So next generation doesnt forget Jews who fought back urged to share their tales

There are times Sonia Orbuch drives her Mercury Sable down the quiet, tree-lined streets near her Corte Madera home when her mind revisits a very different time and place.

Her brain swirls with the thought of the dark, rainy forest of Pinsk in the fall of 1943. There, as a Jewish partisan, she trekked with her cavalry through murky swamps so deep that once "you put your shoe in, you cannot pull it back out."

As she hiked through the dense forest, a fellow fighter named Grisha soothed her nerves with words that continue to move her today: "The time will come when not only will we walk on a nice road but we will travel in nice cars."

Orbuch was just 17 when she marched with the partisans, a group of underground Russian and Jewish Nazi-resistance fighters, to their winter camp in the forest. Her family had fled their home in the Polish shtetl of Luboml in late 1942 when the Nazis threatened total liquidation, joining one of several partisan operations the following spring.

Grisha, and the majority of Orbuch's large extended family, did not survive World War II. Orbuch, armed then with hand grenades and a fierce will to survive, is among three surviving partisans known to live in the Bay Area.

Yet her story, and those of the remaining 200 Jewish partisans throughout the world still thought to be alive, remains virtually unknown.

San Francisco filmmaker Mitch Braff, executive director of the recently launched Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, is determined to change that. A nonprofit foundation, the S.F.-based JPEF is aiming to educate the younger generation of Jews and non-Jews about the partisans through a variety of visual media.

Collaboration is expected from, among others, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco and the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

The Jewish partisans, together totaling 20,000 to 30,000, escaped the ghettos and work camps of Europe and took up arms against the Nazis. Operating either alone or with other resistance groups, they endured the harsh conditions of life in the forest while battling the German army and its collaborators. Some even liberated thousands of Jews who were trapped in ghettos.

"We always perceived the Jews only as victims of the Holocaust, but many fought back — and survived," said Braff. "While one in 10 Eastern European Jews survived the Holocaust, two out of every three Jewish partisans survived."

Although Braff, 35, grew up in Tiburon with what he considered a "pretty good Jewish education," he had never heard of the partisans until the latter part of 2000. That's when he was introduced to retired real estate developer Murray Gordon, who resides with his wife in Oakland and attends Temple Sinai.

At age 16, Gordon was willfully smuggled from his Lithuanian ghetto into the hands of partisans, escaping through a hole in the fence.

He spent the next two years sabotaging the Nazis by derailing supply trains, blowing up bridges and gathering intelligence transmitted to the Soviet army.

Gordon, during a telephone interview, recalled his experience living with little food or other amenities in the dense birch forest of Lithuania.

"It was not a Hilton," cracked the good-humored 75-year-old, whose amiability and high spirits make it difficult to believe he could have suffered even one day of his life.

He sometimes thinks, "No, it didn't happen. It is impossible, there is no way."

But the gunshot scars on the trunk of his body prove a permanent, haunting reminder.

"Before the war broke out, I had crushes on girls like any other 15-year-old; suddenly this was all put on the back burner," said the father of three and grandfather of six. "You change very fast. You become so focused that the only thing that matters is to survive and get the war over with."

It took decades, however, before he could really deal with it all. Ten years ago, a period he refers to as his "catharsis," Gordon finally broke down and felt ready to talk about his past.

"A lot of the high school kids I talk to now and even my grandchildren ask me, 'Why didn't the Jews fight back?'" he said. "Well a lot couldn't. Some were brainwashed to think they'd be resettled and not killed; some didn't want to rock the boat. Some of us who finally realized the truth were able to become partisans.

"They thought they would kill all the Jews and there would be no one left to tell the story. It's up to us to tell. "

While Gordon and many other partisans have indeed shared their stories through projects such as Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation and the Bay Area's Oral History Project, Braff said their interviews focus primarily on their status as survivors, not as partisans.

JPEF will fully explore their partisanship with materials such as a comprehensive Web site — — and video interviews. The videos will be housed at the Wiesenthal Center and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with portions streamed onto the Web site.

Eventually those and other educational materials, including a dramatic film to be made within the next few years and distributed through the ADL, will be made available to schools. JPEF is also working closely with the S.F.-based Holocaust Center to develop study guides, lesson plans and exercises for educators, which would be made available through the Web site.

"We are really focusing on making the story accessible to teachers and students," said Braff. "Our understanding of the Jewish experience during World War II is really incomplete if it doesn't include this missing piece of Holocaust history."

Braff is currently fund-raising and interviewing surviving partisans around the country, so far conducting interviews in Canada, Michigan, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and California.

He is on a constant quest to locate more of this aging population, some of whom were as young as 9 at the time of the war, before it becomes too late.

The reluctance of many partisans to share their stories until recently is partly why their travails have been publicized so little.

Gordon's silence, for instance, was a form of denial. "I just wanted to go on like every other American," he said. "But in my subconscious it was there, gnawing at me. I had nightmares for at least 20 years that German soldiers were chasing me. I'd wake up just before they caught me."

Orbuch, a soft-spoken woman whose reluctance to "relive everything again" did not hinder the passion and sensitivity of her words during an interview in her home, said that "in comparison to the things that those people in the concentration camp went through, our story seemed so minimal."

It is "not easy because you live with it every day," added the 76-year-old, fighting back the tears. "It's especially difficult when a holiday comes or we have a celebration — like we are looking forward to our granddaughter's bat mitzvah.

"Who do I invite? My dead uncles and aunts? Who do I invite?"

Yet despite this difficulty, there can be joy. Orbuch's son, Paul, said it is impossible to find another group such as his mother and her partisan friends. It is a community, he said, that when united and in some cases reunited in New York, celebrates with unparalleled liveliness.

"They had overcome the worst that could happen," he said. "They lost their independence, their country and in many cases their families. Yet they are such strong people, with a real sense of purpose.

"My sister and I grew up feeling that no matter what the world dishes out, it can be overcome," said the 51-year-old San Anselmo resident.

It is that very message — as well as the fear of history repeating itself — that compelled Orbuch, a member at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, to overcome her resistance to speaking out.

"Our story has to be retold again and again, always to never forget, because I feel the people who were murdered so tragically — that their blood is not resting until they are sure everyone knows what was done to them."

Mira Shelub of San Francisco — who prefers only to be called "a senior" — shares a similar history, though her memories are also colored with fondness: As a partisan in Poland at the age of 18, she met her future husband.

"It was hard to live in the forest, but for me not that hard because I had a love affair that was very special. I met a brave, handsome partisan who fought a courageous battle. He became my lifelong companion."

Her husband, Norman, died in 1977. Shelub went on to earn a bachelor's degree in history and a master's in counseling from San Francisco State University. A proud mother of three and grandmother of two, she is a zealous, energetic woman who counsels Russian immigrants at Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco.

She described her time in the partisans as more than merely a physical battle against Hitler and the Nazis, but a spiritual battle as well. "We would sit around the fire at night, supporting each other and dreaming about a better today, a better tomorrow and a better future."

She added: "The past can never be forgotten. But at some point it must be forgiven."