THE JEWISH PARTISANS
UNTOLD STORIES OF JEWISH RESISTANCE DURING THE HOLOCAUST
Rachel Howard, Special to The Chronicle
Monday, April 9, 2007
If I was going to be killed, I was going to be killed as a fighter and not because I was a Jew," a steely female voice said in December via a videotaped interview shown at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Kanbar Hall. "That itself gave me strength to go on."
Beneath the huge overhead screen Sonia Orbuch sat proudly as a sold-out audience of 500 applauded. Orbuch could never have imagined that scene 10 years ago. For most of her life, Orbuch seldom shared her World War II experiences outside of her family, feeling the horrific tales of concentration camp survivors were more important. Orbuch also saw many trials and terrors as a Jew in the tiny Polish town of Luboml during the German occupation. But tales like hers are still rarely heard.
Jewish resistance took many forms during World War II, from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in which an armed Jewish insurgency fought the Germans for more than a month, to the Sobibor extermination camp rebellion in 1943. Even mere survival under the Nazis, many historians contend, was an act of resistance.
An estimated 20,000-30,000 Jews became armed resistance fighters known as partisans. The guerrilla units were diverse, based in the Polish forests and the mountains of West Germany, and were mostly formed by Lithuanians or Russians who admitted Jews fleeing the ghettos. Some partisan groups were composed entirely of Jewish escapees who organized to sabotage the enemy. They rarely took part in military battles; instead, they blew up Nazi supply trains, disrupted communications, destroyed power plants and hijacked convoys. Many partisans were teenagers, young, healthy and free from family obligations, determined to do all they could to defeat the Germans.
The Jewish partisans represent a different facet of the Holocaust during which 6 million Jews died, and their existence is becoming better known. Over the past 15 years, a rush of books has appeared recounting the Jewish partisan experience.
In 2000, after hearing the partisan story of an old family friend, Mitch Braff founded the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation in San Francisco. He has since extensively interviewed 43 partisans, from men who regularly risked their lives on sabotage missions to the women who carried the fighters' ammunition or tended their camps. The organization's mission, however, is not to archive these stories but to disseminate them, reaching teenagers through lesson plans, teacher trainings, in-school visits by partisans and an extensive Web site.
Resources Here are some of the many organizations dedicated to the history of the Holocaust:
The Holocaust Center of Northern California: Founded in 1979 and located in San Francisco's Embarcadero, the center houses a library, sponsors lectures and film screenings, and develops educational programs. www.hcnc.org
Simon Wiesenthal Center: Headquartered in Los Angeles, the center reaches 350,000 visitors annually through its Museum of Tolerance and trains teachers and law enforcement officials through its New York Tolerance Center. www.wiesenthal.com
USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education: Founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994, the foundation has collected more than 50,000 Holocaust survivor interviews.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Opened in Washington, D.C., in 1993, the museum organizes permanent and traveling exhibitions. www.ushmm.org.
Yad Vashem: Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, houses the world's most comprehensive archive of Holocaust material. It has a Holocaust History Museum and educates teachers through its International School for Holocaust Studies. www.yadvashem.org
THE JEWISH PARTISANS With Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, approaching this weekend, The Chronicle profiles two former partisans starting today in Datebook.
Today: Sonia Orbuch of Corte Madera tells her story about how she fled her Polish village to join the partisans in the forest at the borders of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
Tuesday: Mira Shelub of San Francisco recalls how she fought with the resistance in Poland, then met her husband during the war.