Tales from the Underground

Jewish partisan stories empower teenagers learning about Holocaust.

tales underg 88 298 (photo credit: Ghetto Fighter's House)
tales underg 88 298
(photo credit: Ghetto Fighter's House)
Sydney Pickman thought she "knew everything" about the Holocaust. The 16-year-old from Queens had learned about it in school and at BBYO conventions. But like most of her friends she'd never heard about the Jewish partisans, the young men and women who fought the Nazis. Her eyes were opened last month, when the San Francisco-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation presented a workshop to 200 teenagers at a BBYO convention in the Catskills Mountains in New York. Pickman watched taped interviews with men and women who, when they were her age, had lived in the forests of Europe, scrounging for food, blowing up German trains, skirmishing with soldiers, trying to strike any blow against the Nazi war machine. She learned that 20,000 to 30,000 Jews had taken part in this resistance. Not only did they fight back, they set up camps in the forest to protect other Jews too old or too weak to fight. "I couldn't believe how brave they were," the high-school sophomore said after watching the interviews. "If people today were put in that situation, I don't think they would have been able to do it." Pickman said she thinks differently now about the Jewish role in World War II. "Knowing that someone was fighting back would have given me hope, if I were alive then. Even now, it makes me feel better to know that they didn't just go." That's exactly why filmmaker Mitch Braff set up the foundation five years ago. He, too, was an educated young Jew who knew nothing about the Jewish partisans in World War II. Then he met Oakland resident Murray Gordon, who escaped a Nazi ghetto in Lithuania at age 15 and spent the rest of the war as a partisan fighter. Braff decided to devote himself to telling Gordon's story, and that of the other Jewish partisans, to the next generation of young Jews. Since then, Braff has tracked down and interviewed 42 Jewish partisans in seven countries. Clips from those interviews and other study resources are on the organization's Web site, www.jewishpartisans.org. The foundation has developed curricula and study guides for classroom use. It also runs workshops at schools, youth groups, summer camps, synagogues and Hillels. Sometimes, one of the elderly partisans comes along to tell his or her story. A regular on Braff's lecture circuit is Mira Shelub, who talked one March morning to 100 middle-school students at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, south of San Francisco. Born in Poland, Shelub, 81, escaped the Vilna Ghetto and joined a Jewish partisan unit in 1942. She spent almost three years with them. She told the students about her life in the forest, about slogging through swamps surrounded by Nazi soldiers, about carrying ammunition for her fiance's machine gun, about comrades who didn't come back from sabotage operations. Afterward, the students barraged her with questions: What happened to your family? What was the hardest part of being a partisan? Did you ever kill a German soldier? When were you most scared? Dan Napolitano, director of education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, praises the foundation's work. The Holocaust is taught in 72 percent of American schools, Napolitano said, but that can mean as little as an hour or two. It is mandated in just seven states, Braff said. Two of them, New Jersey and California, include lessons about the Jewish partisans, using the foundation's materials. "Resistance is a popular angle in talking about the Holocaust, but it's not always focused on Jewish resistance," Napolitano said. "The partisan story is much less known. It's good to focus on it, and to do so while the partisans are still alive is critical." At the same time, Napolitano warned against the temptation to romanticize them, over-emphasizing resistance to the Nazis when "less than one-half of 1 percent" of those caught up in the Holocaust fought back in any way. "They were the minority of the minority," he said. "Still, you're teaching young people and you want them to have hope about human behavior." That's something Braff is concerned about as well. Some of the partisans he located didn't want to be interviewed, not wanting to "take attention away from the survivors" of the concentration camps. But telling the partisans' stories in no way diminishes the horrors of the Holocaust, he said - it simply adds another perspective. In fact, Braff doesn't even like to call his workshops "Holocaust" programs. He describes them as "Jewish teen-empowerment programs." Young Jews can feel helpless when confronted with stories of the Holocaust, he said. Learning that there were some Jews, young Jews their own age, who fought back gives them a sense of pride and hope, and can inspire them to take action in their own lives. "We're saying, If these teenagers could do that living in the forests of Poland, imagine what you can do, with your skills and leadership training," Braff said. "It's really hard to form a sense of identity around the idea of victimhood," added Dena Stern, in charge of informal education for the foundation. This makes the teens "feel strong." At a recent meeting with 14 teenagers in Denver, Braff asked them to list words describing the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. They listed such things as fear, agony, vulnerability and suffering. After an hourlong program about the Jewish partisans, Braff repeated the exercise. This time the teens threw out words like courage, strength, dignity and humanity. "They all have a new understanding about their heritage and much stronger Jewish pride," Braff said. Those feelings came through at the Hausner school after Shelub's presentation. "We all think of the Holocaust as a real sad time in Jewish history, but her talk showed us the Jewish people also stood up and did something," said Ronit Roodman, 13. "It's like Jewish pride. Their families were being destroyed, and they still had the power to stand up."