Thursday, March 1, 2018
Born in 1922 on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Gertrude ‘Gertie’ Boyarski was a teenager in the town of Dereczyn (Derechin), Poland. She lived a quiet life with her family until the Germans invaded in 1941. Though the Nazis forced the majority of the town's Jews into a ghetto, they regarded Gertie's father – a butcher and a housepainter – as a 'useful' Jew, so the Boyarskis were moved to a guarded building just in front of the ghetto's entrance.
On July 24, 1942, a night of terror descended on the ghetto. The Germans began a mass killing of the town’s 3,000-4,000 Jews. The Boyarski family managed to escape to a nearby forest, where they hoped to join a partisan unit. To prove themselves to the partisans, Gertie's father, brother, and other Jews had to return completely bare-handed and attack the town's police station. They were successful, killing the guards and taking the station's stash of weapons and ammunition. However, in the months that followed, Gertie and her family remained in a family camp with other noncombatant refugees. The camp lacked protection, and Gertie saw her mother, father, sister, and brother murdered before her eyes in surprise attacks by German soldiers and antisemitic Poles who hunted the woods for Jews.
Bereft of family and seeking revenge, she left the shelter of the family camp and sought to join a partisan detachment under the leadership of the Russian Commander Pavel Bulak, who initially brushed her off. But Gertie was insistent, saying, “I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family.”
Impressed by her conviction, Bulak agreed under one condition: she would have to stand guard alone, for two weeks, a mile from the partisan encampment. “I was alone in the woods ... each time I heard a little noise I thought it’s Germans… Two weeks – it was like two years.” But Gertie persisted and was accepted into the group. She fought with the partisans for three years, aggressively attacking German soldiers who came to the surrounding villages.
Gertrude went on to win the Soviet Union’s highest military honor, the order of Lenin. In honor of International Women's Day, Gertie and her friend – both teens – volunteered for a dangerous mission to demolish a wooden bridge used by the Germans. They had no supplies, so they hiked to a local village and asked for kerosene and straw. When told there was none in the village, Gertrude and her friends unslung their rifles and gave the villagers five minutes to find the supplies. The villagers quickly complied.
Gertie and her friend snuck up to the bridge, prepared and lit the fire. German soldiers saw the blaze and started shooting. In response, the women grabbed burning pieces of the bridge and tossed them into the river until the bridge was destroyed. "We didn't chicken out," says Gertie. This was just one of many missions Gertie and her fellow partisans completed.
In 1945, she married a fellow partisan, and they settled in the United States. Gertie still grapples with having lived through the war when so many perished. "I was the only one who survived. Why? Why me? I'm always asking that question." Her message to students studying the Holocaust is that “they should not be afraid of their identity – no matter what color, race or nationality – and they should fight for it.”
For more on Gertrude Boyarski, please see her short biography, the short film Jewish Women in the Partisans, and our study guide, "Gertrude Boyarski: From Frail Girl to Partisan Fighter."
Gertrude passed away at the age of 90 on September 17th, 2012 – the first day of Rosh Hashanah of that year.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
On the night of July 24, 1942, the ghetto of Dereczyn was liquidated; between 3,000 and 4,000 Jews were murdered and placed in a mass grave.
Before the Germans swept Dereczyn, some 250 Jews evaded execution and fled into the forests. They were assisted by another survivor, 33-year old Dr. Yehezkel Atlas who had fled from Kozlowszczyzna, in the Slonim district of western Belarus, where he saw his sister and parents murdered. He was the physician of a partisan group commanded by Pavel Bulak and Boris Bulat, and he brought the refugees from Dereczyn to the two Soviet commanders. There was already a partisan fighting group of Soviet and Polish soldiers, but Atlas announced his intention to form an all-Jewish unit, to give the survivors of Dereczyn vengeance for their murdered families.
Bulak dismissed him, insisting Jews were not fighters, and in any case they did not have weapons to prove themselves. Furthermore, Bulak did not want Atlas, although he was a skilled tactician, to be a partisan leader; he was essential as a physician. Dr. Atlas was adamant and convinced Bulak enough that the commander sent the Jewish men to prove their merit on a dangerous operation — half-expecting failure. When Atlas and the others returned with newly attained arms, Bulak allocated forces for an all-Jewish partisan unit.
One Jewish partisan who came from Dereczyn, Gertrude Boyarski, described her choice to join the fighting unit under Bulak instead of the family camp:
On August 10, 1942, Dr. Yehezkel Atlas received permission to attack the Germans at Dereczyn. Under the authority of Bulak and Bulat, Atlas led 300 partisans in an armed attack on the German garrisons. They successful took control of the town, capturing 44 German policemen and killing almost 20 in the struggle. After raiding the supplies, the Jewish partisans now all had high Russian boots, leather knapsacks, shirts, and a number of small, good-quality arms and ammunition. Atlas ordered the 44 captured German policemen atop the mass grave outside Dereczyn, where they were lined up and executed.
After the operation, Atlas told his unit: