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Thursday, July 28, 2011

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Nesvizh Ghetto Resistance, July 1942

The Jews in Nesvizh organized one of the first Jewish uprisings during World War II in order to resist complete liquidation of their community. Nesvizh is a small city in Belarus, over 100 kilometers southwest of Minsk, full of public parks and architectural attractions, and is passed through by a lake. On the small lake’s eastern bank the formidable Nesvizh castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands tucked in between shade trees, cosseted by ramparts and canals. As a center for fairs, the town attracted artisans, horticulturalists, and farmers. Until 1942, there had been a Jewish community here for hundreds of years.

Nesvizh Synagogue, date unknown. Compiled by the members of the Nesvizh Study Group.

After the German invasion in June 1941, an aktion was ordered on Nesvizh and thousands of Jews were executed all at once in the small city. By October 30, 1941, the Jewish population in Nevizh had been reduced from between 4,500 to 5,000 to approximately 600 Jews. The remaining Jewish population was limited to a ghetto.

Anticipating a second aktion, an underground movement in the ghetto was formed to resist the community’s complete annihilation and to embody the mottos: “We shall not go like sleep to slaughter” and “Let me die with the Philistines”. Underground participants acquired arms by having weapons — including a machine gun — smuggled into the city from storehouses. Nine months later, in July of 1942, the Nesvizh ghetto began to hear of German liquidation engulfing nearby communities. They prepared for the imminent orders: digging bunkers, organizing into fighting units, and preparing additional homemade weapons like knives and hatchets. In the event of an occupation, they planned to set fire to the ghetto and break through to the forest.

On July 20th, a German commander stood outside the gates of the ghetto and announced the order to liquidate with the exception of thirty essential skilled workers. When the Germans and collaborating Belarusians infiltrated the ghetto, the Jewish resistance set their houses aflame and fought towards the gate. The Germans and Belarusians soon overpowered the resistance, killing most in the onslaught. Only twenty-five underground fighters succeeded in escaping to nearby forests.

Having endured one of the first ever ghetto uprisings, many of these survivors went on to join partisan units, including the Zhukov Otriad, and continued in the struggle to resist.

Entrance to the Nesvizh Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This uprising is described in detail in: Cholawski, Shalom, Soldiers from the Ghetto: The First Uprising Against the Nazis (San Diego and New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc, 1980).

Nesvizh, 2004.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Partisans in the Arts: Alexander Bogen (1916-2010)

"Why would a man in grave danger create art? For an artist, the motivation to create is even more powerful than existence itself."
— Alexander Bogen.

From the series: "Partisans", 1949. Lino-cut. Copyright © 2011 Yad Vashem — The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority

Alexander Bogen’s sketches during World War II show a tremendous knowledge of the human condition: an abandoned child in the streets of the Vilna ghetto, an old man who is dying, comrades drinking vodka and playing cards around a bonfire. Although condemned to record his subjects often without—or in place of—the ability to save them, his passion for art was a weapon in itself against the Nazi forces.

Alexander Bogen, unit commander of Nekama. Copyright © 2011 Yad Vashem — The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority

Bogen was, however, able to save a great deal of lives through his efforts as the commander of a partisan unit. Born in 1916, Bogen grew up in Vilna, Poland, and studied painting and sculpture at Vilna’s university. When World War II began, he left and joined a partisan movement in the endless forests surrounding Lake Naroch in Belarus. Facing discrimination from the non-Jewish partisans, Bogen assisted in forming an all-Jewish otriad called Nekama, meaning Vengeance. He served as a unit commander, helping transport people from the Vilna ghetto before it was liquidated.

During the war, Bogen compulsively sketched his surroundings to document ghetto and partisan life, dropping his gun to capture his brothers in arms. In the forest he scavenged scraps of packing paper, burnt twigs, charcoal from fire to continue his representations of life. These sketches serve as an invaluable record not only of Jewish partisan life, but also of human perseverance.

Jewish Partisans, 1943. Ink on paper. Copyright © 2011 Yad Vashem — The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority

Once the war was over, Bogen completed his studies at the university and worked as a professor of art. The versatility of his work after the war blossomed and Bogen became famous in Poland as an artist, set designer and book illustrator.

Alexander Bogen and his wife, Rachel, at the opening of an exhibition of his works at the Museum of the Ghetto Fighters’ House
In 1951 Bogen immigrated to Israel where he worked as a painter, sculptor and art educator. His work continued to gain recognition and was exhibited in museums worldwide. Influenced by Chagall, Matisse, and Picasso, Bogen was always learning and expanding, never tied down by one single style. He recalls, “My encounter with the abstract, lyrical art style of the ‘New Horizons’ movement, which was dominant in Israel during the years 1950-1970, was a revelation to me.” Bogen has in his lifetime created a body of work both varied and true to his passions, with great skill in sketching and range as a painter—his artwork, like many great compositions, is both lovely and terrifying.

The Deportation, 1996. Oil on Canvas

For Alexander Bogen, who wrote on his work, art fulfilled several needs:

When I asked myself why I was drawing when I was fighting night and day, [I realized] it was something similar to biological continuity. Every man is interested in continuing his people, his family, to bring the fruits of his creativity (his children) towards the future and to leave something behind… To be creative during the Holocaust was also a protest. Each man when standing face to face with cruel danger, with death, reacts in his own way. The artist reacts in an artistic way. This is his weapon… This is what shows that the Germans could not break his spirit.

For more of Alexander Bogen’s story and artwork:

His website
His partisan story
His exhibit at Yad Vashem
Featured works on the "Learning about the Holocaust through Art" website
Bogen on creating art

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

'Defiance' Director Discusses the Film's Original Opening Scene

The first scene of the film Defiance, as originally produced, opens with an elderly Tuvia Bielski (played by Daniel Craig) driving a cab in New York City. He picks up an fare — an elderly gentleman, who is a former Bielski partisan who recognizes Tuvia by his cabbie's license.

In this video shot recently in New York, Defiance director Edward Zwick discusses this scene, and why he ultimately replaced it with something that wouldn't be "comfortable" or "nice".

For more videos, including Zwick discussing Defiance, visit our youtube page. For more on Defiance — including educational material and interviews with Tuvia Bielski's brother Aron — go to