Jewish Partisans: Heros of WWII

By Gideon

This story is dedicated to my father Oscar, who was one of those young people in eastern Europe who escaped the ghetto and joined other Jewish partisans in the forests to fight the Nazis in WWII.

There were plenty of Jews who were either outside the German controlled areas, or were able to escape the Nazi concentration camps and join the Partisans. They fought the Nazis from all directions, wearing verity of uniforms. They served bravely in higher percentage relative to their size, and receiving significantly high number of medals compared to their size, to a point that the Soviets stopped awarding medals to Jews because of the implications.  [,7340,L-4601024,00.html

The inaccurate common belief that Jews did not fight the Nazis is based  on the fact that over six million civilian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. The Holocaust victims had no combat training, no weapon, no military structure, and no intelligence services to worn them about where the Nazis were taking them. They were no match to the well trained and well equipped German forces.

The numbers tell the story:  

About 1,500,000 Jewish soldiers fought the Nazis. 550,000 Jewish soldiers served in the US army. 500,000 Jewish soldiers served in the Red Army. 100,000 Jewish soldiers served in the Polish army. 30,000 Jewish soldiers served in the British army. About 20,000 Jews served in the Partisan guerrilla forces. 5,000 Israelis served in the British brigade.

About 250,000 Jewish soldiers were killed in WW2. Over 200,000 Jewish soldiers who served in the Red Army were killed while combating the Nazis. 120,000 of them were killed on the battle field. 80,000 were captured by the Nazis and then were murdered by them. 38,338 is the number of casualties of Jewish soldiers who served in the US armed forces. 11,000 were killed, 7,000 of them in combat.

160,000 Soviets Jewish soldiers received medals. 36,000 American Jewish soldiers received medals. 

“Deep within the forests of WWII Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine, more than 20,000 Jews fought against the Nazis and Nazi collaborators. From as many as 100 tiny encampments, armed brigades, often from holes in the ground, with whatever weapons they could construct, trade for or steal, men, women and children organized to engage the German Army. They executed tactical missions attacking the Nazis and their collaborators, blowing up trains, bridges, police stations and telegraph lines. Most of them had witnessed the murder of their families and friends before escaping to the forest. They carried out treacherous missions with abandon, when possible carrying two grenades—one for their target and one for themselves in case of capture. By 1944, Partisan vigilance had made the forests so dangerous that Nazi soldiers were afraid to enter.”[]

“Jews escaped from Nazi ghettos and camps to form or join organized resistance groups.  The Jewish partisans were mostly Jewish teenagers, male and female, who fought against the Nazis during World War II. The majority of them had no military experience. They escaped the ghettos and work camps and joined organized resistance groups in the forests and urban underground. While Non-Jewish partisans could sneak back to their homes for security and safety, the Jews had no place to go. They were constantly moving through the shadows on the edges of the cities and towns. Outsiders who came to fight the Nazis like Russian partisan groups in Poland valued Jews who knew local terrain and could act as their scouts.  Ten percent of the partisans were women. Some were fighters and scouts; the majority was part of the vital infrastructure, cooking for the group and caring for the sick.  The Jews joined hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish partisans who fought the Germans, but they had to worry about anti-Semitism among the non-Jewish partisans. Often they formed all-Jewish groups to protect themselves from their old neighbors. Jewish partisans fought the Nazis not just physically; it was important to the Jews, since the Nazis wanted to take away their dignity and self-respect to hold prayer services and teach Jewish children to read Hebrew. The first known Jewish resistance was in Belgium, in 1939, when the group The Jewish Solidarity was formed. Most of the Jewish partisans operated in Eastern Europe. The Jews in France joined the resistance in 1940, after the Nazis took over most of the country, leaving the south of France in control of their collaborators, the Vichy French.

In the spring of 1941, after the Germans invaded Greece, which had two large Jewish populations-in Solonika and Athens, Greek Jews joined the two main resistance groups, the National Liberation Front and the National Popular Liberation Army. In Italy, many Jews joined underground resistance groups like the Garibaldi and Freedom and Justice Fighters.

The partisans had few arms and little ammunition but were successful because they knew the lay of the land and how to use the terrain to their own advantage.  The partisans lived under harsh conditions without real shelter to protect them from sub-freezing temperatures and storms in the winter, or from the heat and rain in other seasons. Medical supplies were scarce, and partisans died from infection and disease spread by lice. Bandages were washed and reused whenever possible. Most successful partisan activities took place at night, under camouflage of the dark and with the help of the local population. Without the locals who gave them food and information, the non-Jewish partisans would never have made it through the war.

Jewish groups had an even tougher time, because in some areas there was vicious anti-Semitism even among the locals, and so sometimes the Jews had to use force to get supplies and information from them. The partisans begged, borrowed, bribed and stole whatever they needed and did whatever they had to do in order to survive and fight against the Nazis.” [Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation]

The Bielski partisan group was one of the most significant Jewish resistance efforts against Nazi Germany during World War II. The Bielski group leaders emphasized providing a safe haven for Jews, particularly women, children, and elderly persons who managed to flee into the forests. Under the protection of the Bielski group, more than 1,200 Jews survived the war. [The Bielski Partisans – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]

“Poles, Ukranians and White Russians, for example, were all used to killing Jews themselves and therefore quite unwilling to have them join their fight, even against the common Nazi enemy. In fact, the Home Army stated categorically that Jews would not be accepted into their organisation. They and the Polish underground actually directed a campaign against Jewish partisans, whom they described as “criminal and subversive elements in the military”. Polish police and peasants (as well as those in many other Eastern European countries) were encouraged to kill or hand over to the Germans many Jews who had fled to the forests.

The Jewish partisan units had names such as “Struggle”, “Death to Fascism”, “Avengers” and “For Victory”. Their philosophy was encapsulated in their stated objective of “revenge and rescue”. Some of the activities the Jewish partisan groups undertook were: attacking and harassing German troops directly, cutting railway lines, establishing links between partisan groups throughout Europe and setting up underground networks to rescue Jews and transport them out of occupied Europe.”

On July 20, 1941, the Germans order the establishment of a ghetto in Minsk. Within days of the ghetto’s establishment, thousands of Jews are killed. Jews in the ghetto formed an underground resistance network in August 1941. Members of the underground set up a printing press and newspaper to distribute information to the ghetto population. The underground also contacted partisan units outside the ghetto to find hiding places for Jews in the ghetto. In March 1942, the Germans carried out an action in the Minsk ghetto in which thousands are killed. Shortly thereafter, members of the underground began leaving the ghetto for the forests where they formed partisan units and fought the Germans. The partisans in the forests worked to rescue Jews from the ghetto and bring them to the forests, where they established partisan bases. Approximately 10,000 Jews fled the Minsk ghetto for the forests by 1944. Many lost their lives in the attempt.

In January 1942 The Jewish Army of France (Armee Juive; AJ), is established by Zionist youth groups in Toulouse, France. The AJ operateed throughout France, but was particularly active in the southern regions. Members were recruited from both Jewish and non-Jewish youth and resistance groups and were trained in military and sabotage activities. AJ members smuggled money out of Switzerland to France to distribute to Jewish relief agencies. This money helped thousands of Jews in hiding. The AJ assassinated some of those who cooperated with the Germans and smuggled about 500 Jews and non-Jews across the border into neutral Spain. In 1943 and 1944, the AJ establisheed close ties with Allied forces–including General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French of the Interior (FFI) forces. In 1944, during the liberation of France, the AJ participated in uprisings in Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse against the German occupation.

On January 21, 1942 after reports of mass killings of Jews at Ponary, outside Vilna, members of Zionist youth movements established the United Partisan Organization (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye, FPO) in the Vilna ghetto. The organization prepared to resist the Germans in the event that the ghetto is threatened with destruction and established contact with other ghettos to acquire weapons and encourage resistance. In early September 1943, the Germans deported Jews from the ghetto and were confronted with resistance by FPO members. The FPO decided to abandon the ghetto and fled to the nearby forests to fight the Germans from the outside. The last group of resistance fighters escaped the final destruction of the ghetto on September 23, 1943. They left the ghetto through the sewers and joined partisans in the Rudninkai and Naroch forests.”[]

“In the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka. When reports of mass murder in the killing center leaked back to the Warsaw ghetto, a surviving group of mostly young people formed an organization called the Z.O.B. (for the Polish name, Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, which means Jewish Fighting Organization). The Z.O.B., led by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz, issued a proclamation calling for the Jewish people to resist going to the railroad cars. In January 1943, Warsaw ghetto fighters fired upon German troops as they tried to round up another group of ghetto inhabitants for deportation. Fighters used a small supply of weapons that had been smuggled into the ghetto. After a few days, the troops retreated. This small victory inspired the ghetto fighters to prepare for future resistance.

On April 19, 1943, the Warsaw ghetto uprising began after German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Seven hundred and fifty fighters fought the heavily armed and well-trained Germans. The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month, but on May 16, 1943, the revolt ended. The Germans had slowly crushed the resistance. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to camps”[]

“Often, too, a Jew who managed to escape the ghetto, and—at terrible  risk—reach the forest with his own weapon, would be forced to retrace  his steps and return to the ghetto. Such experiences owed to the sad  fact that even within the resistance movement, anti-Semitic elements  could not be held in check.  This regrettable state of affairs deterred  many Jews from fleeing to the forests. Certain changes for the better began in the summer of 1942, when the Supreme Partisan Headquarters in the Soviet Union extended its authority over the majority of partisan units in Eastern Europe.  For example, an ever-increasing number of “family camps,” to which Jewish partisans were admitted with their households and relatives, were established throughout Byelorussia.

Such arrangements, which saved several thousand helpless Jews—women, children, the elderly, and the sick—were maintained until the region was liberated by the Red Army in the summer of 1944. These changes, however, came too late: the vast majority of the Jewish population already had been annihilated by mid-1942. 

The facts speak for themselves: when many Jews yet remained alive, they could not find partisan camps to which to escape.  And once such camps existed, few Jews had survived to join them. Consequently, the number of Jewish partisans in the forests of this area never exceeded 15,000. For them, partisan warfare served both national and personal  objectives.  On the one hand, it contributed to the active role European  Jews played in the international war against Nazism.  On the other  hand, it fulfilled their desire to avenge the murders of their families  and fellow Jews. 

Facing endemic anti-Semitism and the scorn of their  non-Jewish comrades-in-arms, they yearned to prove themselves on the  field of battle.  Indeed, many distinguished themselves, derailing enemy  trains, blowing up bridges, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat.  A  considerable number earned decorations for heroism and valour.  No  ribbon or medallion, however, could ease the sense of isolation often  experienced by Jewish combatants serving in predominantly Byelorussian,  Lithuanian, or Russian battalions.

The Jewish fighters’ combat potential found its ultimate expression in the wholly Jewish partisan units.   Established in 1943, these included mostly former members of Zionist and other youth movements, which had been reorganized in the ghetto underground.  Led by talented commanders, virtually all of whom evidenced a degree of Jewish national consciousness, these units maintained a remarkable sense of Jewish identity.  This was characterized by use of the Yiddish language for military communication, as well as for cultural and folkloric expressions, such as poetry and song.

Cultural activities continued even after the Jewish units were disbanded or absorbed, for political reasons, into nationally-mixed partisan units.  Here, as in the all-Jewish units, the combatants found many and varied ways to express their individuality.  One example is the time spent in the evenings around the campfire. The atmosphere of comradeship there facilitated expression of the participants’ feelings and hopes through the medium of song.  Lyrics focused mainly on themes such as homesickness, concern for family still in the ghettos, grief for murdered loved ones, and the desire to take revenge.” []


Faye Schulman was born to a large family on November 28, 1919 in Lenin, Poland. She learned photography from her brother Moishe and assisted him in his photography business.

On August 14, 1942, the Germans killed 1,850 Jews from the Lenin ghetto, including Faye’s parents, sisters and younger brother. They spared only 26 people that day, among them Faye for her photographic abilities. The Germans ordered Faye to develop their photographs of the massacre. Secretly she also made copies for herself.

During a partisan raid, Faye fled to the forests and joined the Molotava Brigade, a partisan group made mostly of escaped Soviet Red Army POWs.

She was accepted because her brother-in-law had been a doctor and they were desperate for anyone who knew anything about medicine. Faye served the group as a nurse from September 1942 to July 1944, even though she had no previous medical experience. The camp’s doctor was a veterinarian.

During a raid on Lenin, Faye succeeded in recovering her old photographic equipment. During the next two years, she took over a hundred photographs, developing the medium format negatives under blankets and making “sun prints” during the day. On missions Faye buried the camera and tripod to keep it safe. Her photos show a rare side of partisan activity – one is of a funeral scene where two Jewish partisans are being buried alongside Russian partisans, despite the intense antisemitism in the group. In another image, Schulman and three young Jewish men smile joyously after an unexpected reunion in the forest—each believing that the other had been killed.

“I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.” She is the only known Jewish partisan photographer.

After liberation, Faye married Morris Schulman, also a Jewish partisan. Faye and Morris enjoyed a prosperous life as decorated Soviet partisans, wanted to leave Pinsk, Poland, which reminded them of a “graveyard”. Morris and Faye lived in the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camps in Germany for the next three years and immigrated to Canada in 1948.”[]


Many Jewish soldiers from Israel, served in the British Army in WWII to read about the life story of some of them click on this link. The Brigade

Abba Kovner (center), the leader of the Jewish partisans from the Vilna (Vilnius) ghetto with members of the FPO. Ruzka, next to him,wearing a coat with metal buttons and a hat to the side of her head, Vitka on the fat side, tall slender, with a machine gun. Their amazing survival in the Vilna (Vilinus) ghetto and in the woods, fighting the Germans is described in details in the book The Avengers by Rich Cohne



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The Bielski Partisans

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