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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Featured Jewish Partisan - Marisa Diena, born on September 29th

"They didn’t know that I was Jewish. It didn’t cross my mind because there, like I said, everyone thought that I was Mara... But there was also Ulisse, Polifemo, Lampo, Fulmine ... they all had battle names. You didn’t know anything about anyone. It wasn’t important. So most people didn’t know that I was Jewish."
— Marisa Diena.

Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy, on September 29, 1916. Eight years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy, Marisa was taught to love Fascism. However, in 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, banning 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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Partisan Tools for Survival: Friendly Locals

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.

Norman Salsitz
Wounded in battle, Norman Salsitz needed surgical attention but did not trust the local doctors, so he took a hand grenade with him and informed the surgeon that if anything went wrong, everybody in the room would be killed. Brenda Senders explains the necessity of using this type of force, “You know, you go in with guns and the person will not give you food so you take it yourself. It was a war, it was not a matter of being polite or this way or the other way. Survival was at stake.”

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.”

Frank Blaichman

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.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

People Who Resisted – Dith Pran: photojournalist, refugee and survivor of the Cambodian Genocide

Dith Pran: Survivor, Advocate, Photojournalist

In the 1970s, Dith Pran was witnessing his country’s violent dissolution. Cambodia lapsed into civil war, stirred up by the struggles in Vietnam that spread over national borders. Pran sent his wife, Ser Moeun Dith, and four children to the United States, but he stayed to help report on Cambodia’s civil war, believing that in order to save lives, other nations had to understand Cambodia’s state of desperation. He worked as an essential guide, note-taker, and photographer for New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, who explained in an interview, “[Pran’s] mission with me in Cambodia was to tell the world what suffering his people were going through in a war that was never necessary.” Schanberg later wrote an article about Cambodia and Pran, which was turned into the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields.

In 1975, Pran unwillingly became a pawn in the radical social engineering experiment of Pol Pot, who sought to turn Cambodia into a purely agrarian society devoid of Western influence. Pot’s trigger-happy followers, the Khmer Rouge, gained control of Phnom Penh, forcing all residents out of the capital city and into a collective farm. At the forced labor camp, Pran spent four and a half years harvesting twelve hours a day with a spoonful of rice for sustenance. He did all that he could to survive, while witnessing and enduring arbitrary brutality.

At this time Cambodians were murdered for minor infractions against the regime’s doctrinaire policies; the Khmer Rouge were responsible for an estimated 2 million Cambodian deaths. Pran deemed the mass graves of Cambodians, killed by starvation, disease, guns, and pick axes, as “The Killing Fields.”

A 1974 photo by Mr. Dith of shells being fired at a village northwest of Phnom Penh. Photo: Dith Pran/The New York Times

In 1979 the Khmer Rouge lost power and Pran escaped 60 miles past the killing fields — the overwhelming evidence of genocide — and through landmine-dotted terrain to the Thai border. Soon thereafter, he reunited with his family in San Francisco.

Having survived atrocity, Pran immediately began to devote his time to helping fellow Cambodians who had suffered under the Khmer Rouge. In New York City, he founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project to educate people on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime. He spoke also of his efforts to aid Cambodia: “The Khmer Rouge has brought Cambodia back to year zero and that's why I'm trying to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to the World Court. Like one of my heroes, Elie Wiesel, who alerts the world to the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, I try to awaken the world to the Holocaust of Cambodia, for all tragedies have universal implications.”

Dith Pran died on March 30, 2008, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just three months earlier. Executive Editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, explained after Mr. Dith’s death, “To all of us who have worked as foreign reporters in frightening places, Pran reminds us of a special category of journalistic heroism — the local partner, the stringer, the interpreter, the driver, the fixer, who knows the ropes, who makes your work possible, who often becomes your friend, who may save your life, who shares little of the glory, and who risks so much more than you do.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Partisan Attack on Dereczyn, Poland (Belarus), August 1942

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.

Yehezkel Atlas
Copyright © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' And Heroes' Remembrance Authority

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:

“Sitting and hiding behind my mother's skirts didn’t feel right, I figured in the fighting unit I could get vengeance, I could do something good.”

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:

“We must not settle down and take things easy…Our struggle only began with the defeat of the Germans at Dereczyn. Your lives came to an end in the slaughter of the 24th of July. Every additional day of life is not yours, but belongs to your murdered families. You must avenge them.”
Dereczyn Synagogue, Copyright © 2008-10. Museum of Family History.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Larry King, Liev Schreiber and Edward Zwick Join Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation to Honor All Surviving Jewish Partisans with Launch of New PSA

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 11, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Hollywood and the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation have joined forces to launch a unique public service announcement campaign about standing up against discrimination by honoring the Jewish partisans – thousands of World War II resistance fighters that fought back against the Nazis and saved thousands of lives. CNN anchor Larry King, actor Liev Schreiber (Salt, X-Men: Origins, Defiance), director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond, Defiance), Rose Holm, a Jewish partisan, and her granddaughter Elisabeth Holm are all part of JPEF's grassroots initiative to bring together the last surviving partisans and their families at a gala event in New York City on November 7 in their honor. To view our public service announcement, please click: http://youtu.be/9lgqCZ6OsMk.

Larry King, a long time JPEF supporter, said, "The Jewish partisans are an important part of our history, and JPEF does tremendous work to keep their story alive and relevant with an innovative curriculum, short films and fabulous online resources. It is important to bring together as many partisans as we can for this special event on November 7."

The three-part campaign will kick off with a Web PSA designed to help locate these courageous individuals so that they may be re-united and honored with their colleagues at the tribute dinner in November. JPEF will give complimentary tickets to any partisan that wishes to attend the tribute event. The remainder of the PSA campaign will be launched later this fall and into 2012.

"By honoring these brave men and women, JPEF inspires the next generation of leaders to stand up for human rights and social justice," said Mitch Braff, founder and executive director of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. "Our tribute event is a historic link to the people who are a living testament that young people can make a difference – as many of the partisans were teens."

About Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation

Since JPEF's founding in 2000, hundreds of thousands of students in schools all over the world have learned about the history and life lessons of the Jewish partisans through a dynamic curriculum targeted to 7th-12th grade students. The organization makes innovative uses of film, the Web, and an e-learning platform to teach not only the history, but what the partisans want future generations to always remember: Young people can make a difference and we must all stand up to oppression and discrimination. The organization focuses on secular, parochial, and Jewish schools as well as teen youth groups and summer camps. JPEF has been named one of the most innovative Jewish organizations the country for five years by Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies' Slingshot. To find out more about the Jewish partisans and JPEF visit, www.jewishpartisans.org, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Jewish Partisans: Tools for Survival and Resistance - The Night

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.

Simon Trakinski

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.

Norman Salsitz

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:

“Who was our biggest enemy? The moon. The moon was our biggest enemy… if there was a moonlit night, we couldn’t move. So the night, the blizzard, heavy snow, heavy rain, this was our friends.”

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:

“We defended ourselves and at night, disappeared, because we were in charge at night. Because we had people who knew everything about the region. And they didn’t move at night… because their weapon superiority was no longer applicable.”

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:

“I think, if I would write a book, the title would be, The Night is Our Mother because lots of things we used to do, at night. The night was protecting us… the night was our mother.”

For more information about the Jewish partisans, please visit the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation's website.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Nesvizh Ghetto Resistance, July 1942

The Jews in Nesvizh organized one of the first Jewish uprisings during World War II in order to resist complete liquidation of their community. Nesvizh is a small city in Belarus, over 100 kilometers southwest of Minsk, full of public parks and architectural attractions, and is passed through by a lake. On the small lake’s eastern bank the formidable Nesvizh castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands tucked in between shade trees, cosseted by ramparts and canals. As a center for fairs, the town attracted artisans, horticulturalists, and farmers. Until 1942, there had been a Jewish community here for hundreds of years.

Nesvizh Synagogue, date unknown. Compiled by the members of the Nesvizh Study Group.

After the German invasion in June 1941, an aktion was ordered on Nesvizh and thousands of Jews were executed all at once in the small city. By October 30, 1941, the Jewish population in Nevizh had been reduced from between 4,500 to 5,000 to approximately 600 Jews. The remaining Jewish population was limited to a ghetto.

Anticipating a second aktion, an underground movement in the ghetto was formed to resist the community’s complete annihilation and to embody the mottos: “We shall not go like sleep to slaughter” and “Let me die with the Philistines”. Underground participants acquired arms by having weapons — including a machine gun — smuggled into the city from storehouses. Nine months later, in July of 1942, the Nesvizh ghetto began to hear of German liquidation engulfing nearby communities. They prepared for the imminent orders: digging bunkers, organizing into fighting units, and preparing additional homemade weapons like knives and hatchets. In the event of an occupation, they planned to set fire to the ghetto and break through to the forest.

On July 20th, a German commander stood outside the gates of the ghetto and announced the order to liquidate with the exception of thirty essential skilled workers. When the Germans and collaborating Belarusians infiltrated the ghetto, the Jewish resistance set their houses aflame and fought towards the gate. The Germans and Belarusians soon overpowered the resistance, killing most in the onslaught. Only twenty-five underground fighters succeeded in escaping to nearby forests.

Having endured one of the first ever ghetto uprisings, many of these survivors went on to join partisan units, including the Zhukov Otriad, and continued in the struggle to resist.

Entrance to the Nesvizh Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This uprising is described in detail in: Cholawski, Shalom, Soldiers from the Ghetto: The First Uprising Against the Nazis (San Diego and New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc, 1980).

Nesvizh, 2004.