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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Celebrating the 89th Birthday of Joe Kubryk - Born July 1, 1926

"We had a very difficult time in the partisans among our own soldiers. What happened is we had Ukrainians, we had Poles, we had Polish soldiers that escaped from the prisons of Juaros and came to the partisans. And we had Russians. None of them really liked the Jews."
- Joe Kubryk on being a Jewish partisan.

Joe Kubryk was born in the Russian Ukraine, not far from Odessa, on July 1, 1926. Before the war, the Kubryk family didn’t experience much antisemitism, but after the war broke out, Joe’s village was filled with Ukrainian fascists, who cooperated with the Germans to kill Jews. When Joe saw the Germans rounding up his classmates, he knew he had to run for his life. In August 1941, not long after his friends were taken by the Nazis, Joe left the village. He found a Ukrainian farmer who hired him as a farmhand. The man didn’t think Joe was a Jew because he spoke Ukrainian perfectly. While Joe cried himself to sleep at night, he never let anyone see him doing it. He didn’t want to explain why he was crying.

Near the end of 1941, Russian partisans came scavenging for food at Joe’s farm. Curious, he asked them who they were. “Russian partisans,” came the reply. “Who are you?” When they heard he was Jewish and alone in the world, they said, “You are one of us,” and took him to a camp in the forest of Drohobicz. A few months after Joe arrived, a junior secret service was formed. Joe and the other teenagers began serious training in spying — learning how to recognize guns, artillery pieces and officers’ insignia. They were “toughed-up” in the training, taught secret codes and the rules of espionage. The Junior Secret Service spied on German troops. Platoon by platoon, they counted men, checked equipment, noted who the ranking officers were and where they were camped. They also provided information to saboteurs who mined bridges and railroads to disrupt German military activity. Joe still bears the shrapnel scars he received during gunfights with the German army, and a German bombardment left him deaf in one ear.

After the war, Joe worked for the Bricha, the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel. Joe fought in Israel’s War of Independence and worked for the Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, before moving to America, where he became a successful businessman.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joe Kubryk, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Our study guides section also contains a guide titled Joe Sasha Kubyrk: Teenage Partisan Spy.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Shalom Yoran - The Defiant

Shalom Yoran was born Selim Sznycer in 1925 in Warsaw, Poland. When Shalom was 15 years old, his family fled eastwards, leaving the Nazi-occupied area of Poland for the Soviet side. A year later, though, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the Yoran family found their new home, the village of Kurzeniec, occupied by the Nazis. Two years later, in 1942, the Nazis situated a Russian POW camp in Kurzeniec, where the prisoners were treated brutally. Shalom first learned about the partisans through rumors told to him by escaped Soviet POWs. The day before Yom Kippur 1942, the order was given to liquidate the Kurzeniec ghetto.

Shalom was given an early warning, but his family wasn't as lucky. Having managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, Shalom and his brother Musio listened as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. They later found out their parents were among them. The farmer whose barn he found himself hiding in turned out to be friendly, and the brothers safely made it to the woods - the Naroch puscha - where they found many other survivors hiding out. Shalom reasoned that it was only a matter of time before the Germans conduct an organized raid on the forest, so the brothers decided to leave the area. Having recruited three of the younger refugees to follow them, the boys spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where they built a zemlyanka for shelter and lived off mostly a large store of food they took from local farmers.


Detailed map of Shalom's journey through northeastern Poland

At first, they resorted to stealing and begging, but Shalom eventually got an idea: he fashioned the tops of his boots into a holster, and whittled a wooden handle to look like the one on a Soviet Nagan revolver. No longer needing to steal potatoes in the dead of night, Shalom now demanded provisions, brandishing his holstered "weapon". The balance between menace and generosity was of vital importance, and for a long time the peasants did not suspect anything. However, one night as they ventured into the village one last time to acquire matches, an angry mob chased them down and beat them with sticks. Though he was robbed of all his clothing, Shalom miraculously escaped with his life, and even managed to avoid frostbite as he ran barefoot through the snow. Luckily, all five of the group survived the assault and managed to return to the zemlyanka.

In the spring of 1943, Shalom and the group ventured out of their hiding area. By this time, the tide was turning for the Nazi war effort and the German army was suffering serious setbacks both in Africa and on the Eastern Front. On the road to Zazierie, the boys encountered fellow survivors of the Kurzeniec ghetto, and a group of partisans roaming the village. Since neither he nor his group had weapons, Shalom was denied entry into the group — a common practice among the partisans. Unsure of what to do, Shalom and his brother stayed in the puscha. Though their winter companions went their separate ways, they were joined by others, including some escapees from a labor camp in Vileika.

Shalom and his companions spent the rest of the spring trying to join the partisan groups roaming the area, but without weapons, they received the same reply every time. Finally, a partisan commander relented and offered them a deal: they would be allowed into the partisans if they returned to Kurzeniec and burned down a factory that made wooden rifle butts. For this mission, they were given a handgun with a single bullet and two hand grenades. Despite the suicidal odds, they were successful. However, when they returned to the partisan camp, they were met by a different officer, who took away their weapons and reprimanded them, threatening to shoot them if they didn't leave. Turns out the Russian partisans never figured on the group taking the mission - much less succeeding - and had no intention of letting Jews into their group. Little did they know that the group's commanding officer - the one who initially gave the Jews the assignment - was himself a Russian Jew.

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

After his work with the specgruppa, Shalom heard rumors of the formation of an all-Jewish otriad, organized by one Colonel Markov, who by that time had a brigade of over a thousand partisans under his command. He was in contact with the FPO in Vilna, and their members formed the core of an all-Jewish otriad called Miest - the Russian word for "revenge". Since they brought weapons, Shalom and his companions were readily accepted into the unit. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit ambushed the retreating German troops, cutting communication lines, blowing up bridges, and destroying railroads. Shalom in British uniformThe unit was disbanded and merged with another otriad some months later. This would not be the last all-Jewish unit Shalom belonged to during the war - and, unfortunately, not the last to be disbanded by the Soviet high command.

When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom and the rest of his comrades were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war.

In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British Military passport, joining the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. Shalom became a leader in the Israeli aerospace industry.

Shalom moved to the US in 1979 where he lived with his wife, artist Varda Yoran. Shalom passed away on September 9, 2013 leaving a tremendous legacy.

In 2003, he published his memoir, The Defiant: A True Story of Escape, Survival & Resistance. The book, written shortly after the Shoah but rediscovered many years later, is dedicated to his parents. Click here to listen to Larry King reading excerpts from the book.


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

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jewish Partisans Charles Bedzow and Leah Johnson Escaped the Lida Ghetto

With the help of Tuvia Bielski, siblings Charles Bedzow and Leah Johnson escaped the Lida ghetto before its residents were rounded up, shot and tossed into mass graves. Their biographies are available on the Partisans section of our main website. Charles Bedzow (born Chonon Bedzowski) and Leah Johnson (born Leah Bedzowski) grew up in Lida, a Polish town located in present-day Belarus. When they were in their mid-teens, the Nazis invaded Poland and confined Lida’s Jewish population into a ghetto, where their family lived in overcrowded, pest-infested quarters. Miraculously, the siblings' immediate family escaped the massacres that followed months later.

Convinced no one would be spared, the Bedzowskis were resolute to get out. Help came from Tuvia Bielski – the Bielskis knew the Bedzowskis, and Tuvia managed to get a letter to them to ask if they would join him and his brothers. They escaped the ghetto to join the Bielski brigade in the woods, where both Charles and Leah served as scouts, stood guard, and went on supply-gathering missions, among other things.

Charles and Leah survived the war with the Bielski camp and escaped to a DP camp in Torino. They and their families – both were now married – immigrated across the Atlantic to Canada.

Read the biographies here:

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mourning the Loss of Jewish Partisan Abe Asner (z''l)

"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

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation mourns the loss this week of Abe Asner (z''l), who 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 22nd, 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 the 60-some Jews 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 in many missions, ranging from sabotaging enemy supplies to halting German food convoys to rescuing 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 carries, Abe knows 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 says. “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. May his memory be a blessing.

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

People Who Resisted: Paul Rusesabagina, Rwandan Humanitarian

Paul Rusesabagina’s story was adapted in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, along with the events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His humanitarian efforts during the 1994 Rwandan genocide preserved the lives of 1,268 refugees during the 100 days of mass killings that took 800,000 Rwandan lives.

In 1994, Rusesabagina was the general manager at a hotel in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, where he lived with his wife and children. He is of Hutu descent, his wife, Tutsi. The two major ethnic groups of Rwanda, Hutus are the largest group and Tutsis had been put in a place of power by the colonizing Belgians until 1959. On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president, who was Hutu, was assassinated when his plane was shot down, setting spark to an ethnic tension that was already on edge.

Following the assassination, Hutu government officials collectively organized military squads to exterminate Tutsis, whom they maligned through propaganda claiming Tutsis were a plague to their nation and would cause its downfall. When Rusesabagina was unable to secure protection for himself and his family from the international peacekeepers, who completely underestimated the violence and terror involved, he moved them to the Hotel des Milles Collines, an international hotel that he hoped would provide a safe haven.

The hotel’s managers gradually evacuated as violence increased, leaving Rusesabagina to act as General Manager of the Milles Collines. With difficulty, he convinced staff to heed his authority as he took in refugees and orphans. He had no weapons, their only defense was the hotel’s international status and mattresses set against windows to protect from grenades and gunfire.

The Hutu militia announced an ensuing attack on the Milles Collines, a special target was Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatianna, who is Tutsi. She and their children were able to desperately steal away to the airport while Rusesabagina remained at the Hotel, a decision that came down to Rusesabagina’s belief that “so far I'm the only person who can negotiate with the killers.” To ward off the Hutu militia, Rusesabaginia frantically called upon figures abroad, who influenced the Rwandan National Police to call off the siege. Rusesabagina protected the hotel and its inhabitants until the Tutsi rebels forced Hutus out of Rwanda. He then transported Tutsi orphans to safety in Tanzania, away from the ethnic tension in Rwanda.

While other Hutus were killing neighbors, even spouses, Rusesabagina explains his resistance in true form with little pomp and due directness: “This is why I say that the individual's most potent weapon is a stubborn belief in the triumph of common decency.”

Copyright © 2006 Richard Lowkes under Creative Commons license

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Featured Jewish Partisan - Harry Burger, born on May 10th

Harry Burger was born on May 10th, 1924 in Vienna, Austria. The son of a textile merchant, Harry enjoyed an affluent and comfortable upbringing. As a child growing up in a large house, he was left to his own devices a great deal; this helped form his defiant and independent character.

The family lived in Vienna until 1938, when Germany annexed Austria and the German Nuremberg laws were put into effect there. Harry remembers the day he was barred from entering the building of his Jewish school:

“I went to school the next possible day and at the door they were waiting for me and the other Jews and says, ‘You don’t belong to this school anymore. You get out and you go to the next block or two and there’s a public school, and that’s where you’re gonna go.’ So not thinking of nothing, we went up there and I went in. They took me to a classroom and about 30 kids jumped on me and beat the heck out of me.”

As the Nazis continued with their campaigns of persecution in Austria and other occupied territories, the Burger family made plans to escape to France. They escaped through Italy (travelers did not require permits to enter an ally of Germany), where the borders were more porous.

Their hopes for a safe, quiet life were dashed when France was conquered by Germany in 1940. While trying to get a visa to Cuba, Harry’s father was arrested and detained for many months, only to be sent to Auschwitz in the end. Meanwhile, Harry and his mother remained in Nice.

In the summer of 1940, rumors of an impending German invasion were in the air. But instead of the German army, Nice and the surrounding areas in the southeast of France were occupied by the Italians – a gift from Hitler to Mussolini. The Italians were not nearly as abusive to Jews, and life under the Italians was good.

As the war progressed, Italy experienced humiliation on the battlefield and growing discontent at home. The occupation of southeastern France did not last, and the Italians eventually returned across the Alps. Harry, his mother, and 700 other Jews took the opportunity to follow them into Italy, but the Nazis were never far behind. When they arrived at an Italian fort, Harry learned the Nazis were en route to collect the Jews. Harry and his mother escaped capture, while more than 350 of the others were taken by the Nazis.

Right around this time, Italy withdrew from the war, Mussolini was deposed as a leader and the Germans were “coming to the rescue of their allies” by occupying the northern half of the country. Harry and his mother were living in a barn on the Italian-French border when he spotted a group of Italian soldiers. They told them they were leaving for the mountains because the Germans have occupied the town, and Harry asked if he could join them.

“I said to him, ‘Is there a chance that I can join you?’ And he says, ‘Sure.’ And he motioned to one of his guys and he came with a rifle and he gave me the rifle and says, ‘You know what that is?’ I says, ‘Yeah, it’s a rifle.’ ‘You know how to shoot it?’ ‘No. No idea.’ He showed me. He handed it to me and says, ‘You are now a Partisan.’”

In this fashion, Harry Burger became a partisan in the First Alpine Division, where he used his fluency in German to interrogate captured soldiers. As was the case with many Italian partisans, Harry had a nickname – his was Biancastella, after the last name of the officer with whom Harry had to exchange his civilian clothes. The officer needed civilian clothes to go into town and find out the latest war news; unfortunately, the officer never returned, and Harry was left with his uniform – and his ID card.


Harry Burger - aka "Biancastella" - in the mountains

Initially, the First Alpine Division was under-equipped; they eventually received Allied support in the form of airdropped munitions and clothing. One of the First Alpine’s most important tasks was the sabotage of German electric capabilities. In Northern Italy the train system was electrically powered, so the destruction of local electric plants seriously hindered German mobility.

After the war, Harry was reunited with his mother and returned to France. He stayed in France for five years, working as a photographer. In 1950, Harry immigrated to the United States, eventually finding photography work with two prominent television networks. Harry has one child and four grandchildren.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Harry Burger, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Harry's book about his time in the partisans - Biancastella - is available on Amazon.


Harry Burger with fellow Jewish partisan Enzo

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Featured Jewish Partisan - Solomon Lapidus

With an explosion akin to thunder, the train splintered into a thousands pieces, instantly killing the German soldiers inside. In the aftermath of the deafening explosion, no one noticed a group of men silently crawling back through an open field near the tracks, then vanishing into the nearby woods, the growing twilight reducing their movements to shadows.

One of those individuals was Solomon (Sol) Lapidus, a Jewish youth from Belarus, on his first assignment from headquarters. He was given instructions to place dynamite in such a way as to destroy the third car – his careful follow-through ensured that the train tracks located on the bridge were also devastated. His reputation for precision on assignments spread up the chain of command, and Sol became well-known throughout partisan groups as a demolitions expert.

Lapidus was born on May 10, 1923 in Minsk, Belarus. His mother was a Russian teacher, and his father ran the printing department for a newspaper. His immediate family spoke only a little Hebrew. In childhood, his main exposure to Jewish culture came from his grandfather, with whom he attended services every Shabbat. He was the middle child in a family of many siblings. His oldest brother, a well-known musician, was drafted into the army to entertain troops all over the world, and once performed for the Queen of England in London.

Lapidus did not come to be a demolitions expert through sheer talent alone. Like many other Polish children, before the war he attended camp every summer. However, since Poland knew that a war was bound to break out sooner or later, many of their camp activities actually provided youth with specific military training. He chose to learn demolition by cable, which came in handy for his first assignment as a partisan.

Sol and his wife after the war

Lapidus was drafted into the Red Army on May 10, 1941 - his eighteenth birthday. Less than two months later – on June 22, 1941 – Germany broke the non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded. The German offensive was quick and powerful, and despite the assurances of Stalin’s propaganda, it overpowered the Soviet forces in the western regions. Much of the Red Army scattered throughout the countryside – later regrouping as partisan units. For three weeks, Lapidus ran from the German soldiers with only the clothes on his back, headed east towards Smolensk. He was eventually caught and put in a POW camp in the woods near the Russia-Belarus border.

He languished in the prison camp with hundreds of Red Army POWs until August of 1941, when he and a group of others - including his commanding officer - managed to escape with the aid of local peasants, who provided wire cutters and instructions on which direction to escape to. Hours before dawn, Lapidus crawled on his stomach to the relative safety of the woods with seventeen others. During his escape, he found himself in the middle of crossfire between the Wassof partisan group and the Germans, and was wounded. Although he had only the use of a straw to cleanse his bullet wound, he recovered without complications.

Escaping deep into the woods, Lapidus went on to join the Chokulov partisan group, hiding his Jewish identity because of the antisemitism that existed within the ranks. The partisan life was primarily a means of survival, but the group also participated in a number of attacks on railroads and other targets, earning Lapidus respect within the partisan ranks for his demolition expertise.

Lapidus’s partisan encampment was located near the forest where the Bielski partisans had set up camp. Because the Bielskis sometimes worked with the Soviet partisans, Lapidus had a chance to visit the camp, where he met Tuvia Bielski for the first time in September of 1942. They quickly became friends, and Lapidus valued the kinship that an all-Jewish partisan unit provided him – after all, he could not even reveal his Jewish identity to his own otriad.

Lapidus remembers Tuvia as someone who valued the integrity of all the members in his group, and did not discriminate against anyone based on their gender or age. He had innate leadership abilities, and knew how to raise the morale of his partisans. “[Y]ou're not doing it for yourself, you're taking nekamah1 for someone else who got killed,” Tuvia once told his group. The two met at least once a week and collaborated on many joint operations.

Inspired by his love of performance arts, Lapidus organized an entertainment group made up of a dozen partisans who sang, danced and played music for nearby partisan camps. The Soviet command granted them permission to perform – the presence of partisan entertainers in the region could easily be turned into beneficial propaganda. The performances were lengthy affairs lasting one and a half to two hours. The entertainers’ reputations preceded them – they became so famous that wherever they went next, a platform stage would be awaiting them, built by the hosting otriad.

Lapidus’s younger brother fought with him in the partisans. Unfortunately, on one occasion, his brother became separated from his group during a mission, and was killed by enemy crossfire. Deeply affected by this incident, Lapidus withdrew from assignments and instead used his demolition expertise to train peasants who had recently joined as partisans.

Lapidus met his wife Ruth towards the end of the war at a concert in Lida. He already had a girlfriend whom he planned to marry, but quickly ended it after meeting his future wife, falling for her beauty and good nature. Ruth had been in Asner's partisan group, but later she joined the Bielski group. When Lapidus got sick with typhus, and his doctor passed away leaving him without the proper care, Ruth nursed him back to health and saved his life.

Looking back on his time as a partisan he states “[we] prove[d] that we are people that survive[d] because we [fought] for it, not [because] somebody else was fighting for us.”

Lapidus received many metals of honor for his bravery as a partisan, including the Order of Lenin, one of Soviet Union’s most prestigious honors. He immigrated to the United States, with Ruth where he became a successful businessman and raised his children.

– By Julia Kitlinski-Hong


1. A Hebrew word meaning 'vengeance'.

 

A condensed version of this biography will appear in the Partisan Biographies section of the JPEF website next week - with excerpts from his recent video interview with JPEF.