Opinion | The Holocaust Stories We Still Aren’t Hearing – The New York Times

Posted By on September 6, 2021

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 didnt 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 didnt 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 Zdziciol, 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 compare with those of others. It was horrific, Toby Langerman, the Rabinowitzes younger daughter, says of her familys 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: 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, the author of the 2003 book The Bielski Brothers, lamented the lack of a unified collection of these testimonies in a conversation with me recently. Theres this sense that weve done enough on this history. People say, Oh, another Holocaust book or another memorial, he told me. But he believes that when it comes to what transpired in these forests, weve 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 theyd 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 went 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: Its 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.


Opinion | The Holocaust Stories We Still Aren't Hearing - The New York Times

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