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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Purim and the Partisans: A Jewish Tale of Defiance

The celebration of Purim is the victory of the oppressed rising over an oppressor. Countless stories of the Jewish partisans during the Holocaust are more or less, echoes of this story and have resonated over time as a parallel to Purim. Some of the themes seen in both the Partisans and Purim include hidden identities, outwitting enemies, recruiting allies, providing food for those in need, confronting antisemitism and, of course, armed resistance.



Purim celebration held by the Beitar Zionist movement in Wlodzimierz, Poland in 1937. Thousands of Beitar members reportedly formed or joined partisans groups and participated in the in the Warsaw, Vilna, and Bialystok ghetto revolts. Photo source: USHMM.

At the climax of the Purim story, Queen Esther (whose name can mean "hidden") reveals her Jewish identity in order to save her people. At significant risk to her own safety, Esther confronts her husband, King Ahasuerus, and convinces him to thwart Haman in order to exterminate the Jews of Persia. The king grants Esther and her cousin Mordecai ("warrior") the authority to issue a counter-order, allowing the Jews to take up arms against their attackers.

And he wrote in the King Ahasuerus' name, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters … wherein the king granted the Jews, which were in every city, to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them… (Esther 8:10-11)

Through a combination of intellectual planning and physical force, the Jewish people defeat Haman's anti-semitic minions, and live to celebrate their victory:

The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt: and no man could withstand them; for the fear of them fell upon all people. And all the rulers of the provinces, and the lieutenants, and the deputies, and officers of the king, helped the Jews; because the fear of Mordecai fell upon them. (9:2-3)
…and the month [in which the Jews would have been annihilated] was turned for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (9:22)

As with the heroes of Purim, Jewish partisans saved thousands of lives through a combination of intellect, arms, the will to create a better future, and a great deal of mazal (luck). While Mordecai and Esther are heroic figures in Jewish lore, the day is truly won by the largely unsung Jews of Persia who united to rebel against their murderous assailants. As with the Jews of Persia, the great majority of the Jews who struggled against Nazi forces – both partisans and the millions more who engaged in unarmed resistance – remain nameless heroes, hidden in the shadows of our history.



Purim celebration in 1939. All but one person in this photograph - Jewish partisan Norman Salsitz - were murdered by the Nazis.

Today, the world continues to face oppressors who are willing to use brutal violence to attain their goals. The story of Purim, and the history of Holocaust resistance, teach us that the key to defeating injustice is using our minds, our bodies, and our spirits to act justly to defend ourselves and others from tyranny, bigotry, and violence.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Remembering Jewish Partisan Vitka Kempner Kovner (z''l)


Born in the town of Kadish on the Polish-German border in 1922, Vitka Kempner Kovner escaped to Vilna after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union and turned Vilna into a ghetto, Vitka joined up with poet and future husband, Abba Kovner to organize the United Partisans Organization (FPO) – a Jewish armed resistance movement. Vitka committed FPO’s first act of sabotage when she blew up a Nazi train line with a homemade bomb.
Photo Courtesy of USHMM

When the Nazis gave orders to liquidate the ghetto in 1943, she helped evacuate much of the Jewish population to the forests following a failed uprising. Vitka continued her work in the resistance with the "Avengers," an all-Jewish partisan brigade formed from the ashes of the FPO and led by Abba Kovner.

After the war, Vitka and her husband helped hundreds of European Jews immigrate to Palestine, the land that would eventually become the Jewish state of Israel. They both followed in 1946, settling at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where Vitka passed away on February 15, 2012. She was survived by four grandchildren and left behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.

For more information on Vitka, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit her profile on the JPEF website and view the short film Women in the Partisans. Vitka is now featured on the websites of both Facing History and Ourselves and the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum through their collaborations with JPEF.

May Vitka and Abba's memories be a blessing.