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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.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Honoring the Memory of Sol Lapidus (z''l), Born May 10, 1921

With an explosion akin to thunder, the train splintered into a thousand pieces, instantly killing the German soldiers inside. In the aftermath of the deafening explosion, no one noticed a group of men silently crawling back through an open field near the tracks, then vanishing into the nearby woods, the growing twilight reducing their movements to shadows.

One of those individuals was Solomon (Sol) Lapidus, a Jewish youth from Belarus, on his first assignment from headquarters. He was given instructions to place dynamite in such a way as to destroy the third car – his careful follow-through ensured that the train tracks located on the bridge were also devastated. His reputation for precision on assignments spread up the chain of command, and Sol became well-known throughout partisan groups as a demolitions expert.

Lapidus was born on May 10, 1921, in Minsk, Belarus. His mother was a Russian teacher, and his father ran the printing department for a newspaper. His immediate family spoke only a little Hebrew. In childhood, his main exposure to Jewish culture came from his grandfather, with whom he attended services every Shabbat. He was the middle child in a family of many siblings. His oldest brother, a well-known musician, was drafted into the army to entertain troops all over the world, and once performed for the Queen of England in London.

Lapidus did not come to be a demolitions expert through sheer talent alone. Like many other Polish children, before the war, he attended camp every summer. However, since Poland knew that a war was bound to break out sooner or later, many of their camp activities actually provided youth with specific military training. He chose to learn demolition by cable, which came in handy for his first assignment as a partisan.


Sol and his wife after the war
Lapidus was drafted into the Red Army on May 10, 1941, his twentieth birthday. Less than two months later, on June 22, 1941, Germany broke the non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded. The German offensive was quick and powerful, and despite the assurances of Stalin’s propaganda, it overpowered the Soviet forces in the western regions. Much of the Red Army scattered throughout the countryside – later regrouping as partisan units. For three weeks, Lapidus ran from the German soldiers with only the clothes on his back, headed east towards Smolensk. He was eventually caught and put in a POW camp in the woods near the Russia-Belarus border.

He languished in the prison camp with hundreds of Red Army POWs until August of 1941, when he and a group of others, including his commanding officer, managed to escape with the aid of local peasants, who provided wire cutters and instructions on which direction go in order to escape. Hours before dawn, Lapidus crawled on his stomach to the relative safety of the woods with seventeen others. During his escape, he found himself in the middle of the crossfire between the Wassof partisan group and the Germans and was wounded. Although he had only the use of a straw to cleanse his bullet wound, he recovered without complications.

Escaping deep into the woods, Lapidus went on to join the Chokulov partisan group, hiding his Jewish identity because of the anti-semitism that existed within the ranks. The partisan life was primarily a means of survival, but the group also participated in a number of attacks on railroads and other targets, earning Lapidus respect within the partisan ranks for his demolition expertise.

Lapidus’s partisan encampment was located near the forest where the Bielski partisans had set up camp. Because the Bielskis sometimes worked with the Soviet partisans, Lapidus had a chance to visit the camp, where he met Tuvia Bielski for the first time in September of 1942. They quickly became friends, and Lapidus valued the kinship that an all-Jewish partisan unit provided him – after all, he could not even reveal his Jewish identity to his own otriad.

Lapidus remembers Tuvia as someone who valued the integrity of every member of his group and did not discriminate against anyone based on their gender or age. He had innate leadership abilities and knew how to raise the morale of his partisans. “[Y]ou're not doing it for yourself, you're taking nekamah1 for someone else who got killed,” Tuvia once told his group. The two met at least once a week and collaborated on many joint operations.

Inspired by his love of performance arts, Lapidus organized an entertainment group made up of a dozen partisans who sang, danced and played music for nearby partisan camps. The Soviet command granted them permission to perform; the presence of partisan entertainers in the region could easily be turned into beneficial propaganda. The performances were lengthy affairs lasting one and a half to two hours. The entertainers’ reputations preceded them; they became so famous that wherever they went next, a platform stage would be awaiting them, built by the hosting otriad.

Lapidus’s younger brother fought with him in the partisans. Unfortunately, on one occasion, his brother became separated from his group during a mission and was killed by enemy crossfire. Deeply affected by this incident, Lapidus withdrew from assignments and instead used his demolition expertise to train peasants who had recently joined as partisans.

Lapidus met his wife Ruth towards the end of the war at a concert in Lida. He already had a girlfriend whom he planned to marry, but quickly ended it after meeting his future wife, falling for her beauty and good nature. Ruth had been in Asner's partisan group, but later she joined the Bielski group. When Lapidus got sick with typhus, and his doctor passed away leaving him without the proper care, Ruth nursed him back to health and saved his life.

Looking back on his time as a partisan he states “[we] prove[d] that we are people that survive[d] because we [fought] for it, not [because] somebody else was fighting for us.”


Lapidus received many medals of honor for his bravery as a partisan, including the Order of Lenin, one of Soviet Union’s most prestigious honors. He immigrated to the United States, with Ruth where he became a successful businessman and raised his children.

Solomon Lapidus (z''l) passed away in December 2017. May his memory be a blessing.

Learn more about Sol, and watch his video testimony on JPEF's website.

1. A Hebrew word meaning 'vengeance'.


Jewish Partisan - Harry Burger, born on May 10, 1924

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

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, along with 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, Aaron and others were rescued by the Bielski partisans, who had 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 father 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 en route 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 online class on 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.