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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Partisan Tools for Survival: The Forests and Swamps

"And I saw the trees very big trees, heavy trees and it was a wind and it was blowing the trees back and forth. And I said here we come this will be our life we have to sleep here to live here. Snow, rain or whatever… this is our home and we have to take it."
— Sam Gruber.

For partisans like Sam Gruber, the nearby forests and swamps were a mixed blessing. For the same reason they provided protection, they could also be treacherous. It was a setting, however, that sheltered many partisans throughout Europe.

Sonia Orbuch explains: “We had to choose a place with so many trees. In a way it was like a protection.” The forests were great forts, thickly wooded—the swamps, their endless moats. “Without the forest we couldn’t survive,” Norman Salsitz declares.

These were territories not so easily tread by invading forces—even local collaborators stayed away from the swamps and forests. Don Felson explains that there were, “a lot of forests in my part of the country, huge forests that, once you’re in the forest, they’re not gonna find you.” Not that it was easy for the partisans, either. Mira Shelub tries to describe the miserable feeling of having to trudge through the swamps “one foot in, one foot out, one foot in, one foot out”: “Because you become so desperate when you go, you know: it's swamps… you don't know when or how will it end.”

Jewish Partisans in a Yugoslavian Forest

Out of necessity, partisans used the forest for their benefit. Others were not so adept at navigating the woods. Jeff Gradow speaks about the ability to read the forest: “On the big trees, on the north side, what do you call, the moss is growing, and so we know if this is north, south, east, west. We have no compasses, and still nobody got lost. Even today, after so many years, I go in the woods, it doesn't bother me. I can find my way out.”

The forests, the swamps, though difficult, were a symbol of a relief to many—if only because they meant escape and obscurity. Fleeing to the forest, “is the first time I felt like a free human being,” says Jeff Gradow. “Even I didn't know where the heck I'm going to go, or what I'm going to do.” Mira Shelub invokes a similar feeling: “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 see the trees, it was something, a special, special experience.”

Photo taken in 1999 of a zemlyanka in the Naroch forest, Belarus. From Alexander Bogen’s book, Revolt.

1 comment:

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