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 the 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 perservance during the war in her memoir Here There Are No Sarahs.
Sadly, Sonia passed away on Sunday, September 30th, surrounded by family and loved ones. She was 93 years old. During her lifetime, she inspired those whose lives she touched. 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 below with the winner EJ Weiss: