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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Featured Jewish Partisan - Max Cukier (z"l), born on January 23, 1918

"We had food what can eat thousand people, we were going in special my group what I was with the commander. We were going in to farmers where they lived close to big cities, but they never, Russian partisans was afraid, we not afraid, we're going in. They have food, so much of it, and pigs, cows. We took 10 pigs, you know, the meat in the summertime was too hot you no can eat, it's too hot, the meat. We have so much to eat."
— Max Cukier.

Max Cukier was born into a Hassidic family in Ryki, Poland, on January 23, 1918. Growing up as a pacifist, Max never imagined he would carry a machine gun, but this changed with the outbreak of the war. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Max fled to Soviet occupied territory, eventually ending up in Belarus. For the next two years he lived as a Polish refugee, persecuted by the Soviet government as a non-citizen. When the Nazis began their attack against Russia in 1941, Max went into hiding, traveling from village to village in search of food and shelter.

Early in 1942 Max saw that hiding in villages was becoming too dangerous, and he took to the woods. In the forest, he made contact with other Jewish refugees, as well as some escaped Russian POWs. Eventually he joined the famous Bielski Brigade, a combination partisan unit and family camp. Taking initiative, Max began to organize small units and lead missions, bombing bridges and masterminding a daring attack on a German bunker using an abandoned Soviet tank. During this time Max met and married his wife, and she began to accompany him on missions, becoming his lookout.

After liberation, Max first joined the Red Army and then defected from the USSR, escaping into Italy. In Italy he became involved with several Zionist organizations, becoming an acquaintance of Golda Meir, Israel's future prime minister. He traveled to Israel, and in 1948 came to the U.S. under the auspices of the Zionist Cultural Congress.

Over time, Max focused on building a new life as a civilian, started an importing business, and eventually moving to Los Angeles, where he raised three children and three grandchildren.

Max passed away January 17, 2011.

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish Partisan Experience and the Rebirth of Contemporary Jewish Life

This year we celebrate the “New Year for Trees” on January 25th. Tu B’Shevat is an agricultural holiday celebrated on the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar. In contempory times we most closely associate it with eating fruit and planting new trees, but it holds tremendous significance when considered together with the history of the Jewish partisans.

Partisans in the Forest
The trees were indispensable allies of the Jewish partisans. The vast forests and swamps covering most of the Eastern front became home to countless partisan groups, providing them with dense coverage - shielding their escape and harboring them in relative safety. The forest canopy protected large numbers of people from detection by aircraft, allowing groups, like the Bielski brigade, to harbor greater numbers of people, including children and the elderly. The forest was an essential infrastructure for the cohabitation of thousands. “No forests – no partisans,” asserted Faye Schulman, Jewish partisan photographer.

Partisans often had intimate knowledge of the forests in their area and were able to leverage that in their war effort against the Nazis, as in the case of Norman Salsitz and the Bielskis. The terrain suited itself well for purposes of camouflage and deception: “In the forest, ten partisans seemed like a hundred to those on the outside,” remembers one partisan. During the notoriously harsh winters of Eastern Europe, the forest provided firewood and the raw materials for shelter – little underground huts called ‘zemlyankas’, where the partisans would huddle together to escape the cold and avoid detection.

“Without the forest, we could not survive.” said Norman Salsitz in his interview with JPEF. And indeed, the very memories of escape and freedom for many partisans - including Mira Shelub and Jeff Gradow – are inextricably linked to the woods, where they ran to hide, and the trees that gave them cover from the pursuant bullets of the Nazis.

Studying about Tu B’shevat in the classroom, and discussing the importance of trees in Jewish tradition, presents an ideal opportunity for educators to focus on Jewish pride and introduce students to the Jewish partisans. Guidelines and lesson plan ideas for incorporating the Jewish partisans into the study of Tu B’shevat are found in JPEF’s downloadable study guides for Strengthening Jewish Pride and Living and Surviving in the Partisans.

Today, Tu B’shevat represents the broader shape of contemporary Jewish renewal. It is one of the clearest examples of the rebirth of rooted Jewish life after the Shoah. The charred site of a forest fire slowly gives birth to new growth and now, more than 70 years later, a new forest stands in its place. Each of the elements of that forest grew from seeds that survived the fire; yet the forest itself has its own unique characteristics.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Featured Jewish Partisan - Mira Shelub, born on January 13

"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, but usually stayed behind to help with work at the camp. In summer the unit slept on the ground in the open forest; in 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 frost 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.

Mira recounted the extraordinary story of her partisan experience in her recently publish memoir, "Never the Last Road: A Partisan's Memoir".

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Mira Shelub, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Remembering Jeff Gradow on his January 5th Birthdate

“It's hard to describe how a human being, being a prisoner, and suddenly he gets the power to fight back, even psychologically, he knows that he might get killed, but nobody worried about it. The main thing what happened in our minds is 'kill the Germans, kill those police officers.' But you [don't] worry about it – I never worried about myself, I might get killed. All I wanted is just fight them.”

–Jeff Gradow

Jeff Gradow escaped into the woods from a labor camp in Bialystok, and soon found a partisan unit where he became a trained fighter, participating in sabotage missions until the end of the war, when his partisan unit was assimilated into the Red Army and was sent to the front lines.

Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 to a middle class Jewish family in central Poland. When he was only 14 years old, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved Poland in half – his town of Mlawa was located on the western side of the divide, and thus fell under the control of the Germans.

With the arrival of the Nazis came immediate danger: prior to the occupation, his father had a dispute with a neighbor over some horses and a wagon, and the newly-instated police force – made up mostly of Polish locals who required little incentive to settle old scores with their Jewish neighbors – were looking to arrest him. Those arrested were often never seen again, so his father hid with a local farmer outside of town, taking Gradow with him.

They remained there for a few days, but upon learning that the German-Soviet border was still easy to get across, they left for Soviet-occupied Bialystok, located just east of the dividing line. There, they settled down temporarily – Gradow’s father, Lohim, got himself a job and Jeff went to school, where he learned to speak Russian. Unfortunately, travel restrictions made it impossible to send for the rest of their family – Jeff’s mother and two younger sisters remained in Mlawa.

This did not last long, and their life in Bialystok soon changed for the worse. The Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invaded Soviet-occupied territories in July of 1941. This included Bialystok, whose Jewish inhabitants were treated by the invaders with particular brutality and ruthlessness. Less than a week after their arrival, Nazi troops locked around two thousand Jews inside the Great Synagogue – the largest wooden synagogue in Eastern Europe at the time – and burned it to the ground. Many other homes in the neighborhood were pillaged, looted, and burned that day, and many more people were murdered. During the mayhem, Jeff’s father Lohim was seriously injured by a grenade thrown into their house; he did not survive to see another morning. Alone, Jeff wandered the streets until sympathetic neighbors offered him shelter.

The Nazis forced every Jewish male in Bialystok to work. Jeff’s first assigned task was to dig ditches in a cemetery with some Russian PoWs. After the ditches were dug, Jeff watched as the Nazis shot all the Russians; Jeff and other survivors were then forced to bury them.

The Nazis eventually started quartering Jeff’s labor group inside a train station during nights, and he was not allowed to return to his neighbors. During the days, the group was forced to lay timber on the highway so that German military vehicles could pass through in the winter, when all the roads turned to mud. Jeff’s labor group was comprised of civilians – consequently, it was guarded by soldiers who were older and slower than the group of Russian PoWs working just up the road. These older soldiers had a habit of resting their legs once a day and took a 20-30 minute afternoon break, allowing the laborers to do the same.

Fed up with forced labor and believing he has nothing to lose, Jeff decided to make a run for it during one such break. When the soldiers weren’t looking, he slid into a ditch on the side of the road and bolted into the forest. He heard rifle shots in the distance as the German guards discovered they were one prisoner short, but he was already deep in the woods, and no one pursued him.

Jeff wandered the forest for three days, lost and alone, surviving only on wild blackberries. On the third night, he found a farmhouse and, taking a chance, knocked on the door. Jeff was wearing a Russian military jacket belonging to one of the shot Russian PoWs, and he had learned to speak fluent Russian in school during his time under Soviet occupation. Consequently, the farmer who opened the door was not able to discern whether the starving, rain-soaked prisoner before him was a Russian PoW or a Jew – a lucky situation for a young Jewish boy alone in the Polish countryside to find himself in.

The farmer sheltered him for the night and pointed him in the direction of a village under the control of local partisans. There, Gradow was given directions to the main partisan encampment in the woods after being deemed too young and inexperienced to be an enemy spy. The camp was a diverse one, comprised mainly of Jews and Russian soldiers, and included families. Jeff was even able to speak Yiddish to the guards at the encampment, who were surprised to learn that he survived an escape from a labor group. Rather than continue to wander through the woods, hungry and alone, Jeff joined the partisan group and immediately begun weapons training.

* * *

At that point in the war, partisan groups like Jeff’s were still mainly concerned with self-preservation. As the Soviets fought on and their situation began to improve, partisan units got more organized and better equipment became available. This is when their missions began to change, recalls Jeff, and focused more on sabotage, disruption of communications, and the elimination of local police. Jeff became a seasoned guerrilla fighter, traveling by night with all his belongings, in case the Nazis got tipped off to the whereabouts of his unit’s base camp. Oftentimes, they would come across traces of their old hideouts, destroyed by the Nazis.

The partisans lived in zemlyankas – holes 4-5 feet deep dug in the ground, covered by branches and dirt. Each one could sleep around 15 people; Jeff’s entire unit was comprised of around 100-150 people. The partisans slept during the day (except those who stood guard), and traveled by night.

In late 1943, the Soviets began airdropping supplies for the partisans. This included explosives – Jeff and a few of the other partisans used them to derail a German train in the dead of night. They slipped away amidst heavy Nazi casualties and confused machine gun fire. Such missions were only attended by a handful of partisans while the others stayed behind. However, when it came to missions like food-gathering or reprisals against collaborators, the entire unit followed – a handful of partisans went in, but the rest stayed behind, encircling the town to make sure the group was not caught unawares.

In the spring of 1944, Jeff’s unit joined other nearby partisan groups to defend a bridge for an upcoming Soviet tank assault. They succeeded, allowing the Russian troops to roll in and liberate the area. No longer in hiding, the local partisan groups gathered in the nearby town of Baronovich, where they were immediately absorbed into the Russian army. Gradow’s group was assimilated into the 348th “Bobruyska” Division and ordered to join the western front.


Jeff Gradow and a friend after the war.

Jeff fought on until he was badly injured near his hometown of Mlawa in August of '44. He was sent to a military hospital deep inside the Soviet Union, in the town Michurinsk, some 400km southeast of Moscow. The war ended during his recovery, and he sought leave to return to his hometown.

Only twenty years old, Jeff returned to Mlawa to find out that his mother and sisters (along with the rest of his extended family) were murdered in the Treblinka concentration camp. He left Poland shortly after and made it to the French sector of Berlin, where he spent the next four years before immigrating to New York City in 1949 via his great-uncle, who sponsored his arrival through the Displaced Persons Act program. In 1954, he married and moved to Los Angeles, where he raised two children. He passed away on June 23,2014.


Jeff Gradow and JPEF Board President Elliott Felson at the 2011 Partisan Tribute Dinner.

Visit jewishpartisans.org to find out more about Jeff Gradow, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Partisan Tools for Survival: The Forests and Swamps

"And I saw the trees very big trees, heavy trees and it was a wind and it was blowing the trees back and forth. And I said here we come this will be our life we have to sleep here to live here. Snow, rain or whatever… this is our home and we have to take it."
— Sam Gruber.

For partisans like Sam Gruber, the nearby forests and swamps were a mixed blessing. For the same reason they provided protection, they could also be treacherous. It was a setting, however, that sheltered many partisans throughout Europe.

Sonia Orbuch explains: “We had to choose a place with so many trees. In a way it was like a protection.” The forests were great forts, thickly wooded—the swamps, their endless moats. “Without the forest we couldn’t survive,” Norman Salsitz declares.

These were territories not so easily tread by invading forces—even local collaborators stayed away from the swamps and forests. Don Felson explains that there were, “a lot of forests in my part of the country, huge forests that, once you’re in the forest, they’re not gonna find you.” Not that it was easy for the partisans, either. Mira Shelub tries to describe the miserable feeling of having to trudge through the swamps “one foot in, one foot out, one foot in, one foot out”: “Because you become so desperate when you go, you know: it's swamps… you don't know when or how will it end.”

Jewish Partisans in a Yugoslavian Forest

Out of necessity, partisans used the forest for their benefit. Others were not so adept at navigating the woods. Jeff Gradow speaks about the ability to read the forest: “On the big trees, on the north side, what do you call, the moss is growing, and so we know if this is north, south, east, west. We have no compasses, and still nobody got lost. Even today, after so many years, I go in the woods, it doesn't bother me. I can find my way out.”

The forests, the swamps, though difficult, were a symbol of a relief to many—if only because they meant escape and obscurity. Fleeing to the forest, “is the first time I felt like a free human being,” says Jeff Gradow. “Even I didn't know where the heck I'm going to go, or what I'm going to do.” Mira Shelub invokes a similar feeling: “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 see the trees, it was something, a special, special experience.”

Photo taken in 1999 of a zemlyanka in the Naroch forest, Belarus. From Alexander Bogen’s book, Revolt.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Eta Wrobel Defied Gender Roles as a Jewish Partisan

"I was the girl who played soccer with the boys. I was the girl who rode a bicycle on the street in shorts, which no other Jewish girls didn’t do that, I had no objections from my parents. We had a very good home. And not to forget, which hurts my life, we had ten children in our family, and I’m the only survivor. The only one. I have no family whatsoever in my background, so like when we get together in the family there is that celebration, or a wedding or bar mitzvah or whatever there is, I have nobody. Everybody who comes, nieces, nephews, are all from my husband’s side. That’s the only thing I envy in my life—otherwise, I’m free."
— Eta Wrobel.

Born December 28th, 1918 in Lokov, Poland, Eta Wrobel was the only child in a family of ten to survive the Holocaust. In her youth, she was a free spirit who defied authority. As Eta puts it she was “born a fighter.” Her father, a member of the Polish underground, taught her the importance of helping people, no matter the circumstance.

In early 1940, Eta started work as a clerk in an employment agency. Soon she began her resistance by creating false identity papers for Jews. In October 1942, Eta’s ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were forced into concentration camps.

In the transition, Eta and her father escaped to the woods.

Life in the woods around Lokov was extremely treacherous. Eta helped organize an exclusively Jewish partisan unit of close to eighty people. Her unit stole most of their supplies, slept in cramped quarters, and had no access to medical attention. At one point Eta was shot in the leg and dug the bullet out of her leg with a knife. The unit set mines to hinder German movement and to cut off supply routes. Unlike the other seven women in the unit, Eta refused to cook or clean. Her dynamic personality and military skills allowed for this exception.

She was active on missions with the men and made important strategic decisions.

In 1944, when the Germans left Lokov, Eta came out of hiding and was asked to be mayor of her town. Shortly after, Eta met Henry, her husband to be. They were married on December 20, 1944. In 1947 Eta and Henry moved to the United States. She and Henry had three children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Eta summarized her heroic years with the partisans by saying simply, “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive.”

In 2006, her memoir My Life My Way The Extraordinary Life of a Jewish Partisan in World War II was published. Eta died on May 26, 2008 at her home in upstate New York.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Eta Wrobel, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Eta is also featured in an Emmy-nominated documentary from PBS entitled Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Jewish Partisan Frank Blaichman Celebrates his 93rd Birthday - December 11th

"Those who could not come with us, that could not fight, we found shelter for them by farmers, some of them, who made bunkers for them; and they lived there until the area was liberated. And then in Parczew Forest there were maybe 200 Jews like that, in the forest, living until the end. They were under our protection. All the bandits knew if they were going to touch them, they were going to be punished for that."
— Frank Blaichman.

Born in the small town of Kamionka, Poland on Dec. 11, 1922, Frank Blaichman was just sixteen years old when the German army invaded his country in 1939. Following the invasion, German officials issued regulations intended to isolate the Jews and deprive them of their livelihood.

Frank took great risks to help his parents and family survive these hardships. With a bicycle, he rode from the neighboring farms to nearby cities, buying and selling goods at each destination. He refused to wear the Star of David armband and traveled without the required permits, but his courage and fluent Polish ensured his safety.

When word spread that the Jews of Kamionka were to be resettled in a nearby ghetto, Frank hid in a bushy area outside of town. He stayed with a friendly Polish farmer and then joined other Jews hiding in a nearby forest. In the forest, the threat of being discovered was constant and Polish hoodlums beat any women who left the encampment. Frank encouraged the men to organize a defense unit. He obtained firearms by posing as a Polish policeman, using an overcoat he had found.

After a German attack on the partisans' encampment killed eighty Jews, the survivors left the forest to hide with sympathetic farmers. Always on the move, they killed German collaborators, destroyed telephone lines, damaged dairy factories and ambushed German patrols.

Frank’s squad joined a larger all-Jewish unit, with strong ties to the Polish underground and Soviet army. They were responsible for protecting 200 Jews living in a forest encampment. Only 21, he was the youngest platoon commander in the unit and escorted the future prime minister of Poland to a secret meeting with Soviet high command.

“I’m very proud of what I did all those years,” he says. “The reality was we had nothing to lose, and our way to survive was to fight.”

Frank Blaichman's memoir, Rather Die Fighting, was published in 2009 by Arcade Publishing.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Frank Blaichman, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan, as well as the Frank Blaichman: A Partisan Leader's Story study guide.

You can also read a JPEF interview with Frank Blaichman here, as well as a Q&A with schoolchildren from Toronto (click to read part one and part two of the series).


Young Frank (left) with his friends.


Frank's wife Cesia (z''l) in 1945.


Frank Blaichman with Defiance director Ed Zwick


Frank Blaichman with Jewish partisans Rose Holm (center) and Isadore Farbstein (left).