Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
"Whenever you went on assignment, the most dangerous part is coming back. Going there, they don’t know you're there, so you sneak in. While you sneak in, they might catch you, they might shoot you, but going back is the problem, because they know you're here, and they're going to go after you. However, if they don't know the direction you went, they won't catch you, but if they saw one, they're going to go after you. Because this is their army here. So that was the most dangerous part."
— Sam Lato.
Sam Lato was born in Baronovich, Poland on February 24th, 1925. He moved with his family to Warsaw at the age of three, where his skills as a craftsman earned him a scholarship to a local Jewish trade school. He eventually returned to Baronovich, which went under Soviet control in 1939 after the blitzkrieg of Poland.
Life was calm in Baronvich until 1941 when the Germans invaded Poland and quickly occupied Sam’s hometown. Soon, the Baronvich ghetto was formed. It was here that Sam became a member of the local resistance, even before he knew of the partisans’ existence. He started making cigarette lighters to sell on the black market, and smuggled ammunition and medical supplies from his factory job.
A year later, the Germans began to commit massive acts of violence against the locals. While Sam was fortunate enough to avoid several massacres, he and 15 other young men decided to take their chances in the forests of Belarus. At the age of seventeen, Sam fled from Baronvich and eventually found his way to a partisan camp. He was surprised to discover that there were already over a hundred Baronvich Jews in the brigade. Sam wasn’t with the partisans long before he met Genia Wishnia, whom he married only a few months later. They went on several missions together.
Sam’s brigade was in poor condition when he first arrived. They had no explosives to commit sabotage, and their camp was infested with lice. Sam and his friends would joke, “When you take off your jacket, put it in the corner so it [won’t] go away. Otherwise, the lice [are] going to move it outside for fresh air.” However, in the spring of 1943, they began receiving airdrop support from the Russians. They received new weapons, clothes and medical supplies. Soviet paratroopers even came to help coordinate the brigade’s activities, and Sam was recruited into their ranks as an auxiliary.
Sam was at one point assigned to accompany a Polish paratrooper. He followed him everywhere because no one was supposed to be alone. Sam didn’t think much of the short Pole, and didn’t know who he was or what he did. After Sam was relieved of his assignment and returned to his brigade, he was summoned by his colonel. The colonel instructed Sam to never repeat what he saw or heard during his time with the Pole, because he was none other than the exiled Polish prime minister.
In 1944, Sam joined the Russians in their advance to the Baltic Sea. After the war, he and Genia stayed in the USSR for several years before ultimately immigrating to the United States with their son, Edward. Genia lost her life to breast cancer in 1987. In 2006, Sam wrote a book about his time as a partisan in response to the denial of the Holocaust, as well as those who believed that the Jews went quietly. "The Jews did not go quietly,” he said in a 2009 interview. “Resistance, both peaceful and fierce, was waged by rabbis, senior adults, and men, women and children alike." The book, From Ghetto to Guerilla: Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter, received the gold medal for its category at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and was introduced to the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Hollywood, Florida in February 2008.
Sam passed away in 2012, leaving behind three grandchildren.
Edited by Kyle Matthews.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
2015 International Holocaust Remembrance Day - 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
This year's International Holocaust Remembrance Day also happens to be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the Soviet Red Army. The day has been commemorated around the world since the UN passed a resolution on the matter a decade ago, on the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation. Below are some articles on the ways the day is commemorated this year:
- Survivors return to Auschwitz on 70th Anniversary of Liberation (The Telegraph)
- Voices of Auschwitz - an interactive video testimonial collection (CNN)
- Auschwitz-Birkenau: 70 Years After Liberation - A Warning To Future Generations (March of the Living Canada Digital Archives)
- Photos: Children of Auschwitz Share Stories of Survival (PBS)
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Days of Remembrance Resource Page
- "Liberty, Life and Legacy of the Holocaust Survivors" - Day of Remembrance Resources from UNESCO
Friday, December 5, 2014
Their mission? To help repressed Jewish communities and aid allied forces. The group was comprised of members of the Palmach, a branch of Haganah, along with other Jews living in British mandated Palestine. After training in Egypt, the parachutists were sent to Romania, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. The first group of volunteers landed in Yugoslavia in May, 1943; the last arrived in Austria in May, 1945.
Many of the volunteers were recent immigrants to Palestine. Haviva Reick, one of the three women in the group, immigrated to Palestine in 1939. Another member, Rafi Reiss, arrived in Palestine on an illegal immigrant ship in 1939.
During the summer and autumn of 1944, Reick and Reiss along with two other parachutists, Rafael Reiss, Zvi Ben-Yaakov, Haim Hermesh, and later Abba Berdiczew, arrived in Slovakia.
While in the Slovakian town of Banská Bystrica, the group organized a refugee community center and soup kitchens during the Slovak National Uprising of 1944. They also led a group of Jewish children to Palestine and coordinated with other partisan and resistance groups to aid western Allied prisoners of war.
With the suppression of the uprising in Slovakia towards the end of October 1944, the parachutists gathered weapons and moved into the mountains. Of the original 37 volunteers, twelve were captured Ukrainian Waffen SS and seven executed.
November 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of their untimely deaths, but their legacies are celebrated both in Slovakia and Israel, through street names, educational establishments, books and films.
Friday, August 15, 2014
“I managed to [avoid] those that would denounce me,” Zvi Shefet recalled of his early days during the German occupation of his hometown of Slonim, in then Soviet-occupied Belorussia. Refusing to wear the Star of David, the sixteen-year-old Jewish partisan found ways to rebel early on, even before he went into the forest to fight. With his blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fluent command of Polish, he managed to avoid unwanted attention and only went outside when necessary.
The German invasion came as a complete surprise to Zvi and his community – as in many Soviet territories, the community strongly believed in the power and protection of the Soviet army. However, the war had only lasted three days before the Germans successfully overtook the town.
On July 17, 1942, the initial “aktion”1 in Slonim took place against the Jews. Zvi's family was alerted to the situation through family friends who had relayed the news through their grief-stricken faces - the couple lived in the woods and were firsthand witnesses to the aftermath of the mass killing in the forest.
In the beginning, most Jews in Slonim found it a hard to digest these mass murders. Some continued to look for those that had been killed, only finding remains of their clothing. Others believed that the Russians would still come and save them. Looking back on experiencing this time as a child, Zvi reminisced “I thought it strange that the grown-ups were so fearful.”
Fearing for their son's life, Zvi's parents planned to send him to Warsaw with a Polish family acquaintance. Feeling hurt that they wanted to send him away, he advised strongly against separating from his family. Zvi convinced his family to let him stay with them and continue to protect them as best he could.
Soon after, the Germans forced all the Jews of Slonim into the a ghetto. Another aktion immediately followed: the Wehrmacht and the SS surrounded the ghetto, looking for males. Zvi and his father hid in a shed adjacent to their living area. Zvi's mother – who was fluent in German – answered the door and convinced the officers that her husband had gone off to work early and taken his schein (work permit) with him. The soldiers left soon after, commanding her not to let anyone else in the house.
During this aktion, the Germans had exceeded the expected amount of Jews that they were anticipating to find, prompting the authorities to declare that the killing would cease. Though some believed this news, Zvi's parents did not. The recent increase in SS men in the town caused alarm – changes like that often meant something awful was looming in the near future. The Nazis were not only targeting Jewish citizens, but also the Polish intelligentsia. Uncertainty was an air, and no one was safe.
The final aktion ended in the burning of the Slonim ghetto. Zvi's family was residing near the ghetto's edge, and thus escaped into the forest under the cover of nightfall. Zvi and his immediate family – along with some uncles, aunts and cousins – roamed the forest, motivated by rumors of Soviet partisan groups in the Pruszkov forest and the surrounding areas. They hoped the partisans would provide protection for them.
The admission to partisan groups was arms, which the Shefets and their relatives had no possession of. The group eventually went their separate ways, due to a fission that occurred when Zvi's uncle secured a spot with the Soviet partisans for only himself, his wife and two sons.
Soon after, however, Zvi and his family found a partisan center in the forest near Okinowo. This place was well-known – former POWs organized the activity of various partisan groups here. After a few days, Zvi was accepted into a resistance group called Detachment 51, and his family was assigned to a detachment created for the partisans' family members.
Due to the prevalence of antisemitism among the ranks of the Soviet partisans, a group of Jews eventually broke off and created their own unit, comprised solely of Jewish partisans. They also called themselves Detachment 51. Zvi asked to join this group. The commander, Yefim Fiodorowicz, had excellent leadership qualities and was able to inspire the group into becoming excellent fighters. The group membership was also more lenient towards women, who fought alongside their male counterparts.
Zvi continued to fight in Detachment 51 until Fiodorowicz perished; Zvi had no choice but to join another Soviet partisan unit - he fought with them until the area was liberated by the Soviet army in 1944. Unfortunately, Zvi's family was killed in 1943, when a group of Soviet partisans attacked his family's detachment instead of protecting them as they promised to.
–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong
Zvi Shefet visiting the cemetery at Czepelova. Photo courtesy of eilatgordinlevitan.com.
1. The German euphemism for mass executions, usually by bullets
Friday, August 1, 2014
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
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.
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.