History of Jewish partisans is fascinating for teens

The banquet hall at Congregation B’nai Shalom glows with the soft light of electric candles. Teenage chatter of school days and weekend affairs ripples through the room.

This is not the scene of your typical Holocaust memorial evening.

“This relaxed atmosphere is a scary contrast with the Holocaust,” says Gabe Salgado, a teacher.

The Contra Costa Midrasha students get quiet. Salgado asks them if they know the full name of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Yom HaShoah V’ha Gevurah. Who knows what ‘gevurah’ means?

“Heroism. And that’s what I’m going to focus on tonight. The heroes of the Holocaust. It’s not just a day where we honor the victims, but also those who fought back,” Salgado says.

Welcome to Café Resist.

The restaurant atmosphere is intended to stand in stark contrast to the horrors of the Holocaust, Salgado tells the kids.

“We have the luxury of being able to remember,” he says.

The program serves up ethical dilemmas with cheese and crackers. Participants nosh while thinking about tough questions like: Would you leave home at 14? Would you risk your life to plant a bomb under Nazi train tracks?

These are quandaries that thousands of young Jews wrestled with during the Holocaust. They were the Jewish partisans. About 30,000 Jews resisted the Nazis, hiding in the forests of Poland, blowing up thousands of armored convoys and sabotaging communication lines.

But their story is not often told.

Salgado developed the program in partnership with the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation, an S.F.-based organization that works with secular and religious schools to add another dimension to the typical Holocaust curriculum.

Mitch Braff, director and founder of JPEF, says their story offers a particularly important lesson for today’s youth, of whom only an estimated 15 percent have ever heard of Jewish partisans.

“This is more than just a Holocaust story — it’s a story of Jewish teen empowerment,” he says.

Jonathan Furst, an educator for JPEF, hammers this point home throughout the evening, reminding the Midrasha students that the partisans “were no different than you.”

“They weren’t stronger or braver or more courageous,” Furst adds. “They were luckier. They had an opportunity, and they took it.”

In a moment, the “waiters” (who are actually teachers dressed in ’40s attire to help facilitate discussion) serve students a “mixed green midrash” and “carrot contemplation.” The menu items bring to the table vegetables, ranch dip and a heated discussion.

“OK you guys, would you have left home at 14?” asks Jaimee Fricklas, 17, of Walnut Creek.

“Well, if I knew everyone was going to die, then yeah,” says Jared Heifetz, 17, of Clayton.

But you didn’t really know that, someone says.

“I don’t think I would have. I don’t think I would have been that brave,” Fricklas says. “It’s really hard to imagine.”

“But there’s no excuse for laying down and just letting people die,” replies Arielle Schussler, 17, of Walnut Creek.

They continue to argue and don’t hear Salgado try to recapture their attention for the next course of “resistance rice pilaf.”

Braff founded JPEF in 2001 after he met a Jewish partisan. He was moved by his story. But when Braff went looking for more information, he had a hard time finding anything substantive. So he started the foundation. His goal has always been to give more visibility to what he thinks is an inspiring element to Holocaust history.

So far, teachers at Jewish and secular schools have greeted JPEF’s curriculum with enthusiasm. The lessons use partisan history to illustrate larger ideas: Survival, ethics, equality, leadership.

Students also can see and listen to video and audio testimonies that detail Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.

Most of the information is available for free on the JPEF Web site, since the agency doesn’t have the capability to visit every school that uses their programs, nor can it train every teacher who wants to use the materials. Hundreds of educators in schools, synagogues, youth groups and camps across the country have used the curriculum.

Ilona Shechter, a teacher at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, calls JPEF a “godsend.” She wouldn’t be able to teach about the partisans without its curriculum. Since introducing her students to partisans, she’s noticed they absorb the Holocaust differently.

“This adds a tremendously uplifting and positive lesson to what is a very depressing few months of study for them,” she says.

Furst visited her class last year, and “the kids were blown away,” Shechter said. “They loved it. They asked a million questions. They could have sat with him for at least half the day.”

JPEF merges Holocaust history with contemporary issues to make the partisans relevant and engaging. Furst admits the curriculum is complex and nuanced, but has seen that teens and even preteens can handle the sophisticated ideas embedded in partisans’ stories.

Braff also likes to remind educators that the partisans are not simply a lesson for Yom HaShoah: “It’s relevant 365 days a year.”

A snapshot of a partisan

The Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation has collected the stories of 43 partisans. Here is one:

Gertrude Boyarski, her parents and three siblings were made to live in a ghetto in Derechin, Poland. One night, they evaded a Nazi guard and escaped into the forest.

That night, almost all of the ghetto’s inhabitants — between 3,000 and 4,000 Jews — were murdered.

In the forest, Gertie’s family joined up with a group of 250 other Jews who had escaped from the ghetto. The commander of the group did not believe the Jews were ready to fight. To prove themselves, he insisted the men of the group break into the Derechin police station and steal ammunition. He would lead them if they succeeded. Some of the women were scared the men would not return.

But Gertie’s mother said, “If my husband or son will be killed, at least they’ll be killed fighting.”

Gertie then decided she wanted to fight, too. The commander was dismissive at first. The young girl persisted. “I had 17 cousins, five uncles and five aunts who were killed in the ghetto. I want to take revenge.”

The commander was impressed by her conviction. But before she could join their unit, she had to prove her strength. She’d have to serve as a guard for two weeks, on her own, about a mile away from the group. She’d received a horse, a rifle and a gun, and food would be brought to her once a day by a partisan who would identify himself with a password. She agreed.

“I was all alone in the woods, in the middle of the night, dark,” she recalled. “Each time I heard a little noise, I thought it was the Germans, but it was the animals. I was afraid of the animals too, but I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ And I did it. Two weeks — it was like two years.”

Gertrude lived in the forest as a partisan for three years. After blowing up a bridge with the help of a friend, she was awarded the Medal of Lenin, one of the Soviet Union’s highest honors.

To see a video of Boyarski, visit www.jewishpartisans.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.