Monday, July 18, 2016
The Nazis broke the Ribbentrop pact and attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Five days later, they arrived in Moshe’s hometown. The edicts that went in effect soon after put the Jewish population outside of the protection of the law. Several months later, Moshe and his family were forced out of their homes and confined to a ghetto – a space of 15-20 homes for hundreds of families. Surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by Germans and local police, denied freedom of movement and opportunity to obtain food, lacking in sanitary facilities, the inhabitants began to hear rumors about the destruction of neighboring communities by the Germans. A number of young people then began to plan. However, neither escape nor resistance was actually feasible at the time – they had no weapons and nowhere to go.
In the spring of 1942, the Germans told the Judenrat to provide a number of able-bodied young men for various projects. Approximately 25-30 were selected and sent to neighboring towns. Moshe and his brother were among them. Moshe was assigned to work on building a rail line, but his brother was sent elsewhere.
The Germans who guarded them were abusive – constantly scolding, shouting, and hitting the prisoners. Only one of them, a lieutenant named Miller, did not take part in those hateful acts.
Two of Moshe’s friends worked in a warehouse where they sorted out weapons captured from the Russians. They eventually worked out a plan where they would take out weapons wrapped in rags and hide them in a nearby junkyard. On his way home from work one day, Moshe asked the sympathetic lieutenant if he could retrieve something from the pile of junk. Thus, Moshe successfully smuggled gun parts into the Ghetto.
Moshe and his friends knew of a woman who was familiar with the area, and knew where the partisans were. She would lead them to a nearby encampment, where local Jewish escapees had set up a camp in the forest. In return, she asked if she and her two little children could come along. They escaped one night, after clearing out a crawlspace underneath the barbed wire fence. Miraculously, they made it to the Jewish encampments without incident.
About a week later, two Russian officers were passing by. It turned out they were sent to organize the resistance movement - but it also turned out they were Jewish, so Moshe asked them to help him join the resistance. Because Moshe had weapons hidden in the Ghetto, the officers agreed.
The officers eventually gave Moshe the name of a local farmer who would help bring the weapons out. Moshe used the occasion to pass a note to his family in the Ghetto through the farmer. He wanted to facilitate their escape. Moshe’s brother, sister, and mother escaped during several successful smuggling operations. Unfortunately, on March 19th - two days after the last escape - the Ghetto was liquidated, and Moshe’s father, younger sister, and other relatives perished, along with several thousand other Jews from the local areas.
Moshe joined the partisans, taking part in underground activities until the spring of 1944, when the advancing Soviet army liberated the area. He took part in ambush and sabotage operations with the partisans and was in charge of recovering weapons dropped from Russian planes. As was the fate of most eastern European partisans after the liberation of their area, Moshe was drafted into the Soviet army. But his bookkeeping abilities got him attached to the local staff of the battalion as the treasurer’s assistant, which kept him well away from the front lines.
After the war’s end, Moshe eventually made it back to Russia; but as a Polish citizen, he as eligible for a travel permit back to Poland, according to the rules of the time. In Poland, he connected with the Bricha, an organization whose purpose was to smuggle Jews from Europe to Palestine.
Eventually arriving in Austria, Moshe met his future wife Malka in one of the American zones, who was herself a survivor of a forced labor camp in Poland. In 1948, Malka left for the east, but Moshe and his family were unable to follow: his mother’s niece, who was living in Shreveport, Louisiana at the time, impored them to come to the United States. Though Moshe was committed to Malka and wished to marry her eventually, the family ultimately decided to take the opportunity and come to the United States.
Moshe settled in New York, eventually marrying Malka and bringing her back from Israel. In New York, Malka worked for a number of years as the director of a Jewish preschool and Moshe was employed for many years in the real estate industry. In 1993, Moshe and his wife moved to Pittsburgh after retirement. One of their two daughters settled there in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, where the Barans found a welcoming Jewish community, and where Moshe lives to this day, active in the community and as a public speaker and blogger. He writes the blog Language Can Kill: Messages Of Genocide, and speaks regularly about his life in the partisans and about the destructive power of hatred, which can have devastating consequences if left unchecked.
Monday, July 11, 2016
— Leon Idas.
Leon was born July 11, 1925 in Athens, Greece and grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with his father, a textiles merchant, mother, four brothers, and sister. He attended a private school run by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Christian theology Leon learned there proved useful as a means to keep his Jewish identity hidden during the war.
Shortly after the beginning of the German occupation of Greece in 1941, sixteen year-old Leon joined a group of partisans fighting for the liberation of Greece under a socialist banner. At that time, there were three groups of partisans in Greece: socialist, democratic, and loyalist. Leon fought and served as communications specialist with the partisans for more than two years, winding wires through the trees in various villages to establish telephone communication.
At the end of the war in December 1945, Leon left the partisans and returned to his family home in Athens. Once there, he was reunited with what was left of his family and learned that his parents and brother Gabriel had died in Auschwitz during this time.
Leon eventually made his way to the United States with no more than 50 cents in his pocket and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. He married and raised a family of three sons and one daughter, and started his own clothing business, Royal Vintage Clothing. Leon passed away on April 12th, 2013, and was laid to rest in the private Jewish Family Cemetery on the island of Samos, Greece, alongside his grandfather Leon Goldstein and Uncle Albert Goldstein.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Leon Idas, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Leon's son, Sam Idas, has created a photo montage of Leon's life. He was gracious enough to share it with JPEF - click here to view the montage video.
Friday, July 1, 2016
- Joe Kubryk on being a Jewish partisan.
Joe Kubryk was born in the Russian Ukraine, not far from Odessa, on July 1, 1926. Before the war, the Kubryk family didn’t experience much antisemitism, but after the war broke out, Joe’s village was filled with Ukrainian fascists, who cooperated with the Germans to kill Jews. When Joe saw the Germans rounding up his classmates, he knew he had to run for his life. In August 1941, not long after his friends were taken by the Nazis, Joe left the village. He found a Ukrainian farmer who hired him as a farmhand. The man didn’t think Joe was a Jew because he spoke Ukrainian perfectly. While Joe cried himself to sleep at night, he never let anyone see him doing it. He didn’t want to explain why he was crying.
Near the end of 1941, Russian partisans came scavenging for food at Joe’s farm. Curious, he asked them who they were. “Russian partisans,” came the reply. “Who are you?” When they heard he was Jewish and alone in the world, they said, “You are one of us,” and took him to a camp in the forest of Drohobicz. A few months after Joe arrived, a junior secret service was formed. Joe and the other teenagers began serious training in spying — learning how to recognize guns, artillery pieces and officers’ insignia. They were “toughed-up” in the training, taught secret codes and the rules of espionage. The Junior Secret Service spied on German troops. Platoon by platoon, they counted men, checked equipment, noted who the ranking officers were and where they were camped. They also provided information to saboteurs who mined bridges and railroads to disrupt German military activity. Joe still bears the shrapnel scars he received during gunfights with the German army, and a German bombardment left him deaf in one ear.
After the war, Joe worked for the Bricha, the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel. Joe fought in Israel’s War of Independence and worked for the Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, before moving to America, where he became a successful businessman.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joe Kubryk, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Our study guides section also contains a guide titled Joe Sasha Kubyrk: Teenage Partisan Spy.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Shalom was given an early warning, but his family wasn't as lucky. Having managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, Shalom and his brother Musio listened as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. They later found out their parents were among them. The farmer whose barn they hid in turned out to be friendly, and the brothers safely made it to the woods - the Naroch puscha - where they found many other survivors hiding out. Shalom reasoned that it was only a matter of time before the Germans conducted an organized raid on the forest, so the brothers decided to leave the area. Having recruited three of the younger refugees to follow them, the boys spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where they built a zemlyanka for shelter and lived off mostly a large store of food they took from local farmers.
In the spring of 1943, Shalom and the group ventured out of their hiding area. By this time, the tide was turning for the Nazi war effort and the German army was suffering serious setbacks both in Africa and on the Eastern Front. On the road to Zazierie, the boys encountered fellow survivors of the Kurzeniec ghetto, and a group of partisans roaming the village. Since neither he nor his group had weapons, Shalom was denied entry into the group — a common practice among the partisans. Unsure of what to do, Shalom and his brother stayed in the puscha. Though their winter companions went their separate ways, they were joined by others, including some escapees from a labor camp in Vileika.
Shalom and his companions spent the rest of the spring trying to join the partisan groups roaming the area, but without weapons, they received the same reply every time. Finally, a partisan commander relented and offered them a deal: they would be allowed into the partisans if they returned to Kurzeniec and burned down a factory that made wooden rifle butts. For this mission, they were given a handgun with a single bullet and two hand grenades. Despite the suicidal odds, they were successful. However, when they returned to the partisan camp, they were met by a different officer, who took away their weapons and reprimanded them, threatening to shoot them if they didn't leave. Turns out the Russian partisans never figured on the group taking the mission - much less succeeding - and had no intention of letting Jews into their group. Little did they know that the group's commanding officer - the one who initially gave the Jews the assignment - was himself a Russian Jew.
After his work with the specgruppa, Shalom heard rumors of the formation of an all-Jewish otriad, organized by one Colonel Markov, who by that time had a brigade of over a thousand partisans under his command. He was in contact with the FPO in Vilna, and their members formed the core of an all-Jewish otriad called Miest - the Russian word for "revenge". Since they brought weapons, Shalom and his companions were readily accepted into the unit. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit ambushed the retreating German troops, cutting communication lines, blowing up bridges, and destroying railroads. The unit was disbanded and merged with another otriad some months later. This would not be the last all-Jewish unit Shalom belonged to during the war - and, unfortunately, not the last to be disbanded by the Soviet high command.
When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom and the rest of his comrades were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war.
In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British Military passport, joining the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. Shalom became a leader in the Israeli aerospace industry.
Shalom moved to the US in 1979 where he lived with his wife, artist Varda Yoran. Shalom passed away on September 9, 2013 leaving a tremendous legacy.
In 2003, he published his memoir, The Defiant: A True Story of Escape, Survival & Resistance. The book, written shortly after the Shoah but rediscovered many years later, is dedicated to his parents. Click here to listen to Larry King reading excerpts from the book.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
In the summer of 1944, Hirsh Glik disappeared from the ghetto in Goldfilz, Estonia, and was presumed dead. He was only twenty-two but had devoted his life to writing and had already established his legacy through the song, “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“Never Say”). This song was a triumphant, a hopeful call for defiance, inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Never Say” became a beacon to many and quickly grew to be known as the “Song of the Partisans”.
Hirsh Glik was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1922. He demonstrated talent early: at age thirteen he began to compose poetry in Hebrew—and then solely in Yiddish—and his works were published frequently in the Jewish-Soviet press. When the Germans occupied Vilna in June 1941, Glik was sent to work the peat bogs in Biala-Waka, Rzesza. Displacement and grueling labor did not prevent him from writing: in between hauling impossible loads of turf, Glik would ask friends to hum a tune so that he could improvise lyrics. When Biala-Waka was liquidated in 1943, Glik returned to the ghetto in Vilna and joined the United Partisans Organization (FPO), where he took part in the literary scene. Here, Glik first recited “Never Say” to a poet friend, Shmaryahu Kaczerginski, at an event arranged to pay tribute to Yiddish writers, called “Spring in Yiddish Literature”. The scope of anguish, defiance, and hope in the song made it an anthem to many in Vilna.
Glik was also inspired by the actions of Vitka Kempner, a founding member of FPO, and wrote “Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt” (Still the Night is Full of Stars) about her first act of sabotage, blowing up a Nazi train line.
The struggle to survive at Biala-Waka, Vilna, and later Goldfilz in Estonia, never broke Hirsh Glik’s inspiration to write. He composed sometimes on scraps but mostly in his head, reciting poems to other prisoners. Some written copies of Glik’s poems were discovered buried beneath the Vilna Ghetto. Though most of his words were lost, “Hymm of the Jewish Partisans” is considered worldwide one of the most important anthems of Jewish partisans and is still sung today in remembrance of those who died in the Shoah.
Hymm of the Jewish Partisans (audio)
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
From lands so green with palms to lands all white with snow.
We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,
And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!
The early morning sun will brighten our day,
And yesterday with our foe will fade away,
But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as motto generations must remain.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It's not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,
With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.
Therefore never say the road now ends for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s'vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,
shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!
s'vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,
un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor –
vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.
dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un nit mit blay,
s'iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl oyf der fray,
dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent
dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent.
to zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho –
es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
With an explosion akin to thunder, the train splintered into a thousands pieces, instantly killing the German soldiers inside. In the aftermath of the deafening explosion, no one noticed a group of men silently crawling back through an open field near the tracks, then vanishing into the nearby woods, the growing twilight reducing their movements to shadows.
One of those individuals was Solomon (Sol) Lapidus, a Jewish youth from Belarus, on his first assignment from headquarters. He was given instructions to place dynamite in such a way as to destroy the third car – his careful follow-through ensured that the train tracks located on the bridge were also devastated. His reputation for precision on assignments spread up the chain of command, and Sol became well-known throughout partisan groups as a demolitions expert.
Lapidus was born on May 10, 1923 in Minsk, Belarus. His mother was a Russian teacher, and his father ran the printing department for a newspaper. His immediate family spoke only a little Hebrew. In childhood, his main exposure to Jewish culture came from his grandfather, with whom he attended services every Shabbat. He was the middle child in a family of many siblings. His oldest brother, a well-known musician, was drafted into the army to entertain troops all over the world, and once performed for the Queen of England in London.
Lapidus did not come to be a demolitions expert through sheer talent alone. Like many other Polish children, before the war he attended camp every summer. However, since Poland knew that a war was bound to break out sooner or later, many of their camp activities actually provided youth with specific military training. He chose to learn demolition by cable, which came in handy for his first assignment as a partisan.
He languished in the prison camp with hundreds of Red Army POWs until August of 1941, when he and a group of others - including his commanding officer - managed to escape with the aid of local peasants, who provided wire cutters and instructions on which direction to escape to. Hours before dawn, Lapidus crawled on his stomach to the relative safety of the woods with seventeen others. During his escape, he found himself in the middle of crossfire between the Wassof partisan group and the Germans, and was wounded. Although he had only the use of a straw to cleanse his bullet wound, he recovered without complications.
Escaping deep into the woods, Lapidus went on to join the Chokulov partisan group, hiding his Jewish identity because of the antisemitism that existed within the ranks. The partisan life was primarily a means of survival, but the group also participated in a number of attacks on railroads and other targets, earning Lapidus respect within the partisan ranks for his demolition expertise.
Lapidus’s partisan encampment was located near the forest where the Bielski partisans had set up camp. Because the Bielskis sometimes worked with the Soviet partisans, Lapidus had a chance to visit the camp, where he met Tuvia Bielski for the first time in September of 1942. They quickly became friends, and Lapidus valued the kinship that an all-Jewish partisan unit provided him – after all, he could not even reveal his Jewish identity to his own otriad.
Lapidus remembers Tuvia as someone who valued the integrity of all the members in his group, and did not discriminate against anyone based on their gender or age. He had innate leadership abilities, and knew how to raise the morale of his partisans. “[Y]ou're not doing it for yourself, you're taking nekamah1 for someone else who got killed,” Tuvia once told his group. The two met at least once a week and collaborated on many joint operations.
Inspired by his love of performance arts, Lapidus organized an entertainment group made up of a dozen partisans who sang, danced and played music for nearby partisan camps. The Soviet command granted them permission to perform – the presence of partisan entertainers in the region could easily be turned into beneficial propaganda. The performances were lengthy affairs lasting one and a half to two hours. The entertainers’ reputations preceded them – they became so famous that wherever they went next, a platform stage would be awaiting them, built by the hosting otriad.
Lapidus’s younger brother fought with him in the partisans. Unfortunately, on one occasion, his brother became separated from his group during a mission, and was killed by enemy crossfire. Deeply affected by this incident, Lapidus withdrew from assignments and instead used his demolition expertise to train peasants who had recently joined as partisans.
Lapidus met his wife Ruth towards the end of the war at a concert in Lida. He already had a girlfriend whom he planned to marry, but quickly ended it after meeting his future wife, falling for her beauty and good nature. Ruth had been in Asner's partisan group, but later she joined the Bielski group. When Lapidus got sick with typhus, and his doctor passed away leaving him without the proper care, Ruth nursed him back to health and saved his life.
Looking back on his time as a partisan he states “[we] prove[d] that we are people that survive[d] because we [fought] for it, not [because] somebody else was fighting for us.”
Lapidus received many metals of honor for his bravery as a partisan, including the Order of Lenin, one of Soviet Union’s most prestigious honors. He immigrated to the United States, with Ruth where he became a successful businessman and raised his children.
– By Julia Kitlinski-Hong
1. A Hebrew word meaning 'vengeance'.
A condensed version of this biography will appear in the Partisan Biographies section of the JPEF website next week - with excerpts from his recent video interview with JPEF.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
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.”
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
"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.
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.
Edited by Kyle Matthews.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
“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 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 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.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
"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.”
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.”
Thursday, December 24, 2015
"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
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
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.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
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.
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
“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 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.
Monday, June 1, 2015
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: