On an unseasonably cold night in August 1942, Miriam Rabinowitz pushed her way past a wooden fence topped with barbed wire and broke out of the ghetto in Zdzięciol, Poland. She wasn’t alone. The 34-year-old woman led her two young daughters, her sister, a cousin, and a handful of others away from the underground bunker where they had hidden for three days while SS squads rounded up some 2,500 other Jewish men, women and children, marched them to the edge of town, forced them to strip naked and shot them into waiting pits.
Having narrowly escaped, Miriam’s group set off for the only place that offered real hope to the Jews interned in ghettos in the former Soviet-occupied territories of Poland and Belorussia: the forest.
It was in the Lipiczany Forest that Miriam was reunited with her husband, Morris. For two years, they eked out a meager existence there with two dozen other Jews. Together, this collective found a sort of sanctuary, even as they endured deadly typhus outbreaks, winter temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero, constant hunger, and the threat of raids by Nazis and local gangs who were hunting Jews and Soviet partisans.
More than 75 years after the end of World War II, we are familiar with a number of well-established accounts of what happened to Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust. They mounted ghetto uprisings; they hid in the homes of their Christian neighbors; and, of course, they were sent to Nazi concentration camps and perished in the gas chambers. Only recently, we’ve begun to hear more about the roughly 25,000 Jews who survived the war in the woods of Eastern Europe. Even so, that narrative has focused on the 15,000 or so who took up arms and joined the partisan fighters, like the Bielski brothers, who were made famous in the 2008 film “Defiance.” Overlooked even now are stories like those of the Rabinowitz family, who lived — and died — in those same woods in small family camps: the forgotten Jews of the forest.
These camps were populated by splintered families, some held together by friendship, many more by necessity. Most people begged for food, some bartered, others foraged or stole. They moved frequently to avoid Nazi raids or discovery by unsympathetic locals. There was community, but limited charity, with some exceptions: A Polish fruit seller named Herz Kaminsky, for example, welcomed so many orphans and widows — seen by most groups as undesirable additions — into his family camp that he was known as “the father of all children.”
They dug underground shelters, bolstered the walls with wood and camouflaged the roofs to blend into the forest floor. Young boys carved playing cards out of tree bark, while men rolled dried leaves into makeshift cigarettes in search of a palatable tobacco substitute. Women without male protection were at risk of rape, and unions that would have never been considered possible in their former lives were accepted as “forest marriages.”
In the vast canon of Holocaust history, there are relatively few records of stories like these: They exist as asides in anthologies, in small-press and out-of-print memoirs, and in some firsthand testimonials, many recorded in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and Hebrew, and scattered throughout multiple archives. We catch glimpses of them in SS memos detailing raids on the forests in pursuit of partisan battalions: Here, they are listed as unaffiliated civilians or bandits who were either killed or captured and sent to labor camps.
There were not many of these families. Yitzhak Arad, the Israeli historian and longtime chairman of Yad Vashem, who, at 16, escaped his ghetto and joined the partisan Markov Brigade in the forest, estimated, primarily based on testimony in the early decades after the war, that the number of Jews who found refuge in forest family camps “did not exceed 10,000.” But their stories illustrate another means by which Jews sought to survive their darkest time in modern history — by relying on grit and determination, oftentimes on each other, and in rarer instances on local farmers and landowners.
Why are there so few authoritative historical records detailing the number of these Jews and what they survived? In part, it’s a simple matter of what got written down.
Many Jews who survived World War II in the woods joined the partisans, a vast network of Soviet fighters who remained behind the front lines after Germany broke its accord with Russia and launched Operation Barbarossa. They regrouped into guerrilla forces that grew to more than 350,000 strong. The Soviet military kept records of their operations in the woods, which eventually included members of the Jewish resistance. It was a tense and often violent alliance. Other forest Jews didn’t become partisans themselves, but relied on these battalions for protection and supplies. Those like Morris Rabinowitz, however, who avoided the partisans in the hope of keeping outside the fighting fray, remained largely hidden in historical terms.
The Jews of the family camps also did not offer much opportunity for the Soviets to secure a reputation as fighters for freedom and justice. When Maidanek, the first of the Nazi concentration camps liberated by the Soviets, was taken over in July 1944, Lieutenant General Nikolai Bulganin insisted that journalists be brought in. War correspondents from The Associated Press; Reuters; and newspapers from the United States, Britain and Switzerland were given access to the site to report on the atrocities discovered there. By contrast, when the Soviet Army came through the woods and liberated the Jews hiding there in the summer of 1944, the soldiers didn’t stop their pursuit of the retreating Germans to note what they found; families were simply free to leave the forest. They did, in disconnected drifts, traveling back to the ruins of their hometowns on foot.
And while many survivors of the Holocaust feel a reluctance to relive the past, for those who fled to the forest, facing what they went through comes with additionally complicated feelings. It was a grueling struggle to survive: Of the roughly 800 Jews who escaped from the ghetto in Zdzięciol, only 200 are believed to have come out of the forest alive. Still, many who made it carry an awareness of how their Holocaust experiences compares with those of others. “It was horrific,” Toby Langerman, the Rabinowitzes’ younger daughter, says of her family’s experience in the forest. “But not as horrific as the concentration camps.”
What Mr. Arad said about the families in the forest in the 1970s remains true today: “There will never be ‘accurate’ numbers because in no place do such lists exist.” Their experience will never be realized through records — solely through the study of their testimonies.
Peter Duffy, author of the 2003 book “The Bielski Brothers,” lamented the lack of a unified collection of these testimonies in a conversation with me recently. “There’s this sense that we’ve done enough on this history. People say, ‘Oh, another Holocaust book, or another memorial,’” he told me. But Mr. Duffy believes that when it comes to what transpired in these forests, “we’ve barely scratched the surface of the story that is there, and probably most of it is lost.” The history is so elusive, in fact, that scholars at The Polish Center for Holocaust Research have called these less-understood stories of Jews who escaped their ghettos and attempted to hide “the margins of the Holocaust.”
That these stories exist at the margins, however, does not make them less important.
The narrative of the Holocaust has been growing and deepening since the war. Much of the world heard the Jewish experience voiced for the first time in 1961, with the trial of Adolf Eichmann, during which more than 100 survivors were called to the stand to testify about what they’d gone through. These testimonies, in turn, inspired other survivors to share their stories, spurring a wave of memoirs, novels and movies about the Holocaust. The emergence of stories about Jewish resistance — ghetto uprisings and partisan fighters — did much to combat the prevalent belief that many Jews had gone passively to their end.
For me, the stories of the forgotten Jews of the forest inform how we define resistance: The Rabinowitzes and others like them did not need to wield weapons to be a part of it. But what their story teaches me is less important than the larger point: It’s the stories of individuals — however seemingly exceptional their experiences — that have, over time, shaped the broader narrative of Holocaust history, and we must continue to uncover as many as we can.
This narrative remains very much in flux. Right-wing governments in Eastern Europe — where much of this history took place — are working not just to undermine, but to rewrite, the story of how the Holocaust unfolded there. In Poland, for example, it is now illegal for anyone to accuse the Polish nation of complicity; the government has cultivated a climate in which it is impossible to freely study the Shoah in all its complexity.
At the same time, we are at the precipice of losing the last generation of Holocaust survivors, and with them our living memory of that time. What writing the story of the Rabinowitz family revealed to me is how much remains unexplored in the testimony we’ve already gathered, and what can still be enriched through that living memory before it’s gone.
We are at a moment of particular urgency. The Holocaust should be understood in its entirety, and the so-called margins have something meaningful to teach us. If the arc of Holocaust history has proved anything, it’s that understanding the small pieces is how we see the big picture. When it comes to what happened in the woods, these narratives are the only way for us to know this history. The opportunity to collect them is vanishing. The moment to contextualize what we know already, and discover what we don’t, is now.
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