Jewish Partisans

Partisans, organized groups fighting secretly against German occupation, fought in almost every country in Europe.
Bielski family camp, Naliboki Forest, German-occupied Belorussia, 1943.
Yad Vashem: Courtesy of Leslie Bell from the Yehuda and Lola Bell (Bielski) Family Collection.

Jewish men and women, many of them teenagers, escaped ghettos and labor camps and joined the resistance.

20,000 –30,000 Jews joined resistance groups in German-occupied Eastern Europe, joining hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish partisans fighting the Germans. Not always welcome in partisan groups because of antisemitism, Jewish fighters often concealed their identity or formed separate units.

Partisans blew up Nazi supply trains and destroyed power plants and factories, focusing their attention on military and strategic targets.

Partisans had few arms and little ammunition but were successful in part because they knew the terrain. Most successful missions took place at night.

Living conditions were harsh; partisans died from infection and disease. They begged, borrowed, bribed, and stole whatever they needed in order to survive.

Map of Jewish partisan activity

Jewish partisans were particularly active in German-occupied Poland, the Soviet Union (Belorussia and Ukraine), Lithuania, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Belgium, both German-occupied and unoccupied France, and Italy.

Partisans hid encampments in forests, swamps, and mountains. In German-occupied Eastern Europe, many partisans lived in underground bunkers called zemlyankas (dugouts): primitive shelters that provided living and hiding space, even through freezing winters.

We came to the underground and we saw Jewish men and women walking around with arms and free. That I said, ‘Oh, if only the Jews in the ghetto would know that eight nights away from here Jews live free.

– Lisa Derman, Partisan

In Eastern Europe, Jews formed their own fighting units or joined other partisan bands.

In German-occupied Russia and Belorussia, Jews were welcomed into partisan units. In German-occupied Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, where antisemitism was more prevalent, Jews could expect little help from the non-Jewish population.

The best conditions for partisan activity were in German-occupied Belorussia, where vast forests gave excellent cover. The local population supported the partisans, and the Soviet Union assisted with material supplies. Some 10,000 Jews from the Minsk ghetto escaped to nearby forests and joined the partisans.

Dr. Yeheskel Atlas, leader of a partisan unit, asked candidates who wished to join: “What do you want?” The answer: “To die fighting the enemy.”

Siblings Naum (right) and Eva Khamara (second from right) and their partisan commanders, Zhitomir region, Ukraine, February 1944.
IHMEC: courtesy of Eva Gladkaya.
Tuvia Bielski.
Courtesy of Beit Lohamei Haghetaot.

The Bielski Family Camp

In December 1941, the Germans murdered thousands of Jews...

…in the Baranowicze region of German-occupied Belorussia, including four members of the Bielski family: mother, father, and two sons. Four sons survived—Tuvia, Asael, Zusya, and Aron—and, along with thirteen other people, fled to the forest near Nowogrodek. Tuvia, the eldest, sent a message to the ghetto: “Organize as many friends as possible. Send them to the woods.”

Over the next two years, this group grew to 1,200 as Jews fled to the forests rather than report for deportation. The Bielskis set up a camp with Tuvia as the commander. His priority was to rescue Jews, regardless of their age or military ability.

The Bielski camp evolved into a small town with kitchens, an infirmary, a school, and workshops. It was the largest Jewish partisan group in the forests and the largest armed rescuer of Jews by Jews.

They survived numerous German raids, killed many enemy soldiers, and lost only fifty members.

Irving Leavitt’s Partisan Diary

Leavitt was born Israel Janelewitz in Lubcz, Poland in 1910 and grew up in Nowogrodek, Poland.

In 1941, he, along with all the Jews in the area, was forced into the Nowogrodek ghetto. Leavitt escaped, hid in the Lipiczany Forest, and later joined the Bielski partisan camp with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Chaya.

While fighting, Leavitt kept a diary in Yiddish in four school notebooks. In the diary, he details the German invasion of his town and the day-by-day destruction of the Jewish community. Leavitt’s eyewitness account and service in the partisan unit were both forms of resistance to mass murder.

Leavitt and Chaya (Helen) were married in 1945 in Salzburg, Austria.

Irving Leavitt in his partisan uniform, Chelm, Poland, March 15, 1945.
IHMEC: courtesy of the Leavitt Family.
Iriving Leavitt's diary
IHMEC: courtesy of the Leavitt family.

Irving Leavitt's diary

Below are selections from the translation of Irving Leavitt’s diary. The full diary can be accessed in the Research tab.

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