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Who said our resistance was low? - A book review

Heroism in the Forest: The Jewish Partisans of Belarus

By Zeev Barmatz

Kotarim International Publishing LTD. ISBN: 978-965-7589-01-4

Hardcover, 191 pages. $16.95

Reviewed by Carl Hoffman 

 "For many years after the war we were asked, 'Why did you Jews go to your death like sheep to the slaughter?' This generalization wasn't true, as history has revealed. …we were not sheep being led to the slaughter; we didn't, and couldn't, believe that eventually everybody would be killed by the Germans." -- Janka Weiss, from Sister, Sister, by Anna Rosner Blay; Hale & Iremonger, (publisher), 1998.

Ironically enough, the metaphor of Jews being led 'like sheep to slaughter' was first penned by someone who clearly did believe that the Germans were trying to kill everybody, and who urged the Jews to resist. Abba Kovner was all of 23 when the Germans launched their invasion of the Soviet Union and occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941. The Germans began immediately to herd the city's Jews into a ghetto and, a month or so later, began a series of "Aktonien" which saw the repeated rounding up and murder of the Vilna Jews.

In an emergency meeting of young activists in the Vilna Ghetto, Kovner urged the Jews to resist and later distributed a pamphlet which read:

"Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Out of the eighty thousand Jews in the 'Jerusalem of Lithuania' only twenty thousand are left…Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen as the first in line. We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!"

And many did arise, as we now know from an ever-growing body of evidence. Stories of uprisings in death camps like Treblinka and Sobibor, as well as in the Warsaw Ghetto are well known.

I myself have been privileged to review, in previous issues of ESRA Magazine, such documentary books as Moshe Arens' Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto and Dov Freiberg's To Survive Sobibor. Our knowledge has remained sketchy, however, about other less-documented resistance activities by Jews during the Holocaust.

One of these sketchy areas, the story of Jewish partisan units fighting in the forests of Eastern Europe, has now been substantially illuminated with the recent publication of Heroism in the Forest: The Jewish Partisans of Belarus. This new compendium of information about Jewish armed resistance to the Germans was written by Zeev Barmatz, whose father was imprisoned in a German prisoner of war camp during World War I, and who immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1935. He served in the Haganah's air corps during the War of Independence, and later in the new State of Israel's fledgling air force. Now chairman of the Brest-Litovsk Jewish Community in Israel, Barmatz wrote this book in cooperation with Beit Maccabi in Ramat Yitzhak, and with the help of Baruch Shuv, chairman of the Organization of Partisans, Underground Fighters and Ghetto Rebels in Israel.

At the publisher's launching of Heroism in the Forest at Kfar Maccabiah in January, the book's English translator Anna Mowszowski said: "In my translation work, I've worked with books on the Holocaust for years. I thought I knew most of what there is to know about the Holocaust. But I learned so much from this book. Jewish resistance was very widespread. In dozens of ghettos throughout Eastern Europe, especially those in Belarus, there were underground movements and uprisings. In the forests there were whole towns, hidden within the forest, of Jews -- men, women, children who fought against the Nazis through organized armed resistance. It was large scale armed resistance that we don't really hear much about today."

Surprisingly however, a short film shown during the book launch indicates that the existence and activities of Jewish partisan fighters was amply documented in wartime Soviet newsreels. These, along with other documents attesting to Jewish heroism, were later suppressed after the war and did not return to light until many years later.

Heroism in the Forest is divided into two sections, the first providing an overview of Belarus cities, towns and ghettos under German occupation; the second part focusing on the activities of Jewish partisans and partisan groups. These include the somewhat better known deeds of the Bielski brothers and their fighters, along with descriptions of individuals and fighting units hitherto unknown. There are surprising chapters outlining in detail the roles played by women in the partisan units, as well as the invaluable assistance of "doctors in the forest."

Without doubt, however, the most compelling material presented by Barmatz and his informants concerns the degree of anti-Semitism among Russian and other non-Jewish partisans throughout the war. Although some cooperation did occur and some individual Jewish fighters were accepted into non-Jewish partisan groups, the overall situation was appalling. It seems that at almost any given moment, Jewish partisans were in as much danger from their non-Jewish counterparts as they were from the German Wehrmacht or SS.

Zeev Barmatz is to be commended for providing us with this very important record of Jewish resistance and heroism. His book is not a work of literature; it is not what one would call "elegantly written". It wasn't meant to be. Rather, it extracts new and previously unknown information, recollections and documentation from people who are, for the most part, now in their 90s. The clock is ticking rapidly toward a time when it will no longer be possible to produce books like this one.



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Monday, 22 July 2024

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