Danes for several reasons. First, the Nazis hoped to promote occupied Denmark as an example of a “model protectorate” to the world. Second,Danish meat and dairy provided sustenance to over 3 million Germans. Upsetting this balance would have had negative political consequences for the Reich. Even ideologically-committed Nazis saw the need for moderation, although increased activity by the Danish Resistance, and the grim news from the Eastern Front, made moderation untenable to Hitler by mid-1943. Although the orders came from the very top, at first the Gestapo did not allocate enough manpower for the mission, and the unenthusiastic German army and navy units called in to support them often turned a blind eye to escapees.
The effort to rescue Denmark's Jews was successful, due in large part to the efforts of ordinary citizens, but prominent public figures also made significant contributions.Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German maritime attaché and a secret moderate, had lived in Scandinavian countries for many years and enjoyed a warm relationship with Denmark’s elites. On September 28th, he leaked word of the planned deportations to the leader of the Social Democrats, and the news spread across all levels of civil society. Nobel physicist Niels Bohr played a part - he petitioned the king of Sweden to make public his offer of asylum to Danish Jews shortly after he himself was smuggled into Sweden en route to the US to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. Though it is uncertain how this plea factored into the decision, Sweden announced its offer of asylum on the 2nd of October.
In the end, the Nazis managed to deport only around 450 Jews; most were sent to Theresienstadt, where they remained until the end of the war. Because of pressure from Danish authorities, and frequent visits from the Red Cross, the Nazis accepted packages of food and medicine for the prisoners. More importantly, they were persuaded not to deport the Danes to the Auschwitz extermination camp – a fate that would have meant certain death. An estimated 120 Danish Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust.
The entire Danish Underground was awarded the status of “Righteous Among The Nations”. In 1971, Yad Vashem honored Duckwitz with the same title.

1. The myth originates in pro-Danish PR campaigns of the time to counter criticism that Denmark did not adequately resist the occupation – even though to do so militarily would have been tantamount to national suicide. The effort enlisted the help of Edward L. Bernays, father of modern PR, godfather to the term "Banana Republic", and a highly controversial figure in his own right. (It is said that Nazi arch-propagandist Joseph Goebbles was an ardent student of Mr. Bernays and had memorized many of his books, despite the fact that Bernays himself was Jewish.)