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.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Rachel Margolis was born in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, in 1921. In 1941 Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and Rachel was sent to live in hiding with a Christian family. A year later, she decided instead to move to the Vilna Ghetto; a ghetto so terrible that over the two years of its existence, the population fell from 40,000 to only a few hundred. During her time in the Vilna Ghetto, Rachel joined the Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (the United Partisan Organization), headed by Abba Kovner.
When the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, under the orders of Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, Rachel and her future husband escaped to the surrounding forests. Although they faced the constant threat of starvation and disease – not to mention capture by their oppressors – the partisans actively fought back by blowing up Nazi lines of communication.
The sole Holocaust survivor in her family, Rachel went on to gain a Ph.D. in biology and worked as a teacher until the late 1980s. In 2005, Rachel found and published the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who witnessed the Ponary massacre of 1941 to 1944, which killed up to 100,000 people, the majority of whom were Jews. In a turn of events that astonished the international community, the Lithuanian authorities sought to question her in 2008 for her role in alleged war crimes. The motivation behind this is an ongoing historical revisionist movement that seeks to equate Soviet occupation with the Nazis and the Holocaust by describing it as a 'double genocide'. In 2010, Rachel published her own memoir, A Partisan from Vilna, chronicling her early life and battle to survive Nazi oppression during World War II.
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:
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Today we mark the birthday of Eugenio Gentili-Tedeschi (z"l). Eugenio was born in Italy in 1916. While Eugenio came of age under Mussolini, he was exposed to antifascism at a young age, as his hometown of Turin was a hotbed of opposition. The war began to directly affect Eugenio in 1938, when Italy’s racial laws, based on the Nuremberg laws, were put into effect. His father lost his job, and while Eugenio’s family went into hiding, Eugenio traveled to Milan, where the bureaucracy was inefficient enough that he could sit for his university tests without harassment. After scoring top marks, Eugenio went to work as an architect’s apprentice in Milan, where he would stay for several years.
In Milan, Eugenio and his friends tore down the anti-Semitic propoganda posted in the city, their first act of resistance in that city. Eugenio also began to act as a courier, carrying underground pamphlets from a communist print shop in Turin and carrying them to Milan
Eugenio left Milan to escape the bombardment that followed the German invasion and took to the Valle d’Aosta countryside. He eventually connected with the partisans, living in the mountains and sketching scenes of his in the resistance.
Eugenio and his partisan unit kept the mountain trails open for the Allies and kept the Germans pinned down in Italy, preventing reinforcements from reaching the front lines in France. He was personally responsible for hiding the dynamite used to blow up roads and tunnels underneath his bed as well as obtaining supplies needed for daily survival, such as shoes and food. In the fall of 1944, he fought alongside British and American soldiers and then followed the front lines into France before heading back to Rome, where he learned of the liberation of Turin and Milan.
After the war Eugenio settled down to make a life for himself, marrying and continuing his studies. He would eventually become a master architect, as well as a professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan. He died in Milan in 2005.
Hear first-hand from Eugenio during his interview with JPEF and view more of his unique sketches on the JPEF website.
Picture drawn by Eugenio that shows the role of women. Women provided an important service to the partisans by hiking for 12 hours in the high mountains to deliver messages. (Source: JPEF Archive, Italy 1942-1943)
Drawn by Eugenio during the war this picture shows two partisans on an exploration mission of the northern slope of the mountain in the valley. (Source: JPEF Archive, Italy 1942-1943)
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Watch a live webcast as the United Nations honors the courage of women during the Holocaust, which continues to inspire and empower women today.
The theme of the Memorial Ceremony: “Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion” on the occasion of the International Day of Commemoration to honour the victims of the Holocaust. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will deliver opening remarks. Statements will also be made by H.E. Mr. Joseph Deiss, President of the 65th Session of the General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Ehud Barak, Minister of Defence of the State of Israel, and H.E. Ambassador Rosemary A. DiCarlo, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations. The keynote speech will be delivered by Professor Lenore Weitzman, Professor Emeritus, George Mason University and Mrs. Nesse Godin, Holocaust Survivor (Lithuania) will share her testimony.
JPEF worked closely with the UN to promote its materials including the study guide, Jewish Women in the Partisans. The UN sent the study guide to over thirty United Nations Information Centers (UNICs) around the globe to be used for local programming in conjunction with the documentary film Daring to Resist, which profiles three young Jewish women during the Holocaust--including Faye Schulman Jewish partisan photographer.
When: 10:00AM EST (7:00AM PST)
Explore all of the resources of JPEF to learn more about Jewish women partisans.
Click here to download the study guide Women and the Holocaust - Courage and Compassion
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Two new bookings, The New Mexico Holocaust & Intolerance Museum and Florida Gulf Coast University closed out the year for available months in 2011.
In December, the exhibit travels to South Africa for a three city tour where Mitch will be bringing the work of JPEF with talks and educator trainings. Recent openings include the exhibit at the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Georgia and a two month run in Miami, Florida (both in concert with Teaching with 'Defiance' educator workshops).
-Jan Lauren Greenfield
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
JPEF: What do you think is important about Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah?
Blaichman: People who wanted to remember the Holocaust created Yom HaShoah. They knew that they had to teach future generations the important lessons from the Shoah—so that it would never happen again.
JPEF: What lessons would you like to share with Jewish and non-Jewish youth today?Blaichman: Jews should never forget that they are Jews. The day we were liberated, we thought that Fascism and Nazism were buried. Today, we see that antisemitism is still all around us. It is important for us to remember—and youth should be taught—that Jews fought and will continue to fight against antisemitism, bigotry, and oppression.
Blaichman: I am very grateful that there is a day to remember what happened during that time—it is a good thing that the memory stays alive for generations.
JPEF: Any further reflections about this memorial?
Blaichman: Most importantly that Jews can defend themselves. The only way we survived as partisans was that we had the courage to fight back. Growing up in Poland, we were never taught how to survive. We had to have courage—early on we accepted our fate. It is important that people know that when I was fighting as a partisan, it was as a Jew—I am a Jew, I was fighting as a Jew, and I survived as a Jew. Jewish students, especially, should be proud to be Jewish and know that there were Jews who fought back and survived.
To learn more about Frank Blaichman, please visit his biography.
To download the study guide Frank Blaichman: A Partisan Leader's Story please visit JPEF's RESIST Curriculum.
Photo source: JPEF Archives