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November 14, 2011 9:07 pm

Out of the Woods: A Celebration of the Jewish Partisans

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Jack and Sally Pomeranc, long time residents of New York City, survived World War II as Partisans in the woods of Belarus. Pomeranc was a chairman of the committee that established the Memorial to the Jewish Soldiers and Partisans. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

This was one bunch of tough Jews. Written on their faces, and reflected in the eyes of their inheritors, is the courage, bravery, and organized chutzpah that carried them from the stranglehold of the Nazi net of death so darkly, deftly, thrown over most of Poland’s Jews. Faced with imprisonment in the ghetto, deportation, or murder at the hands of their “neighbors,” they refused to simply await fate and became the Partizankes – the Jewish Partisans.  Men and women, then, younger than the grandchildren who now accompany them, went into the forests.  There, they formed an army, with military discipline and organized brigades. Among the leaders were the three Bielski brothers – Zusia, Asael, and Tuvia –  whose story was dramatized in the 2008 movie Defiance. They were determined to survive.

Almost seventy years have passed: survivors still remember their days as soldiers, each recalling his or her particular brigade and the deeds accomplished. Many wear medals signifying their service. Fifty five were honored November 7 at a Gala Dinner in New York City. Together with some 350 family and friends they came to celebrate survival. When liberated by the Red Army in 1944, many were young teenagers. Most had spent years fighting the Nazis, hiding in the Nalibotskaya Pushcha forest. They came to the gala New York reunion to celebrate life and the courage and perseverance that kept them alive through harsh Belarus winters, despite the best efforts of the Nazis and the local populations to destroy each one of them.

Keynote speaker Ed Asner spoke of the Partisans with great admiration, noting their ability to overcome the “enormity of events.” “You’re overwhelmed; by the time you realize what has happened – confronted with the totality – it is an impossible thing…. One becomes overridden… and becomes not very articulate.”

Asner, (who had four cousins who fought with the Partisans -three were killed during the war, one lives in Canada) said the Partisans defied “the myth of Jewish cowardice -a canard.” The Partisans “were an armed resistance. They saved thousands of lives fighting back against the Nazis…It is the responsibility of Jews to be in the forefront of the outcry against Holocausts perpetrated against others.”

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, a San Francisco-based educational foundation was founded 11 years ago. Executive Director Mitch Braff says its mission is to “transform people’s perception of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust.” The organization has developed RESIST, “a curriculum designed to transmit the enduring understandings arising from the stories of the Jewish partisans.”

Bielski Brigade Fighters Dr. Charles and Sara Bedzow, honored at the JPEF Gala. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

From Generation to Generation: Mathew Bielski, grandson of Zus Bielski, a leader of the Partisans featured in the 2008 film Defiance recited the HaMotzi prayer. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

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