Monday, October 31, 2016
The child of Polish immigrants, Grynszpan was born in March of 1921 in Hanover, Germany. As a teen, he studied at at Yeshiva in Frankfurt before returning to Hanover, where he applied to move to Palestine. However his young age and small size worked against him, and his request was denied.
Upon being denied entry into Palestine, Herschel illegally snuck into Paris in 1936 to live with his aunt and uncle. Throughout the following two years he tried to gain legal residency in France, but was consistently denied (possibly due to the political climate at the time). His re-entry papers into Germany were expired, and Poland had just passed a law that stripped anyone living abroad for over five years of Polish citizenship – in effect, Herschel became a person belonging to no state, and simply continued to reside illegally among the Orthodox community in Paris.
In 1938, approximately 12,000 Polish Jews were rounded up and forced onto boxcar trains destined to Poland – which had no desire to admit them, and they were left stranded at the border. Among these Jews were Grynszpan's family: his mother, father, and siblings. One of his family members managed to send Herschel a postcard from the border town they were staying at detailing their mistreatment at the hands of the Germans.
Alarmed by the news, Herschel implored his uncle to send them financial help, which his uncle refused to do: his finances were already stretched thin by the illegal immigrant living in his home. The 17-year old youth walked out on his uncle that day, and with the little money he had in his pocket, he purchased a gun and then proceeded to the German embassy in Paris. Herschel requested to talk to an embassy official, and the clerk on duty at the time, Ernst vom Rath, was sent to inquire about Herschel's intentions. Claiming vengeance for the 12,000 deported Jews, Herschel then shot vom Rath, who died two days later in the hospital.
But the case was not as clear-cut as the Nazis had hoped.
Urged by his legal defense team to “de-politicize” the assassination, Grynszpan claimed that he wanted to assassinate the German ambassador not for political reasons, but because vom Rath had seduced Grynszpan after promising him help with his immigration status – and then turned his back on the promise. French law was much more tolerant of crimes of passion than of politically-motivated assassinations, so Grynszpan would likely avoid the guillotine with such defense.
As time went on, it became clear that neither the defense nor the persecution – led by a German lawyer sent by Goebbles tasked with finding evidence of a Jewish conspiracy – were in any hurry to proceed with the trial. The proceedings were further complicated by the outbreak of the war, and Grynszpan subsequently spent the next two years languishing in French prisons. Once Germany invaded France, he was bounced from prison to prison, until German agents found him in Toulouse. He was taken into German custody in 1940 – Goebbles and the Nazis hoped to use him for a show trial to prove the complicity of “international Jewry” in the assassination. Because the Nazis needed to keep Grynszpan in good shape for the political theater he would be forced to take part in, he was sent to Sachsenhausen, where he was housed in a “bunker” reserved for “special prisoners”, including the last chancellor of Austria.
What happened to him during and after the war is a mystery. The show trial Goebbles had wanted never materialized – the initial procedural delays took two years, by which time Goebbles and others became aware of the “homosexual defense” Grynszpan was planning to use. Though the relationship may have been fabricated, vom Rath's homosexuality was quite real, and would have caused the Reich great embarrassment. By the time Hitler found out the whole truth about the case (presumably through Bormann, as Goebbles was not wholly forthcoming about the details), the regime was in no mood for more show trials. The failure of the Riom trials in France showed just how dangerous such theater can be to the persecuting regime, and the Reich had more pressing matters to deal with, such as their military setbacks in the Soviet Union and American involvement in the war. Grynszpan's fate was placed on indefinite hold and, after being moved to Magdeburg prison, he disappeared from official records.
Some claim that he must have been executed by the Germans at one point or another; others claim he made it out of prison and lived out the rest of his life in Paris under an assumed name. The West German government declared him legally dead in 1960. His parents managed to survive the war – fleeing to the Soviet Union after their deportation to Poland in 1939, and then eventually immigrating to Israel.
Though the assassination of vom Rath was ultimately a tragedy – vom Rath himself was under investigation by the Reich for purported pro-Jewish activities – the reasons behind Grynszpan's youthful act of passion against the regime struck a sympathetic chord with many people, and helped focus the world's attention on what was going on in Germany at the time. The subsequent events of Kristallnacht and the horrified reaction by the rest of the world put an end to a decade of appeasement of the Nazi regime. In the end, the spirit behind Grynszpan's resistance is universally resonant, even though the act itself is indicative of just how complicated and morally ambiguous the use of violence can be in such situations. He is quoted as saying, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth.”
Monday, October 10, 2016
Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.
In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.
Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.
The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.
Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur, 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.
Friday, October 7, 2016
On October 7th,1944, at a line-up around three in the afternoon, a revolt in the Auschwitz concentration camp began with the swing of a hammer and a shout of “Hurrah!” from Chaim Neuhof, who had been a Sonderkommando – one of the prisoners selected to work in the gas chambers and crematoria – since 1942. The remaining Sonderkommando followed and assisted Neuhof in attacking the SS guards with hammers and axes that were smuggled in with the help of local partisans. An especially sadistic SS guard was thrown into the ovens after being stabbed - but still alive.
SS guards were quickly alerted about the revolt and, easily outnumbering the prisoners, opened fire on the insufficiently armed Sonderkommando. But the prisoners, who had also smuggled small guns into camp through connections with local partisan groups, were not easily defeated. After strapping explosives to captured guards, a group of prisoners blew up Crematorium IV, killing themselves and their captors. Some of the prisoners cut through the barbed-wire fence, creating a crucial escape route out of the camp.
The revolt was work of the prisoners in the 12th Sonderkommando – young, able-bodied men who were given the grisly task of working in and around the gas chambers. They escorted newly arrived prisoners to their deaths, searched the bodies for valuables, and disposed of them in the crematoria. For performing these duties, they were reviled by the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Furthermore, their knowledge of the inner workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Every few months, SS guards killed the old Sonderkommando and replaced them with new prisoners. Though the 12th Sonderkommando learned of their pending liquidation from the camp's underground military leaders only earlier that day, the revolt had been planned months earlier.
Despite the extensive preparation of the prisoners, the revolt was quickly subdued by the SS guards, whose superior automatic weapons were no match for the prisoners’ arsenal. The Nazis rounded up all the escapees. Another two hundred prisoners were lined up and executed as punishment for the revolt. One of the Sonderkommando revealed the names of the four women responsible for smuggling in the gunpowder - but despite months of torture, the women refused to reveal any other accomplices. On January 5, 1945, they were all hanged in front of the entire female camp population. “Be strong and be brave,” Robota shouted defiantly to her comrades as the trapdoor dropped.
This was the last public execution in Auschwitz – twelve days later, the camp was deserted as 56,000 prisoners were forced on a death march by the Nazis in a last attempt to destroy any evidence of their mass killings. On January 27th, the 7,500 remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet army.
Click here to learn more about women who participated in resistance against the Nazis.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Gary Baseman is an internationally acclaimed artist whose works are best known for the award winning Disney television show, “Teacher's Pet” as well as the artwork for the board game, “Cranium.” His work has been displayed in galleries globally. However, in addition to Gary Baseman's successful career as an artist, he has an even more intriguing family history. His father, Ben Baseman, was a partisan.
When the Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and advanced eastward into Soviet-controlled Poland, Ben Baseman fled his hometown of Berezne into a nearby forest. For more than four years, he was active in Russian partisan group activities. After World War II, Ben met his wife Naomi, another Holocaust survivor, in a displaced persons camp.
Ben and Naomi immigrated to the United States in 1948, where they had their son, Gary. Growing up in the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and Fairfax in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, Gary was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household. However, his parents spoke little about their history in Europe. Instead they encouraged Gary to strive for a successful life and the ultimate fulfillment of the American dream.
Gary knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist, and pursued this passion of his after he graduated with honors from UCLA. He began gaining artistic recognition after one of his designs was published in a New York Times Sunday Book Review. Gary eventually created and sold the successful Emmy-winning cartoon, “Teacher's Pet”, to Disney in 2000. He also designed the artwork for the popular game “Cranium.”
Gary thought and focused little on his family's history – until his father, Ben, passed away at the age of 93. Soon after, Gary found a hidden book in a closet of his parents’ home. Its contents were filled with descriptions of his father’s years spent as a partisan.
Upon this discovery, Gary started exploring his historical and religious identity through his artwork. In a gallery project titled, “the Door is Always Open,” Gary created a replica of his childhood home where Holocaust survivor friends were always visiting his parents. There were Jewish themes through the exhibit, including a table set for Seder and a video of his Bar Mitzvah.
In addition to his own religious and cultural background, Gary also became interested in his father’s history as a partisan. One of the pieces featured in “The Door is Always Open” is Gary’s collaboration with internationally recognized artist Shepherd Ferry, resulting in a print titled simply “Partisan.”
Baseman also traveled to the Eastern European towns of his family’s origination. While there, he nailed photographs of his deceased relatives around the town, in an act of memoriam to the lost Jewish communities of this area. Many of his thoughts and emotions during this time of his familial discovery are reflected in sketches such as the piece below.
Looking to the future, Gary Baseman is now collaborating with filmmaker David Charles to create a movie titled “Mythical Creatures.” The two filmmakers hope to create a documentary that tells the stories of the Holocaust through unique story-telling techniques. You can see a trailer for this movie project here.
Finally, as a tribute to his father’s accomplishments, Gary is working to create a memorial installation in the same birch forest where his father fought as a partisan.
– By Mandy Losk
Monday, July 18, 2016
The Nazis broke the Ribbentrop pact and attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Five days later, they arrived in Moshe’s hometown. The edicts that went in effect soon after put the Jewish population outside of the protection of the law. Several months later, Moshe and his family were forced out of their homes and confined to a ghetto – a space of 15-20 homes for hundreds of families. Surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by Germans and local police, denied freedom of movement and opportunity to obtain food, lacking in sanitary facilities, the inhabitants began to hear rumors about the destruction of neighboring communities by the Germans. A number of young people then began to plan. However, neither escape nor resistance was actually feasible at the time – they had no weapons and nowhere to go.
In the spring of 1942, the Germans told the Judenrat to provide a number of able-bodied young men for various projects. Approximately 25-30 were selected and sent to neighboring towns. Moshe and his brother were among them. Moshe was assigned to work on building a rail line, but his brother was sent elsewhere.
The Germans who guarded them were abusive – constantly scolding, shouting, and hitting the prisoners. Only one of them, a lieutenant named Miller, did not take part in those hateful acts.
Two of Moshe’s friends worked in a warehouse where they sorted out weapons captured from the Russians. They eventually worked out a plan where they would take out weapons wrapped in rags and hide them in a nearby junkyard. On his way home from work one day, Moshe asked the sympathetic lieutenant if he could retrieve something from the pile of junk. Thus, Moshe successfully smuggled gun parts into the Ghetto.
Moshe and his friends knew of a woman who was familiar with the area, and knew where the partisans were. She would lead them to a nearby encampment, where local Jewish escapees had set up a camp in the forest. In return, she asked if she and her two little children could come along. They escaped one night, after clearing out a crawlspace underneath the barbed wire fence. Miraculously, they made it to the Jewish encampments without incident.
About a week later, two Russian officers were passing by. It turned out they were sent to organize the resistance movement - but it also turned out they were Jewish, so Moshe asked them to help him join the resistance. Because Moshe had weapons hidden in the Ghetto, the officers agreed.
The officers eventually gave Moshe the name of a local farmer who would help bring the weapons out. Moshe used the occasion to pass a note to his family in the Ghetto through the farmer. He wanted to facilitate their escape. Moshe’s brother, sister, and mother escaped during several successful smuggling operations. Unfortunately, on March 19th - two days after the last escape - the Ghetto was liquidated, and Moshe’s father, younger sister, and other relatives perished, along with several thousand other Jews from the local areas.
Moshe joined the partisans, taking part in underground activities until the spring of 1944, when the advancing Soviet army liberated the area. He took part in ambush and sabotage operations with the partisans and was in charge of recovering weapons dropped from Russian planes. As was the fate of most eastern European partisans after the liberation of their area, Moshe was drafted into the Soviet army. But his bookkeeping abilities got him attached to the local staff of the battalion as the treasurer’s assistant, which kept him well away from the front lines.
After the war’s end, Moshe eventually made it back to Russia; but as a Polish citizen, he as eligible for a travel permit back to Poland, according to the rules of the time. In Poland, he connected with the Bricha, an organization whose purpose was to smuggle Jews from Europe to Palestine.
Eventually arriving in Austria, Moshe met his future wife Malka in one of the American zones, who was herself a survivor of a forced labor camp in Poland. In 1948, Malka left for the east, but Moshe and his family were unable to follow: his mother’s niece, who was living in Shreveport, Louisiana at the time, impored them to come to the United States. Though Moshe was committed to Malka and wished to marry her eventually, the family ultimately decided to take the opportunity and come to the United States.
Moshe settled in New York, eventually marrying Malka and bringing her back from Israel. In New York, Malka worked for a number of years as the director of a Jewish preschool and Moshe was employed for many years in the real estate industry. In 1993, Moshe and his wife moved to Pittsburgh after retirement. One of their two daughters settled there in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, where the Barans found a welcoming Jewish community, and where Moshe lives to this day, active in the community and as a public speaker and blogger. He writes the blog Language Can Kill: Messages Of Genocide, and speaks regularly about his life in the partisans and about the destructive power of hatred, which can have devastating consequences if left unchecked.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
In the summer of 1944, Hirsh Glik disappeared from the ghetto in Goldfilz, Estonia, and was presumed dead. He was only twenty-two but had devoted his life to writing and had already established his legacy through the song, “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“Never Say”). This song was a triumphant, a hopeful call for defiance, inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Never Say” became a beacon to many and quickly grew to be known as the “Song of the Partisans”.
Hirsh Glik was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1922. He demonstrated talent early: at age thirteen he began to compose poetry in Hebrew—and then solely in Yiddish—and his works were published frequently in the Jewish-Soviet press. When the Germans occupied Vilna in June 1941, Glik was sent to work the peat bogs in Biala-Waka, Rzesza. Displacement and grueling labor did not prevent him from writing: in between hauling impossible loads of turf, Glik would ask friends to hum a tune so that he could improvise lyrics. When Biala-Waka was liquidated in 1943, Glik returned to the ghetto in Vilna and joined the United Partisans Organization (FPO), where he took part in the literary scene. Here, Glik first recited “Never Say” to a poet friend, Shmaryahu Kaczerginski, at an event arranged to pay tribute to Yiddish writers, called “Spring in Yiddish Literature”. The scope of anguish, defiance, and hope in the song made it an anthem to many in Vilna.
Glik was also inspired by the actions of Vitka Kempner, a founding member of FPO, and wrote “Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt” (Still the Night is Full of Stars) about her first act of sabotage, blowing up a Nazi train line.
The struggle to survive at Biala-Waka, Vilna, and later Goldfilz in Estonia, never broke Hirsh Glik’s inspiration to write. He composed sometimes on scraps but mostly in his head, reciting poems to other prisoners. Some written copies of Glik’s poems were discovered buried beneath the Vilna Ghetto. Though most of his words were lost, “Hymm of the Jewish Partisans” is considered worldwide one of the most important anthems of Jewish partisans and is still sung today in remembrance of those who died in the Shoah.
Hymm of the Jewish Partisans (audio)
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
From lands so green with palms to lands all white with snow.
We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,
And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!
The early morning sun will brighten our day,
And yesterday with our foe will fade away,
But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as motto generations must remain.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It's not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,
With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.
Therefore never say the road now ends for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s'vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,
shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!
s'vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,
un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor –
vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.
dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un nit mit blay,
s'iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl oyf der fray,
dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent
dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent.
to zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho –
es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
Thursday, May 5, 2016
This mini-biography tells the story of two Jewish partisans in Poland who fought in Chiel Grynspan's unit and later married one another.
Jewish partisans Rose Duman and Joe Holm were born in neighboring villages near Zaliscze, Poland. In 1941, Germans killed Joe's mother and five brothers, as well as 20 other members of his family. At 19, he entered the forest, where he knew other Jews were gathering.
Joe Holm met Chiel Grynspan and other partisans in the forest, where he proved himself skilled with a gun, and adept at demolition. Holm had two roles: his extensive knowledge of the forest and local villages made Holm an invaluable guide for his group. Holm also traveled in and out of the forest, finding food and medical supplies necessary for the unit's survival.
Near Zaliscze, Rose’s family owned a prosperous farm, where Joe would often stay overnight on Shabbat. When partisan groups began allowing a few women to join, Joe appeared on Rose's doorstep. He said, “I'm going; you come with me.”
As partisans, Rose and Joe carried out dozens of missions. Once, traveling with a Polish general into the forest, their group was ambushed. Joe and Rose ran through gunfire, and managed to deliver the General safely to the camp. Later, Rose found bullet holes through her sweater, as a testament to their narrow escape. In another narrow escape, Joe Holm and his cousin Jack Pomeranc stood before a firing squad with 80 other partisans, and prepared to be executed. Just before the signal to fire was given, Joe said, “Watch me, and do what I do.” He wrestled a gun from a German soldier and started firing. Joe Holm was shot in the arm, but they and two other prisoners escaped. All the rest were killed.
Rose and Joe stayed with the Grynspan unit for the duration of the war, living in the forest for over three years. Later, Rose and Joe married and left Poland for Germany, eventually emigrating to the United States. In New York, they built a family and a successful business. Joe Holm died in 2009. They were married for 65 years.
“We survived with our bare hands,” Rose recalls. “I just wanted to live, to see the end of Hitler,” she adds. “I was angry. It was important to me to do something, before I died.” On teaching the history and legacy of the Jewish partisans, Rose Holm says, “It is important to teach kids to fight back. To speak up.”
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
"I disliked the Germans — as I mentioned many times, I spoke German fluently, I learned it in school and so on, and I knew it fluently. At the end of the war, I have refused to talk it, to speak it, and I have kept my word. I have not spoken German since then. I know it's hateful, I know what the Germans did for Israel, but I can't forget. The famous word, I can forgive but I can't forget."
— Bernard Musmand.
Bernard Musmand was born on March 3, 1926 in Metz, a city in northeastern France. Located on the border with Germany and Luxemburg, Metz shares many historic connections with its neighbors, dating back to its Celtic and Roman roots. In fact, many high-ranking officers of the Third Reich were born there. In a border city like Metz, it was only natural for the German language to be taught in schools - this skill ended up saving Bernard's life on numerous occasions.
When Bernard was 14, the Nazis invaded and his family fled to the south of France, which was outside of German control. In order to attend the local boarding school, Bernard had to pose as a Catholic. One night, the school’s chaplain told Bernard and his classmates that they would participate in communion and confession the next day. Since Bernard didn’t know anything about such things, he spent half the night in the bathroom studying from a Bible. He made such a convincing Catholic boy that the priest asked if he was interested in going into the seminary.
While studying at the boarding school, Bernard became a courier for the Sixieme — a resistance group based in the southern town of Rodez — and transported falsified papers for those escaping Nazi persecution. His confidence and youth were his best defenses during encounters with the Germans or French sympathizers. To ease suspicions, he would initiate conversations by asking for the time or a match in perfect German.
In May 1944, Bernard was sent to deliver a package to the owner of a hotel in a small town in Figeac. But the owner of the hotel refused the package, having been informed that Germans are coming to occupy the town and make arrests. Stranded in the town and frightened, Bernard hid the package behind some bags at the local train station. He spotted a German railroad policeman in his 50s and began a conversation with him. The policeman was pleasantly surprised that a Frenchman could be so friendly and speak such fluent German, and invited Bernard into his office for some chocolate. While safely hidden in the office, he saw hundreds of Frenchmen being forced onto trains to be transported to work camps in Germany. The policeman expressed great sorrow for these men. When the trains and the German soldiers had left, Bernard thanked the policeman for his kindness and went on his way.
When the Gestapo came to the boarding school looking for Bernard, the dean arranged for his escape before the Germans could capture him. Bernard went to Millaut and again joined the Sixieme, which had by then begun to collaborate with the Maquis armed resistance. Fourteen years old and very afraid, Bernard was sent on an ambush. He described the two hours before the battle, lying under cover and waiting for a German convoy to pass, as the longest two hours of his life. But once the convoy arrived and the orders were given to open fire, Bernard’s mind was so focused on the fighting that he had forgotten his fear.
When the French Army reformed, he was made Second Lieutenant. However, the desk job he received was not what Bernard pictured the war to be like — he wanted to be fighting the Germans on the front lines. He applied for transfer, but was rejected three times. Fed up, he finally revealed his true age and Jewish identity. The Army didn’t believe he was fifteen and a half. They demobilized him two days later, however, after having made contact with his parents.
“It was an exciting time, in certain ways,” Bernard remembers. “I wish and hope it will never come back, but everything counted and you felt life was precious.”
Since their textile business was lost during the war, Bernard's family emigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. Bernard met his wife, Milicent, after graduating from Lowell. They had two sons, Jon and Fraser.
Edited by Kyle Matthews.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
“It's hard to describe how a human being, being a prisoner, and suddenly he gets the power to fight back, even psychologically, he knows that he might get killed, but nobody worried about it. The main thing what happened in our minds is 'kill the Germans, kill those police officers.' But you [don't] worry about it – I never worried about myself, I might get killed. All I wanted is just fight them.”
Jeff Gradow escaped into the woods from a labor camp in Bialystok, and soon found a partisan unit where he became a trained fighter, participating in sabotage missions until the end of the war, when his partisan unit was assimilated into the Red Army and was sent to the front lines.
Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 to a middle class Jewish family in central Poland. When he was only 14 years old, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved Poland in half – his town of Mlawa was located on the western side of the divide, and thus fell under the control of the Germans.
With the arrival of the Nazis came immediate danger: prior to the occupation, his father had a dispute with a neighbor over some horses and a wagon, and the newly-instated police force – made up mostly of Polish locals who required little incentive to settle old scores with their Jewish neighbors – were looking to arrest him. Those arrested were often never seen again, so his father hid with a local farmer outside of town, taking Gradow with him.
They remained there for a few days, but upon learning that the German-Soviet border was still easy to get across, they left for Soviet-occupied Bialystok, located just east of the dividing line. There, they settled down temporarily – Gradow’s father, Lohim, got himself a job and Jeff went to school, where he learned to speak Russian. Unfortunately, travel restrictions made it impossible to send for the rest of their family – Jeff’s mother and two younger sisters remained in Mlawa.
This did not last long, and their life in Bialystok soon changed for the worse. The Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invaded Soviet-occupied territories in July of 1941. This included Bialystok, whose Jewish inhabitants were treated by the invaders with particular brutality and ruthlessness. Less than a week after their arrival, Nazi troops locked around two thousand Jews inside the Great Synagogue – the largest wooden synagogue in Eastern Europe at the time – and burned it to the ground. Many other homes in the neighborhood were pillaged, looted, and burned that day, and many more people were murdered. During the mayhem, Jeff’s father Lohim was seriously injured by a grenade thrown into their house; he did not survive to see another morning. Alone, Jeff wandered the streets until sympathetic neighbors offered him shelter.
The Nazis forced every Jewish male in Bialystok to work. Jeff’s first assigned task was to dig ditches in a cemetery with some Russian PoWs. After the ditches were dug, Jeff watched as the Nazis shot all the Russians; Jeff and other survivors were then forced to bury them.
The Nazis eventually started quartering Jeff’s labor group inside a train station during nights, and he was not allowed to return to his neighbors. During the days, the group was forced to lay timber on the highway so that German military vehicles could pass through in the winter, when all the roads turned to mud. Jeff’s labor group was comprised of civilians – consequently, it was guarded by soldiers who were older and slower than the group of Russian PoWs working just up the road. These older soldiers had a habit of resting their legs once a day and took a 20-30 minute afternoon break, allowing the laborers to do the same.
Fed up with forced labor and believing he has nothing to lose, Jeff decided to make a run for it during one such break. When the soldiers weren’t looking, he slid into a ditch on the side of the road and bolted into the forest. He heard rifle shots in the distance as the German guards discovered they were one prisoner short, but he was already deep in the woods, and no one pursued him.
Jeff wandered the forest for three days, lost and alone, surviving only on wild blackberries. On the third night, he found a farmhouse and, taking a chance, knocked on the door. Jeff was wearing a Russian military jacket belonging to one of the shot Russian PoWs, and he had learned to speak fluent Russian in school during his time under Soviet occupation. Consequently, the farmer who opened the door was not able to discern whether the starving, rain-soaked prisoner before him was a Russian PoW or a Jew – a lucky situation for a young Jewish boy alone in the Polish countryside to find himself in.
The farmer sheltered him for the night and pointed him in the direction of a village under the control of local partisans. There, Gradow was given directions to the main partisan encampment in the woods after being deemed too young and inexperienced to be an enemy spy. The camp was a diverse one, comprised mainly of Jews and Russian soldiers, and included families. Jeff was even able to speak Yiddish to the guards at the encampment, who were surprised to learn that he survived an escape from a labor group. Rather than continue to wander through the woods, hungry and alone, Jeff joined the partisan group and immediately begun weapons training.
* * *
At that point in the war, partisan groups like Jeff’s were still mainly concerned with self-preservation. As the Soviets fought on and their situation began to improve, partisan units got more organized and better equipment became available. This is when their missions began to change, recalls Jeff, and focused more on sabotage, disruption of communications, and the elimination of local police. Jeff became a seasoned guerrilla fighter, traveling by night with all his belongings, in case the Nazis got tipped off to the whereabouts of his unit’s base camp. Oftentimes, they would come across traces of their old hideouts, destroyed by the Nazis.
The partisans lived in zemlyankas – holes 4-5 feet deep dug in the ground, covered by branches and dirt. Each one could sleep around 15 people; Jeff’s entire unit was comprised of around 100-150 people. The partisans slept during the day (except those who stood guard), and traveled by night.
In late 1943, the Soviets began airdropping supplies for the partisans. This included explosives – Jeff and a few of the other partisans used them to derail a German train in the dead of night. They slipped away amidst heavy Nazi casualties and confused machine gun fire. Such missions were only attended by a handful of partisans while the others stayed behind. However, when it came to missions like food-gathering or reprisals against collaborators, the entire unit followed – a handful of partisans went in, but the rest stayed behind, encircling the town to make sure the group was not caught unawares.
In the spring of 1944, Jeff’s unit joined other nearby partisan groups to defend a bridge for an upcoming Soviet tank assault. They succeeded, allowing the Russian troops to roll in and liberate the area. No longer in hiding, the local partisan groups gathered in the nearby town of Baronovich, where they were immediately absorbed into the Russian army. Gradow’s group was assimilated into the 348th “Bobruyska” Division and ordered to join the western front.
Jeff fought on until he was badly injured near his hometown of Mlawa in August of '44. He was sent to a military hospital deep inside the Soviet Union, in the town Michurinsk, some 400km southeast of Moscow. The war ended during his recovery, and he sought leave to return to his hometown.
Only twenty years old, Jeff returned to Mlawa to find out that his mother and sisters (along with the rest of his extended family) were murdered in the Treblinka concentration camp. He left Poland shortly after and made it to the French sector of Berlin, where he spent the next four years before immigrating to New York City in 1949 via his great-uncle, who sponsored his arrival through the Displaced Persons Act program. In 1954, he married and moved to Los Angeles, where he raised two children. He passed away on June 23,2014.