“I didn’t even bend down my head, I wasn’t worried that I was going to get killed, If I was going to get killed I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew.”
— Sonia Orbuch, during JPEF interview.
September 1st marks the official start of World War II, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Sarah Shainwald was 14 years old and getting ready to start high school when the bombs began falling. The Soviets invaded Poland from the east and Lubomi was handed to the Russians under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland between the two powers.
For two years, with Lubomi under the Soviets, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war with worries about her family’s future. Then in 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family were confined to the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.
When the Nazis began killing Jews in the ghetto, it did not take long for the news to spread. Sarah's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but his group only accepted young men – so the open forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.
Eventually, Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, her uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group. Thus Sara began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for sabotage and resistance missions.
Sarah was renamed Sonia by the partisans, for 'Sarah' is not a common Russian name and would have exposed her to danger from various anti-Semitic elements. Early on, Sonia was assigned to guard duty and providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.
In the winter of 1943-44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. Several thousand were in that camp and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital. Sonia recalls her day-to-day experience there:
To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades, “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”
In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house. They were unaware that the house was infected with typhus, which soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.
As the war ended, Sonia focused her energies on getting to America. These days, Sonia lives in Northern California. But the past is never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia says. “I see them always before my eyes.”
Sonia defiantly proclaims. “I want young people to know we were fighting back and that you can always find a way to fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter and not because I am a Jew. That itself gave me strength to go on.
Sonia realized that while terror was raging around her, kindness always managed to shine through. “I feel great respect for the Russian people who were so brave and helpful to us,” Sonia says. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”
She continues to share her experiences - most recently, she participated in our live Q&A Partisan Webcast. Over twenty schools tuned in to watch. She was also featured in several of the winning essays from our 2012 Youth Writing Contest - click here to read them. Pictured below is Sonia with last year's contest winner EJ Weiss:
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about the Sonia Orbuch, including seven videos of Sonia reflecting on her time as a partisan. You can also download our study guide Sonia Orbuch: A Young Woman With The Russian Partisans.
Sonia has written about her experiences in the partisans in her book Here, There Are No Sarahs: A Woman's Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream, available at amazon.com.