A number of Jewish partisan groups operated across Nazi-occupied Europe, some made up of a few escapees from the Jewish ghettos or concentration camps, while others, such as Bielski partisans, numbered in the hundreds and included women and children. They were most numerous in Eastern Europe, but groups also existed in occupied France and Belgium, where they worked with the local resistance. Many individual Jewish fighters took part in the other partisan movements in other occupied countries. In all, the Jewish partisans numbered between 20,000 and 30,000.
The partisans engaged in guerrilla warfare and sabotage against the Nazi occupation, instigated teens and freed prisoners. In Lithuania alone, they killed approximately 3,000 German soldiers. They sometimes had contacts within the ghettos, camps, Judenrats, and with other resistance groups, with whom they shared military intelligence.
In Eastern Europe, many Jews joined the ranks of the Soviet partisans: throughout the war, they faced antisemitism and discrimination from the Soviets and some Jewish partisans were killed, but over time, many of the Jewish partisan groups were absorbed into the command structure of the much larger Soviet partisan movement. Soviet partisans arrived in the western Ukraine in 1943, and consisted of Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews, and were smaller in size than units in Belarus, which was more suitable for partisan warfare. Released Soviet archive data suggest that Jews accounted for 5.2% of the partisans in Ukraine.
Jewish partisans had to overcome great odds in acquiring weapons, food, and shelter and in evading capture. They typically lived in dugouts (known in Russian as zemlyankas, землянка) in forest camps. Nazi reprisals were brutal, employing collective punishment against their supporters and the ghettos from which the partisans had escaped, and often using "anti-partisan operations" as pretexts for the extermination of Jews. In some areas, Jewish partisans received support from villagers; but due to widespread antisemitism and fear of reprisal, the Jewish partisans were often on their own. The farmers were struggling to supply all the different forces which were demanding food, at times leading to conflict. As Allan Levine noted, "That Jewish partisans and fugitives were guilty of stealing food from Polish farmers is an uncontested fact. It happened regularly.", but at the same time notes that such robberies were their only choice other than starvation.
The food situation varied between units, while some faced starvation, others were well supplied and sent their food stocks to Soviet Union. In order to survive, Jews had to put aside traditional dietary restrictions. While friendly peasants provided food, in some cases food was stolen from shops, farms or raided from caches meant for German soldiers. As the war progressed, the Soviet government occasionally airdropped ammunition, counterfeit money and food supplies to partisan groups known to be friendly.
Those who managed to flee the ghettos and camps had nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and their possessions often were reduced to rags through constant wear. Clothes and shoes were a scarce commodity. German uniforms were highly prized trophies: they were warm and served as disguises for future missions.
Those who were wounded or maimed or fell ill often did not survive due to the lack of medical help or supplies. Most partisan groups had no physician and treated the wounded themselves, turning to village doctors only as a last resort.
The forests also concealed family camps where Jewish escapees from camps or ghettos, many of whom were too young or too old to fight, hoped to wait out the war. While some partisan groups required combat readiness and weapons as a condition for joining, many noncombatants found shelter with Jewish fighting groups and their allies. These individuals and families contributed to the welfare of the group by working as craftsmen, cooks, seamstresses and field medics.
Jewish partisan groups of note include the Bielski partisans who operated a large "family camp" in Belorussia (numbering over 1,200 by the summer of 1944), the Parczew partisans of southeast Poland, and the United Partisan Organization which attempted to start an uprising in the Vilnius Ghetto in Lithuania and later engaged in sabotage and guerrilla operations. Thirty-two Jews from the Mandate for Palestine were trained by the British and parachuted behind enemy lines to engage in resistance activities. In the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, two groups of partisans, the right-wing Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, ŻZW) and the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB) led the uprising separately.
Approximately 100,000 Jews fought in the Polish army against Nazi Germany during the German invasion of Poland. They made up 10% of the Polish Army, commensurate with the percentage of Jews within the general population. Approximately 30,000 Jews were killed in that campaign, captured or declared missing. The Polish Home Army provided training and weapons to the Warsaw Ghetto's Jewish Combat Organization, and included in its ranks Jewish individuals and Jewish units, such as Lukawiecki Partisans commanded by Edmund Łukawiecki and working under the umbrella of the Home Army, as well as the Jewish Platoon Wigry which took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. It also collaborated with Jewish units in self-defence operations. Other Jews joined units affiliated with the Soviet partisans in Poland. Eventually the Armia Ludowa (AL) was founded as the main communist-affiliated partisan group in occupied Poland. This group was provided with weapons by the Soviet Union. There were around 30 Jewish partisan detachments and most of these were connected to the AL. About half of these were detachments off in forests.
The Soviet Union was late in having partisan groups. The first ones started around 1941-1942. These groups mainly appeared in forests, as 6,000-8,000 Jews were able to escape to the forests. Many did not make it, but if they did they joined Soviet partisan detachments. One partisan group in the Soviet area was the Minsk Ghetto. The Minsk Ghetto was the fourth largest ghetto in Europe. The group was led by the Jewish communists. The group within the Minsk ghetto was supported by the Jewish council which allowed them to organize a mass escape into the surrounding woods. This escape released between 6,000-8,000 Jews, who tried to join existing partisan groups. They were known for their resistance movements. There were a large number of partisan groups in the Soviet Union but not much information can be found on them due to Soviet record keeping.
In Lithuania there were four ghettos that remained after the mass murder campaign by the Nazis in 1941. There were armed resistance groups in three of them. These ghettos were Vilna, Oszmiana, and Kovno. The Vilna Ghetto was the site of the first Jewish resistance group known as FPO. The FPO tried to persuade the occupants within the Vilna Ghetto to revolt against the Nazis but it failed. This led the group to leave after an armed altercation in September 1943. The partisan group left the ghetto because of a lack of support and went through the sewers to escape to the eastern Lithuanian woods. However the partisan group in the Kovno Ghetto had no intention of fighting in the ghetto itself. They had always planned to fight outside of the ghetto. They organized a large escape from the ghetto that took place over a long period of time. It led to many people escaping and joining outside partisan groups, which eventually led them to create their own.
Jewish contribution to the Yugoslav Partisan movement was significant. There were 4,572 Jews listed as Partisans, 3,000 of whom were in fighting units. Those who joined were those fleeing deportation, or those that had escaped or had been liberated from concentration and labour camps. One such example was that of the Rab battalion, which consisted of hundreds of Jewish inmates liberated from the Italian Rab concentration camp in September 1943.
Abba Kovner (Hebrew: אבא קובנר; March 14, 1918 – September 25, 1987) was a Jewish Hebrew and Yiddish poet, writer and partisan leader. In the Vilna Ghetto, his manifesto (he) was the first time that a target of the Holocaust identified the German plan to murder all Jews. His attempt to organize a ghetto uprising failed, but he fled into the forest, became a Soviet partisan, and survived the war. After the war, Kovner led a secretive organization to take revenge for the Holocaust, and made aliyah in 1947. Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize in 1970.Abrahám Pressburger
Abrahám Pressburger (born 1924) was a Jewish-Czech partisan during World War II. He lives in Israel.Alessandro Fersen
Alessandro Fersen (5 December 1911 – 3 October 2001) was a Polish-born Italian dramatist, actor, theater director, author and drama teacher.
Born Aleksander Fajrajzen in Łódź to a Jewish family, Fersen he moved to Genoa with his family in 1913. A student under Giuseppe Rensi, in 1934 he graduated in philosophy from the University of Genoa with a thesis later published under the title L'Universo come giuoco ("The Universe as a game"). Due to the racial laws of 1938 he moved to Paris (where he attended the Collège de France) and then in Eastern Europe. Back in Italy in 1943, he participated in the resistance in Liguria, in a partisan group linked to the Italian Socialist Party, before working in Switzerland, where he became friends with Emanuele Luzzati and Giorgio Colli.He returned to Italy at the end of World War II, and after a period in which he devoted himself to political activity (being a member of the Secretary of the National Liberation Committee of Genoa and Liguria) and journalism (as a collaborator of newspapers Il Lavoro and Corriere del Popolo), in 1947 he began his activity as a theater director with the drama Leah Lebowitz, a play which he had taken from a Hasidic legend; this play started with the artistic collaboration, which will last decades, with Emanuele Luzzati, with whom founded the "Teatro Ebraico" ("Jewish Theatre"), staging dramas written by him such as Golem (1969), inspired by the Yiddish folklore, or Leviathan (1974), based on the techniques of mnemodrama.From 1947 Fersen worked for more than a decade for the Teatro Stabile of Genoa, directing adaptations of Shakespeare, Pirandello, Molière, Anouilh, among others. In 1957 he began a career as a drama teacher founding an acting school in Rome, the "Studio di arti sceniche", inspired by the Stanislavski's system. He was also an author of critical and theoretical essays, aimed at an interdisciplinary theater, and an actor active on stage, on television and in films.Alexander Bogen
Alexander Bogen (Hebrew: אלכסנדר בוגן; born January 24, 1916 – October 20, 2010) was a Polish-Israeli artist, painter, sculptor, stage designer, book illustrator and a commander partisan during World War II.Alexander Pechersky
Alexander 'Sasha' Pechersky (Russian: Алекса́ндр Аро́нович Пече́рский; 22 February 1909 – 19 January 1990) was one of the organizers, and the leader, of the most successful uprising and mass-escape of Jews from a Nazi extermination camp during World War II; which occurred at the Sobibor extermination camp on 14 October 1943.
In 1948, Pechersky was arrested by the Soviet authorities along with his brother during the countrywide Rootless cosmopolitan campaign against Jews suspected of pro-Western leanings but released later due in part to mounting international pressure. However, the harassment did not stop there. Pechersky was prevented by the Soviet government from testifying in multiple international trials related to Sobibor, including the Eichmann Trial in Israel. The last time he was refused permission to exit the country and testify was in 1987, for a trial in Poland.Alexander Zeisal Bielski
Alexander Zeisal "Zus" Bielski (19 October 1912 – 18 August 1995) was a leader of the Bielski partisans who rescued approximately 1,200 Jews from Nazi execution in Belarus during World War II.Aron Bielski
Aron Bielski (born July 21, 1927), later changed to Aron Bell, is a Polish-American Jew and former member of the Bielski partisans group, the largest armed rescuers of Jews by Jews during World War II. He was also known as Arczyk Bielski. The youngest of the four Bielski brothers, he is the only one still living (Asael died in 1945, Tuvia in 1987, and Alexander ["Zus"] in 1995).Asael Bielski
Asael Bielski ( AH-soyl; 1908 – 1945) was the second-in-command of the Bielski partisans during World War II.Bielski partisans
The Bielski partisans were a unit of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews from extermination and fought the German occupiers and their collaborators around Nowogródek (Navahrudak) and Lida (now in western Belarus) in German-occupied Poland. The partisan unit was named after the Bielskis, a family of Polish Jews who organized and led the organization.
The Bielski partisans spent more than two years living in the forest. By the end of the war they numbered as many as 1,236 members, most of which were non-combatants, including children and the elderly. The Bielski partisans are seen by many Jews as heroes for having led as many refugees as they did away from the perils of war and the Holocaust. However, as their relations with the non-Jewish population were strained and occasionally violent, their wartime record has been a subject to some controversy in Poland.Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye
The Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (Yiddish: פֿאַראײניקטע פּאַרטיזאַנער אָרגאַניזאַציע; "United Partisan Organization"; referred to as FPO by its Yiddish initials) was a Jewish resistance organization based in the Vilna Ghetto that organized armed resistance against the Nazis during World War II. The clandestine organisation was established by Communist and Zionist partisans. Their leaders were writer Abba Kovner and Yitzhak Wittenberg.Hirsh Glick
Hirsch Glick (1922 Wilno, Poland – 1944 Estonia) was a Jewish poet and partisan.
Glick was born in Wilno in 1922 (at the time a part of inter-war Poland). He began to write Yiddish poetry in his teens and became co-founder of Yungvald (Young Forest), a group of young Jewish poets. After the German assault on Soviet Union in 1941, Hirsh Glick was imprisoned in the Weiße Wache concentration camp and later transferred to Vilna Ghetto. Glick involved himself in the ghetto's artistic community while simultaneously participating in the underground and took part in the 1942 ghetto uprising. In 1943 he wrote his most famous work, the song Zog nit keynmol, az du geyst dem letstn veg (זאג ניט קיינמאל, אז דו גייסט דעם לעצטן וועג) to the music of the soviet composer Dmitry Pokrass (1899-1978), which became the anthem of the Jewish partisan movement, and Shtil, di nakht iz oysgeshternt. He was inspired to write this work by news that arrived of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Glick managed to flee when the ghetto was being liquidated in October 1943, but was re-captured. He was later deported to a concentration camp in Estonia. During his captivity he continued to compose songs and poems. In July 1944, with the Soviet Army approaching, Glick escaped. He was never heard from again, and was presumed captured and executed by the Germans (reportedly in August 1944).Joseph Serchuk
Joseph (Yozhik) Serchuk (Hebrew: יוסף סרצ'וק) born Józef Serczuk or Josef Sierczuk (Chełm, 1919 – 6 November 1993, Tel Aviv) was the leader of a Jewish partisan unit in the Lublin area of occupied Poland during the Holocaust. After World War II, he testified at trials of the Nazis, and received special recognition from the State of Israel.Koniuchy massacre
The Koniuchy (Kaniūkai) massacre was a World War II massacre of Polish and Byelorussian civilians, mostly women and children, carried out in the village of Koniuchy (now Kaniūkai, Lithuania) on 29 January 1944 by a Soviet partisan unit together with a contingent of Jewish partisans under Soviet command. At least 38 civilians who have been identified by name were killed, and more than a dozen were injured.Prior to the massacre and in response to raiding by Soviet partisans, the village had formed an armed self-defense force with the encouragement and backing of the Lithuanian Auxiliary Police, to defend from Partisan raids; according to partisan sources the force's operations hindered their activity in the vicinity of the village significantly, though some historians stress the token nature of the force.The events, still politically charged, were investigated by authorities in Poland (2001) and Lithuania (2004), the latter in a fashion that was perceived in the West as politically motivated. Some coverage of this event has been criticized for exaggerating the role of Jewish partisans in this raid; others for trying to deny or justify the massacre.Miles Lerman
Miles Lerman (1920 – January 22, 2008) was a Polish-born American who helped to plan and create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the memorial at the Bełżec extermination camp. Lerman, a Holocaust survivor himself, had fought as a Jewish resistance fighter during World War II in Nazi German occupied Poland.Nakam
Nakam (Hebrew: נקם, "Revenge") was a group of about fifty Holocaust survivors who, in 1945, sought to kill Germans and Nazis in revenge for the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Led by Abba Kovner, the group sought to kill six million Germans in a form of indiscriminate revenge, "a nation for a nation". Kovner went to Mandatory Palestine in order to secure large quantities of poison for poisoning water mains to kill large numbers of Germans, and his followers infiltrated the water system of Nuremberg. However, Kovner was arrested by the British on his return to Europe and had to throw the poison overboard.
Following this failure, the rest of the group turned their attention to "Plan B", targeting German prisoners of war held by the United States. They obtained arsenic locally and infiltrated the bakeries that supplied these prison camps. The conspirators poisoned 3,000 loaves of bread at Konsum-Genossenschaftsbäckerei (Consumer Cooperative Bakery) in Nuremberg, which sickened more than 2,000 German prisoners of war at Langwasser internment camp. However, no known deaths can be attributed to the group. Although Nakam is considered by some to have been a terrorist organization, German prosecutors dismissed a case against two of its members due to the "unusual circumstances".Paper Brigade
The Paper Brigade was the name given to a group of residents of the Vilna Ghetto who hid a large cache of Jewish cultural items from YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute), saving them from destruction or theft by Nazi Germany. Established in 1942 and led by Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, the group smuggled books, paintings and sculptures past Nazi guards and hid them in various locations in and around the Ghetto. After the Ghetto's liquidation, surviving members of the group fled to join the Jewish partisans, eventually returning to Vilna following its liberation by Soviet forces. Recovered works were used to establish the Vilna Jewish Museum and then smuggled to the United States, where YIVO had re-established itself during the 1940s. Caches of hidden material continued to be discovered in Vilna into the early 1990s. Despite losses during both the Nazi and Soviet eras, 30–40 percent of the YIVO archive was preserved, which now represents "the largest collection of material about Jewish life in Eastern Europe that exists in the world".Sonia Orbuch
Sonia Shainwald Orbuch (born Sarah Shainwald, 24 May 1925 – 30 September 2018) was a Polish Jewish resistance fighter during the Second World War and later a Holocaust educator.
Orbuch hid in the forests of Poland with her family during the Second World War. To survive, she was renamed Sonia by the Soviets, and she joined the Red Army and helped fight against the Germans. After the war, she returned home, where she met her future husband. After having a daughter in a refugee camp in Germany, the family eventually emigrated to the United States.
She spent the rest of life in public engagement, speaking about her experiences and in 2009, published her autobiography, Here, There Are No Sarahs: A Woman's Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream.Tuvia Bielski
Tuvia Bielski (May 8, 1906 – June 12, 1987) was the leader of the Bielski group, Jewish partisans who set up a camp for Jews fleeing the Holocaust during World War II. Their camp was situated in the Naliboki forest, which was part of Poland between World War I and World War II, and which is now in western Belarus.Yitzhak Arad
Yitzhak Arad (Hebrew: יצחק ארד) (né Icchak Rudnicki) (born November 11, 1926), is an Israeli historian, author, retired IDF brigadier general and a former Soviet partisan, director of Yad Vashem from 1972 to 1993. He specialised in the history of the Holocaust.