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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Remembering Jewish Partisan Sonya Oshman (z''l) During Women's History Month

The eldest of four children, Sonya Oshman (z''l) was born in 1922 to a family of wealthy Novogrudok merchants. Novogrudok was a Polish town with a population in the thousands, approximately half of whom were Jewish. The Gorodinskys were well-respected, and Sonya’s father was occasionally called upon to mediate tensions between the town’s Polish and Jewish communities.
      Sonya had planned to enroll in medical school in Bialystok the year that the Soviets invaded. Although the Soviets deported many Jews to Siberia, the Gorodinskys were left alone. Life changed drastically when the Nazis occupied Poland in the summer of 1941. They systematically murdered most of the town’s Jewish population, including Sonya’s youngest brother and grandparents.
      By May of 1943, only 500 Jews remained in Novogrudok– mostly skilled laborers and their families. The Nazis confined them to the city's courthouse, where they lived in squalid conditions in what became a makeshift ghetto. On May 7th, the Nazis conducted another massacre, reducing the ghetto population by half. Following this massacre, the remaining 250 Jews began plotting their escape. The initial plan to storm the courthouse gates fell through when the Nazis discovered their plot. Instead, the escapees decided to dig a tunnel underneath the ghetto through to the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would give the sick and the elderly enough time to get out.
      The work was difficult and dangerous. The excess earth had to be disposed of, and the summer rains threatened to collapse the tunnel. To avoid suspicious dirt stains, those digging wore burlap sacks – or dug naked. Even in these dire conditions, Sonya found a ray of hope when she befriended and fell in love with Aaron Oshman during the time they spent digging together. They would later marry. Just a month before the escape, Sonya’s father was transferred to another ghetto, along with a handful of other skilled workers. She never saw him again.
      The escape finally occurred on a rainy September night. About seventy of the escapees – including two of Sonya’s cousins and the tunnel’s mastermind – lost their lives when they accidentally ran back towards the ghetto and were shot by the guards, who mistook them for ambushing partisans. Most of the other escapees, including Sonya, eventually made it to the relative safety of the Bielski partisan camp. There, she was reunited with her one surviving brother Shaul and with Aaron.
      As a member of the Bielski partisan group, Sonya performed many important duties and was instrumental in safeguarding the camp population by standing sentry.
      After the war ended, Aaron and Sonya traveled across Europe, finally making it to a displaced person’s camp in Italy. Their first child was born shortly before they arrived in the United States and settled in Brooklyn.
      Sonya dedicated her life to sharing her story and to teaching people about the resistance of the Jewish partisans. She traveled extensively and spoke in schools, synagogues, and community centers across the country.
      Sonya and Aaron were married for 56 years, had two sons Matthew and Theodore, and four grandchildren. For more on the inspiring life of Sonya Oshman, the Novogrudok tunnel escape, and the Bieslki brigade, please watch the JPEF documentary, A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters. and read Gila Lyon's excellent biography in Tablet magazine.
      Sadly, Sonia passed away on March 2, 2012.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Jewish Partisan Walter Marx (z''l) Lost His Family Home on Kristallnacht

"I believe that the Italian partisans were very effective in pinning down a certain amount of German troops...And of course, the Italians, partisans, were ultimately in a position to arrest Mussolini and to put an end to the fascist regime in Italy... I believe that the Italian partisans did a lot to reestablish the good name of the Italian people by wiping out some of the bad things that the fascist had committed. And by putting themselves on the side of the allies, they negated the portion that Italy had played in being part of the, uh, fascist axis comprising Germany, Italy, and Japan."
–Walter Marx
Walter was born on February 27, 1926 to a family of wholesale paper merchants in Heilbronn, an industrial hub in southern Germany. When the antisemitism he experienced from his classmates and teacher became unbearable, 9 year old Walter was sent to Luxembourg to live with relatives and attend school there. When the Nazi Aryanization laws came into effect in 1938, Walter’s father was forced to relinquish control of their business; on Kristallnacht, the family home was destroyed and his father was taken to Dachau, where he lost a finger to frostbite after being made to stand out in the rain all night. The Germans eventually released his father and both parents left the country to join Walter.
But only 10 days after Walter's family managed to secure an apartment in Luxemburg, the Nazis invaded, eventually expelling Walter and his family down to the southern coast of France, where they lived in an apartment until 1942. Walter was 14 at the time, and found work as an errand boy to support the family. In 1942, the Germans occupied the town and the family got word that Jewish males were being arrested, so they fled to the village of Lamalou-les-Bains, in the interior of France. There, the French police arrested Walter's father and he was never heard from again - they eventually found out he was sent to his death at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland.

The remaining family got word that the Jews were relatively safe in the Italian-occupied part of France, so they made their way to Nice, where they were directed by the local Jewish community to a nearby village by the name of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, which became a safe haven for Jews1.
You could hear Yiddish. You could hear French. You could hear Polish. You could hear Russian. You could hear any language, any European language, you know and people were standing in the street talking loud and nobody could touch them because the Italians were protecting us. This was fine and this, these were probably the best days of my life. I was 17 years old at the time and also my father was missing. You know, he had been deported before. We were pretty happy.
But those days came to an end in autumn of 1943 - Mussolini was deposed, and the Italian army capitulated to the Allies. Having no reason to remain in France, the Italian army started simply walking back home across the Alps. Having heard that the Germans were heading for the village, Walter's family - along with around a thousand other Jews - followed the retreating army over the mountains into Italy.
There were no roads. People were carrying children. People were carrying suitcases which they abandoned after a short while and we walked for two or three days until we descended on the other side...
The first small town in Italy they reached was Borgo San Dalmazzo. It had already been absorbed by the German army, and Walter was warned to flee by an innkeeper's daughter he befriended, as the Germans were rounding up all foreigners, and anyone who failed to report to them will be shot. Exhausted by the trek, the family decided to flee no more and reported to the German authorities. They were put in a camp with 350 other people, and Walter was put to work clearing out equipment and supplies left behind by the fleeing Italian army in their barracks. One night, he broke one of the vertebrae in his spine, and was hospitalized for months. "I screamed and I lost consciousness and I remember waking up as my companions, with a German soldier, with an SS actually, an SS man, were carrying me to a hospital," he remembers. While he was in the hospital, the same innkeeper's daughter would come to visit him every few days. It was she who informed him that his mother and cousin were deported to a concentration camp along with the other 350 prisoners, where they were both killed.

At the end of his convalescence, the hospital director told Walter that the SS were inquiring if he was fit enough to be transported, so Walter fled to Genoa, where the bishop of Cunio was supposed to arrange for help. However, the arrangement fell through, and Walter had no choice but to return to the inn at Borgo San Dalmazzo. Though his young acquaintance there was not able to shelter him, she promised to introduce him to the Underground, as his thick German accent would have raised some suspicions if he had tried to go there by himself.
Walter joined the Underground in 1944. Because his spinal injury left him unable to walk without a cane, his primary responsibility was to solicit food from Italian farmers and manage paperwork. They lived up in the mountains in groups no larger than 20-25 people. The area was under partisan control: the local population was largely supportive, and the local authorities issued most of the partisans fake ID documents. To explain his thick accent, Walter's ID stated that he was born in France, near the German border.
One day, Walter was rounded up while attempting to buy food and taken to a jail in Cunio. After several days, as he was being taken to interrogation, a man walked up to him and offered to help him if Walter would act as an Italian interpreter for the German SS. Walter agreed, and to his surprise, the policemen that were escorting his group to interrogation simply let the strange man lead him away, out of their sight. As an Italian interpreter for the SS headquarters, he gathered critical intelligence, which he would relay every night to his liaison - a double agent working for the Underground. With the intelligence he learned, Walter even captured an Italian spy sent to locate Jews and partisans hiding in the mountainside. His unit actively engaged the Germans, once stalling a convoy of troops from advancing on a strategic road to France by employing mortar and small arms fire.

Walter after the war
After the war, Walter studied to be a dental mechanic in a school outside Paris, and eventually immigrated to the United States in October of 1946. He married his wife Ellen in 1950, and settled down in New York, finding work with a freight forwarding company in lower Manhattan.
In 1997, Walter was invited by the Italian government to be honored for his role in the Underground. The woman who hid him in her parents' hotel - now in her 80s - was there in the crowd as he gave a speech, and when he mentioned her role in his story, she raised her hand and shouted, "I was that lady!" Walter eventually invited her to New York, where she spent a week with his family. This touching story made the front page of the New York Times.
Walter passed away on August 13th, 2013. He is survived by his wife, three sons, and five grandsons.
Speaking about his odyssey through war-torn Europe, Walter would often tell his children, "the experience has helped me face life with a lot of courage, and surviving has given me a sense of pride.”

1. Due to the efforts of Angelo Donati, an influential Jewish banker who used his military and diplomatic connections to get the Italian authorities to protect the Jews from the Germans and the French, the Italian authorities of Nice sent any Jewish refugees to Saint-Martin-Vésubie, where they lived under the protection of the Italian army.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish Partisan Experience and the Rebirth of Contemporary Jewish Life

This year we celebrate the “New Year for Trees” on February 11th. Tu B’Shevat is an agricultural holiday celebrated on the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar. In contemporary times we most closely associate it with eating fruit and planting new trees, but it holds tremendous significance when considered together with the history of the Jewish partisans.
Partisans in the Forest
The trees were indispensable allies of the Jewish partisans. The vast forests and swamps covering most of the Eastern front became home to countless partisan groups, providing them with dense coverage - shielding their escape and harboring them in relative safety. The forest canopy protected large numbers of people from detection by aircraft, allowing groups, like the Bielski brigade, to harbor greater numbers of people, including children and the elderly. The forest was an essential infrastructure for the cohabitation of thousands. “No forests – no partisans,” asserted Faye Schulman, Jewish partisan photographer.
Partisans often had intimate knowledge of the forests in their area and were able to leverage that in their war effort against the Nazis, as in the case of Norman Salsitz and the Bielskis. The terrain suited itself well for purposes of camouflage and deception: “In the forest, ten partisans seemed like a hundred to those on the outside,” remembers one partisan. During the notoriously harsh winters of Eastern Europe, the forest provided firewood and the raw materials for shelter – little underground huts called ‘zemlyankas’, where the partisans would huddle together to escape the cold and avoid detection.
“Without the forest, we could not survive.” said Norman Salsitz in his interview with JPEF. And indeed, the very memories of escape and freedom for many partisans - including Mira Shelub and Jeff Gradow – are inextricably linked to the woods, where they ran to hide, and the trees that gave them cover from the pursuant bullets of the Nazis.
Studying about Tu B’shevat in the classroom, and discussing the importance of trees in Jewish tradition, presents an ideal opportunity for educators to focus on Jewish pride and introduce students to the Jewish partisans. Guidelines and lesson plan ideas for incorporating the Jewish partisans into the study of Tu B’shevat are found in JPEF’s downloadable study guides for Strengthening Jewish Pride and Living and Surviving in the Partisans.
Today, Tu B’shevat represents the broader shape of contemporary Jewish renewal. It is one of the clearest examples of the rebirth of rooted Jewish life after the Shoah. The charred site of a forest fire slowly gives birth to new growth and now, more than 70 years later, a new forest stands in its place. Each of the elements of that forest grew from seeds that survived the fire; yet the forest itself has its own unique characteristics.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Murray and Frances Berger - With Courage They Fought

Guest writer, Ralph Berger shares insights into his parent's riveting memoir.
With Courage Shall We Fight:
The Memoirs and Poetry of Holocaust Resistance Fighters

Frances “Fruma” Gulkowich Berger and Murray “Motke” Berger
Edited by Ralph S. Berger and Albert S. Berger
“With courage shall we fight,” a line from one of my mother’s poems, “Jewish Partisans,” is a fitting title for the memoir of Murray “Motke” and Frances “Fruma” Gulkowich Berger’s incredible story of survival. Miraculously, first individually and then together as fighters in the Bielski Brigade, they escaped from the Nazis and certain death and literally fought back, saving not only their own lives but those of others as well.
Growing up, I never knew any of the former Partisans to be reticent about speaking of their experiences. My parents were passionate about Holocaust education and about educating people to the fact that Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. They wanted the world to know that when they could, Jews fought back, physically and spiritually. In writing this book, my brother Al and I sought not only to honor our parents, but to continue their mission of educating people about their experiences, as well as the experiences of others, during the Holocaust.
My Dad, Murray Berger, was born in a shetl called Wseilub, in what was then Belorussia, White Russia. My Mom, Frances Gulkowich Berger, was raised in Korelitz, Poland, a shetl in the county of Novogrudek. The world that my parents lived in was destroyed by the Holocaust.
Sensing that a massacre was soon to take place in the Novogrudek Ghetto, my Dad was determined to escape. He and others wanted to join the Partisans, guerrilla fighters, and fight the Nazis. They wanted to do this despite the fact that there was tremendous anti-Semitism among the Russian and Polish partisans. Many of them would readily kill a Jewish fighter for a good pair of boots. But then word came that the Bielski Brothers were forming a Jewish partisan unit.
My father was among the first seven men to escape from the Novogrudek ghetto and join the Bielskis. Another eight, including my uncle, Ben Zion Gulkowich, followed soon thereafter. Those fifteen men elected Tuvia Bielski to be their Commander. The Bielski Brigade was born. Both independently and along with Russian detachments, it fought the Nazis. It engaged in sabotage, blowing up bridges and rail lines, destroying telephone lines, bombing Nazi police headquarters and, at times, engaging in open combat. And, very importantly, the Bielski Brigade rescued other Jews. The Bielski detachment grew into a forest community of more than 1200 Jews. It was the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews.
In the summer of 1942, the Nazis massacred over 4,000 Jews from the Novogrudek ghetto. My Mom and my aunt Judy Gulkow survived by hiding in a cesspool for six days, without food or water. They were rescued by my uncle, Ben Zion. Shortly thereafter, with about two dozen others, they escaped and joined the Bielski Brigade. My Mom was the first woman in the Brigade to be issued a weapon.
With Courage Shall We Fight is a compilation of my parents’ writings and my Mom’s poetry, as well as a pictorial history. It tells about their lives before, during and after the War. It is first person testimony in my parents’ own words. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum described With Courage Shall We Fight as a memoir of “defiance, determination and resistance.” I agree. But it is also a story of love and of hope.
The picture on the cover of the book was taken in 1945 in a displaced persons camp in Romania nicknamed “Kibbutz Tulda”. All are former members of the Bielski group. My Mom is the one with the hat, my Dad the one in the cool glasses. We chose this picture because despite what they all endured, they look so happy, happy to be alive.
- Ralph S. Berger, Co-Editor
Copies of With Courage Shall We Fight are available from the publisher at, the Museum of Jewish Heritage at, and from All royalties are donated to support Holocaust education.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Max Cukier (z"l), born on January 23, 1918

"We had food what can eat thousand people, we were going in special my group what I was with the commander. We were going in to farmers where they lived close to big cities, but they never, Russian partisans was afraid, we not afraid, we're going in. They have food, so much of it, and pigs, cows. We took 10 pigs, you know, the meat in the summertime was too hot you no can eat, it's too hot, the meat. We have so much to eat."
— Max Cukier.
Max Cukier was born into a Hassidic family in Ryki, Poland, on January 23, 1918. Growing up as a pacifist, Max never imagined he would carry a machine gun, but this changed with the outbreak of the war. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Max fled to Soviet occupied territory, eventually ending up in Belarus. For the next two years he lived as a Polish refugee, persecuted by the Soviet government as a non-citizen. When the Nazis began their attack against Russia in 1941, Max went into hiding, traveling from village to village in search of food and shelter.
Early in 1942 Max saw that hiding in villages was becoming too dangerous, and he took to the woods. In the forest, he made contact with other Jewish refugees, as well as some escaped Russian POWs. Eventually he joined the famous Bielski Brigade, a combination partisan unit and family camp. Taking initiative, Max began to organize small units and lead missions, bombing bridges and masterminding a daring attack on a German bunker using an abandoned Soviet tank. During this time Max met and married his wife, and she began to accompany him on missions, becoming his lookout.
After liberation, Max first joined the Red Army and then defected from the USSR, escaping into Italy. In Italy he became involved with several Zionist organizations, becoming an acquaintance of Golda Meir, Israel's future prime minister. He traveled to Israel, and in 1948 came to the U.S. under the auspices of the Zionist Cultural Congress.
Over time, Max focused on building a new life as a civilian, started an importing business, and eventually moving to Los Angeles, where he raised three children and three grandchildren.
Max passed away January 17, 2011.
Visit for more about Max Cukier, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Celebrating the January 13th Birthday of Jewish Partisan Mira Shelub

"Somehow, you know, when we came out from them, from the ghetto, 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 breathe the fresh air, to see the trees . It was something, a special, special experience and then we came to the forest. We came to the forest and then, and we were lucky enough, I mention again that we were nice, young, pretty so they accepted us, and we joined the Partisans."
— Mira Shelub.
A Polish Jew born in what is now Belarus, Mira Shelub joined a partisan group that operated in the forest near her native Zdziedciol at the age of 18. With her family, she escaped Zdziedciol’s ghetto in 1942 as the Germans began killing off the population.
Mira’s group engaged in sabotage against the Nazis and their Polish collaborators by disrupting communications and transportation to the war front. They blew up trains, attacked police stations, and stole food that had been provided for the Germans by peasants.
In Mira’s group, women comprised about a quarter of the partisans. They did the cooking, took care of the laundry and provided other vital support.
Nochim Shelub
While working with the partisans, Mira met her husband Nochim, who was the leader of the group. Nochim had first been in a mixed group run by Russians. However, anti-Semitism was common among the non-Jewish resistance fighters, and so he decided to form his own unit, though he still continued to coordinate activities with the Russians.
On a few attacks Mira carried extra ammunition for her husband’s machine gun, but usually stayed behind to help with work at the camp. In summer the unit slept on the ground in the open forest; in winter they took refuge in underground huts (called zemlyankas), or with sympathetic peasant families. Constant movement was a necessity to avoid detection. When it snowed, they had to alter their tracks into confusing patterns so that they could not be followed. Mira recounts,
“In the frost we did not only fight a physical battle, but also a spiritual battle. We were sitting around the fire, singing songs together, supporting each other and dreaming about betters days and a better future… a better tomorrow.”
After the Russian liberation in 1944, the couple made their way to Austria, then finally to the United States, where Mira had contacts with relatives. They settled in San Francisco, and soon after Norman opened a sandwich shop near the Embarcadero. They had three children: a daughter and two sons. Mira lives in San Francisco and continues speaking with students and educators about her Jewish partisan experience.
Mira recounted the extraordinary story of her partisan experience in her recently publish memoir, "Never the Last Road: A Partisan's Memoir".
Visit for more about Mira Shelub, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Resistance of Herschel Grynszpan

In all of Holocaust history, Herschel Grynszpan is considered to be one of its more controversial – and curious – figures. But regardless of the moral ambiguity of the choices he made, his actions had a major influence on the course of events. He also goes down in the books as one of the first Jews to defy Nazi Germany.
The child of Polish immigrants, Grynszpan was born in March of 1921 in Hanover, Germany. As a teen, he studied at at Yeshiva in Frankfurt before returning to Hanover, where he applied to move to Palestine. However his young age and small size worked against him, and his request was denied.
Upon being denied entry into Palestine, Herschel illegally snuck into Paris in 1936 to live with his aunt and uncle. Throughout the following two years he tried to gain legal residency in France, but was consistently denied (possibly due to the political climate at the time). His re-entry papers into Germany were expired, and Poland had just passed a law that stripped anyone living abroad for over five years of Polish citizenship – in effect, Herschel became a person belonging to no state, and simply continued to reside illegally among the Orthodox community in Paris.
In 1938, approximately 12,000 Polish Jews were rounded up and forced onto boxcar trains destined to Poland – which had no desire to admit them, and they were left stranded at the border. Among these Jews were Grynszpan's family: his mother, father, and siblings. One of his family members managed to send Herschel a postcard from the border town they were staying at detailing their mistreatment at the hands of the Germans.
Alarmed by the news, Herschel implored his uncle to send them financial help, which his uncle refused to do: his finances were already stretched thin by the illegal immigrant living in his home. The 17-year old youth walked out on his uncle that day, and with the little money he had in his pocket, he purchased a gun and then proceeded to the German embassy in Paris. Herschel requested to talk to an embassy official, and the clerk on duty at the time, Ernst vom Rath, was sent to inquire about Herschel's intentions. Claiming vengeance for the 12,000 deported Jews, Herschel then shot vom Rath, who died two days later in the hospital.

Ernst vom Rath
The timing for this event turned out to be disastrous for German Jews. This was the perfect excuse the Nazis needed to continue with their antisemitic plans: Goebbles gave an impassioned speech that day, which fueled the flames of a nationwide pogrom that subsequently became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.
But the case was not as clear-cut as the Nazis had hoped.
Urged by his legal defense team to “de-politicize” the assassination, Grynszpan claimed that he wanted to assassinate the German ambassador not for political reasons, but because vom Rath had seduced Grynszpan after promising him help with his immigration status – and then turned his back on the promise. French law was much more tolerant of crimes of passion than of politically-motivated assassinations, so Grynszpan would likely avoid the guillotine with such defense.
As time went on, it became clear that neither the defense nor the persecution – led by a German lawyer sent by Goebbles tasked with finding evidence of a Jewish conspiracy – were in any hurry to proceed with the trial. The proceedings were further complicated by the outbreak of the war, and Grynszpan subsequently spent the next two years languishing in French prisons. Once Germany invaded France, he was bounced from prison to prison, until German agents found him in Toulouse. He was taken into German custody in 1940 – Goebbles and the Nazis hoped to use him for a show trial to prove the complicity of “international Jewry” in the assassination. Because the Nazis needed to keep Grynszpan in good shape for the political theater he would be forced to take part in, he was sent to Sachsenhausen, where he was housed in a “bunker” reserved for “special prisoners”, including the last chancellor of Austria.
What happened to him during and after the war is a mystery. The show trial Goebbles had wanted never materialized – the initial procedural delays took two years, by which time Goebbles and others became aware of the “homosexual defense” Grynszpan was planning to use. Though the relationship may have been fabricated, vom Rath's homosexuality was quite real, and would have caused the Reich great embarrassment. By the time Hitler found out the whole truth about the case (presumably through Bormann, as Goebbles was not wholly forthcoming about the details), the regime was in no mood for more show trials. The failure of the Riom trials in France showed just how dangerous such theater can be to the persecuting regime, and the Reich had more pressing matters to deal with, such as their military setbacks in the Soviet Union and American involvement in the war. Grynszpan's fate was placed on indefinite hold and, after being moved to Magdeburg prison, he disappeared from official records.
Some claim that he must have been executed by the Germans at one point or another; others claim he made it out of prison and lived out the rest of his life in Paris under an assumed name. The West German government declared him legally dead in 1960. His parents managed to survive the war – fleeing to the Soviet Union after their deportation to Poland in 1939, and then eventually immigrating to Israel.
Though the assassination of vom Rath was ultimately a tragedy – vom Rath himself was under investigation by the Reich for purported pro-Jewish activities – the reasons behind Grynszpan's youthful act of passion against the regime struck a sympathetic chord with many people, and helped focus the world's attention on what was going on in Germany at the time. The subsequent events of Kristallnacht and the horrified reaction by the rest of the world put an end to a decade of appeasement of the Nazi regime. In the end, the spirit behind Grynszpan's resistance is universally resonant, even though the act itself is indicative of just how complicated and morally ambiguous the use of violence can be in such situations. He is quoted as saying, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth.”