Jewish partisans composed part of the resistance movement and the guerrilla war in Europe against Nazi Germany during World War ii. The first nuclei of partisans were composed of individuals or groups that were forced to flee from the Nazis and their collaborators; soldiers who were thrown into areas that were occupied by the enemy; and prisoners of war who escaped from camps. Their natural bases were the forests and swamps of eastern *Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia, and the Ukraine, the mountainous areas of the Alps, *Yugoslavia, *Slovakia, and *Greece. While the partisan
movement as a whole became a substantial force in the military and political battles of World War ii, the motivations, organizational forms, and development of the Jewish partisan movement was basically different. Unlike the non-Jews in occupied areas, the Jews were condemned by the Nazis to total extermination. As a result of this situation, two unique aspects of the movement stand out: Jews joined the partisan struggle as a path of revenge on the murderous enemy; they also wished to combine partisan fighting with attempts to save themselves and other Jews.
Jews participated in the partisan movement throughout occupied Europe – from Briansk east of the U.S.S.R. to *France, *Italy, *Yugoslavia, and *Greece. It is impossible to arrive at exact numbers of Jews in partisan units, but it is possible to conjecture that tens of thousands of Jews fought in the partisan struggle as a whole. Some fought as Jews in Jewish units; others fought as Jews in mixed units. An indeterminate number of Jews fought while passing as non-Jews. The number of Jews who actually fought, however, was only a tiny proportion of the European Jews who wished to participate in and had access to the partisans, but were prevented from doing so for a number of reasons. One should distinguish between subjective obstacles to their participation, which resulted from the nature of the condition of Jewish life in eastern Europe, and difficulties that resulted from their objective situation and attitude of the non-Jewish environment.
The Jews were a classically urban element. Existence in dense forest, in the wilds of nature, was alien to them. In addition, the traditionally strong family ties that held them together also held them back from leaving their homes. The youth, who were the prime candidates for escape into the forests, were sometimes the only source of support of the family under conditions of a bitter struggle for physical survival and uncertainty about the future. Moreover, the consolidation of Jews or other groups in the forests was conditional upon basic factors. A central condition for the establishment of any partisan force was contacts with the inhabitants of the surrounding area. The partisans were in need of safe places of refuge in the event of emergency, loyal sources of intelligence, and the supply of food, horses, etc. All these things could be obtained from villagers who lived near the partisan camps. The villagers would provide the necessary services either out of fear or because they believed that cooperation would be to their benefit in the future. However, the Polish, Lithuanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian countryside was hostile toward Jews. The villagers, with the exception of those few who remained loyal to Jews under the most difficult conditions, not only refused to aid the Jews in establishing themselves in the forests, but often turned Jews over to the Germans or murdered Jews who managed to reach the forests and looted their property.
The chances of being accepted into a partisan unit were conditional upon physical strength, military experience, and the possession of arms, except in a handful of Jewish units that served as family camps with the double purpose of hiding and fighting. The sources of arms were those left by retreating armies and passed into the hands of the movements through the underground, or they were private property. Such arms were not given to Jews, who were thus forced to acquire weapons from the enemy by clandestine purchase, robbery, or acquisition in battle. By these means, it was possible to acquire only the most minimal store of weapons.
The partisan movement itself was not free of antisemitism. The extreme right-wing factions of the Polish underground viewed the Jews as "bandits" prowling around the forests. They took arms away from the Jews and even murdered many of them. They did not believe that Jews were actually going to fight. The leftist groups took a less hostile stand toward the Jews. In Lithuania, Belorussia, and the Ukraine, antisemitism was somewhat restrained after permanent contact had been established between the partisan areas and the Soviet high command; but the Soviet command did not approve of the existence of separate Jewish partisan units and obligated the Jews to integrate into the multinational partisan frameworks.
The very act of leaving the ghetto for the forests was bound up with many obstacles and difficulties. The Jewish population in central Poland was far from the areas of dense forest. The attempts by the Jewish Fighting Organization in *Warsaw, *Częstochowa, and Zaglębie to establish contact with Polish underground organizations and to smuggle groups of Jewish fighters into the forests most often ended in failure; the fighters were captured or murdered before they could reach their destination, or early in their stay in the forest. In the large ghettos in *Warsaw, *Vilna, and *Bialystok, a sharp dispute took place among the members of the Jewish Fighting Organization over which path to choose: resistance inside the ghetto or escape to the forests and carrying on the struggle within the ranks of the partisan movement. In Warsaw it was finally decided to concentrate all forces for resistance within the ghetto; the division between the zob and the zzl was over whether there should be an escape plan as part of the battle plan itself, or whether the uprising was indeed a last stand. In Vilna and Bialystok a two-pronged method was arrived at, i.e., after the uprising in the ghetto the surviving fighters turned to the forests.
The most important obstacle that prevented the mass escape of the Jews to the forests was a chronological factor. The expansion and strengthening of the partisan movement began only during 1943. By then most of the Jews in Europe had already been deported to and murdered in Nazi death camps. Although the Jews had in many cases been the first to pave the way in the forests, these pioneer partisans had only limited chances of absorbing large groups of people and maintaining their existence for a longer period.
In western Europe the obstacles were of a different nature, for there the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews by well conceived tactics. The resistance movement mostly took the form of an urban underground, which was not to the benefit of the Jews.
However, despite all the obstacles and stumbling blocks, tens of thousands of Jews reached the ranks of the partisan movement. Many Jews fought as individuals (sometimes hiding their Jewish identity) in mixed partisan units, while others belonged to separate Jewish units or groups of Jews united in larger partisan frameworks. Many Jewish partisans rose to commanding ranks and were among the parachutists sent by the Soviet High Command to organize and command partisan camps in large areas. A number received medals for their leadership, and their names and feats of heroism became legendary.
Among the Jewish groups were some that had organized earlier in the Jewish Fighters' Organizations in the ghettos (the Fareinikte Partizaner Organizatsie [fpo] in Vilna, the organizations in Bialystok, the remnants of the Jewish Fighting Organization after the Warsaw ghetto uprising). They were equipped and trained during their stay in the ghetto, and their later struggle in the forests was but a logical continuation of the path they had chosen. There were also groups and camps of Jews, mostly from small townlets, who had escaped in whole families or individually during the deportations or from a camp. Together with the youth who were engaged in actual fighting were Jewish family camps in the forests. These camps absorbed women and children, the aged and sick, and a small number of fighters who protected them and provided for their indispensable needs. Most of the time these family camps existed under the aegis of Jewish fighting units or large partisan battalions whose commanders demonstrated a humane attitude and sensitivity toward Jews.
Many Jewish fighters tried to combine their war against the enemy with extending aid to the surviving Jews who were still hiding in the ghettos, and with taking revenge against people who were known to have murdered Jews or betrayed them to the Germans. In many cases, Jewish units that established themselves in the forests became the focal point for uniting prisoners of war and members of other nationalities and constituted the beginning of a powerful partisan center. There were about 15,000–20,000 Jewish partisans in the area under the control of the Soviet command. A large partisan concentration existed in the forests of Rudnik around Vilna. Groups of fighters from the fpo reached this area in September 1943 and formed the fighting Jewish Brigade, which consisted of four battalions, under the command of Abba *Kovner. Earlier, a group of fighters, under the command of Josef Glazman, had left the ghetto and merged with an existing Jewish group to form the fighting group Nekamah ("Revenge") in the forests of Navocz. The commander of the unit, which was later disbanded, was B. Boyarski. Members of the *Kovno ghetto underground also reached the forests of Rudnik. These partisans crystallized into a Jewish bloc in the "Lithuanian Brigade," which consisted mostly of Jews.
During 1943 those in the forests surrounding Bialystok were practically all Jews. A group of young women active in the underground in the city helped to supply them. Women were often more fluent and unaccented in the native languages and, unlike men, they were not circumcised. It was easier for them to pass as non-Jews. Surrounding *Slonim in the forests of Lipiczansk were a number of Jewish units and Jewish family camps. The most famous of these units was that under the command of Jehezkiel *Atlas, who cooperated with the Pobeda ("Victory") unit. Atlas' company gained much experience in battle. In the forests of Lipiczansk, an area of western Belorussia, the group under the command of Hirsch Kaplinski, which numbered more than 100 people – most of them from the town of *Zhetil (*Dyatlovo) – was also active. In central Belorussia, in the forest area of Naliwki, was a large camp of Jewish fighters. In the autumn of 1943 its membership reached more than 1,000, some of whom were fighters and the rest members of the family camp. This camp functioned under the leadership of the Bielski brothers and was composed of simple people from the tiny townlets in the area. Later on, the camp was divided into a fighting company named after *Ordzhonikidze and a family camp named after Kalinin.
In the swamplands of Polesie, Jews were active in general units and separate Jewish ones. The Jewish units were formed by the escapees from the townlets. In a small townlet in the center of Polesie, *Lachva, about 600 Jews revolted and fled in the direction of the forests. Only about 120 of the youth succeeded in reaching the forests, with one rifle and one revolver among them. In Volhynia, Jews were among the first fighters in the forests. The emissary Konishtschook, who arrived from the Minsk area to organize partisan action in Volhynia, united Jewish youth from the neighboring townlet. The most daring military offensives were those of the unit commanded by M. Gildenman, which was a branch of Suborov's forces.
An important chapter in the annals of the partisan movement was contributed by the Jews of *Minsk. The Jews who organized the underground in the Minsk ghetto were among the key organizers of the partisan movement in Soviet territory. There were also a number of Jews in many Soviet brigades. Many Jews were in positions of command and in the ranks of the fighters in the Kovpak camp. Jewish survivors from the *Skalat ghetto joined this camp during its march over the Carpathians and established the 7th Jewish Brigade of the Kovpak camp.
Within the boundaries of the Polish Generalgouvernement, Jewish units were active in cooperation with the leftist People's Army. Most of these units were active in the *Lublin and *Kielce areas. Many individual Jews filtered through to the units of the military underground of the Polish government-in-exile in London, but this organization did not encourage the escape of Jews into the forests, and its extremists even pursued and murdered Jews.
About 2,000 Jews fought in the ranks of Tito's partisan movement, and a number of Jewish groups even existed independently for a period of time. Moshe Pijade was one of Tito's first and closest collaborators. In September 1943 a group containing a few hundred fighters and a substantial number of nurses formed the Jewish "Rab Battalion" within the Italian concentration camp on the Adriatic island by that name. They joined the partisans as a well-organized unit, but later dispersed and fought in various units. According to official figures, 250 Jews fought with general partisan units in Bulgaria. In Italy as well Jews were scattered among the Italian fighters. Eugenio Caló from Pisa was the founder of a partisan unit in the Val di Piana, and among its members was Emmanuele Artom. Another Italian Jew, Giulio Bolaffi, from Turin, founded and commanded the "4th Alpine Battalion" that was active in the area of the Vale d'Suza in Piedmont.
Jews were among the founders of the partisan movement in Slovakia. The beginnings of this movement were in 1942, but the partisan struggle in Slovakia became a full-scale war in the summer of 1944 with the national Slovak rebellion. Members of many national groups fought in this uprising, including about 2,500 Jews. Two Jewish labor camps – Sered and Novaky – were in the area liberated by the partisans and organized Jewish units, and the inmates of these camps joined the rebellion. At the height of the uprising, four parachutists from Palestine reached Slovakia; two of them remained in Slovakia and the other two passed into Hungary. The two who remained in Slovakia fell into the hands of the Nazis on their way to the last center of the rebels in Banska Bystrica; both were shot in November 1944. After the rebellion was suppressed in October 1944, the partisans retreated to the mountains. There were 2,000 Jews (out of a total of 15,000) in the ranks of the Slovak partisan movement after the uprising.
The participation of Jews in the French Resistance was substantial; constituting only about 1% of the total population of France, at one stage Jews composed about 15–20% of the Resistance. It is necessary to distinguish between Jews who joined general organizations and units of the Resistance and those who formed independent Jewish units.
In contrast to the situation in several eastern European countries, Judaism was not an obstacle to acceptance of candidates into the ranks of the French Resistance. Nonetheless, most Jewish fighters preferred to suppress the fact of their origin, either for security reasons or because they felt their identity as Frenchmen more important than their identity as Jews.
The role of Jews both in the ranks of the Resistance and in positions of leadership and command was outstanding. Among the six men who founded the organization called Libération were three Jews. At the time of the liberation of France, there were at least three Jews among the 16 members of the National Committee, the highest institution of the underground. Jean-Pierre Lévy was the founder of the Franc Tireurs. The commander of the Franc Tireurs et Partisans Français (ftp) in the Paris region in 1942–43 was "Colonel Gilles" (the underground name of Joseph Epstein of Warsaw). The leader of the ftp in Toulouse, who fell during the uprising toward the end of the fight for the liberation, was "Captain Philippe" (Ze'ev Gustman). The French underground hero, Jacques Bingen, whose name was commemorated on a stamp bearing his image, left France in 1940, joined De Gaulle's forces, and was returned to France in 1943 as the head of the Free French delegation in the northern region.
Among the independent Jewish groups, a distinction should be drawn between Jewish Communists from eastern Europe and Jewish groups that united on the basis of national and religious motives. The groups of Jewish Communists, opposing the party line of alliance with Hitler (until June 22, 1941), formed a number of commando units that operated in Paris in 1942–43. These groups of the ftp, and, in the south, groups of the Jewish Organization for Resistance and Mutual Aid, engaged in daring and efficient actions, such as the execution of Nazi officers and collaborators, mining railroad tracks, and raids on enemy arms' depots.
A distinct nationalist Jewish character was the sign of a movement whose nucleus was composed of members of the Jewish Scouts, Zionist youth movements, and members of the *He-Ḥalutz from Holland who had reached France. The movement of Jewish Scouts at first engaged in welfare activities and "passive resistance." It aided in the evacuation of Jewish children from Paris to provincial towns, forging documents, and smuggling Jews over borders, but eventually it did not content itself with these activities and, together with the Armée Juive, established the Organization Juive de Combat (ojc).
Robert Gamzon established the Jewish Maquis. This unit entered into action with the landing of the Allies on French shores, attacking the retreating German forces and capturing an armed German train. Other groups of the ojc, whose headquarters were in Toulouse, were established in Paris, Lyons, Grenoble, Marseilles, Chombron, Nice, and other cities. The ojc testified to carrying out 1,925 actions, including 750 instances of sabotaging trains, destroying 32 factories that worked for the enemy, and blowing up 25 bridges. It also executed 152 militiamen, traitors, and secret agents (including General Phillipo, a German spy). In 175 actions against the Germans, it killed 1,085 of the enemy's men. In addition, as a result of the organization's activities, the German army lost seven planes (blown up on the ground), 286 trucks, and more than 2,000,000 liters of gasoline. Groups of the ojc also participated in the battles for the liberation of Marseilles and Grenoble.
At the end of the war, the Zionist partisans were among the first to plan and organize the "illegal" immigration to bring the remnants of the Holocaust out of eastern Europe and over the borders to Palestine. On their way to Palestine, the Jewish partisans organized a unique group known as "Partisans, Soldiers, Pioneers" (pḤḤ). An organization of partisans and ghetto fighters exists in Israel, and in 1970 it began to expand into a worldwide Jewish organization.
Y. Suhl (ed.), They Fought Back (1968); J. Robinson, And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (1965), 213–26 and index; European Resistance Movements 1939–1945, 1 (1960), 2 (1964), passim; Sefer Milḥamot ha-Getta'ot (19542 = The Fighting Ghettos, partial trans. by M. Barkai, 1962); M. Kahanovich, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 1 (1957), 153–67; A.Z. Bar-On, ibid. (1960), 167–89; J. Ariel, ibid., 6 (1967), 221–50; H. Michel, ibid., 7 (1968), 1–16; Sefer ha-Partizanim ha-Yehudim, 2 vols. (1958); A. Lidowski, Ba-Ye'arot (1946); R. Korchak, Lehavot ba-Efer (1956); A.Z. Bar-On and D. Levin, Toledoteha shel Maḥteret (1962); K. Nir, Shevilim be-Ma'gal ha-Esh (1967); B. West, Hem Hayu Rabbim (1968); Y. Yelinek, in: Yalkut Moreshet, 1, no. 1 (1963), 47–67 (Eng. summ.); H. Smolar, Yidn in Gele Lates (19522); D. Knout, Contribution à l'histoire de la résistance juive en France, 1940–1944 (1967). website: www.jewishpartisans.org.
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