Tag Archives: Holocaust

Ich Judenwochen – A Lone Jew in the Kraichgau

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“Oh wait! Are you Jewish?” 

This was said to me in a lecture that I sat in on at the Jewish Studies Institute in Heidelberg. The lecture was in German and I had been doing my best, aided by Google Translate, to follow along. It also helped that it was on the Crusades and Jewish lamentations and accounts of this time period – a subject I have studied and that I teach. I had just written in my notes a minute before “I wish I could speak in English (or German)! I have sooo much to add to this discussion.” I had been told I was welcome to participate but “We will be speaking German.” I wasn’t sure if that meant I had to participate in German only, but that was what I took it to mean. Finally, unable to stand their “I wonder…” or “I know that Judaism says X so I am not sure why they would do Y…” statements anymore, I raised my hand and said “Can I speak in English, I can answer some of these questions.” As I explained Jewish concepts of dying Kiddush HaShem (for the glory of God – or as a martyr) and why in a religion where preserving life was the highest value dying for God (versus conversion at sword point) was also a highly religious act, one of the students turned and said those words “Oh wait! Are you Jewish?” They were thrilled to have an actual Jewish person in the lecture to explain from a more personal and less academic viewpoint how Judaism actually felt about these topics. I also discussed their comparisons to Masada and the three commandments that you cannot break and must choose death if those are your options. The concept of “Whose blood is redder,” meaning whose life is worth more, was also discussed and the idea that we cannot know whose life is really more valuable, ours or someone else’s, and therefore are not allowed to choose between our life and theirs. In the end they were very grateful for my additions in English and for the ability to discuss these topics with a Jewish person. 

Institute of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg

For many of the students to whom I spoke during my two weeks in Eppingen, Sinsheim and Heilbronn, I was likely the first Jewish person that they had met in person. Certainly the first that they had spoken to and could ask questions about Judaism. For some, not only was I the first Jewish person they had met, they were learning about a chapter of history they had not previously known existed from this Jewish person. Teaching German teenagers about Jewish resistance and the rescue of Jews by non-Jews during the Holocaust was a heavy task. But they were very serious and many were visibly impacted by the stories I shared. One teacher, who had watched my keynote speech from Australia in 2019 (https://youtu.be/ZdXbdRucP78), asked for me to teach about William Cooper, an Aboriginal man who protested to the German Consulate in 1938 about the treatment of Jews in Germany on ReichspogromNacht (Kristallnacht). As I told these young people about a man, who was not considered a human in his own land, who took the time to protest about the treatment of Jews in Europe, they were gobsmacked. This message of the brave acts of Upstanders and the difference that one person can make resonated not only with the students but with the teachers. I have heard since my return that my call to be Upstanders was invoked in a staff meeting to encourage admin and faculty to make a united stance against expressions of hate in the school. 

One of my favorite lessons was with a class at Selma-Rosenfeld- Realschule – a school named for one of the Jewish residents of Eppingen prior to the Holocaust. Her family’s home and bar still stand – I spoke there to a group of Jewish Heritage supporters. The class at this school was a Religious Education class of 6th graders. The teacher had a set of Jewish religious items and I brought along a few others. She had placed them out and covered them. The idea was the kids would uncover them one by one and I would explain them. At the end they were going to play dreidel. The class had great questions and shared what they did know about more common items like a Hanukkiah (menorah for Hanukkah). I then showed them how to play dreidel and handed out dreidels and “gelt” (fruit chews rather than chocolates) for them to bet with. I have never seen a group of young people have so much fun playing dreidel! This was also the class where I spoke the most German as their English was less advanced than other groups. It was a really nice experience all around and their first experience of Judaism was positive and fun.

Judaism teaches that we are all responsible for how our “people” are seen by others and that the missteps of one of us become seen as the missteps of us all. As a historically maligned and scapegoated group, this is very true and is not true just for Jews. Other marginalized groups have the same burden and experience. That said, I would like to think that I did my best to make sure that the students to whom I spoke took away a positive outlook of both Judaism – the religion – and individual Jews as well. That they will keep in mind the examples of Jan Korczak who would not leave his orphans even to save his own life, the Bielskis and other partisans who fought back and saved Jewish lives when they think about the history of the Nazis and the behavior of Jews under that oppression. I hope that when they think of the Jewish religion that they will remember my answer to what my favorite thing about being Jewish is – “I love that my religion demands that I be a better person each year. That it is not just a suggestion but that there is a time of the year for specifically working on this. For thinking back over the year and seeing where I went wrong and to think about how I could have done better and to resolve to do so in the coming year.” Again, the expressions on the faces of the students as I explained this were telling and they were clearly not expecting this answer and were moved by it.

Every small village or town that I went to during my two plus weeks in Germany had an “alte Synagog” or a plaque showing where the synagogue had stood until it was destroyed on 9-10 November 1938. Every one. In a couple places we found these reminders accidentally as we wandered around looking for the right street and found ourselves on what was clearly the RIGHT street for that moment. But that said, they did not have Jews. Alan mentioned the one or two Jewish students he has had over the years he has taught in this area. When I asked “for what percentage of those kids was I the first Jewish person they had ever met?” His answer was “I suppose easily 90 percent of the kids…but I can really only guess.” Each class I spoke to had been told that I was a “Jewish teacher from Seattle WA” but even then some were not clear that I myself am Jewish. Perhaps I only taught about Jewish things – like the professor in Heidelberg. In Eppingen there are several places of Jewish interest and I was the “tour guide” at one for the first ever Wir Juden Tag – which was more like Ich Jude Tag as I was the only Jewish person involved. As such, I was asked to speak at the medieval Mikveh (ritual bath) in town. The organizers figured I was the only person who would have used a Mikveh, so best to have me speak about it. 

With Alan by my side to translate, we waited for visitors. Our first visitor was a reporter who ended up spending most of the day with us and writing an article about the Jewish life in Eppingen and my visit there. We also ended up on KraichgauTV in their weekly spotlight on life in Eppingen. (https://youtu.be/maw0rnFpLu0 – most of it is in German) Again people were excited to find out that I am Jewish and to hear me speak about the role of a mikveh in a Jewish community and what comprised a visit to the mikveh for a woman. We talked about how much different it would have been in this 500 or so year old stone mikveh versus in a modern one. I told the story about a woman in Jerusalem wanting to get married, but by a Masorti Rabbi not an Orthodox one, and being turned away from multiple Mikvaot for not having the right document. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/2015/12/23/turned-away-from-mikvah/) Each group that stopped by was sincerely interested in the Mikveh, its history, the Jewish history of the town and my presence on this day to tell them about family purity and how the Mikveh was often the first communal structure built in a new Jewish community. 

Over and over my presence was taken as representative of the Jewish people written large. It was not the first time in my travels, which often take me to places where Jewish life used to be vibrant and well established but no no longer exists, that this was the case. “Ona jest Żyd?!?” still echoes in my ears from Warsaw in 2018. Anywhere this would have been an awesome responsibility, in Germany it was a heavy one as well. I try to make clear that there are many ways to be Jewish and will talk about my pluralistic school and the breadth of Jewish learning and practice I teach. I focus on the positive and share the universalistic, as well as proudly explaining the particularistic. Like to the young man who asked about my views on Jesus and wanted to clarify that I did not consider Jesus to be the son of God. My gentle “No. That would make me a Christian, not a Jew” was perhaps a more logical answer than he expected. Seeing the number of non-Jews living in these places working hard to make sure that the Jewish history of their village or town is not forgotten is heartwarming, even if it comes across a bit awkward. “Wir Juden Tag” translates as “We/Us Jews Day”. The idea for this day nationally was started by a Jewish man wanting to combat antisemitism while celebrating Jewish life in modern Germany – and in places where there is a reborn Jewish presence and community, this name makes perfect sense. Groups in areas without a current Jewish community chose to participate and focus on the Jewish heritage of their towns. In the TV piece, Michael Heitz speaks of the importance of remembering the lives and way of life of those Jews who lived in the area, not just remembering how Jewish life came to an end, and this is really the point. Perhaps there the “We Jews” of the name for the day is more likely to evoke the voices of the Jews who once lived there. Using my voice, with my visit, speaking to these young people, as well as to the adults, I am able to show that vibrant Jewish life continues, and helps them to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what was and what could be. L’chaim.

Teaching the Holocaust in Germany

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Teaching about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust as a Jewish visitor to German schools.

(Again out of order chronologically, but fresh, and heavy, on my mind…)

This week I spent two days teaching at a gymnasium – “college prep” high school – in Heilbronn. I was speaking in their Religious Education classes, a History class and one English class. One of the teachers was very excited to plan a lesson for the students that both fit into their current learning and took advantage of my areas of expertise. We determined that Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust was the best way to do this. After some discussion we determined to start with a film that I show to my students at the start of our Holocaust unit in 8th grade – “Spielzeugland” (Toy Land.) This film tells the story of two young German boys – one Jewish, one not, and what happens when the Jewish family is rounded up for deportation. I won’t give away the story in case you want to watch it.

After this film and a discussion of it, I would then teach about Jewish Partisans and Ghetto Fighters using photos from my travels in Poland and Belarus. I would focus on the story of Novogroduk and the escape from their ghetto and into the woods where the Bielski Partisans were and, relative, safety, and also on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I ended up teaching this lesson to three different classes over the two days I was in Heilbronn. The gravity of teaching German children about the lives, and deaths, of Jews during the Holocaust was not lost on me. And I was honored by the trust their teachers put in me to help them learn from this history and, hopefully, be inspired to work to finally make a world where these things stop happening again and again. 

We began with the film and as the final credits began to scroll, I wiped away a few tears. It was dead quiet in the room. I asked if there were any immediate questions or comments. There were none. Students were then given five minutes to write down or discuss with a peer their thoughts. I acknowledged for them that this was a heavy film and encouraged them to write down whatever their thoughts were. I also gave them the prompt of “Was what happened planned or spontaneous?” After their time to process it, I asked again for comments or questions. One student commented about the difference in the treatment of the woman in the film between when the Nazi officers thought she was a Jew and when they saw her Auspass and realized she was not. They went from yelling and cursing to practically flirting with her and being very helpful. The student said “Without her papers, they could not tell whether she was Jewish or not. We cannot tell who someone is just by looking at them.” There was general consensus that the events were spontaneous and that the woman made “a good choice” when she saw an opportunity to save a life. One of the students referred to the characters as a “Jewish boy and a German boy.” Andrea, one of the teachers who was observing the lesson as I would be teaching in her class the next day, said to me later “He was wrong. There were only two German boys.” 

I then taught the class the word “Upstander” and how it is important to add it as a fourth category when discussing situations of oppression. The usual three are Perpetrator, Victim and Bystander. I explained that a bystander, by choosing to do nothing, takes the side of the perpetrator. Their silence or inaction allows oppression to continue. I then explained that an Upstander is the person who sees a wrong and does something – small or big – to try to stop that wrong. I then talked about RIghteous Among the Nations – non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, and then on to Jewish resistance. We talked about the concept of altruism and the importance of doing the right thing purely because it is what should be done if one is a good person. That our responsibility to each other as fellow humans should be enough to motivate action. 

The students in this class and the two others where I taught this lesson, were all moved by the stories of religious resistance – observing holidays in Auschwitz, stealing the materials to make a Hanukkiah (menorah for Hanukkah) or to write from memory the Book of Esther so they could observe Purim. We talked about how having secret schools gave students hope as well as an escape from their grim surroundings. It showed that there was an expectation that they would live and need to know what they were being taught. I also talked about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese Diplomat, who lost his job and died in poverty for giving out visas so that Jews, and others fleeing Nazi Germany, could get out of France. Watching the faces of the students as we discussed each type of resistance, and I shared stories of specific examples, showed their surprise and their respect for those who took action. 

We then moved on to armed resistance and I told the story of the Novogroduk Ghetto and the digging of the tunnel for 206 meters and the escape from the Ghetto. I then showed pictures of “Forest Jerusalem” the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki Forest and told the students about Tuvia and Zus and the 1205 Jewish lives that they saved. I ended this part with my photo of descendents of Bielski Partisans dancing in the camp in 2019.

The final part of the lesson was about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I asked the first class how long they thought the Jews, with few guns, starving and desperate, held off the Nazis. I was deeply moved by the first answer – “Two years?” I thanked the student for his faith and belief in these scrappy Ghetto Fighters. Others said “three months” and “a couple of weeks.” I shared it was almost a month and that this was impressive considering how lopsided the battle was. I ended the lesson sharing with them about one of my favorite Upstanders – Janusz Korczak – and his refusal to leave his orphans and how he made sure that they were not panicked as they went to the trains. The teachers shared that they had all learned Korczak’s pedagogy when they were in training. 

The discussion in each of the three classes was a bit different, but we focused on how being able to make choices – even if it is only if you will die in a camp or fighting Nazis in the ghetto – is important for one to retain their humanity. We talked about “choiceless choices” and the desire of Jews to assert their ability to resist. One of the teachers asked what the Uprising accomplished since it did not “succeed” in terms of stopping the Nazis. The students all commented on the hope it gave, how it let the Nazis know that the Jews could and would resist, and on the importance to those who participated to feel in control of their fate. 

In the third class, one young man asked me how one goes about forming a resistance group. “You can’t resist such powerful things on your own. How do you form a group to work together?” I shared how Emmanuel RIngelblum formed Oneg Shabbos in the Warsaw Ghetto. How he recruited his like minded friends and they recruited theirs and the group grew in this way. Others asked about how the Jews got weapons and how Partisans got food. I shared about Mira Shelub and her interview on the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation site where she talks about “friendly and unfriendly peasants” and how the friendly ones gave them food and that from the unfriendly peasants, those who were supporting the Nazis, they took food that had been prepared for the Nazis to pick up. The partisans would leave a receipt to let the Nazis know that their food had been taken by Jewish partisans.  

At the end of each lesson we talked about my purpose in teaching this history. That I want people to know the stories of Jews who resisted during the Holocaust to counter the prevailing narrative that they did not. That I want to inspire young people to know that they can make a difference. I pointed out that the people who were partisans and ghetto fighters were not much older than they are.

I finished by saying that I want to instill the inspiration and confidence to do the right thing in a future that I hope that they never have. For them to be able to be Upstanders.

Nance in Germany 2022 – Natzweiler KZ Lager

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While folks back in the US were deciding if or how to celebrate The Fourth of July in this year where our rights, freedom and liberty seem at high risk, even for those whose privilege generally has kept them insulated from previous or ongoing injustices and inequality, I joined the Year 9 students of the Hartmanni Gymnasium on their field trip to Natzweiler – Struthof Concentration Camp and Strasbourg. The experience of visiting a Nazi site with Germany students was one I was not about to pass up. Alan and I had discussed the impact that this usually has on his students and having me along, a Jewish teacher from the US, would add to this experience for them. 

Natzweiler – Struthof was the main camp of a network of prison/forced labor camps in Occupied France and the southwest of Germany. The earliest and most numerous prisoners in these camps were French resistance fighters and other political enemies of the Nazis. Jews were shipped here from the East, some specifically to be used for medical experimentation. The camp has a very strong patriotic connection for the French and many of the memorials within the camp have a strong French and Christian nature. 

When I first walked through the gate and into the camp, I immediately thought of Boris Pahor, a Slovenian who was imprisoned by the Nazis and whose memoir, “Necropolis,” I had read as part of working my way through Balkan literature. I did not however think that Pahor had been imprisoned in France, so I pushed away this thought and assumed that the camp was just similar to the one he had been in. Imagine my surprise about 30 minutes later when Alan, sharing some information about the camp with his students,said Pahor’s name and read an excerpt from his memoir! I apologized to the corner of my brain that had presented me with Pahor shortly before and promised to not doubt it in the future! In his book, Pahor recalls the conditions of the camp and his struggle to survive and to help others survive in inhumane conditions. It was his description of the camp and its conditions that caused me to unconsciously recognize it immediately on entry. 

During our tour of the camp we visited the Appelplatz – the yard where all the prisoners gathered each day to be counted and recounted while standing in the hot sun or bitter cold. This was also the place where punishments and executions were publicly carried out and a gallows still stands there as a reminder. We then worked our way down the hillside to the “Punishment Block” and then the crematorium and rooms for medical experiments. Natzweiler was not a death camp, but prisoners did die from malnutrition, brutal mistreatment, disease and other causes. Others were victims of medical experimentation. These were the bodies that were cremated here. 

In a room in this building were shelves full of clay urns. If a family paid to have their relative’s remains returned to them, these urns were what they were sent. This detail reminded me of a story I read years ago about a family whose father was taken during Kristallnacht and whose remains were sent to them in a box. I was curious how many actually paid to have remains sent, or how they were informed that this was an option. It is mind boggling to me that there was a mechanism for people to claim the ashes of their loved ones who had been crushed under the wheel of the Nazis and cremated in a prison camp. How many of these urns were used or do the full shelves reflect the reality that very few were ever used? 

We then went back up the hill and had time to visit the permanent exhibit in one of the barrack buildings. This gave a history of the area – it had been a ski resort prior to becoming a Nazi Concentration Camp – and information about both the prisoners and the Nazi leaders who ran the camp. There were many images drawn by prisoners in the camp, as well as haunting paintings of huge eyes in gaunt faces or just the eyes. I also walked up to the large “eternal flame” monument that was at the top of the camp. Next to this was a graveyard – again with all crosses. An unknown prisoner is buried in the memorial and the impression of a “typical deportee” is seen in the stone flame shaped structure. 

After we were done touring the camp, Alan and his colleague had the students circle up for a debrief on the experience. The students had been very serious and respectful throughout the tour and many were very clearly impacted by the experience. At one point one student had felt faint. Several of the girls warned their peers in another group as we passed each other. They were clearly very upset by the crematorium and punishment blocks and wanted to be sure that their friends were prepared for what they would see. In the circle they asked great questions and expressed their shock about what they had seen. A few questions stood out. 

One of these is an eternal question about Nazi work camps. Why did they mistreat and starve their workforce? If these prisoners were doing necessary labor, wouldn’t you want to keep them strong and alive?  I was asked this privately before it was asked again in the circle. My answer was that they did not see their prisoners as human and felt that there was a never ending supply of “sub-human” laborers to replace those who died. I think my answer seemed so unbelievable that they had to ask it a second time to Alan. His answer was much like mine. 

Natzweiler Struthof sits in the Vosges Mountain range and really is surrounded by natural beauty. The question was asked “Do you think that the prisoners ever had the time to appreciate the beauty around them?” I first said “I don’t know that they had the strength to lift their heads high enough to see the beauty of the nature around them. I then explained that many camps were in beautiful places as they were remote so that they were harder to escape. This juxtaposition has struck me at various places where evil happened in a beautiful setting. I mentioned Ponary in Lithuania which is where this desecration of nature by evil first struck me. I said that I found it sacrilegious. 

As we left the camp the students were quiet and reflective. They all were clearly impacted by what they had seen and learned. Sadly my German, and the fact it was my first time with these students, did not make possible a deep discussion on what they were thinking beyond what was offered up in the circle, but it was clear that the implications of such a place were not lost on them. Walking back to the bus I had a conversation with one of the other teachers, it was their first time at the camp, and they expressed a sincere desire that the prisoners had been able to find some hope or beauty in their surroundings and that it gave them strength to keep going. I mentioned Viktor Frankl and “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Frankl’s conclusion that we all need something to give us a reason for living and his focus on the “why” of living that allows us to survive the “how” we are currently in. 

After this somber morning, we went into nearby Strasbourg for a short visit. I stayed in the general area of the cathedral and enjoyed its amazingly detailed exterior and the beautiful stained glass windows inside. Really just a taste of this beautiful city and reason to return. 

So, back to this all being on the 4th of July – Making such a visit on this day was an excellent reminder of what we need to avoid and that we must always stand up to oppression – our own or that of others. Whether we are fighting for democracy in our own country, supporting those doing so in Ukraine, or speaking out against ongoing violence in other parts of the world, we cannot evil win. 

Dancing with the Remnants – My Reflections on The Bielski Partisan Gathering

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Dancing with the Remnants – My Reflections on The Bielski Partisan Gathering

Dancing with the Remnants 

Marking the 75th Anniversary of Liberation from the Nazis with the Bielski Partisans

Nance Morris Adler

Shabbat Shuva 5780 

 

Shomer Yisrael, Sh’mor Sh’erit Yisrael

V’al yovad Yisrael, ha-omrim: Sh’ma Israel.  

 

Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel; and preserve the people of Israel, who proclaim: “Sh’ma Yisrael. 

 

Shomer Israel is one of my favorite pieces of liturgy. I love singing it each Sunday morning that I lead minyan. As a student and a teacher of Jewish history, I know far too much about our remnants and the importance of remembering them. This summer I was privileged to be invited to attend the first ever reunion and gathering of the descendants, and one surviving brother, of the Bielski Partisan brigade. These truly were the remnants – children and grandchildren of the less than 10% of Polish Jews who survived World War II and the Shoah. While we were in what is currently Belarus, Naliboki and Novogroduk were in Poland at the start of the war and the residents of those places would be counted as Poles. 

 

I have taught about the Bielskis – brothers Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron and their partisan brigade – for 10 years – really since I first learned about them at a workshop of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation – and before they were made “famous” by the movie “Defiance”. It is because of this that I was encouraged to attend by the organizer of the event, Tamara Vershitskaya, who is the main historian of the Bielskis and Novogroduk. I have proudly worn my shirt with the image of Zus Bielski on it on every trip I have taken to Israel with my 8th graders, usually on the day we go to Yad Vashem. My students learn about Jewish Partisans and Ghetto Fighters and know that there are Jews who fought back. Never did I imagine that I would be able to visit the Bielski Camp – a place that I try each year to describe to my students, using a crude map that was drawn after the war, and GoogleEarth images of dense Eastern European forests. That I would sit and eat breakfast several mornings, as well as lunch and at least one dinner, with Aron Bielski – the youngest of the four brothers – and become friends with children and grandchildren of Tuvia, Zus and others of the Bielski clan – never ever could I have imagined this. And I am sure that Tuvia and Zus never imagined that I, a Jewish history teacher from Seattle would help their grandchildren hang a mezuzah on a tree in the Naliboki Forest – Forest Jerusalem – in the middle of the site of the Bielski Camp. But this summer I got to do these things. 

 

The city of Novogrudok was multicultural and there were good relations between its Jews and Gentiles. When WWII broke out, it was firmly in the part of Poland that had been given to the USSR in the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. When later the Nazis invaded and came to Novogrudok, neighbors helped neighbors. It was this many years of cooperation and relationships that contributed to the events that followed. The arrival of the Nazis meant that a ghetto was of course formed and the Jews were put there. As time passed and it became clear that the ghetto would be liquidated and what that meant, the leaders in the ghetto decided that something must be done. They decided to build a tunnel. They had contacts outside the ghetto and they knew that if they could get out they could get to the Bielski Camp and have a place to be safe. This history of good relations was evident still today in the welcome that this gathering received both in Novogroduk and in Naliboki. The gathering began on the 75th anniversary and the same dignitaries and nonagenarians with their chests covered in Soviet war medals that were at the commemoration in the center of Novogroduk were present at and participated in the welcoming ceremony for the Bielski reunion. In a land where Jews visiting the sites of their ancestor’s homes often return with stories of stony silence and a less than friendly reception, we were greeted like long lost relatives and friends. 

 

One example of actions of the citizens of Novogroduk is the Kozlowski family who sheltered over 500 Jews over the occupation. When someone was able to get out of the ghetto or was passing from another village or town through Novogroduk to the Bielski Camp, the Kozlowski’s would hide them for a few days until it was safe to travel and then send them on their way. I met Lola Bielski and her two grandsons. As a very young child Lola was hidden in Novogroduk by a Polish family during the occupation. She shared her story with us at breakfast one morning, including photos from an earlier visit when she went to see the house where she had been hidden. The two ladies who worked in the kitchen of the hostel where we were staying were so excited by these photos. They knew the house, they knew the people. They knew the family that had hid Lola. They knew her friend, or at least his children, who had kept her company when she was a hidden child. They were so excited to see the photos and hear Lola’s story.

 

Back to the tunnel – so the tunnel was dug. It was hard work – hard to dig – hard to hide the digging -hard to hide the dirt. But 203 meters later, they were sure they were past the ghetto wall and were ready to plan the actual escape.  120 people successfully escaped from the Novogroduk Ghetto – it is the most successful escape from a camp or ghetto in the entire Holocaust. They were able to survive because they had help outside the ghetto and a place to go – the Bielski Camp where Tuvia Bielski was known for his policy of accepting every Jewish person -men, women, the elderly and children – into the camp and keeping them safe. Tuvia believed that every Jewish life saved was a victory over Hitler.  100 of the escapees went to the Bielski camp. 

 

At the reunion, when I would meet someone new the usual greeting was “Partisan or Tunnel?” I would answer “Neither.” The person would generally look confused and then ask why I was there. I would explain I was a teacher and had been teaching about the Bielskis for 10 years. This slowly turned me into a bit of a celebrity and instead of “Partisan or Tunnel” by day 2 the greeting was “So, I understand you are a famous American historian who knows everything about the Bielskis.” To which I would reply, “I am sure you have the wrong person.” (Apparently they didn’t) But it was a bit less awkward than being quizzed so I learned to say “well, not quite, but yes.” This at least made me feel like I was no longer crashing someone’s family reunion and more like the second cousin no one met before. 

 

And in reality by this time, I did feel a bit like family. I was staying at the Catholic Hostel in Novogroduk and Aron Bielski and his wife were also there along with Lola and her two grandsons and Bella Bielski Rubin and her two sons and other Bielski relatives. This meant we spent a lot of time together visiting and sharing meals and a few l’chaims. Aron and I had become buddies the first night over l’chaims with the priest. Shahar and Uriyah Rubin and I spent a lot of time talking and they, in my mind, most truly embodied the spirit of their grandparents and the partisans. Shahar lives in the Carmel Mountains in Israel and teaches survival skills. He was clearly at home in the woods and very much in his element here where his relatives had provided a haven for the Jews who could reach them. 

 

Aron spoke to this the first evening – very briefly – public speaking was not his favorite activity. What he said, says a lot about the realities of Polish Jewish life in this area – a Jewish world that was lost and is not really understood today. 

 

“When the Nazis came, our father told us “Go to the woods and live.” And we did. And we survived not because we were the smartest, the most educated or most worldly. We weren’t. We were country folk. We knew the woods. We knew how to take care of ourselves. We knew how to survive in the woods. And so we lived.” 

 

The Bielskis were the only Jews in their village. They ran the mill. The boys ran wild and were – as lovingly described by Uriyah “hooligans” – they survived because they were tough and knew how to get by. Their Polish was perfect without a Yiddish accent. They passed as Polish and were able to move about in the towns and villages finding Jews who needed their help. They were tough as nails and had to make tough choices to protect those in the camps – but also saved 1200+ Jewish lives because that was the right thing to do. We forget that Jews in Eastern Europe were as or more likely to be millers and farmers than urban intellectuals. This awareness is part of what was lost in the destruction of Jewish life village by village by the Nazis. 

 

On the second day we went to the “Forest Jerusalem” – the Naliboki Forest where the Bielski camp was located. On the way there we stopped in the village of Naliboki where we were greeted again like returning heroes. The mayor, the head of the local Communist party, and a troupe of traditional musicians/singers greeted us in the Main Street. The Mayor presented us with a beautifully decorated loaf of bread – the traditional greeting in this area – and the group sang. A downpour began in the middle of this and it did not stop the welcome or the singing. The local villagers were all going about their morning and were also welcoming and friendly. Uriyah joined a group in the bus stop and asked me to take a picture.  This “what might have been” snapshot is one of my favorite pictures from the trip. The same troupe welcomed us back after our visit to the Forest and the locals provided our group with a “Partisan’s lunch” which featured local produce and lots of homemade vodka. The head of the local Communist party was preaching love and togetherness of all peoples facilitated by “more vodka” as she worked the room filling (to the top) people’s cups with her peace-making liquid. And yes, I did finish all of mine. 

 

We then moved on in a long caravan of vans and cars and locals who joined in as we headed into the forest. There is a sign at the entrance to where the camp was and I was thrilled to see the familiar map of the camp that I and my students look at each year as I teach them about how developed the camp was – with a bakery, hospital, school and various workshops as well as ziemlankas – underground bunkers covered in logs and branches as camouflage – for living in. I wandered off into the woods on my own as the speechifying went on a bit long – there was a representative from the Israeli Embassy to Belarus there as well as other dignitaries. In the quiet of the woods I wandered through looking for signs of the camp, indications of where bunkers might have been dug into the ground. It was an amazing feeling walking through this place that I have tried to imagine and then describe to my students for 10 years. I reached a point in the path where a tree had been used to make an arch over the pathway and entered a wide meadow. Past this meadow I went off the path and into the woods. I found what appeared, and was confirmed later, to be a small storage ziemlanka/bunker that was still intact. I continued to meander back towards the group and found others exploring on their own as well. These were the children of those whose lives had been saved in these woods and, based on my own emotions,  I have to imagine this was a very emotional experience for them. 

 

When I rejoined the main group, many were standing in the deepest of the remaining ziemlanka depressions. Some metal artifacts from the camp had been found and people were looking for others. We then all moved back towards the center of the space where Shahar had determined that we needed to dance. Fiddles were brought out and a circle made. The Bielski children and grandchildren joined in the middle of the circle and danced as everyone else clapped and sang. I was standing next to the daughter of Asael Bielski – born the day he died and named Asaela in his honor. Watching the children and grandchildren of those whose lives were saved in this very spot was an amazing experience. I wept both for joy at their being alive and here and in sadness for those who were not there. The sheer joy in their faces and the sense of vindication and victory over Hitler, the Nazis and their collaborators was overwhelming. Dancing with the remnants of the Jewish community of Novogroduk and Naliboki was a spiritual experience and I felt so blessed to be part of it. 

 

After the dancing Sharon, the granddaughter of Tuvia, wanted to put up a mezuzah she had brought with her. She had brought it on her first trip to the camp years before but the weather had prevented her being able to hang it. I offered to help with the blessing and rituals of hanging a mezuzah and set off with Sharon, her cousin Matty (Zus’s grandson) and a few other Bielskis. They picked a tree to the side of the path and began to look for something to pound in the nails. Before we hung the mezuzah, Matty put on his tefillin and said the Sh’ma. He was wearing them as he hammered in the nails using a thick branch – this felt very authentically “Partisan style” way to hang a mezuzah. I have amazing photos of him putting it up and then Sharon saying the blessing and the Sh’ma. This was also an incredible experience – to be marking these woods, this camp that kept safe 1250 Jewish lives during the Shoah, as a Jewish home was so significant. Lola brought over her grandson to kiss the mezuzah as well. This sense of reclaiming the woods, of making it a Jewish place, of honoring those who lived and died there 75 years before was quite holy to me. It might have been the Bielskis and the other partisans who were physically guarding the remnant here during the war, but the sense of the Divine was clear to me in those woods. They were and are a holy place where the sanctity of Jewish lives was not dependent on the ability to fight or having shown up with a weapon that could be used to kill Nazis. Tuvia made sure that every Jewish life that could be saved, was. Those who joined him and supported this mission did their part to keep safe women, children and the eldery. And the non-Jews who helped, protected, fed, and hid their Jewish neighbors were all doing holy work as well.  To be able to celebrate this with the descendents of those who were saved, or did the saving, was truly inspiring.

 

I teach my students about the partisans to show that Jews did fight back, they resisted and they helped each other survive – what that looked like was not always as impressive as the Bielski camp and the lives they saved, but each act of resistance was done by – to quote Eli Wiesel – those who were “beaten, starved and tortured” and whose ability to resist was almost nonexistent. I want my students to know these stories so they can feel pride. So they are inspired to also be Upstanders and help when they can – even when they themselves might feel powerless. Being able to bring back to my classroom this experience, the pictures, the stories, to tell a boy who made a copy of the camp map for a project last year – “I stood right here” and point to a place on his map and see the look on his face is so powerful. I danced in the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki forest on the anniversary of their liberation – and even though it is not my story or my history – even though I am not “Partisan or Tunnel” it will count as one of the most emotionally powerful moments in my life – a moment when God was close – perhaps even dancing with the remnants as well.