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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.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Rachel Margolis

Rachel Margolis was born in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, in 1921. In 1941 Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and Rachel was sent to live in hiding with a Christian family. A year later, she decided instead to move to the Vilna Ghetto; a ghetto so terrible that over the two years of its existence, the population fell from 40,000 to only a few hundred. During her time in the Vilna Ghetto, Rachel joined the Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (the United Partisan Organization), headed by Abba Kovner.

When the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, under the orders of Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, Rachel and her future husband escaped to the surrounding forests. Although they faced the constant threat of starvation and disease – not to mention capture by their oppressors – the partisans actively fought back by blowing up Nazi lines of communication.

The sole Holocaust survivor in her family, Rachel went on to gain a Ph.D. in biology and worked as a teacher until the late 1980s. In 2005, Rachel found and published the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who witnessed the Ponary massacre of 1941 to 1944, which killed up to 100,000 people, the majority of whom were Jews. In 2010, Rachel published her own memoir, A Partisan from Vilna, chronicling her early life and battle to survive Nazi oppression during World War II.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sukkot, the Holocaust, and Spiritual Resistance

Eager and apprehensive crowds were not unusual in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941. 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, had granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to obtain the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrog (citron) was 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 attitudes 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, wood 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 against Nazi policy (and therefore endanger themselves), but also to use valuable resources especially for it.

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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Yom Kippur story - Ruth Szabo Brand (1928 - 2011)

Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania. 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 as the family’s sole heir. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded almost 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 on the sweltering day, 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 in 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. Seeing her act and believing it true, 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 for the entirety of Yom Kippur.

Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur, 1944. Their adherence to their faith and belief in rituals gave them something to believe in, something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of resistance, though nonviolent and carried out silently, was symbolically enormous. The courage of Jews to retain their faith in what was essentially hell on earth is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and braveness of the defiant Jewish spirit.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Charles Bedzow

This Sunday, Jewish partisan Charles Bedzow celebrated his 90th birthday. In honor of his incredible life, here is his story.

Charles Bedzow was born Chonon Bedzowski in 1924 in the town of Lida, located in present-day Belarus. Once the Germans occupied Lida, Charles and his family were stuffed into an overcrowded, destitute ghetto within the town. He and his family suffered under the constant threat of starvation in the gradually worsening conditions. In the spring of 1942, he watched as his fellow townspeople were methodically slaughtered, but by a miracle, his immediate family was spared.

Fortunately, partisan leader Tuvia Bielski was a family friend to the Bedzowski family – the two families had been close before the war. After the occupation, Tuvia sent a message to the Bedzowski family – the message urged them to escape the liquidation of the ghetto by fleeing into the nearby woods, where the Bielskis had set up camp after the liquidation of their own village. Charles escaped to the woods and joined the Bielski Brigade. Because the Bielski camp allowed refugees regardless of their age and gender, Charles was joined by his mother, Chasia, his older sister Leah, younger sister Sonia, and younger brother Benny. Almost the entire family survived the Holocaust – an extreme rarity.

The Bedzowski family’s escape into the woods was complex and extremely dangerous. They traversed the treacherous landscape, crawling under fences and walking through the woods for two days, exhausted. Charles reported his thoughts upon arriving at the Bielski camp: “This must be one of the few places in all of Europe where Jews can move in total freedom.”

Despite the fact that, like many partisans, Charles was only 17 when he entered the Bielski Brigade, he was quickly entrusted with dangerous work. His missions included the gathering of supplies for the group, scouting, sabotaging German efforts, and participating in ambushes. One such ambush occurred on January 28th, 1944. A group of Bielski partisans went to a local village, pretending to be drunk. Their raucous noise alerted the locals, who notified the Germans nearby. 150 partisans lay in wait for the Germans, and they killed 26 policemen and 8 Nazi officers in the ambush.

Unfortunately, the Bedzowski family’s participation in the partisan movement was not without a price. On one of her missions to bring medicine and Jews to the brigade from a nearby ghetto, Charles’s sister Sonia was caught by enemy forces and sent to the Treblinka death camp, where she perished.

Following the war, the remaining members of the Bedzowski family wound up in a displaced persons camp in Torino, Italy. Charles married a fellow partisan from Poland, Sara Golcman, in 1946. In 1949 he and his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he started a successful international real estate firm. Charles and Sara had three children; his surviving brother and sister went on to raise families of their own, and his mother Chasia not only survived the war, but went on to live with Charles until her death in 2000.

Charles is JPEF’s Honorary International Chairman. His story is featured in We Fought Back, an anthology of partisan stories from Scholastic publishing. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Charles Bedzow, including three videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.

Friday, September 12, 2014

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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Resistance of Herschel Grynszpan

In all of Holocaust history, Herschel Grynszpan is considered to be one of its more controversial – and curious – figures. But regardless of the moral ambiguity of the choices he made, his actions had a major influence on the course of events. He also goes down in the books as one of the first Jews to defy Nazi Germany.

The child of Polish immigrants, Grynszpan was born in March of 1921 in Hanover, Germany. As a teen, he studied at at Yeshiva in Frankfurt before returning to Hanover, where he applied to move to Palestine. However, his young age and small size were against him, and his request was denied.

Upon being denied entry into Palestine, Herschel illegally snuck into Paris in 1936 to live with his aunt and uncle. For the following two years he persistently tried to gain legal residency in France, but was consistently denied (possibly due to the political climate at the time). His re-entry papers into Germany were expired, and Poland had just passed a law that stripped anyone living abroad for over five years of Polish citizenship – in effect, Herschel became a person belonging to no state, and simply continued to reside illegally among the Orthodox community in Paris.

In 1938, approximately 12,000 Polish Jews were rounded up and forced onto boxcar trains destined to Poland – which had no desire to admit them, and they were left stranded at the border. Among these Jews were Grynszpan's family: his mother, father, and siblings. From the border town they were staying at, one of them managed to send Herschel a postcard detailing their mistreatment by the Germans.

Alarmed by the news, Herschel implored his uncle to send them financial help, which his uncle refused to do: his finances were already stretched thin by the illegal immigrant living in his home. The 17-year old youth walked out on his uncle that day, and with the little money he had in his pocket, he purchased a gun. He then proceeded to go to the German embassy in Paris. Herschel requested to talk to an embassy official, and the clerk on duty at the time, Ernst vom Rath, was sent to inquire about Herschel's intentions. Claiming vengeance for the 12,000 deported Jews, Herschel then shot vom Rath, who died two days later in the hospital.


Ernst vom Rath

The timing for this event turned out to be disastrous for German Jews. This was all the excuse the Nazis needed to continue with their antisemitic plans: Goebbles gave an impassioned speech that day, which fueled the flames of a nationwide pogrom that subsequently became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.

But the case was not as clear-cut as the Nazis had hoped.

Urged by his legal defense team to “de-politicize” the assassination, Grynszpan claimed that he wanted to assassinate the German ambassador not for political reasons, but because vom Rath had seduced Grynszpan after promising him help with his immigration status – and then turned his back on the promise. French law was much more tolerant of crimes of passion than of politically-motivated assassinations, so Grynszpan would likely avoid the guillotine with such a defense.

As time went on, it became clear that neither the defense nor the persecution – led by a German lawyer sent by Goebbles to find evidence of a Jewish conspiracy – were in any hurry to proceed with the trial. The proceedings were further complicated by the outbreak of the war, so Grynszpan spent the next two years languishing in French prisons. Once Germany invaded France, he was sent from prison to prison, until German agents found him in Toulouse. He was taken into German custody in 1940 – Goebbles and the Nazis hoped to use him for a show trial to prove the complicity of “international Jewry” in the assassination. Because the Nazis needed to keep Grynszpan in good shape for the political theater he would be forced to take part in, he was sent to Sachsenhausen, where he was housed in a “bunker” reserved for “special prisoners”, including the last chancellor of Austria.

What happened to him during and after the war is a mystery. The show trial Goebbles had wanted never materialized – the initial procedural delays took two years, by which time Goebbles and others became aware of the “homosexual defense” Grynszpan was planning to use. Though the relationship may have been fabricated, vom Rath's homosexuality was quite real, and would have caused the Reich great embarrassment. By the time Hitler found out the whole truth about the case (presumably through Bormann, as Goebbles was not wholly forthcoming about the details), the regime was in no mood for more show trials – the failure of the Riom trials in France showed just how dangerous such theater can be to the persecuting regime, and the Reich had more pressing matters to deal with, such as their military setbacks in the Soviet Union and American involvement in the war. Grynszpan's fate was placed on indefinite hold and, after being moved to Magdeburg prison, he disappeared from the official record.

Some claim that he must have been executed by the Germans at one point or another; others claim he made it out of prison and lived out the rest of his life in Paris under an assumed name. The West German government declared him legally dead in 1960. His parents managed to survive the war – they fled to the Soviet Union after their deportation to Poland in 1939, and eventually immigrated to Israel.

Though the assassination of vom Rath, the individual, was ultimately a tragedy – vom Rath himself was under investigation by the Reich for purported pro-Jewish activities – the reasons behind Grynszpan's youthful act of passion against the regime struck a sympathetic chord with many people, and helped focus the world's attention on what was going on in Germany at the time. The subsequent events of Kristallnacht and the horrified reaction by the rest of the world put an end to a decade of appeasement of the Nazi regime. In the end, the spirit behind Grynszpan's resistance is universally resonant, even though the act itself is indicative of just how complicated and morally ambiguous the use of violence can be in such situations. He is quoted as saying, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth.”


–By Mandy Losk