Family mystery inspires Bay Area teens winning essay on partisans

EJ Weiss grew up knowing a bit about the Jewish partisans. She knew that, during World War II, between 20 and 30 thousand young European Jews escaped ghettos and work camps and joined organized resistance groups to fight back against the Nazis. And she knew that her great-uncle Shmuel was one of them.

It was this family connection — as well as the desire to learn more and educate others about the partisans’ history — that compelled Weiss, then a sophomore at Kehilla Jewish High School in Palo Alto, to enter the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation’s Youth Writing Contest.

On June 9, out of more than 500 entries, Weiss’ essay about her great-uncle and a partisan who now lives in Marin was named the first-place winner in her age group.

EJ Weiss (right) meets Sonia Orbuch, the Jewish partisan who was the subject of Weiss’ award-winning essay.

JPEF, a national organization based in San Francisco, develops educational materials about the Jewish partisans and their life lessons, aiming to bring “the celebration of heroic resistance against tyranny” into educational and cultural organizations.

For its annual competition, which drew entries from 20 states as well as Canada and South Africa, JPEF asked teens to consider the following quote, commonly attributed to an English statesman around the time of the American Revolution: “The only way for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.” Participants were then asked to write on how the quote related to a Jewish partisan.

Weiss, now 16, heard about the contest from her English teacher, Jaclyn Guzman, and jumped at the chance to submit an entry. “The family connection was really important to me,” she said, noting that her family doesn’t know exactly what happened to her great-uncle after his time as a partisan.

“It was also important to me because most people don’t get to hear about that part of the Holocaust. It’s all about the concentration camps,” she said. “I think people should know that there were fighters out there, that there was a strong resistance from both Jews and non-Jews, that not everyone stood by idly.”

When doing research about partisans, Weiss was drawn to the story of Sonia Orbuch, who fled a Jewish ghetto in Poland at the age of 16 and served as a doctor’s assistant for the resistance movement, treating the wounds of other partisan fighters who had gone out on missions to blow up enemy trains or derail communications.

“Partisans like Sonia resisted by rescuing Jews from ghettos and work camps, sabotaging the Nazis, stealing weapons and food, and prevailed by living and cultivating a proud Jewish existence,” Weiss wrote in her essay. “She and her fellow partisans were not among the silent. They would not allow evil to prosper. They fought back. They were fundamental in the triumph of good, and are a key component to my proud, strong, Jewish identity.”

Upon hearing that her essay had won, Weiss asked if she could meet Orbuch, a resident of Corte Madera. JPEF arranged for the meeting.

“It was amazing,” said Weiss. “She’s an amazing woman … there need to be more people out there like her.”

The teen plans to donate her prize, an iPod Touch, to a worthwhile organization. If more people learn about the partisans as a result of her essay, that’s enough of a reward, she said.

“For me, the educational part of it is really important,” she said. “Educating people and showing them this important part of history, of my identity … it definitely makes me proud to be Jewish.”

Cathleen Maclearie

J. art director