When I discuss the subject of the partisans as part of a unit on the Holocaust, I am invariably reminded that the decision to leave behind one’s family and friends, knowing that you may never see them again, was a heart-wrenching and painful decision. Leaving behind one’s family and familial commitments was just the first step in deciding to become a partisan. For those who could even escape a ghetto or camp to join the partisans, this was coupled by the Nazi policy of “Collective Responsibility” that extracted retribution on the remaining family members, friends or community. Escaping a ghetto or camp to join the partisans meant living with the legacy that one’s family and friends could be killed.
Faye Schulman discusses this in her autobiography “A Partisan’s Memoir” (1995 Second Story Press, pp 79-80) when she writes: “Should a son or daughter leave elderly parents and endanger their lives? Should a husband forsake his wife and children? Others felt that their responsibility was to remain with their community. Was it more morally right to leave the ghetto community and confront the enemy as a free agent or should one stay to protect the populace? Never before had we been confronted with moral issues of such magnitude.” These were the choices Jewish men, women and teenagers faced when deciding whether or not to seek out partisan units to join – and there was no guarantee of acceptance into a unit. Ultimately for Schulman, the decision to join the partisans was a consequence of the Nazis having already murdered her family when they liquidated the ghetto in Lenin. Spared because as a photographer she possessed a skill the Nazis needed, Schulman sought the join the partisans.
A second point to note when learning about the partisans is the realization that these partisan units lived and fought under tremendously difficult conditions. Life in the forests of Nazi-occupied Europe meant enduring harsh winters with minimal clothing and temporary shelters, seeking food from villages and farms or from within the forest, and always staying one step ahead of a Nazi-German army and its collaborators that were determined to annihilate the Jewish people. The fragility of life under these circumstances becomes central to understanding the conditions under which these units of armed fighters existed.
Finally, it is critical to understand the role of the partisans within the wider context of the Holocaust. These units of armed resistance fighters we call the partisans existed in both eastern and western Nazi-occupied Europe. Historians estimate there were between 20,000 and 30,000 such partisans while the total number of men who served in the German military, in all theatres of war, between 1939 and 1945 exceeds 12 million. Clearly this was not, and cannot be, interpreted as a conflict between equal or near-equal forces. Partisan units resisted Nazi terror and conducted their operations even though they lacked sufficient armaments and ammunition, and while many of their members lacked any real military or even medical training. Improvisation and ingenuity were critical not only to their survival in the forests but also to their success in disrupting the Nazi killing operations.
Outnumbered and against overwhelming odds, the partisans are an element to understanding the diverse ways in which Jews resisted the genocidal actions of the Nazis. Whether it was through physical, spiritual, or emotional resistance, Jews defied the Nazis with whatever means they could.
Carson Phillips is the Educator with the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and a PhD Candidate at York University.
See Pictures of Resistance: The Wartime Photographs of Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman at the Gallery in Jacobs Lounge at the MNjcc until May 31. On May 26 at 7:30 p.m., all are welcome to the exhibit’s closing program featuring Faye Schulman with Professor Doris Bergen, Chancellor, Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. Admission is free.