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Monday, January 13, 2020

Reliving the Inspiring Story of Jewish Partisan Mira Shelub During Women's History Month

"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. In the summer, the unit slept on the ground in the open forest; during 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.

In February 2019, JPEF Director of Development and Outreach Sheri Rosenblum enjoyed a lovely visit with Mira and her daughter Elaine in San Francisco.

Mira recounts the extraordinary story of her partisan experience in her memoir Never the Last Road: A Partisan's Life. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Mira Shelub, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

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 anti-semitism 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 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 became Chancellor. 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.

The original photograph is featured in JPEF's Tactics of Resistance lesson plan and E-Learning module.

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, November 8, 2019

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 — then 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 13, 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.



Friday, October 18, 2019

Abe Asner's Military Training Helped Him Save Lives

"Grodno still was a ghetto, and lots of people went back to the ghetto like Saul, his father, his mother. And I said, “Me and my brothers, we’re not going back to the ghetto. We’re not going. We’re going to win, doesn’t matter what. If I die, I’ll die standing up — not to shoot me in the back.”
-Abe Asner
Jewish partisan Abe Asner (z''l), was born in the district of Lida, Poland on October 19, 1916. In 1938, Abe followed in the footsteps of his brothers and joined the Polish army. On June 22, 1941, Abe was visiting a cousin in Lithuania when he awoke to the sight of German planes littering the sky with bombs. When German tanks surrounded the ghetto where Abe and his brothers were staying, they had to make a choice: stay among the 3,000 Jews who were facing imminent death or flee to the forests. Abe disappeared into the trees with nothing but the clothes on his back.

The forest proved to be a breeding ground for resistance fighters. Soon Abe was among 60 Jewish and Russian POWs running missions. His military training gave him the skills to kill German soldiers who attempted to search the dense forest. In the beginning, Abe thought the resistance would only last a few weeks. It continued for over four years, and their partisan unit grew to several thousand people, including the woman who became Abe’s wife.

Abe and his brothers were successful on many missions. They sabotaged enemy supplies, halted German food convoys, and rescued Jews from ghettos. They frustrated the Germans with their efficiency under the cover of darkness. “The night was our mother,” Abe remembers. Eventually the Germans placed a bounty on their heads. “So much money to catch us, dead or alive,” Abe recalls.

The ongoing violence of the Partisan missions wore away at Abe’s psyche. When the war finally ended, he worked hard to adjust to normal life. Despite the physical and emotional scars he carried, Abe knew his deeds helped to shape the lives of countless people.

Abe’s passion burned brightly when he recalled his partisan days. “We don’t go like sheep. We did as much as we could. We did a lot,” he said. “People should know somebody did (fight back). People should know.”

After the war Abe moved to Canada with his wife where they had two daughters and four grandchildren. Abe passed away on May 26, 2015 at the age of 98.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Abe Asner, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Monday, October 14, 2019

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

Don Felson was born October 12, 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 after he developed an ulcer. 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.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

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, October 7, 2019

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 in 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.