On My Mind: Jewish partisans' valor

Some 20,000 Jews lived and fought in the primeval forests of Eastern Europe during the war.

A man walks through a forest in western Ukraine. (photo credit: Reuters)
A man walks through a forest in western Ukraine.
(photo credit: Reuters)
The young Pole who came for Gertrude Boyarsky and her family was a classmate. They had danced together at the high school prom. She was his date. But that no longer mattered. He came with others to hunt and kill Jews.
Within moments, she saw her father, sister and brother murdered. Somehow unscathed by the gunfire, she joined up with other Jews hiding in the forest.
At age 87, Boyarsky recalls in vivid detail, and with measured emotion, the evil that transpired in Nazi-occupied Poland as if it had occurred only yesterday. Several months after watching her family gunned down, she came face-toface again with her dancing partner, detained by Jewish partisans.
“They gave me the opportunity to do it, only because they knew what he did to my family,” Boyarsky explains. “Yes, I killed him.”
Some 20,000 Jews lived and fought in the primeval forests of Eastern Europe during the war. Partisans organized themselves into self-sufficient communities, acquiring food, making shelters and obtaining weapons and bullets to use against German Nazis and collaborators who sought their death.
“The story of the partisans is enormously important to understanding the complexity of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust,” says Julia Mintz, an award-winning American filmmaker. She has been interviewing Jewish partisans on camera, capturing their stories for a new documentary film. “They were not trained soldiers. They were shopkeepers, students, artisans, religious scholars and more,” says Mintz.
But facing unanticipated circumstances revealed unknown strengths, untapped skills. For many, the will to defend and protect was innate. Confronted with difficult choices, they were determined to survive.
Mike Stole made a choice, jumping off a crowded train and parting with hundreds who stayed aboard. He walked 50 miles to the Bielski camp, the partisan group that is featured in the Hollywood movie Defiance.
“Mike’s ghetto was one of the last liquidated, so he knew the train was heading directly to a death camp for extermination,” says Mintz.
THERE WERE many Gertrudes and Mikes among the Jewish partisans, and yet their stories of hope, resolute action and will to overcome adversity have not gotten the kind of attention that they should.
Mintz learned about these Jews by chance when reading an article in the Brandeis University alumni magazine. “It was one of those ‘what I did last summer’ stories, but the author mentioned visiting her aunt, who was not only a survivor, but a partisan.”
This revelation in 2009 opened a new vista on the Holocaust for Mintz. “I grew up with Anne Frank, death camps and the Warsaw Ghetto, not understanding why more Jews did not fight back,” she says.
“People who stood against brutality to change their destiny stirred a passion in me,” says Mintz, whose previous films have dealt with issues of social justice.
That passion prompted her decision to do a documentary film that would enable partisans to tell their own stories in their own words.
After Mintz began the project, a cousin revealed that Boyarsky is her relative. The knowledge that she has a direct connection to a partisan, one whose recollections are inspirational, has been a powerful motivator.
Boyarsky’s intrepid demeanor, the trait that enabled her to evade capture and fight back, is riveting.
She was tasked with other partisan fighters to carry out secret operations.
One evening they went into a village near their forest camp.
“We asked for kerosene and straw. We said if we don’t have it in five minutes we will kill the whole village,” Boyarsky calmly explained.
“In five minutes we had kerosene and straw.” They watched the fire they set destroy a wooden bridge used daily by the Germans.
Each interview has reaffirmed for Mintz why the project is so important.
And, with the remaining survivor population aging – Boyarsky passed away shortly after her interview – Mintz is racing to identify, locate and, where possible, record on camera the history and experiences of the Jewish partisans. Persuading them to tell their stories, however, is a challenge. Many are reluctant to relate details, even decades after the Holocaust. Mike Stole agreed to the interview only in August, after five years of asking.
When completed and released in 2015, Jewish Partisans will be a tribute to all who took their fate in their hands, fought and emerged from the forests after the Holocaust.
It will be an important record for current and future generations.
“I want children’s introduction to and education about the Holocaust to include more than Anne Frank and the iconic image of lambs to slaughter,” says Mintz.
The project also opened a path for Mintz to reconnect with her own Jewish identity. Her family was not particularly traditional. Her childhood home was for the most part secular.
There was no religious school, no Bat Mitzvah, and no visits to Israel.
Mintz’s film (www.jewishpartisansfilm.com) will provide a previously under-appreciated perspective of the war years, a novel portal into understanding the Holocaust era and the valiant efforts of some to stand up and act.
“Why me?” is the ultimate, enduring question asked by survivors.
“Why did I survive?” Boyarsky’s answer is simple and direct: “To tell the story, to tell the story.”
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.