Last night I received an email from my friend Viola in Germany. I met Viola ten years ago when she was sent by Project Reconciliation for Peace. Under this program young Germans were sent to areas that were formerly under German occupation, introducing themselves as a new generation who in many instances were the grandchildren of SS members. Viola came to Pittsburgh to work in the Holocaust Center with survivors, participating in presentations to high schools and colleges to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust beyond the edges of the Jewish community.
Recently Viola was in Italy and met some of the local people who told her what had happened during the German occupation. With the help of Italian fascists, the Germans would punish an entire village for any anti-German activity that happened nearby. That draconian policy forced many of the villagers, especially the young, to join the resistance to fight against the Germans. This is similar to what happened in towns and villages in Belarus where I am from. Jews were herded into ghettos and starved and exterminated, but even non-Jews were subject to punishment if an anti-German incident occurred near their villages.
“Do you still identify with being a partisan today or does it feel like a far-away-piece of your [biography], and you rather identify as a Holocaust-survivor in a more general term…?” I would answer her “It is both.” I survived the Holocaust because I was a resistance fighter. Had I not joined the resistance, I would have been liquidated like the rest of my family and friends.
Before I was a resistance fighter I too was a prisoner in my hometown and then in a forced labor camp along with my whole family. I knew that if I did not escape I would be killed, so staying was not an option. In the camp we knew that there was the beginning of the resistance movement in the area, but I also knew that even if I escaped the resistance would not accept me unless I had weapons. Two of my friends worked in a warehouse where the Germans stored captured Russian weapons. They stole parts of weapons, wrapped them up and stored them in a junkyard outside the warehouse. There was one guard, Lieutenant Miller, who was assigned to guard us as we went to and from work and who showed some humanity towards us. As we passed the junkyard he allowed me to take one item with us back to the barracks. I picked up the weapon parts and we hid them inside the barracks until the day when we could escape.
A woman in the ghetto knew where local Jews who had escaped from the villages had set up a camp in the forest. It was decided that she would lead my friends and I to the place. One moonless night the woman and her two children and I crawled under the fence and walked sixteen miles until we reached the camp, but we were without weapons. A few days later two Jewish Russian officers came to the camp, and I told them I would like to join the resistance, that I had access to weapons. Eventually they sent me to a local farmer who was going back and forth on business to the town. He found my family, brought out my brother and sister on his first trip, the weapons on the second trip, and my mother on the third trip. Two days later on March 19, 1943 the ghetto was destroyed by the Germans. There is a monument there now, and a few years ago I stood there with my daughter and grandchildren, right in front of the rail line that I helped to build as a slave laborer more than 65 years ago.
I have great admiration for the young Germans who have volunteered over the years for this project of reconciliation. In some cases they have to share with us that their grandparents were members of the Nazi Party, or even the SS. In appearances at the schools they have shared with students what they knew about their grandparents involvement in Nazi actions. The impact on the students of hearing this from a young German is profound, and more so because I am also standing there and telling my story of being on the receiving end. This perspective is hardly known to the wider public, and that is why I am still out there helping to tell my story to young people. This is particularly important in this moment of our presidential elections where it seems that a demagogue can attract people with populist rhetoric and vague promises that he has no possibility of delivering. I know from letters I have received that the lessons that I try to convey change the outlook on life of the students, and one day pass it on to their children and grandchildren. Some have written to thank me and tell me that they will be telling my story for the rest of their lives. These statements by students give me hope that my message is not lost, and that the lessons learned will be carried on for another generation.