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Friday, August 15, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Zvi Shefet

“I managed to [avoid] those that would denounce me,” Zvi Shefet recalled of his early days during the German occupation of his hometown of Slonim, in then Soviet-occupied Belorussia. Refusing to wear the Star of David, the sixteen-year-old Jewish partisan found ways to rebel early on, even before he went into the forest to fight. With his blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fluent command of Polish, he managed to avoid unwanted attention and only went outside when necessary.

The German invasion came as a complete surprise to Zvi and his community – as in many Soviet territories, the community strongly believed in the power and protection of the Soviet army. However, the war had only lasted three days before the Germans successfully overtook the town.

On July 17, 1942, the initial “aktion”1 in Slonim took place against the Jews. Zvi's family was alerted to the situation through family friends who had relayed the news through their grief-stricken faces - the couple lived in the woods and were firsthand witnesses to the aftermath of the mass killing in the forest.

In the beginning, most Jews in Slonim found it a hard to digest these mass murders. Some continued to look for those that had been killed, only finding remains of their clothing. Others believed that the Russians would still come and save them. Looking back on experiencing this time as a child, Zvi reminisced “I thought it strange that the grown-ups were so fearful.”

Fearing for their son's life, Zvi's parents planned to send him to Warsaw with a Polish family acquaintance. Feeling hurt that they wanted to send him away, he advised strongly against separating from his family. Zvi convinced his family to let him stay with them and continue to protect them as best he could.

Soon after, the Germans forced all the Jews of Slonim into the a ghetto. Another aktion immediately followed: the Wehrmacht and the SS surrounded the ghetto, looking for males. Zvi and his father hid in a shed adjacent to their living area. Zvi's mother – who was fluent in German – answered the door and convinced the officers that her husband had gone off to work early and taken his schein (work permit) with him. The soldiers left soon after, commanding her not to let anyone else in the house.

During this aktion, the Germans had exceeded the expected amount of Jews that they were anticipating to find, prompting the authorities to declare that the killing would cease. Though some believed this news, Zvi's parents did not. The recent increase in SS men in the town caused alarm – changes like that often meant something awful was looming in the near future. The Nazis were not only targeting Jewish citizens, but also the Polish intelligentsia. Uncertainty was an air, and no one was safe.

The final aktion ended in the burning of the Slonim ghetto. Zvi's family was residing near the ghetto's edge, and thus escaped into the forest under the cover of nightfall. Zvi and his immediate family – along with some uncles, aunts and cousins – roamed the forest, motivated by rumors of Soviet partisan groups in the Pruszkov forest and the surrounding areas. They hoped the partisans would provide protection for them.

The admission to partisan groups was arms, which the Shefets and their relatives had no possession of. The group eventually went their separate ways, due to a fission that occurred when Zvi's uncle secured a spot with the Soviet partisans for only himself, his wife and two sons.

Soon after, however, Zvi and his family found a partisan center in the forest near Okinowo. This place was well-known – former POWs organized the activity of various partisan groups here. After a few days, Zvi was accepted into a resistance group called Detachment 51, and his family was assigned to a detachment created for the partisans' family members.

Due to the prevalence of antisemitism among the ranks of the Soviet partisans, a group of Jews eventually broke off and created their own unit, comprised solely of Jewish partisans. They also called themselves Detachment 51. Zvi asked to join this group. The commander, Yefim Fiodorowicz, had excellent leadership qualities and was able to inspire the group into becoming excellent fighters. The group membership was also more lenient towards women, who fought alongside their male counterparts.

Zvi continued to fight in Detachment 51 until Fiodorowicz perished; Zvi had no choice but to join another Soviet partisan unit - he fought with them until the area was liberated by the Soviet army in 1944. Unfortunately, Zvi's family was killed in 1943, when a group of Soviet partisans attacked his family's detachment instead of protecting them as they promised to.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Zvi Shefet visiting the cemetery at Czepelova. Photo courtesy of

1. The German euphemism for mass executions, usually by bullets

Friday, August 1, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Mordechai "Motele" Shlayan

The night progressed as any other evening would have for twelve-year-old Motele, who had just finished his nightly violin performance in the Solders’ Home – an extravagant fine dining establishment post in Ovruch, Ukraine, where German troops came to be entertained and fatten themselves up before going into battle. Carefully packing up his violin, he declined his usual complementary meal from the cook with the excuse that he was exhausted and preferred to go home early. A few minutes after he stepped outside the complex, the building was demolished in a fiery explosion. As the wail of the police sirens approached, Motele quickly felt his way along the darkened buildings on a pre-determined path that led to the shores of a nearby lake, whose still waters provided a silent escape. Holding his prized violin high above his head, he submerged himself up to his shoulders. On the other side, ten hands reached out and helped the young boy into the relative safety of a waiting wagon. The vehicle vanished into the woods soon after, taking their young hero with them, whose voice reverberated in the dark: “this is for my parents and little Bashiale, my sister.”

Born Mordechai Shlayan, Motele was out when the Germans forced their way into his house and murdered his entire family. He resorted to living in the Volhynia forest in Ukraine, close to the town of Ovruch. Misha Gildenman, leader of an all-Jewish partisan group, came across the young boy in the woods and took him in as his own son. In Uncle Misha’s partisan unit, Motele was a valuable asset because he could go into town and no one would assume that a child this young had ulterior motives. With his fair skin and blond hair, Motele was easily able to hide his Jewish identity and pass as a Ukrainian. His musical talent also made him an irreplaceable resource to the group – it gave him a reason to be in towns and villages, and allowed him to gather crucial information useful to the group.

In August 1943, Gildenman was receiving daily reports of towns and cities that had recently been liberated by the Soviet army. Keril, a contact in Ovruch, relayed the message to him that the Ukrainian police in the city wanted to surrender. Having learned not to trust any good news too soon, Gildenman sent Motele to see if there was any truth to the rumors.

As a skilled musician, Motele was sent to play in town for money with the other beggars. His talent – as well as his beautiful renditions of popular Ukrainian folk songs that he remembered from the streets of his own hometown – soon separated him from the other street musicians. In his pocket, he carried carefully forged papers that gave him the new identity of Dimitri Rubina. His music caught the attention of a German officer, who hired the young violinist to provide musical entertainment for German soldiers in the Soldiers’ Home after he effortlessly sight-read a piece by the famous Polish composer Ignacy Paderewski.

Motele was given free lunch and dinner as compensation, and soon noticed a worn-down storeroom adjacent to the basement kitchen that he ate his meals in, whose cracked walls had just enough room to lodge a bomb between them.

With Gildenman and the partisans’ assistance, Motele constructed an elaborate plan to blow up the Soldiers’ Home. Popov, Gildenman’s explosive expert, taught him how to assemble a bomb. For several nights, Motele left his violin in a discarded crate and smuggled the explosives in his empty violin case. Now they only had to wait for an opportune moment to arise. As fate would have it, this opportunity happened sooner than expected: Motele heard word that a division of high-ranking SS officers were being re-routed through Ovruch – traveling by rail was thought to be too dangerous due to all the recent partisan demolition activity on the railroad tracks.

Everything went according to plan and at three in the afternoon, SS officers arrived in their polished boots and limousines. Dinner was served, wine was drank and merriment was had. Shortly after eleven, a boy ran out of the restaurant into the darkened street – and the men inside met their fate.

Motele was killed in a German bombing raid in 1944, when he was only fourteen years old. In 1996, Amnon Weinstein, a master violinmaker residing in Israel, began an extensive search for violins that had once been played by Jewish prisoners and partisans in concentration camps, forests and ghettos. Twenty-four violins were recovered and restored. One of these was Motele’s. In September 2003, it was played before thousands of people in Jerusalem in a gala concert in the Old City.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong