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Jewish participation in the Soviet Partisan Movement

Yehiel Granatstein & Moshe Kahanowich

For an understanding of the Jewish participation in the Soviet Partisan Movement (“Partisanka”), it is necessary first of all to present a general picture of the rise and nature of the Movement, its organization, methods of fighting, armament and vicissitudes.


The Rise and Development of the Soviet Partisan Movement

During the retreat of the Red Army after the debacle they suffered at the hands of the Germans during the summer of 1941, many Soviet soldiers with their equipment found themselves cut-off in the trackless forests of White Russia and the Ukraine, without any possibility of re-joining their units. Apart from these, the Soviet authorities had purposefully left behind a number of people in order to organize the underground in the hinterland against the invaders.

To the forests there came also thousands of Soviet soldiers who had succeeded in avoiding captivity by the Germans as well as Jews who had escaped the slaughter that was organized by the Germans in the western regions of the U.S.S.R.

From all sides, young people flocked to the forests to join the partisans. These had lived in danger of being sent to forced labour camps in Germany. In addition, there were villagers in the partisan regions whom the Germans regarded as partisans and who were always exterminated whenever these regions were besieged, and of course Jews from the ghettoes who had lost their families. All these were in search of protection and the possibility of fighting and avenging themselves against the Nazi butchers. They all joined the ranks of the “avengers” in the forest.

And so the individual partisans were transformed into a popular mass movement which established close ties with Moscow. The Central Partisans Headquarters in Moscow expedited help to the combatants in the hinterland, parachuting radio receivers, broadcasting stations and trained broadcasters, small printing shops for the publication of propaganda material, groups of parachutists, organizers and commanders, and most important of all, abundant quantities of modern automatic weapons, explosives and mines of various types.

The Partisan Movement reached its peak towards the end of 1943. Apart from the cities where the Germans had consolidated their positions, the greater

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Majority of the occupied Soviet region was one vast partisan area in which the partisans reigned supreme and held the Germans in terror. The Germans, who had occupied almost the whole of Europe and who had to maintain a difficult struggle on the Eastern Front, did not have sufficient forces to garrison all localities so as to maintain order and were forced from time-to-time to undertake special operations against the partisans in one particular area, with the help of police forces and regular army personnel removed from the Front. Under these conditions, and in the vast area of the U.S.S.R. under German occupation, the partisans could not be exterminated.


Organization and battle tactics

The Partisan Movement in the hinterland was directed and guided by the Partisan Headquarters in Moscow with the aid of the military commands in the various republics.

Geo-topographical features, the inherent traits of the Russians and the cruelty of the invaders contributed in no small measure to the success and victory of the Partisan Movement.

An important role in Partisan strategy was played by diversion tactics – the principle being: “hit and run” fighting. Life behind the enemy lines forced the partisans to take various precautionary measures so as to prevent surprise attacks on their bases. Towards that end, the partisans were assisted by special liaisons among the village population who used to convey to them information about German movements and about spies and collaborators.


Partisan Movements opposed to the Soviet Partisanka

Mention must be made of the Polish Partisanka (the “White Poles”), which held sways over the settlements west of the River Nieman, populated mainly by Poles. They announced that they were fighting both the Germans and the Soviets. Aware, however, that the Germans would finally be defeated, they regards the Soviets who might come in their stead as the main enemy and declared a holy war on the Soviet Partisanka which was active in the region that had belonged to Poland before 1939. In particular, they vented their wrath on the remnants of the Jews. Hundreds of Jews who had found a hiding place among the gentiles or who were wandering in the forests were murdered by the “White Poles”.

In the Western Ukraine (Southern Polesia, Volhynia and Eastern Galicia) there held sway a “Green” Partisanka composed of Ukrainian Nationalists. Having been disillusioned of German promises to set up an independent Ukraine, the Ukrainians deserted their police units with their arms and fled to the forests. There they set up a Nationalist Fascist Partisanka which they named Banders and Bulba. They directed their attacks against the Soviet

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Partisanka which they regarded as the most dangerous enemy of their dream of independent Ukraine. In particular, they marked out the Jews who had found shelter in the homes of peasants or in surrounding forests and exterminated them. For the Jews in these regions, these partisans proved more dangerous and more horrible than the Germans themselves. Thousands of Jews – men, women, children and the aged, who had sought shelter and refuge from the German butchers in the forests and in villages, were cruelly murdered at their hands.


The problem of supplies to the Partisanka

One of the main sources of supply for the hundreds of thousands of combatants in the hinterland was the estates which, until the outbreak of the war, had belonged to Polish landowners and under the Soviet regime were Kolkhozes. Attacks would be made on the storehouses in which the Germans had hidden away food and other goods. The most important supplier for the large partisan army in the forests was, however, the various peasant holdings. Life in the forests behind enemy lines and under constant danger, turned out to be a life without rule or order. Drunkenness and orgies became concomitants of partisan life. However, the Jewish fighters in the forests were sober and never drank to excess like their non-Jewish comrades.


Jewish underground organizations in the Ghetto

The idea of underground organizations did not arise immediately after the establishment of the ghettoes because the Jews had not yet realized that they were facing extermination. It was only after German acts of slaughter among the Jewish population had become general occurrences that their eyes were opened and it began to dawn on them that the ghettoes set up by the German had one main objective, namely, to make it easier for them to carry out their plans of pillage, exile and mass murder.

The youth movements of the Zionist organizations doubtlessly played an important role in directing the Jewish youth to the underground and in establishing ceiling organizations for various underground bodies active in the ghettoes. However, the Jewish Underground Movement as a whole was the creation of the Jewish masses and so embraced all Jewish factions.

One of the greatest difficulties experienced by the underground was the acquisition of arms and many members in the underground organizations lost their lives in their endeavours to acquire weapons. The major portion of the arms of the underground organizations, however, was not purchased. Jewish young men and women who were engaged in the “Booty Stores” (Beute-Lager') in various military units, in the German police or in private German homes used to run danger in “purloining” arms of all kinds.

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As a result of surprise liquidation actions in the ghettoes, many lost their lives before they succeeded in escaping. However, a large number of the members of the organizations and with them many who were not organized, fled from the ghettoes before and during liquidation. Not all those who fled succeeded in reaching shelter. Many were killed or were caught during flight. Very many, however, succeeded in reaching the forests and, sooner or later, in joining partisan units or camps set up for Jewish families. These the Germans could not yet lead to extermination pits. It was against these remnants that regular German forces had to wage war which continued incessantly until liberation.


Jewish Partisan Units

In some forests, these Jewish groups organized themselves into independent fighting units but they did not last for very long. The Soviet Partisan Headquarters was not very pleased with the existence of these units. The reason for its opposition was that the existence of an independent Jewish battalion would serve only to emphasize the viciousness of German propaganda among the non-Jewish population, to the effect that the Partisan Movement was but a Jewish creation. The opposition had still another, more general, political reason.
In the territory of any of the Soviet Republics, only such partisan units could arise as took the name of the republic in whose territory they were fighting. Since the Jews did not constitute a territorial entity in Soviet Russia, it was, therefore, impossible for them to maintain national units of their own. These reasons led to the speedy end of the independent Jewish combatant units. According to instructions, the commanders and fighters of these units were dispersed among non-Jewish units.


The Vicissitudes of the Jewish Partisans

The Jews who had fled to the forests from their destroyed townlets encountered an inimical attitude on the part of the peasants in the surrounding villages as well as on the part of the combatant partisans.

The most dangerous prejudice under which they had to labour was that the Jews were “cowards”, that they did not want to fight and that they had come to the forests only in order to save their skins. The main factor in this anti-Semitic attitude in the forests was the human material that composed the Soviet partisan ranks. In the years 1942-1943, large masses from labour camps and particularly prisoner-of-war who had been poisoned by German anti-Semitic propaganda had come to the forests. In each region and “Fuscha” (Virgin Forests) there were partisan units infamous for their anti-Semitism. There were units among whom anti-Semitism reigned to such a degree that the Jews had no alternative but to flee to some more distant region or to other units despite the fact that such a step often endangered their lives.

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Many Jews were killed by the partisans for the sake of robbery especially of their arms. Any Jew who reached the forests properly clothed or armed immediately aroused the desire of the anti-Semitic partisans for his top boots, his clothing or his weapon. In addition to fighting the German enemy, therefore, the Jewish partisans had to maintain a constant struggle also against his comrades-in-arms – the anti-Semitic partisans.


Jewish Family Camps

As mentioned already, many Jewish families escaped from the ghettoes during the slaughter in Jewish town-lets. Upon reaching the forests, these Jews would dig underground hideouts for themselves in which they would remain during the daytime and in order that they might not be seen by casual passers-by. At night, they would steal out to the villages in order to obtain food, clothing, etc. These people were constantly in mortal danger. Mostly, they were unarmed and at the mercy of the peasants at whose doors they knocked, or of the non-Jewish partisans whom they used to come across during the night along the forest paths or on the roads to or from the villages.

During the so-called “quiet” days, life in these Jewish family camps was a sort of continuation of life in the Jewish town- lets. However, the lot of these family camp inmates was bitter indeed during German sieges or searches of the forests. The combat units, if they avoided engaging the invading forces, would speedily retreat in utmost secrecy from their bases to safer places. Not so the inmates of the Jewish family camps. In most cases, they were not informed by the fighting units of what was about to take place and the results were almost always tragic. Being left to their fate without any protection whatever and without arms, they would be attacked by the Germans who sowed death among the aged, the women and children who were unable even in the thick forests to flee for shelter.


The Jews in battle

There was not one form or type of partisan fighting in which the Jews failed to take an active part or to distinguish themselves. The Jewish partisans were very loyal to the aims of the war against those who massacred their people. They found particular satisfaction in initiating and in implementing acts of sabotage and of vengeance in the small towns of their birth against the collaborators and the “garrisons” who took a hand in the massacre of their Jewish fellow townsmen. The Jewish partisans in the Russian units volunteered for the most daring operations involving greatest danger with a view to avenging themselves upon the enemy, as well as to prove their own intrepidity and so dispel the prejudiced opinion of the non-Jews that the Jews were cowards.

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The role of the Jewish medical workers

Since there were hardly any physicians among the Russian partisans, it was only the Jewish doctor that supplied medical aid. Partisan headquarters sent emissaries to the ghettoes in order to enlist the services of physicians for the forests. Jewish young women speedily learned to be nurses and provided medical aid and encouragement to the sick and wounded partisans.


The Service of Jewish Artisans with the Partisans

Jewish artisans served with all partisan battalions. As is well known, the Jews constituted the majority of the artisans in Poland and in Russia. When these partisan battalions had need of shoemakers, tailors, locksmiths, technicians, typesetters, etc., they looked for them in the family camps in the vicinity and admitted them to the battalions without arms and without age limits.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of the interpreters for the interrogation of German prisoners, for translations from the German press and for the decipherment of German documents found on the persons of the prisoners, were Jews.


Jewish women in the Underground and in the Partisan Forests

The number of Jewish young women participating in the underground organizations in the ghettoes was very large. In order to establish contacts with the outside world, Jewish young women of “Aryan” appearance, equipped with false identity cards and disguised as need required, used to be sent out.

Jewish women working with military personnel used to run the danger of stealing arms and parts of weapons and transferring them, by themselves, to the underground.

Upon reaching the forests, these women were faced with difficult living conditions. Their place was generally in the family camps but they suffered together with all those found unfit for battle. Nonetheless, many young Jewish women were absorbed in the combatant units, who generally refrained from admitting women, and in particular Jewish women, to their ranks.


Comradeship among the Jews in the Forest

The Jewish partisan never for a single moment forgot his brethren pining in the ghettoes or in the labour camps. Groups of Jewish partisans sometimes covered hundreds of kilometres in order to reach the ghetto and to try an extricate members of their families, comrades and friends, or Jews in general.

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It is worthy of mention that many young Jews preferred to remain in the family camps and lead their sorry life for the sole reason of being able to come to their aid.


Acts of Vengeance against Collaborators

The number of collaborators, who extended great assistance to the Germans in all acts against the Jews, was very large. Little wonder, therefore, that whenever the Jewish partisans went out for operations against the Germans, they never forgot to wreak vengeance on those who collaborated in the mass slaughter of Jews. And even after this was expressly forbidden by order from higher up, they used to carry out acts of vengeance of their own accord. Considerable benefit accrued from this. The life of the wandering Jew in the villages was no longer regarded as cheap. The Jews succeeded in intimidating the gentiles with the result that many Jews were saved and so were able to remain alive until the end of the war.

The present work covers the regions of Russia within the frontiers of June 22, 1941, the date of the German invasion of Russia. The main material relates to the activities of those who raised the standard of revolt in the ghettoes and of the Jewish partisans in the areas which, before the outbreak of World War II (Sept. 9th, 1939), belonged to Poland and Lithuania.

The volume now published includes chapters on: a) The Ghetto fighters who lost their lives while on underground missions within or outside their own areas; b) Partisans who fell in action; c) Combatants shot by accident or on purpose by their comrades-in-arms, or who died a natural death in the forests; d) Partisans who were shot by order of the “Special Department” (Osobi Otdel) for infringement of “War Regulations” (found asleep while on guard, loss of arms, cowardice, pillage of population, carelessness in the implementation of assignments, etc.); e) Former partisans who had enlisted in, or who were conscript to the Red Army on liberation and who fell in fighting against the enemy; f) Partisans who fell in the Israel War of Liberation and g) Partisans who died an early death after liberation.

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The Nature of the Jewish Partisan Movement

Nachamn Blumental

The lot of the Jewish historian desirous of investigating the role of the Jewish partisan in the compelling events that took place in that distant country is difficult indeed for he has no archives at his disposal, nor the possibility of establishing contacts with residents in the localities described nor even the possibility of examining and investigating on the spot the topographical or other data given by witnesses, etc.

In an introduction to a collection of reminiscences on the Partisan Movement in Belorussia, published by the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, we read inter alia:

“Everything of importance in the reminiscences included in this collection has been examined and collated by the editor on the basis of archival and literary material. Not in every case, however, could this be done to a desirable degree. For numerous events, no sources have been preserved and many instances have been inadequately recorded”.

This is written by a state institution which, to all intents and purposes, should have unlimited possibilities at its disposal for research into the history of the Partisan Movement in its country, for the Soviet Partisan Movement was from its very inception, organized and administered centrally be experienced statesmen and trained military personnel.

What can we Jews, therefore, say of this?

Very few official documents dating back to that period and having direct connection with the Jewish partisans have been preserved. These are mainly German documents relating to the struggle against the Partisan Movement in general.

Two examples may provide some idea of the nature of, and the value to be attached, to these documents. In his report on the political situation dated March 21, 1943, the Gebiets-Kommissar of Slonim writes that the general composition of the bands is unknown. Only in the north of the region is it known that the gang there is composed of about 1,500 men of whom at least one-half are Jews from the region of Lida and Novaradok.

A second document, written by the S.S. Reichsfuehrer on January 20, 1943 and addressed to the Director of the Reich Railways, Dr. Ganzmueller, regarding the supply of a larger number of freight trains, states: “One condition for pacifying the General Government in Bialystok and the Russian region is the transportation of all those aiding the gangs and those suspected of belonging

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to them. This, in the first instance, involves the transport of the Jews; similarly, Jews must be transported from the West, failing which even these regions will be open to increased acts of sabotage”. This implies that the existence of Jews everywhere – both in the East and in the West – is a prerequisite condition for the functioning of a Partisan Movement. Although the Jews undoubtedly played a large role in this Partisan Movement, German estimates must be regarded as plain “atrocity propaganda” and as a falsification of facts. There were not so many adult Jews in the territory as there were partisans, especially as the majority of the Jews had been killed during the early period of the war following the unexpected attack on the U.S.S.R., when no one in the civilian population had so much as grasped the fact that he was personally exposed to mortal danger and that he had to defend himself or at least take precautionary measures and hide.

Nevertheless, a sufficient number of Jews remained free to conduct partisan warfare against German rule. For that reason, therefore, just as we cannot accept the exaggerated opinions and figures from enemy sources, we similarly cannot accept figures deriving from Jewish sources which do not reflect the full share of the Jews in this extensive Jewish movement. For there were no central Jewish institutions that directed or examined, or even registered this Partisan Movement from the Jewish point of view.

Soviet documents from that period, as well as present-day Soviet literature relating to those days, do not stress the Jewish share in the Soviet Partisan Movement for various reasons. In the first place, the Soviet documents speak of one fatherland, obviously the USSR, without stressing the national affiliation of each partisan individually. Another reason for the lack of mention of the Jews was the anti-Semitic current among the population and the anti-Semitism that reigned in the partisan ranks themselves.

The main source, therefore, for the establishment of the part played by the Jews in the Soviet Partisan Movement is the reminiscences of the Jewish partisans themselves, or of those who came into contact with them at that period. Of these, however, only one in a thousand survived. They form a limited number of people whose reminiscences, preserved in book-form or in the form of evidence can be utilized.

There is another source of information about the partisans – the voluminous Soviet literature (particularly in the Russian language) on the Partisan Movement. These take the form of purely reminiscent literature of a narrative nature by leaders of the Partisan groups. Such reminiscences sometimes refer to aspects of the fate of the Jews such as life in the ghetto. True, we often read in these that some of the Jews had escaped to the forests, but such statements are made incidentally in so general a form that it is rarely possible to glean any tangible information on our subject from such memoirs. As a last resort,

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therefore, we must base our book on the sparse sources available while realizing that what we have succeeded in gleaning forms but a small part of what actually existed. Furthermore, owing to the special conditions obtaining in those localities, the Jews had often sufficient grounds to conceal their Jewishness. In the first instance this is true of those individuals who, after long wandering and many vicissitudes had succeeded in contacting some partisan unit which generally held aloof from Jews for varied reasons (e.g. sheer anti-Semitism or fear that the Jew might 'compromise' the Partisan unit in the eyes of the local civilian population of whose aid the Partisans were in need). Generally they refrained from taking stringent steps against the local population. On the contrary, it was their policy to gain their confidence by gentle means, to acquire their sympathy and assistance in the struggle against the common oppressor. Some of the commanders and even the best among them desired “for the good of the cause”, that their units should be free of Jews or at least that the Jews among them should not appear as Jews, should not bear Jewish names, should not speak with a peculiar Jewish accents, etc. Furthermore, not every commander had good intentions towards the Jews in general and towards the combatant Jews in particular.

We have called our book in Hebrew “The lexicon of Heroism”, a title requiring clarification. Historically Jews regarded as heroes the martyrs who had sanctified the “Divine Name” by accepting death rather than give up their religion under compulsion.

Side-by-side with this concept there has arisen, particularly in recent times, the concept of the “Sanctification of the Jewish People” – heroism that found expression in the defence of the peoples' vital interests and honour. In accordance with the spirit of the times, the hero is not merely passive but takes on an active role.

There is, however, yet another type of heroism which has become evident particularly among Jews in recent times and which few people have dwelt upon. We have in mind heroism “in potentia” because the people who evinced such heroism fell before they could translate their heroism into deeds “in actu” (which they were prepared to do from all points of view). We had among us youth that were prepared for the highest degree of sacrifice, who gave up everything for the possibility of joining the struggle against the enemy. But they fell as Jews before they had the chance of taking even the first step in this direction. How much energy, suffering and intrepidity were required before they succeeded in finding one another in the terrible conditions that reigned in the ghetto or in the concentration camp before the requisite arms were acquired; and when everything was ready for the attack they were felled by some treacherous bullet or by some treacherous neighbour who could not bear the thought that the Jews even dared to want to live.

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Among the gentiles, the process transforming civilians into partisans was an easy one. If someone wished to go out to the forest, he could do so without difficulties. Until reaching the forest, he was a free man enjoying legal rights. Peasants would go out to the forest equipped with axes and other implements and food in order to fell trees and they would remain there after first preparing the required means of defence. They had comrades there; they could defend themselves and hide.

For the Jews this was impossible. To them, the forests were strange territory. They had no one on whom they could rely on. In the forests they had various enemies lurking for them, not as partisans but as Jews. It was sufficient for even an innocent child to say, with no evil intent whatsoever, that he had seen a Jew in the forest, and his life was in danger.

For that reason, the “going out” of the Jews to the partisans was different from that of non-Jews. The very thought of it, the actual preparation for it entailed an act of heroism.

Jewish youth fled to a larger degree than non-Jewish youth who, for the most part, remained at home and awaited the arrival of the enemy either out of unconcern or out of feelings of reverence and support (such as Ukrainian youth and, in part, also Polish youth). Not so the Jews. They sensed in advance what lay in store for them at the hands of the Germans.

A serious problem faced by the Jews who wished to join a regular Soviet Partisan unit was that of arms. In theory, this demand was not specifically Jewish. In actual fact, however, the Jews were the ones primarily affected for they lacked the least possibility of acquiring arms anywhere. A non-Jewish prisoner-of-war who had escaped from a POW camp, or had been liberated, was free to move about. For the most part, he knew also where the arms had been hidden and had been left behind by the retreating Red Army. The Jew, however, had been barred in the ghetto or in the camp and there was little that he could do.

Some explained the exaggerated demands made of the Jews and the inordinately stringent criteria applied to them (more so than to non-Jews) by the fact that the Jews had a special account to settle with the enemy who had destroyed their people … “You must give your lives in this war – it is your war”. Such opinions were often expressed by non-Jews. The reader will find interesting details about this aspect too in the present book.

One must take into account another aspect of Jewish life in the Partisan Movement. They had relatively more women, old people or children than other nations; on the other hand, there were relatively more young Jews in the Regular Army.

Of all the forms of heroism mentioned here, we shall deal in the present book with only one – the actual general opposition to the Nazi regime. In

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other words, we shall deal with those Jews who did not limit themselves to one particular sphere forbidden by the enemy but who set themselves the objective of opposing physical stress by physical force. We shall deal with those Jews who not only did not themselves succumb and give in, but who even set themselves the aim of driving out the enemy by force, of subduing him, of removing him or of executing acts of vengeance against him. The book does not deal with passive resistance but only with cases of active struggle.

We do not wish to imply that this form of heroism is more sublime than the other forms and that for this reason, we have chosen to deal with it. All forms of resistance are equally worthy of the Jewish historian's attention. We hope, therefore, that expression will be given also to the other forms of resistance in the course of the work undertaken by “Yad Vashem”.

Furthermore, the evaluation of the role of the Jewish partisans in the general Partisan Movement in the vast expanses of the U.S.S.R. conquered by the enemy is well-nigh impossible. The Jews were scattered over various areas and among various units.. Whatever was done by the Jews was ascribed to the general unit and so the Jewish share is undervalued. No one stressed it for no one was interested in it except, perhaps, a small number of Jews conscious of their Jewishness.

We are forced, therefore, to make us of details, extracts, personal evidence which, it is true, be arranged to make up some sort of general picture, but we can never hope to describe fully the share of the Jewish partisan in the tremendous Partisan Movement of the U.S.S.R. in the years 1941-1945.

We must, however, seek consolation in the fact that the struggle of the Jewish partisan, who for the most part remained anonymous, was not in vain. In the general struggle against Hitlerism – the common enemy – the Jewish partisan made his own contribution and it was by his efforts and by his blood that victory was attained.


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