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.
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.”