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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - 75th Anniversary Begins Erev Pesach

75 years ago this week, German soldiers entered the Warsaw ghetto, intending to deport its remaining Jewish population to Treblinka, a nearby extermination camp. In the months before Passover, there was a halt on deportations due to earlier failed attempts to deport Jews that were met with gunfire and  resulted in casualties. However, the Germans and their collaborators returned on the eve of Passover, hoping this time to clear the ghetto of its inhabitants in three days.

Instead, the Germans were met again with fire and bullets. Sparsely armed with a handful of handguns and Molotov cocktails, the Jewish resistance - led by Mordechai Anielewicz - repelled the initial German assault, killing German soldiers and setting fire to armored vehicles. Though the Germans returned better organized and under the leadership of a different officer, the resistance held out for several more days. In the end, only a few dozen fighters managed to escape the ghetto through the sewers as the Germans and their collaborators systematically destroyed the entire ghetto with fire and explosions.

The legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, during which approximately 750 Jews fought off Nazi invaders longer than the entire country of France, stands as a testament to the strength of human determination and an example to all. In 2013, the Polish government dedicated the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which stands on the site of the Warsaw ghetto.
For more on the Uprising and its aftermath - as well as the 2013 commemorations of the event - please see:

Jews forcibly removed from their dugouts, on the way to deportation. One of the most famous photos of the war.

German sentries at ghetto entrance

A bunker with the Kotwica symbol of the AK resistance

Resistance fighter coming out of bunker

Housing block set on fire by German army to suppress uprising

Center-left, looking up to the left: the commander in charge of suppressing the uprising, Jürgen Stroop.

Resistance fighters captured by the Germans.

The ruins of the Warsaw ghetto after the suppression.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Art and Jewish Women in the Partisans: The Incredible Story of Paula Burger

Born in 1934, Paula Burger lived with her parents and younger brother Isaac in a small town about one mile from the larger Novogrodek shtetl. As common tradition in many Jewish families dictated, her family lived with Paula’s maternal grandparents. Paula’s grandfather was a landowner – a rarity among the Jewish population of Belarus – and her father owned a small grocery store in addition to overseeing the family ranch. She fondly remembers the candy her father sold at his store and the middle class life she led until the Nazis invaded and occupied Novogrodek in July 1941.

Together with her parents, brother, and grandmother, Paula was rounded up and herded into the ghetto. They were allowed to take only what they could carry. Paula’s father managed to escape from the ghetto and joined various partisan units to fight the Nazis, all the while formulating a plan to save his family. Jealous neighbors, desirous of his ranch and the land it stood on, instigated a search for him. In their efforts to find him, the Nazis arrested Paula’s mother and brutally interrogated her to reveal her husband’s whereabouts. Since she had no idea where he was hiding, the torture brought no results; the Nazis kept her as an interpreter for a month and then shot her.

By then, Paula’s father had connected with the Bielski partisans and made arrangements to smuggle Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto with the help of a non-Jewish business colleague. Sealed in a large water barrel, Paula (age 7) knew that they could not make a sound or it would mean certain death. She took extreme care to make sure that Isaac, who was just 3 years old, stayed absolutely still. Paula and her surviving family stayed with the Bielski partisan group throughout the war, although there were times when they could not travel with them due to the harsh winter conditions, keeping themselves hidden in forest shelters instead. Although she was just a young girl, Paula contributed actively to armed resistance against the enemy, using her small fingers to pack explosives into yellow bricks, which were later used to blow up and derail Nazi supply trains.


Menorah #8
When the war finally ended more than three years later, Paula’s father refused to go back to Novogrodek and the family instead went to Lida before crossing over into Czechoslovakia. Aided only by their wits and the kindness of strangers, the family made their way to the American Zone in West Germany. Paula learned English in the DP camp there. In 1949, on the cusp of becoming a teenager, Paula and her family moved to Chicago to join relatives, where Paula was finally able to hone her natural talent as an artist while attending high school.

As a child, Paula’s most prized possession was a box of colored pencils with which she would draw for hours. Although Paula did not begin painting professionally until she retired from a career in retail, real estate and nursing home administration, she was always painting pictures in her head and had an overwhelming desire to act on this passion. In a journal she kept as a young woman, Paula wrote, “I hope I don’t die before I get to paint.”

The passion for creative expression ran deeply through the veins of both Paula and Isaac. Though they had successful careers in business, they always pursued their art. While Paula painted colorful landscapes, still-lifes, and Judaic themed canvases, Isaac used his beautiful voice to become a Cantor – an avocation that continues to this day. Moved by the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, Paula relocated to Denver with her family in 1967.

Paula Burger and Isaac KollPaula’s art has been shown in galleries throughout Colorado and one of her painting hangs in the state capitol. After a childhood filled with dark images of horror and loss, Paula’s goal is to capture the beauty in life through her art with the bold use of color and imagery. Her catalogue can be viewed at paulaburger.com.

Paula Burger has been speaking to students in middle schools, high schools and universities and to civic groups for over 20 years. She recently completed an autobiography about her experience as a child surviving in the forests during World War II, entitled “Temporary Pillows.” For more information, please email Paula at burgerart@gmail.com.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Looking Back on Jewish Partisan Gertrude Boyarski (z''l) During Women's History Month

"I...went back to the partisans that should take me to [commander] Bulak. And I said, 'You know [...] I want to come back because everybody's killed and I remain all by myself.' He said, 'Yeah, I know you girls want to come to the group to have a good time. You don't want to fight.' I said, 'No, I want to fight. I want to take revenge for my sisters and brothers and for my parents.' He said, 'Well, I'll take you in on one condition.' I said, 'What's the condition?' 'You'll stay on guard for two weeks, but a mile away from the group. We'll give you a horse, we'll give you a rifle, we'll give you a gun. And anything you hear, any little noise, you'll have to let us know.' I said, 'Okay.'"
–Gertrude Boyarski


Born in 1922 on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Gertrude ‘Gertie’ Boyarski was a teenager in the town of Dereczyn (Derechin), Poland.  She lived a quiet life with her family until the Germans invaded in 1941. Though the Nazis forced the majority of the town's Jews into a ghetto, they regarded Gertie's father – a butcher and a housepainter – as a 'useful' Jew, so the Boyarskis were moved to a guarded building just in front of the ghetto's entrance.

On July 24, 1942, a night of terror descended on the ghetto. The Germans began a mass killing of the town’s 3,000-4,000 Jews. The Boyarski family managed to escape to a nearby forest, where they hoped to join a partisan unit. To prove themselves to the partisans, Gertie's father, brother, and other Jews had to return completely bare-handed and attack the town's police station. They were successful, killing the guards and taking the station's stash of weapons and ammunition.  However, in the months that followed, Gertie and her family remained in a family camp with other noncombatant refugees. The camp lacked protection, and Gertie saw her mother, father, sister, and brother murdered before her eyes in surprise attacks by German soldiers and antisemitic Poles who hunted the woods for Jews.
Bereft of family and seeking revenge, she left the shelter of the family camp and sought to join a partisan detachment under the leadership of the Russian Commander Pavel Bulak, who initially brushed her off. But Gertie was insistent, saying, “I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family.”

Impressed by her conviction, Bulak agreed under one condition: she would have to stand guard alone, for two weeks, a mile from the partisan encampment. “I was alone in the woods ... each time I heard a little noise I thought it’s Germans… Two weeks – it was like two years.” But Gertie persisted and was accepted into the group. She fought with the partisans for three years, aggressively attacking German soldiers who came to the surrounding villages.

Gertrude went on to win the Soviet Union’s highest military honor, the order of Lenin. In honor of International Women's Day, Gertie and her friend – both teens – volunteered for a dangerous mission to demolish a wooden bridge used by the Germans. They had no supplies, so they hiked to a local village and asked for kerosene and straw. When told there was none in the village, Gertrude and her friends unslung their rifles and gave the villagers five minutes to find the supplies. The villagers quickly complied.

Gertie and her friend snuck up to the bridge, prepared and lit the fire. German soldiers saw the blaze and started shooting. In response, the women grabbed burning pieces of the bridge and tossed them into the river until the bridge was destroyed. "We didn't chicken out," says Gertie. This was just one of many missions Gertie and her fellow partisans completed.

In 1945, she married a fellow partisan, and they settled in the United States. Gertie still grapples with having lived through the war when so many perished. "I was the only one who survived. Why? Why me? I'm always asking that question." Her message to students studying the Holocaust is that “they should not be afraid of their identity – no matter what color, race or nationality – and they should fight for it.”

For more on Gertrude Boyarski, please see her short biography, the short film Jewish Women in the Partisans, and our study guide, "Gertrude Boyarski: From Frail Girl to Partisan Fighter."

Gertrude passed away at the age of 90 on September 17th, 2012 – the first day of Rosh Hashanah of that year.