Search This Blog

Loading...

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Bialystok Ghetto Uprising

In the grim history of the Bialystok ghetto, an act of resistance that occurred right before its eventual destruction by the Germans in August of 1943 places it among only a handful of such incidents during the war. Inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish resistance fighters in the Bialystok ghetto fought the Nazis during the last days of the ghetto's existence, after the Germans commenced with their plans to liquidate its entire population. The conditions of the Bialystok ghetto were different from that of other ghettos in Poland, and this ultimately decided the outcome of events.


Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof in 1934.

Bialystok was a city in northern Poland, annexed by the Soviets in 1939. The city was surrounded by deep forests, its houses made mostly of wood. The Jewish population – which made up a large fraction of the mill and skilled workers in the city - was an essential element of the city's economy. This fact would prove integral to the ghetto leadership's survival strategies.

The Soviet occupation ended when Nazi troops entered the city on June 27, 1941. Immediately, the soldiers forced hundreds of Jews into a synagogue and lit it on fire. Only few survived1 while most were burned to death. The next week, more than 5,000 Jews were shot in the streets. After these initial killings, 50,000 Jews were forced to move into the small confines of the Bialystok ghetto.

Conditions in this ghetto were somewhat unique to their situation. The community had limited access to the outside world, as many of the ghetto's residents had access to work in factories located in other parts of the city. The main body of the population also had a positive relationship with the Judenrat, which was headed by Ephraim Barasz. He was a well-respected man who worked hard to stress the economic importance of the Jews dwelling in the ghetto. Because of their economic importance, he and many of his comrades were convinced that the Jews of the Bialystok ghetto were immune to the fate of other ghettos. As a result, Barasz saw no reason to organize a resistance effort.

Having fled Vilna with a handful of resistance fighters, a man named Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof organized Bialystok's resistance movement, establishing the Anti-Fascist Fighting Bloc with his remaining followers. There were large disagreements within the fighting group about what should be done to effectively resist the Nazis. Some people, such as Judith Nowogrodzka, argued that the Jews should put all effort into escaping to the nearby forests and joining the liberation front, while others such as Teneboim believed that fighting the Nazis was the most effective. Ultimately, the group decided to the support resistance both with partisan groups and within the ghetto.

Teneboim and his organization faced many challenges when planning the Bialystok uprising. Acquiring weapons was extremely difficult. Ultimately, they were only able to gather one machine gun, and approximately two dozen hand-guns and several dozen grenades. However, an even greater obstacle was the lack of cooperation from the Judenrat under Barasz who believed that its Jews were in no risk of death therefore resistance was unnecessary. Tenenboim, considering the massacres at Ponary, believed the case to be otherwise.

On August 15, 1943, Barasz was notified by the Nazi gestapo of their plans to liquidate the Bialysok ghetto. He told nobody. When the resistance movement noticed the increase of German troops surrounding the Ghetto's border, they knew something was afoot. Caught by surprise and with little time, the rebels had no time to organize an effective strategy, and made do with what they could. Furthermore, the rest of the ghetto population had little reason to join the resistance, as most still had doubts about their ultimate fate, and did not wish to perish in an uneven struggle.

On August 16, 1943, with the majority of the ghetto's residence lined up outside to board the train to the camps, the Nazi troops were met with bombs dropped from windows of houses. However, Warsaw provided the Germans with experience, and they were well-prepared for a counter-attack. Furthermore, the low-rise wooden buildings and fences provided much less shelter for the rebels than the large brick edifices of Warsaw. As a result, the uprising only lasted a short time – the last handful fighters were unearthed from their bunker hideout five days later.

Although the uprising may not have been as successful as its leaders would have hoped, the actions of these brave men and women displayed courage and pride even when it seemed as if all hope had disappeared. Though most of the fighters perished – and the rest of the inhabitants were sent to meet their fate in the camps – a few fighters managed to break through the ghetto fence and flee to the countryside, joining partisan units that would eventually see these lands liberated from the bloody grip of the cruel occupiers.

–By Mandy Losk


1. A Polish cobbler named Winicki managed to make an opening into the burning building from the outside.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

JPEF Partners With Britannica Encyclopedia

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation is pleased to announce its partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica for The Holocaust Project.

The Holocaust Project is Britannica’s effort to make available to the public its extensive coverage of one of history’s darkest chapters. Britannica is offering this content to partnering institutions for dissemination to their members and website visitors.

More than a hundred articles comprise Britannica’s coverage of the Holocaust — topics range from the rise of Hitler and an overview of the camps to the symbolic meaning of the swastika and the Holocaust in art and memory. Britannica’s coverage includes biographies, essays, photographs, and videos, as well as discussion prompts appropriate for the classroom.

JPEF has contributed to Britannica's Holocaust project entries on “Jewish Partisans” and “Bielski Partisans.” All of the content was sourced from JPEF's website.

See below for the full list of resources available through The Holocaust Project:

Part 1: Hitler and the Origins of the Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 2: The Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 3: The Allied Response: Should the Allies Have Bombed the Camps?

Discussion Questions

Part 4: The Christian Response: The Actions of the Church

Discussion Questions

Part 5: Art, Meaning, and Memory

Discussion Questions

Friday, June 27, 2014

Italian Jewish Resistance During World War II

“[M]y way of life and the reason for my life for many months have only been an effort to leap into humanity, to share its existence, hard or easy that it may be. If I did not act this way, I would be renouncing myself, I would remain without a guide, humiliated. And thereby I would also be renouncing you who have given me life and nourished me.”

–Gianfranco Sarfatti, an Italian Jew, writing to his parents about why he joined a partisan group.

Italian Jews like Sarfatti who joined resistance groups came from a wide spectrum of political, economic, religious, and social backgrounds. Eugenio Calo, the owner of a machine shop in Arezzo, joined a partisan group to avenge his wife and children, who were deported to Germany. Eugenio Colorni, a professor of philosophy in Milan, became the leader of a Roman resistance group.

The Italian resistance groups that Jews were a part of were for the most part not founded on Jewish identity, but instead were integrated groups that readily accepted Jews to fight alongside them against a common enemy. Italian Jewish partisans were generally not deeply religious, with the exception of a small minority. However, there is evidence of religious life and observance of tradition: Augusto Segre, who was raised in a strict Jewish family, mentioned in his memoir of celebrating Yom Kippur during his time as a partisan.

As in other countries, the number of Jewish women who joined the Italian resistance groups was limited due to sexism. Conversely, they were viewed as less of a threat than their male counterparts, and thus could move around easier to gather crucial intelligence. Marisa Diena, who became the vice-commander of her unit, was a valuable asset for her group because her disarming appearance allowed her to ride through the countryside on her bicycle without arousing suspicion, gathering vital information from local informers along the way.

The emergence of Italian Jewish resistance was unique due to the facts surrounding the existence of the Fascist regime in Italy, whose leaders remained close allies of Hitler even after they were deposed and Italy surrendered to the Allies. On the fateful day of September 8, 1943, Italy was divided in half by the Armistice of Cassibile, which delegated the North to the German-backed regime and the South to the Allies. Though this agreement signified Italy's surrender and effectively cut its ties with the Axis, the end of fascism was not synonymous with the end of the war for Italy. A few months before in July, Mussolini had been arrested. However, the Germans staged a cunning raid to free the erstwhile dictator, and he became the figurehead leader of a fascist puppet regime in the north until his capture and execution by Italian partisans.

Following the September 8 armistice, Germany immediately annulled the contract it had created with Italy's Fascist government not to deport Italian Jews (who were located in Germany territory) to German-controlled land in the East. This malicious turn of events led to a surge in Jewish resistance, lasting until the end of the war.

The rise of anti-Fascist political resistance was an important precursor for the subsequent rise of armed resistance in Italy. The Giustizia e Liberta - a significant non-communist partisan group in Italy - was highly favored by the Allies, who provided it with material support. Due to its strong affiliation to well-respected Jewish resistance fighters, it was highly appealing to Jews who were looking to join partisan groups in Italy.

An important distinction for Italian Jews was their deep sense of Italian identity that was reflective of their wide assimilation into their Italian communities at large. Instead of exclusively identifying themselves as Jews, they instead formed alliances along political lines, notably supporters of fascism versus those against this agenda. Fighting in a resistance group allowed them to display their loyalty to their country as well as simultaneously advocating for their religious rights as a Jew.

To learn more about Italian Jewish resistance check out our website here: bit.ly/1sILNs6

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jeff Gradow passes away on Monday, June 23rd

“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

JPEF is mourning the loss of Jeff Gradow, a Jewish partisan from Poland. Jeff 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. He passed away this Monday, June 23rd.

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 in June of 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.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Revolt of the 12th Sonderkommando in Auschwitz

On October 7th,1944, at a line-up around three in the afternoon, a revolt in the Auschwitz concentration camp began with the swing of a hammer and a shout of “Hurrah!” from Chaim Neuhof, who had been a Sonderkommando – one of the prisoners selected to work in the gas chambers and crematoria – since 1942. The remaining Sonderkommando followed suite and assisted Neuhof in attacking the SS guards with hammers and axes that were smuggled in with the help of local partisans. An especially sadistic SS guard was thrown alive into the ovens after being stabbed.

Additional SS guards were alerted about the revolt and, easily outnumbering the prisoners, opened fire on the insufficiently armed Sonderkommando. But the prisoners, who had also smuggled small guns into camp through connections with local partisan groups, were not easily defeated. After strapping explosives to captured guards, a group of prisoners blew up Crematorium IV, killing themselves and their captors. Some of the prisoners cut through the barbed-wire fence, creating a crucial escape route out of the camp.


The ruins of the destroyed crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The revolt was work of the prisoners in the 12th Sonderkommando – young, able-bodied men who were given the grisly task of working in and around the gas chambers. They escorted newly arrived prisoners to their death, searched the bodies for valuables, and disposed of them in the crematoria. For performing these duties, they were reviled by the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Furthermore, their acquired knowledge of the inner workings of the camp marked them for certain death – every few months, old Sonderkommando were killed and new ones would replace them. Though the 12th Sonderkommando learned of their liquidation from the camp's underground military leaders only earlier that day, the revolt has been in the works for months.


Rosa Robota

One of the most crucial roles in this revolt was held by four women working inside the camp: Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, Ala Gertner and Roza Robota. These four female prisoners provided ammunition for blowing up Crematorium IV – Wajcblum smuggled out the gunpowder from the munitions factory, where she worked along with Safirsztain and Gertner. Robota, who worked in a clothes depot adjacent to one of the crematoria, helped smuggle out the powder. The men in the camp's resistance underground recruited Robota because they were acquainted with her from their hometown, where she was a member of the HaShomer HaTzair Zionist youth movement. Through a complex communication network, she and the other women were able to slowly pass on the ammunition hidden in the false bottom of a food tray to the Sonderkommando leaders. This powder was used to manufacture crude explosives and primitive grenades for the attack.

Despite the extensive preparation of the prisoners, the revolt was quickly subdued by the SS guards, whose superior automatic weapons were no match for the prisoners’ arsenal. The Nazis rounded up all the escapees. Two hundred more prisoners were lined up and executed as a result of the revolt. One of the Sonderkommando revealed the names of the four women responsible for smuggling in the gunpowder - but despite months of torture, the women refused to reveal any remaining accomplices. On January 5, 1945, they were all hanged in front of the entire female camp population. “Be strong and be brave,” Robota shouted defiantly to her comrades as the trapdoor dropped.

This was the last public execution in Auschwitz – twelve days later, the camp was deserted as 56,000 prisoners were forced on a death march by the Nazis in a last attempt to destroy any evidence of their mass killings. On January 27th, the 7,500 remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet army.

Click here to learn more about women who participated in resistance against the Nazis.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Friday, June 13, 2014

Jewish Partisan Resistance in Belgium

Disguised as German security agents, a small group of Jewish partisans stormed the office of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council in Brussels. Holding the officials at gunpoint, this allowed two more of their comrades to sneak into the head office and set fire to the records of Belgian Jews that were used for deportation.

This act of sabotage was constructed by Jacob Gutfreund, a Polish-Jewish refugee and two other partisan leaders who devised this elaborate plan to save the lives of fellow Jews from being deported to concentration camps. Jacob led one of the three groups of Jewish partisans who were based in Brussels. His partisan group was responsible for armed attacks against Nazis and their collaborators including demolishing enemy railroads, weapon manufacturing sites and energy plants.

On May 10, 1940, Belgium was occupied by the Germans. Six months later, the Nazis took over the Jewish Community Council. In response, the Committee for the Defense of Jews (CDJ) was created in Brussels to protect the rights of the Belgian Jewish population and assist with partisan groups likes Jacob's, to help them destroying German targets. Another important task for the CDJ was creating a network of trustworthy contracts that would provide a safe haven for hiding Jewish children.

Paul Halter, another member of a Belgian Jewish partisan group, acquired last-minute news of a raid on a church that held nineteen Jewish children who were in hiding. With the raid imminent, Halter and another man dressed up as members of the Gestapo, and came to “collect the children” at gunpoint from the nuns. To pacify the terrified children, the two men spoke in Hebrew to them, letting them know not all was as it seems. When the Nazis arrived later, they were astonished to hear that members of the Gestapo had already made the pickup – realizing they had been duped, they left empty-handed.

Georges LivchitzBeginning in September 1943, Belgian Jews were deported to concentration camps. Although the details of the deportations were always shrouded in secrecy, a Jewish partisan group gained news that on April 19, 1943, there would be a transport called Convoy 20, leaving for Auschwitz. The local partisans enlisted the help of fellow partisans Georges Livchitz and his brother Alexander Livchitz, who had gained experience in sabotage from their membership as national Belgian partisans. The brothers made their way to the Tirlemont region located in Northeast Belgium and waited for the train to approach. As the train with the captives neared, Georges flagged it down with a red lantern and the partisans rushed onto the train and freed the passengers who escaped into the woods.

The attack on Convoy 20 is the only documented attack of partisans freeing prisoners. Georges and Alexander were later executed in the Belgian camp Breendonk. Jacob was deported to Auschwitz, where he survived for two years until he was liberated. He immigrated in 1957 to Israel, where he became a leader of the Organization of Partisans, Ghetto Rebels in Israel and Underground Fighters.

Learn more about Jewish partisan resistance in Belgium here.

-By Julia Kitlinski-Hong.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan: Chaya Porus Palevsky Blog

Obeying a last-minute command from a friend, Chaya jumped off a train filled with residents of the Swieciany ghetto, bound for the town of Kovno. Not long afterwards, in Vilna, she learned that everyone on the train – including her entire family – was murdered by the Nazis.

Swieciany (Švenčionys), the small town where Chaya was born, is located in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, 84 kilometers north of Vilnius. In June 1941, the Nazis forced all the town’s Jews into a ghetto. Chaya and her family became active in housing runaway Jews and their home became a meeting place for people who wanted to learn about the war. Chaya's sister Rochel, who was a registered nurse, worked in the secret hospital and was known as the “angel of the ghetto” for her tireless efforts helping the sick.


The town of Švenčionys, circa 1916 (German postcard)

After she found out the Nazis murdered her family, Chaya turned grief into action by joining a partisan group led by Fedor Markov, a well-respected teacher from her hometown. Typically, women were not allowed to fight in resistance groups, but Chaya gained admittance by proving her usefulness with a small handheld Belgian gun she owned. Her group formed alliances with other Jewish partisan groups, and a Jewish unit was formed. They called it “Nekamah” – which means revenge in Hebrew. Markov boldly stated “You should be proud, you are young and very brave people.” Nekamah flourished into a thriving partisan outpost, with around ninety members, all living deep in the woods in zemlyankas (underground bunkers that held up to twenty people, carefully camouflaged into the forest floor). There were also smaller bunkers, including one designated for ill partisans.

Chaya's partisan group lived up to their name, as they participated in significant acts of retribution against the Nazis. Nekamah burned down an electric station, derailed trains, destroyed German weapons and food sources. They were also active in communicating news about the resistance and warning people in nearby villages and ghettos about the Nazis’ plans of mass extermination.

The small percentage of women – including Chaya – who had gained membership into partisan groups, experienced a different set of hardships than their male counterparts once they were accepted. Unwanted advances from male partisans were all too common. Women were often assigned to gender-related tasks like cooking and cleaning, instead of fighting.


Partisans from the "Nekama" unit. Photo credit: Ghetto Fighters House/Eliat Gordon Levitan.

Eventually, Nekamah was dismantled by the Soviets, who would not allow Jewish partisan groups under their watch. After liberation, Chaya went on to marry a fellow partisan, Simon and immigrated to New York City, where they opened up a jewelry business and spent the rest of their lives. They had two sons and remained active in assisting Holocaust survivors in finding employment.

To find out more about Jewish women partisans, please visit our curriculum page.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong