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Friday, January 11, 2019

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

This year we celebrate the “New Year for Trees” on January 21st. Tu B’Shevat is an agricultural holiday celebrated on the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar. In contemporary times we most closely associate the holiday with eating fruit and planting new trees, but it holds tremendous significance in 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 was well suited for 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.

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