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Showing posts with label Bielski partisans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bielski partisans. Show all posts

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Rae Kushner (A''H), born on February 27th

"But he knew the way how to go in the woods. We didn't know nothing. I [was with] my sister and my father and I said to him, '…we're going to die together or we're going to be rescued together.' We were sitting under the bushes for 10 days. And it was pouring."
— Rae Kushner.

Born on February 27, 1923, Rae Kushner was the second-oldest of four children. Her family lived in the Polish town of Novogrodek, where a thriving Jewish community comprised just over half of its population.

Soviet troops entered Novogrodek in September of 1939 after the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Though the Russians took away the Kushner business and home, life under Soviet rule was relatively tolerable. Then, in the summer of 1941, the Nazis invaded Poland at the start of Operation Barbarossa. Though rumors of mass killings had reached Novogrodek by that point, few Jews actually believed that the Germans would carry out such atrocities.

Following several massacres, the remaining Jewish population was forced into a ghetto. Rae lived in the city’s courthouse with her family and nearly approximately 600 other Jews. Rae's mother and older sister were killed in a subsequent massacre on May 7, 1943.

Starting in the middle of May, the remaining Jews dug a 600-foot tunnel during the nights, using tools made in the ghetto workshops and hiding the dirt in the walls of buildings. Rae and her family helped with the digging. When completed, the 600-foot tunnel was only large enough for one person to crawl through. Upon emerging from it, the escapees were met with gunfire, darkness and disorientation. Consequently, only 170 survived out of the 250 that escaped. Rae’s brother was among the fallen, having lost his glasses during the crawl through the tunnel.

Rae and her surviving family spent ten days hiding in the woods, eventually making their way to the home of an acquaintance. The woman fed them and allowed them to sleep in her stable with the cows for one week — a risk that carried the penalty of a violent death.

Shortly thereafter, the Bielski partisans took in the escapees from Novogrodek — including Rae and her family. In the Naliboki encampment where the Bielskis had managed to shelter over 1,200 people, Rae regularly stood guard and often cooked the camp meals — mostly potatoes, soup and small pieces of bread. During that time, Rae met and fell in love with Joseph Kushner, whom she knew prior to the war. Rae and Joseph were married in August of 1945, a little over a year after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Red Army. They were among the many partisan couples who found love in the forests.

After the war, Rae returned to her hometown of Novogrodek, only to find it destroyed. Rae and her family ended up in an Italian displaced persons camp for three years. It was here that Rae gave birth to her daughter Linda, the first of her four children.

In 1949, the family moved to New York and Rae had two sons, Murray and Charles, as well as another daughter, Esther. Both of her sons went on to have prominent careers in business. Rae passed away in 2004, but her name lives on in prominence today. The Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, New Jersey is one of the most prestigious Jewish schools on the East Coast, with over 850 students attending.

For more information on Rae, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit the JPEF partisan pages. Rae is also featured in JPEF's short film A Partisan Returns — you can find it on our films page.


Edited by Kyle Matthews.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Partisan Photos By 'Defiance' Director Edward Zwick

In November of 2008, Defiance director Edward Zwick took these photographs of surviving Bielski partisans at the screening of Defiance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. We have posted some of these on our Facebook page earlier, in conjunction with our tribute dinner honoring partisans from the Bielski brigade and their 3rd generation descendants. Here is the entire set:

Alfred Zenner Ann Monka
Masha Pupko Beryl Chafetz
Charles and Sara Bedzow
Jerry Kaidanow Lea Friedberg
Sara Bedzow Solomon Lapidus
Willie Moll
Michael Stoll Bella Goldfischer
Helen Terris Ruth Lapidus

All photos © 2008 Edward Zwick. Used with permission.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Featured Jewish Partisan - Leon Bakst, born on May 3rd

Leon Bakst was one of four siblings born to a wholesale merchant in Ivie, a small Polish town 73 miles west of Minsk. Leon was 15 when the German army invaded eastern Poland in the summer of 1941, occupying Ivie and forcing the town’s Jews into a ghetto.

When the Germans asked Leon’s father what he did for a living, he lied and told the Germans that he was a brush maker. Though he traded in raw materials required for making brushes, he had never actually made a brush in his life. However, he figured that the occupiers would have more use for a tradesman than a merchant. His assessment of the situation was correct – he was spared the initial massacre of influential Jewish men. It would not be the last time his quick wits would save him and his family from annihilation. During the next round-up, as the family was approaching the SS officials in charge of choosing the next massacre victims, Leon’s father put his wife and daughters behind himself and his two sons – he realized the Nazis were more likely to spare able-bodied men than families with lots of women and children. The gamble paid off: seeing only a father and his two teenage sons from their vantage point behind the table, the SS men hurriedly dismissed the family.


The Bakst family.

By this point in the war, the Nazis were not particularly concerned about hiding their true plans for the Jews of Poland. Leon and his brother were among those forced to dig mass graves a mile outside of their town. Leon remembers seeing the soldiers execute one of the crew:

“It was a Rabbi’s son – he had a little bit…one arm. [It] wasn’t as strong as the other; it was kind of a weak arm. So after we got through digging out, before we’re fixing to go back to the ghetto, [they] shot him, right there in front of the grave. And we left.”

Months later, Leon and his older brother, along with 200 other young people, were selected by the local Judenrat council to go to a labor camp in Lida, another town 25 miles west of Ivie. The tragic separation from his family actually saved his life, but he never got the chance to see his parents again – the Germans destroyed their ghetto shortly after he left, as he learnt later.

The labor camp was located in a railroad yard – the prisoners even slept in the boxcars. Their food rations were meager, and their futures uncertain. However, the prisoners had one tremendous advantage: their job was to load trains bound for Germany with weapons and ammunition captured from the retreating Russians. Having heard about partisan groups roaming the nearby forests, twenty of the youngsters decided to risk escape and join them. By slowly stealing rifles and stashing them in the ground, the prisoners were able to arm themselves before fleeing.

Having spent many summers in the area, the two brothers were familiar with the surroundings, making it easier for their group to travel at night. The rifles they stole from the Germans also ensured that the group got fed along the way, and their numbers kept them safe from bands of former Russian soldiers turned bandits and marauders – men who would not hesitate to kill a stray escapee for a pair of boots or a rifle.

Having finally reached the Naliboki forest, the youngsters encountered the Bielski brigade, which at the time had about 200 partisans. Since the group arrived with rifles, the Bielskis quickly accepted the newcomers.

During his time with the Bielskis, Leon was involved in a series of tasks ranging from guard duty to food-gathering missions to railroad sabotage. As he says, the main purpose of the partisans was to keep the members of the group alive. By 1945, the Bielskis saved more than 1,200 Jewish lives.

After the war’s end, Leon managed to leave Poland with his brother and Libby – a partisan from another otriad and Leon’s future wife. They eventually made it to a displaced persons’ camp in Munich, where Leon met Allen Small, a boyhood friend from Ivie who fought with a Soviet partisan otriad. It would be 65 years before they see one another again. (For more on this story, see JPEF’s documentary “The Reunion”.)


Leon and Libby in Munich, 1946.

During the four years they spent in the displaced persons’ camp, Leon and Libby got married and their first child was born. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. Leon currently lives in Dallas, Texas. He has two daughters.

Of his legacy as a partisan, Leon says:

“When I was in the underground, it was a happy time of my life because I felt I’m fighting not only for myself, I was fighting for freedom, and [to] take revenge for the Jewish people. That's what I’m proud of it. And that’s why I take, I keep on living for it, you know, and I can try to tell as many people I can to relay the message to them, what happened in World War II to the Jewish people, [that] some of the people were heroic and they went to the underground and fought."


Leon with Allen Small (left) at the NY premiere of "The Reunion".

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Partisans In The Arts: 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 lead 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 and 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. Two of her favorite paintings are show here. 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.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Resource Suggestions for 2012 Days of Remembrance

The theme for this year’s International Holocaust Days of Remembrance (April 15-22) is “Choosing to Act: Stories of Rescue”. The Jewish resistance movement is rife with stories of partisans liberating fellow Jews from work camps and smuggling them out of ghettos. The Jewish partisans fought not only for survival and vengeance, but also to rescue Jews and other victims of Nazi oppression from the horrors of the Holocaust. JPEF offers a variety of resources and study guides that are ideally suited for exploring this theme with your students.

JPEF Resource Directory on Jews Rescuing Jews

Online Courses – jewishpartisans.org/elearning
Note: for classroom use, we recommend selecting chapters ahead of time and skipping “How to Use This in the Classroom”.

  • Antisemitism in the Partisans: Survival strategies and interviews with Jewish rescuers
  • Teaching with Defiance (includes Educator’s Guide): 1,200 Jews were rescued by the Bielski partisans – includes testimonial from the last surviving Bielski brother

Lessons and Activities – www.jewishpartisans.org/resist

  • Jewish Partisans Rescuing Jews: Highly recommended resource on Jewish resistance fighters who save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust
  • Putting the Gevurah (Heroism) Back Yom HaShoah: Remembrance and liturgy on Jewish resistance for Holocaust Memorial Day (April 19, 2012).
  • Eight Degees of Gevurah: Partisan rescuers and tzedakah as acts of justice through Maimonides’ ladder
  • Antisemitism in the Partisans and Tuvia Bielski Study Guide: Stories of successful Jewish rescuers plus historical background

Partisan Webcast: April 17, 2012, 10am PST – www.jewishpartisans.org/webcast

  • At the age of 18, Sonia Orbuch joined the fight to bring an end to the Holocaust. Bring her inspiring stories to your students by live videocast and Q&A. Save your spot here!

Additional Resources

Monday, March 5, 2012

Partisan Sonya Oshman (A''H) passes away at the age of 90

Former Jewish partisan Sonya Oshman (A''H) passed away this Friday, March 2nd. A survivor of the Novogrodek ghetto and a Bielski partisan, she leaves behind a remarkable story of loss, courage, and perseverance.

The eldest of four children, Sonya was born in 1922 to a family of wealthy Novogrodek merchants. Novogrodek 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 would occasionally be called upon to mediate the tensions between the town’s Polish and Jewish communities.

Sonya was planning to enroll in medical school in Bialistok the year the Soviets invaded. Though the Soviet occupation saw many Jews deported to the harsh Siberian hinterlands, theirs was a comparatively fortunate lot. After the Nazis occupied Poland in the summer of 1941, they ended up systematically murdering most of the town’s Jewish population, including Sonya’s youngest brother and grandparents.

Novogrodek’s Jewish population could be counted in the thousands before the war. In May of 1943, only 500 remained – mostly skilled laborers and their families, living in squalid conditions inside Novogrodek’s courthouse, which had been turned into a makeshift ghetto by the Nazis. On May 7th, another massacre was conducted, reducing the ghetto population by half. Sonya’s mother and sister were among those killed.

Immediately after the May 7th massacre, the remaining 250 Jews started plotting their escape. The initial plan to storm the courthouse gates on a Sunday night fell through the Nazis were informed of the plot. Instead, the escapees decided to dig a tunnel underneath the ghetto through to the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would give the sick and the old 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, the diggers would wear burlap sacks – or dig naked. In spite of it all, Sonya befriended and fell in love with Aaron Oshman – her future husband – during the time they spent digging together.

Just a month before the escape, Sonya’s father was transferred to another ghetto, along with a handful of other skilled workers. She would never see 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 the Bielski partisan camp. There, she was reunited with her one surviving brother and Aaron, whom she would later ask to marry her. She also learned of her father’s brutal death in the Koldichevo ghetto.

After the war ended, Aaron and Sonya made their way to an Italian displaced person’s camp with other refugees, and eventually ended up in Brooklyn. Their first child was born shortly before they arrived in the States.

Sonya is survived by her two children and four grandchildren. Before her passing, she traveled extensively to tell her family’s story in schools, synagogues, and community centers across the country, including a program with JPEF on Jewish Women partisans at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.  For more on Sonya Oshman, the Novogrodek tunnel escape, and the Bieslki brigade, please watch the JPEF documentary, A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters. Gila Lyons also wrote an excellent piece about her in Tablet magazine, which can be read here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Partisan Legacy Honored in New York City

Fifty-five surviving partisans, many traveling from as far away as California, Colorado and Tennessee, attended the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation's Tribute Dinner on Monday, December 7th. For many, this was the first time that they had seen one another in over 60 years. Allen Small and Leon Bakst were reunited for the first time since the War. Growing up together in a small town, in what is now Belarus, they attended the same school. Fighting with different partisan brigades during the war, they had last seen each other at a DP camp in Germany before coming to the United States. Another partisan stated that this was one of the “best nights of his life.”

Group photo of attending partisans at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan.
NEW YORK (JTA) — Allen Small, 83, and Leon Bakst, 86, hugged each other so tight, Small said, “I couldn’t let go.”
Their embrace at a synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side was 65 years in the making.
Small and Bakst grew up a few houses apart in Ivye, Belarus, attending the same school and synagogue before reality turned black, back when their names were Avraham Schmulewitz and Leibel Bakst, and Ivye belonged to Poland and the Nazis had not yet invaded. They last saw each another in 1946 at a displaced persons camp in Munich.
During the two years preceding their liberation by the Red Army in 1944, the then teenagers fought the Nazis in separate brigades in the vast Nalibotskaya Pushcha forest. For their daring, Small, now living in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Bakst, of Dallas, along with 53 other Jewish partisans from across the United States, were honored here at a synagogue reception Nov. 6 and a gala dinner the next evening.

Click here to read the rest of this article.

Click here to read another article about this event from the New York Jewish Week.

Click here to view a video about this event that aired on CBS News New York.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Daniel Craig as older Tuvia Bieski on hack license prop for Defiance

Daniel Craig as an older Tuvia Bielski

If you’ve seen the movie Defiance, you’ll recognize Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, but you won’t recognize the above prop made for the film. It’s a New York City hack license picturing Craig as an elderly Tuvia; the scene (intended as the opening for the film) took place in the 1980’s long after the Bielski brothers lived and fought in Nalibocki forests.

“All of us have gotten into cabs in New York, and we assume that that person is just a person driving a cab.” That’s the kindling behind director Edward Zwick’s idea for the original opening scene in Defiance. Hear the rest of Zwick's thoughts on the scene in this video clip. The idea’s merit is one of relevance and human interest—little known to the Bielski story is how Tuvia and Zus modestly and anonymously lived out their post-war lives in New York City.

However, Zwick didn’t intend the movie to be a romantic or comprehensive overview of the Bielski’s biographies; he wanted the film to express the absolute physical and moral struggles during that particular moment in their lives. In this way, the discarded prop serves as a symbol of artistic integrity. “I didn’t want it to be comfortable,” Zwick said at a JPEF event this Spring, “I wanted it to capture the feeling.” For more on Defiance — including educational material and interviews with Tuvia Bielski's brother Aron — go to www.jewishpartisans.org/defiance.

Visit the JPEF website for our acclaimed Defiance curriculum. Additionally, E-Learning classes on Defiance are available at www.jewishpartisans.org/elearn/web/.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Inspiring Memoir Of Two Jewish Partisans

JPEF recommends this book. Please read the following from Ralph S. Berger, editor of the book.

With Courage Shall We Fight:
The Memoirs and Poetry of Holocaust Resistance Fighters

Frances “Fruma” Gulkowich Berger and Murray “Motke” Berger

Edited by Ralph S. Berger and Albert S. Berger

“With courage shall we fight,” a line from one of my mother’s poems, “Jewish Partisans,” is a fitting title for the memoir of Murray “Motke” and Frances “Fruma” Gulkowich Berger’s incredible story of survival. Miraculously, first individually and then together as fighters in the Bielski Brigade, they escaped from the Nazis and certain death and literally fought back, saving not only their own lives but those of others as well.

Growing up, I never knew any of the former Partisans to be reticent about speaking of their experiences. My parents were passionate about Holocaust education and about educating people to the fact that Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. They wanted the world to know that when they could, Jews fought back, physically and spiritually. In writing this book, my brother Al and I sought not only to honor our parents, but to continue their mission of educating people about their experiences, as well as the experiences of others, during the Holocaust.

My Dad, Murray Berger, was born in a shetl called Wseilub, in what was then Belorussia, White Russia. My Mom, Frances Gulkowich Berger, was raised in Korelitz, Poland, a shetl in the county of Novogrudek. The world that my parents lived in was destroyed by the Holocaust.

Sensing that a massacre was soon to take place in the Novogrudek Ghetto, my Dad was determined to escape. He and others wanted to join the Partisans, guerrilla fighters, and fight the Nazis. They wanted to do this despite the fact that there was tremendous anti-Semitism among the Russian and Polish partisans. Many of them would readily kill a Jewish fighter for a good pair of boots. But then word came that the Bielski Brothers were forming a Jewish partisan unit.

My father was among the first seven men to escape from the Novogrudek ghetto and join the Bielskis. Another eight, including my uncle, Ben Zion Gulkowich, followed soon thereafter. Those fifteen men elected Tuvia Bielski to be their Commander. The Bielski Brigade was born. Both independently and along with Russian detachments, it fought the Nazis. It engaged in sabotage, blowing up bridges and rail lines, destroying telephone lines, bombing Nazi police headquarters and, at times, engaging in open combat. And, very importantly, the Bielski Brigade rescued other Jews. The Bielski detachment grew into a forest community of more than 1200 Jews. It was the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews.

In the summer of 1942, the Nazis massacred over 4,000 Jews from the Novogrudek ghetto. My Mom and my aunt Judy Gulkow survived by hiding in a cesspool for six days, without food or water. They were rescued by my uncle, Ben Zion. Shortly thereafter, with about two dozen others, they escaped and joined the Bielski Brigade. My Mom was the first woman in the Brigade to be issued a weapon.

With Courage Shall We Fight is a compilation of my parents’ writings and my Mom’s poetry, as well as a pictorial history. It tells about their lives before, during and after the War. It is first person testimony in my parents’ own words. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum described With Courage Shall We Fight as a memoir of “defiance, determination and resistance.” I agree. But it is also a story of love and of hope.

The picture on the cover of the book was taken in 1945 in a displaced persons camp in Romania nicknamed “Kibbutz Tulda”. All are former members of the Bielski group. My Mom is the one with the hat, my Dad the one in the cool glasses. We chose this picture because despite what they all endured, they look so happy, happy to be alive.

- Ralph S. Berger, Co-Editor

Copies of With Courage Shall We Fight are available from the publisher at www.comteqpublishing.com, the Museum of Jewish Heritage at www.mjhnyc.org, and from amazon.com. All royalties are donated to support Holocaust education.

Friday, February 18, 2011

JPEF Short Films, Great Resources in Classrooms

Partisan women have always been an incredible aspect of Jewish partisan history. Besides fighting the Germans, women had to put up with sexism and sexual violence in their own groups. JPEF has important resources on these fascinating women including a printable guide and two short films:

"A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters" chronicles former Bielski partisan Lisa Reibel’s journey back to her home in Belarus for the first time after nearly 65 years. Hear first-hand how her story of escape, struggle, and success continues to influence her family today.

"Everyday the Impossible: Jewish Women in the Partisans" relates how Jewish women partisans overcame the unique dangers they faced both as women and as Jews to become part of the vital infrastructure of partisan movements throughout the World War II. JPEF also developed a study guide “Women in the Partisans” to accompany the film, which is narrated by Tovah Feldshuh.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Outreach Division promoted the JPEF study guide "Women in the Partisans" to coincide with the film, Daring to Resist, at 30 U.N. Information Centers around the world. The film profiles three young Jewish women during the Holocaust--including Faye Schulman, Jewish partisan photographer--who found unexpected ways to fight back against the Germans. JPEF features Schulman's remarkable photographs in our traveling exhibit, "Pictures of Resistance."

Click here to learn more about the 11 Jewish women partisans on the JPEF website, download study guides, and watch short films emphasizing the unique role that women played in partisan groups during the Holocaust.