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Resistance and heroes

Date:

Jews fight a brutal regime hellbent on their destruction

Young Motele Schlein’s violin cried the sorrow for his family and others persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.

On June 22, 1941, the 11-year-old Schelin recounted the horror when Nazis entered homes in his native Belarus and arrested the occupants including his mother, father and a little sister. The Nazis eventually sent them to a concentration camp. At another home where Motele hid in the attack, the Nazis murdered every member of the Hernsein family.

Young Motele’s life dovetails perfectly into Doreen Rappaport’s story of resistance fighters who thwarted the barbarian Nazis during World War II by saving as many Jews as they could. Rappaport, the author of 85 books primarily written for children and young adults, spoke at this year’s Day of Remembrance on May 6 in Reno and told of one story after another of how the Jews resisted the onslaught of the Nazis who invaded their homelands.

A hero and his violin

Rappaport spent years researching and accumulating material for her book, “Beyond Courage: Jewish Resistance and Heroes during the Holocaust,” which detailed how freedom fighters kept many Nazis in abeyance. Rappaport gave an overall picture of how the Jewish people coped and defied the Holocaust and their tormenters, the Nazis. Her research has provided an overview of people intent on defeating the Nazis and their sympathizers. During her research, Rappaport gathered information from an endless number of books and especially from historians who helped her zero in on different angles to her story.

Rappaport’s audience of more than 500 at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno listened intently, beginning with her story about Motele, who escaped the Hernsein house with the clothes he was wearing on his back and his violin. Eventually, the young lad met other Belarussians and became part of a larger plan to disrupt the invaders, who branched out to other parts of the country and east into Ukraine, where Motele traveled.

Doreen Rappaport, author of the book Beyond Courage: Jewish Resistance and Heroes during the Holocaust, signs a copy at this year’s Day of Remembrance in Reno.
Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group
Doreen Rappaport, author of the book Beyond Courage: Jewish Resistance and Heroes during the Holocaust, signs a copy at this year’s Day of Remembrance in Reno. Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group

According to Rappaport, Motele had become a superb violinist by playing in the town square, and eventually, a German soldier invited the 12-year-old to perform. 

“The Nazi commander asked him to play at the inn,” Rappaport said.

At every performance, Motele entertained the Nazis who remained in the small Ukrainian village. After he finished playing his violin, he would retreat to the storage cellar to place his violin in a case, but he would take an empty case home. Motele had noticed a crack in the foundation that was wide enough to be packed with explosives.

“He would leave his violin in the basement,” Rappaport pointed out, explaining how Motele rounded up the explosives to pack into the crack when he returned the following day. “On many days and nights, he brought enough to make a bomb and have it explode.”

Motele eluded any suspicion he was bringing dynamite into the basement and especially when more than 200 Nazi soldiers met at the inn for libations. Moshe Gildenman, a resistance fighter whom Motele met, precariously climbed down the stairs to the dark storeroom, found a wick attached to a bomb and lit it. The explosion ripped through the building, killing scores of Nazi soldiers.

Motele continued to battle the Nazis with these partisan fighters, but the 14-year-old Motele and many others were killed in 1944 after taking heavy fire from the Germans.

The violin became a symbol of the resistance. Rappaport said 16 violins were eventually discovered in abandoned communities and concentration camps after World War II. Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein restored the violins, and a concert in 2008 was performed by violinists to 1,000 people outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls for the first time in more than six decades.

Revealing the untold tales

Rappaport said Motele was one of thousands who brought life to both the Jews and their sabotage of the Nazis’ war machine. She labeled many of these tales as untold stories of Jewish resistance carried out during the Holocaust.

“I share my journey of discovery about the Holocaust and what I learned,” she said. 

In the two decades when she began working on a book for young adults, Rappaport’s thirst of knowledge led her to many more stories of Jews resisting the Nazis from the freedom fighters in the Jewish ghettos to those attacking and disrupting the German military. She cited, for example, how the Jews blew up railroad tracks underneath the trains carrying German soldiers, killing scores of their enemy.

“I didn’t believe what I was reading,” she said in astonishment. “I didn’t know the complete stories behind these two extraordinary events.”

When Rappaport began her research in 2004, the internet was in its infancy, and she relied on card catalogs to lead her to books including the freedom fighters. Rappaport believes she either read or skimmed through 700 books and looked at 20,000 photographs, saving about 200 for her book. Rappaport and her husband journeyed to the Nazi death camps in Europe, visited Israel and explored key cities such as Warsaw, Krakow, Paris and Amsterdam, all symbolically important for the Jews during the Second World War.

“I was stunned by the facts I learned about the uprisings and death camps,” she confessed.

Rappaport said the Nazis built thousands of labor camps, and then prisoners who were housed there created roads, built weapons and even built crematories in which they were eventually gassed. She said the Nazis considered Paris as one of their most important cities because that’s where much of the resistance occurred. The stench of death still lingered across Europe until May 1945.

“Six million Jews died, and a small percentage survived, but that doesn’t diminish the courage of the Jews,” she stressed.

The Bielski partisans were an organization of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews from extermination and fought against the Nazi German occupiers and their collaborators in the vicinity of Nowogródek (Navahrudak) and Lida in German-occupied Poland (now western Belarus). They are named after the Bielskis, a family of Polish Jews who led the organization. Public domain
The Bielski partisans were an organization of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews from extermination and fought against the Nazi German occupiers and their collaborators in the vicinity of Nowogródek (Navahrudak) and Lida in German-occupied Poland (now western Belarus). They are named after the Bielskis, a family of Polish Jews who led the organization. Public domain

Rappaport said freedom fighters sought revenge against the Germans and any Jews who collaborated with the enemy. She said the first step in murdering millions of Jews occurred in the ghettos, yet many died before the Germans deported them to the death camps. Riots besieged the ghettos, though in the meantime, those Jews and other undesirables who remained alive sabotaged the German war effort by sewing sleeves upside down on coats and uniforms and making other inferior products that were rendered useless. 

An underground effort led by Georges Loinger, a French soldier and member of the resistance, smuggled hundreds of children out of France to Switzerland, a neutral country, during World War II. Rappaport said she couldn’t help but think about the pain and confusion affecting the children who were secretly whisked away from their parents.

“They were not permitted to keep family photos or notes (for fear of being discovered),” Rappaport said. “The resistance didn’t want to be identified.”

Loinger, a French Jewish resistance fighter who saved more than 350 children, died in 2008 at the age of 108.

Judith Schumer’s narrative also introduced the audience to the Bielski brothers, partisan Jews who saved others of the same faith. For several years during the war, these partisan fighters spent time in the woods, but they also led hundreds of Jews away from the war’s brutal dangers.  Schumer, co-chair of Holocaust Day of Remembrance, added the Bielski partisans saved the lives of Jews wherever they could make an impact.

“They carried out attacks to save Jews who were at risk,” Schumer emphasized. “They saved the lives of 1,200 Jews.”

The seductive femme fatale 

Schumer said Rappaport’s presentation was important because of the current rise of antisemitism, which was just as strong in the 1930s and ‘40s. During World War II Schumer’s parents and sister moved from occupied Poland to Lithuania to escape the Nazis’ wrath. Within the first few words of her presentation, Schumer dispelled the myth Jews didn’t do anything to fight against the Nazis.

“The lie actually was started by the Nazis,” Schumer pointed out. “It’s a myth the Jews went peacefully to their deaths … or the Jews went to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter.” 

On the contrary, Schumer said the Jews considered themselves armed and ready to resist against the Germans and their Axis partners. They were fighting for survival against a brutal regime.

“Escaping is a form of resistance,” Schumer said. “This is a story that gives you a power to live.”

The heroine of Warsaw, Niuta-Teitelbaum.
The heroine of Warsaw, Niuta Teitelbaum.

Schumer said thousands of Jews and other people deemed undesirables by the Germans took on different forms of resisting. Many, though, joined resistance groups rather than acting like lone wolves.

“One of the earlier volunteers in the Polish underground was Niuta Teitelbaum,” Schumer said, referring to the woman’s nickname as “Little Wanda With The Braids.” “She disguised her real identity as an assassin.”

Teitelbaum was also known as the Heroine of Warsaw.

Her sweetness and Polish girl attire hid her distaste for the Nazis. She taught her fellow Poles in the Warsaw Ghetto how to use weapons. In 1943, Schumer said Teitelbaum killed two Gestapo agents, and she also killed other Nazis when she was dressed as a doctor.

“In July 1943, the Gestapo burst into her room,” Schumer said. “After weeks of torture, they executed her at the age of 25.”

Another femme fatale, Renia Kukielka, smuggled grenades and because of her youthfulness and fair skin, she disguised herself to pass as a Polish Catholic girl. Kukielka and others smuggled food, medicine and weapons into the ghettos. 

Kukielka survived the war, lived a full life and died in 2014 in Israel.

Faigel Lazebnik, a Jewish partisan from eastern Poland who was later known as Faye Schulman, became a noted photographer in her hometown of Lenin.

“She took photos of mass graves, atrocities she witnessed and the partisans in the forests,” Schumer described.

The Nazis, though, had also discovered her talents and wanted Schulman to document their activities in the region and to take vanity photos of the German officers. Schulman remembered the photo session in a 1998 interview for the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

“He sat down and I was supposed to take his picture for the portrait,” Schulman said of her German subject. “And he was sitting. He looked to me like an animal. I was afraid to look at him. He looked like a killer. He was the main killer. … And I saw it through the camera.

“I said to myself, if I will make this portrait, he will kill me. He looks terrible.”

Schulman may have saved herself a trip to the gas chamber because her subject liked his photograph.

“Faigel debunked the narration of Jews who went quietly to their deaths,” Schumer added. 

During the war, Schulman the Polish resistance fighter reunited with her two brothers, but in 1948, Schumer said she emigrated to Canada with her husband and infant daughter.

Schulman’s photography showed the faces of war and suffering. 

“I still have my camera. And I still have my boots. And I have my medals. And I have my certificates to show that it’s real, and it’s true,” she continued in the USC article. “And there is nothing to be ashamed to be Jewish. There is something really to be proud, being a Jew.”

Schulman wrote her biography, “A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust,” in 1995, and it was shown in a 1999 PBS documentary, “Daring to Resist: Three Women Face the Holocaust.”

Schulman died in 2021 at the age of 101.

A photo shows Countess Janina with her husband Henry Mehlberg in the 1950s.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
A photo shows Countess Janina with her husband Henry Mehlberg in the 1950s. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Other women also saved hundreds from certain deaths in the camps. Schumer said Janina Mehlberg left her home and three days later arrived in Poland with a new identity.

“She negotiated the release of thousands of prisoners from the Nazis,” Schumer said. “She also saved more through the delivery of food and medicine.”

Countess Janina Suchodolska, who changed her name from her given Jewish name of Pepi Mehlberg, was a mathematician in Nazi-occupied Poland. Schumer said Suchodolska entered the concentration camps to talk to the Germans and to save the prisoners.

As Janina, Suchodolska concealed she was an officer in the underground Polish Home Army.

“She was a bargaining chip to deliver more food and clothing to those in the camps,” Schumer said.

From 1941-1944, Schumer said there was an underground resistance movement in the Jewish ghettos and camps and also in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. She added Treblinka was the second deadliest extermination camp. During two years, 850,000 Jews were murdered at the camp. Jewish prisoners revolted at the camp in early August 1943, and about 200 escaped.

“Most Jews who escaped were found and executed,” Schumer said.

After the presentation from both Schumer and Rappaport, six candles, each representing one million Jewish deaths from the Holocaust, were lit as Claire Tomolo Taman, a member of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra, played the violin. The lighting of the candles is a reminder of how Jewish resistance continued until the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, yet Suchodolska revealed the mindset so many Jews had at that time. Schumer said Suchodolska felt her life was useless unless she was saving other people’s lives against a regime hell-bent on eradicating a race of people.

NEED TO KNOW

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno has presented a variety of speakers and topics over the years. Sponsors of the event were the Nevada Governor’s Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust, Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, Jewish Nevada and OLLI at the Sanford Center for Aging, part of the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.

Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson is Editor Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.

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