My name Is Paul Orbuch and I am the Founding President and Chairman Emeritus of JPEF. My mother, Sonia Orbuch, fought with the Soviet partisans – as did Michael Kutz, whose gripping memoir, “If, By Miracle”, was recently published by The Azrieli Foundation in Canada as part of their Holocaust Survivor Memoir series. The Azrieli Foundation has published many fine books in the series, but this one was the first on a Jewish partisan. It caught my attention for that reason, but as I read it I was amazed to see how it resonates with the work JPEF has done and specifically how it parallels in so many ways my mother’s story, which was told in her memoir, “Here, There Are No Sarahs”, which was released in 2009. I worked closely with her and her co-author Fred Rosenbaum for 3 years; many of the threads in Kutz’s memoir correlate with her story as a teenager who fled to the forests and eventually was lucky enough to join a fighting unit of Soviet partisans.
But this story is told through the eyes of a young teenage boy, whose struggle to prove oneself as a fighter, and the joy of finally being able to fight back after enduring the loss of family, friends and community nevertheless mirrors that of my mother and many other partisans. We see the same strand of antisemitism – even within the resistance groups. (This is analyzed more deeply in the JPEF course, Antisemitism in the Partisans.) We see the same joy and intoxicating camaraderie infuse their memories as they recollect this important period of their young lives.
There is a valuable introduction by the historian Anike Walke, who explains how large-scale history plays out through the eyes and experiences of this teenage Jewish boy. “The sweeping breadth of his story takes us on a journey through twentieth–century Eastern European, Soviet, Canadian, Jewish and global history.” Through Kutz’s eyes we learn about the split within the Jewish community in pre and post war Poland – between the Zionists who advocated emigration to the ancient land of Israel and the leftist groups who wanted to work towards a revolutionary new pluralistic world in their places of birth. Kutz’s parents even argued whether he should be educated in Hebrew (the Zionist view) or Yiddish, which exemplified the basic split in the community regarding the proper aspiration for the Jewish people.
Michael’s first-hand account of being buried alive in a pile of murdered bodies takes us on a journey into the brutality of the German Einsatzgruppen, and what has been termed the "Holocaust By Bullets". These were mobile death squads responsible for the rounding up and murder of Jews in mass shooting operations. These, in addition to the death camps we are more familiar with, were a key component of the implementation of the Nazis’ plan to annihilate the Jews in Eastern Europe. This is a harrowing and until recently neglected area of Holocaust history and I think "If, By Miracle" takes us right into the heart of this history.
This is a coming of age story – Michael was only a child when he joined the partisans. He learned to fight with them and, as time went on, he taught these skills to others. The account of his first mission where he was selected by his commanders to crawl to a police station at dawn to place dynamite because he was small enough to do so will entrance anyone reading it – but especially any teenager who responds to adventure and daring.
“ …we walked through woods and fields all night long…I was camouflaged and carried dynamite in my rucksack. ..I crawled to the barbed wire fence, pulling a long cord along behind me. ….when I got there I placed the dynamite in contact with the fuse and made my way back…..after we lit the end of the cord, there was an explosion a minute or so later…for our group of partisans, especially the Jewish ones, this was quite a victory. ………we earned a great deal of respect from the non-Jews as fighters who could strike a serious blow to our enemies. My participation in that first military operation was also a personal victory in avenging the death of my family and my people….”
The story of the uprising in Michael's hometown that he later hears about is particularly interesting, as it was one of the first instances of such revolts in the Ghettos and was a precursor to the well-known one in Warsaw.
The second half of the book is a unique retelling of this young man’s escape from Europe and his eyewitness account of the coordinated efforts of so many disparate groups that enabled countless survivors to overcome the many obstacles on the way to the ancient Jewish homeland of Israel. Although Michael eventually came to Canada, prior to leaving Europe he spent many months involved in the training and support of the many thousands who ran the British blockade and formed the nucleus of the new Jewish State.
As Michael settled into his new life, he never forgot the lessons he learned as young Jewish partisan –to stand up for the underdog and, in his own words:
“I tell my story to….the young people of Canada because I feel an obligation to keep the legacy alive for future generations, to be vigilant so that the Holocaust never happens again, to recognize the rights of all peoples regardless of colour, religion or nationality, and to live together and respect one another because we are all God’s children.
–Paul Orbuch, JPEF Founding President and Chairman Emeritus