Thursday, March 2, 2017
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 in the summer of 1941. 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 through to the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would give 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 the relative safety of 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.
Sadly, Sonia passed away on March 2, 2012.
Monday, February 27, 2017
— Rae Kushner.
Reichel "Rae" Kushner, was born to Nashum and Hinda Kushner, on February 27, 1923, in Novogrudok, Poland. The second-oldest of four children, she had one brother Channon, and two sisters, Chana and Lisa. Her family resided in, and contributed to, a thriving Jewish community of about 6,000 members, which also compromised just over half of the entire population. The Kushner family had a strong, middle class foundation built on home, embraced by the community and her father's thriving fur business.
In September of 1939, just after the signing of what was known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Eastern part of Poland was invaded by Soviet Troops, and life for young Rae Kushner and her family changed drastically. Rae expressed thereafter, that survival under Soviet occupation was relatively "tolerable" in comparison to what took place after the Nazi invasion. These life altering episodes began June 22, 1941, during World War II, with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, during which Nazi troops aggressively attacked occupied Soviet territories. Though rumors from the West, of massive and barbaric killings, had reached Novogrudok by that point, few Jews actually believed that the Germans would carry out such atrocities.
Following several massacres, the surviving Jews were forced into provisional ghettos in a suburb of Novogrudok. Rae, her family, and many others, were forced to crowd into the city’s courthouse, and were inflicted with preposterous living conditions. During this time they instigated a plan of escape from captivity. Unfortunately, Nazi troops were often "entertained" with the weekly slaying of large numbers of Jews; which subsequently lead to the untimely deaths of Rae's mother Hinda and eldest sister Chana, during one of these cruel and fatal disseminations, on May 7th, 1943.
Starting in the middle of May, the remaining Jews dug a narrow tunnel during the nights, from the courthouse to a nearby forest, using tools made in the ghetto workshops, and hiding the dirt in the walls of buildings. Rae, along with her remaining family and approximately 600 others, helped to execute the escape, when the route was finally completed. The passage was only large enough for one person to crawl through, and of the 600 only about 250 were able to reach the forest. Many of the escapees were met with darkness, disorientation and even gunfire, and only 170 survived. Rae’s brother Channon was among those who escaped, but then lost his life. Losing his glasses during the crawl through the tunnel, he became disoriented and afflicted by the heinous conditions of the forest.
Rae and her surviving family spent the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, hidden in the cold, dark, dense woods. She and her younger sister grew famished, "it was in those forest, and in those moments of pain and hunger, when those men and women were digging for their lives, that it became evident that it was either Israel, or nothing". Determined to live another day, they eventually made their way to the home of an unknown ally. 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, Rae, her family and others from Novogrudok, sought refuge with a partisan group lead by Tuvia Bielski. The Bielski Partisans managed to shelter over 1,200 Jews, Rae regularly stood guard and often cooked camp meals, consisting of mostly potatoes grown in the surrounding forest, soup and small pieces of bread. During that time, Rae became better acquainted Joseph Kushner, whom she knew prior to the war. They fell in love and were married in August of 1945, a little over a year after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Red Army. Joseph and Rae became one, among the many partisan couples, who "found love in the forests".
Post war, Rae returned to her hometown of Novogrudok, only to find it destroyed and in complete devastation. She and the remaining members of the Kushner family ended up in an Italian displacement camp for three years. It was there that Rae gave birth to her daughter Linda, the first of her four children.
In 1949, the family was able to relocate from Europe to New York where Rae gave birth to three more children, two sons, Murray and Charles, and a second daughter, Esther. Rae passed away in 2004, but her name lives on with great relevance and influence 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.
Saturday, May 3, 2014
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.
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:
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”.)
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:
Thursday, November 14, 2013
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:
All photos © 2008 Edward Zwick. Used with permission.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
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.
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’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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
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!
Thursday, November 10, 2011
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.”
Friday, November 4, 2011
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.
Friday, February 18, 2011
"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.