Saturday, May 25, 2019
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.
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.
Thursday, March 7, 2019
— Romi Cohn.
Avrohom “Romi” Cohn was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia on March 10, 1929. He was only ten years old in 1938 when the Germans invaded his country. During mass deportations of Jews from Slovakia in 1942, the Nazis granted his family an “economic exception” and they were allowed to stay. However, as the war raged on, the family realized that staying in Czechoslovakia had become too dangerous, and Romi was eventually smuggled over the border into Hungary.
Unable to speak Hungarian, Romi knew that merely opening his mouth exposed him as an illegal refugee. He settled in a small town and enrolled at a local yeshiva, where the headmaster was sympathetic to his plight. He continued his education until 1944. When Hungary formally joined the Axis and began mass deportations of Jews, Romi returned home to Czechoslovakia, this time carrying forged Christian identification papers.
Romi became an informal member of the underground and used his connections to help find housing for Jewish refugees and to supply them with false Christian papers. The identity papers he made were very realistic: a connection working at Gestapo headquarters supplied him with German seals to stamp the documents.
Eventually, Romi was arrested on suspicion of carrying false documents. After a daring escape, he fled to the mountains and joined the partisans hiding there. To reach the mountains, Romi forged a German military travel order, sending him to the last German outpost before partisan-controlled territory. “[The Germans] all shook my hand and wished me luck. They thought I was going to go strike a blow for the Reich,” Romi remembers. By the time he joined the partisans, the Germans were already in retreat. His brigade drove them further westward — all the while capturing, interrogating, and executing SS officers.
|Romi Cohn at JPEF's |
2013 Tribute Dinner
The Nazis were not the only danger Romi encountered while fighting in the partisan brigade. His captain gave him a false name — Jan Kovic — in order to protect him from the antisemites in his unit. In one instance, Romi noticed a German partisan behaving suspiciously towards him. He was afraid the man would try to kill him if given the opportunity, so he replaced his bullets with rusty ones before target practice one afternoon. The rusty bullet exploded in the man's machine gun, injuring his face. Preoccupied with his facial injury, the man stopped paying attention to Romi.
When Hungary was liberated, Romi returned to Czechoslovakia. He received a number of medals for his service with the partisans, including the Silver Star of the International Partisans — an honor shared by few others.
After the war, Romi emigrated to the United States and became a noted mohel (and businessman), performing over 15,000 circumcisions in his career. Were it not for the war, he would have gone to medical school to become a surgeon, he says. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Malvine.
Romi's autobiography, The Youngest Partisan: A Young Boy Who Fought the Nazis, was published in 2002. Though Romi was originally against the idea, the alarming rise of Holocaust denial around the world gave him the motivation to share his story. “...we have to keep in mind today, we live in a free country and we say, ‘This could never happen here’ which is a tremendous mistake. I come from Czechoslovakia — democracy in Slovakia was even superior to American democracy — total democracy. And if this could happen in a civilized country, overnight... within six months, propaganda turned the population completely - [before] all our best friends, our best neighbors, were living in harmony. All of a sudden, they became biggest enemies."
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Romi Cohn, including eight videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
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.
Sunday, March 3, 2019
— Bernard Musmand.
Bernard Musmand was born on March 3, 1930 in Metz, a city in northeastern France. Located on the border with Germany and Luxemburg, Metz shares many historic connections with its neighbors, dating back to its Celtic and Roman roots. In fact, many high-ranking officers of the Third Reich were born there. In a border city like Metz, it was only natural for the German language to be taught in schools - this skill ended up saving Bernard's life on numerous occasions.
When Bernard was a young man, the Nazis invaded and his family fled to the south of France, which was outside of German control. In order to attend the local boarding school, Bernard had to pose as a Catholic. One night, the school’s chaplain told Bernard and his classmates that they would participate in communion and confession the next day. Since Bernard didn’t know anything about Catholic confession, he spent half the night in the bathroom studying a Bible. He made such a convincing Catholic boy that the priest asked if he was interested in going into the seminary.
While studying at the boarding school, Bernard became a courier for the Sixieme — a resistance group based in the southern town of Rodez — and transported falsified papers for those escaping Nazi persecution. His confidence and youth were his best defenses during encounters with the Germans or French sympathizers. To ease suspicions, he would initiate conversations by asking for the time or a match in perfect German.
In May 1944, Bernard was sent to deliver a package to the owner of a hotel in a small town in Figeac. But the owner of the hotel refused the package, having been informed that Germans were coming to occupy the town and make arrests. Stranded in the town and frightened, Bernard hid the package behind some bags at the local train station. He spotted a German railroad policeman in his 50s and began a conversation with him. The policeman was pleasantly surprised that a Frenchman could be so friendly and speak such fluent German, and invited Bernard into his office for some chocolate. While safely hidden in the office, he saw hundreds of Frenchmen being forced onto trains to be transported to work camps in Germany. The policeman expressed great sorrow for these men. When the trains and the German soldiers had left, Bernard thanked the policeman for his kindness and went on his way.
When the Gestapo came to the boarding school looking for Bernard, the dean arranged for his escape before the Germans could capture him. Bernard went to Millaut and again joined the Sixieme, which had by then begun to collaborate with the Maquis armed resistance. Fourteen years old and very afraid, Bernard was sent on an ambush. He described the two hours before the battle, lying under cover and waiting for a German convoy to pass, as the longest two hours of his life. But once the convoy arrived and the orders were given to open fire, Bernard’s mind was so focused on the fighting that he had forgotten his fear.
“It was an exciting time, in certain ways,” Bernard remembers. “I wish and hope it will never come back, but everything counted and you felt life was precious.”Since their textile business was lost during the war, Bernard's family emigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. Bernard met his wife, Milicent, after graduating from Lowell. They had two sons, Jon and Fraser.
Bernard spent his final years in Maine, where he spent much of his time with family, friends and at the local synagogue. A long battle with a heart condition took his life on January 30, 2010.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Bernard Musmand, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
— 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 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 night 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; only 170 survived. Rae’s brother Channon was among those who escaped, though he later 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 forests, 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 violent death.
Shortly thereafter, Rae, her family, and others from Novogrudok, sought refuge with a partisan group led 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 with 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."
Postwar, 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 Displaced Persons 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.
Visit Rae's partisan page, for more information and to view seven videos of her speaking about her experiences. JPEF's short film A Partisan Returns features the story of Rae's escape from the Novogrudok.
Saturday, February 23, 2019
— Sam Lato.
Sam Lato was born in Baronovich, Poland on February 24, 1925. He moved with his family to Warsaw at the age of three, where his skills as a craftsman earned him a scholarship to a local Jewish trade school. He eventually returned to Baronovich, which went under Soviet control in 1939 after the blitzkrieg of Poland.
Life was calm in Baronvich until 1941 when the Germans invaded Poland and quickly occupied Sam’s hometown. Soon, the Baronvich ghetto was formed. It was here that Sam became a member of the local resistance, even before he knew of the partisans’ existence. He started making cigarette lighters to sell on the black market, and smuggled ammunition and medical supplies from his factory job.
A year later, the Germans began to commit massive acts of violence against the locals. While Sam was fortunate enough to avoid several massacres, he and 15 other young men decided to take their chances in the forests of Belarus. At the age of seventeen, Sam fled from Baronvich and eventually found his way to a partisan camp. He was surprised to discover that there were already over a hundred Baronvich Jews in the brigade. Sam wasn’t with the partisans long before he met Genia Wishnia, whom he married only a few months later. They went on several missions together.
Sam’s brigade was in poor condition when he first arrived. They had no explosives to commit sabotage, and their camp was infested with lice. Sam and his friends would joke, “When you take off your jacket, put it in the corner so it [won’t] go away. Otherwise, the lice [are] going to move it outside for fresh air.” However, in the spring of 1943, they began receiving airdrop support from the Russians. They received new weapons, clothes and medical supplies. Soviet paratroopers even came to help coordinate the brigade’s activities, and Sam was recruited into their ranks as an auxiliary.
Sam was, at one point, assigned to accompany a Polish paratrooper. He followed him everywhere because no one was supposed to be alone. Sam didn’t think much of the short Pole, and didn’t know who he was or what he did. After Sam was relieved of his assignment and returned to his brigade, he was summoned by his colonel. The colonel instructed Sam to never repeat what he saw or heard during his time with the Pole, because he was none other than the exiled Polish prime minister.
In 1944, Sam joined the Russians in their advance to the Baltic Sea. After the war, he and Genia stayed in the USSR for several years before ultimately immigrating to the United States with their son, Edward. Genia lost her life to breast cancer in 1987. In 2006, Sam wrote a book about his time as a partisan in response to the denial of the Holocaust, as well as those who believed that the Jews went quietly. "The Jews did not go quietly,” he said in a 2009 interview. “Resistance, both peaceful and fierce, was waged by rabbis, senior adults, men, women and children alike." The book, From Ghetto to Guerilla: Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter, received the gold medal for its category at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and was introduced to the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Hollywood, Florida in February 2008.
Sam passed away in 2012, leaving behind three grandchildren.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Sam Lato, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Friday, January 4, 2019
Jeff Gradow escaped into the woods from a labor camp in Bialystok, and soon found a partisan unit where he became a trained fighter, participating in sabotage missions until the end of the war, when his partisan unit was assimilated into the Red Army and was sent to the front lines.
Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 to a middle class Jewish family in central Poland. When he was only 14 years old, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved Poland in half – his town of Mlawa was located on the western side of the divide, and thus fell under the control of the Germans.
With the arrival of the Nazis came immediate danger: prior to the occupation, his father had a dispute with a neighbor over some horses and a wagon, and the newly-instated police force – made up mostly of Polish locals who required little incentive to settle old scores with their Jewish neighbors – were looking to arrest him. Those arrested were often never seen again, so his father hid with a local farmer outside of town, taking Gradow with him.
They remained there for a few days, but upon learning that the German-Soviet border was still easy to get across, they left for Soviet-occupied Bialystok, located just east of the dividing line. There, they settled down temporarily – Gradow’s father, Lohim, got himself a job and Jeff went to school, where he learned to speak Russian. Unfortunately, travel restrictions made it impossible to send for the rest of their family – Jeff’s mother and two younger sisters remained in Mlawa.
This did not last long, and their life in Bialystok soon changed for the worse. The Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invaded Soviet-occupied territories in July of 1941. This included Bialystok, whose Jewish inhabitants were treated by the invaders with particular brutality and ruthlessness. Less than a week after their arrival, Nazi troops locked around two thousand Jews inside the Great Synagogue – the largest wooden synagogue in Eastern Europe at the time – and burned it to the ground. Many other homes in the neighborhood were pillaged, looted, and burned that day, and many more people were murdered. During the mayhem, Jeff’s father Lohim was seriously injured by a grenade thrown into their house; he did not survive to see another morning. Alone, Jeff wandered the streets until sympathetic neighbors offered him shelter.
The Nazis forced every Jewish male in Bialystok to work. Jeff’s first assigned task was to dig ditches in a cemetery with some Russian PoWs. After the ditches were dug, Jeff watched as the Nazis shot all the Russians; Jeff and other survivors were then forced to bury them.
The Nazis eventually started quartering Jeff’s labor group inside a train station during nights, and he was not allowed to return to his neighbors. During the days, the group was forced to lay timber on the highway so that German military vehicles could pass through in the winter, when all the roads turned to mud. Jeff’s labor group was comprised of civilians; consequently, it was guarded by soldiers who were older and slower than the group of Russian PoWs working just up the road. These older soldiers had a habit of resting their legs once a day and took a 20-30 minute afternoon break, allowing the laborers to do the same.
Fed up with forced labor and believing he has nothing to lose, Jeff decided to make a run for it during one such break. When the soldiers weren’t looking, he slid into a ditch on the side of the road and bolted into the forest. He heard rifle shots in the distance as the German guards discovered they were one prisoner short, but he was already deep in the woods, and no one pursued him.
Jeff wandered the forest for three days, lost and alone, surviving only on wild blackberries. On the third night, he found a farmhouse and, taking a chance, knocked on the door. Jeff was wearing a Russian military jacket belonging to one of the shot Russian PoWs, and he had learned to speak fluent Russian in school during his time under Soviet occupation. Consequently, the farmer who opened the door was not able to discern whether the starving, rain-soaked prisoner before him was a Russian PoW or a Jew – a lucky situation for a young Jewish boy alone in the Polish countryside to find himself in.
The farmer sheltered him for the night and pointed him in the direction of a village under the control of local partisans. There, Gradow was given directions to the main partisan encampment in the woods after being deemed too young and inexperienced to be an enemy spy. The camp was a diverse one, comprised mainly of Jews and Russian soldiers, and included families. Jeff was even able to speak Yiddish to the guards at the encampment, who were surprised to learn that he survived an escape from a labor group. Rather than continue to wander through the woods, hungry and alone, Jeff joined the partisan group and immediately begun weapons training.
* * *
At that point in the war, partisan groups like Jeff’s were still mainly concerned with self-preservation. As the Soviets fought on and their situation began to improve, partisan units got more organized and better equipment became available. This is when their missions began to change, recalls Jeff, and focused more on sabotage, disruption of communications, and the elimination of local police. Jeff became a seasoned guerrilla fighter, traveling by night with all his belongings, in case the Nazis got tipped off to the whereabouts of his unit’s base camp. Oftentimes, they would come across traces of their old hideouts, destroyed by the Nazis.
The partisans lived in zemlyankas – holes four to five feet deep dug in the ground, covered by branches and dirt. Each one could sleep around 15 people; Jeff’s entire unit was comprised of around 100-150 people. The partisans slept during the day (except those who stood guard), and traveled by night.
In late 1943, the Soviets began airdropping supplies for the partisans. This included explosives – Jeff and a few of the other partisans used them to derail a German train in the dead of night. They slipped away amidst heavy Nazi casualties and confused machine gun fire. Such missions were only attended by a handful of partisans while the others stayed behind. However, when it came to missions like food-gathering or reprisals against collaborators, the entire unit followed – a handful of partisans went in, but the rest stayed behind, encircling the town to make sure the group was not caught unawares.
In the spring of 1944, Jeff’s unit joined other nearby partisan groups to defend a bridge for an upcoming Soviet tank assault. They succeeded, allowing the Russian troops to roll in and liberate the area. No longer in hiding, the local partisan groups gathered in the nearby town of Baronovich, where they were immediately absorbed into the Russian army. Gradow’s group was assimilated into the 348th “Bobruyska” Division and ordered to join the western front.
Jeff fought on until he was badly injured near his hometown of Mlawa in August of '44. He was sent to a military hospital deep inside the Soviet Union, in the town Michurinsk, some 400km southeast of Moscow. The war ended during his recovery, and he sought leave to return to his hometown.
Only twenty years old, Jeff returned to Mlawa to find out that his mother and sisters (along with the rest of his extended family) were murdered in the Treblinka concentration camp. He left Poland shortly after and made it to the French sector of Berlin, where he spent the next four years before immigrating to New York City in 1949 via his great-uncle, who sponsored his arrival through the Displaced Persons Act program. In 1954, he married and moved to Los Angeles, where he raised two children. He passed away on June 23, 2014.
Visit jewishpartisans.org to find out more about Jeff Gradow, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Thursday, December 27, 2018
— Frank Blaichman.
Born in the small town of Kamionka, Poland on Dec. 11, 1922, Frank Blaichman was just sixteen years old when the German army invaded his country in 1939. Following the invasion, German officials issued regulations intended to isolate the Jews and deprive them of their livelihood. Frank took great risks to help his parents and family survive these hardships. With a bicycle, he rode from the neighboring farms to nearby cities, buying and selling goods at each destination. He refused to wear the Star of David armband and traveled without the required permits, but his courage and fluent Polish ensured his safety.
When word spread that the Jews of Kamionka were to be resettled in a nearby ghetto, Frank hid in a bushy area outside of town. He stayed with a friendly Polish farmer and then joined other Jews hiding in a nearby forest. In the forest, the threat of being discovered was constant and Polish hoodlums beat any women who left the encampment. Frank encouraged the men to organize a defense unit. He obtained firearms by posing as a Polish policeman, using an overcoat he had found.
After a German attack on the partisans' encampment killed eighty Jews, the survivors left the forest to hide with sympathetic farmers. Always on the move, they killed German collaborators, destroyed telephone lines, damaged dairy factories and ambushed German patrols.
Frank’s squad joined a larger all-Jewish unit, with strong ties to the Polish underground and Soviet army. They were responsible for protecting 200 Jews living in a forest encampment. Only 21, he was the youngest platoon commander in the unit and escorted the future prime minister of Poland to a secret meeting with Soviet high command.
“I’m very proud of what I did all those years,” he says. “The reality was we had nothing to lose, and our way to survive was to fight.” Frank Blaichman's memoir, Rather Die Fighting, was published in 2009 by Arcade Publishing.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Frank Blaichman, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan, as well as the Frank Blaichman: Jewish Partisan Platoon Leader study guide.
Frank Blaichman is also one of JPEF's featured partisans on Facing History and Ourselves web pages featuring Jewish resistance during the Holocaust and in USHMM's Holocaust Encyclopedia: Personal Stories - Jewish Partisans.
Frank passed away on December 27, 2018.
Friday, September 28, 2018
— Marisa Diena.
Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy, on September 29, 1916. Marisa was eight years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy and was taught to love Fascism. In 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, which banned Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.
After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique; since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion. As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to her commander. In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.
In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25th, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa remained in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children. She passed away on May 8th, 2013.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Marisa Diena, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.
Wednesday, July 11, 2018
— Leon Idas.
Leon 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.
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 12th, 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.
Thursday, June 28, 2018
- Joe Kubryk on being a Jewish partisan.
Joe Kubryk was born in the Russian Ukraine, not far from Odessa, on July 1st, 1926. Before the war, the Kubryk family did not experience much antisemitism, but after the war broke out, Joe’s village was filled with Ukrainian fascists, who cooperated with the Germans to kill Jews. When Joe saw the Germans rounding up his classmates, he knew he had to run for his life. In August 1941, not long after his friends were taken by the Nazis, Joe left the village. He found a Ukrainian farmer who hired him as a farmhand. The farmer had not idea Joe was Jewish as Joe was fluent Ukrainian. While Joe cried himself to sleep at night, he never let anyone see him doing it. He didn’t want to explain why he was crying.
Near the end of 1941, Russian partisans came scavenging for food at Joe’s farm. Curious, he asked them who they were. “Russian partisans,” came the reply. “Who are you?” When they heard he was Jewish and alone in the world, they said, “You are one of us,” and took him to a camp in the forest of Drohobicz. A few months after Joe arrived, a junior secret service was formed. Joe and the other teenagers began serious training in spying — learning how to recognize guns, artillery pieces and officers’ insignia. They were “toughed-up” in the training, taught secret codes and the rules of espionage. The Junior Secret Service spied on German troops. Platoon by platoon, they counted men, checked equipment, noted who the ranking officers were and where they were camped. They also provided information to saboteurs who mined bridges and railroads to disrupt German military activity. Joe still bears the shrapnel scars he received during gunfights with the German army, and a German bombardment left him deaf in one ear.
After the war, Joe worked for the Bricha, the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel. Joe then fought in Israel’s War of Independence and worked for the Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, before moving to America, where he became a successful businessman.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joe Kubryk, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Our study guides section also contains a guide titled Joe Sasha Kubyrk: Teenage Partisan Spy.
Tuesday, April 3, 2018
— Faye Schulman.
Faye Schulman was born to a large family on November 28, 1919 in Lenin, Poland. She learned photography from her brother Moishe and assisted him in his photography business. On August 14, 1942, the Germans killed 1,850 Jews from the Lenin ghetto, including Faye's parents, sisters and younger brother. They spared only 26 people that day, among them was Faye for her photographic abilities. The Germans ordered Faye to develop their photographs of the massacre. Secretly, she also made copies for herself.
During a partisan raid, Faye fled to the forests and joined the Molotava Brigade, a partisan group made mostly of escaped Soviet Red Army POWs.She was accepted because her brother-in-law had been a doctor and they were desperate for anyone with experience in medicine. Faye served the group as a nurse from September 1942 to July 1944, even though she had no previous medical experience, assisting the camp’s doctor, a veterinarian.
During a raid on Lenin, Faye succeeded in recovering her old photography equipment. During the next two years, she took over a hundred photographs, developing the medium format negatives under blankets and making “sun prints” during the day. On missions Faye buried the camera and tripod to keep it safe. Her photos show a rare side of partisan activity – one is of a funeral scene where two Jewish partisans are being buried alongside Russian partisans, despite the intense antisemitism in the group. In another image, Schulman and three young Jewish men smile joyously after an unexpected reunion in the forest—each believing that the other had been killed.
"I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.” She is the only known Jewish partisan photographer.
After liberation, Faye married Morris Schulman, another Jewish partisan. Faye and Morris enjoyed a prosperous life as decorated Soviet partisans, but wanted to leave Pinsk, Poland, which reminded them of a "graveyard." Morris and Faye lived in the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camps in Germany for the next three years, and immigrated to Canada in 1948.
Today Faye lives in Toronto, Canada and shares her experiences with diverse audiences. She has two children and six grandchildren.
The photographs she took during the war have been turned into a traveling photography exhibition entitled Pictures of Resistance: The Wartime Photography of Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman. The exhibit is produced by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation and curated by Jill Vexler, Ph.D. In 2010, her book A Partisan's Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust was published.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Faye Schulman, including six videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan and information about the Pictures of Resistance exhibit.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
A Polish Jew born in what is now Belarus, Mira Shelub joined a partisan group that operated in the forest near her native Zdziedciol at the age of 18. With her family, she escaped Zdziedciol’s ghetto in 1942 as the Germans began killing off the population.
Mira’s group engaged in sabotage against the Nazis and their Polish collaborators by disrupting communications and transportation to the war front. They blew up trains, attacked police stations, and stole food that had been provided for the Germans by peasants.
In Mira’s group, women comprised about a quarter of the partisans. They did the cooking, took care of the laundry and provided other vital support.
On a few attacks, Mira carried extra ammunition for her husband’s machine gun. In the summer, the unit slept on the ground in the open forest; during winter they took refuge in underground huts (called zemlyankas), or with sympathetic peasant families. Constant movement was a necessity to avoid detection. When it snowed, they had to alter their tracks into confusing patterns so that they could not be followed. Mira recounts:
In February 2019, JPEF Director of Development and Outreach Sheri Rosenblum enjoyed a lovely visit with Mira and her daughter Elaine in San Francisco.
Mira recounts the extraordinary story of her partisan experience in her memoir Never the Last Road: A Partisan's Life. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Mira Shelub, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
For two years, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war with worries about her family’s future. Then in 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family were confined to the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.
When Nazis began killing Jews in the ghetto, it did not take long for the news to spread. Sarah's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but this group only accepted young men – so the open forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.
Eventually, Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, her uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group. Thus Sarah began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for sabotage and resistance missions.
Sarah was renamed Sonia by the partisans, for 'Sarah' is not a common Russian name and would have exposed her to danger from various anti-Semitic elements. Early on, Sonia was assigned guard duty and tasked with providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.
In the winter of 1943-44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. The camp had several thousand members and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital. Sonia recalls her day-to-day experience there:
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. They were unaware that the house was infected with typhus, which soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.
As the war ended, Sonia focused her energy on getting to America. Sonia eventually moved to Northern California. But the past was never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia always said. “I see them always before my eyes.”
In her JPEF interview, and during many classroom visits and Yom HaShoah presentations, 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.”
Sonia vividly recounts her struggles and perseverance during the war in her memoir Here, There Are No Sarahs.
Sonia passed away on Sunday, September 30, 2018, surrounded by family and loved ones. She was 93 years old. During her lifetime, she inspired and touched the lives of so many. You can read more about Sonia's incredible life in the San Francisco Chronicle, London Times, and Washington Post.
The Board and staff of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation extend their deepest condolences to Sonia's family and friends.
Sonia is survived by her son Paul Orbuch and daughter-in law Lisa King, her daughter and son-in-law Bella and Dan Whelan, her granddaughter Eva Orbuch, and her step-granddaughter Fraya King.
May her memory be a blessing.
Sonia was the subject of JPEF's 2012 Youth Writing Contest and is pictured here with winner EJ Weiss.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about the life of 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.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Born in the town of Kadish on the Polish-German border in 1922, Vitka Kempner Kovner escaped to Vilna after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union and turned Vilna into a ghetto, Vitka joined up with poet and future husband, Abba Kovner to organize the United Partisans Organization (FPO) – a Jewish armed resistance movement. Vitka committed FPO’s first act of sabotage when she blew up a Nazi train line with a homemade bomb.
When the Nazis gave orders to liquidate the ghetto in 1943, she helped evacuate much of the Jewish population to the forests following a failed uprising. Vitka continued her work in the resistance with the "Avengers," an all-Jewish partisan brigade formed from the ashes of the FPO and led by Abba Kovner.
After the war, Vitka and her husband helped hundreds of European Jews immigrate to Palestine, the land that would eventually become the Jewish state of Israel. They both followed in 1946, settling at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where Vitka passed away on February 15, 2012. She was survived by four grandchildren and left behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.
For more information on Vitka, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit her profile on the JPEF website and view the short film Women in the Partisans. Vitka is now featured on the websites of both Facing History and Ourselves and the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum through their collaborations with JPEF.
May Vitka and Abba's memories be a blessing.
Thursday, October 19, 2017
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 22nd, 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, March 27, 2017
- Joseph Greenblatt.
Joseph Greenblatt was born in Warsaw in 1915. He learned about resistance from his father, an army captain who had fought for Polish independence during WWI. At eighteen, Joe enlisted in the Polish army as an infantryman, becoming 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, transporting 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. 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 circulated. 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. He then 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. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joseph Greenblatt, who passed away on March 11, 2003 at the age of 87, including four videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
— Max Cukier.
Max Cukier was born into a Hassidic family in Ryki, Poland, on January 23, 1918. Growing up as a pacifist, Max never imagined he would carry a machine gun, but this changed with the outbreak of the war. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Max fled to Soviet occupied territory, eventually ending up in Belarus. For the next two years he lived as a Polish refugee, persecuted by the Soviet government as a non-citizen. When the Nazis began their attack against Russia in 1941, Max went into hiding, traveling from village to village in search of food and shelter.
Early in 1942 Max saw that hiding in villages was becoming too dangerous, and he took to the woods. In the forest, he made contact with other Jewish refugees, as well as some escaped Russian POWs. Eventually he joined the famous Bielski Brigade, a combination partisan unit and family camp. Taking initiative, Max began to organize small units and lead missions, bombing bridges and masterminding a daring attack on a German bunker using an abandoned Soviet tank. During this time Max met and married his wife, and she began to accompany him on missions, becoming his lookout.
After liberation, Max first joined the Red Army and then defected from the USSR, escaping into Italy. In Italy he became involved with several Zionist organizations, becoming an acquaintance of Golda Meir, Israel's future prime minister. He traveled to Israel, and in 1948 came to the U.S. under the auspices of the Zionist Cultural Congress.
Over time, Max focused on building a new life as a civilian, started an importing business, and eventually moving to Los Angeles, where he raised three children and three grandchildren.
Max passed away January 17, 2011.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Max Cukier, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Friday, January 6, 2012
"When, at lunchtime, when the German was sitting down and eating and resting, I slid down to a ditch across the highway and I ran in the wood. It was very wooded area. Some of the places you could go for miles, 10-15 miles and not see a human being or civilization. A few minutes, as soon as I ran away, it looks like, they went to counting and one was missing, I could hear shooting from, from, like, I don't know exactly what they did, but they were shooting in the wood, in my direction where I ran away. And that is the first time I felt like a free human being, even I didn't know where the heck I'm going to go, or what I'm going to do."
— Jeff Gradow.
Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 in a small town near Warsaw. When Poland was invaded in 1939, he and his father fled east into Soviet territory. In East Poland, his father got work in a factory in Bialystok and Jeff went to Russian school, soon becoming fluent in the language. When Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion into the Soviet Union, was launched in 1941, Jeff was taken to work as a laborer for the Germans, digging mass graves that he feared would be his own.
Eventually, Jeff took his chances and escaped into the forest. The partisan encampment he found lacked weapons and intelligence contacts needed to target nearby German troops. However, in the spring of 1943 the Soviets made contact with the group, airdropping weapons and explosives to them and sending in professional Russian paratroopers armed with short-wave radios. Reorganized by the paratroopers and boasting a much larger stockpile, the brigade began to fight in earnest. They carried out hit and run sniper attacks, mined roads, and cut phone lines. As the front began to move west, the brigade stood guard over the local bridges, preventing them from being destroyed by retreating Germans and holding them long enough to allow the Soviet tanks to cross.
In the summer of 1944, Bialystok and Baronovich were liberated by the Soviets and Jeff's partisan group was absorbed by the Red Army. He was sent to the front and later discharged after being shot in the hand by a sniper. He convalesced in a hospital outside of Moscow, and by the time he recovered, Berlin was occupied and the war was almost over. He fled Russia and entered West Germany, eventually making his way to the United States. Today, Jeff lives in Los Angeles. He has two grown children and three grandchildren.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Eugenio Gentili-Tedeschi was a young man in Turin, Italy during the time of Mussolini and fascism. When Italy’s racial laws – based on the Nuremberg laws – were put into effect, he was able to continue his university education by relocating to Milan, where the bureaucracy was too inefficient to notice him. Eugenio stayed in Milan for several years, working as an architect’s apprentice. His first act of resistance began when he and his friends tore down antisemitic propaganda posted throughout the city.
Following the German invasion, Eugenio connected with the Arturo Verraz partisans, surviving in the mountains and sketching scenes of his life in the resistance. His partisan unit kept mountain trails open for the Allies and prevented reinforcements from reaching the Germans. Eugenio was personally responsible for hiding the dynamite used to blow up roads and tunnels and obtaining critical supplies for partisan survival such as shoes and food. In the fall of 1944, he fought alongside British and American soldiers, following the front lines into France.
Eugenio’s sketches are the only known drawings made during the war by a Jewish partisan, and are of critical historical importance. You and your students can view these artistic documents (with annotations) by clicking the "IMAGES" tab on his profile at www.jewishpartisans.org/eugeniogbio. There is also a video of him explaining the sketches with an English translation.
After the war, Eugenio remained in Milan, marrying and continuing his studies. He eventually became a master architect, as well as a professor at Milan’s Polytechnic. Eugenio died in Milan in 2005. May his memory be for a blessing.