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Friday, June 28, 2019

Shalom Yoran - The Defiant [Born June 29, 1925]

Shalom Yoran was born Selim Sznycer in 1925 in Warsaw, Poland. When Shalom was 15 years old, his family fled east, leaving the Nazi-occupied area of Poland for the Soviet side. However, a year later the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the Yoran family found their new home, the village of Kurzeniec, occupied by the Nazis.

Two years later, in 1942, the Nazis established a Russian POW camp in Kurzeniec, where the prisoners were treated brutally. Shalom first learned about the partisans through stories he was told by escaped Soviet POWs. The day before Yom Kippur 1942, the Kurzeniec ghetto was ordered to be liquidated.

Shalom was given an early warning, but his family was not as lucky. Shalom and his brother Musio managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, and were forced to listen as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. The brothers 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 in hiding. Shalom reasoned 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. After the brothers recruited three 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 mostly off a large store of food they took from local farmers.

Detailed map of Shalom's journey through northeastern Poland

At first, they resorted to stealing and begging, but Shalom eventually had an idea: he fashioned the tops of his boots into a holster, and whittled a wooden handle to look like the one on a Soviet Nagan revolver. No longer needing to steal potatoes in the dead of night, Shalom now demanded provisions, brandishing his holstered "weapon". The balance between menace and generosity was of vital importance, and for a long time the peasants did not suspect anything.

However, one night as they ventured into the village one last time to acquire matches, an angry mob chased them down and beat them with sticks. Though he was robbed of all his clothing, Shalom miraculously escaped with his life, and even managed to avoid frostbite as he ran barefoot through the snow. Luckily, all five of the group survived the assault and managed to return to the zemlyanka.

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 soon 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 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 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. The Russian partisans never even thought they could succeed, 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 them the assignment - was himself a Russian Jew.

Shalom's lucky break came when the commander of a "specgruppa" - a small unit created for a specific purpose - came through the area looking for guides. During the Soviet retreat in 1941, the local peasants had picked up many weapons abandoned by soldiers. The group's mission was to find and collect these weapons, along with food. Here, Shalom witnessed first-hand the methods of Soviet-style coercion, which ranged from the polite display of a grenade on the table to beatings and mock executions.
But in the end, the specgruppa found the weapons caches, and for his work, Shalom and Musio were both given working rifles (though Shalom's did not have a butt, and Musio's was sawed-off).

Shalom in British uniformAfter 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, and joined 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.

From left to right: Shalom, Steffi, Markh, and Musio. Steffi was the widow of Markh's close friend in Vilna. Budapest, 1945.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sonia Orbuch, born on May 24th

“I didn’t even bend down my head, I wasn’t worried that I was going to get killed, If I was going to get killed I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew.” – Sonia Orbuch, during JPEF interview.

In September 1939, World War II began when Germany attacked Poland. Sarah Shainwald was 14 years old and getting ready to start high school when the bombs began falling. The Soviets invaded Poland from the east and Lubomi was handed to the Russians under the Hitler / Stalin pact that divided Poland between them.

For two years, under the Soviets, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war, with worries about her family’s future. In 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family survived in the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.

News spread quickly when the Germans began killing the Jews in the ghetto. Her brother and several male friends left to join a partisan group. The forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.

Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Without weapons or training, they hoped that Sarah’s uncle, a trained scout with life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, would be enough of an asset to gain acceptance. The largely non-Jewish unit eventually received the family and Sara began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for missions of sabotage and resistance.

Sarah, renamed Sonia by the partisans, mined train tracks and stood guard on the camp perimeter. She played the role of makeshift nurse, using whatever supplies were available to dress the wounds of partisans returning daily from battle.

In the winter of 1943/44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. Several thousand were in that camp and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital.
To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades: “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”

“During the daytime, the fights were terrible… you didn’t take off your shoes, you didn’t wash; you barely ate. You just worked very hard providing whatever comfort your could… I was frightened, horrified at the numbers of people we lost.”

In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house infected with typhus, a condition they were unaware of at the time. The typhus soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.

As the war ended, Sonia focused her energies on getting to America. Sonia lived in Northern California up until her passing in September 2018. Before she died, she'd say, “I miss my family every minute of the day. I see them always before my eyes.”

Sonia defiantly proclaimed: “I want young people to know we were fighting back and that you can always find a way to fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter and not because I am a Jew. That itself gave me strength to go on."

Sonia realized that while terror was raging around her, kindness always managed to shine through. “I feel great respect for the Russian people who were so brave and helpful to us,” Sonia said. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”

She shared her experiences and taught students in the classroom as often as she can. Here she is with the 8th grade classroom at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael, California.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about the Sonia Orbuch, including seven videos of Sonia reflecting on her time as a partisan. You can also download our study guide Sonia Orbuch: A Young Woman With The Russian Partisans.
Sonia has written about her experiences in the partisans in her book Here, There Are No Sarahs: A Woman's Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream, available at amazon.com.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Hirsh Glik, Poet/Songwriter - Hymm of the Jewish Partisans

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 and 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!

Transliterated Yiddish:
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!

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

The song called Zog Nit Keynmol in Yiddish is known simply as the Hymn of the Partisans. From the ghettos and the camps it has journeyed across generations to become the official hymn of many Remembrance ceremonies in Israel and abroad. The words were originally written by Yiddish poet and resistance member Hirsh Glik, who was only 21 years old when he first recited it at a Yiddish literature event in the Vilna ghetto. Though Glik disappeared and was presumed to have died a year later, his song quickly spread beyond Vilna — the song's tone and mood perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the various resistance movements around Europe.

Four years after the fall of Hitler, the tune would be used as a form of resistance against another 20th century tyrant. Paul Robeson traveled to Moscow in June 1949 to give a performance to an audience that included many Communist Party elites, as well as what little remained of the Jewish intelligentsia after Stalin's purges. At the end of the concert, Robeson stunned the audience with a surprise rendition of the Partisan Hymn. His introductory remarks contained references to the Yiddish language, the deep and enduring cultural ties between the US and Russian Jewish communities, as well as to leading Jewish intellectuals who had been "disappeared" by the regime.

The remarks, the spontaneous translation of the song to the shocked audience, and thunderous applause that followed were cut from the recording by Stalin's censors, but the chaos is evident in the mixture of applause and jeers that follow the actual performance. Lamentably, Robeson kept his criticisms of the Soviet Union to himself when he returned to the United States, not wishing to be used by right-wing political groups to advance their causes. But the recording remains, as does the pain and fury in Robeson's voice.

“Zog Nit Keynmol” Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

Zog nit keyn mol az du geyst dem letsten veg,
Khotsh himlen blayene farsthtelen bloye teg.
Never say you are walking your final road,
Though leaden skies conceal the days of blue.

Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sha'ah,
S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot mir zaynen do!
The hour that we have longed for will appear,
Our steps will beat out like drums: We are here!

Fun grinem palmenland biz vaysen land fun shney,
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey.
From the green lands of palm trees to lands white with snow,
We are coming with all our pain and all our woe.

Un vu gefalen s'iz a shpritz fun undzer blut,
Shprotzen vet dort undzer gevurah, undzer mut.
Wherever a spurt of our blood has fallen to the ground,
There our might and our courage will sprout again.

S'vet di morgenzum bagilden undz dem haynt,
Un der nekhten vet farshvinden miten faynd.
The morning sun will shine on us one day,
Our enemy will vanish and fade away.

Nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in dem kayor,
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.
But if the sun and dawn come too late for us,
From generation to generation let them be singing this song.

Dos lid geshriben iz mit blut un nit mit blay,
S'iz nit keyn lidel fun a foygel oyf der fray,
This song is written in blood not in pencil-lead.
It is not sung by the free-flying birds overhead,

Dos hot a folk tsvishen falendike vent,
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent!
But a people stood among collapsing walls,
And sang this song with pistols in their hands!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Resist, resist, to our last breath!" - Abba Kovner (z''l) and Vitka Kempner (z''l) galvanized resistance in the Vilnius Ghetto

    
In honor of their shared March 14th birthdays, JPEF highlights Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner, partisans from the Vilnius Ghetto who eventually married.
   
Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. His family eventually emigrated and he spent his high school years in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania — the preeminent center of Jewish culture and learning at the time, often referred to as the "Jerusalem of Europe" — where he joined the Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir youth movement and attended the University of Vilna as an art student.


Exactly four years younger, Vitka Kempner was born on the same day in the Polish town of Kalish, located near the Polish-German border. As a teen, Vitka joined the militarist Betar movement, later switching to Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir at the behest of her friends.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna with a number of other youngsters, including her younger brother. Vilna was still a free city, and served as a hub for the various Zionist youth movements searching for passage to Palestine, away from the troubles of Europe.
      
Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, occupying Vilna and forcing its Jews into a ghetto. Abba Kovner, who watched through his window as Nazi soldiers tore an infant from a mother’s arms and smashed it against a wall , had no illusions about the intentions of the occupiers. Hearing rumors of killings and mass graves in Ponar1, Kovner and his youth group friends realized that armed resistance was the only possible course.


"Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter, Jewish youth! Do not believe those who are deceiving you. Out of 80,000 Jews of the Jerusalem of Lithuania (Vilna), only 20,000 remain. In front of your eyes our parents, our brothers and our sisters are being torn away from us. Where are the hundreds of men who were snatched away for labor by the Lithuanian kidnappers? Where are those naked women who were taken away on the horror-night of the provocation? Where are those Jews of the Day of Atonement? And where are our brothers of the second ghetto? Anyone who is taken out through the gates of the ghetto, will never return. All roads of the ghetto lead to Ponary, and Ponary means death. Oh, despairing people, - tear this deception away from your eyes. Your children, your husbands, your wives - are no longer alive - Ponary is not a labor camp. Everyone there is shot. Hitler aimed at destroying the Jews of Europe. It turned out to be the fate of the Jews of Lithuania to be the first. Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter. It is true that we are weak, lacking protection, but the only reply to a murderer is resistance. Brothers, it is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of killers. Resist, resist, to our last breath!"
         
With these rousing words, spoken at a soup kitchen on December 31, 1941, Kovner galvanized the youth movements and the United Partisan Organization, or FPO (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye) for short, was formed. Their first commander was Yitzhak Wittenberg. Their only objective was armed resistance – anything else was seen as a waste of time. They snuck out of the ghetto to execute sabotage missions, manufactured bombs, trained fighters, set up illegal printing presses, and acquired weapons that were smuggled into the ghetto in false-bottomed coffins or through the sewers.

Vitka Kempner was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage; smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The Germans did not even suspect Vilna’s Jews – organized partisan resistance simply wasn’t on their radar yet.
The FPO continually pleaded with the Jews of Vilna to join the partisans in a popular uprising, but the majority of the Jewish population actually considered the rebels a liability and a danger to the ghetto’s survival. The Germans reinforced this notion with pressure on the local Judenrat. Finally, after some skirmishes with the FPO, the Germans threatened the ghetto with total liquidation, which led to Yitzhak Wittenberg’s voluntary surrender; he was then promptly tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Before he surrendered, however, Wittenberg appointed Kovner as the new leader of the FPO.

The Germans liquidated the ghetto anyway, deporting its 12,000 remaining inhabitants. The FPO evacuated hundreds of fighters out of the city through the sewers, as Kovner and others briefly fought the Germans from atop abandoned buildings. Vitka herself led the last group of fighters – including Kovner – out of the city to the Rudnicki forests. The FPO was thus transformed into a partisan unit, naming themselves Nakam, or "The Avengers." 


Abba Kovner (center) and Vitka Kempner (right) with fellow partisan and life-long friend Rozka Korczak.

Vitka was appointed commander of a patrol group in charge of gathering information and maintaining ties with the Vilna underground. It was during this time that Kovner and Kempner began their relationship. Their all-Jewish group was unique; Kovner was convinced that Jews could gain self-respect through fighting, and that Jews must fight as Jews, so he refused to be absorbed into other Lithuanian or Russian partisan groups. The group earned a distinguished record — they destroyed over 180 miles of train tracks, 5 bridges, 40 enemy train cars, killed 212 enemy soldiers, and rescued at least 71 Jews, including prisoners from the Kalais labor camp. They also managed to destroy Vilna's power plant & waterworks. At the end of the war, Vitka was awarded Soviet Union’s highest badge of courage.


Abba Kovner at the old FPO headquarters in Vilna after the liberation.

The couple saw Vilna liberated in 1944, entering the city with Soviet troops. Gathering the surviving members of their old youth group, Kovner helped organize the Beriha2 movement, which helped smuggle hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe into British-mandated Palestine. Kovner and Kempner also organized a secret revenge unit, which sought to poison German POWs at a Nuremberg camp (the accounts on the effectiveness of this mission vary, though hundreds of POWs fell ill and had to be hospitalized).

Eventually, Kovner and Kempner were smuggled into Palestine, where they married. During the Israeli War of Independence, Kovner went on to lead the Givati brigade, and wrote ‘battle pages,’ which contained morale-boosting essays and news from the Egyptian front.
     
He went on to testify at the Eichmann trial in 1961, play a major role in the construction and design of several Holocaust museums, and write several books and poems that recount his experiences, for which he won the 1970 Israel Prize in Literature. He lived on a Kibbutz with Vitka and other survivors from the underground until his death in 1987 from cancer.
     
Though she initially had a hard time adjusting to the Kibbutz life, and suffered from health problems, Vitka found her calling when she started helping children with their studies, and eventually turned to the field of special education. At age 45, she went on to study clinical psychology, receiving a degree from Bar Ilan University and developed a new form of non-verbal color-based therapy. She passed away on February 15, 2012, on the Kibbutz she called home for more than fifty years. 

Abba and Vitka are survived by four grandchildren and leave behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.


Clip from a video interview by JPEF "The only punishment is death in the partisans"
Video Transcript: "I wanted in a few words to tell what life was like in a partisan forest. We were part of a Lithuanian/Russian partisan brigade, where the rules were very strict, almost incomprehensible to a Western person, who lives in the present time. Actually, everything was tuned towards fighting...life was very, very hard, and the rules were strict. If somebody would transgress even the smallest rule, the only punishment was death. Actually, there wasn't any other punishment. So let's say, we had to have food in order to survive. So to get food we'd go out on operations." 
-Vitka Kempner

Watch Vitka's video testimony about her wartime partisan experiences on the JPEF Partisans page. . Vitka is also featured in JPEF's short film: Women in the Partisans

Abba Kovner (far left) at a reunion of Vilna partisans.
1. Ponar was an oil storage facility site abandoned by the Soviets halfway through its construction; it had many large pits dug for the oil warehouses, which the Nazis deemed a convenient place for mass executions.
2. Jewish partisan Allen Small credits the Beriha with helping him escape from the Soviet Army.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Celebrating Eta Wrobel, Who Defied Gender Roles as a Jewish Partisan, During Women's History Month

"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 80 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 with a knife. The unit set mines to hinder German movement and 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. Eta’s grandson, Barak Wrobel, is following her leadership having joined the board of JPEF in 2018.

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.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Share the Legacy of 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. 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 into the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would allow 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 relative safety at 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.

Sonia passed away on March 2, 2012.