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Thursday, March 21, 2024

Leon Senders (z''l), disrupted the Nazi war machine as a radio operator with the Soviet partisans after escaping the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto

Leon Senders, a Jewish partisan from Vilna, disrupted the Nazi war machine as a radio operator with the Soviet partisans. Leon was born on March 19, 1923, to a secular Jewish family with strong Socialist sympathies. Though Vilna is the historic capital of Lithuania, it was at the time controlled by Poland, which had occupied the city in the aftermath of World War I, during a territorial dispute. Leon’s father was an oven-maker, and they enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life. As a high school student, he attended a technical school, gaining mechanical experience that would prove invaluable during the war.

When Poland was split by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, the Soviet Union annexed Vilna, returning it to Lithuania, and Leon and his family were shielded from much of the violence for several more years. In 1941, however, the Germans broke the pact and invaded eastward. Leon was returning from a factory picnic in the countryside when the German Luftwaffe bombed Vilna.

Though he found his apartment building smoldering in ruins, his family was staying with his grandparents and survived the bombing. Since Vilna was a major hub for Europe’s Jewish community and had a half-dozen Jewish newspapers, Leon’s family grimly kept up with the latest news out of Germany and Poland – so they understood all were in danger once the Nazis arrived. Later in the streets, when a group of local Jewish boys invited Leon to escape to Russia with them, his father urged him to go, saying:
“Go, you are a youngster. You are…eighteen years old…If anything will happen, people like you and your boys will go first into the...camps.’”
With no clear destination other than ‘east’ and no plans for the future other than escape, Leon said goodbye to his family and left Vilna. Leon's father, mother, and younger sister ultimately perished at the hands of the Nazis. His older sister was the only immediate family of his to survive. She eventually settled in Israel after the war.

When the railroad stopped working after the Germans bombed it, Leon and his companions hitched a ride into Soviet territory with the retreating Russians. By the time Leon ended up in Penza1, where he was scheduled to work at a tractor repair center, all of his acquaintances had either dispersed or joined the newly-formed Lithuanian division of the Soviet army (since non-Jewish Lithuanians did not consider the Nazis a threat and chose to stay where they were, the division was full of young Jewish men who fled to Russia).

Leon eventually decided to do the same, but had to beg to join the Lithuanian division, as he was not yet of age. His technical background saved him from the high casualty rate of the front lines – he was sent to Moscow to learn Morse Code, the art of deciphering telegraphs, and radio operation. For a year he spent his days going to school, living in a dormitory, sleeping in a bed and socializing with young men and women his age – a true luxury at the time for a young man in his position.

In October 1943, armed with an automatic rifle and a short wave radio, Leon parachuted into the Lithuanian forest to join up with the partisans in the area. Some of the partisans were old acquaintances of his from Vilna – when they told him of the horrors of ghetto life and the German atrocities, he was stunned with disbelief.
"I couldn't understand even what...they are talking about - I never heard about anything 'ghetto' was something brand new, I couldn't understand it."
Leon’s job was to be the line of communication between the partisans and the regular army. The town he was sent to was a railroad junction by the border. It was of vital strategic importance to the German occupiers – because of the difference in the gauge between the Russian rails and the narrower German/Prussian type, all supply shipments had to be reloaded onto a different train at this junction, providing the partisans with ample opportunity for reconnaissance and sabotage.

Leon Senders with his future wife Brenda

Leon used a network of local informants to monitor German movements, and he telegraphed his findings to the Soviet military through a series of coded messages. The information he provided was crucial in carrying out bombings on German supply shipments. He used a network of paid informants to gather and verify information – the more informants who had the same story, the more likely it was to be true.

To make life easier for himself back in Moscow, Leon concealed his Jewish identity, bleaching his hair blond with peroxide. He also spoke Polish, Russian, German, and Lithuanian. These proved to be almost as invaluable as the technical training. Often dressed like a shepherd or in other worn-out peasant clothing, Leon was so good at disguising his identity he was once kicked out of a farmer’s house by the very German agent who was sent to the area to track him down – the German wanted some food from the farmer, and objected to the presence of ‘Lithuanian swine’ at his lunch.

The work entailed other dangers as well. So the enemy would not triangulate his position from the transmissions he beamed to Moscow, the radio had to be constantly on the move, often as far as 9 miles out of the way. The battery he carried was as big as a brick and heavier than one; sometimes, it malfunctioned, and he would have to scavenge batteries from the villages and string them together to power the radio. Sometimes, the radio had trouble broadcasting the signal, and at other times it would take him the entire day to send just one message; this would slow down the unit and could have even resulted in his accidental abandonment.

After the war’s end, Leon ended up at a DP camp in Italy, where he met his wife Brenda, also a former Jewish partisan. They emigrated to the US in 1951, where they raised three children together. Leon passed away on Thursday, July 18, 2013. Of his work, Leon said, “I would like the partisans to be remembered as a part of victory… Without them victory would be smaller than the victory that we brought to the world.”

Leon and Brenda Senders at their wedding - November 2, 1946

Leon (z''l) and Brenda (z''l) at their Florida home

Leon and Brenda with their children and grandchildren on their 50th Anniversary in 1996.

1. A mid-sized city about 400 miles southeast of Moscow that took in many of the refugees fleeing eastward.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

"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 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.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Miriam Brysk – born March 10, 1935 –Child Holocaust Survivor and Partisan


Miriam (Mirka) Miasnik Brysk was born on March 10, 1935, in Warsaw, Poland. She was the only child of Bronka and Dr. Chaim Miasnik, and her parents affectionately called her by her nickname “Mirele.” She grew up on Zelazna Street, with her father’s medical office adjoining their apartment. Her father was a well-known and respected surgeon, an occupation that would later save their lives. She received much love and attention from her extended relatives and grandparents, and she grew especially close to her maternal Aunt Ala, who lived nearby.

When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Miriam was four years old. The Russians urged able-bodied men to cross into Soviet-occupied Poland. Her father and uncles had gone ahead to Lida, where the family planned to reunite. After Poland fell to the Nazis, Miriam, her mother, and Aunt Ala fled for the border that partitioned German-occupied and Soviet-occupied Poland. They arrived in Lida, where they reunited with Miriam’s father and her uncles, Sevek and Tadek. Despite the chaos around her, Miriam felt comfortable in Lida. She enjoyed nature, picking delicious crisp apples from the orchard in the fall and juicy berries in the summer. Miriam felt she didn’t lack for anything, except that she desperately missed her grandparents in Warsaw.

In the summer of 1941, Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Once again, Miriam heard the roaring of low-flying planes, this time over Lida. They invaded in the early morning; her father and uncles had already left for work. As flames engulfed the city, Miriam, her mother, and Aunt Ala fled to the outskirts of town. After the fires died down, the trio returned to their home which was miraculously still standing. Miriam was overjoyed to be reunited with her father and uncles. However, the retreating Soviet Army ordered able-bodied men to report for military duty. Failure to report was punishable by death. Miriam’s Uncle Sevek had received a call-up notice and was forced to report for service.

The Germans bombed Lida again, this time with greater fury as their grip tightened around the city. On Friday, June 27, 1941, German ground troops entered the city. The following day, the Gestapo SS and SD stormtroopers were sent to kill the Jews of Lida. Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David on their clothing, and anti-Jewish decrees were enforced. Jewish professionals were ordered to come forward and identify themselves. While this group included Miriam’s father, he was spared from death. He was a surgeon and therefore “useful” to the Nazis, as he could operate on wounded Nazi soldiers.

The Lida Ghetto was established in November-December 1941. Thousands of Jews were forced into a dilapidated part of Lida and crowded into small houses. Jewish men and women were ordered to do forced labor, and a Judenrat (Jewish Council) and Jewish Police Force were put into action to enforce Nazis’ commands under the threat of death.

Ghetto life was a slow death as fear, disease, and malnutrition pervaded Miriam’s daily existence. The ghetto was sealed on May 7, 1942. The following day, the Nazis massacred the Jews in the first large aktion. The SS and local collaborators surrounded the ghetto and attacked the Jews with metal pipes and butts of guns. Miriam clung to her parents as they were forced into the streets at the crack of dawn. Terror, panic, and fear consumed Miriam as her mother tried to help a woman cover her baby but was hit from behind and forced to retreat.

They were ordered to assemble and march to the outskirts of Lida. They could hear machine guns fire in the distance as they came to an intersection. The Gebietskommissar and the SS examined papers and waved them in one of two directions: Aunt Ala and Uncle Tadek were sent to the left, while Miriam and her parents were sent to the right—to death.

Soldiers beat them to make them run faster. As they ran, the sound of gunfire grew louder and closer. Amidst the noise and chaos, soldiers were yelling at them. One repeatedly shouted, “Doctor, go back!” Her father wore a red cross armband, and his surgical skills were vital to the Nazis. The soldier physically stopped Miriam’s family and ordered the three of them into the left line. By the narrowest of margins, they survived. The Jews in the left line were ordered to be silent, lie on the ground, and be counted. Next, they were forced to bow to the Germans in appreciation for being spared.

At dusk, they were led back to the ghetto. Soon, rumors spread that ghetto children would be murdered while their parents were doing forced labor. Miriam’s parents sent her to live with a Catholic woman whose daughter’s life Miriam’s father had saved. However, when it became apparent that the killing of the ghetto children was a rumor, Miriam returned to the ghetto and was reunited with her family. Shortly after, Aunt Ala and Uncle Tadek decided to escape the Lida Ghetto and return to Warsaw to be with their parents. Miriam never saw them again.

After the liquidation, young Jews in the ghetto began preparing to fight back. Their center of activity took place in the attic of 15 Kholodna Street, where they gathered rifles, grenades, and ammunition that was smuggled from outside the ghetto. However, many Jews were against the idea of armed resistance, convinced that working in Nazi factories would save their lives. The armed resisters left the ghetto and joined partisans in the forests.

On November 9, 1942, the partisans in the Lipiczany Forest wanted Miriam’s father in the forest because of his renowned surgical skills. “Broneczka, how can we take a child of seven into the bitter cold of winter, to an unknown place?” Miriam heard her father whisper. “This may be our only opportunity for survival,” came her mother’s response.

Miriam and her parents packed their belongings and were smuggled out the ghetto under the cover of darkness by a group of partisans. They crossed the partially frozen Niemen River and walked deep into the thick Lipiczany Forest. The forest was so dense that very little sunshine managed to penetrate through the canopies, and fog lingered among the thick undergrowth. The impenetrability of the forest made it an ideal hiding place, as the Germans were hesitant to send their soldiers into an area so difficult to navigate.

They reached the all-Jewish partisan camp the following night. Miriam and her parents were assigned sleeping places in an underground cellar called a ziemlyanka, an earthen dugout lined with logs to insulate the floor and wooden boards to sleep on. A small fire vented to the outside, like a fireplace, to keep the space warm. Miriam was overwhelmed by the newness of this life and approached a group of armed partisans with a question. “Are you afraid of living in the cold forest?” she asked them. “We are not afraid,” they laughed. “We have guns to protect us. We are no longer living in the ghettos.” This answer made her feel safe and proud to be a Jew.

Miriam was the only child in the group. Nonetheless, she was assigned specific chores that were required for the group’s survival. She helped collect wood for fires and melted snow for drinking and washing. Her mother cooked for the camp, while her father was sent on missions to treat wounded partisans throughout the forest.

In mid-December 1942, three weeks after they arrived, they learned that a large contingent of German troops had entered the wilderness to capture and kill the partisans. Miriam’s father was away helping injured partisans. Miriam and her mother attempted to keep up with armed partisans as they ran in different directions, but they did not want a child with them in case she cried and gave them all away. Miriam and her mother joined a small, barely armed group of stragglers and headed deeper into the forest. They were cold, lost, and hungry for days, and were nearly discovered by German soldiers. They ran into various Russian partisan groups who would not give them protection. After weeks in the cold, Miriam and her mother came upon a partisan who brought them back to Miriam’s father.

Because Miriam’s father was the only surgeon in the forest, requiring him to travel to various partisan camps, the Soviet high command oversaw the establishment of a central forest hospital for the entire Lipiczany wilderness. It was constructed on a small island, surrounded by vast swamps. Her father was instrumental in recruiting forty Jews to staff the hospital along with Jews to carry out raids to secure food. Miriam and her mother were brought to live in the hospital, sharing a ziemlyanka with the hospital staff. The hospital was heavily guarded and, for additional safety, Miriam wore boys’ clothing, and her head was shaved. “Now you look like a real partisan, Mirele,” the hospital staff remarked.

The hospital expanded as more facilities were built to accommodate operating rooms and hospital beds. Miriam often watched her father operate late into the night. Because the hospital was staffed by Jews, her father convinced the raiders who went on food missions to “lose” some food along the way. This lost food went to family camps, an action that was undertaken with secrecy so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Russians in charge. Acts of anti-semitism occurred daily, as Jews were singled out by Russian partisans.

Disguised as a boy, Miriam helped around the hospital by carrying large wooden logs used for making fires or building new structures and assisted the nurses in sterilizing materials for surgeries. In addition, she often cleaned the partisan machine guns and rifles because her small hands were an asset. On her eighth birthday, Miriam’s parents gave her a pistol. She felt like a true partisan.

In the early summer of 1944, the Soviet Army liberated the east. The partisans converged to meet the liberators, hugging and saluting them with tears in their eyes. For Miriam, it was a time of both joy and deep sorrow for all she had lost during the war.

After the liberation, the Soviets sent them to the nearby hamlet of Szczuczyn. Her father was awarded the Order of Lenin, one of the highest medals bestowed in the Soviet Union. However, they were not content to settle for life under communism, nor to endure the rampant anti-semitism in post-war Europe. Miriam’s parents each had brothers who were living in America and decided to try and reunite with them. Young Miriam could not even imagine a place on earth not ravaged by war.

Miriam and her parents traveled through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania before arriving in a Displaced Persons camp in Allied-occupied Austria. They were then transported to Italy by Jewish soldiers who were part of Bricha, a clandestine operation that helped Jews escape post-war Europe to Israel. While Miriam longed to immigrate to Israel, her parents decided that America would be best because they had family there. With her uncles’ sponsorship, Miriam and her parents left Naples, Italy, and sailed to Brooklyn on the Marine Falcon in February 1947.

Miriam was struck by the naivete of Americans towards the war and resented their remarks that dismissed her war experiences because she was a child. She struggled in school, trying to catch up for all the years she had lost, and her relationship with her parents was strained. Miriam felt alone and abandoned in her pain, devoid of love and support.

However, life changed for the better in 1955 when Miriam graduated from New York University, an accomplishment for which she had struggled long and hard. She was passionate about science and majored in biology and chemistry. Around this time, Miriam’s cousin introduced her to Henry Brysk, a young physicist and assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. They were married in June 1955.

Miriam and Henry have two daughters, Judy and Havi, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, with another great-grandchild on the way. Miriam earned her M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Michigan, and Ph.D. in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Columbia University. She is Professor Emeritus, was the director of Dermatology Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, and has published eighty-five peer-reviewed scientific research manuscripts.

After returning to Eastern Europe in 2002, Miriam decided to write her memoir Amidst the Shadow of the Trees, and channel her suffering and pain into art. She has made a commitment to spend the rest of her life remembering the Holocaust through writing, art, music, and poetry.

Miriam has created three large bodies of art, In a Confined SilenceChildren of the Holocaustand Scroll of Remembrance along with 25 solo art exhibits and several works that are in the permanent art collection at Yad Vashem. In addition to her memoir, Miriam is also the author of Etched in My Memoryand The Stones Weep: Teaching the Holocaust Through a Survivor’s Art.

You can find Miriam’s work on her website:

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sima Simieticka, Born In 1923

The eldest of two daughters, Sima Simieticka was born on March 8, 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.

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 in spring 2013 from Weiden, Germany, sharing Sima's story of resistance and survival, as well as cherished photos and mementos. Committed to perpetuating the Jewish partisan legacy and ensuring that the tragedy of the Holocaust is remembered.

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.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Bring Jewish Women in the Partisans to Women's History Month with JPEF's Resources

March 2024 marks the 44th Women's History Month. 
JPEF's website
has an extensive library of easily accessible resources and lesson plans to help educators and parents teach about the history of women in the Jewish partisans.

So many brave women — young and old alike — fought back to defeat the Germans and their collaborators. JPEF is proud to share these women's stories. Please check out the following resources on our website:

* Curriculum, film, and related historical links can be found on the Women in the Partisans Resource Page.

* Everyday the Impossible: Jewish Women in the Partisans
is a 15-minute film about the women who made up less than 10 percent of the partisans. The film introduces viewers to eight Jewish partisans as we hear their firsthand experiences from the partisan camps.

A Partisan Returns is a riveting story of former Bielski partisan Lisa Reibel's escape from the Novogrudek ghetto, and her journey back to visit her home nearly 65 years later.

Pictures of Resistance is JPEF's traveling photographic exhibit, showcasing pictures taken by Faye Schulman, the only known Jewish partisan photographer.

Consider reading these five excellent books about Jewish women partisans, all of which are featured on the JPEF website:
* Background, in-depth information, and great techniques for teaching about Jewish women partisans in your classroom is the focus of JPEF's online course, which awards CEUs.

Please be sure to visit our Jewish Partisan Community website to read the learn about the more than 40 women who fought as Jewish partisans, whose biographies we have published since 2017.