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Friday, May 6, 2016

Featured Jewish Partisan - Norman Salsitz, born on May 6th

Norman Salsitz was born May 6, 1920 in Galizia, a small town in southern Poland. Though he has gone by seven different names in his lifetime, Norman Salsitz has always been the same person: tough, resourceful, and honest. The youngest of nine siblings, Norman was among the Jewish inhabitants forced into a ghetto in June of 1941 by the Germans. Looking for strong labor, the Germans selected Norman and other healthy young Jews to dismantle recently decimated ghettos. While Norman worked to destroy any remaining signs of his heritage and religion, the Germans began sending his friends and family to the death camps.

Norman knew that with each ghetto they demolished, the workers drew closer to their own murders.

In October of 1942, Norman organized an escape group of 55 people and fled to the surrounding forest. He had some money he found during his ghetto work, and he used it to buy his first revolver. The sympathetic Pole who sold him the weapon also led Norman to a group of resistance fighters in the woods. These fighters fought through harsh weather conditions on rough terrain to dismantle and damage German railroads, mills, and police stations.


Norman and his wife Amalie, 1945

In 1944, Norman joined the AK Polish Underground, despite the strong presence of antisemitism. He knew that as a Jew, he would never be able to make the contribution to defeat the Nazis he wanted to without disguising his Jewish identity and joining the powerful AK. Norman worked with the Underground to defeat their common foes until the command was given to seek out and kill Jews being hidden on a farm. Norman volunteered for the mission, killing the Poles who had been sent with him and rescuing the Jews in hiding. He then fled the AK and returned to his original partisan unit, where he remained until he was liberated by the Russians.


Norman in a Polish army uniform, 1944

Norman Salsitz’s mother’s dying wish was for her son to keep their stories alive. He has honored that wish by writing books and speaking about his war experiences. From the horrors of mass murder to the inspiration of weary fighters singing hymns, Norman continues to fight for the truth.

“This is why I keep going,” he says, “we have to tell the world what the German murderers did to us.”

Norman Salsitz died on October 11, 2006.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Norman Salsitz, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.


Norman during a JPEF interview, 2002

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Jewish Partisans Joe (z'') and Rose Holm

This mini-biography tells the story of two Jewish partisans in Poland who fought in Chiel Grynspan's unit and later married one another.

Jewish partisans Rose Duman and Joe Holm were born in neighboring villages near Zaliscze, Poland. In 1941, Germans killed Joe's mother and five brothers, as well as 20 other members of his family. At 19, he entered the forest, where he knew other Jews were gathering.

Joe Holm met Chiel Grynspan and other partisans in the forest, where he proved himself skilled with a gun, and adept at demolition. Holm had two roles: his extensive knowledge of the forest and local villages made Holm an invaluable guide for his group. Holm also traveled in and out of the forest, finding food and medical supplies necessary for the unit's survival.

Near Zaliscze, Rose’s family owned a prosperous farm, where Joe would often stay overnight on Shabbat. When partisan groups began allowing a few women to join, Joe appeared on Rose's doorstep. He said, “I'm going; you come with me.”

As partisans, Rose and Joe carried out dozens of missions. Once, traveling with a Polish general into the forest, their group was ambushed. Joe and Rose ran through gunfire, and managed to deliver the General safely to the camp. Later, Rose found bullet holes through her sweater, as a testament to their narrow escape. In another narrow escape, Joe Holm and his cousin Jack Pomeranc stood before a firing squad with 80 other partisans, and prepared to be executed. Just before the signal to fire was given, Joe said, “Watch me, and do what I do.” He wrestled a gun from a German soldier and started firing. Joe Holm was shot in the arm, but they and two other prisoners escaped. All the rest were killed.

Rose and Joe stayed with the Grynspan unit for the duration of the war, living in the forest for over three years. Later, Rose and Joe married and left Poland for Germany, eventually emigrating to the United States. In New York, they built a family and a successful business. Joe Holm died in 2009. They were married for 65 years.

“We survived with our bare hands,” Rose recalls. “I just wanted to live, to see the end of Hitler,” she adds. “I was angry. It was important to me to do something, before I died.” On teaching the history and legacy of the Jewish partisans, Rose Holm says, “It is important to teach kids to fight back. To speak up.”

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Rose and Joe Holm, including four videos of Rose Holm reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Featured Jewish Partisan - Bernard Musmand, born on March 3rd

"I disliked the Germans — as I mentioned many times, I spoke German fluently, I learned it in school and so on, and I knew it fluently. At the end of the war, I have refused to talk it, to speak it, and I have kept my word. I have not spoken German since then. I know it's hateful, I know what the Germans did for Israel, but I can't forget. The famous word, I can forgive but I can't forget."
— Bernard Musmand.

Bernard Musmand was born on March 3, 1926 in Metz, a city in northeastern France. Located on the border with Germany and Luxemburg, Metz shares many historic connections with its neighbors, dating back to its Celtic and Roman roots. In fact, many high-ranking officers of the Third Reich were born there. In a border city like Metz, it was only natural for the German language to be taught in schools - this skill ended up saving Bernard's life on numerous occasions.

When Bernard was 14, the Nazis invaded and his family fled to the south of France, which was outside of German control. In order to attend the local boarding school, Bernard had to pose as a Catholic. One night, the school’s chaplain told Bernard and his classmates that they would participate in communion and confession the next day. Since Bernard didn’t know anything about such things, he spent half the night in the bathroom studying from a Bible. He made such a convincing Catholic boy that the priest asked if he was interested in going into the seminary.

While studying at the boarding school, Bernard became a courier for the Sixieme — a resistance group based in the southern town of Rodez — and transported falsified papers for those escaping Nazi persecution. His confidence and youth were his best defenses during encounters with the Germans or French sympathizers. To ease suspicions, he would initiate conversations by asking for the time or a match in perfect German.

In May 1944, Bernard was sent to deliver a package to the owner of a hotel in a small town in Figeac. But the owner of the hotel refused the package, having been informed that Germans are coming to occupy the town and make arrests. Stranded in the town and frightened, Bernard hid the package behind some bags at the local train station. He spotted a German railroad policeman in his 50s and began a conversation with him. The policeman was pleasantly surprised that a Frenchman could be so friendly and speak such fluent German, and invited Bernard into his office for some chocolate. While safely hidden in the office, he saw hundreds of Frenchmen being forced onto trains to be transported to work camps in Germany. The policeman expressed great sorrow for these men. When the trains and the German soldiers had left, Bernard thanked the policeman for his kindness and went on his way.

When the Gestapo came to the boarding school looking for Bernard, the dean arranged for his escape before the Germans could capture him. Bernard went to Millaut and again joined the Sixieme, which had by then begun to collaborate with the Maquis armed resistance. Fourteen years old and very afraid, Bernard was sent on an ambush. He described the two hours before the battle, lying under cover and waiting for a German convoy to pass, as the longest two hours of his life. But once the convoy arrived and the orders were given to open fire, Bernard’s mind was so focused on the fighting that he had forgotten his fear.

Bernard Musmand's military card

When the French Army reformed, he was made Second Lieutenant. However, the desk job he received was not what Bernard pictured the war to be like — he wanted to be fighting the Germans on the front lines. He applied for transfer, but was rejected three times. Fed up, he finally revealed his true age and Jewish identity. The Army didn’t believe he was fifteen and a half. They demobilized him two days later, however, after having made contact with his parents.

“It was an exciting time, in certain ways,” Bernard remembers. “I wish and hope it will never come back, but everything counted and you felt life was precious.”

Since their textile business was lost during the war, Bernard's family emigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. Bernard met his wife, Milicent, after graduating from Lowell. They had two sons, Jon and Fraser.

Bernard spent his final years in Maine, where he spent much of his time with family, friends, and at the local synagogue. A long battle with a heart condition took his life on January 30, 2010.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Bernard Musmand, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.


Edited by Kyle Matthews.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Remembering Jeff Gradow on his January 5th Birthdate

“It's hard to describe how a human being, being a prisoner, and suddenly he gets the power to fight back, even psychologically, he knows that he might get killed, but nobody worried about it. The main thing what happened in our minds is 'kill the Germans, kill those police officers.' But you [don't] worry about it – I never worried about myself, I might get killed. All I wanted is just fight them.”

–Jeff Gradow

Jeff Gradow escaped into the woods from a labor camp in Bialystok, and soon found a partisan unit where he became a trained fighter, participating in sabotage missions until the end of the war, when his partisan unit was assimilated into the Red Army and was sent to the front lines.

Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 to a middle class Jewish family in central Poland. When he was only 14 years old, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved Poland in half – his town of Mlawa was located on the western side of the divide, and thus fell under the control of the Germans.

With the arrival of the Nazis came immediate danger: prior to the occupation, his father had a dispute with a neighbor over some horses and a wagon, and the newly-instated police force – made up mostly of Polish locals who required little incentive to settle old scores with their Jewish neighbors – were looking to arrest him. Those arrested were often never seen again, so his father hid with a local farmer outside of town, taking Gradow with him.

They remained there for a few days, but upon learning that the German-Soviet border was still easy to get across, they left for Soviet-occupied Bialystok, located just east of the dividing line. There, they settled down temporarily – Gradow’s father, Lohim, got himself a job and Jeff went to school, where he learned to speak Russian. Unfortunately, travel restrictions made it impossible to send for the rest of their family – Jeff’s mother and two younger sisters remained in Mlawa.

This did not last long, and their life in Bialystok soon changed for the worse. The Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invaded Soviet-occupied territories in July of 1941. This included Bialystok, whose Jewish inhabitants were treated by the invaders with particular brutality and ruthlessness. Less than a week after their arrival, Nazi troops locked around two thousand Jews inside the Great Synagogue – the largest wooden synagogue in Eastern Europe at the time – and burned it to the ground. Many other homes in the neighborhood were pillaged, looted, and burned that day, and many more people were murdered. During the mayhem, Jeff’s father Lohim was seriously injured by a grenade thrown into their house; he did not survive to see another morning. Alone, Jeff wandered the streets until sympathetic neighbors offered him shelter.

The Nazis forced every Jewish male in Bialystok to work. Jeff’s first assigned task was to dig ditches in a cemetery with some Russian PoWs. After the ditches were dug, Jeff watched as the Nazis shot all the Russians; Jeff and other survivors were then forced to bury them.

The Nazis eventually started quartering Jeff’s labor group inside a train station during nights, and he was not allowed to return to his neighbors. During the days, the group was forced to lay timber on the highway so that German military vehicles could pass through in the winter, when all the roads turned to mud. Jeff’s labor group was comprised of civilians – consequently, it was guarded by soldiers who were older and slower than the group of Russian PoWs working just up the road. These older soldiers had a habit of resting their legs once a day and took a 20-30 minute afternoon break, allowing the laborers to do the same.

Fed up with forced labor and believing he has nothing to lose, Jeff decided to make a run for it during one such break. When the soldiers weren’t looking, he slid into a ditch on the side of the road and bolted into the forest. He heard rifle shots in the distance as the German guards discovered they were one prisoner short, but he was already deep in the woods, and no one pursued him.

Jeff wandered the forest for three days, lost and alone, surviving only on wild blackberries. On the third night, he found a farmhouse and, taking a chance, knocked on the door. Jeff was wearing a Russian military jacket belonging to one of the shot Russian PoWs, and he had learned to speak fluent Russian in school during his time under Soviet occupation. Consequently, the farmer who opened the door was not able to discern whether the starving, rain-soaked prisoner before him was a Russian PoW or a Jew – a lucky situation for a young Jewish boy alone in the Polish countryside to find himself in.

The farmer sheltered him for the night and pointed him in the direction of a village under the control of local partisans. There, Gradow was given directions to the main partisan encampment in the woods after being deemed too young and inexperienced to be an enemy spy. The camp was a diverse one, comprised mainly of Jews and Russian soldiers, and included families. Jeff was even able to speak Yiddish to the guards at the encampment, who were surprised to learn that he survived an escape from a labor group. Rather than continue to wander through the woods, hungry and alone, Jeff joined the partisan group and immediately begun weapons training.

* * *

At that point in the war, partisan groups like Jeff’s were still mainly concerned with self-preservation. As the Soviets fought on and their situation began to improve, partisan units got more organized and better equipment became available. This is when their missions began to change, recalls Jeff, and focused more on sabotage, disruption of communications, and the elimination of local police. Jeff became a seasoned guerrilla fighter, traveling by night with all his belongings, in case the Nazis got tipped off to the whereabouts of his unit’s base camp. Oftentimes, they would come across traces of their old hideouts, destroyed by the Nazis.

The partisans lived in zemlyankas – holes 4-5 feet deep dug in the ground, covered by branches and dirt. Each one could sleep around 15 people; Jeff’s entire unit was comprised of around 100-150 people. The partisans slept during the day (except those who stood guard), and traveled by night.

In late 1943, the Soviets began airdropping supplies for the partisans. This included explosives – Jeff and a few of the other partisans used them to derail a German train in the dead of night. They slipped away amidst heavy Nazi casualties and confused machine gun fire. Such missions were only attended by a handful of partisans while the others stayed behind. However, when it came to missions like food-gathering or reprisals against collaborators, the entire unit followed – a handful of partisans went in, but the rest stayed behind, encircling the town to make sure the group was not caught unawares.

In the spring of 1944, Jeff’s unit joined other nearby partisan groups to defend a bridge for an upcoming Soviet tank assault. They succeeded, allowing the Russian troops to roll in and liberate the area. No longer in hiding, the local partisan groups gathered in the nearby town of Baronovich, where they were immediately absorbed into the Russian army. Gradow’s group was assimilated into the 348th “Bobruyska” Division and ordered to join the western front.


Jeff Gradow and a friend after the war.

Jeff fought on until he was badly injured near his hometown of Mlawa in August of '44. He was sent to a military hospital deep inside the Soviet Union, in the town Michurinsk, some 400km southeast of Moscow. The war ended during his recovery, and he sought leave to return to his hometown.

Only twenty years old, Jeff returned to Mlawa to find out that his mother and sisters (along with the rest of his extended family) were murdered in the Treblinka concentration camp. He left Poland shortly after and made it to the French sector of Berlin, where he spent the next four years before immigrating to New York City in 1949 via his great-uncle, who sponsored his arrival through the Displaced Persons Act program. In 1954, he married and moved to Los Angeles, where he raised two children. He passed away on June 23,2014.


Jeff Gradow and JPEF Board President Elliott Felson at the 2011 Partisan Tribute Dinner.

Visit jewishpartisans.org to find out more about Jeff Gradow, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

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.

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.