Books: Deep in the forest

One survivor tells his story of life as a partisan fighter against the Nazis.

Jewish partisans fighting in the forests during World War II (photo credit: HOLOCAUST RESEARCH PROJECT)
Jewish partisans fighting in the forests during World War II
Abrashe Szabrinski is a Jewish hero. All Holocaust survivors are heroic, but Szabrinski not only survived, he also joined the partisans after his escape from the Vilna Ghetto and became a leader of guerrilla fighters who lived in the forests and harassed and fought the German invaders.
He and his fighters mined railroad tracks, cut telephone lines, fought battles with enemy soldiers and foraged for food and other supplies. The Nazis made life a living hell for the Jews; the partisans did their best to return the favor.
Szabrinski’s story almost remained untold. He and his wife, also a survivor, never talked about their experiences with their son, Joe Sabrin, even though the latter was born in the Vilna Ghetto in 1942.
It was only while sitting shiva for his father that Sabrin went into his office and discovered his father’s memoir in a brown attaché case. Sabrin had the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research translate it from Yiddish into English.
We Dared to Live is based on that translated memoir, plus three other manuscripts by Szabrinski of short anecdotes and stories, ably integrated into one narrative and edited by Chris Moore. Moore has written notations and citations throughout the text to clarify and contextualize various people, places and events, giving the book an almost talmudic look.
Szabrinski tells his story with no self-congratulatory flourishes, no unnecessary embellishments – just the facts, beautiful and ugly.
He makes clear that just staying alive in the woods was difficult. The partisans – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – had to contend not only with German soldiers and anti-Semitic peasants but also with “the White Poles,” the Polish Home Army trying to establish itself on its land as the Nazis retreated and before the Soviets arrived. Its motto was “kill the Communists, kill the Jews.”
The Jewish partisans also had to be wary of anti-Semitic Russian and Lithuanian partisans.
But not all gentiles were hostile.
Szabrinski tells the story of one farmer who warned him that 200 German soldiers were waiting in ambush on a trail he and his men were going to use. Had he not been warned, the well-armed and concealed Germans “would have killed us all.... The righteous gentile saved our lives,” he wrote. “It is a shame that I do not remember his name, but I can see his countenance now. He was an honest and precious man, as well as a truly righteous person.”
Every activity the partisans undertook was dangerous, even gathering food for the troops. Szabrinski witnessed the killing of Shmuel Shapira, a butcher, who was sent with a group of partisans on a foraging raid. While Shapira was slaughtering a pig, the farmer whose animal was being taken shot at him. The commander of the mission fired back at the farmer, and in the heat of the battle, the butcher was shot three times and died from his wounds.
Fighting with the partisans wasn’t only about killing Nazis or sabotaging the German war machine. They also had to deal with traitors or hostile locals, which sometimes revealed the guerrillas’ dark side.
When a partisan leader’s death was caused by his lover’s treachery – she led German soldiers to trap him in her house – she, her father and brother, all implicated in the death, were bound hand and foot with wire and buried alive.
Partisan soldiers completely destroyed the village of Koniuchy because villagers had fired on them coming to get food.
“It was imperative to carry out this severe task,” Szabrinski wrote. “It was a question of life or death. The partisans required three things to survive: arms, food, and shoes for their feet. These were a must.”
We Dared to Live is no masterpiece. Its author had no previous writing experience, and the book is based on a translation from Yiddish – not usually a recipe for literary excellence. But the book enables the reader to experience some of the hardships and dangers that this extraordinary group of warriors had to endure battling the Nazis and their allies.
The book is also another piece in the Holocaust puzzle. The memoir “adds significantly to the body of Holocaust literature,” wrote Abraham Foxman – former national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a survivor himself – in his back-cover review. It is a story of “the highest moral values” and how brutality led to brutal responses.
“Most of all, Szabrinski’s memoir is a moral tale of the consequences of powerlessness in the face of evil, and how people can regain their lives and their sense of who they are when they have the power to protect themselves.” 
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week.
His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available now.