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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sonia Orbuch, Born May 24

“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 start 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 Lubomi was handed to the Russians under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland between the two powers.

For two years, with Lubomi under the Soviets, 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 Sara 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 to guard duty and 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 on her person, “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. These days, Sonia lives in Northern California. But the past is never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia says. “I see them always before my eyes.”
Sonia defiantly proclaims. “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 says. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”
She continues to share her experiences - most recently, she participated in our live Q&A Partisan Webcast. Over twenty schools tuned in to watch. She was also featured in several of the winning essays from our 2012 Youth Writing Contest - click here to read them. Pictured below is Sonia with last year's contest 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.
Sonia has written about her experiences in the partisans in her book Here, There Are No Sarahs: A Woman's Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream, available on Amazon.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jewish Partisan - Harry Burger, born on May 10th

Harry Burger was born on May 10th, 1924 in Vienna, Austria. The son of a textile merchant, Harry enjoyed an affluent and comfortable upbringing. As a child growing up in a large house, he was left to his own devices a great deal, which helped form his defiant and independent character.
The family lived in Vienna until 1938, when Germany annexed Austria and the German Nuremberg laws were put into effect there. Harry remembers the day he was barred from entering the building of his Jewish school:
“I went to school the next possible day and at the door they were waiting for me and the other Jews and says, ‘You don’t belong to this school anymore. You get out and you go to the next block or two and there’s a public school, and that’s where you’re gonna go.’ So not thinking of nothing, we went up there and I went in. They took me to a classroom and about 30 kids jumped on me and beat the heck out of me.”
As the Nazis continued with their campaigns of persecution in Austria and other occupied territories, the Burger family made plans to escape to France. They escaped through Italy (travelers did not require permits to enter an ally of Germany), where the borders were more porous.
Their hopes for a safe, quiet life were dashed when France was conquered by Germany in 1940. While trying to get a visa to Cuba, Harry’s father was arrested and detained for many months, only to be sent to Auschwitz in the end. Meanwhile, Harry and his mother remained in Nice.
In the summer of 1940, rumors of an impending German invasion were in the air. But instead of the German army, Nice and the surrounding areas in the southeast of France were occupied by the Italians – a gift from Hitler to Mussolini. The Italians were not nearly as abusive to Jews, and life under the Italians was good.
As the war progressed, Italy experienced humiliation on the battlefield and growing discontent at home. The occupation of southeastern France did not last, and the Italians eventually returned across the Alps. Harry, his mother, and 700 other Jews took the opportunity to follow them into Italy, but the Nazis were not far behind. When they arrived at an Italian fort, Harry learned the Nazis were en route to collect the Jews. Harry and his mother escaped capture, while more than 350 of the others were taken by the Nazis.
Right around this time, Italy withdrew from the war, Mussolini was deposed as a leader and the Germans were “coming to the rescue of their allies” by occupying the northern half of the country. Harry and his mother were living in a barn on the Italian-French border when he spotted a group of Italian soldiers. They told them they were leaving for the mountains because the Germans have occupied the town, and Harry asked if he could join them.
“I said to him, ‘Is there a chance that I can join you?’ And he says, ‘Sure.’ And he motioned to one of his guys and he came with a rifle and he gave me the rifle and says, ‘You know what that is?’ I says, ‘Yeah, it’s a rifle.’ ‘You know how to shoot it?’ ‘No. No idea.’ He showed me. He handed it to me and says, ‘You are now a Partisan.’”
In this fashion, Harry Burger became a partisan in the First Alpine Division, where he used his fluency in German to interrogate captured soldiers. As was the case with many Italian partisans, Harry was given a nickname – Biancastella, after the last name of the officer with whom Harry had to exchange his civilian clothes. The officer needed civilian clothes to go into town and find out the latest war news; unfortunately, the officer never returned, and Harry was left with his uniform – and his ID card.

Harry Burger - aka "Biancastella" - in the mountains
Initially, the First Alpine Division was under-equipped, however they eventually received Allied support in the form of airdropped munitions and clothing. One of First Alpine’s most important tasks was to sabotage German electric capabilities. Northern Italy had an electrically powered train system, meaning the destruction of local electric plants seriously hindered German mobility.
After the war, Harry was reunited with his mother and returned to France. He stayed in France for five years working as a photographer. In 1950, Harry immigrated to the United States, eventually finding photography work with two prominent television networks. Harry has one child and four grandchildren.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Harry Burger, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Harry's book about his time in the partisans - Biancastella - is available on Amazon.

Harry Burger with fellow Jewish partisan Enzo

Monday, May 8, 2017

Featured Jewish Partisan - Norman Salsitz, born on May 6th

Norman Salsitz was born May 6, 1920 in Galizia, a small town in southern Poland. Though he had seven different names in his lifetime, Norman Salsitz has always remained the same at his core: tough, resourceful, and honest. The youngest of nine siblings, Norman was among the Jewish inhabitants that were forced into a ghetto in June of 1941 by the Germans. Looking for strong labor, the Germans selected Norman and other healthy young Jews to dismantle recently decimated ghettos. While Norman worked to destroy any remaining signs of his heritage and religion, the Germans began sending his friends and family to the death camps.
Norman knew that with each ghetto they demolished, the workers drew closer to their own murders.
In October of 1942, Norman organized an escape group of 55 people and fled to the surrounding forest. He had money he found during his ghetto work, and used it to buy his first revolver. The sympathetic Pole who sold him the weapon also led Norman to a group of resistance fighters in the woods. These fighters fought through harsh weather conditions on rough terrain to dismantle and damage German railroads, mills, and police stations.

Norman and his wife Amalie, 1945
In 1944, Norman joined the AK Polish Underground, despite the strong presence of antisemitism. He knew that as a Jew, he would never be able to make the contribution to defeat the Nazis he wanted to without disguising his Jewish identity and joining the powerful AK. Norman worked with the Underground to defeat their common foes until the command was given to seek out and kill Jews being hidden on a farm. Norman volunteered for the mission, killing the Poles who had been sent with him and rescuing the Jews in hiding. He then fled the AK and returned to his original partisan unit, where he remained until he was liberated by the Russians.

Norman in a Polish army uniform, 1944
Norman Salsitz’s mother’s dying wish was for her son to keep their stories alive. He has honored that wish by writing books and speaking about his war experiences. From the horrors of mass murder to the inspiration of weary fighters singing hymns, Norman continues to fight for the truth.
“This is why I keep going,” he says, “we have to tell the world what the German murderers did to us.”
Norman Salsitz passed away on October 11th, 2006.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Norman Salsitz, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Norman during a JPEF interview, 2002

Monday, May 1, 2017

More than 15,000 People Today Owe Their Lives to Tuvia Bielski (z''l), Born May 8, 1906

Over seventy years ago on a rainy night, Rae Kushner, her sister Lisa and Sonya and Aaron Oshman escaped through a narrow tunnel from the Novogrudok ghetto together with 250 other Jews. They hid in an area nearby to elude the pursuing Germans and their collaborators. Many in the group were shot and killed. Rae, Lisa, Sonya and Aaron, and others were rescued by the Bielski partisans, who heard of the group’s escape and sent in scouts to take the survivors from Novogrudok to safety.

The group, founded by Tuvia Bielski and his brothers Asael and Zus – along with help from youngest brother Aron – provided a haven for all Jews fleeing the Nazis and their collaborators. For three years, the Bielski partisans survived in the forests of Belarus, engaging in armed combat and disrupting the Nazi war machine with acts of sabotage. Their primary mission, however, was always the preservation of Jewish lives. Tuvia proclaimed, “I would rather save the life of one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazis.” By the end of the war, the Bielski partisans managed to save over 1,200 Jews.

Tuvia was one of 12 children, born to a miller fathher on May 8, 1906 in the rural town of Stankiewicze. They were the only Jews in a small community, and quickly learned how to look after themselves.
When the Germans invaded in June 1941, the brothers sought refuge in the woods where they had spent time as children. Asael and Zus, who were hiding together, set about finding safe homes for a dozen or so of their surviving relatives. Tuvia, who was staying further to the north, moved relatives in with friendly non-Jews. But by the spring of 1942, the three decided it was time to relocate all the relatives into a single location in the woods.

The brothers moved quickly to build a fighting force from the escapees. These escapees joined forces with the growing group of Soviet partisans who were engaging in guerrilla attacks against the occupiers. In October 1942, a squad of Bielski and Soviet fighters raided a German convoy loaded with supplies, killing at least one German soldier. “It was satisfying in a larger sense,” Tuvia wrote of the first attack on Nazis in his 1955 Yiddish language memoir, “A real spiritual high point, that the world should know that there were still Jews alive, and especially Jewish partisans.”
The group continued to grow until the end of the war. Committed to protecting all Jews – regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, or level of religious observance – the Bielski Otriad provided shelter for Jews like Rae, Lisa, Aaron and Sonya. They worked endlessly to free hundreds of Jews from other ghettos. Among them were Leah Bedzowski Johnson, her sister Sonia, brothers Charles and Benjamin, and their mother Chasia, who escaped from the Lida Ghetto with Tuvia’s help. Sonia Bedzowksi was later captured enroute to the Lida ghetto to secure medicine for the partisans and killed in Majdanek. The rest of the Bedzowski family stayed with the Bielski Otriad until the end of the war. Now living in Florida, Leah expresses her lifelong gratitude, and praises Tuvia’s leadership and humanity, “Tuvia Bielski was our commander. He was always around us and he wanted only to save Jewish lives to make sure that our people continued and multiplied. I would not be alive today if it was not for Tuvia and neither would my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Bielski partisans guarding an airstrip. Leah's husband, Velvel "Wolf" Johnson, is in the bottom center with his machine gun.
While imprisoned in the Lida Ghetto, Michael Stoll had heard tale of the Bielski partisans and vowed to escape and join the group. That chance came when he and 11 others jumped from a train bound for the Majdanek concentration camp. Finding themselves in the middle of “no man’s land,” they were eventually able to connect with the Bielski Otriad. Michael says, “If it had not been for Tuvia, we would not have survived. He was a good man. A legend.”

Operating in the Naliboki forest, Tuvia set up a functioning partisan community that included a hospital, classrooms for children, a soap factory, tailors, butchers, and even a group of musicians. Everyone in the Bielski Otriad worked to support one another – even the youngest children like Ann Monka contributed by keeping people’s spirits up with singing and entertainment. Ann recalls that Tuvia had special pride for the children of the Bielski Otriad, and took great strides to protect them and ensure their survival. “At one time there was a rumor that he was going to send some of the children to Moscow since we did not know when the war was going to end. He wanted to make sure that the children were safe. The children were the future of the Jewish people. We would not be here if it were not for him. Without him we had no chance for survival. Thousands are alive because of Tuvia.”

Indeed, because of Tuvia’s strong and effective leadership and his determination to save as many Jewish lives as possible, there are more than 15,000 people today who owe their lives to him. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Rae Kushner (z''l), Lisa Riebel(z''l), Leah Johnson, Charles Bedzow, Benny Bedzow (z''l), Chasia Bedzowski (z''l), and Sonya and Aaron Oshman (z''l), and 1,200 other survivors of the Bielski Otriad.

Tuvia and Lilka together after the liberation.
While in the forest, Tuvia met and married Lilka. Together they had three children: Michael (Mickey), Robert and Ruth; and nine grandchildren: Jordan, Taylor, Ariel, Tori, Sarah, Brenden, Sharon, Talia, and Vanessa. After the war, Tuvia and his family moved to Israel, and then later to the United States. For more than 30 years, he and his brother Zus operated a trucking company in New York City. Tuvia passed away on June 12, 1987 at the age of 81.
Inspired by Tuvia’s remarkable courage and compassion, and the legacy of the Bielski Otriad, in 2008 Paramount Pictures portrayed his story in the major motion picture “Defiance”, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia (see an image of Daniel Craig as Tuvia on a fake cabbie license for a scene that ended up getting cut from the film). In cooperation with Paramount and film director Edward Zwick, JPEF developed a unique curriculum for educators, which incorporates scenes from the film to engage students in critical thinking about History, Leadership, Ethics, and Jewish Values.

Leaders of the Bielski otriad posing in front of an Israel-bound ambulance they helped fund, circa 1960s. From the right: Tuvia & Lilka, Zus & his wife Sonia, Lea and Pesach Friedberg.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org/defiance for more about the Bielksi partisans and the film 'Defiance', including a 5-page Tuvia Bielski study guide/biography. Educators can take a free on-line class how to teach about the Bielskis and use the guides, films, and lesson plans with our E-Learning platform.
Watch a short film on the Bielskis, narrated by Ed Asner, here:
In 2013, JPEF honored Tuvia, his brothers Asael, Zus and Aron, and all Bielski partisans, at a dinner in New York City. Eighteen surviving Bielski partisans attended the gala, where "The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers", narrated by Liev Schreiber, and featuring partisans and their children, was shown.