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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Partisan Tools for Survival: The Forests and Swamps

"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.”

Jewish Partisans in a Yugoslavian Forest

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.”

Photo taken in 1999 of a zemlyanka in the Naroch forest, Belarus. From Alexander Bogen’s book, Revolt.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Eta Wrobel Defied Gender Roles as a Jewish Partisan

"I was the girl who played soccer with the boys. I was the girl who rode a bicycle on the street in shorts, which no other Jewish girls didn’t do that, I had no objections from my parents. We had a very good home. And not to forget, which hurts my life, we had ten children in our family, and I’m the only survivor. The only one. I have no family whatsoever in my background, so like when we get together in the family there is that celebration, or a wedding or bar mitzvah or whatever there is, I have nobody. Everybody who comes, nieces, nephews, are all from my husband’s side. That’s the only thing I envy in my life—otherwise, I’m free."
— Eta Wrobel.

Born December 28th, 1918 in Lokov, Poland, Eta Wrobel was the only child in a family of ten to survive the Holocaust. In her youth, she was a free spirit who defied authority. As Eta puts it she was “born a fighter.” Her father, a member of the Polish underground, taught her the importance of helping people, no matter the circumstance.

In early 1940, Eta started work as a clerk in an employment agency. Soon she began her resistance by creating false identity papers for Jews. In October 1942, Eta’s ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were forced into concentration camps.

In the transition, Eta and her father escaped to the woods.

Life in the woods around Lokov was extremely treacherous. Eta helped organize an exclusively Jewish partisan unit of close to eighty people. Her unit stole most of their supplies, slept in cramped quarters, and had no access to medical attention. At one point Eta was shot in the leg and dug the bullet out of her leg with a knife. The unit set mines to hinder German movement and to cut off supply routes. Unlike the other seven women in the unit, Eta refused to cook or clean. Her dynamic personality and military skills allowed for this exception.

She was active on missions with the men and made important strategic decisions.

In 1944, when the Germans left Lokov, Eta came out of hiding and was asked to be mayor of her town. Shortly after, Eta met Henry, her husband to be. They were married on December 20, 1944. In 1947 Eta and Henry moved to the United States. She and Henry had three children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Eta summarized her heroic years with the partisans by saying simply, “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive.”

In 2006, her memoir My Life My Way The Extraordinary Life of a Jewish Partisan in World War II was published. Eta died on May 26, 2008 at her home in upstate New York.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Eta Wrobel, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Eta is also featured in an Emmy-nominated documentary from PBS entitled Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman Celebrates her 94th Birthday on November 28th

"Every picture has a story. This is a picture when I was accepted into the Partisans but many Jewish people escaped from ghettos, from concentration camps and they were not accepted in the Partisans because they had families. They had little children, so they were in in the woods hiding. But the Partisans had an obligation and they felt they should do it to bring them and to bring them to deliver to them some food so they would survive even without joining the Partisans."
— Faye Schulman.

Faye Schulman was born to a large family on November 28, 1919 in Lenin, Poland. She learned photography from her brother Moishe and assisted him in his photography business.

On August 14, 1942, the Germans killed 1,850 Jews from the Lenin ghetto, including Faye's parents, sisters and younger brother. They spared only 26 people that day, among them Faye for her photographic abilities. The Germans ordered Faye to develop their photographs of the massacre. Secretly she also made copies for herself.

During a partisan raid, Faye fled to the forests and joined the Molotava Brigade, a partisan group made mostly of escaped Soviet Red Army POWs.

She was accepted because her brother-in-law had been a doctor and they were desperate for anyone who knew anything about medicine. Faye served the group as a nurse from September 1942 to July 1944, even though she had no previous medical experience. The camp’s doctor was a veterinarian.

During a raid on Lenin, Faye succeeded in recovering her old photographic equipment. During the next two years, she took over a hundred photographs, developing the medium format negatives under blankets and making “sun prints” during the day. On missions Faye buried the camera and tripod to keep it safe. Her photos show a rare side of partisan activity – one is of a funeral scene where two Jewish partisans are being buried alongside Russian partisans, despite the intense antisemitism in the group. In another image, Schulman and three young Jewish men smile joyously after an unexpected reunion in the forest—each believing that the other had been killed.

"I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.” She is the only known Jewish partisan photographer.

After liberation, Faye married Morris Schulman, also a Jewish partisan. Faye and Morris enjoyed a prosperous life as decorated Soviet partisans, wanted to leave Pinsk, Poland, which reminded them of a “graveyard”. Morris and Faye lived in the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camps in Germany for the next three years and immigrated to Canada in 1948.

Today Faye lives in Toronto, Canada and shares her experiences with diverse audiences. She has two children and six grandchildren.

The photographs she took during the war have been turned into a traveling photography exhibition entitled Pictures of Resistance: The Wartime Photography of Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman. The exhibit is produced by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation and curated by Jill Vexler, Ph.D. In 2010, her book A Partisan's Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust was published.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Faye Schulman, including six videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan and information about the Pictures of Resistance exhibit.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Teenager Benjamin Levin Escaped the Vilna Ghetto to Become a Jewish Partisan

We went on actions, like cutting telephone poles. A bridge - to destroy something. They always liked to go with me because I knew the forest, and had the instinct in the forest - how to move and where to go and what's going on.
— Benjamin Levin

Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Levin escaped execution when Germany invaded his hometown of Vilna in July 1941. A plucky young man, accustomed to running around the streets with his friends, he knew the area well and managed to evade Nazi capture during the first weeks of the occupation.

Tipped off by friends, Benjamin and his family fled from the village before the Vilna ghetto was erected, but they later returned during what they perceived to be a period of relative calm. Unfortunately, this calm was short lived and violence against the Jews continued to erupt. Deciding that it was not safe to remain in Vilna, Benjamin’s father Chaim encouraged him to escape to the woods with a group of other young Jews, and join the fighting partisan units.

Benjamin and his companions joined a brigade composed of Jews, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians, led by an old forester whose expertise kept the city boys alive. Upon the complete liquidation of the ghetto, other survivors from Vilna joined them.

Although he was a teenager, Benjamin knew the forests well and was well acquainted with the customs of the local peasants. These traits made him a valuable asset to the group on food and supply raids, and on missions to destroy bridges.

While Benjamin survived the war, and witnessed the liberation of Vilna, sadly the Nazis and their collaborators killed his parents and older brother. After the war, he made aliyah to Israel where he married and had two children.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Benjamin Levin, who lives in Ossining, New York, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mourning the Loss of Jewish Partisan Cesia Blaichman (z''l)


Cesia Blaichman (z"l)

Raised in Wlodawa, Poland, Cesia Blaichman (z’’l) was still a teenager when her second cousin, Joe Holm (z’’l), rescued her, together with her three brothers, from the Nazis, bringing them to join his all Jewish partisan brigade. In April 1944, Frank Blaichman’s partisan unit joined the group, and Cesia met the man who would become her husband of 70 years. Frank recounted the extraordinary story of their combat, heroism, and ultimate triumph, in his memoir, "Rather Die Fighting".

As a Jewish partisan, Cesia fought bravely against the Nazis and their collaborators in the forests and small villages near Lublin. She nursed the wounded, cooked for her fellow partisans and participated in operations to ensure the safety of other Jews. She and her three brothers survived the war, but their parents, sisters, and many relatives perished.

Cesia and Frank married after the war and emigrated to New York where they raised a family dedicated to promoting the Jewish partisan legacy, and to ensuring that future generations are empowered to stand up against hatred and oppression.


Cesia and Frank Blaichman on their wedding day.

Frank Blaichman talks about meeting Cesia, and the impact she made on his life, in JPEF’s film "Every Day the Impossible: Women in the Partisans".

Sadly, Cesia passed away on September 24, 2015, surrounded by her family. We extend our deepest condolences to the Blaichman, Sekons and Pomeranc families.

May Cesia’s memory be a blessing.

Learn more about Cesia Blaichman's inspirational life.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Teaching About the Jewish Partisans Anytime and Anywhere with On-line Classes

Since the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF) launched its free E-Learning Platform in 2011, educators all over the world have taken more than 2,000 online courses. Through online learning, educators take JPEF’s most popular courses on the history and life lessons of the Jewish partisans at home, school, or from a mobile device.

“The E-Leaning platform JPEF developed offers the best resource for providing my congregation with the kind of professional development we need ... Being able to fit professional development into the busy lifestyle of educators, with the dual demands of family and work life, is crucial. This is the future of education,” says Saul Kaierman, Director of Education at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

Through JPEF’s partnership with Touro College in New York, educators are awarded Continuing Education Units (CEU’s), at no charge, for completing the ten, 45-60 minute courses. “We wanted to encourage educators to take these classes and provide them with this important curricula. We felt that accreditation was an essential component of the value proposition,” says Elliott Felson, JPEF’s board president.

JPEF's ELearning Landing Page

JPEF’s E-Learning collection is the most ambitious program that our 15 year-old organization has undertaken – working with a team of instructional developers, programmers, graphic designers, and educators to bring the platform to life. To help cover development and production costs, the organization relied on both institutional funders and its core of individual donors. Debrah Lee Charatan, New York Real Estate Entrepreneur, is one of the organization’s key supporters and advisors. “JPEF’s E-Learning Platform is a vital program for educators all over the world. It is something we are so happy to champion,” says Charatan.

Charatan’s support has made is possible for JPEF to offer its E-Learning classes to educators globally, including three of our more prominent programs - Teaching with the Motion Picture Defiance, Women in the Partisans, and Ethics of War.

JPEF is currently updating its entire website, and the online learning platform, for enhanced performance on mobile devices. This new release will be available in Spring 2016. To take one of JPEF’s E-Learning courses, please go to www.jewishpartisans.org/elearning.

Debrah Lee Chartan and Jewish partisan Rose Holm at JPEF's 2012 premiere of The Reunion


Monday, June 1, 2015

Jewish Partisans Charles Bedzow and Leah Johnson Escaped the Lida Ghetto

With the help of Tuvia Bielski, siblings Charles Bedzow and Leah Johnson escaped the Lida ghetto before its residents were rounded up, shot and tossed into mass graves. Their biographies are available on the Partisans section of our main website. Charles Bedzow (born Chonon Bedzowski) and Leah Johnson (born Leah Bedzowski) grew up in Lida, a Polish town located in present-day Belarus. When they were in their mid-teens, the Nazis invaded Poland and confined Lida’s Jewish population into a ghetto, where their family lived in overcrowded, pest-infested quarters. Miraculously, the siblings' immediate family escaped the massacres that followed months later.

Convinced no one would be spared, the Bedzowskis were resolute to get out. Help came from Tuvia Bielski – the Bielskis knew the Bedzowskis, and Tuvia managed to get a letter to them to ask if they would join him and his brothers. They escaped the ghetto to join the Bielski brigade in the woods, where both Charles and Leah served as scouts, stood guard, and went on supply-gathering missions, among other things.

Charles and Leah survived the war with the Bielski camp and escaped to a DP camp in Torino. They and their families – both were now married – immigrated across the Atlantic to Canada.

Read the biographies here: