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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Partisan Tools for Survival: The Forests and Swamps

"And I saw the trees very big trees, heavy trees and it was a wind and it was blowing the trees back and forth. And I said here we come this will be our life we have to sleep here to live here. Snow, rain or whatever… this is our home and we have to take it."
— Sam Gruber.

For partisans like Sam Gruber, the nearby forests and swamps were a mixed blessing. For the same reason they provided protection, they could also be treacherous. It was a setting, however, that sheltered many partisans throughout Europe.

Sonia Orbuch explains: “We had to choose a place with so many trees. In a way it was like a protection.” The forests were great forts, thickly wooded—the swamps, their endless moats. “Without the forest we couldn’t survive,” Norman Salsitz declares.

These were territories not so easily tread by invading forces—even local collaborators stayed away from the swamps and forests. Don Felson explains that there were, “a lot of forests in my part of the country, huge forests that, once you’re in the forest, they’re not gonna find you.” Not that it was easy for the partisans, either. Mira Shelub tries to describe the miserable feeling of having to trudge through the swamps “one foot in, one foot out, one foot in, one foot out”: “Because you become so desperate when you go, you know: it's swamps… you don't know when or how will it end.”

Jewish Partisans in a Yugoslavian Forest

Out of necessity, partisans used the forest for their benefit. Others were not so adept at navigating the woods. Jeff Gradow speaks about the ability to read the forest: “On the big trees, on the north side, what do you call, the moss is growing, and so we know if this is north, south, east, west. We have no compasses, and still nobody got lost. Even today, after so many years, I go in the woods, it doesn't bother me. I can find my way out.”

The forests, the swamps, though difficult, were a symbol of a relief to many—if only because they meant escape and obscurity. Fleeing to the forest, “is the first time I felt like a free human being,” says Jeff Gradow. “Even I didn't know where the heck I'm going to go, or what I'm going to do.” Mira Shelub invokes a similar feeling: “I cannot tell you how good it felt to breathe the fresh air, to know that we are free, to know that we can go. Okay, there were difficulties, obstacles, but we knew that we can go, that nobody will stop us… to see the trees, it was something, a special, special experience.”

Photo taken in 1999 of a zemlyanka in the Naroch forest, Belarus. From Alexander Bogen’s book, Revolt.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Eta Wrobel Defied Gender Roles as a Jewish Partisan

"I was the girl who played soccer with the boys. I was the girl who rode a bicycle on the street in shorts, which no other Jewish girls didn’t do that, I had no objections from my parents. We had a very good home. And not to forget, which hurts my life, we had ten children in our family, and I’m the only survivor. The only one. I have no family whatsoever in my background, so like when we get together in the family there is that celebration, or a wedding or bar mitzvah or whatever there is, I have nobody. Everybody who comes, nieces, nephews, are all from my husband’s side. That’s the only thing I envy in my life—otherwise, I’m free."
— Eta Wrobel.

Born December 28th, 1918 in Lokov, Poland, Eta Wrobel was the only child in a family of ten to survive the Holocaust. In her youth, she was a free spirit who defied authority. As Eta puts it she was “born a fighter.” Her father, a member of the Polish underground, taught her the importance of helping people, no matter the circumstance.

In early 1940, Eta started work as a clerk in an employment agency. Soon she began her resistance by creating false identity papers for Jews. In October 1942, Eta’s ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were forced into concentration camps.

In the transition, Eta and her father escaped to the woods.

Life in the woods around Lokov was extremely treacherous. Eta helped organize an exclusively Jewish partisan unit of close to eighty people. Her unit stole most of their supplies, slept in cramped quarters, and had no access to medical attention. At one point Eta was shot in the leg and dug the bullet out of her leg with a knife. The unit set mines to hinder German movement and to cut off supply routes. Unlike the other seven women in the unit, Eta refused to cook or clean. Her dynamic personality and military skills allowed for this exception.

She was active on missions with the men and made important strategic decisions.

In 1944, when the Germans left Lokov, Eta came out of hiding and was asked to be mayor of her town. Shortly after, Eta met Henry, her husband to be. They were married on December 20, 1944. In 1947 Eta and Henry moved to the United States. She and Henry had three children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Eta summarized her heroic years with the partisans by saying simply, “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive.”

In 2006, her memoir My Life My Way The Extraordinary Life of a Jewish Partisan in World War II was published. Eta died on May 26, 2008 at her home in upstate New York.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Eta Wrobel, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Eta is also featured in an Emmy-nominated documentary from PBS entitled Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.