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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Jewish Partisan hero Mira Shelub turns 101 on January 13, 2023

"Somehow, you know, when we came out from them, from the ghetto, I cannot tell you how good it felt to breathe the fresh air, to know that we are free, to know that we can go. Okay, there were difficulties, obstacles, but we knew that we can go, that nobody will stop us, to breathe the fresh air, to see the trees. It was something, a special, special experience and then we came to the forest. We came to the forest and then, and we were lucky enough, I mention again that we were nice, young, pretty so they accepted us, and we joined the Partisans." — Mira Shelub.

A Polish Jew born in what is now Belarus, Mira Shelub joined a partisan group that operated in the forest near her native Zdziedciol at the age of 18. With her family, she escaped Zdziedciol’s ghetto in 1942 as the Germans began killing off the population.

Mira’s group engaged in sabotage against the Nazis and their Polish collaborators by disrupting communications and transportation to the war front. They blew up trains, attacked police stations, and stole food that had been provided for the Germans by peasants.

In Mira’s group, women comprised about a quarter of the partisans. They did the cooking, took care of the laundry and provided other vital support.

Nochim Shelub
While working with the partisans, Mira met her husband Nochim, who was the leader of the group. Nochim had first been in a mixed group run by Russians. However, anti-Semitism was common among the non-Jewish resistance fighters, and so he decided to form his own unit, though he still continued to coordinate activities with the Russians.

On a few attacks, Mira carried extra ammunition for her husband’s machine gun. In the summer, the unit slept on the ground in the open forest; during winter they took refuge in underground huts (called zemlyankas), or with sympathetic peasant families. Constant movement was a necessity to avoid detection. When it snowed, they had to alter their tracks into confusing patterns so that they could not be followed. Mira recounts:

“In the forest, we did not only fight a physical battle, but also a spiritual battle. We were sitting around the fire, singing songs together, supporting each other and dreaming about betters days and a better future… a better tomorrow.”

After the Russian liberation in 1944, the couple made their way to Austria, then finally to the United States, where Mira had contacts with relatives. They settled in San Francisco, and soon after Norman opened a sandwich shop near the Embarcadero. They had three children – a daughter and two sons. Mira lives in San Francisco and continues speaking with students and educators about her Jewish partisan experience.

In February 2019, JPEF Director of Development and Outreach Sheri Rosenblum enjoyed a lovely visit with Mira and her daughter Elaine in San Francisco.

Mira recounts the extraordinary story of her partisan experience in her memoir Never the Last Road: A Partisan's Life. Visit for more about Mira Shelub, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Jewish Partisan Lilka (Ticktin) Bielski (z''l) – born January 13, 1926

Lilka Ticktin was born in Bialystock, Poland, on January 13, 1926. Before she was a year old, her family settled in Novogrudok. Her mother, Zina, was from a well-to-do, cultured family. Her father, Alter, had a thriving business collecting rags and processing them in multiple warehouses to produce paper. The Ticktin family was well-known in the shtetl, and often paid for weddings, a bris, or a Shabbos meal for those who couldn’t afford it.

Lilka went to a local Hebrew school, then followed in the footsteps of her older brother, Meir, and attended high school in Bialystock. At the age of 13, her mother got sick and passed away. Relatives came to stay with the children, until Lilka was sent back to Bialystock to finish her schooling. Her father eventually remarried. The new stepmother was a divorced, single mother, who worked as a seamstress to make ends meet. 

When the Russians invaded the area, and the family fled to Lida, moving into a small apartment. Alter also brought his wife’s family to Lida, including her two sisters, and her mother.

Meanwhile, Lilka’s friend lived in the same building as Tuvia Bielski, who was working in Lida as a bookkeeper. The two young girls were captivated by him and often spied on Tuvia through the window. Once, he caught them, finding their infatuation amusing, and offered to take them to the movies.

In 1941, the Germans bombed Lida, and the family escaped to the countryside, staying with peasants. When things calmed down, they went home. Tuvia also left Lida, returning to his family home in Stenkevich. When the Germans entered Lida, the Jewish population was divided into three ghettos: Postawska, Koszarowa, and Piaski. Lilka remembers that she did not feel particularly afraid, and even regarded some of the Germans as friends.  

All that changed later when the SS entered the picture. The evening of May 7, 1942, all three ghettos were fenced in. The next day, the Germans went house to house, rounding up all the Jews. Lilka was taken out with her family, wearing only a nightgown and shoeless. All the Jews were lined up and told to go to either the right or the left. Because her stepbrother was of use to the Germans, he had special privileges and he, his mother, Alter, and Lilka were told to go left. His aunt and grandmother joined those going right. When the selection was finished, those who went to the right were marched out of town, lined up by a pit, and shot by the Germans. Over 5,500 Jews were massacred. Those who remained in the ghetto were herded into one small area and told to be ready for work at 6 AM the next morning. 

Tuvia, meanwhile, after seeing his family killed by the Nazis, had taken refuge in the woods surrounding Stenkevich, together with his brothers, and a handful of family members. He sent letters into the ghetto, urging the Jews to leave immediately, before they were killed. He wrote, “I don’t promise anything, but at least you’ll be free.” Alter insisted that he was staying where he was, adamant that he would share his fate with his fellow Jews.

One night, Lilka was awakened by her father shaking her and saying, “Get dressed, we are leaving tonight.” She was stunned by her father’s change of heart, but quickly got ready. Alter told her, “I dreamed that you survive. I’m not sure about me, but in my dream, you live through this.” They crawled under a fence, and remained crawling for a full kilometer, until they were met by Tuvia. He sent them to the family camp with his brother, Asael. That group now numbered twenty-one.

There were grumblings among the seventeen already in the group about adding more mouths to feed and take care of, but Tuvia was insistent that he would save as many Jews as he could. It became his primary mission: “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazis”, Lilka remembers him saying.

The group continued to grow; first, friends and relatives, and then Jews they had never met, who escaped from the ghettos or from trains bound for the extermination camps, motivated in part by knowing they had a place to go – The Bielski Camp. Hunger was widespread in the area and the Jewish refugees, the Belarusian peasants, and the Nazi army, all competed for what little food there was.  

The Bielski partisans regularly sent out food missions, to help procure food for their growing numbers. Alter insisted on joining one of these missions. At age 49, he was considered old and entitled to stay behind at the camp. Even though a tearful Lilka begged him not to go, he insisted on joining the group. That was the last time she saw her father. The group was out late, and the sun was rising.  Rather than risk discovery in the dawning light, they opted to stay in the house of a local farmer until night fell again. The Nazis came and slaughtered them all, save for one, who hid beneath a stove. 

Almost a year later, Lilka’s stepmother became extremely ill with the flu. Her son decided to bring her to the home of local peasants, where her sister had been in hiding. The Nazis discovered them, and they were slaughtered. 

Now, two years after she left Lida for the camp, Lilka found herself all alone. But the relationship between Lilka and Tuvia had been growing. At first, he would just make sure she always had enough to eat, and always showed her kindness and compassion for her circumstances. Soon, the awe and admiration the young Lilka had for the commander turned to mutual love. Tuvia continued to look out for Lilka and they eventually married in the woods. The marriage that lasted for 45 years, until Tuvia’s death in 1987. Lilka never looked for any privilege as the Commander’s wife, and she often did her part, standing guard over the camp overnight, gun in hand. She made formal reports to the Commander in the morning about the night’s activities.

As the Commander’s wife, she also played the part of hostess, entertaining the leaders of the Russian partisans. It was vital for the group to be of use to the Russian Otriads (or brigades), so they provided leather boots and gun repair in the workshops of the Shtetl Bielski, as it became known.

Despite the misgivings of those in the group, Tuvia felt it was vitally important that they accept all Jews into the community.  “As a small group, we have no chance,” he said, “we will survive in the woods, at least some of us. If we stay in the ghetto, we will all perish.”

The group, eventually numbering over 1,200 people, survived the war. In July of 1944, as the Red Army advanced and the Nazis retreated in panic. The day of liberation came unexpectedly. Much of the group returned to Novogrudok, but found their homes were now occupied by the local peasants. 

Lilka and Tuvia soon realized they had to leave Novogrudok; Tuvia was too well known, and they found out the NKVD, the predecessor to the KBG, was looking for him.  Tuvia and his brother Zus, along with their wives, Lilka and Sonia, and younger brother Aron, boarded a train heading west. It was a treacherous journey, as they were stopped numerous times by the NKVD.

They continued west, through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, where they settled for some time. While living in Romania, the group was contacted by a Zionist organization, promising legal passage to Palestine.  

They boarded the ship to Palestine and arrived in the promised land just in time for Israel’s war for independence. Tuvia went from fighting in one war to fighting in another. Lilka gave birth to a girl in Palestine in 1946. Tuvia and Lilka and their infant girl, Ruth, were given housing in the settlement called Holon, south of Tel Aviv. 

Eventually, war broke out during the fight for Israel’s independence. Tuvia was involved in the fighting but assured a worried Lilka that he would return soon. It was Yom Kippur, and he still hadn’t returned. Lilka knew something was wrong.  She walked to the military headquarters to see if she could get any news. They explained that the truck Tuvia was traveling in had been blown up in the desert and all of the occupants killed.

With a heavy heart, Lilka returned to Holon. Night fell, and she prepared to sit Shiva, tearing her clothing in the Jewish tradition. Suddenly, her young daughter stood up in her crib, calling “Aba, Aba” (father). Lilka turned to the door and could not believe her eyes. There, stood Tuvia, dirty and exhausted. His truck had exploded, but he had survived and walked through the desert for three days to return to his family.

In 1952, Lilka had another baby, a boy, who they named Meir Aztzmon, after Lilka’s brother. Ruth affectionately nicknamed him Mickey.

Tuvia soon began to develop health problems and was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer. At the urging of two brothers, who had immigrated to the United States prior to the war, he made the journey to New York in 1955 for an operation. Lilka and her two children followed in 1956, where they eventually added a third child, son Robert. Lilka lived a fairly ordinary life in Brooklyn, raising her children and adjusting to life in a new country. She enjoyed watching her children grow up, get married, and have children of their own. Tuvia’s family and other relatives followed, also settling in Brooklyn. Lilka loved cooking for the holidays and spent winters in her later years of her life in Hallendale, Florida. Tuvia and Lilka eventually had nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Presently, they have two more great-grandchildren on the way.

Tuvia died in June 1987 and Lilka in September 2001. They are buried side by side on a hillside in Har HaMenuchot Cemetery, overlooking Jerusalem.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Abe Asner's Military Training Helped Him Save Lives

"Grodno still was a ghetto, and lots of people went back to the ghetto like Saul, his father, his mother. And I said, “Me and my brothers, we’re not going back to the ghetto. We’re not going. We’re going to win, doesn’t matter what. If I die, I’ll die standing up — not to shoot me in the back.”
-Abe Asner
Jewish partisan Abe Asner (z''l), was born in the district of Lida, Poland on October 19, 1916. In 1938, Abe followed in the footsteps of his brothers and joined the Polish army. On June 22, 1941, Abe was visiting a cousin in Lithuania when he awoke to the sight of German planes littering the sky with bombs. When German tanks surrounded the ghetto where Abe and his brothers were staying, they had to make a choice: stay among the 3,000 Jews who were facing imminent death or flee to the forests. Abe disappeared into the trees with nothing but the clothes on his back.

The forest proved to be a breeding ground for resistance fighters. Soon Abe was among 60 Jewish and Russian POWs running missions. His military training gave him the skills to kill German soldiers who attempted to search the dense forest. In the beginning, Abe thought the resistance would only last a few weeks. It continued for over four years, and their partisan unit grew to several thousand people, including the woman who became Abe’s wife.

Abe and his brothers were successful on many missions. They sabotaged enemy supplies, halted German food convoys, and rescued Jews from ghettos. They frustrated the Germans with their efficiency under the cover of darkness. “The night was our mother,” Abe remembers. Eventually the Germans placed a bounty on their heads. “So much money to catch us, dead or alive,” Abe recalls.

The ongoing violence of the Partisan missions wore away at Abe’s psyche. When the war finally ended, he worked hard to adjust to normal life. Despite the physical and emotional scars he carried, Abe knew his deeds helped to shape the lives of countless people.

Abe’s passion burned brightly when he recalled his partisan days. “We don’t go like sheep. We did as much as we could. We did a lot,” he said. “People should know somebody did (fight back). People should know.”

After the war Abe moved to Canada with his wife where they had two daughters and four grandchildren. Abe passed away on May 26, 2015 at the age of 98.

Visit for more about Abe Asner, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 7, 2022

Sukkot, the Holocaust, and Spiritual Resistance

As Sukkot 1941 approached, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto were in tremendous peril. Food was running scarce, and Jews were desperate to gather whatever resources they could, no matter the cost. But for a few days of that fateful year, the crowds did not seek food, form lines to exchange heirloom jewelry for sundries, or stand for hours for a chance at obtaining enough sustenance for their families Instead, they waited to bless the miraculous appearance of the four species celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkot: etrog, lulav, hadas, and aravah.

In the spirit of true non-violent resistance, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto chose to celebrate in the face of loss, death, and violence. The leader of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to gather the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrogs (citron) were not only scarce, but practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time. However, as though it too intended to take its part in the resistance, the etrog appeared and was brought back into the ghetto.

Though outlooks were becoming grim due to recent violence and worsening conditions, Jews from all classes and levels of religious commitment came to stand under the makeshift sukkah. Despite the severe scarcity of firewood in the ghetto, an amount was specially set aside to build the sukkah. A single act of celebration became a moment of courageous resistance, with residents of the Lodz Ghetto choosing not only to celebrate holidays in defiance of Nazi policy, thereby endangering themselves, but also by dedicating precious resources for ritual use.

This Sukkot, standing underneath your own sukkah with etrogim, think not only of a bountiful new year’s beginning, but of the atmosphere in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941: frigid, destitute, oft hopeless, and yet, under the sukkah, brave, defiant, and proudly Jewish. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Featured Jewish Partisan - Marisa Diena, born on September 29th

"They didn’t know that I was Jewish. It didn’t cross my mind because there, like I said, everyone thought that I was Mara... But there was also Ulisse, Polifemo, Lampo, Fulmine ... they all had battle names. You didn’t know anything about anyone. It wasn’t important. So most people didn’t know that I was Jewish."
— Marisa Diena.

Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy on September 29, 1916. Marisa was 8 years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy and was taught to love Fascism. In 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, which banned Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.

After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique. Since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion. As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to her commander. 

In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.
In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. 

After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa remained in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children. She passed away on May 8, 2013.

Visit for more about Marisa Diena, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.