"I...went back to the partisans that should take me to [commander] Bulak. And I said, 'You know [...] I want to come back because everybody's killed and I remain all by myself.' He said, 'Yeah, I know you girls want to come to the group to have a good time. You don't want to fight.' I said, 'No, I want to fight. I want to take revenge for my sisters and brothers and for my parents.' He said, 'Well, I'll take you in on one condition.' I said, 'What's the condition?' 'You'll stay on guard for two weeks, but a mile away from the group. We'll give you a horse, we'll give you a rifle, we'll give you a gun. And anything you hear, any little noise, you'll have to let us know.' I said, 'Okay.'"
Born in 1922 on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Gertrude ‘Gertie’ Boyarski was a teenager in the town of Dereczyn (Derechin), Poland, who lived a quiet life with her family until the Germans invaded in 1941. Though the Nazis forced the majority of the town's Jews into a ghetto, they regarded Gertie's father – a butcher and a housepainter – as a 'useful' Jew, so the Boyarskis were moved to a guarded building just in front of the ghetto's entrance.
On July 24, 1942, a night of terror descended on the ghetto. The Germans began a mass killing of the town’s 3,000-4,000 Jews. The Boyarski family managed to escape to a nearby forest, where they hoped to get into a partisan unit. To prove themselves to the partisans, Gertie's father, brother and other Jews had to return literally bare-handed and attack the town's police station. They were successful, killing the guards and taking the station's stash of weapons and ammunition, but in the months that followed, Gertie and her family remained in a family camp with other noncombatant refugees. The camp lacked protection, and Gertie saw her mother, father, sister, and brother murdered before her eyes in surprise attacks by German soldiers and by antisemitic Poles who hunted the woods for Jews.
Bereft of family and seeking revenge, she left the shelter of the family camp where she had been living and sought to join a partisan detachment under the leadership of the Russian Commander Pavel Bulak, who initially brushed her off. But Gertie was insistent, saying, “I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family.”
Impressed by her conviction, Bulak agreed under one condition: she would have to stand guard alone, for two weeks, a mile from the partisan encampment. “I was alone in the woods ... each time I heard a little noise I thought it’s Germans… Two weeks – it was like two years.” But Gertie persisted and was accepted into the group. She fought with the partisans for three years, aggressively attacking German soldiers who came to the surrounding villages.
Gertrude went on to win the Soviet Union’s highest military honor, the order of Lenin. In honor of International Women's Day, Gertie and her friend - both teens - volunteered for a dangerous mission to demolish a wooden bridge used by the Germans. They had no supplies, however, so they hiked to a local village and asked for kerosene and straw. When told there was none in the village, Gertrude and her friends unslung their rifles and gave the villagers five minutes to find the supplies. The villagers quickly complied.
Gertie and her friend snuck up to the bridge, prepared and lit the fire. German soldiers saw the blaze and started shooting. In response, the girls grabbed burning pieces of the bridge and tossed them into the river until the bridge was destroyed. "We didn't chicken out," says Gertie.
Gertie and her fellow partisans completed many other missions to help fight the enemy. In 1945, she married a fellow partisan, and they settled in the United States. Gertie still grapples with having lived through the war when so many perished. "I was the only one who survived. Why? Why me? I'm always asking that question." Her message to students studying the Holocaust is that “they should not be afraid of their identity – no matter what color, race or nationality – and they should fight for it.” For more on Gertrude Boyarski, please see our short biography, as well as the short film Jewish Women in the Partisans, and our study guide, "Gertrude Boyarski: From Frail Girl to Partisan Fighter."
Gertrude passed away at the age of 90 on September 17th, 2012 – the first day of Rosh Hashanah of that year.