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The Jewish Teens Who Fought Back Against Hitler

These resistance fighters attacked Nazi troops, sabotaged infrastructure, and blew up trains and bridges.

Teen Vogue

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WWII Jewish resistance fighters

(Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation)

Sheri Rosenblum learned about the Holocaust the same way most kids do — she was taught about the atrocities of Nazi death camps and shown gruesome images of skeletal Jewish survivors and massacred bodies.

“I had no historical context for it,” she told Teen Vogue. “It was like watching a horror movie. I really did not understand it. It was the totally wrong way to be introduced to it.”

The history lesson that Rosenblum was taught as a fifth grader at Jewish summer camp reinforced the idea that Jews simply “went like sheep to the slaughter,” she said.

Now she’s dedicated to telling a different — and often overlooked — part of this history. Sheri works at the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF), a San Francisco–based nonprofit focused on teaching students about the thousands of Jews who fought back against Hitler’s plans to exterminate them.

During World War II, as many as 30,000 Jews joined resistance groups throughout Europe. Known as partisans, they formed their own combat units and also joined non-Jewish partisan armies to battle Hitler’s forces. They attacked German troops, blew up trains and bridges, sabotaged infrastructure like power plants and factories, and did everything they could to stop the Nazis. They were just a small portion of a larger partisan movement across the continent, but they inflicted significantly more damage than their counterparts, according to JPEF. Many of them were teenagers.

Faye with Rifle CREDIT_ Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, Faye Schulman_ A Partisan’s Memoir, Second Story Press, page 115.jpg

Partisan Faye Schulman poses with a rifle. (Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, Faye Schulman: "A Partisan’s Memoir")

Despite being confined to segregated ghettos across Europe, some Jews armed themselves and attacked Nazis, most famously in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Those who escaped ghettos and concentration camps often fled to the forests, determined to survive and, in many cases, resist.

Eta Wrobel, a 20-year-old Jewish girl, lived with her family in Luków, Poland, when the Germans invaded in 1939. Her father was part of the Polish underground, and he taught her to fight back too.

“He instructed me to help the underground resistance, and constantly encouraged me,” she later told JPEF, adding that he told her, “‘I order you to survive.’ And that’s what I did.”

Wrobel falsified papers to help people evade Nazi terror, according to the account she provided to JPEF. She was caught and imprisoned, but later escaped. At one point she worked in a restaurant. Germans coming in to eat would hang up their belts and coats, and she started stealing their guns. At another cleaning job, she would spy for information, sharing what she found about military plans and roundups.

Later, she says, she escaped into the nearby woods and helped form an all-Jewish partisan unit. There, she refused to do traditional women’s work. Instead, she would wear a cross and pretend to be a Polish Christian, finding small groups of Jews who were hiding and bring them back to her unit’s makeshift hideout in the woods. Wrobel says she helped her partisan group steal food and other needed supplies, and put mines in the road to slow German troops.

She told JPEF that she would make a clicking sound like insects, using it as a secret code with other partisans for safety. At one point she got shot, but the group’s doctor was busy, so she took the bullet out of her own leg with a knife.

“It’s very important to know, you know, they stereotype — ‘the Jews go like sheep’ — it’s not true, they never did,” Wrobel told JPEF. “Thousands of years ago they didn’t, and they don’t do it now.”

To Wrobel, fighting back wasn’t just about striking blows to German forces. It was primarily about saving other Jewish people and surviving hellish conditions. Every day was a struggle, she said.

“We saved about a hundred people,” she said. “This was my thing to do, because I think that’s the most important. That’s the biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans is to survive.”

Other Jewish partisans felt the same way. The most famous example is the Bielski brothers and their group of partisans. Though they sought out and killed Nazi collaborators, these Jewish partisans in Belarus focused on saving their people from certain death. At its peak, their group contained more than 1,200 people hiding from the Nazis, mostly women, children, and the elderly. In Belgium, Jews and non-Jews formed the Committee for the Defense of the Jews, primarily to hide thousands of Jewish children from the Nazis. But they also successfully derailed a train headed for Auschwitz death camp and rescued the hundreds of people on board.

As JPEF explains in their study guide: “Jewish partisans saved thousands of Jewish lives, in some cases literally breaking Jews out of the confines of well-guarded ghettos, and in at least one situation, digging a tunnel to free 250 people from a ghetto.”

Most partisans during World War II — Jewish or otherwise — were men. But Wrobel was far from the only inspiring woman among them. Brenda Senders joined a 1,600-person partisan unit in eastern Poland when she was 17, according to the JPEF.

“If I was going to die, I wanted to die with a gun in my hand, fighting my enemy,” she told the foundation, which interviewed dozens of former partisans. “I wanted revenge.”

Some partisans were even younger. In France, 12-year-old Bernard Musmand helped the Jewish resistance by working as a courier, smuggling documents and false IDs. At age 13, he joined partisan military actions against the Nazis, according to JPEF.

When Nazis started exterminating Jews in Vilna, Lithuania, young activists led the resistance. In a now famous “Ghetto Manifesto” read to a Jewish youth group, 23-year-old Abba Kovner declared: “They shall not take us like sheep to the slaughter…It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only reply to the enemy! It is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the grace of the murderers. Resist! To the last breath.”

Vitka Kempner was 19 when Kovner made his declaration. Along with Kovner and others, she helped form the United Partisans Organization, and she carried out its first sabotage — bombing a nearby Nazi train line. Their group armed themselves by bringing weapons into the Vilna ghetto through the sewer system, and when they later needed to bring the guns out, they hid them in coffins, she told JPEF.

Kempner eventually helped start an all-Jewish partisan group called the “Avengers,” which blew up a power plant, among other things. Once, she snuck back into Vilna to bomb the Nazis’ electrical transformers and water supply.

“After a few hours we heard explosions and the city fell into darkness,” she recounted to JPEF. “There was great joy, and it had an impact on the Germans, who understood that the partisans had reached all the way into Vilna. They didn’t know that a few Jewish boys and girls did that.”

These are the kinds of stories that the JPEF is working to preserve and spread. Founded in 2000, the organization has interviewed dozens of former Jewish partisans about their experiences during the Holocaust. They’ve developed curricula that 25,000 teachers — mostly in North America — use in their classrooms every year, Sheri Rosenblum said.

The foundation also collaborates with 45 Holocaust remembrance organizations worldwide, including museums. They estimate that their work reaches more than a million young people a year, namely middle and high school students.

The JPEF is in the process of translating their materials into more languages. They offer in-person teacher trainings, and recently wrapped up programs in Alabama, New York, and Poland. Arizona and New Jersey are next, Rosenblum said. Of all the content produced by the foundation, one of the most popular is a photo exhibit featuring pictures taken by Faye Shulman.

When Shulman was 22, Germans started killing Jews in her ghetto of Lenin, Poland. She escaped and joined a nearby partisan unit, serving as her group’s nurse and using her camera to document the war.

“I want people to know that there was resistance,” Shulman told JPEF. “I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.”

Rosenblum told Teen Vogue that sharing the photos and stories with Jewish students is invaluable.

“Students will say, ‘I always pictured the Jews as being victims; learning about this as a young Jew makes me feel proud to be Jewish,’” she said.

There are lessons for non-Jewish students too, of course. Jewish partisans told JPEF that they hoped future generations would take three main things from their example: young people can make a difference; stand up to oppression and discrimination early (before it’s too late); and never give up.

Rosenblum hopes that students who learn about the Jewish partisans will think about how these lessons can apply to their own lives, and that it inspires them to take action.

The Jewish groups going to detention camps and speaking out now, they’re a perfect example of what we’re trying to impart to kids,” Rosenblum said. “This is what people should be doing.”

Visit jewishpartisans.org to learn more about the Jewish partisans or to see lesson plans your school could adopt.

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This post originally appeared on Teen Vogue and was published October 1, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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