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Friday, August 1, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Mordechai "Motele" Shlayan

The night progressed as any other evening would have for twelve-year-old Motele, who had just finished his nightly violin performance in the Solders’ Home – an extravagant fine dining establishment post in Ovruch, Ukraine, where German troops came to be entertained and fatten themselves up before going into battle. Carefully packing up his violin, he declined his usual complementary meal from the cook with the excuse that he was exhausted and preferred to go home early. A few minutes after he stepped outside the complex, the building was demolished in a fiery explosion. As the wail of the police sirens approached, Motele quickly felt his way along the darkened buildings on a pre-determined path that led to the shores of a nearby lake, whose still waters provided a silent escape. Holding his prized violin high above his head, he submerged himself up to his shoulders. On the other side, ten hands reached out and helped the young boy into the relative safety of a waiting wagon. The vehicle vanished into the woods soon after, taking their young hero with them, whose voice reverberated in the dark: “this is for my parents and little Bashiale, my sister.”

Born Mordechai Shlayan, Motele was out when the Germans forced their way into his house and murdered his entire family. He resorted to living in the Volhynia forest in Ukraine, close to the town of Ovruch. Misha Gildenman, leader of an all-Jewish partisan group, came across the young boy in the woods and took him in as his own son. In Uncle Misha’s partisan unit, Motele was a valuable asset because he could go into town and no one would assume that a child this young had ulterior motives. With his fair skin and blond hair, Motele was easily able to hide his Jewish identity and pass as a Ukrainian. His musical talent also made him an irreplaceable resource to the group – it gave him a reason to be in towns and villages, and allowed him to gather crucial information useful to the group.

In August 1943, Gildenman was receiving daily reports of towns and cities that had recently been liberated by the Soviet army. Keril, a contact in Ovruch, relayed the message to him that the Ukrainian police in the city wanted to surrender. Having learned not to trust any good news too soon, Gildenman sent Motele to see if there was any truth to the rumors.

As a skilled musician, Motele was sent to play in town for money with the other beggars. His talent – as well as his beautiful renditions of popular Ukrainian folk songs that he remembered from the streets of his own hometown – soon separated him from the other street musicians. In his pocket, he carried carefully forged papers that gave him the new identity of Dimitri Rubina. His music caught the attention of a German officer, who hired the young violinist to provide musical entertainment for German soldiers in the Soldiers’ Home after he effortlessly sight-read a piece by the famous Polish composer Ignacy Paderewski.

Motele was given free lunch and dinner as compensation, and soon noticed a worn-down storeroom adjacent to the basement kitchen that he ate his meals in, whose cracked walls had just enough room to lodge a bomb between them.

With Gildenman and the partisans’ assistance, Motele constructed an elaborate plan to blow up the Soldiers’ Home. Popov, Gildenman’s explosive expert, taught him how to assemble a bomb. For several nights, Motele left his violin in a discarded crate and smuggled the explosives in his empty violin case. Now they only had to wait for an opportune moment to arise. As fate would have it, this opportunity happened sooner than expected: Motele heard word that a division of high-ranking SS officers were being re-routed through Ovruch – traveling by rail was thought to be too dangerous due to all the recent partisan demolition activity on the railroad tracks.

Everything went according to plan and at three in the afternoon, SS officers arrived in their polished boots and limousines. Dinner was served, wine was drank and merriment was had. Shortly after eleven, a boy ran out of the restaurant into the darkened street – and the men inside met their fate.

Motele was killed in a German bombing raid in 1944, when he was only fourteen years old. In 1996, Amnon Weinstein, a master violinmaker residing in Israel, began an extensive search for violins that had once been played by Jewish prisoners and partisans in concentration camps, forests and ghettos. Twenty-four violins were recovered and restored. One of these was Motele’s. In September 2003, it was played before thousands of people in Jerusalem in a gala concert in the Old City.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Bialystok Ghetto Uprising

In the grim history of the Bialystok ghetto, an act of resistance that occurred right before its eventual destruction by the Germans in August of 1943 places it among only a handful of such incidents during the war. Inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish resistance fighters in the Bialystok ghetto fought the Nazis during the last days of the ghetto's existence, after the Germans commenced with their plans to liquidate its entire population. The conditions of the Bialystok ghetto were different from that of other ghettos in Poland, and this ultimately decided the outcome of events.


Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof in 1934.

Bialystok was a city in northern Poland, annexed by the Soviets in 1939. The city was surrounded by deep forests, its houses made mostly of wood. The Jewish population – which made up a large fraction of the mill and skilled workers in the city - was an essential element of the city's economy. This fact would prove integral to the ghetto leadership's survival strategies.

The Soviet occupation ended when Nazi troops entered the city on June 27, 1941. Immediately, the soldiers forced hundreds of Jews into a synagogue and lit it on fire. Only few survived1 while most were burned to death. The next week, more than 5,000 Jews were shot in the streets. After these initial killings, 50,000 Jews were forced to move into the small confines of the Bialystok ghetto.

Conditions in this ghetto were somewhat unique to their situation. The community had limited access to the outside world, as many of the ghetto's residents had access to work in factories located in other parts of the city. The main body of the population also had a positive relationship with the Judenrat, which was headed by Ephraim Barasz. He was a well-respected man who worked hard to stress the economic importance of the Jews dwelling in the ghetto. Because of their economic importance, he and many of his comrades were convinced that the Jews of the Bialystok ghetto were immune to the fate of other ghettos. As a result, Barasz saw no reason to organize a resistance effort.

Having fled Vilna with a handful of resistance fighters, a man named Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof organized Bialystok's resistance movement, establishing the Anti-Fascist Fighting Bloc with his remaining followers. There were large disagreements within the fighting group about what should be done to effectively resist the Nazis. Some people, such as Judith Nowogrodzka, argued that the Jews should put all effort into escaping to the nearby forests and joining the liberation front, while others such as Teneboim believed that fighting the Nazis was the most effective. Ultimately, the group decided to the support resistance both with partisan groups and within the ghetto.

Teneboim and his organization faced many challenges when planning the Bialystok uprising. Acquiring weapons was extremely difficult. Ultimately, they were only able to gather one machine gun, and approximately two dozen hand-guns and several dozen grenades. However, an even greater obstacle was the lack of cooperation from the Judenrat under Barasz who believed that its Jews were in no risk of death therefore resistance was unnecessary. Tenenboim, considering the massacres at Ponary, believed the case to be otherwise.

On August 15, 1943, Barasz was notified by the Nazi gestapo of their plans to liquidate the Bialysok ghetto. He told nobody. When the resistance movement noticed the increase of German troops surrounding the Ghetto's border, they knew something was afoot. Caught by surprise and with little time, the rebels had no time to organize an effective strategy, and made do with what they could. Furthermore, the rest of the ghetto population had little reason to join the resistance, as most still had doubts about their ultimate fate, and did not wish to perish in an uneven struggle.

On August 16, 1943, with the majority of the ghetto's residence lined up outside to board the train to the camps, the Nazi troops were met with bombs dropped from windows of houses. However, Warsaw provided the Germans with experience, and they were well-prepared for a counter-attack. Furthermore, the low-rise wooden buildings and fences provided much less shelter for the rebels than the large brick edifices of Warsaw. As a result, the uprising only lasted a short time – the last handful fighters were unearthed from their bunker hideout five days later.

Although the uprising may not have been as successful as its leaders would have hoped, the actions of these brave men and women displayed courage and pride even when it seemed as if all hope had disappeared. Though most of the fighters perished – and the rest of the inhabitants were sent to meet their fate in the camps – a few fighters managed to break through the ghetto fence and flee to the countryside, joining partisan units that would eventually see these lands liberated from the bloody grip of the cruel occupiers.

–By Mandy Losk


1. A Polish cobbler named Winicki managed to make an opening into the burning building from the outside.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

JPEF Partners With Britannica Encyclopedia

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation is pleased to announce its partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica for The Holocaust Project.

The Holocaust Project is Britannica’s effort to make available to the public its extensive coverage of one of history’s darkest chapters. Britannica is offering this content to partnering institutions for dissemination to their members and website visitors.

More than a hundred articles comprise Britannica’s coverage of the Holocaust — topics range from the rise of Hitler and an overview of the camps to the symbolic meaning of the swastika and the Holocaust in art and memory. Britannica’s coverage includes biographies, essays, photographs, and videos, as well as discussion prompts appropriate for the classroom.

JPEF has contributed to Britannica's Holocaust project entries on “Jewish Partisans” and “Bielski Partisans.” All of the content was sourced from JPEF's website.

See below for the full list of resources available through The Holocaust Project:

Part 1: Hitler and the Origins of the Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 2: The Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 3: The Allied Response: Should the Allies Have Bombed the Camps?

Discussion Questions

Part 4: The Christian Response: The Actions of the Church

Discussion Questions

Part 5: Art, Meaning, and Memory

Discussion Questions

Friday, June 27, 2014

Italian Jewish Resistance During World War II

“[M]y way of life and the reason for my life for many months have only been an effort to leap into humanity, to share its existence, hard or easy that it may be. If I did not act this way, I would be renouncing myself, I would remain without a guide, humiliated. And thereby I would also be renouncing you who have given me life and nourished me.”

–Gianfranco Sarfatti, an Italian Jew, writing to his parents about why he joined a partisan group.

Italian Jews like Sarfatti who joined resistance groups came from a wide spectrum of political, economic, religious, and social backgrounds. Eugenio Calo, the owner of a machine shop in Arezzo, joined a partisan group to avenge his wife and children, who were deported to Germany. Eugenio Colorni, a professor of philosophy in Milan, became the leader of a Roman resistance group.

The Italian resistance groups that Jews were a part of were for the most part not founded on Jewish identity, but instead were integrated groups that readily accepted Jews to fight alongside them against a common enemy. Italian Jewish partisans were generally not deeply religious, with the exception of a small minority. However, there is evidence of religious life and observance of tradition: Augusto Segre, who was raised in a strict Jewish family, mentioned in his memoir of celebrating Yom Kippur during his time as a partisan.

As in other countries, the number of Jewish women who joined the Italian resistance groups was limited due to sexism. Conversely, they were viewed as less of a threat than their male counterparts, and thus could move around easier to gather crucial intelligence. Marisa Diena, who became the vice-commander of her unit, was a valuable asset for her group because her disarming appearance allowed her to ride through the countryside on her bicycle without arousing suspicion, gathering vital information from local informers along the way.

The emergence of Italian Jewish resistance was unique due to the facts surrounding the existence of the Fascist regime in Italy, whose leaders remained close allies of Hitler even after they were deposed and Italy surrendered to the Allies. On the fateful day of September 8, 1943, Italy was divided in half by the Armistice of Cassibile, which delegated the North to the German-backed regime and the South to the Allies. Though this agreement signified Italy's surrender and effectively cut its ties with the Axis, the end of fascism was not synonymous with the end of the war for Italy. A few months before in July, Mussolini had been arrested. However, the Germans staged a cunning raid to free the erstwhile dictator, and he became the figurehead leader of a fascist puppet regime in the north until his capture and execution by Italian partisans.

Following the September 8 armistice, Germany immediately annulled the contract it had created with Italy's Fascist government not to deport Italian Jews (who were located in Germany territory) to German-controlled land in the East. This malicious turn of events led to a surge in Jewish resistance, lasting until the end of the war.

The rise of anti-Fascist political resistance was an important precursor for the subsequent rise of armed resistance in Italy. The Giustizia e Liberta - a significant non-communist partisan group in Italy - was highly favored by the Allies, who provided it with material support. Due to its strong affiliation to well-respected Jewish resistance fighters, it was highly appealing to Jews who were looking to join partisan groups in Italy.

An important distinction for Italian Jews was their deep sense of Italian identity that was reflective of their wide assimilation into their Italian communities at large. Instead of exclusively identifying themselves as Jews, they instead formed alliances along political lines, notably supporters of fascism versus those against this agenda. Fighting in a resistance group allowed them to display their loyalty to their country as well as simultaneously advocating for their religious rights as a Jew.

To learn more about Italian Jewish resistance check out our website here: bit.ly/1sILNs6

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Friday, June 13, 2014

Jewish Partisan Resistance in Belgium

Disguised as German security agents, a small group of Jewish partisans stormed the office of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council in Brussels. Holding the officials at gunpoint, this allowed two more of their comrades to sneak into the head office and set fire to the records of Belgian Jews that were used for deportation.

This act of sabotage was constructed by Jacob Gutfreund, a Polish-Jewish refugee and two other partisan leaders who devised this elaborate plan to save the lives of fellow Jews from being deported to concentration camps. Jacob led one of the three groups of Jewish partisans who were based in Brussels. His partisan group was responsible for armed attacks against Nazis and their collaborators including demolishing enemy railroads, weapon manufacturing sites and energy plants.

On May 10, 1940, Belgium was occupied by the Germans. Six months later, the Nazis took over the Jewish Community Council. In response, the Committee for the Defense of Jews (CDJ) was created in Brussels to protect the rights of the Belgian Jewish population and assist with partisan groups likes Jacob's, to help them destroying German targets. Another important task for the CDJ was creating a network of trustworthy contracts that would provide a safe haven for hiding Jewish children.

Paul Halter, another member of a Belgian Jewish partisan group, acquired last-minute news of a raid on a church that held nineteen Jewish children who were in hiding. With the raid imminent, Halter and another man dressed up as members of the Gestapo, and came to “collect the children” at gunpoint from the nuns. To pacify the terrified children, the two men spoke in Hebrew to them, letting them know not all was as it seems. When the Nazis arrived later, they were astonished to hear that members of the Gestapo had already made the pickup – realizing they had been duped, they left empty-handed.

Georges LivchitzBeginning in September 1943, Belgian Jews were deported to concentration camps. Although the details of the deportations were always shrouded in secrecy, a Jewish partisan group gained news that on April 19, 1943, there would be a transport called Convoy 20, leaving for Auschwitz. The local partisans enlisted the help of fellow partisans Georges Livchitz and his brother Alexander Livchitz, who had gained experience in sabotage from their membership as national Belgian partisans. The brothers made their way to the Tirlemont region located in Northeast Belgium and waited for the train to approach. As the train with the captives neared, Georges flagged it down with a red lantern and the partisans rushed onto the train and freed the passengers who escaped into the woods.

The attack on Convoy 20 is the only documented attack of partisans freeing prisoners. Georges and Alexander were later executed in the Belgian camp Breendonk. Jacob was deported to Auschwitz, where he survived for two years until he was liberated. He immigrated in 1957 to Israel, where he became a leader of the Organization of Partisans, Ghetto Rebels in Israel and Underground Fighters.

Learn more about Jewish partisan resistance in Belgium here.

-By Julia Kitlinski-Hong.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Leon Bakst, born on May 3rd

Leon Bakst was one of four siblings born to a wholesale merchant in Ivie, a small Polish town 73 miles west of Minsk. Leon was 15 when the German army invaded eastern Poland in the summer of 1941, occupying Ivie and forcing the town’s Jews into a ghetto.

When the Germans asked Leon’s father what he did for a living, he lied and told the Germans that he was a brush maker. Though he traded in raw materials required for making brushes, he had never actually made a brush in his life. However, he figured that the occupiers would have more use for a tradesman than a merchant. His assessment of the situation was correct – he was spared the initial massacre of influential Jewish men. It would not be the last time his quick wits would save him and his family from annihilation. During the next round-up, as the family was approaching the SS officials in charge of choosing the next massacre victims, Leon’s father put his wife and daughters behind himself and his two sons – he realized the Nazis were more likely to spare able-bodied men than families with lots of women and children. The gamble paid off: seeing only a father and his two teenage sons from their vantage point behind the table, the SS men hurriedly dismissed the family.


The Bakst family.

By this point in the war, the Nazis were not particularly concerned about hiding their true plans for the Jews of Poland. Leon and his brother were among those forced to dig mass graves a mile outside of their town. Leon remembers seeing the soldiers execute one of the crew:

“It was a Rabbi’s son – he had a little bit…one arm. [It] wasn’t as strong as the other; it was kind of a weak arm. So after we got through digging out, before we’re fixing to go back to the ghetto, [they] shot him, right there in front of the grave. And we left.”

Months later, Leon and his older brother, along with 200 other young people, were selected by the local Judenrat council to go to a labor camp in Lida, another town 25 miles west of Ivie. The tragic separation from his family actually saved his life, but he never got the chance to see his parents again – the Germans destroyed their ghetto shortly after he left, as he learnt later.

The labor camp was located in a railroad yard – the prisoners even slept in the boxcars. Their food rations were meager, and their futures uncertain. However, the prisoners had one tremendous advantage: their job was to load trains bound for Germany with weapons and ammunition captured from the retreating Russians. Having heard about partisan groups roaming the nearby forests, twenty of the youngsters decided to risk escape and join them. By slowly stealing rifles and stashing them in the ground, the prisoners were able to arm themselves before fleeing.

Having spent many summers in the area, the two brothers were familiar with the surroundings, making it easier for their group to travel at night. The rifles they stole from the Germans also ensured that the group got fed along the way, and their numbers kept them safe from bands of former Russian soldiers turned bandits and marauders – men who would not hesitate to kill a stray escapee for a pair of boots or a rifle.

Having finally reached the Naliboki forest, the youngsters encountered the Bielski brigade, which at the time had about 200 partisans. Since the group arrived with rifles, the Bielskis quickly accepted the newcomers.

During his time with the Bielskis, Leon was involved in a series of tasks ranging from guard duty to food-gathering missions to railroad sabotage. As he says, the main purpose of the partisans was to keep the members of the group alive. By 1945, the Bielskis saved more than 1,200 Jewish lives.

After the war’s end, Leon managed to leave Poland with his brother and Libby – a partisan from another otriad and Leon’s future wife. They eventually made it to a displaced persons’ camp in Munich, where Leon met Allen Small, a boyhood friend from Ivie who fought with a Soviet partisan otriad. It would be 65 years before they see one another again. (For more on this story, see JPEF’s documentary “The Reunion”.)


Leon and Libby in Munich, 1946.

During the four years they spent in the displaced persons’ camp, Leon and Libby got married and their first child was born. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. Leon currently lives in Dallas, Texas. He has two daughters. Of his legacy as a partisan, Leon says:

“When I was in the underground, it was a happy time of my life because I felt I’m fighting not only for myself, I was fighting for freedom, and [to] take revenge for the Jewish people. That's what I’m proud of it. And that’s why I take, I keep on living for it, you know, and I can try to tell as many people I can to relay the message to them, what happened in World War II to the Jewish people, [that] some of the people were heroic and they went to the underground and fought."

Leon with Allen Small (left) at the NY premiere of "The Reunion".

Friday, April 11, 2014

Scholastic Publishes Partisan-Inspired Elementary School Thriller

Author Lauren Tarshis recently released an exciting edition to her I Survived series, published by Scholastic. Subtitled The Nazi Invasion, 1944, this short yet dramatic tale perfectly suits educators who wish to introduce elementary school students to the subject of the Jewish partisans.

The story centers around 11-year-old Max Rosen and his younger sister, Zena: newly orphaned inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in Esties, Poland during the Nazi occupation. Tarshis expertly uses age appropriate language and content to paint a vivid picture of the children's adventure as they escape from the ghetto and are taken in by a group of partisans in the forests of Loda.

The author bases the characters in the book on the life stories of a number of partisans she learned about during her research: Leizer and Zenia Bart, Miriam Brysk, Leon Kahn, Ben Kamm, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak, Abba Kovner, Miles Lerman, and Shalom Yoran.

More information about these individuals is available at www.jewishpartisans.org/partisans.

I Survived: The Nazi Invasion, 1944 provides an intriguing and exciting account of the experiences of the largely unrecognized efforts of Jewish resistance to the Nazi regime of WWII. As a supplemental resource for the study of the Holocaust, Max and Zena's tale of escape, hiding, and battle, provides a personal and relatable viewpoint for students. The historical fiction genre, when approached with the care and accuracy of Lauren Tarshis, can provide an informative and engaging tool on which to build classes, projects, and plays.

For more on this book, visit www.scholastic.com/ISurvived. For recommendations on other material related to the Holocaust and Jewish partisans, visit the author's website at www.LaurenTarshis.com.