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Friday, June 27, 2014

Italian Jewish Resistance During World War II

“[M]y way of life and the reason for my life for many months have only been an effort to leap into humanity, to share its existence, hard or easy that it may be. If I did not act this way, I would be renouncing myself, I would remain without a guide, humiliated. And thereby I would also be renouncing you who have given me life and nourished me.”

–Gianfranco Sarfatti, an Italian Jew, writing to his parents about why he joined a partisan group.

Italian Jews like Sarfatti who joined resistance groups came from a wide spectrum of political, economic, religious, and social backgrounds. Eugenio Calo, the owner of a machine shop in Arezzo, joined a partisan group to avenge his wife and children, who were deported to Germany. Eugenio Colorni, a professor of philosophy in Milan, became the leader of a Roman resistance group.

The Italian resistance groups that Jews were a part of were for the most part not founded on Jewish identity, but instead were integrated groups that readily accepted Jews to fight alongside them against a common enemy. Italian Jewish partisans were generally not deeply religious, with the exception of a small minority. However, there is evidence of religious life and observance of tradition: Augusto Segre, who was raised in a strict Jewish family, mentioned in his memoir of celebrating Yom Kippur during his time as a partisan.

As in other countries, the number of Jewish women who joined the Italian resistance groups was limited due to sexism. Conversely, they were viewed as less of a threat than their male counterparts, and thus could move around easier to gather crucial intelligence. Marisa Diena, who became the vice-commander of her unit, was a valuable asset for her group because her disarming appearance allowed her to ride through the countryside on her bicycle without arousing suspicion, gathering vital information from local informers along the way.

The emergence of Italian Jewish resistance was unique due to the facts surrounding the existence of the Fascist regime in Italy, whose leaders remained close allies of Hitler even after they were deposed and Italy surrendered to the Allies. On the fateful day of September 8, 1943, Italy was divided in half by the Armistice of Cassibile, which delegated the North to the German-backed regime and the South to the Allies. Though this agreement signified Italy's surrender and effectively cut its ties with the Axis, the end of fascism was not synonymous with the end of the war for Italy. A few months before in July, Mussolini had been arrested. However, the Germans staged a cunning raid to free the erstwhile dictator, and he became the figurehead leader of a fascist puppet regime in the north until his capture and execution by Italian partisans.

Following the September 8 armistice, Germany immediately annulled the contract it had created with Italy's Fascist government not to deport Italian Jews (who were located in Germany territory) to German-controlled land in the East. This malicious turn of events led to a surge in Jewish resistance, lasting until the end of the war.

The rise of anti-Fascist political resistance was an important precursor for the subsequent rise of armed resistance in Italy. The Giustizia e Liberta - a significant non-communist partisan group in Italy - was highly favored by the Allies, who provided it with material support. Due to its strong affiliation to well-respected Jewish resistance fighters, it was highly appealing to Jews who were looking to join partisan groups in Italy.

An important distinction for Italian Jews was their deep sense of Italian identity that was reflective of their wide assimilation into their Italian communities at large. Instead of exclusively identifying themselves as Jews, they instead formed alliances along political lines, notably supporters of fascism versus those against this agenda. Fighting in a resistance group allowed them to display their loyalty to their country as well as simultaneously advocating for their religious rights as a Jew.

To learn more about Italian Jewish resistance check out our website here: bit.ly/1sILNs6

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Friday, June 13, 2014

Jewish Partisan Resistance in Belgium

Disguised as German security agents, a small group of Jewish partisans stormed the office of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council in Brussels. Holding the officials at gunpoint, this allowed two more of their comrades to sneak into the head office and set fire to the records of Belgian Jews that were used for deportation.

This act of sabotage was constructed by Jacob Gutfreund, a Polish-Jewish refugee and two other partisan leaders who devised this elaborate plan to save the lives of fellow Jews from being deported to concentration camps. Jacob led one of the three groups of Jewish partisans who were based in Brussels. His partisan group was responsible for armed attacks against Nazis and their collaborators including demolishing enemy railroads, weapon manufacturing sites and energy plants.

On May 10, 1940, Belgium was occupied by the Germans. Six months later, the Nazis took over the Jewish Community Council. In response, the Committee for the Defense of Jews (CDJ) was created in Brussels to protect the rights of the Belgian Jewish population and assist with partisan groups likes Jacob's, to help them destroying German targets. Another important task for the CDJ was creating a network of trustworthy contracts that would provide a safe haven for hiding Jewish children.

Paul Halter, another member of a Belgian Jewish partisan group, acquired last-minute news of a raid on a church that held nineteen Jewish children who were in hiding. With the raid imminent, Halter and another man dressed up as members of the Gestapo, and came to “collect the children” at gunpoint from the nuns. To pacify the terrified children, the two men spoke in Hebrew to them, letting them know not all was as it seems. When the Nazis arrived later, they were astonished to hear that members of the Gestapo had already made the pickup – realizing they had been duped, they left empty-handed.

Georges LivchitzBeginning in September 1943, Belgian Jews were deported to concentration camps. Although the details of the deportations were always shrouded in secrecy, a Jewish partisan group gained news that on April 19, 1943, there would be a transport called Convoy 20, leaving for Auschwitz. The local partisans enlisted the help of fellow partisans Georges Livchitz and his brother Alexander Livchitz, who had gained experience in sabotage from their membership as national Belgian partisans. The brothers made their way to the Tirlemont region located in Northeast Belgium and waited for the train to approach. As the train with the captives neared, Georges flagged it down with a red lantern and the partisans rushed onto the train and freed the passengers who escaped into the woods.

The attack on Convoy 20 is the only documented attack of partisans freeing prisoners. Georges and Alexander were later executed in the Belgian camp Breendonk. Jacob was deported to Auschwitz, where he survived for two years until he was liberated. He immigrated in 1957 to Israel, where he became a leader of the Organization of Partisans, Ghetto Rebels in Israel and Underground Fighters.

Learn more about Jewish partisan resistance in Belgium here.

-By Julia Kitlinski-Hong.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan: Chaya Porus Palevsky Blog

Obeying a last-minute command from a friend, Chaya jumped off a train filled with residents of the Swieciany ghetto, bound for the town of Kovno. Not long afterwards, in Vilna, she learned that everyone on the train – including her entire family – was murdered by the Nazis.

Swieciany (Švenčionys), the small town where Chaya was born, is located in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, 84 kilometers north of Vilnius. In June 1941, the Nazis forced all the town’s Jews into a ghetto. Chaya and her family became active in housing runaway Jews and their home became a meeting place for people who wanted to learn about the war. Chaya's sister Rochel, who was a registered nurse, worked in the secret hospital and was known as the “angel of the ghetto” for her tireless efforts helping the sick.


The town of Švenčionys, circa 1916 (German postcard)

After she found out the Nazis murdered her family, Chaya turned grief into action by joining a partisan group led by Fedor Markov, a well-respected teacher from her hometown. Typically, women were not allowed to fight in resistance groups, but Chaya gained admittance by proving her usefulness with a small handheld Belgian gun she owned. Her group formed alliances with other Jewish partisan groups, and a Jewish unit was formed. They called it “Nekamah” – which means revenge in Hebrew. Markov boldly stated “You should be proud, you are young and very brave people.” Nekamah flourished into a thriving partisan outpost, with around ninety members, all living deep in the woods in zemlyankas (underground bunkers that held up to twenty people, carefully camouflaged into the forest floor). There were also smaller bunkers, including one designated for ill partisans.

Chaya's partisan group lived up to their name, as they participated in significant acts of retribution against the Nazis. Nekamah burned down an electric station, derailed trains, destroyed German weapons and food sources. They were also active in communicating news about the resistance and warning people in nearby villages and ghettos about the Nazis’ plans of mass extermination.

The small percentage of women – including Chaya – who had gained membership into partisan groups, experienced a different set of hardships than their male counterparts once they were accepted. Unwanted advances from male partisans were all too common. Women were often assigned to gender-related tasks like cooking and cleaning, instead of fighting.


Partisans from the "Nekama" unit. Photo credit: Ghetto Fighters House/Eliat Gordon Levitan.

Eventually, Nekamah was dismantled by the Soviets, who would not allow Jewish partisan groups under their watch. After liberation, Chaya went on to marry a fellow partisan, Simon and immigrated to New York City, where they opened up a jewelry business and spent the rest of their lives. They had two sons and remained active in assisting Holocaust survivors in finding employment.

To find out more about Jewish women partisans, please visit our curriculum page.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong