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Sunday, December 22, 2019

Celebrating Chanukah: An Act of Jewish Resistance

On a Friday evening in December 1932 before the start of Shabbat, the Posner family prepared to light the 8th candle on their Chanukiah as they had done on each of the preceding nights. Across the street from their home stood the town hall, a large and imposing work of old-world German architecture. A Nazi flag prominently hung from the side of the building, flapping in the cold December wind.

Already a powerful political party in 1932, the Nazis did not shy away from using anti-semitism as the driving force behind their politics; Rachel Posner considered this as she looked at the menorah prominently displayed in her window in juxtaposition to the flag. Committing one of the earliest documented acts of Jewish resistance to Nazi oppression, she took this photograph, which was subsequently published in a local newspaper.
Rachel Posner was married to Rabbi Akiva Posner, a doctor of philosophy and the only rabbi for the small Jewish community in Kiel, a north German harbor city. Kiel’s congregation of around 500 was not particularly religious, according to Akiva and Rachel’s granddaughter Nava, but Shabbat services were well-attended by Jews and non-Jews alike who wanted to hear Rabbi Posner’s lectures. Though the Nazi party was gaining strength and routinely paraded through the streets, the Posners “were not afraid,” says Nava. It would take another year for that to change.

One year later, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, marking the official start of the Third Reich’s twelve-year reign of terror and oppression. That night, the Nazis organized a torchlight parade; thousands poured into the streets to celebrate the appointment, cheering their new Chancellor and waving the flag bearing the Nazi Party’s dreaded emblem – the infamous black swastika.

Two Symbols
Though the swastika had been an ancient symbol of auspice and power1 in use throughout the entire world for well over ten thousand years, the Nazis co-opted it to symbolize Germany’s racial heritage, connecting with it the racial mythology of the ‘Aryans’ to their future destiny under the Third Reich as conquerors of the world. Nazi propaganda eventually went as far as to state that the swastika in the new German flag symbolized the “victory of the Aryan peoples over Jewry."

By contrast, the Chanukiah has a clear and unambiguous meaning. The miracle of the oil burning for eight days is one of the more popular stories in Jewish tradition, and continues to enjoy almost universal recognition today. The true miracle of Chanukah, however, is the act of defiance and the victorious struggle of a small band of Jewish warriors led by Judah Maccabee2 against Greco-Macedonian oppression. The Chanukiah should be proudly displayed in one's window to signify the miracle of the Maccabees' victory. However, this was difficult for Jewish communities in Europe, where the danger of anti-Semitic hostilities was a constant threat.

* * * *

Incorporating a line from a popular Nazi youth party anthem of the time, Rachel wrote the following lines on the back of the photo she took:

"Chanukah, 5692.
‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.
‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

(note that the actual Jewish year was 5693)

The Posners left Germany in 1933, not long after Hitler became Chancellor. In the prior spring, the murder of a local lawyer by a Nazi mob during a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses shocked the Posners. (Rabbi Posner had to personally see to it that the man was buried properly.) Shortly before he left, Akiva warned his congregation of the Nazi menace and of the ruin it would bring to the German nation, urging them to leave. After the speech, several congregants told him that he was already a marked man.

Kiel’s Jewish population heeded Posner’s advice – of the 500 Jews that lived in Kiel, only eight died in the concentration camps; the rest had emigrated. After leaving, the Posners eventually settled in Jerusalem, where Akiva helped build a synagogue and a library, and where their descendants live to this day.

The swastika symbol, heralding death to Judaea, is banned in many European countries, and its use is illegal in Germany. The Chanukiah that sat in the Posners’ window in Kiel is on year-round display at Yad Vashem – except for the eight days of Chanukah, when the family proudly displays its lights in the window of their home.

Akiva Baruch Mansbach, the great-grandchild of Rabbi Akiva Baruch Posner (z''l) and a soldier in the IDF, salutes the family Chanukiah.

The original photograph is featured in JPEF's Tactics of Resistance lesson plan and E-Learning module.

1. The origins of the swastika are shrouded in speculation – its twisted form is hypothesized to represent the sun, the seasons, the elements, or perhaps even the tail of a comet. To the Kuna people of Panama, it is the octopus that created the world. Though Hitler “personally” adopted the symbol in the 1920s, it was in use by German populist – or völkisch – movements long before that (including the quasi-occult Thule society, which had numerous ties with the Nazi party). The aforementioned Kuna – who assumed autonomy from the rest of Panama in 1930 – are the only ones who still use the swastika on their flag. In 1942, they added a nose ring to the center to distance themselves from the Nazis.
2. It is said that Judah received his surname, which may be interpreted as “hammer”, because of his ferocity in battle.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Abe Asner's Military Training Helped Him Save Lives

"Grodno still was a ghetto, and lots of people went back to the ghetto like Saul, his father, his mother. And I said, “Me and my brothers, we’re not going back to the ghetto. We’re not going. We’re going to win, doesn’t matter what. If I die, I’ll die standing up — not to shoot me in the back.”
-Abe Asner
Jewish partisan Abe Asner (z''l), was born in the district of Lida, Poland on October 19, 1916. In 1938, Abe followed in the footsteps of his brothers and joined the Polish army. On June 22, 1941, Abe was visiting a cousin in Lithuania when he awoke to the sight of German planes littering the sky with bombs. When German tanks surrounded the ghetto where Abe and his brothers were staying, they had to make a choice: stay among the 3,000 Jews who were facing imminent death or flee to the forests. Abe disappeared into the trees with nothing but the clothes on his back.

The forest proved to be a breeding ground for resistance fighters. Soon Abe was among 60 Jewish and Russian POWs running missions. His military training gave him the skills to kill German soldiers who attempted to search the dense forest. In the beginning, Abe thought the resistance would only last a few weeks. It continued for over four years, and their partisan unit grew to several thousand people, including the woman who became Abe’s wife.

Abe and his brothers were successful on many missions. They sabotaged enemy supplies, halted German food convoys, and rescued Jews from ghettos. They frustrated the Germans with their efficiency under the cover of darkness. “The night was our mother,” Abe remembers. Eventually the Germans placed a bounty on their heads. “So much money to catch us, dead or alive,” Abe recalls.

The ongoing violence of the Partisan missions wore away at Abe’s psyche. When the war finally ended, he worked hard to adjust to normal life. Despite the physical and emotional scars he carried, Abe knew his deeds helped to shape the lives of countless people.

Abe’s passion burned brightly when he recalled his partisan days. “We don’t go like sheep. We did as much as we could. We did a lot,” he said. “People should know somebody did (fight back). People should know.”

After the war Abe moved to Canada with his wife where they had two daughters and four grandchildren. Abe passed away on May 26, 2015 at the age of 98.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Abe Asner, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Don Felson (z''l) Dynamited Railroads to Disrupt German Conveys Carrying Supplies

Don Felson was born October 12, 1925 in Glubokie, Poland. A small town about a hundred miles northeast of Vilna, the town sits on a low plain amidst hills in present-day Belarus. In 1941, the Germans invaded Glubokie, and promptly established a ghetto for the town’s Jewish inhabitants.

Don, who had a job at a German POW infirmary at the time, was tipped off about the first massacre by a sympathetic German doctor, who warned him not to return to the ghetto on the night of the raid.
As Russian POWs began to escape from the camp where Don worked, rumors of partisan units hidden in the forests spread throughout the village. In the fall of 1942, Don’s older brother Stan left for the forest – he convinced a Jewish partisan who was seeking recruits to take him along, despite the fact that he had no combat experience and no weapon.

The Felson family: Stan Felson on the left, Don Felson on the right

Six months later Stan returned for Don. Though Stan made it seem like joining the partisans was a matter of survival, Stan’s haggard and disheveled appearance made Don skeptical. At first he declined, but with his mother’s urging, he agreed to join Stan. He brought their mother and younger brother along with them, sequestering them in a friendly village while the two teenagers went off to join the Panomorenko company. However, a few months later the SS murdered Don’s mother and brother – along with the entire village – after having learned that a mother of a partisan was living there.

Filled with the need for vengeance, the boys dynamited railroads and ambushed German convoys, killing soldiers and building a reputation for valor. They also supplied the group with food by taking it from the local population and smuggling it back into the camps. As the war progressed and the German army was beaten back from the Russian interior, the Soviets began to airdrop short wave radios, weapons, and other much-needed supplies to the partisans in White Russia. The partisans were even able to evacuate their wounded behind enemy lines. Finally, when the Soviet army liberated the area, they enjoyed their hard won victory as the Germans beat a hasty westward retreat.

As was the case with most partisans, the Felson brothers were assimilated into the Soviet army, but soon became separated when Don was discharged after he developed an ulcer. Stan continued to fight in the Soviet Army, but soon reunited with Don when they met back in Glubokie, where they both made plans to flee westward. Staying clear of the Soviet army, they escaped through Poland to American-occupied Germany, where they ended up at a DP camp.

Back during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, Don’s great-uncle Saul was stationed at the front; afterwards, he managed to cross the Pacific and settle down in San Francisco. The two brothers hoped to join him there. From the DP camp, the brothers used their network of family and friends to secure visas to the United States. They arrived in San Francisco in 1947 and went to work for Saul’s contracting business. Not long after, Don met and married his wife. Their three sons took over the family business after Don passed away in 2002.

For more on Don – including 9 video clips of him reflecting upon his time as a partisan – visit his bio page on the JPEF website.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sukkot, the Holocaust, and Spiritual Resistance

As Sukkot 1941 approached, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto were in tremendous peril. Food was running scarce, and Jews were desperate to gather whatever resources they could, no matter the cost. But for a few days of that fateful year, the crowds did not seek food, form lines to exchange heirloom jewelry for sundries, or stand for hours for a chance at obtaining enough sustenance for their families Instead, they waited to bless the miraculous appearance of the four species celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkot: etrog, lulav, hadas, and aravah.
In the spirit of true non-violent resistance, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto chose to celebrate in the face of loss, death, and violence. The leader of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to gather the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrogs (citron) were not only scarce, but practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time. However, as though it too intended to take its part in the resistance, the etrog appeared and was brought back into the ghetto.
Though outlooks were becoming grim due to recent violence and worsening conditions, Jews from all classes and levels of religious commitment came to stand under the makeshift sukkah. Despite the severe scarcity of firewood in the ghetto, an amount was specially set aside to build the sukkah. A single act of celebration became a moment of courageous resistance, with residents of the Lodz Ghetto choosing not only to celebrate holidays in defiance of Nazi policy, thereby endangering themselves, but also by dedicating precious resources for ritual use.
This Sukkot, standing underneath your own sukkah with etrogim, think not only of a bountiful new year’s beginning, but of the atmosphere in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941: frigid, destitute, oft hopeless, and yet, under the sukkah, brave, defiant, and proudly Jewish.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Spiritual Resistance on Yom Kippur - Ruth Szabo Brand (1928 - 2011)

Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.
In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.
Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.

The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.

Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur in 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Jewish partisan Charles Bedzow Fought with the Bielski Brigade


Charles Bedzow was born Chonon Bedzowski on September 28, 1924 in the town of Lida, located in present-day Belarus. Once the Germans occupied Lida, Charles and his family were stuffed into an overcrowded, disease ridden ghetto within the town. He and his family suffered under the constant threat of starvation in the gradually worsening conditions. In the spring of 1942, he watched as his fellow townspeople were methodically slaughtered, but by a miracle, his immediate family was spared.

Fortunately, partisan leader Tuvia Bielski was a family friend to the Bedzowski family as the two families had been close before the war. After the occupation, Tuvia sent a message to the Bedzowski family – the message urged them to escape the liquidation of the ghetto by fleeing into the nearby woods, where the Bielskis had set up camp after the liquidation of their own village. Charles escaped to the woods and joined the Bielski Brigade. Because the Bielski camp allowed refugees regardless of their age or gender, Charles was joined by his mother, Chasia, his older sister Leah, younger sister Sonia, and younger brother Benny. Almost the entire family survived the Holocaust – an extreme rarity.

The Bedzowski family’s escape into the woods was complex and extremely dangerous. They traversed the treacherous landscape, crawled under fences and walked through the woods for two days, exhausted. Charles reported his thoughts upon arriving at the Bielski camp: “This must be one of the few places in all of Europe where Jews can move in total freedom.”

Despite the fact that like many partisans, Charles was only 17 when he entered the Bielski Brigade, he was quickly entrusted with dangerous work. His missions included the gathering of supplies for the group, scouting, sabotaging German efforts, and participating in ambushes. One such ambush occurred on January 28, 1944. A group of Bielski partisans went to a local village, pretending to be drunk. Their raucous noise alerted the locals, who notified the Germans nearby. 150 partisans lay in wait for the Germans, and they killed 26 policemen and eight Nazi officers during the ambush.

Unfortunately, the Bedzowski family’s participation in the partisan movement was not without a price. On one of her missions to bring medicine and Jews to the brigade from a nearby ghetto, Charles’s sister, Sonia, was caught by enemy forces and sent to the Treblinka death camp, where she died.

Following the war, the remaining members of the Bedzowski family wound up in a displaced persons camp in Torino, Italy. Charles married a fellow partisan from Poland, Sara Golcman, in 1946. In 1949 he and his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he started a successful international real estate firm. Charles and Sara had three children; his surviving brother and sister went on to raise families of their own, and his mother, Chasia, not only survived the war, but went on to live with Charles until her death in 2000.
Charles is JPEF’s Honorary International Chairman. His story is featured in We Fought Back, an anthology of partisan stories from Scholastic publishing. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Charles Bedzow, including three videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Celebrating the Life of Jewish Partisan Cesia Blaichman (z''l)


Cesia Blaichman (z"l)


As a teenager in Wlodawa, Poland, Cesia Blaichman (z''l) and her three brothers escaped from the Nazis with the help of her cousin, Joe Holm (z"l). Holm brought her and her three brothers to join his all Jewish partisan brigade. In April 1944, Frank Blaichman’s partisan unit joined the group, and Cesia met the man who would become her husband of 70 years. Frank recounted the extraordinary story of their combat, heroism, and ultimate triumph, in his memoir, "Rather Die Fighting".

As a Jewish partisan, Cesia fought bravely against the Nazis and their collaborators in the forests and small villages near Lublin. She nursed the wounded, cooked for her fellow partisans and participated in operations to ensure the safety of other Jews. She and her three brothers survived the war, but their parents, sisters, and many relatives perished.

Cesia and Frank married after the war and emigrated to New York where they raised a family dedicated to promoting the Jewish partisan legacy, and to ensuring that future generations are empowered to stand up against hatred and oppression.



Cesia and Frank Blaichman on their wedding day.

Frank Blaichman talks about meeting Cesia, and the impact she made on his life, in JPEF’s film "Every Day the Impossible: Women in the Partisans".

Sadly, Cesia passed away on September 24, 2015, surrounded by her family. We extend our deepest condolences to the Blaichman, Sekons and Pomeranc families.

May Cesia’s memory be a blessing. Learn more about Cesia Blaichman's inspirational life.



Monday, August 5, 2019

Featured Jewish Partisan - Joseph Greenblatt, born on August 5th, 1915

"I lost my family – lost my father, my mother, my brother, lost all the close relatives, and that was about 70 members of my closest family. It was tough to talk about it, and the refresh bring it back to your memory. It was painful. But as the time was going by, and I felt the story which I know firsthand has to be told." — Joseph Greenblatt.

Joseph Greenblatt was born in Warsaw on August 5, 1915. He learned about resistance from his father, an army captain who had fought for Polish independence during WWI. At 18, Joe enlisted in the Polish army as an infantryman, and became an officer in 1938. In 1939, he was mobilized and sent to the Polish-German border. He witnessed the German invasion directly, and fought for almost twenty days before being taken prisoner and sent to a German POW camp. It was in the camp that he began to establish connections with the newly formed Armia Krajowa (AK). The AK hijacked a German truck and transported Joe to a hospital, freeing him and his fellow prisoners.

Joe returned to Warsaw only to find the Jewish population of the city walled into a newly formed ghetto. Though they were imprisoned, the Jews of Warsaw were far from passive; underground resistance units had already begun to form. Joe used his army connections to amass a stockpile of black market weapons. There he also met and married his wife, the younger sister of a comrade in arms.
In the spring of 1943, rumors of a full-scale liquidation began to circulate. Joe and the other partisan commanders decided it was time to act. Disguised as Nazis, they attacked German soldiers as they entered the ghetto. Joe remembers how men from his unit threw a Molotov cocktail into a tank, destroying it and killing several Germans. Joe eventually escaped from the ghetto through the sewer system, emerging in the Gentile quarter. Hiding his identity with a Christian alias, Joe made contact with his old POW comrades and joined the AK. For a while, he worked as a member of the Polish underground, raiding a German train depot and aiding in the assassination of a prominent SS official. In late 1944, he was remobilized with the Polish army.

When Germany surrendered, Joe was working as the commander of a camp of German POWs. After the war, Joe went to work for the Irgun under the command of Menachem Begin, traveling between Belgium and Israel as an arms dealer.

Joseph and his wife eventually moved to the United States, settling in Anaheim, California. Sadly, Joe passed away on March 11, 2003 at the age of 87.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joseph Greenblatt, including four videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Left: Joseph Greenblatt and his wife Irene, 1944. Right: Joseph and Irene, 1978.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Simon Trakinski (z''l) - Escaped from the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto and fought as a Jewish partisan - Born July 13, 1925

"Is it the same to Jews as it is to Americans to study the revolutionary war and its heroes, right? People put their chest in front of English muskets to build a country, we put our chest in front of German Muskets to defend ourselves from annihilation and maybe prevent the deaths of other Jews." – Simon Trakinski.

Simon Trakinski was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1925. Like many others, his family fled to the east when the war began in 1939, and sought refuge in the Russian village of Smorgon. The Germans invaded Russia in 1941, occupying Smorgon, and forcing all Jews into the ghetto.

Around this time, rumors started to circulate about escaped Soviet POWs and their partisan activities. When Simon’s family was transferred out of the Smorgon ghetto to Oszminian, he took with him the guns that a sympathetic German officer gave to his friends, telling them armed resistance is “the way of honest individuals these days.”

Unfortunately, he never saw those guns again after he gave them up to a man connected with the underground in Oszminian. Soon after, the Trakinski family was taken out of Oszminian and transported to Vilna, where Simon was assigned to a work brigade building trenches.
In Vilna, Simon joined up with the United Partisans Organization, a resistance group headed by Abba Kovner. In early September 1943, the Nazis locked down the ghetto, and the FPO realized the Germans were getting ready for its destruction. Simon took part in FPO’s failed uprising in the ghetto, but later escaped with the rest of his group when the Nazis blew up their headquarters with dynamite. They regrouped outside the city, hoping to join Markov’s all-Jewish brigade, which had ties with the FPO. Simon, like many of his partisan peers, left his family behind in the ghetto.

By this time, the partisans were a formidable presence in the area and controlled the woods. Simon initially fought with the Markov Brigade, an all-Jewish otriad organized by a Russian partisan leader named Fyodr Markov. However, the Germans soon began a blockade of the swamps where Simon and the partisans were hiding. Simon escaped, but in the ensuing chaos, Markov’s all-Jewish brigade was disbanded and Simon was on his own again.

On his way to a relative Simon hoped would provide safe harbor, he ran into a Soviet partisan unit. Luckily, the unit was in need of locals familiar with the area, and Simon was accepted into their ranks. The unit was part of the regular Soviet army. They took orders from Moscow by radio and received air-dropped supplies towards the end of the war. Simon worked as a spy and a saboteur, gathering information about troop and supply movements, which his group used to effectively mine roads and blow up bridges. His group was especially active in disrupting the Berlin-Moscow rail route, which the Germans used for supplies. On one of the missions, Simon’s otriad attacked the rail line with several thousand other partisans, blowing up miles of tracks. The Germans guarding the tracks were so overwhelmed by the attack that they fled from their bunkers into the woods instead of fighting back.

As the war continued, Simon left the partisans to work for the Soviet government as a schoolteacher in a remote Russian village. When the war ended and the “iron curtain” began to descend across Eastern Europe, Simon returned to Poland and smuggled himself into the West. He spent three years in Austria attempting to immigrate to the U.S., before finally being allowed to enter in 1948.

Simon died on January 2, 2009, surrounded by his loving family at his home in New York. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Simon Trakinski, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Bill Trakinski, Simon’s brother and fellow partisan. Vilna, 1945.

Family photo, Passover weekend. From left to right, Simon Trakinski, Simon's father Moses, mother Esther, uncle Zev, brother Bill and in the center Simon's grandmother Chaja. Smorgon, Belarus, 1931.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Leon Idas, born July 11, 1925, Fought for the Liberation of Greece at 16

"We are Jewish, and you know what happened to the Jews, I said, they round them up and we come here, we didn't care if it is Communists or Royalists or Democratic, Conservative, we come here to become Partisan, to fight the common enemy — the Nazis." – Leon Idas.

Leon Idas was born July 11, 1925 in Athens, Greece. He grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with his father, a textiles merchant, mother, four brothers, and sister. Leon attended a private school run by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Christian theology Leon learned proved useful as a means to keep his Jewish identity hidden during the war.

Shortly after the beginning of the German occupation of Greece in 1941, sixteen year-old Leon joined a group of partisans fighting for the liberation of Greece under a socialist banner. At that time, there were three groups of partisans in Greece: socialist, democratic, and loyalist. Leon fought and served as communications specialist with the partisans for more than three years, winding wires through the trees in various villages to establish telephone communication.


Leon Idas training to use a machine gun.

The partisans lived in bases in the mountains of Greece where they organized armed resistance against the German army. Aided by nearby villages, British airdrops of supplies and their own resourcefulness, the partisans primarily employed ambush and guerrilla tactics against the German army. The Germans in turn attempted to eliminate the partisans by destroying villages that supported them.


Leon Idas (middle) with two army friends

Leon spent more than three years with the partisans. During that time, Leon suffered through hunger, lice, a lack of adequate clothing, and had virtually no contact with his family, save for a single encounter with one of his brothers who was fighting for another partisan group.

At the end of the war, in December 1945, Leon left the partisans and returned to his family home in Athens. Once there, he was reunited with what was left of his family and learned that his parents and brother Gabriel had died in Auschwitz during this time.


Leon eventually made his way to the United States with no more than 50 cents in his pocket, and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. He married and raised a family of three sons and one daughter, and started his own clothing business, Royal Vintage Clothing. Leon passed away on April 12, 2013, and was laid to rest in the private Jewish Family Cemetery on the island of Samos, Greece, alongside his grandfather Leon Goldstein and Uncle Albert Goldstein.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Leon Idas, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Leon's son, Sam Idas, has created a photo montage of Leon's life. He was gracious enough to share it with JPEF - click here to view the montage video.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Shalom Yoran - The Defiant [Born June 29, 1925]

Shalom Yoran was born Selim Sznycer in 1925 in Warsaw, Poland. When Shalom was 15 years old, his family fled east, leaving the Nazi-occupied area of Poland for the Soviet side. However, a year later the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the Yoran family found their new home, the village of Kurzeniec, occupied by the Nazis.

Two years later, in 1942, the Nazis established a Russian POW camp in Kurzeniec, where the prisoners were treated brutally. Shalom first learned about the partisans through stories he was told by escaped Soviet POWs. The day before Yom Kippur 1942, the Kurzeniec ghetto was ordered to be liquidated.

Shalom was given an early warning, but his family was not as lucky. Shalom and his brother Musio managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, and were forced to listen as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. The brothers later found out their parents were among them. The farmer whose barn they hid in turned out to be friendly, and the brothers safely made it to the woods - the Naroch puscha - where they found many other survivors in hiding. Shalom reasoned it was only a matter of time before the Germans conducted an organized raid on the forest, so the brothers decided to leave the area. After the brothers recruited three younger refugees to follow them, the boys spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where they built a zemlyanka for shelter and lived mostly off a large store of food they took from local farmers.

Detailed map of Shalom's journey through northeastern Poland

At first, they resorted to stealing and begging, but Shalom eventually had an idea: he fashioned the tops of his boots into a holster, and whittled a wooden handle to look like the one on a Soviet Nagan revolver. No longer needing to steal potatoes in the dead of night, Shalom now demanded provisions, brandishing his holstered "weapon". The balance between menace and generosity was of vital importance, and for a long time the peasants did not suspect anything.

However, one night as they ventured into the village one last time to acquire matches, an angry mob chased them down and beat them with sticks. Though he was robbed of all his clothing, Shalom miraculously escaped with his life, and even managed to avoid frostbite as he ran barefoot through the snow. Luckily, all five of the group survived the assault and managed to return to the zemlyanka.

In the spring of 1943, Shalom and the group ventured out of their hiding area. By this time, the tide was turning for the Nazi war effort, and the German army was suffering serious setbacks both in Africa and on the Eastern Front. On the road to Zazierie, the boys encountered fellow survivors of the Kurzeniec ghetto and a group of partisans roaming the village. Since neither he nor his group had weapons, Shalom was denied entry into the group — a common practice among the partisans. Unsure of what to do, Shalom and his brother stayed in the puscha. Though their winter companions went their separate ways, they were soon joined by others, including some escapees from a labor camp in Vileika.

Shalom and his companions spent the rest of the spring trying to join partisan groups roaming the area, but without weapons, they received the same reply every time. Finally, a partisan commander relented and offered them a deal: they would be allowed into the partisans if they returned to Kurzeniec and burned down a factory that made wooden rifle butts. For this mission, they were given a handgun with a single bullet and two hand grenades. Despite the odds, they were successful. However, when they returned to the partisan camp, they were met by a different officer, who took away their weapons and reprimanded them, threatening to shoot them if they didn't leave. The Russian partisans never even thought they could succeed, and had no intention of letting Jews into their group. Little did they know that the group's commanding officer - the one who initially gave them the assignment - was himself a Russian Jew.

Shalom's lucky break came when the commander of a "specgruppa" - a small unit created for a specific purpose - came through the area looking for guides. During the Soviet retreat in 1941, the local peasants had picked up many weapons abandoned by soldiers. The group's mission was to find and collect these weapons, along with food. Here, Shalom witnessed first-hand the methods of Soviet-style coercion, which ranged from the polite display of a grenade on the table to beatings and mock executions.
But in the end, the specgruppa found the weapons caches, and for his work, Shalom and Musio were both given working rifles (though Shalom's did not have a butt, and Musio's was sawed-off).

Shalom in British uniformAfter his work with the specgruppa, Shalom heard rumors of the formation of an all-Jewish otriad, organized by one Colonel Markov, who by that time had a brigade of over a thousand partisans under his command. He was in contact with the FPO in Vilna, and their members formed the core of an all-Jewish otriad called Miest - the Russian word for "revenge". Since they brought weapons, Shalom and his companions were readily accepted into the unit. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit ambushed the retreating German troops, cutting communication lines, blowing up bridges, and destroying railroads. The unit was disbanded and merged with another otriad some months later. This would not be the last all-Jewish unit Shalom belonged to during the war - and, unfortunately, not the last to be disbanded by the Soviet high command.

When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom and the rest of his comrades were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war.

In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British Military passport, and joined the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. Shalom became a leader in the Israeli aerospace industry.

Shalom moved to the US in 1979 where he lived with his wife, artist Varda Yoran. Shalom passed away on September 9, 2013 leaving a tremendous legacy.

In 2003, he published his memoir, The Defiant: A True Story of Escape, Survival & Resistance. The book, written shortly after the Shoah but rediscovered many years later, is dedicated to his parents. Click here to listen to Larry King reading excerpts from the book.

From left to right: Shalom, Steffi, Markh, and Musio. Steffi was the widow of Markh's close friend in Vilna. Budapest, 1945.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sonia Orbuch, born on May 24th

“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.

In September 1939, World War II began when Germany attacked Poland. Sarah Shainwald was 14 years old and getting ready to start high school when the bombs began falling. The Soviets invaded Poland from the east and Lubomi was handed to the Russians under the Hitler / Stalin pact that divided Poland between them.

For two years, under the Soviets, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war, with worries about her family’s future. In 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family survived in the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.

News spread quickly when the Germans began killing the Jews in the ghetto. Her brother and several male friends left to join a partisan group. The forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.

Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Without weapons or training, they hoped that Sarah’s uncle, a trained scout with life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, would be enough of an asset to gain acceptance. The largely non-Jewish unit eventually received the family and Sara began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for missions of sabotage and resistance.

Sarah, renamed Sonia by the partisans, mined train tracks and stood guard on the camp perimeter. She played the role of makeshift nurse, using whatever supplies were available to dress the wounds of partisans returning daily from battle.

In the winter of 1943/44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. Several thousand were in that camp and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital.
To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades: “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”

“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.”

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 infected with typhus, a condition they were unaware of at the time. The typhus soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.

As the war ended, Sonia focused her energies on getting to America. Sonia lived in Northern California up until her passing in September 2018. Before she died, she'd say, “I miss my family every minute of the day. I see them always before my eyes.”

Sonia defiantly proclaimed: “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 said. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”

She shared her experiences and taught students in the classroom as often as she can. Here she is with the 8th grade classroom at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael, California.
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 at amazon.com.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Hirsh Glik, Poet/Songwriter - Hymm of the Jewish Partisans

In the summer of 1944, Hirsh Glik disappeared from the ghetto in Goldfilz, Estonia, and was presumed dead. He was only twenty-two but had devoted his life to writing and had already established his legacy through the song, “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“Never Say”). This song was a triumphant and hopeful call for defiance, inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Never Say” became a beacon to many and quickly grew to be known as the “Song of the Partisans.”

Hirsh Glik was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1922. He demonstrated talent early: at age thirteen he began to compose poetry in Hebrew—and then solely in Yiddish—and his works were published frequently in the Jewish-Soviet press. When the Germans occupied Vilna in June 1941, Glik was sent to work the peat bogs in Biala-Waka, Rzesza. Displacement and grueling labor did not prevent him from writing: in between hauling impossible loads of turf, Glik would ask friends to hum a tune so that he could improvise lyrics. When Biala-Waka was liquidated in 1943, Glik returned to the ghetto in Vilna and joined the United Partisans Organization (FPO), where he took part in the literary scene. Here, Glik first recited “Never Say” to a poet friend, Shmaryahu Kaczerginski, at an event arranged to pay tribute to Yiddish writers, called “Spring in Yiddish Literature.” The scope of anguish, defiance, and hope in the song made it an anthem to many in Vilna.

Glik was also inspired by the actions of Vitka Kempner, a founding member of FPO, and wrote “Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt” (Still the Night is Full of Stars) about her first act of sabotage, blowing up a Nazi train line.

The struggle to survive at Biala-Waka, Vilna, and later Goldfilz in Estonia, never broke Hirsh Glik’s inspiration to write. He composed sometimes on scraps but mostly in his head, reciting poems to other prisoners. Some written copies of Glik’s poems were discovered buried beneath the Vilna Ghetto. Though most of his words were lost, “Hymm of the Jewish Partisans” is considered worldwide one of the most important anthems of Jewish partisans and is still sung today in remembrance of those who died in the Shoah.

Hymm of the Jewish Partisans (audio)
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
From lands so green with palms to lands all white with snow.

We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,

And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!


The early morning sun will brighten our day,

And yesterday with our foe will fade away,

But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as motto generations must remain.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It's not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,

With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.


Therefore never say the road now ends for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

Transliterated Yiddish:
zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.

kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s'vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!


fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,

shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!

s'vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,

un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor –
vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.


dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un nit mit blay,
s'iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl oyf der fray,

dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent

dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent.
to zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,

khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.

kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho –
es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

The song called Zog Nit Keynmol in Yiddish is known simply as the Hymn of the Partisans. From the ghettos and the camps it has journeyed across generations to become the official hymn of many Remembrance ceremonies in Israel and abroad. The words were originally written by Yiddish poet and resistance member Hirsh Glik, who was only 21 years old when he first recited it at a Yiddish literature event in the Vilna ghetto. Though Glik disappeared and was presumed to have died a year later, his song quickly spread beyond Vilna — the song's tone and mood perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the various resistance movements around Europe.

Four years after the fall of Hitler, the tune would be used as a form of resistance against another 20th century tyrant. Paul Robeson traveled to Moscow in June 1949 to give a performance to an audience that included many Communist Party elites, as well as what little remained of the Jewish intelligentsia after Stalin's purges. At the end of the concert, Robeson stunned the audience with a surprise rendition of the Partisan Hymn. His introductory remarks contained references to the Yiddish language, the deep and enduring cultural ties between the US and Russian Jewish communities, as well as to leading Jewish intellectuals who had been "disappeared" by the regime.

The remarks, the spontaneous translation of the song to the shocked audience, and thunderous applause that followed were cut from the recording by Stalin's censors, but the chaos is evident in the mixture of applause and jeers that follow the actual performance. Lamentably, Robeson kept his criticisms of the Soviet Union to himself when he returned to the United States, not wishing to be used by right-wing political groups to advance their causes. But the recording remains, as does the pain and fury in Robeson's voice.

“Zog Nit Keynmol” Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

Zog nit keyn mol az du geyst dem letsten veg,
Khotsh himlen blayene farsthtelen bloye teg.
Never say you are walking your final road,
Though leaden skies conceal the days of blue.

Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sha'ah,
S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot mir zaynen do!
The hour that we have longed for will appear,
Our steps will beat out like drums: We are here!

Fun grinem palmenland biz vaysen land fun shney,
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey.
From the green lands of palm trees to lands white with snow,
We are coming with all our pain and all our woe.

Un vu gefalen s'iz a shpritz fun undzer blut,
Shprotzen vet dort undzer gevurah, undzer mut.
Wherever a spurt of our blood has fallen to the ground,
There our might and our courage will sprout again.

S'vet di morgenzum bagilden undz dem haynt,
Un der nekhten vet farshvinden miten faynd.
The morning sun will shine on us one day,
Our enemy will vanish and fade away.

Nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in dem kayor,
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.
But if the sun and dawn come too late for us,
From generation to generation let them be singing this song.

Dos lid geshriben iz mit blut un nit mit blay,
S'iz nit keyn lidel fun a foygel oyf der fray,
This song is written in blood not in pencil-lead.
It is not sung by the free-flying birds overhead,

Dos hot a folk tsvishen falendike vent,
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent!
But a people stood among collapsing walls,
And sang this song with pistols in their hands!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Resist, resist, to our last breath!" - Abba Kovner (z''l) and Vitka Kempner (z''l) galvanized resistance in the Vilnius Ghetto

    
In honor of their shared March 14th birthdays, JPEF highlights Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner, partisans from the Vilnius Ghetto who eventually married.
   
Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. His family eventually emigrated and he spent his high school years in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania — the preeminent center of Jewish culture and learning at the time, often referred to as the "Jerusalem of Europe" — where he joined the Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir youth movement and attended the University of Vilna as an art student.


Exactly four years younger, Vitka Kempner was born on the same day in the Polish town of Kalish, located near the Polish-German border. As a teen, Vitka joined the militarist Betar movement, later switching to Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir at the behest of her friends.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna with a number of other youngsters, including her younger brother. Vilna was still a free city, and served as a hub for the various Zionist youth movements searching for passage to Palestine, away from the troubles of Europe.
      
Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, occupying Vilna and forcing its Jews into a ghetto. Abba Kovner, who watched through his window as Nazi soldiers tore an infant from a mother’s arms and smashed it against a wall , had no illusions about the intentions of the occupiers. Hearing rumors of killings and mass graves in Ponar1, Kovner and his youth group friends realized that armed resistance was the only possible course.


"Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter, Jewish youth! Do not believe those who are deceiving you. Out of 80,000 Jews of the Jerusalem of Lithuania (Vilna), only 20,000 remain. In front of your eyes our parents, our brothers and our sisters are being torn away from us. Where are the hundreds of men who were snatched away for labor by the Lithuanian kidnappers? Where are those naked women who were taken away on the horror-night of the provocation? Where are those Jews of the Day of Atonement? And where are our brothers of the second ghetto? Anyone who is taken out through the gates of the ghetto, will never return. All roads of the ghetto lead to Ponary, and Ponary means death. Oh, despairing people, - tear this deception away from your eyes. Your children, your husbands, your wives - are no longer alive - Ponary is not a labor camp. Everyone there is shot. Hitler aimed at destroying the Jews of Europe. It turned out to be the fate of the Jews of Lithuania to be the first. Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter. It is true that we are weak, lacking protection, but the only reply to a murderer is resistance. Brothers, it is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of killers. Resist, resist, to our last breath!"
         
With these rousing words, spoken at a soup kitchen on December 31, 1941, Kovner galvanized the youth movements and the United Partisan Organization, or FPO (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye) for short, was formed. Their first commander was Yitzhak Wittenberg. Their only objective was armed resistance – anything else was seen as a waste of time. They snuck out of the ghetto to execute sabotage missions, manufactured bombs, trained fighters, set up illegal printing presses, and acquired weapons that were smuggled into the ghetto in false-bottomed coffins or through the sewers.

Vitka Kempner was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage; smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The Germans did not even suspect Vilna’s Jews – organized partisan resistance simply wasn’t on their radar yet.
The FPO continually pleaded with the Jews of Vilna to join the partisans in a popular uprising, but the majority of the Jewish population actually considered the rebels a liability and a danger to the ghetto’s survival. The Germans reinforced this notion with pressure on the local Judenrat. Finally, after some skirmishes with the FPO, the Germans threatened the ghetto with total liquidation, which led to Yitzhak Wittenberg’s voluntary surrender; he was then promptly tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Before he surrendered, however, Wittenberg appointed Kovner as the new leader of the FPO.

The Germans liquidated the ghetto anyway, deporting its 12,000 remaining inhabitants. The FPO evacuated hundreds of fighters out of the city through the sewers, as Kovner and others briefly fought the Germans from atop abandoned buildings. Vitka herself led the last group of fighters – including Kovner – out of the city to the Rudnicki forests. The FPO was thus transformed into a partisan unit, naming themselves Nakam, or "The Avengers." 


Abba Kovner (center) and Vitka Kempner (right) with fellow partisan and life-long friend Rozka Korczak.

Vitka was appointed commander of a patrol group in charge of gathering information and maintaining ties with the Vilna underground. It was during this time that Kovner and Kempner began their relationship. Their all-Jewish group was unique; Kovner was convinced that Jews could gain self-respect through fighting, and that Jews must fight as Jews, so he refused to be absorbed into other Lithuanian or Russian partisan groups. The group earned a distinguished record — they destroyed over 180 miles of train tracks, 5 bridges, 40 enemy train cars, killed 212 enemy soldiers, and rescued at least 71 Jews, including prisoners from the Kalais labor camp. They also managed to destroy Vilna's power plant & waterworks. At the end of the war, Vitka was awarded Soviet Union’s highest badge of courage.


Abba Kovner at the old FPO headquarters in Vilna after the liberation.

The couple saw Vilna liberated in 1944, entering the city with Soviet troops. Gathering the surviving members of their old youth group, Kovner helped organize the Beriha2 movement, which helped smuggle hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe into British-mandated Palestine. Kovner and Kempner also organized a secret revenge unit, which sought to poison German POWs at a Nuremberg camp (the accounts on the effectiveness of this mission vary, though hundreds of POWs fell ill and had to be hospitalized).

Eventually, Kovner and Kempner were smuggled into Palestine, where they married. During the Israeli War of Independence, Kovner went on to lead the Givati brigade, and wrote ‘battle pages,’ which contained morale-boosting essays and news from the Egyptian front.
     
He went on to testify at the Eichmann trial in 1961, play a major role in the construction and design of several Holocaust museums, and write several books and poems that recount his experiences, for which he won the 1970 Israel Prize in Literature. He lived on a Kibbutz with Vitka and other survivors from the underground until his death in 1987 from cancer.
     
Though she initially had a hard time adjusting to the Kibbutz life, and suffered from health problems, Vitka found her calling when she started helping children with their studies, and eventually turned to the field of special education. At age 45, she went on to study clinical psychology, receiving a degree from Bar Ilan University and developed a new form of non-verbal color-based therapy. She passed away on February 15, 2012, on the Kibbutz she called home for more than fifty years. 

Abba and Vitka are survived by four grandchildren and leave behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.


Clip from a video interview by JPEF "The only punishment is death in the partisans"
Video Transcript: "I wanted in a few words to tell what life was like in a partisan forest. We were part of a Lithuanian/Russian partisan brigade, where the rules were very strict, almost incomprehensible to a Western person, who lives in the present time. Actually, everything was tuned towards fighting...life was very, very hard, and the rules were strict. If somebody would transgress even the smallest rule, the only punishment was death. Actually, there wasn't any other punishment. So let's say, we had to have food in order to survive. So to get food we'd go out on operations." 
-Vitka Kempner

Watch Vitka's video testimony about her wartime partisan experiences on the JPEF Partisans page. . Vitka is also featured in JPEF's short film: Women in the Partisans

Abba Kovner (far left) at a reunion of Vilna partisans.
1. Ponar was an oil storage facility site abandoned by the Soviets halfway through its construction; it had many large pits dug for the oil warehouses, which the Nazis deemed a convenient place for mass executions.
2. Jewish partisan Allen Small credits the Beriha with helping him escape from the Soviet Army.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Celebrating Eta Wrobel, Who Defied Gender Roles as a Jewish Partisan, During Women's History Month

"I was the girl who played soccer with the boys. I was the girl who rode a bicycle on the street in shorts, which no other Jewish girls didn’t do that, I had no objections from my parents. We had a very good home. And not to forget, which hurts my life, we had ten children in our family, and I’m the only survivor. The only one. I have no family whatsoever in my background, so like when we get together in the family there is that celebration, or a wedding or bar mitzvah or whatever there is, I have nobody. Everybody who comes, nieces, nephews, are all from my husband’s side. That’s the only thing I envy in my life — otherwise, I’m free." — Eta Wrobel.

Born December 28th, 1918 in Lokov, Poland, Eta Wrobel was the only child in a family of ten to survive the Holocaust. In her youth, she was a free spirit who defied authority. As Eta puts it she was “born a fighter.” Her father, a member of the Polish underground, taught her the importance of helping people, no matter the circumstance.

In early 1940, Eta started work as a clerk in an employment agency. Soon she began her resistance by creating false identity papers for Jews. In October 1942, Eta’s ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were forced into concentration camps. In the transition, Eta and her father escaped to the woods.

Life in the woods around Lokov was extremely treacherous. Eta helped organize an exclusively Jewish partisan unit of close to 80 people. Her unit stole most of their supplies, slept in cramped quarters, and had no access to medical attention. At one point Eta was shot in the leg and dug the bullet out with a knife. The unit set mines to hinder German movement and cut off supply routes. Unlike the other seven women in the unit, Eta refused to cook or clean. Her dynamic personality and military skills allowed for this exception.

She was active on missions with the men and made important strategic decisions.
In 1944, when the Germans left Lokov, Eta came out of hiding and was asked to be mayor of her town. Shortly after, Eta met Henry, her husband to be. They were married on December 20, 1944. In 1947, Eta and Henry moved to the United States. She and Henry had three children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Eta summarized her heroic years with the partisans by saying simply, “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive.”

In 2006, her memoir My Life My Way The Extraordinary Life of a Jewish Partisan in World War II was published. Eta died on May 26, 2008 at her home in upstate New York. Eta’s grandson, Barak Wrobel, is following her leadership having joined the board of JPEF in 2018.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Eta Wrobel, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Eta is also featured in an Emmy-nominated documentary from PBS entitled Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Share the Legacy of Jewish Partisan Sonya Oshman (z''l) During Women's History Month


The eldest of four children, Sonya Oshman (z''l) was born in 1922 to a family of wealthy Novogrudok merchants. Novogrudok was a Polish town with a population in the thousands, approximately half of whom were Jewish. The Gorodinskys were well-respected, and Sonya’s father was occasionally called upon to mediate tensions between the town’s Polish and Jewish communities.

Sonya had planned to enroll in medical school in Bialystok the year that the Soviets invaded. Although the Soviets deported many Jews to Siberia, the Gorodinskys were left alone. Life changed drastically when the Nazis occupied Poland. They systematically murdered most of the town’s Jewish population, including Sonya’s youngest brother and grandparents.

By May of 1943, only 500 Jews remained in Novogrudok – mostly skilled laborers and their families. The Nazis confined them to the city's courthouse, where they lived in squalid conditions in what became a makeshift ghetto. On May 7th, the Nazis conducted another massacre, reducing the ghetto population by half. Following this massacre, the remaining 250 Jews began plotting their escape. The initial plan to storm the courthouse gates fell through when the Nazis discovered their plot. Instead, the escapees decided to dig a tunnel underneath the ghetto into the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would allow the sick and the elderly enough time to get out.

The work was difficult and dangerous. The excess earth had to be disposed of, and the summer rains threatened to collapse the tunnel. To avoid suspicious dirt stains, those digging wore burlap sacks – or dug naked. Even in these dire conditions, Sonya found a ray of hope when she befriended and fell in love with Aaron Oshman during the time they spent digging together. They would later marry. Just a month before the escape, Sonya’s father was transferred to another ghetto, along with a handful of other skilled workers. She never saw him again.

The escape finally occurred on a rainy September night. About seventy of the escapees – including two of Sonya’s cousins and the tunnel’s mastermind – lost their lives when they accidentally ran back towards the ghetto and were shot by the guards, who mistook them for ambushing partisans. Most of the other escapees, including Sonya, eventually made it to relative safety at the Bielski partisan camp. There, she was reunited with her one surviving brother Shaul, and with Aaron.


As a member of the Bielski partisan group, Sonya performed many important duties and was instrumental in safeguarding the camp population by standing sentry.

After the war ended, Aaron and Sonya traveled across Europe, finally making it to a displaced person’s camp in Italy. Their first child was born shortly before they arrived in the United States and settled in Brooklyn.

Sonya dedicated her life to sharing her story and to teaching people about the resistance of the Jewish partisans. She traveled extensively and spoke in schools, synagogues, and community centers across the country.

Sonya and Aaron were married for 56 years, had two sons Matthew and Theodore, and four grandchildren. For more on the inspiring life of Sonya Oshman, the Novogrudok tunnel escape, and the Bieslki brigade, please watch the JPEF documentary, A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters. and read Gila Lyon's excellent biography in Tablet magazine.

Sonia passed away on March 2, 2012.

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.