“I managed to [avoid] those that would denounce me,” Zvi Shefet recalled of his early days during the German occupation of his hometown of Slonim, in then Soviet-occupied Belorussia. Refusing to wear the Star of David, the sixteen-year-old Jewish partisan found ways to rebel early on, even before he went into the forest to fight. With his blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fluent command of Polish, he managed to avoid unwanted attention and only went outside when necessary.
The German invasion came as a complete surprise to Zvi and his community – as in many Soviet territories, the community strongly believed in the power and protection of the Soviet army. However, the war had only lasted three days before the Germans successfully overtook the town.
On July 17, 1942, the initial “aktion”1 in Slonim took place against the Jews. Zvi's family was alerted to the situation through family friends who had relayed the news through their grief-stricken faces - the couple lived in the woods and were firsthand witnesses to the aftermath of the mass killing in the forest.
In the beginning, most Jews in Slonim found it a hard to digest these mass murders. Some continued to look for those that had been killed, only finding remains of their clothing. Others believed that the Russians would still come and save them. Looking back on experiencing this time as a child, Zvi reminisced “I thought it strange that the grown-ups were so fearful.”
Fearing for their son's life, Zvi's parents planned to send him to Warsaw with a Polish family acquaintance. Feeling hurt that they wanted to send him away, he advised strongly against separating from his family. Zvi convinced his family to let him stay with them and continue to protect them as best he could.
Soon after, the Germans forced all the Jews of Slonim into the a ghetto. Another aktion immediately followed: the Wehrmacht and the SS surrounded the ghetto, looking for males. Zvi and his father hid in a shed adjacent to their living area. Zvi's mother – who was fluent in German – answered the door and convinced the officers that her husband had gone off to work early and taken his schein (work permit) with him. The soldiers left soon after, commanding her not to let anyone else in the house.
During this aktion, the Germans had exceeded the expected amount of Jews that they were anticipating to find, prompting the authorities to declare that the killing would cease. Though some believed this news, Zvi's parents did not. The recent increase in SS men in the town caused alarm – changes like that often meant something awful was looming in the near future. The Nazis were not only targeting Jewish citizens, but also the Polish intelligentsia. Uncertainty was an air, and no one was safe.
The final aktion ended in the burning of the Slonim ghetto. Zvi's family was residing near the ghetto's edge, and thus escaped into the forest under the cover of nightfall. Zvi and his immediate family – along with some uncles, aunts and cousins – roamed the forest, motivated by rumors of Soviet partisan groups in the Pruszkov forest and the surrounding areas. They hoped the partisans would provide protection for them.
The admission to partisan groups was arms, which the Shefets and their relatives had no possession of. The group eventually went their separate ways, due to a fission that occurred when Zvi's uncle secured a spot with the Soviet partisans for only himself, his wife and two sons.
Soon after, however, Zvi and his family found a partisan center in the forest near Okinowo. This place was well-known – former POWs organized the activity of various partisan groups here. After a few days, Zvi was accepted into a resistance group called Detachment 51, and his family was assigned to a detachment created for the partisans' family members.
Due to the prevalence of antisemitism among the ranks of the Soviet partisans, a group of Jews eventually broke off and created their own unit, comprised solely of Jewish partisans. They also called themselves Detachment 51. Zvi asked to join this group. The commander, Yefim Fiodorowicz, had excellent leadership qualities and was able to inspire the group into becoming excellent fighters. The group membership was also more lenient towards women, who fought alongside their male counterparts.
Zvi continued to fight in Detachment 51 until Fiodorowicz perished; Zvi had no choice but to join another Soviet partisan unit - he fought with them until the area was liberated by the Soviet army in 1944. Unfortunately, Zvi's family was killed in 1943, when a group of Soviet partisans attacked his family's detachment instead of protecting them as they promised to.
–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong
Zvi Shefet visiting the cemetery at Czepelova. Photo courtesy of eilatgordinlevitan.com.
1. The German euphemism for mass executions, usually by bullets