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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Partisan Tools for Survival: the Instrument of Illusion

Many who know Jewish partisan stories also know that victory was not only about physical resistance—mining railroad tracks or killing German soldiers—it was also about spiritual and intellectual resistance. One such model of mind over matter is the power of resourcefulness; partisan stories often feature the instrument of illusion saving the day.

Ben Kamm
Many partisans recall the tactical trickery they used to defeat enemies. Ben Kamm’s unit would strategically place Soviet parachutes (used to drop supplies) in an area away from camp, wait for Germans to bomb the parachutes, and cut the German airplanes down with machine guns. Likewise, Jack Kakis’ partisan unit developed oft-used deceptive strategies, and for him it was all in the details. He recalls their method for mining the roads, “You put the mines underneath [a piece of rubber] and you make some truck marks on top of the soil.” When the Germans surveyed the roads, they assumed it was as safe for them as for the last truck that supposedly drove by.

Abe Asner on a horse
Sometimes ingenuity was purely off the cuff: prior to approaching a group of Lithuanians and their machine gun in the forest, Abe Asner realized he and his outnumbered companions had to devise a plan so they would not be massacred. That's when Abe saw a natural hill within the Lithuanians' view and had a brilliantly simple idea. The seven partisans walked all around the hill several times, which gave the Lithuanians the impression that a great number of partisan soldiers were surveying the area. The Lithuanians quickly abandoned their plan and ran away.

Bernard Musmand's survival was dependent on pretending to be something he was not. Hiding in an all boys' Catholic school in France, Bernard had to play a part he knew very little about. The first day, got a hold of a Bible and spent half the night studying in the bathroom. He explained: “I became such a good Catholic that the priest at one time asked me if I want to go to the seminary, Catholic seminary.”

In Bernard Druskin’s case, however, reasons for deception could also err on the side of recreation:

“You know we used to give the dynamite to the peasants? For booze, in exchange for booze. We used to tell them that's soap. They didn't know what is. Mylo, mylo, mylo — that was soap, used to tell them it was soap.”

Wherever illusion came from—pre-existing resources, extemporaneous action, or pre-planned strategies—many partisans speak of these ephemeral instances of trickery as possessing the power to turn the tables in the fight for survival.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Revolt in Sobibor Extermination Camp

Those who escaped from the Sobibor Extermination Camp in Poland furnished detailed-first hand accounts of their revolt. Their stories will be a legacy for all who lived and died in the gates and for the events that happened in October of 1943. A small town on the eastern edge of Poland, Sobibor was the locale for an extermination camp. Outside the camp, a 100-meter long road that the Germans called Himmelstrasse (Road to Heaven) led the way to the gas chambers, where approximately 250,000 Jews and Soviet POWs were executed.

On September 23, 1943, Alexander Pechersky, a Lieutenant Quatermaster of the Red Army arrived at Sobibor and was chosen for labor. When Solomon Leitman explained to him that in this small plot of land hundreds of thousands of Jewish women, children and men were murdered, he thought of escape, initially wondering, “Should I leave the rest of the prisoners to be tortured and murdered?” He then writes in his memoir, “I rejected this thought.” Pechersky became a figure of authority when he stood up to a German guard at the camp. That’s when people began to approach Pechersky with ideas for an escape plan.

Leon Feldhendler had been leading discussions for an escape, but was unable to come up with a suitable plan, as the camp perimeter was planted with mines. Pechersky and Feldhendler realized that if they could kill the SS officers while other Soviet POWS raided the arsenal, they could take the camp and escape through the gates.

On October 14, 1943, participants led by Pechersky and Feldhendler covertly killed 11 SS personnel with knives and axes; they covered the blood with sawdust. However, an SS guard who had left the camp and returned early discovered one of the bodies and began to shoot at prisoners. At the sound of gunshots, Perchersky cried out for the others to begin their revolt. Some prisoners had obtained hand grenades and guns, others rushed out of their workshops to escape, some who were unaware of the revolt chose not to leave. All who stayed were executed.

Out of 550 prisoners of Sobibor, 300 made it out of the prison gates; though many, including Leon Feldhendler, were caught by German soldiers and local collaborators. Within days of the revolt, Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, razed, and planted over with trees. After the war was over, only 53 Sobibor prisoners had survived. Pechersky and other survivors joined up with partisan brigades, including an all-Jewish otriad called Yehiel’s Group, and continued to sabotage the Germans. Others who survived were able to, in their own way, bring their perpetrators to justice. Thomas Blatt interviewed former German guard at Sobibor, Karl Frenzel, and contributed to the book, Escape from Sobibor, which gives various personal accounts of the events. Finally, Esther Raab, Thomas Blatt, Chaim Engel, Regina Zielinski, and Kurt Thomas gave these amazing interviews to USC Shoah Foundation, here.

For more information on the story of Sobibor and its participants, see these articles:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Featured Jewish Partisan - Marisa Diena, born on September 29th

"They didn’t know that I was Jewish. It didn’t cross my mind because there, like I said, everyone thought that I was Mara... But there was also Ulisse, Polifemo, Lampo, Fulmine ... they all had battle names. You didn’t know anything about anyone. It wasn’t important. So most people didn’t know that I was Jewish."
— Marisa Diena.

Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy, on September 29, 1916. Eight years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy, Marisa was taught to love Fascism. However, in 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, banning Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.

After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique; since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion. As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to her commander. In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.

In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25th, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa remained in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children. She passed away on May 8th, 2013.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Marisa Diena, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.