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Friday, December 5, 2014

The Jewish Parachutists of Yishuv

In late 1944, a group of Jewish volunteers from Palestine embarked on "Operation Amsterdam," a parachute mission which would take them behind enemy lines in Axis-controlled Slovakia.

Their mission? To help repressed Jewish communities and aid allied forces. The group was comprised of members of the Palmach, a branch of Haganah, along with other Jews living in British mandated Palestine. After training in Egypt, the parachutists were sent to Romania, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. The first group of volunteers landed in Yugoslavia in May, 1943; the last arrived in Austria in May, 1945.

Many of the volunteers were recent immigrants to Palestine. Haviva Reick, one of the three women in the group, immigrated to Palestine in 1939. Another member, Rafi Reiss, arrived in Palestine on an illegal immigrant ship in 1939.

During the summer and autumn of 1944, Reick and Reiss along with two other parachutists, Rafael Reiss, Zvi Ben-Yaakov, Haim Hermesh, and later Abba Berdiczew, arrived in Slovakia.

While in the Slovakian town of Banská Bystrica, the group organized a refugee community center and soup kitchens during the Slovak National Uprising of 1944. They also led a group of Jewish children to Palestine and coordinated with other partisan and resistance groups to aid western Allied prisoners of war.

With the suppression of the uprising in Slovakia towards the end of October 1944, the parachutists gathered weapons and moved into the mountains. Of the original 37 volunteers, twelve were captured Ukrainian Waffen SS and seven executed.

November 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of their untimely deaths, but their legacies are celebrated both in Slovakia and Israel, through street names, educational establishments, books and films.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Gertrude Boyarski (z''l)

"I...went back to the partisans that should take me to [commander] Bulak. And I said, 'You know [...] I want to come back because everybody's killed and I remain all by myself.' He said, 'Yeah, I know you girls want to come to the group to have a good time. You don't want to fight.' I said, 'No, I want to fight. I want to take revenge for my sisters and brothers and for my parents.' He said, 'Well, I'll take you in on one condition.' I said, 'What's the condition?' 'You'll stay on guard for two weeks, but a mile away from the group. We'll give you a horse, we'll give you a rifle, we'll give you a gun. And anything you hear, any little noise, you'll have to let us know.' I said, 'Okay.'"
–Gertrude Boyarski

Born in 1922 on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Gertrude ‘Gertie’ Boyarski was a teenager in the town of Dereczyn (Derechin), Poland, who lived a quiet life with her family until the Germans invaded in 1941. Though the Nazis forced the majority of the town's Jews into a ghetto, they regarded Gertie's father – a butcher and a housepainter – as a 'useful' Jew, so the Boyarskis were moved to a guarded building just in front of the ghetto's entrance.

On July 24, 1942, a night of terror descended on the ghetto. The Germans began a mass killing of the town’s 3,000-4,000 Jews. The Boyarski family managed to escape to a nearby forest, where they hoped to get into a partisan unit. To prove themselves to the partisans, Gertie's father, brother and other Jews had to return literally bare-handed and attack the town's police station. They were successful, killing the guards and taking the station's stash of weapons and ammunition, but in the months that followed, Gertie and her family remained in a family camp with other noncombatant refugees. The camp lacked protection, and Gertie saw her mother, father, sister, and brother murdered before her eyes in surprise attacks by German soldiers and by antisemitic Poles who hunted the woods for Jews.

Bereft of family and seeking revenge, she left the shelter of the family camp where she had been living and sought to join a partisan detachment under the leadership of the Russian Commander Pavel Bulak, who initially brushed her off. But Gertie was insistent, saying, “I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family.”

Impressed by her conviction, Bulak agreed under one condition: she would have to stand guard alone, for two weeks, a mile from the partisan encampment. “I was alone in the woods ... each time I heard a little noise I thought it’s Germans… Two weeks – it was like two years.” But Gertie persisted and was accepted into the group. She fought with the partisans for three years, aggressively attacking German soldiers who came to the surrounding villages.

Gertrude went on to win the Soviet Union’s highest military honor, the order of Lenin. In honor of International Women's Day, Gertie and her friend - both teens - volunteered for a dangerous mission to demolish a wooden bridge used by the Germans. They had no supplies, however, so they hiked to a local village and asked for kerosene and straw. When told there was none in the village, Gertrude and her friends unslung their rifles and gave the villagers five minutes to find the supplies. The villagers quickly complied.

Gertie and her friend snuck up to the bridge, prepared and lit the fire. German soldiers saw the blaze and started shooting. In response, the girls grabbed burning pieces of the bridge and tossed them into the river until the bridge was destroyed. "We didn't chicken out," says Gertie.

Gertie and her fellow partisans completed many other missions to help fight the enemy. In 1945, she married a fellow partisan, and they settled in the United States. Gertie still grapples with having lived through the war when so many perished. "I was the only one who survived. Why? Why me? I'm always asking that question." Her message to students studying the Holocaust is that “they should not be afraid of their identity – no matter what color, race or nationality – and they should fight for it.” For more on Gertrude Boyarski, please see our short biography, as well as the short film Jewish Women in the Partisans, and our study guide, "Gertrude Boyarski: From Frail Girl to Partisan Fighter."

Gertrude passed away at the age of 90 on September 17th, 2012 – the first day of Rosh Hashanah of that year.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Zvi Shefet

“I managed to [avoid] those that would denounce me,” Zvi Shefet recalled of his early days during the German occupation of his hometown of Slonim, in then Soviet-occupied Belorussia. Refusing to wear the Star of David, the sixteen-year-old Jewish partisan found ways to rebel early on, even before he went into the forest to fight. With his blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fluent command of Polish, he managed to avoid unwanted attention and only went outside when necessary.

The German invasion came as a complete surprise to Zvi and his community – as in many Soviet territories, the community strongly believed in the power and protection of the Soviet army. However, the war had only lasted three days before the Germans successfully overtook the town.

On July 17, 1942, the initial “aktion”1 in Slonim took place against the Jews. Zvi's family was alerted to the situation through family friends who had relayed the news through their grief-stricken faces - the couple lived in the woods and were firsthand witnesses to the aftermath of the mass killing in the forest.

In the beginning, most Jews in Slonim found it a hard to digest these mass murders. Some continued to look for those that had been killed, only finding remains of their clothing. Others believed that the Russians would still come and save them. Looking back on experiencing this time as a child, Zvi reminisced “I thought it strange that the grown-ups were so fearful.”

Fearing for their son's life, Zvi's parents planned to send him to Warsaw with a Polish family acquaintance. Feeling hurt that they wanted to send him away, he advised strongly against separating from his family. Zvi convinced his family to let him stay with them and continue to protect them as best he could.

Soon after, the Germans forced all the Jews of Slonim into the a ghetto. Another aktion immediately followed: the Wehrmacht and the SS surrounded the ghetto, looking for males. Zvi and his father hid in a shed adjacent to their living area. Zvi's mother – who was fluent in German – answered the door and convinced the officers that her husband had gone off to work early and taken his schein (work permit) with him. The soldiers left soon after, commanding her not to let anyone else in the house.

During this aktion, the Germans had exceeded the expected amount of Jews that they were anticipating to find, prompting the authorities to declare that the killing would cease. Though some believed this news, Zvi's parents did not. The recent increase in SS men in the town caused alarm – changes like that often meant something awful was looming in the near future. The Nazis were not only targeting Jewish citizens, but also the Polish intelligentsia. Uncertainty was an air, and no one was safe.

The final aktion ended in the burning of the Slonim ghetto. Zvi's family was residing near the ghetto's edge, and thus escaped into the forest under the cover of nightfall. Zvi and his immediate family – along with some uncles, aunts and cousins – roamed the forest, motivated by rumors of Soviet partisan groups in the Pruszkov forest and the surrounding areas. They hoped the partisans would provide protection for them.

The admission to partisan groups was arms, which the Shefets and their relatives had no possession of. The group eventually went their separate ways, due to a fission that occurred when Zvi's uncle secured a spot with the Soviet partisans for only himself, his wife and two sons.

Soon after, however, Zvi and his family found a partisan center in the forest near Okinowo. This place was well-known – former POWs organized the activity of various partisan groups here. After a few days, Zvi was accepted into a resistance group called Detachment 51, and his family was assigned to a detachment created for the partisans' family members.

Due to the prevalence of antisemitism among the ranks of the Soviet partisans, a group of Jews eventually broke off and created their own unit, comprised solely of Jewish partisans. They also called themselves Detachment 51. Zvi asked to join this group. The commander, Yefim Fiodorowicz, had excellent leadership qualities and was able to inspire the group into becoming excellent fighters. The group membership was also more lenient towards women, who fought alongside their male counterparts.

Zvi continued to fight in Detachment 51 until Fiodorowicz perished; Zvi had no choice but to join another Soviet partisan unit - he fought with them until the area was liberated by the Soviet army in 1944. Unfortunately, Zvi's family was killed in 1943, when a group of Soviet partisans attacked his family's detachment instead of protecting them as they promised to.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong


Zvi Shefet visiting the cemetery at Czepelova. Photo courtesy of eilatgordinlevitan.com.


1. The German euphemism for mass executions, usually by bullets

Friday, August 1, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Mordechai "Motele" Shlayan

The night progressed as any other evening would have for twelve-year-old Motele, who had just finished his nightly violin performance in the Solders’ Home – an extravagant fine dining establishment post in Ovruch, Ukraine, where German troops came to be entertained and fatten themselves up before going into battle. Carefully packing up his violin, he declined his usual complementary meal from the cook with the excuse that he was exhausted and preferred to go home early. A few minutes after he stepped outside the complex, the building was demolished in a fiery explosion. As the wail of the police sirens approached, Motele quickly felt his way along the darkened buildings on a pre-determined path that led to the shores of a nearby lake, whose still waters provided a silent escape. Holding his prized violin high above his head, he submerged himself up to his shoulders. On the other side, ten hands reached out and helped the young boy into the relative safety of a waiting wagon. The vehicle vanished into the woods soon after, taking their young hero with them, whose voice reverberated in the dark: “this is for my parents and little Bashiale, my sister.”

Born Mordechai Shlayan, Motele was out when the Germans forced their way into his house and murdered his entire family. He resorted to living in the Volhynia forest in Ukraine, close to the town of Ovruch. Misha Gildenman, leader of an all-Jewish partisan group, came across the young boy in the woods and took him in as his own son. In Uncle Misha’s partisan unit, Motele was a valuable asset because he could go into town and no one would assume that a child this young had ulterior motives. With his fair skin and blond hair, Motele was easily able to hide his Jewish identity and pass as a Ukrainian. His musical talent also made him an irreplaceable resource to the group – it gave him a reason to be in towns and villages, and allowed him to gather crucial information useful to the group.

In August 1943, Gildenman was receiving daily reports of towns and cities that had recently been liberated by the Soviet army. Keril, a contact in Ovruch, relayed the message to him that the Ukrainian police in the city wanted to surrender. Having learned not to trust any good news too soon, Gildenman sent Motele to see if there was any truth to the rumors.

As a skilled musician, Motele was sent to play in town for money with the other beggars. His talent – as well as his beautiful renditions of popular Ukrainian folk songs that he remembered from the streets of his own hometown – soon separated him from the other street musicians. In his pocket, he carried carefully forged papers that gave him the new identity of Dimitri Rubina. His music caught the attention of a German officer, who hired the young violinist to provide musical entertainment for German soldiers in the Soldiers’ Home after he effortlessly sight-read a piece by the famous Polish composer Ignacy Paderewski.

Motele was given free lunch and dinner as compensation, and soon noticed a worn-down storeroom adjacent to the basement kitchen that he ate his meals in, whose cracked walls had just enough room to lodge a bomb between them.

With Gildenman and the partisans’ assistance, Motele constructed an elaborate plan to blow up the Soldiers’ Home. Popov, Gildenman’s explosive expert, taught him how to assemble a bomb. For several nights, Motele left his violin in a discarded crate and smuggled the explosives in his empty violin case. Now they only had to wait for an opportune moment to arise. As fate would have it, this opportunity happened sooner than expected: Motele heard word that a division of high-ranking SS officers were being re-routed through Ovruch – traveling by rail was thought to be too dangerous due to all the recent partisan demolition activity on the railroad tracks.

Everything went according to plan and at three in the afternoon, SS officers arrived in their polished boots and limousines. Dinner was served, wine was drank and merriment was had. Shortly after eleven, a boy ran out of the restaurant into the darkened street – and the men inside met their fate.

Motele was killed in a German bombing raid in 1944, when he was only fourteen years old. In 1996, Amnon Weinstein, a master violinmaker residing in Israel, began an extensive search for violins that had once been played by Jewish prisoners and partisans in concentration camps, forests and ghettos. Twenty-four violins were recovered and restored. One of these was Motele’s. In September 2003, it was played before thousands of people in Jerusalem in a gala concert in the Old City.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Bialystok Ghetto Uprising

In the grim history of the Bialystok ghetto, an act of resistance that occurred right before its eventual destruction by the Germans in August of 1943 places it among only a handful of such incidents during the war. Inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish resistance fighters in the Bialystok ghetto fought the Nazis during the last days of the ghetto's existence, after the Germans commenced with their plans to liquidate its entire population. The conditions of the Bialystok ghetto were different from that of other ghettos in Poland, and this ultimately decided the outcome of events.


Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof in 1934.

Bialystok was a city in northern Poland, annexed by the Soviets in 1939. The city was surrounded by deep forests, its houses made mostly of wood. The Jewish population – which made up a large fraction of the mill and skilled workers in the city - was an essential element of the city's economy. This fact would prove integral to the ghetto leadership's survival strategies.

The Soviet occupation ended when Nazi troops entered the city on June 27, 1941. Immediately, the soldiers forced hundreds of Jews into a synagogue and lit it on fire. Only few survived1 while most were burned to death. The next week, more than 5,000 Jews were shot in the streets. After these initial killings, 50,000 Jews were forced to move into the small confines of the Bialystok ghetto.

Conditions in this ghetto were somewhat unique to their situation. The community had limited access to the outside world, as many of the ghetto's residents had access to work in factories located in other parts of the city. The main body of the population also had a positive relationship with the Judenrat, which was headed by Ephraim Barasz. He was a well-respected man who worked hard to stress the economic importance of the Jews dwelling in the ghetto. Because of their economic importance, he and many of his comrades were convinced that the Jews of the Bialystok ghetto were immune to the fate of other ghettos. As a result, Barasz saw no reason to organize a resistance effort.

Having fled Vilna with a handful of resistance fighters, a man named Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof organized Bialystok's resistance movement, establishing the Anti-Fascist Fighting Bloc with his remaining followers. There were large disagreements within the fighting group about what should be done to effectively resist the Nazis. Some people, such as Judith Nowogrodzka, argued that the Jews should put all effort into escaping to the nearby forests and joining the liberation front, while others such as Teneboim believed that fighting the Nazis was the most effective. Ultimately, the group decided to the support resistance both with partisan groups and within the ghetto.

Teneboim and his organization faced many challenges when planning the Bialystok uprising. Acquiring weapons was extremely difficult. Ultimately, they were only able to gather one machine gun, and approximately two dozen hand-guns and several dozen grenades. However, an even greater obstacle was the lack of cooperation from the Judenrat under Barasz who believed that its Jews were in no risk of death therefore resistance was unnecessary. Tenenboim, considering the massacres at Ponary, believed the case to be otherwise.

On August 15, 1943, Barasz was notified by the Nazi gestapo of their plans to liquidate the Bialysok ghetto. He told nobody. When the resistance movement noticed the increase of German troops surrounding the Ghetto's border, they knew something was afoot. Caught by surprise and with little time, the rebels had no time to organize an effective strategy, and made do with what they could. Furthermore, the rest of the ghetto population had little reason to join the resistance, as most still had doubts about their ultimate fate, and did not wish to perish in an uneven struggle.

On August 16, 1943, with the majority of the ghetto's residence lined up outside to board the train to the camps, the Nazi troops were met with bombs dropped from windows of houses. However, Warsaw provided the Germans with experience, and they were well-prepared for a counter-attack. Furthermore, the low-rise wooden buildings and fences provided much less shelter for the rebels than the large brick edifices of Warsaw. As a result, the uprising only lasted a short time – the last handful fighters were unearthed from their bunker hideout five days later.

Although the uprising may not have been as successful as its leaders would have hoped, the actions of these brave men and women displayed courage and pride even when it seemed as if all hope had disappeared. Though most of the fighters perished – and the rest of the inhabitants were sent to meet their fate in the camps – a few fighters managed to break through the ghetto fence and flee to the countryside, joining partisan units that would eventually see these lands liberated from the bloody grip of the cruel occupiers.

–By Mandy Losk


1. A Polish cobbler named Winicki managed to make an opening into the burning building from the outside.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

JPEF Partners With Britannica Encyclopedia

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation is pleased to announce its partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica for The Holocaust Project.

The Holocaust Project is Britannica’s effort to make available to the public its extensive coverage of one of history’s darkest chapters. Britannica is offering this content to partnering institutions for dissemination to their members and website visitors.

More than a hundred articles comprise Britannica’s coverage of the Holocaust — topics range from the rise of Hitler and an overview of the camps to the symbolic meaning of the swastika and the Holocaust in art and memory. Britannica’s coverage includes biographies, essays, photographs, and videos, as well as discussion prompts appropriate for the classroom.

JPEF has contributed to Britannica's Holocaust project entries on “Jewish Partisans” and “Bielski Partisans.” All of the content was sourced from JPEF's website.

See below for the full list of resources available through The Holocaust Project:

Part 1: Hitler and the Origins of the Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 2: The Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 3: The Allied Response: Should the Allies Have Bombed the Camps?

Discussion Questions

Part 4: The Christian Response: The Actions of the Church

Discussion Questions

Part 5: Art, Meaning, and Memory

Discussion Questions

Friday, June 27, 2014

Italian Jewish Resistance During World War II

“[M]y way of life and the reason for my life for many months have only been an effort to leap into humanity, to share its existence, hard or easy that it may be. If I did not act this way, I would be renouncing myself, I would remain without a guide, humiliated. And thereby I would also be renouncing you who have given me life and nourished me.”

–Gianfranco Sarfatti, an Italian Jew, writing to his parents about why he joined a partisan group.

Italian Jews like Sarfatti who joined resistance groups came from a wide spectrum of political, economic, religious, and social backgrounds. Eugenio Calo, the owner of a machine shop in Arezzo, joined a partisan group to avenge his wife and children, who were deported to Germany. Eugenio Colorni, a professor of philosophy in Milan, became the leader of a Roman resistance group.

The Italian resistance groups that Jews were a part of were for the most part not founded on Jewish identity, but instead were integrated groups that readily accepted Jews to fight alongside them against a common enemy. Italian Jewish partisans were generally not deeply religious, with the exception of a small minority. However, there is evidence of religious life and observance of tradition: Augusto Segre, who was raised in a strict Jewish family, mentioned in his memoir of celebrating Yom Kippur during his time as a partisan.

As in other countries, the number of Jewish women who joined the Italian resistance groups was limited due to sexism. Conversely, they were viewed as less of a threat than their male counterparts, and thus could move around easier to gather crucial intelligence. Marisa Diena, who became the vice-commander of her unit, was a valuable asset for her group because her disarming appearance allowed her to ride through the countryside on her bicycle without arousing suspicion, gathering vital information from local informers along the way.

The emergence of Italian Jewish resistance was unique due to the facts surrounding the existence of the Fascist regime in Italy, whose leaders remained close allies of Hitler even after they were deposed and Italy surrendered to the Allies. On the fateful day of September 8, 1943, Italy was divided in half by the Armistice of Cassibile, which delegated the North to the German-backed regime and the South to the Allies. Though this agreement signified Italy's surrender and effectively cut its ties with the Axis, the end of fascism was not synonymous with the end of the war for Italy. A few months before in July, Mussolini had been arrested. However, the Germans staged a cunning raid to free the erstwhile dictator, and he became the figurehead leader of a fascist puppet regime in the north until his capture and execution by Italian partisans.

Following the September 8 armistice, Germany immediately annulled the contract it had created with Italy's Fascist government not to deport Italian Jews (who were located in Germany territory) to German-controlled land in the East. This malicious turn of events led to a surge in Jewish resistance, lasting until the end of the war.

The rise of anti-Fascist political resistance was an important precursor for the subsequent rise of armed resistance in Italy. The Giustizia e Liberta - a significant non-communist partisan group in Italy - was highly favored by the Allies, who provided it with material support. Due to its strong affiliation to well-respected Jewish resistance fighters, it was highly appealing to Jews who were looking to join partisan groups in Italy.

An important distinction for Italian Jews was their deep sense of Italian identity that was reflective of their wide assimilation into their Italian communities at large. Instead of exclusively identifying themselves as Jews, they instead formed alliances along political lines, notably supporters of fascism versus those against this agenda. Fighting in a resistance group allowed them to display their loyalty to their country as well as simultaneously advocating for their religious rights as a Jew.

To learn more about Italian Jewish resistance check out our website here: bit.ly/1sILNs6

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Friday, June 13, 2014

Jewish Partisan Resistance in Belgium

Disguised as German security agents, a small group of Jewish partisans stormed the office of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council in Brussels. Holding the officials at gunpoint, this allowed two more of their comrades to sneak into the head office and set fire to the records of Belgian Jews that were used for deportation.

This act of sabotage was constructed by Jacob Gutfreund, a Polish-Jewish refugee and two other partisan leaders who devised this elaborate plan to save the lives of fellow Jews from being deported to concentration camps. Jacob led one of the three groups of Jewish partisans who were based in Brussels. His partisan group was responsible for armed attacks against Nazis and their collaborators including demolishing enemy railroads, weapon manufacturing sites and energy plants.

On May 10, 1940, Belgium was occupied by the Germans. Six months later, the Nazis took over the Jewish Community Council. In response, the Committee for the Defense of Jews (CDJ) was created in Brussels to protect the rights of the Belgian Jewish population and assist with partisan groups likes Jacob's, to help them destroying German targets. Another important task for the CDJ was creating a network of trustworthy contracts that would provide a safe haven for hiding Jewish children.

Paul Halter, another member of a Belgian Jewish partisan group, acquired last-minute news of a raid on a church that held nineteen Jewish children who were in hiding. With the raid imminent, Halter and another man dressed up as members of the Gestapo, and came to “collect the children” at gunpoint from the nuns. To pacify the terrified children, the two men spoke in Hebrew to them, letting them know not all was as it seems. When the Nazis arrived later, they were astonished to hear that members of the Gestapo had already made the pickup – realizing they had been duped, they left empty-handed.

Georges LivchitzBeginning in September 1943, Belgian Jews were deported to concentration camps. Although the details of the deportations were always shrouded in secrecy, a Jewish partisan group gained news that on April 19, 1943, there would be a transport called Convoy 20, leaving for Auschwitz. The local partisans enlisted the help of fellow partisans Georges Livchitz and his brother Alexander Livchitz, who had gained experience in sabotage from their membership as national Belgian partisans. The brothers made their way to the Tirlemont region located in Northeast Belgium and waited for the train to approach. As the train with the captives neared, Georges flagged it down with a red lantern and the partisans rushed onto the train and freed the passengers who escaped into the woods.

The attack on Convoy 20 is the only documented attack of partisans freeing prisoners. Georges and Alexander were later executed in the Belgian camp Breendonk. Jacob was deported to Auschwitz, where he survived for two years until he was liberated. He immigrated in 1957 to Israel, where he became a leader of the Organization of Partisans, Ghetto Rebels in Israel and Underground Fighters.

Learn more about Jewish partisan resistance in Belgium here.

-By Julia Kitlinski-Hong.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan: Chaya Porus Palevsky Blog

Obeying a last-minute command from a friend, Chaya jumped off a train filled with residents of the Swieciany ghetto, bound for the town of Kovno. Not long afterwards, in Vilna, she learned that everyone on the train – including her entire family – was murdered by the Nazis.

Swieciany (Švenčionys), the small town where Chaya was born, is located in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, 84 kilometers north of Vilnius. In June 1941, the Nazis forced all the town’s Jews into a ghetto. Chaya and her family became active in housing runaway Jews and their home became a meeting place for people who wanted to learn about the war. Chaya's sister Rochel, who was a registered nurse, worked in the secret hospital and was known as the “angel of the ghetto” for her tireless efforts helping the sick.


The town of Švenčionys, circa 1916 (German postcard)

After she found out the Nazis murdered her family, Chaya turned grief into action by joining a partisan group led by Fedor Markov, a well-respected teacher from her hometown. Typically, women were not allowed to fight in resistance groups, but Chaya gained admittance by proving her usefulness with a small handheld Belgian gun she owned. Her group formed alliances with other Jewish partisan groups, and a Jewish unit was formed. They called it “Nekamah” – which means revenge in Hebrew. Markov boldly stated “You should be proud, you are young and very brave people.” Nekamah flourished into a thriving partisan outpost, with around ninety members, all living deep in the woods in zemlyankas (underground bunkers that held up to twenty people, carefully camouflaged into the forest floor). There were also smaller bunkers, including one designated for ill partisans.

Chaya's partisan group lived up to their name, as they participated in significant acts of retribution against the Nazis. Nekamah burned down an electric station, derailed trains, destroyed German weapons and food sources. They were also active in communicating news about the resistance and warning people in nearby villages and ghettos about the Nazis’ plans of mass extermination.

The small percentage of women – including Chaya – who had gained membership into partisan groups, experienced a different set of hardships than their male counterparts once they were accepted. Unwanted advances from male partisans were all too common. Women were often assigned to gender-related tasks like cooking and cleaning, instead of fighting.


Partisans from the "Nekama" unit. Photo credit: Ghetto Fighters House/Eliat Gordon Levitan.

Eventually, Nekamah was dismantled by the Soviets, who would not allow Jewish partisan groups under their watch. After liberation, Chaya went on to marry a fellow partisan, Simon and immigrated to New York City, where they opened up a jewelry business and spent the rest of their lives. They had two sons and remained active in assisting Holocaust survivors in finding employment.

To find out more about Jewish women partisans, please visit our curriculum page.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Leon Bakst, born on May 3rd

Leon Bakst was one of four siblings born to a wholesale merchant in Ivie, a small Polish town 73 miles west of Minsk. Leon was 15 when the German army invaded eastern Poland in the summer of 1941, occupying Ivie and forcing the town’s Jews into a ghetto.

When the Germans asked Leon’s father what he did for a living, he lied and told the Germans that he was a brush maker. Though he traded in raw materials required for making brushes, he had never actually made a brush in his life. However, he figured that the occupiers would have more use for a tradesman than a merchant. His assessment of the situation was correct – he was spared the initial massacre of influential Jewish men. It would not be the last time his quick wits would save him and his family from annihilation. During the next round-up, as the family was approaching the SS officials in charge of choosing the next massacre victims, Leon’s father put his wife and daughters behind himself and his two sons – he realized the Nazis were more likely to spare able-bodied men than families with lots of women and children. The gamble paid off: seeing only a father and his two teenage sons from their vantage point behind the table, the SS men hurriedly dismissed the family.


The Bakst family.

By this point in the war, the Nazis were not particularly concerned about hiding their true plans for the Jews of Poland. Leon and his brother were among those forced to dig mass graves a mile outside of their town. Leon remembers seeing the soldiers execute one of the crew:

“It was a Rabbi’s son – he had a little bit…one arm. [It] wasn’t as strong as the other; it was kind of a weak arm. So after we got through digging out, before we’re fixing to go back to the ghetto, [they] shot him, right there in front of the grave. And we left.”

Months later, Leon and his older brother, along with 200 other young people, were selected by the local Judenrat council to go to a labor camp in Lida, another town 25 miles west of Ivie. The tragic separation from his family actually saved his life, but he never got the chance to see his parents again – the Germans destroyed their ghetto shortly after he left, as he learnt later.

The labor camp was located in a railroad yard – the prisoners even slept in the boxcars. Their food rations were meager, and their futures uncertain. However, the prisoners had one tremendous advantage: their job was to load trains bound for Germany with weapons and ammunition captured from the retreating Russians. Having heard about partisan groups roaming the nearby forests, twenty of the youngsters decided to risk escape and join them. By slowly stealing rifles and stashing them in the ground, the prisoners were able to arm themselves before fleeing.

Having spent many summers in the area, the two brothers were familiar with the surroundings, making it easier for their group to travel at night. The rifles they stole from the Germans also ensured that the group got fed along the way, and their numbers kept them safe from bands of former Russian soldiers turned bandits and marauders – men who would not hesitate to kill a stray escapee for a pair of boots or a rifle.

Having finally reached the Naliboki forest, the youngsters encountered the Bielski brigade, which at the time had about 200 partisans. Since the group arrived with rifles, the Bielskis quickly accepted the newcomers.

During his time with the Bielskis, Leon was involved in a series of tasks ranging from guard duty to food-gathering missions to railroad sabotage. As he says, the main purpose of the partisans was to keep the members of the group alive. By 1945, the Bielskis saved more than 1,200 Jewish lives.

After the war’s end, Leon managed to leave Poland with his brother and Libby – a partisan from another otriad and Leon’s future wife. They eventually made it to a displaced persons’ camp in Munich, where Leon met Allen Small, a boyhood friend from Ivie who fought with a Soviet partisan otriad. It would be 65 years before they see one another again. (For more on this story, see JPEF’s documentary “The Reunion”.)


Leon and Libby in Munich, 1946.

During the four years they spent in the displaced persons’ camp, Leon and Libby got married and their first child was born. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. Leon currently lives in Dallas, Texas. He has two daughters. Of his legacy as a partisan, Leon says:

“When I was in the underground, it was a happy time of my life because I felt I’m fighting not only for myself, I was fighting for freedom, and [to] take revenge for the Jewish people. That's what I’m proud of it. And that’s why I take, I keep on living for it, you know, and I can try to tell as many people I can to relay the message to them, what happened in World War II to the Jewish people, [that] some of the people were heroic and they went to the underground and fought."

Leon with Allen Small (left) at the NY premiere of "The Reunion".

Friday, April 11, 2014

Scholastic Publishes Partisan-Inspired Elementary School Thriller

Author Lauren Tarshis recently released an exciting edition to her I Survived series, published by Scholastic. Subtitled The Nazi Invasion, 1944, this short yet dramatic tale perfectly suits educators who wish to introduce elementary school students to the subject of the Jewish partisans.

The story centers around 11-year-old Max Rosen and his younger sister, Zena: newly orphaned inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in Esties, Poland during the Nazi occupation. Tarshis expertly uses age appropriate language and content to paint a vivid picture of the children's adventure as they escape from the ghetto and are taken in by a group of partisans in the forests of Loda.

The author bases the characters in the book on the life stories of a number of partisans she learned about during her research: Leizer and Zenia Bart, Miriam Brysk, Leon Kahn, Ben Kamm, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak, Abba Kovner, Miles Lerman, and Shalom Yoran.

More information about these individuals is available at www.jewishpartisans.org/partisans.

I Survived: The Nazi Invasion, 1944 provides an intriguing and exciting account of the experiences of the largely unrecognized efforts of Jewish resistance to the Nazi regime of WWII. As a supplemental resource for the study of the Holocaust, Max and Zena's tale of escape, hiding, and battle, provides a personal and relatable viewpoint for students. The historical fiction genre, when approached with the care and accuracy of Lauren Tarshis, can provide an informative and engaging tool on which to build classes, projects, and plays.

For more on this book, visit www.scholastic.com/ISurvived. For recommendations on other material related to the Holocaust and Jewish partisans, visit the author's website at www.LaurenTarshis.com.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Free JPEF Resources for Jewish Camping

Program Plans, Training, and Resources

JPEF's experiential activities and resources are simple to use and require minimal preparation: just select the material from our RESIST curriculum page, print, review, and go. We also offer online training video courses to help you and your counselors get the most out of our materials, which you can access by logging-in to JPEF and selecting a course from the e-learning page. We recommend starting with Resistance Basics.

Building Jewish Identity and Resilience

Strengthening Jewish Pride: Heroism, hope, and resistance
Women in the Partisans: Girl power!

Experiential Activities

Ethics of War: Text study and a short play
Café Resist: Dining hall debate

Movie Night

jewishpartisans.org/films: Inspiring JPEF short films on Jews who fought back (3-21 minute)
  • Recommended Films: Introduction to the Jewish Partisans, Women in the Partisans, Living and Surviving (consists of 4 films: Food, Shelter, Medicine, Winter and Night)
  • To request a DVD, email: dvd@jewishpartisans.org
Teaching with Defiance: starring Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig

Holidays and Observances

Rosh Chodesh, Tisha B’Av, Havdallah: Email us for information.

Inspiring Reading/Story Telling

Recommended Resources

Group Building and Outdoor Adventures

Living and Surviving in the Partisans: Inspiration for outdoor adventures
Finding Leadership: Great for counselor training and leadership activities

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Paula Burger – Paula’s Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans, and A Life Unexpected

In her moving memoir, author and artist Paula Burger shares the harrowing experience of a child’s survival during the Holocaust.

The first child of Wolf and Sarah Koladicki, Paula Burger was born in 1934 in the town of Novogrudok, which had a vibrant Jewish community numbering around six thousand – half of the town’s population. Her father was a savvy businessman who owned a small grocery store and restaurant; he also traded in cattle and lumber, and managed the family’s ranch. Paula fondly remembers her pre-war childhood: her parents working together at the store, the ice cream from her aunt’s shop, and in 1939, the arrival of her baby brother Isaac.

But life as she knew it ended on July 3, 1941, when the German army occupied Novogrudok. Two weeks later, they executed the community’s professionals – fifty-two men in all, including rabbis, doctors, and lawyers – in the town’s main marketplace.

In the middle of a bitter cold night, several months later in December, the Nazis snuck in and rounded up the remainder of Novogrudok’s Jews. Paula’s father was not home at the time, but her mother Sarah, with young Isaac in her arms and Paula by her side, succeeded in escaping. During that raid, later called “Black Monday,” some four thousand Jews died at the hands of the occupiers. Afterwards, the remaining Jews were divided between two camps.

The Koladicki family managed to avoid incarceration in the ghettos for over four months. Once inside though, Wolf was permitted to leave as needed to attend to his various enterprises, all the while formulating a plan to escape with his family. A Polish neighbor, desirous of the Koladicki land, deceitfully informed the Nazis of Wolf’s involvement with the resistance movement. The Nazis searched for him, but soon grew tired of the unsuccessful hunt, and decided to arrest Sarah with the intent of extracting her husband’s whereabouts through interrogation and torture. Since she had no idea where Wolf was, the torture brought no results. The Nazis kept her in holding for six weeks, forcing her to serve as a German translator. Then, on Yom Kippur of 1942, they shot her.

By this time, Paula’s father did in fact become a member of the resistance by joining the Bielski Otriad in the Naliboki Forest. Wolf arranged to smuggle Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto with the help of a Polish farmer. The farmer’s job was to deliver water to the ghetto, so he smuggled young Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto in a dank, empty water barrel. They had to hide in total silence inside the cramped confines of the barrel for many hours. Paula knew that any sound they made could mean certain death, and she held Isaac tight to keep him absolutely still and calm.

After a night hidden in a barn, and another day of concealed travel, the siblings rejoined their father at the Bielski partisan camp. They remained with the group throughout the war, traveling with them when they could, and hiding in forest shelters when harsh winter conditions prevented them from doing so. Though she was only seven years old when they joined with the Bielskis, Paula actively contributed to armed resistance against the enemy, using her small fingers to pack explosives into yellow bricks, which were later used to blow up and derail Nazi supply trains.


Paula (age 12) and her brother Isaac (age 7) at a DP camp near Munich

Instead of returning to Novogrudok after the war’s end, Paula’s father led his family to Lida, and then across the border to Czechoslovakia. Aided only by their wits and the kindness of strangers, the family made their way to the American Zone in West Germany. They spent several years in the DP camp, where young Paula became fluent in English. Then in 1949, they voyaged to the US and joined their relatives in Chicago. There, in high school, Paula began to hone her natural talent as an artist.

As a child, Paula’s most prized possession was a box of colored pencils with which she would draw for hours on end. Although she did not begin painting professionally until she retired, Paula was always painting pictures in her mind, and maintained an overwhelming desire to act on this passion. In a journal she kept as a young woman, Paula wrote, “I hope I don’t die before I get to paint.”

The zeal for creative expression coursed through the veins of both siblings. Though successful in business, they continually pursued their artistic passions. While Paula painted colorful landscapes, still lifes, and Judaic-themed images, Isaac applied his beautiful singing voice to chazanut, and has now served as a professional cantor for over fifty years.

Paula’s art has shown in galleries throughout Colorado, and her works are included in numerous public, private and corporate collections throughout the world. After a childhood filled with dark images of horror and loss, Paula’s goal is to capture the beauty in life through her art with the bold use of color and imagery. You can view her catalogue at paulaburger.com.


Paula Burger and her art.

Paula Burger has been speaking to students’ civic groups for over twenty years. Her 2013 autobiography, Paula’s Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans, and A Life Unexpected, vividly recalls her childhood experience of survival in the forests during World War II.


Paula and her brother Isaac at the Bielski Tribute Gala in 2013.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Guest Blogger - Paul Orbuch: "If, By Miracle"

My name Is Paul Orbuch and I am the Founding President and Chairman Emeritus of JPEF. My mother, Sonia Orbuch, fought with the Soviet partisans – as did Michael Kutz, whose gripping memoir, “If, By Miracle”, was recently published by The Azrieli Foundation in Canada as part of their Holocaust Survivor Memoir series. The Azrieli Foundation has published many fine books in the series, but this one was the first on a Jewish partisan. It caught my attention for that reason, but as I read it I was amazed to see how it resonates with the work JPEF has done and specifically how it parallels in so many ways my mother’s story, which was told in her memoir, “Here, There Are No Sarahs”, which was released in 2009. I worked closely with her and her co-author Fred Rosenbaum for 3 years; many of the threads in Kutz’s memoir correlate with her story as a teenager who fled to the forests and eventually was lucky enough to join a fighting unit of Soviet partisans.

But this story is told through the eyes of a young teenage boy, whose struggle to prove oneself as a fighter, and the joy of finally being able to fight back after enduring the loss of family, friends and community nevertheless mirrors that of my mother and many other partisans. We see the same strand of antisemitism – even within the resistance groups. (This is analyzed more deeply in the JPEF course, Antisemitism in the Partisans.) We see the same joy and intoxicating camaraderie infuse their memories as they recollect this important period of their young lives.

There is a valuable introduction by the historian Anike Walke, who explains how large-scale history plays out through the eyes and experiences of this teenage Jewish boy. “The sweeping breadth of his story takes us on a journey through twentieth–century Eastern European, Soviet, Canadian, Jewish and global history.” Through Kutz’s eyes we learn about the split within the Jewish community in pre and post war Poland – between the Zionists who advocated emigration to the ancient land of Israel and the leftist groups who wanted to work towards a revolutionary new pluralistic world in their places of birth. Kutz’s parents even argued whether he should be educated in Hebrew (the Zionist view) or Yiddish, which exemplified the basic split in the community regarding the proper aspiration for the Jewish people.

Michael’s first-hand account of being buried alive in a pile of murdered bodies takes us on a journey into the brutality of the German Einsatzgruppen, and what has been termed the "Holocaust By Bullets". These were mobile death squads responsible for the rounding up and murder of Jews in mass shooting operations. These, in addition to the death camps we are more familiar with, were a key component of the implementation of the Nazis’ plan to annihilate the Jews in Eastern Europe. This is a harrowing and until recently neglected area of Holocaust history and I think "If, By Miracle" takes us right into the heart of this history.

This is a coming of age story – Michael was only a child when he joined the partisans. He learned to fight with them and, as time went on, he taught these skills to others. The account of his first mission where he was selected by his commanders to crawl to a police station at dawn to place dynamite because he was small enough to do so will entrance anyone reading it – but especially any teenager who responds to adventure and daring.

“ …we walked through woods and fields all night long…I was camouflaged and carried dynamite in my rucksack. ..I crawled to the barbed wire fence, pulling a long cord along behind me. ….when I got there I placed the dynamite in contact with the fuse and made my way back…..after we lit the end of the cord, there was an explosion a minute or so later…for our group of partisans, especially the Jewish ones, this was quite a victory. ………we earned a great deal of respect from the non-Jews as fighters who could strike a serious blow to our enemies. My participation in that first military operation was also a personal victory in avenging the death of my family and my people….”

The story of the uprising in Michael's hometown that he later hears about is particularly interesting, as it was one of the first instances of such revolts in the Ghettos and was a precursor to the well-known one in Warsaw.

The second half of the book is a unique retelling of this young man’s escape from Europe and his eyewitness account of the coordinated efforts of so many disparate groups that enabled countless survivors to overcome the many obstacles on the way to the ancient Jewish homeland of Israel. Although Michael eventually came to Canada, prior to leaving Europe he spent many months involved in the training and support of the many thousands who ran the British blockade and formed the nucleus of the new Jewish State.

As Michael settled into his new life, he never forgot the lessons he learned as young Jewish partisan –to stand up for the underdog and, in his own words:

“I tell my story to….the young people of Canada because I feel an obligation to keep the legacy alive for future generations, to be vigilant so that the Holocaust never happens again, to recognize the rights of all peoples regardless of colour, religion or nationality, and to live together and respect one another because we are all God’s children.

–Paul Orbuch, JPEF Founding President and Chairman Emeritus

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sam Levi, born 1922

Samuel Levi was born in 1922 in Sofia, Bulgaria. His father was a grocer in their tight-knit community. Samuel was a student at the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) attending political and cultural classes in 1940, shortly before the Germans invaded Bulgaria.

Forced into a labor camp near the border with Greece, Samuel watched as Greek Jews were marched to concentration camps. The conditions in the labor camp were harsh, and as food began to run out, Samuel knew he must escape. He followed a group of Greek Jews being marched through his camp, and escaped outside the camp walls.

Rejoining the Komsomol, Samuel was in a band of partisans called La Chevdad that roamed Bulgaria, near the border with Yugoslavia. The group stayed in the high mountains or forests, to avoid capture. Conditions were difficult for the Komsomol partisans, as Samuel remembers: “We were constantly starving. We had some corn flour and water and that’s what we ate for an entire month. But we trained and we were on guard.”

It was unusual for partisans to get a full night’s rest, because of the constant dangers. The group would sleep out in the rain in the summer, but the partisans liked this, because for once they could speak to each other out loud and sing, the noise of their voices drowned out by the lighting and thunder.

Remembering a common partisan action, Samuel comments on the partisans’ cunning, “We would take their (police) uniforms in order to confuse the enemy during an operation. We would descend into the villages and they would think that we were officers and we would act.”

These partisan groups helped tremendously to prepare the groundwork for the Russians, who entered Bulgaria in 1944. Samuel recounts his feeling of impending death as a partisan: “For the one year and four months when I was a partisan, I never thought that I would remain alive. No partisan did. We knew that we could all die but die proud that we did something against the fascists.” Samuel lives today in Israel with his wife and has a son, a daughter, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Sam Levi, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sima Simieticka, Born In 1923

The eldest of two daughters, Sima Simieticka was born on March 8th, 1923 to a family of tailors in Warsaw. Her father left the family for Russia when she was only two years old – he went to the newly-established Soviet state to seek his fortunes, but instead ended up in front of the firing squad for being a Trotskyist.

Sima and her sister lived with their mother and grandfather, who both worked as tailors, often accepting bartered goods in payment for their services. The family was very poor, and often went hungry.

Despite these difficulties, Sima attended school until the age of 14. Two years later, in autumn of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and the family fled across the Bug river to Soviet-occupied territory. Unfortunately, Sima’s grandfather stayed behind.

Sima and her family ended up on a work farm, where they remained for a time, doing whatever work needed to be done. Though life under the Soviets was difficult and fraught with hidden dangers1, Sima and her family persevered.

At one of the camps, she was forced to work on a farm located outside of the camp premises. Compared to the camp, she was treated nicely there and even received extra bread rations, which she was careful to share with her mother and sister (by walking as fast as possible so she wouldn’t have time to eat it all).

When a rumor spread that her labor camp was about to be burned, she found a hiding place underneath an oven in a local hospital. She remained there for three days with ten other people, hiding in silence. Unfortunately, her mother and sister were not allowed inside the hiding place – there was not enough room or air for them. She was not the only one burdened by such difficult and harrowing moral choices – in a small, airless hiding space, the price of silence was often paid with a crying infant’s life. Her mother and sister were both gassed and then burned in the ovens.

After ten days of hiding in the cramped space, Sima decided she would rather be shot by a guard than burned alive or suffocated, so she left her hiding place. She vividly remembers her escape, how she took off her wooden shoes and crawled underneath the barbed wire. The camp was burning; it appeared that no guards remained on the premises, but she heard music coming from a watchtower, so she knew to be wary. In the bitter cold of the midwinter night, she ran to the house of the farmer she worked for. His dog recognized her and started barking, but she called out its name – “Lizek, be quiet!”

She was lucky: the farmer was friendly, and prepared a bed for her. Early the next morning, he woke her up, gave her a big breakfast, and told her where the partisans were. For one week she walked through the deep snow and across frozen rivers – only to be turned down for being Jewish by the first brigade she came across.

She did better with the next brigade – a group of about 15, which allowed her to join. The brigade accommodated Russian soldiers, some Belarussian civilians, and even a German deserter. Though she was a Jew and a woman, she was accepted because she was one of the first and worked as a nurse. She was even issued a weapon, although she never had occasion to use it, and could have easily been robbed of it by antisemitic partisans who took to harassing other Jews in the otriad. And as a young woman trying to survive on her own in the forest, she was constantly under threat from the men she lived with. “You defend yourself as long as you can. If you cannot anymore, you stop defending yourself,” Sima stated grimly.

The otriad focused on survival; when they were not on the move, they spent much of their time hiding in zemlyankas – holes in the ground covered with branches, where about 4-10 people could stand upright. They gathered food by taking supplies from peasants, and by foraging for berries and other edible growth.

The Soviet parachutists landed in the spring of 1944, bringing with them guns and liberation. Free to go wherever she wanted, she chose Lodz, arriving there on the back of a truck, uninjured and in good health. In Lodz, she was able to locate her cousins with the aid of the Joint Distribution Committee. They had returned there as well, after surviving the deportations to Siberia.


Sima and her husband Stanley

Eventually, Sima met her husband and together they immigrated to Germany. Though Sima received an offer and the necessary immigration papers from her uncle to join him in Brazil, Sima’s husband refused to leave Germany and give up his career in medicine to become a tailor in a foreign land. Consequently, they remained in Germany for the rest of their lives.

Jessica Tannenbaum, Sima’s daughter in law, visited JPEF's offices last spring from Weiden, Germany, sharing Sima's story of resistance and survival and cherished photos and mementos. Committed to perpetuating the Jewish partisan legacy and ensuring that the tragedy of the Holocaust is remembered, Jessica devotes several days each week volunteering as a multilingual docent at the Flossenberg Concentration Camp, where she educates children and adults from all over the world.


1. On one occasion, the local Soviet administration asked all the refugees where they eventually wanted to end up. Nothing happened to those who said “Russia”, but anyone who said “Poland” or “Warsaw” was deported to Siberia. Some of Sima’s cousins were deported there in this fashion.