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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Paula Burger – Paula’s Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans, and A Life Unexpected

In her moving memoir, author and artist Paula Burger shares the harrowing experience of a child’s survival during the Holocaust.

The first child of Wolf and Sarah Koladicki, Paula Burger was born in 1934 in the town of Novogrudok, which had a vibrant Jewish community numbering around six thousand – half of the town’s population. Her father was a savvy businessman who owned a small grocery store and restaurant; he also traded in cattle and lumber, and managed the family’s ranch. Paula fondly remembers her pre-war childhood: her parents working together at the store, the ice cream from her aunt’s shop, and in 1939, the arrival of her baby brother Isaac.

But life as she knew it ended on July 3, 1941, when the German army occupied Novogrudok. Two weeks later, they executed the community’s professionals – fifty-two men in all, including rabbis, doctors, and lawyers – in the town’s main marketplace.

In the middle of a bitter cold night, several months later in December, the Nazis snuck in and rounded up the remainder of Novogrudok’s Jews. Paula’s father was not home at the time, but her mother Sarah, with young Isaac in her arms and Paula by her side, succeeded in escaping. During that raid, later called “Black Monday,” some four thousand Jews died at the hands of the occupiers. Afterwards, the remaining Jews were divided between two camps.

The Koladicki family managed to avoid incarceration in the ghettos for over four months. Once inside though, Wolf was permitted to leave as needed to attend to his various enterprises, all the while formulating a plan to escape with his family. A Polish neighbor, desirous of the Koladicki land, deceitfully informed the Nazis of Wolf’s involvement with the resistance movement. The Nazis searched for him, but soon grew tired of the unsuccessful hunt, and decided to arrest Sarah with the intent of extracting her husband’s whereabouts through interrogation and torture. Since she had no idea where Wolf was, the torture brought no results. The Nazis kept her in holding for six weeks, forcing her to serve as a German translator. Then, on Yom Kippur of 1942, they shot her.

By this time, Paula’s father did in fact become a member of the resistance by joining the Bielski Otriad in the Naliboki Forest. Wolf arranged to smuggle Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto with the help of a Polish farmer. The farmer’s job was to deliver water to the ghetto, so he smuggled young Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto in a dank, empty water barrel. They had to hide in total silence inside the cramped confines of the barrel for many hours. Paula knew that any sound they made could mean certain death, and she held Isaac tight to keep him absolutely still and calm.

After a night hidden in a barn, and another day of concealed travel, the siblings rejoined their father at the Bielski partisan camp. They remained with the group throughout the war, traveling with them when they could, and hiding in forest shelters when harsh winter conditions prevented them from doing so. Though she was only seven years old when they joined with the Bielskis, Paula actively contributed to armed resistance against the enemy, using her small fingers to pack explosives into yellow bricks, which were later used to blow up and derail Nazi supply trains.

Paula (age 12) and her brother Isaac (age 7) at a DP camp near Munich

Instead of returning to Novogrudok after the war’s end, Paula’s father led his family to Lida, and then across the border to Czechoslovakia. Aided only by their wits and the kindness of strangers, the family made their way to the American Zone in West Germany. They spent several years in the DP camp, where young Paula became fluent in English. Then in 1949, they voyaged to the US and joined their relatives in Chicago. There, in high school, Paula began to hone her natural talent as an artist.

As a child, Paula’s most prized possession was a box of colored pencils with which she would draw for hours on end. Although she did not begin painting professionally until she retired, Paula was always painting pictures in her mind, and maintained an overwhelming desire to act on this passion. In a journal she kept as a young woman, Paula wrote, “I hope I don’t die before I get to paint.”

The zeal for creative expression coursed through the veins of both siblings. Though successful in business, they continually pursued their artistic passions. While Paula painted colorful landscapes, still lifes, and Judaic-themed images, Isaac applied his beautiful singing voice to chazanut, and has now served as a professional cantor for over fifty years.

Paula’s art has shown in galleries throughout Colorado, and her works are included in numerous public, private and corporate collections throughout the world. After a childhood filled with dark images of horror and loss, Paula’s goal is to capture the beauty in life through her art with the bold use of color and imagery. You can view her catalogue at

Paula Burger and her art.

Paula Burger has been speaking to students’ civic groups for over twenty years. Her 2013 autobiography, Paula’s Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans, and A Life Unexpected, vividly recalls her childhood experience of survival in the forests during World War II.

Paula and her brother Isaac at the Bielski Tribute Gala in 2013.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Guest Blogger - Paul Orbuch: "If, By Miracle"

My name Is Paul Orbuch and I am the Founding President and Chairman Emeritus of JPEF. My mother, Sonia Orbuch, fought with the Soviet partisans – as did Michael Kutz, whose gripping memoir, “If, By Miracle”, was recently published by The Azrieli Foundation in Canada as part of their Holocaust Survivor Memoir series. The Azrieli Foundation has published many fine books in the series, but this one was the first on a Jewish partisan. It caught my attention for that reason, but as I read it I was amazed to see how it resonates with the work JPEF has done and specifically how it parallels in so many ways my mother’s story, which was told in her memoir, “Here, There Are No Sarahs”, which was released in 2009. I worked closely with her and her co-author Fred Rosenbaum for 3 years; many of the threads in Kutz’s memoir correlate with her story as a teenager who fled to the forests and eventually was lucky enough to join a fighting unit of Soviet partisans.

But this story is told through the eyes of a young teenage boy, whose struggle to prove oneself as a fighter, and the joy of finally being able to fight back after enduring the loss of family, friends and community nevertheless mirrors that of my mother and many other partisans. We see the same strand of antisemitism – even within the resistance groups. (This is analyzed more deeply in the JPEF course, Antisemitism in the Partisans.) We see the same joy and intoxicating camaraderie infuse their memories as they recollect this important period of their young lives.

There is a valuable introduction by the historian Anike Walke, who explains how large-scale history plays out through the eyes and experiences of this teenage Jewish boy. “The sweeping breadth of his story takes us on a journey through twentieth–century Eastern European, Soviet, Canadian, Jewish and global history.” Through Kutz’s eyes we learn about the split within the Jewish community in pre and post war Poland – between the Zionists who advocated emigration to the ancient land of Israel and the leftist groups who wanted to work towards a revolutionary new pluralistic world in their places of birth. Kutz’s parents even argued whether he should be educated in Hebrew (the Zionist view) or Yiddish, which exemplified the basic split in the community regarding the proper aspiration for the Jewish people.

Michael’s first-hand account of being buried alive in a pile of murdered bodies takes us on a journey into the brutality of the German Einsatzgruppen, and what has been termed the "Holocaust By Bullets". These were mobile death squads responsible for the rounding up and murder of Jews in mass shooting operations. These, in addition to the death camps we are more familiar with, were a key component of the implementation of the Nazis’ plan to annihilate the Jews in Eastern Europe. This is a harrowing and until recently neglected area of Holocaust history and I think "If, By Miracle" takes us right into the heart of this history.

This is a coming of age story – Michael was only a child when he joined the partisans. He learned to fight with them and, as time went on, he taught these skills to others. The account of his first mission where he was selected by his commanders to crawl to a police station at dawn to place dynamite because he was small enough to do so will entrance anyone reading it – but especially any teenager who responds to adventure and daring.

“ …we walked through woods and fields all night long…I was camouflaged and carried dynamite in my rucksack. ..I crawled to the barbed wire fence, pulling a long cord along behind me. ….when I got there I placed the dynamite in contact with the fuse and made my way back…..after we lit the end of the cord, there was an explosion a minute or so later…for our group of partisans, especially the Jewish ones, this was quite a victory. ………we earned a great deal of respect from the non-Jews as fighters who could strike a serious blow to our enemies. My participation in that first military operation was also a personal victory in avenging the death of my family and my people….”

The story of the uprising in Michael's hometown that he later hears about is particularly interesting, as it was one of the first instances of such revolts in the Ghettos and was a precursor to the well-known one in Warsaw.

The second half of the book is a unique retelling of this young man’s escape from Europe and his eyewitness account of the coordinated efforts of so many disparate groups that enabled countless survivors to overcome the many obstacles on the way to the ancient Jewish homeland of Israel. Although Michael eventually came to Canada, prior to leaving Europe he spent many months involved in the training and support of the many thousands who ran the British blockade and formed the nucleus of the new Jewish State.

As Michael settled into his new life, he never forgot the lessons he learned as young Jewish partisan –to stand up for the underdog and, in his own words:

“I tell my story to….the young people of Canada because I feel an obligation to keep the legacy alive for future generations, to be vigilant so that the Holocaust never happens again, to recognize the rights of all peoples regardless of colour, religion or nationality, and to live together and respect one another because we are all God’s children.

–Paul Orbuch, JPEF Founding President and Chairman Emeritus

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sam Levi, born 1922

Samuel Levi was born in 1922 in Sofia, Bulgaria. His father was a grocer in their tight-knit community. Samuel was a student at the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) attending political and cultural classes in 1940, shortly before the Germans invaded Bulgaria.

Forced into a labor camp near the border with Greece, Samuel watched as Greek Jews were marched to concentration camps. The conditions in the labor camp were harsh, and as food began to run out, Samuel knew he must escape. He followed a group of Greek Jews being marched through his camp, and escaped outside the camp walls.

Rejoining the Komsomol, Samuel was in a band of partisans called La Chevdad that roamed Bulgaria, near the border with Yugoslavia. The group stayed in the high mountains or forests, to avoid capture. Conditions were difficult for the Komsomol partisans, as Samuel remembers: “We were constantly starving. We had some corn flour and water and that’s what we ate for an entire month. But we trained and we were on guard.”

It was unusual for partisans to get a full night’s rest, because of the constant dangers. The group would sleep out in the rain in the summer, but the partisans liked this, because for once they could speak to each other out loud and sing, the noise of their voices drowned out by the lighting and thunder.

Remembering a common partisan action, Samuel comments on the partisans’ cunning, “We would take their (police) uniforms in order to confuse the enemy during an operation. We would descend into the villages and they would think that we were officers and we would act.”

These partisan groups helped tremendously to prepare the groundwork for the Russians, who entered Bulgaria in 1944. Samuel recounts his feeling of impending death as a partisan: “For the one year and four months when I was a partisan, I never thought that I would remain alive. No partisan did. We knew that we could all die but die proud that we did something against the fascists.” Samuel lives today in Israel with his wife and has a son, a daughter, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Visit for more about Sam Levi, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.