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Heroic Actions of the Few

An upcoming documentary and a new foundation are bringing to light the Jewish partisans of the Holocaust.

by Tom Tugend

March 28, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Ben Kamm in a Polish officer's uniform in 1945 in Chelm, Poland.

Ben Kamm in a Polish officer's uniform in 1945 in Chelm, Poland.

An upcoming television special and a recently formed educational foundation are out to change the stereotype of Jews as passive victims of the Holocaust, by documenting the little-known feats of Jewish partisans who fought behind enemy lines.

"Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans" will air on PBS on Thursday, April 4, at 8 p.m.

In the one-hour documentary, 11 surviving partisans stand in for 20,000-30,000 fellow Polish and Russian Jews who harassed and sabotaged the Nazi armies facing Soviet troops, blowing up supply trains, and, whenever possible, rescuing Jews from the ghettos.

While other indigenous partisan groups could concentrate on fighting the Germans, the Jewish partisans had to battle on many fronts. The ghetto elders of the Judenrat frequently tried to discourage the would-be fighters, fearing harsh Nazi reprisals.

Even while hiding out in forests, Shalom Yoran recalls, "You are one fighting all the world. The Nazis, they try to kill you. The Soviets, they hate you. The local population, they hate you."

Despite such odds, some Jewish partisan groups actually built small towns in the Russian forest, one holding 1,200 men, women and children. Sulia Rubin recalls, "We made ammunition, we fixed the guns, we had little factories, we made cheese, we had bakeries, we had shoemakers."

Missing, obviously, were film cameras to record the partisan raids, so the PBS documentary has to rely on stock footage of forests and German and Soviet troops to link the fascinating remembrances of the Jewish veterans.

Attempts to take the feats of Jewish resistance beyond the research of Holocaust scholars, and give them wider popular recognition, is apparently an idea whose time has come.

Last November, the NBC miniseries "Uprising" dramatically recreated the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. At about the same time, French director Claude Lanzmann ("Shoah") completed a film on the breakout of 365 prisoners from the Sobibor death camp.

Mitch Braff of San Francisco has taken the idea one step further after he was startled to learn that an old family friend had been a partisan.

Despite a good Jewish education, the 35-year-old-documentary filmmaker had never heard anything about Jewish partisans and he decided to do something about his own -- and the public's -- ignorance.

Braff established the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. He started tracking down surviving partisans in the United States and Canada and videotaping their recollections in interviews averaging four hours, but some went as long as for nine hours.

Braff hopes to complete 30-40 more interviews and then do a half-hour docudrama on the partisans for classroom and general use. He is now setting up an educational, interactive Web site and trying to raise $1 million for the project.

Through the 1939 Club, a Los Angeles group of Holocaust survivors and their families, Braff has tracked down three local ex-partisans, who have been interviewed by Zepporah Glass, a veteran of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Ben Kamm of Studio City escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and joined a small partisan group, which obtained its first weapons by ambushing local police or buying them from peasants. Later, he joined a larger, better-equipped unit, which in 1943 alone destroyed 541 trains and killed hundreds of their German guards.

Jeffrey Gradow of West Los Angeles escaped from a forced labor camp as a 15-year-old and joined a group of some 150 ill-equipped partisans. In late 1943, Russian planes started dropping military hardware with which Gradow and his comrades blew up railroad tracks and local police stations. In a larger operation, the group held a bridge that the Germans wanted to blow up to slow the Soviet advance.

Max Cukier of West Los Angeles turned down a position on the Judenrat after the Germans occupied his small Polish town. Instead, he joined the "Tel Aviv" partisan group of some 300 people, which attacked small towns with Nazi garrisons, planted mines, destroyed bridges and cut phone lines.

Noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum praised Braff's foundation as "a noble effort to reconstruct the history of Jewish resistance while the last of the partisans are still alive to tell their stories."

Braff's first priority now is to track down as many partisans as possible.

To contact Braff about his project, call (415) 896-1415, e-mail mitch@jewishpartisans.org, or visit www.jewishpartisans.org .

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