Former Jewish partisan Sonya Oshman (A''H) passed away this Friday, March 2nd. A survivor of the Novogrodek ghetto and a Bielski partisan, she leaves behind a remarkable story of loss, courage, and perseverance.
The eldest of four children, Sonya was born in 1922 to a family of wealthy Novogrodek merchants. Novogrodek was a Polish town with a population in the thousands, approximately half of whom were Jewish. The Gorodinskys were well-respected, and Sonya’s father would occasionally be called upon to mediate the tensions between the town’s Polish and Jewish communities.
Sonya was planning to enroll in medical school in Bialistok the year the Soviets invaded. Though the Soviet occupation saw many Jews deported to the harsh Siberian hinterlands, theirs was a comparatively fortunate lot. After the Nazis occupied Poland in the summer of 1941, they ended up systematically murdering most of the town’s Jewish population, including Sonya’s youngest brother and grandparents.
Novogrodek’s Jewish population could be counted in the thousands before the war. In May of 1943, only 500 remained – mostly skilled laborers and their families, living in squalid conditions inside Novogrodek’s courthouse, which had been turned into a makeshift ghetto by the Nazis. On May 7th, another massacre was conducted, reducing the ghetto population by half. Sonya’s mother and sister were among those killed.
Immediately after the May 7th massacre, the remaining 250 Jews started plotting their escape. The initial plan to storm the courthouse gates on a Sunday night fell through the Nazis were informed of the plot. Instead, the escapees decided to dig a tunnel underneath the ghetto through to the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would give the sick and the old enough time to get out.
The work was difficult and dangerous. The excess earth had to be disposed of, and the summer rains threatened to collapse the tunnel. To avoid suspicious dirt stains, the diggers would wear burlap sacks – or dig naked. In spite of it all, Sonya befriended and fell in love with Aaron Oshman – her future husband – during the time they spent digging together.
Just a month before the escape, Sonya’s father was transferred to another ghetto, along with a handful of other skilled workers. She would never see him again.
The escape finally occurred on a rainy September night. About seventy of the escapees – including two of Sonya’s cousins and the tunnel’s mastermind – lost their lives when they accidentally ran back towards the ghetto and were shot by the guards, who mistook them for ambushing partisans. Most of the other escapees, including Sonya, eventually made it to the Bielski partisan camp. There, she was reunited with her one surviving brother and Aaron, whom she would later ask to marry her. She also learned of her father’s brutal death in the Koldichevo ghetto.
After the war ended, Aaron and Sonya made their way to an Italian displaced person’s camp with other refugees, and eventually ended up in Brooklyn. Their first child was born shortly before they arrived in the States.
Sonya is survived by her two children and four grandchildren. Before her passing, she traveled extensively to tell her family’s story in schools, synagogues, and community centers across the country, including a program with JPEF on Jewish Women partisans at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. For more on Sonya Oshman, the Novogrodek tunnel escape, and the Bieslki brigade, please watch the JPEF documentary, A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters. Gila Lyons also wrote an excellent piece about her in Tablet magazine, which can be read here.