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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Partisan Tools for Survival: Friendly Locals

The world of a partisan, and especially a Jewish partisan, was a treacherous, restless, stressful world. They braved the most unendurable conditions—extreme cold, hunger, fatigue—and survived through the will to fight and persevere. Sometimes they received food, shelter, supplies, information, and medical attention from nearby communities. However, Jewish partisans could not fully trust the often anti-Semitic locals, though their services were necessary. Preventative measures were therefore taken: food and supplies were acquired at gunpoint or with some cunning and often improvised deception. Frank Blaichman recalls, “We had information that a farmer had hidden weapons. We made up a story to tell him that we were Russian paratroopers and we needed the weapons. We had our men far away with broken pitchforks that looked like a gun with a bayonet in the background, so to the farmer he looked like he was dealing with the real thing.” Even medical care was forcefully taken when sympathetic doctors were not available.

Norman Salsitz
Wounded in battle, Norman Salsitz needed surgical attention but did not trust the local doctors, so he took a hand grenade with him and informed the surgeon that if anything went wrong, everybody in the room would be killed. Brenda Senders explains the necessity of using this type of force, “You know, you go in with guns and the person will not give you food so you take it yourself. It was a war, it was not a matter of being polite or this way or the other way. Survival was at stake.”

However, locals who empathized with Jewish partisans or simply shared the same feeling of opposition toward German occupation were a great asset to partisan survival. Leon Idas found that there were local villagers who were friendly and freely informed partisan troops of German movements, and would even escort disguised partisans to the city hospitals to get them aid. Harry Burger found that locals offered up their barns to shelter and care for traveling partisans. Burger and Idas, however, lived and fought in southern Europe, where there was less anti-Semitism. In Poland, Sonia Orbuch did not encounter many sympathetic locals; although, she owes much of her survival to one citizen by the name of Tichon Martinetz who was instrumental in connecting her with the Russian partisans and also supplied the brigade with food in the bitter winter of ’42. Frank Blaichman spent much time with farmers who hid him and his comrades, cooked meals for them, even washed their clothes. “The locals were anti-Semitic, but they were not killers,” Frank Blaichman explained. “When they saw that we took care of German collaborators they were more willing to help us. Without their help we would have never survived.”

Frank Blaichman

According to partisans such as Blaichman, local allies could make all the difference in regards to survival. Even though unsympathetic locals could be tricked or forced at gunpoint to concede services and supplies, not all of survival relies on physical needs. After being chased by locals “like an animal”, when Blaichman found friendly households which sheltered and fed him there was a sense of hope. He said, “They treated us like human beings.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Łachwa Ghetto Uprising

By the 1930s, Łachwa, Poland (now southern Belarus) had a majority Jewish population, which, in April 1942, was confined to a ghetto so under-suited that each resident had about one square meter of living space.

In the five short months of the ghetto’s existence, the youth of Łachwa formed an underground movement led by Isaac Rochczyn and aided by Dov Lopatyn, head of the ghetto’s Judenrat. Together, they established contact with partisan groups in the area in order to secure funding and weapons, although these groups were largely anti-Semitic and did not effectively support the movement.

Lachwa (now Lakhva, Belarus). Ulica Lubaczyńska (Lubaczynska Street)

In August 1942, residents heard from Jews forced to do labor outside the ghetto that nearby ghettos in Łuniniec and Mikaszewicze had been liquidated. On September 2, Lachwa was informed that local farmers were ordered by the Germans to excavate large pits outside the town. Rochczyn and the youth underground wanted to attack the ghetto wall at midnight to allow the population to flee. They watched as 150 German soldiers from an Einsatzgruppe mobile killing squad with 200 local auxiliaries surrounded the ghetto. Lopatyn, however, did not want to abandon the elderly and the children and he asked that the attack be postponed until the morning, allowing the Judenrat to discuss their options.

Yitzhak/Isaac Rochzyn (or Icchak Rokchin), Łachwa Ghetto underground leader and head of local Betar Group.
When morning arrived, the ghetto inhabitants were ordered to gather for "deportation". The Germans promised Lopatyn that the Judenrat, the ghetto doctor, and 30 laborers of choice would be safe from deportation. Lopatyn refused the offer, reportedly responding: "Either we all live, or we all die."

Lopatyn and Rochczyn made the decision to resist. Lopatyn set the Judenrat headquarters on fire to signal this decision. The youth resistance engaged the Germans and local collaborators with axes, sticks, Molotov cocktails, and even their bare hands, while others attempted to flee. Rochczyn killed a Gestapo officer with an ax and jumped into the river but was shot and killed. Kopel Kolpanitzky, who later wrote a book about surviving the Łachwa ghetto, recalls the chaos of his escape:

“The machine guns on the other side of the river opened fire along the length of Rinkowa street, wounding fleeing Jews and killing them…I also ran quickly, as the people who ran in front of me were shot and killed, their bodies falling next to me.”

Lachwa lost the majority of its population that day. A number of survivors, however, were able to join up with partisan units in the area. Dov Lopatyn, who fought alongside the youth of the ghetto, escaped to the forest and joined a partisan unit, as well. Though he was killed on an operation by a landmine in February 1945, Lopatyn leaves a legacy of his courage and leadership, underneath which the Jews of Łachwa stood up to their oppressors.