Partisan heroes

Zeev Barmatz writes about the lives and deeds of Jews who fought back in Belarus.

The Bielski camp in the Lipichan Forest, not far from the town of Lida, is in imminent danger of a German raid, on April 1943. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Bielski camp in the Lipichan Forest, not far from the town of Lida, is in imminent danger of a German raid, on April 1943.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many stories of Holocaust survivors will never be heard.
Many survivors were not strong enough to relive their difficult pasts and possibly thought that some day they might tell their stories, but died before that time came – and their unique experiences went with them. Although 70 years have passed since the Shoah ended, fieldwork on the subject is still being vigorously carried out. Some researchers still manage to retrieve wonderful stories from survivors about their rescue, their struggles and their ardent desire to keep living.
One such researcher is Zeev Barmatz.
Born into a Jewish family from Belarus, his family escaped and make aliya with forged documents in 1935, when he was just seven years old. Most of his extended family remained in Belarus and was subsequently murdered by the Nazis. Barmatz joined the Hagana a few years after making aliya, and after the founding of the State of Israel he served in the Israel Air Force.
As an adult, he founded a wood factory with his father. Until recently, Barmatz served as chairman of the Brest-Litovsk Jewish Community in Israel, the town his family had resided in before they left Belarus. The organization is barely active anymore, since most of its members have died. Barmatz’s father had told him many stories about the town in Belarus where they had lived, and these stories remained at the forefront of the son’s consciousness for many years.
When he was in his 70s, Barmatz finally began intensive research regarding the Shoah, and more specifically, Jewish Belarus partisan activity. Two years ago he published a Hebrew-language book called The Partisans of Belarus, the product of many years’ work. His aim was to strengthen the narrative that many Jews had fought bravely against the Nazis during World War II and succeeded in saving thousands of their brothers and sisters.
He set out to prove that there had been Jewish uprisings in a number of ghettos in Eastern Europe – such as the one in Belarus – and not just in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The moving story of the Bielski brothers is a wonderful example of this great heroism. Tuvia Bielski and his family organized one of the largest partisan movements of WWII; they were able to save over 1,200 Jews.
Barmatz describes the Bielski saga with the most exciting details. “Tuvia was larger than life – a true hero. He took the initiative and built a camp that protected the partisans, and organized fighters to go up against the Nazi regime. Bielski succeeded in gathering 600 people, half of whom provided services, and the other half of whom were fighters.”
The book highlights the battles and lives of the Jewish underground partisans in Belarus. In an effort to bring the story of the Jewish partisan movement in Belarus to as many people around the world as possible, Barmatz partnered with Kotarim Publishing and had his work translated into English.
“We were not so focused on the business side in this case – we just wanted to make sure that this wonderful story reached as many readers as possible,” says Kotarim CEO Moshe Alon. Illustrations by 92-year-old survivor Peretz Chorashti illuminate the English-language version, and the illustrator has added interesting handwritten descriptions under each image.
The book launch was held at the Maccabi World Union Hall at Kfar Hamaccabiah in Ramat Gan last month.
Due to poor health, Barmatz was not able to be present at the launch, but his wife, Batsheva, came in his place.
A number of Holocaust survivors participated in the event, adding prestige and excitement to the gathering.
Although many survivors have carried with them difficult memories all these years, many insist on looking forward and not dwelling on their personal tragedies – or the suffering of the Jewish people.
Baruch Shuv, now close to 90 years old, was also at the book launch. Shuv shared the story of the first time he met Barmatz: “One day, I was sitting in my office and a man named Zeev Barmatz comes in and tells me he wants to write a book about the partisans in Belarus. So I asked him, Were you a member of the partisans? He told me no, he was just a regular guy whose parents were from Brest-Litovsk.
He wanted to write the book in honor of his father, who was so proud of the Jews who had stood up and fought. So I gave him a few books. I thought he was probably just one of the many people you meet who ask for information and then you never see again. But this was not the case with Zeev – in fact just the opposite was true.
“Barmatz began obsessively writing about the Jewish partisans in Belarus.
Some 30,000 Jews had fought in the forests, and Barmatz tells their story in a delightful style. And for this he deserves great praise.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that the book launch was held at Kfar Hamaccabiah.
Rabbi Carlos Tapiero, the director-general of the Maccabi World Union, says that Barmatz has made great efforts in the last two Maccabiah Games in Israel to bring young Jewish athletes from Belarus.
“Barmatz is the embodiment of the ethos of self-defense, of the true Maccabees, and the modern Jewish man,” says Tapiero.
Chairman of Maccabi Israel Yoram Eyal, who was also present at the event, said that although his wife was waiting at home so they could celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary, he would not have missed Barmatz’s book launch for the world.
To wrap up, former partisan Zeev Portnoy was invited to perform a song he had written to the tune of the Russian ditty Papirusi, which moved the crowd to tears.
And of course, the event could not be concluded without everyone standing and singing the partisan song together.
Translated by Hannah Hochner