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Monday, October 14, 2019

Don Felson (z''l) Dynamited Railroads to Disrupt German Conveys Carrying Supplies

Don Felson was born October 12, 1925 in Glubokie, Poland. A small town about a hundred miles northeast of Vilna, the town sits on a low plain amidst hills in present-day Belarus. In 1941, the Germans invaded Glubokie, and promptly established a ghetto for the town’s Jewish inhabitants.

Don, who had a job at a German POW infirmary at the time, was tipped off about the first massacre by a sympathetic German doctor, who warned him not to return to the ghetto on the night of the raid.
As Russian POWs began to escape from the camp where Don worked, rumors of partisan units hidden in the forests spread throughout the village. In the fall of 1942, Don’s older brother Stan left for the forest – he convinced a Jewish partisan who was seeking recruits to take him along, despite the fact that he had no combat experience and no weapon.

The Felson family: Stan Felson on the left, Don Felson on the right

Six months later Stan returned for Don. Though Stan made it seem like joining the partisans was a matter of survival, Stan’s haggard and disheveled appearance made Don skeptical. At first he declined, but with his mother’s urging, he agreed to join Stan. He brought their mother and younger brother along with them, sequestering them in a friendly village while the two teenagers went off to join the Panomorenko company. However, a few months later the SS murdered Don’s mother and brother – along with the entire village – after having learned that a mother of a partisan was living there.

Filled with the need for vengeance, the boys dynamited railroads and ambushed German convoys, killing soldiers and building a reputation for valor. They also supplied the group with food by taking it from the local population and smuggling it back into the camps. As the war progressed and the German army was beaten back from the Russian interior, the Soviets began to airdrop short wave radios, weapons, and other much-needed supplies to the partisans in White Russia. The partisans were even able to evacuate their wounded behind enemy lines. Finally, when the Soviet army liberated the area, they enjoyed their hard won victory as the Germans beat a hasty westward retreat.

As was the case with most partisans, the Felson brothers were assimilated into the Soviet army, but soon became separated when Don was discharged after he developed an ulcer. Stan continued to fight in the Soviet Army, but soon reunited with Don when they met back in Glubokie, where they both made plans to flee westward. Staying clear of the Soviet army, they escaped through Poland to American-occupied Germany, where they ended up at a DP camp.

Back during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, Don’s great-uncle Saul was stationed at the front; afterwards, he managed to cross the Pacific and settle down in San Francisco. The two brothers hoped to join him there. From the DP camp, the brothers used their network of family and friends to secure visas to the United States. They arrived in San Francisco in 1947 and went to work for Saul’s contracting business. Not long after, Don met and married his wife. Their three sons took over the family business after Don passed away in 2002.

For more on Don – including 9 video clips of him reflecting upon his time as a partisan – visit his bio page on the JPEF website.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Spiritual Resistance on Yom Kippur - Ruth Szabo Brand (1928 - 2011)

Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.
In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.
Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.

The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.

Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur in 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Celebrating the Life of Jewish Partisan Cesia Blaichman (z''l)


Cesia Blaichman (z"l)


As a teenager in Wlodawa, Poland, Cesia Blaichman (z''l) and her three brothers escaped from the Nazis with the help of her cousin, Joe Holm (z"l). Holm brought her and her three brothers to join his all Jewish partisan brigade. In April 1944, Frank Blaichman’s partisan unit joined the group, and Cesia met the man who would become her husband of 70 years. Frank recounted the extraordinary story of their combat, heroism, and ultimate triumph, in his memoir, "Rather Die Fighting".

As a Jewish partisan, Cesia fought bravely against the Nazis and their collaborators in the forests and small villages near Lublin. She nursed the wounded, cooked for her fellow partisans and participated in operations to ensure the safety of other Jews. She and her three brothers survived the war, but their parents, sisters, and many relatives perished.

Cesia and Frank married after the war and emigrated to New York where they raised a family dedicated to promoting the Jewish partisan legacy, and to ensuring that future generations are empowered to stand up against hatred and oppression.



Cesia and Frank Blaichman on their wedding day.

Frank Blaichman talks about meeting Cesia, and the impact she made on his life, in JPEF’s film "Every Day the Impossible: Women in the Partisans".

Sadly, Cesia passed away on September 24, 2015, surrounded by her family. We extend our deepest condolences to the Blaichman, Sekons and Pomeranc families.

May Cesia’s memory be a blessing. Learn more about Cesia Blaichman's inspirational life.



Monday, August 5, 2019

Featured Jewish Partisan - Joseph Greenblatt, born on August 5th, 1915

"I lost my family – lost my father, my mother, my brother, lost all the close relatives, and that was about 70 members of my closest family. It was tough to talk about it, and the refresh bring it back to your memory. It was painful. But as the time was going by, and I felt the story which I know firsthand has to be told." — Joseph Greenblatt.

Joseph Greenblatt was born in Warsaw on August 5, 1915. He learned about resistance from his father, an army captain who had fought for Polish independence during WWI. At 18, Joe enlisted in the Polish army as an infantryman, and became an officer in 1938. In 1939, he was mobilized and sent to the Polish-German border. He witnessed the German invasion directly, and fought for almost twenty days before being taken prisoner and sent to a German POW camp. It was in the camp that he began to establish connections with the newly formed Armia Krajowa (AK). The AK hijacked a German truck and transported Joe to a hospital, freeing him and his fellow prisoners.

Joe returned to Warsaw only to find the Jewish population of the city walled into a newly formed ghetto. Though they were imprisoned, the Jews of Warsaw were far from passive; underground resistance units had already begun to form. Joe used his army connections to amass a stockpile of black market weapons. There he also met and married his wife, the younger sister of a comrade in arms.
In the spring of 1943, rumors of a full-scale liquidation began to circulate. Joe and the other partisan commanders decided it was time to act. Disguised as Nazis, they attacked German soldiers as they entered the ghetto. Joe remembers how men from his unit threw a Molotov cocktail into a tank, destroying it and killing several Germans. Joe eventually escaped from the ghetto through the sewer system, emerging in the Gentile quarter. Hiding his identity with a Christian alias, Joe made contact with his old POW comrades and joined the AK. For a while, he worked as a member of the Polish underground, raiding a German train depot and aiding in the assassination of a prominent SS official. In late 1944, he was remobilized with the Polish army.

When Germany surrendered, Joe was working as the commander of a camp of German POWs. After the war, Joe went to work for the Irgun under the command of Menachem Begin, traveling between Belgium and Israel as an arms dealer.

Joseph and his wife eventually moved to the United States, settling in Anaheim, California. Sadly, Joe passed away on March 11, 2003 at the age of 87.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joseph Greenblatt, including four videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Left: Joseph Greenblatt and his wife Irene, 1944. Right: Joseph and Irene, 1978.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Simon Trakinski (z''l) - Escaped from the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto and fought as a Jewish partisan - Born July 13, 1925

"Is it the same to Jews as it is to Americans to study the revolutionary war and its heroes, right? People put their chest in front of English muskets to build a country, we put our chest in front of German Muskets to defend ourselves from annihilation and maybe prevent the deaths of other Jews." – Simon Trakinski.

Simon Trakinski was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1925. Like many others, his family fled to the east when the war began in 1939, and sought refuge in the Russian village of Smorgon. The Germans invaded Russia in 1941, occupying Smorgon, and forcing all Jews into the ghetto.

Around this time, rumors started to circulate about escaped Soviet POWs and their partisan activities. When Simon’s family was transferred out of the Smorgon ghetto to Oszminian, he took with him the guns that a sympathetic German officer gave to his friends, telling them armed resistance is “the way of honest individuals these days.”

Unfortunately, he never saw those guns again after he gave them up to a man connected with the underground in Oszminian. Soon after, the Trakinski family was taken out of Oszminian and transported to Vilna, where Simon was assigned to a work brigade building trenches.
In Vilna, Simon joined up with the United Partisans Organization, a resistance group headed by Abba Kovner. In early September 1943, the Nazis locked down the ghetto, and the FPO realized the Germans were getting ready for its destruction. Simon took part in FPO’s failed uprising in the ghetto, but later escaped with the rest of his group when the Nazis blew up their headquarters with dynamite. They regrouped outside the city, hoping to join Markov’s all-Jewish brigade, which had ties with the FPO. Simon, like many of his partisan peers, left his family behind in the ghetto.

By this time, the partisans were a formidable presence in the area and controlled the woods. Simon initially fought with the Markov Brigade, an all-Jewish otriad organized by a Russian partisan leader named Fyodr Markov. However, the Germans soon began a blockade of the swamps where Simon and the partisans were hiding. Simon escaped, but in the ensuing chaos, Markov’s all-Jewish brigade was disbanded and Simon was on his own again.

On his way to a relative Simon hoped would provide safe harbor, he ran into a Soviet partisan unit. Luckily, the unit was in need of locals familiar with the area, and Simon was accepted into their ranks. The unit was part of the regular Soviet army. They took orders from Moscow by radio and received air-dropped supplies towards the end of the war. Simon worked as a spy and a saboteur, gathering information about troop and supply movements, which his group used to effectively mine roads and blow up bridges. His group was especially active in disrupting the Berlin-Moscow rail route, which the Germans used for supplies. On one of the missions, Simon’s otriad attacked the rail line with several thousand other partisans, blowing up miles of tracks. The Germans guarding the tracks were so overwhelmed by the attack that they fled from their bunkers into the woods instead of fighting back.

As the war continued, Simon left the partisans to work for the Soviet government as a schoolteacher in a remote Russian village. When the war ended and the “iron curtain” began to descend across Eastern Europe, Simon returned to Poland and smuggled himself into the West. He spent three years in Austria attempting to immigrate to the U.S., before finally being allowed to enter in 1948.

Simon died on January 2, 2009, surrounded by his loving family at his home in New York. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Simon Trakinski, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Bill Trakinski, Simon’s brother and fellow partisan. Vilna, 1945.

Family photo, Passover weekend. From left to right, Simon Trakinski, Simon's father Moses, mother Esther, uncle Zev, brother Bill and in the center Simon's grandmother Chaja. Smorgon, Belarus, 1931.

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.