Monday, May 8, 2017
Norman knew that with each ghetto they demolished, the workers drew closer to their own murders.
In October of 1942, Norman organized an escape group of 55 people and fled to the surrounding forest. He had money he found during his ghetto work, and used it to buy his first revolver. The sympathetic Pole who sold him the weapon also led Norman to a group of resistance fighters in the woods. These fighters fought through harsh weather conditions on rough terrain to dismantle and damage German railroads, mills, and police stations.
“This is why I keep going,” he says, “we have to tell the world what the German murderers did to us.”
Norman Salsitz passed away on October 11th, 2006.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Norman Salsitz, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Partisans often had intimate knowledge of the forests in their area and were able to leverage that in their war effort against the Nazis, as in the case of Norman Salsitz and the Bielskis. The terrain suited itself well for purposes of camouflage and deception: “In the forest, ten partisans seemed like a hundred to those on the outside,” remembers one partisan. During the notoriously harsh winters of Eastern Europe, the forest provided firewood and the raw materials for shelter – little underground huts called ‘zemlyankas’, where the partisans would huddle together to escape the cold and avoid detection.
“Without the forest, we could not survive.” said Norman Salsitz in his interview with JPEF. And indeed, the very memories of escape and freedom for many partisans - including Mira Shelub and Jeff Gradow – are inextricably linked to the woods, where they ran to hide, and the trees that gave them cover from the pursuant bullets of the Nazis.
Strengthening Jewish Pride and Living and Surviving in the Partisans.
Today, Tu B’shevat represents the broader shape of contemporary Jewish renewal. It is one of the clearest examples of the rebirth of rooted Jewish life after the Shoah. The charred site of a forest fire slowly gives birth to new growth and now, more than 70 years later, a new forest stands in its place. Each of the elements of that forest grew from seeds that survived the fire; yet the forest itself has its own unique characteristics.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
"And I saw the trees very big trees, heavy trees and it was a wind and it was blowing the trees back and forth. And I said here we come this will be our life we have to sleep here to live here. Snow, rain or whatever… this is our home and we have to take it."
— Sam Gruber.
For partisans like Sam Gruber, the nearby forests and swamps were a mixed blessing. For the same reason they provided protection, they could also be treacherous. It was a setting, however, that sheltered many partisans throughout Europe.
Sonia Orbuch explains: “We had to choose a place with so many trees. In a way it was like a protection.” The forests were great forts, thickly wooded—the swamps, their endless moats. “Without the forest we couldn’t survive,” Norman Salsitz declares.
These were territories not so easily tread by invading forces—even local collaborators stayed away from the swamps and forests. Don Felson explains that there were, “a lot of forests in my part of the country, huge forests that, once you’re in the forest, they’re not gonna find you.” Not that it was easy for the partisans, either. Mira Shelub tries to describe the miserable feeling of having to trudge through the swamps “one foot in, one foot out, one foot in, one foot out”: “Because you become so desperate when you go, you know: it's swamps… you don't know when or how will it end.”
Out of necessity, partisans used the forest for their benefit. Others were not so adept at navigating the woods. Jeff Gradow speaks about the ability to read the forest: “On the big trees, on the north side, what do you call, the moss is growing, and so we know if this is north, south, east, west. We have no compasses, and still nobody got lost. Even today, after so many years, I go in the woods, it doesn't bother me. I can find my way out.”
The forests, the swamps, though difficult, were a symbol of a relief to many—if only because they meant escape and obscurity. Fleeing to the forest, “is the first time I felt like a free human being,” says Jeff Gradow. “Even I didn't know where the heck I'm going to go, or what I'm going to do.” Mira Shelub invokes a similar feeling: “I cannot tell you how good it felt to breathe the fresh air, to know that we are free, to know that we can go. Okay, there were difficulties, obstacles, but we knew that we can go, that nobody will stop us… to see the trees, it was something, a special, special experience.”
Sunday, August 4, 2013
For partisan groups, fighting the powerful and well-equipped German army in open combat was typically not an option. Partisans spent much of their time hiding from the enemy, and discovery of their whereabouts was a major, ever-looming threat. The Nazis used local spies, bribes, aerial surveillance, and forest sweeps to root out partisan groups hiding in the countryside, so the partisan had to constantly be on high alert.
Jewish partisans had to fear for their lives not just because they were fighting against the occupying army but because of their Jewish identity. All partisans1 had to be wary of enemy bullets, lice and typhoid, and of leaving footprints in the fresh snow, but Jewish partisans faced an added threat. For many Jews, their accent, the way they looked or dressed, their unfamiliarity with non-Jewish society, and a myriad of subtle details marked them as "other". This otherness exposed them to mortal danger – and not just from the Nazis and their collaborators, but also from unfriendly members of the Armia Krajowa, antisemitic peasants, and (if they were in a mixed otriad) even their fellow partisans. (For more information on this subject, see our Antisemitism in the Partisans E-Learning course.)
Even a doctor's oath to "do no harm" was no guarantee of safety. After being wounded, Norman Salsitz had to seek treatment from a local doctor – a known antisemite. Norman's anecdote provides a stark illustration of the ever-present danger Jewish partisans found themselves in:
[We] went to the doctor and she said, “I have somebody who was wounded yesterday. He’s from the AK,” if he will look at me. He said yes. She brought me over and he started…he said, “Let down your pants.” So I was afraid that he does it purposely to see if I’m Jewish...I took out a hand grenade and I took out the pin and I said, “If you do something I will let the pin out and we all be killed.”
Identity was treated as a matter of life-and-death – not just by the Nazis, but also by most other groups hostile to the Jews as well, such as the various ultra-right wing nationalist groups in Poland, Ukraine, and the Balkans. Though many Jews lived in their own communities, segregated from the gentile population, they were nonetheless well-known by the locals, and could frequently be singled out by their accents2, names that looked or sounded "Jewish", and appearance.
Sonia Orbuch was born Sarah Shainwald, but the commander of her otriad made her change her given name to the more common and less Jewish-sounding Russian name Sonia – to keep her safe from antisemites. “Here there are no Sarahs,” he explained to her. To keep himself out of trouble in Moscow, Leon Senders concealed his Jewish identity by simply bleaching his hair with peroxide. Likewise, Ben Kamm excelled at smuggling food through the countryside because of his blue eyes and blond hair.
Fluency in other languages helped many partisans avoid danger - particularly if they could speak without a Yiddish or foreign accent. Running away from his village after the Nazis rounded up all his classmates, 15 year old Joe Kubryk found work as a farmhand with a Ukrainian farmer who never suspected he was Jewish – all because Joe spoke fluent Ukrainian. Growing up in Metz on the northern border of France, Bernard Musmand learned to speak German in school at a young age. Later, while running dangerous missions as a courier for the Sixieme3, he used his fluency in German to dispel suspicions about his identity – usually, with a friendly request for the time or for a match.
Bernard was not only fluent in German – he was also well-versed in Catholicism, another useful instrument of disguise. When his family fled to southern France, he had to pose as a Catholic to attend the local boarding school. He was so diligent at keeping up appearances that the priests actually asked him if he was interested in going into the seminary. Leon Idas, a Greek partisan, grew up attending a private school run by the local Orthodox church. Consequently, he was able to use the religious knowledge he learned there to keep his Jewish identity secret when he joined the partisans.
Though Norman Salsitz was already a partisan, joining the AK was the only way he felt he could strike an effective blow against the Nazis – to do so was the patriotic duty of any able Pole. However, he could not do so without concealing his Jewish identity. He managed to join by assuming the name (and ID card) of another AK soldier. Along with Joseph Greenblatt, Norman is one of the many Jewish partisans who worked for the AK under an assumed Christian name. Norman’s allegiances were tested when a command was given to murder a group of Jews hiding on a farm. He volunteered for the mission – after killing his Polish companions, he rescued the Jews and fled to his original partisan unit. There are many other instances of Jews infiltrating the AK under Christian identities, acquiring rank and status, and using their power to help other Jews escape persecution and death.
Nazi Germany’s plans for the occupied territories included specific methods for singling out and isolating the Jews, such as the infamous yellow badges. When Frank Blaichman smuggled food through the countryside, his preferred method of disguise was to remove the badge from his clothing and hide it until he returned home. Though it may sound simple in hindsight, such an act was punishable by severe beatings, imprisonment, and even death. He could have easily been found out - travel permits were required for even the most routine trips out of town. Frank had no official documents, but he did have a backup: his fluency in Polish allowed him to talk his way out of trouble if he was ever stopped.
The falsification of identity papers was vital to the underground. Romi Cohn was instrumental in providing Jewish refugees with false documents that identified them as Christians. The forgeries were of a very high quality – a connection at the local Gestapo headquarters supplied him with German seals to stamp the documents. Working at an employment agency in the early 1940s, Eta Wrobel used her clerical skills to forge identity papers for Jews. Even the famed mime Marcel Marceau – himself a Jewish partisan – utilized his drawing skills to make false identity cards for Jewish children.
Not surprisingly, a number of Jewish partisans served the cause as spies. Their combined skills – as forgers, as polyglots, as people used to living in a constant state of disguise – put them in a unique position. Even though he was only 15 at the time, Joe Kubryk was trained in the arts of espionage. While Leon Senders was valuable to Moscow as a radio operator, his real art was subterfuge. Leon's knowledge of German, Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian helped him fool his enemies and make new friends. He successfully built up a network of informants he used to acquire sensitive information that was instrumental in bombing the German supply lines. Wearing a tattered shepherd’s coat, Leon was so good at disguising himself he was once kicked out of a farmer’s house because a German officer, who wished to eat lunch there, objected to the presence of “Lithuanian swine” at his meal.
In a war where millions of civilians were murdered for no reason other than their identity – be it ethnic, religious, sexual, or political – the means and the opportunity to conceal and change it often meant the difference between life and death. Even the smallest adjustment could have major consequences: Leon Bakst’s father was a merchant, but when the SS asked for his occupation during the first roundup of the Jews in his hometown of Ivie, he simply answered “brush-maker”. He reasoned that the occupiers would have more use for a brush-maker than a merchant. He was correct: his life was spared that day.
1. Out of the hundreds of thousands of partisans active during the war, only 20,000-30,000 were Jewish.
2. The primary language spoken in Eastern European shtetls was Yiddish, and though not unheard of, unaccented fluency in languages like Polish or Ukrainian was not common.
3. La Sixieme was the underground incarnation of Eclaireurs Israélites, a French Jewish scouting organization. The EI went underground in 1942 and became known as the “Sixth Bureau”, smuggling children and adults into Switzerland, hiding Jews, providing forged documents, and even taking part in battles for the liberation of France.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
The world of a partisan, and especially a Jewish partisan, was a treacherous, restless, stressful world. They braved the most unendurable conditions—extreme cold, hunger, fatigue—and survived through the will to fight and persevere. Sometimes they received food, shelter, supplies, information, and medical attention from nearby communities. However, Jewish partisans could not fully trust the often anti-Semitic locals, though their services were necessary. Preventative measures were therefore taken: food and supplies were acquired at gunpoint or with some cunning and often improvised deception. Frank Blaichman recalls, “We had information that a farmer had hidden weapons. We made up a story to tell him that we were Russian paratroopers and we needed the weapons. We had our men far away with broken pitchforks that looked like a gun with a bayonet in the background, so to the farmer he looked like he was dealing with the real thing.” Even medical care was forcefully taken when sympathetic doctors were not available.
However, locals who empathized with Jewish partisans or simply shared the same feeling of opposition toward German occupation were a great asset to partisan survival. Leon Idas found that there were local villagers who were friendly and freely informed partisan troops of German movements, and would even escort disguised partisans to the city hospitals to get them aid. Harry Burger found that locals offered up their barns to shelter and care for traveling partisans. Burger and Idas, however, lived and fought in southern Europe, where there was less anti-Semitism. In Poland, Sonia Orbuch did not encounter many sympathetic locals; although, she owes much of her survival to one citizen by the name of Tichon Martinetz who was instrumental in connecting her with the Russian partisans and also supplied the brigade with food in the bitter winter of ’42. Frank Blaichman spent much time with farmers who hid him and his comrades, cooked meals for them, even washed their clothes. “The locals were anti-Semitic, but they were not killers,” Frank Blaichman explained. “When they saw that we took care of German collaborators they were more willing to help us. Without their help we would have never survived.”
According to partisans such as Blaichman, local allies could make all the difference in regards to survival. Even though unsympathetic locals could be tricked or forced at gunpoint to concede services and supplies, not all of survival relies on physical needs. After being chased by locals “like an animal”, when Blaichman found friendly households which sheltered and fed him there was a sense of hope. He said, “They treated us like human beings.”
Friday, August 5, 2011
The day-to-day lives of the Jewish partisans were extraordinarily difficult. Jewish partisan units had little arms and ammunition to fight with, and when they were not fighting, they were struggling to find food for survival. They slept in the elements and had little to no medical supplies. They also had to worry about local collaborators plotting against them. Yet, the Jewish partisans evaded capture, used their resources to impede German operations, retook ghettos, killed German troops, and saved thousands of Jewish lives during World War II. They were successful for many reasons and developed many instruments for survival. One way in which the partisans had an advantage over their enemies was their use of the cover of night.
Most partisan group activities, especially those outside of the forest, were carried out at night. Jack Kakis used the cover of night as a setting for his factory-bombing operations, Simon Trakinski's partisan group blew up train lines at nighttime, and the Bielskis used the darkness to veil their food gathering missions. Ben Kamm also led operations at nighttime, successfully freeing 600 Jews from the Janow Lubelski labor camp in Poland.
The night was more or less a necessity for the successful conduct of operations — during the day, it was very difficult for partisans to go anywhere outside the forest without being detected. Even clear nights and the moon caused a great deal of anxiety, so the partisans would actually welcome the kinds of difficult, stormy weather they would otherwise wish to avoid. As Norman Salsitz said:
The partisans also knew that the Germans had no tactical advantage over the partisans in the dark or in poor conditions. Silvio Ortona explains their strategy:
For these reasons, nighttime was an important element for the partisans and a powerful one. Abe Asner, who repeatedly frustrated the Germans with his efficiency under the cover of darkness, describes night’s importance to partisans:
For more information about the Jewish partisans, please visit the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation's website.