During World War II, many European Jews defied their Nazi oppressors by actively taking part in an underground war of resistance. This partisan warfare, carried out by clandestine, irregular forces operating inside enemy territory, was particularly widespread in the dense forests and nearly impassable marshlands of Eastern Europe.

In Lithuania and Byelorussia the call to resist first rang out in the summer of 1941, when German forces swept deep into Soviet lands.  With help from their local henchmen, the Germans soon enclosed the Jewish inhabitants of these territories into ghettos, subjecting them to an ongoing process of mass murder.  Yet despite brutal conditions and the constant threat of death, underground resistance cells were formed in many ghettos.  And, once outside the ghetto, a Jew could attempt to join the partisans.

Real dangers and ordeals awaited those escaping the ghettos to the partisans' strongholds in the forests. Many nonetheless made the effort, though only a few succeeded. These, as was the case with everyone desiring to join the partisans, were required to supply their own weapons.  However, for a Jew trapped in the ghetto, acquiring a weapon was no simple matter: it involved not only considerable risk and effort, but also jeopardised family, friends, neighbours and, perhaps, the entire community.  In addition, Jews typically were town-dwellers lacking the knowledge and skills needed to survive in the partisan forest, such as combat experience, familiarity with the land, and a trusting relationship with the rural population – the partisans' most important ally.

Often, too, a Jew who managed to escape the ghetto, and – at terrible risk – reach the forest with his own weapon, would be forced to retrace his steps and return to the ghetto. Such experiences owed to the sad fact that even within the resistance movement, anti-Semitic elements could not be held in check.  This regrettable state of affairs deterred many Jews from fleeing to the forests.

Group portrait of a Jewish partisan unit operating in the Lithuanian forests. Many of its members had been involved in resistance activities in the Kovno ghetto. c. 1944. USHMM, courtesy of Eliezer Zilberis.

Certain changes for the better began in the summer of 1942, when the Supreme Partisan Headquarters in the Soviet Union extended its authority over the majority of partisan units in Eastern Europe.  For example, an ever-increasing number of 'family camps' to which Jewish partisans were admitted with their households and relatives, were established throughout Byelorussia. Such arrangements, which saved several thousand helpless Jews – women, children, the elderly, and the sick – were maintained until the region was liberated by the Red Army in the summer of 1944.

These changes, however, came too late: the vast majority of the Jewish population already had been annihilated by mid-1942.  The facts speak for themselves: when many Jews yet remained alive, they could not find partisan camps to which to escape.  And once such camps existed, few Jews had survived to join them. Consequently, the number of Jewish partisans in the forests of this area never exceeded 15,000.

For them, partisan warfare served both national and personal objectives.  On the one hand, it contributed to the active role European Jews played in the international war against Nazism.  On the other hand, it fulfilled their desire to avenge the murders of their families and fellow Jews.  Facing endemic antisemitism and the scorn of their non-Jewish comrades-in-arms, they yearned to prove themselves on the field of battle.  Indeed, many distinguished themselves, derailing enemy trains, blowing up bridges and engaging in hand-to-hand combat.  A considerable number earned decorations for heroism and valour.  No ribbon or medallion, however, could ease the sense of isolation often experienced by Jewish combatants serving in predominantly Byelorussian, Lithuanian or Russian battalions.

The Jewish fighters' combat potential found its ultimate expression in the wholly Jewish partisan units.   Established in 1943, these included mostly former members of Zionist and other youth movements, which had been reorganised in the ghetto underground.  Led by talented commanders, virtually all of whom evidenced a degree of Jewish national consciousness, these units maintained a remarkable sense of Jewish identity.  This was characterised by use of the Yiddish language for military communication, as well as for cultural and folkloric expressions, such as poetry and song.

Cultural activities continued even after the Jewish units were disbanded or absorbed, for political reasons, into nationally-mixed partisan units.  Here, as in the all-Jewish units, the combatants found many and varied ways to express their individuality.  One example is the time spent in the evenings around the campfire. The atmosphere of comradeship there facilitated expression of the participants' feelings and hopes through the medium of song.  Lyrics focused mainly on themes such as homesickness, concern for family still in the ghettos, grief for murdered loved ones, and the desire to take revenge.

This writer, who came from the Kovno ghetto to an integrated Soviet partisan unit, Smert Nemetskim Okupantam (Death to the German Invaders), remembers very well his first evening spent by the campfire in the centre of the partisan camp:

It was particularly touching to listen to a whole repertory of Yiddish folk ballads, some of which were probably brought to the camp by Jewish parachutists from regions in the interior of the Soviet Union.  Even more exciting was to listen to two Hebrew songs, Harmonika (Accordion) and Sovevuni (Circle 'Round Me), which in the ghetto assumed the status of anthems of the Zionist underground, and were brought by members of the Zionist movements HaShomer HaTzair (The Young Guard) and Dror (Freedom).

One night, while awaiting a parachute drop of Soviet weapons and equipment at an improvised airfield in the forests of Rudniki, this writer met partisans from the Vilna ghetto and, for the first time, heard them sing Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg (Never say that you have reached the final road). This song, by the Vilna poet and underground fighter Hirsh Glik, later became the general anthem of the Jewish partisans.

Sometimes an evening's musicale would be provided by professional entertainers, such as the troupe Gop so Smykom (Jump for Joy).  An ethnically-mixed ensemble attached to the Gorki Unit of the Markov Brigade, this troupe gave frequent recitals of popular songs and dances in the forest.  However, as was the case among most underground fighters, Jewish partisans preferred above all songs related to the ongoing battle. Naturally, the vast majority of these were in Russian, but some – the product of skilled translators – were sung by Jewish combatants in their native Yiddish.  Of many dozens, only a few have survived, and those only thanks to outstanding individuals such as Shmerke Kaczerginski.

Born in 1908, Kaczerginski had been known as a gifted poet and songwriter even before the war, both in his hometown of Vilna and beyond, distinguishing himself with his songs about the oppression and struggles of the working class.  He continued writing in the Vilna ghetto and later for the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsie (FPO, United Partisan Organisation), the ghetto underground unit to which he belonged.  Naturally, many of his songs focused on the bitter lot of the ghetto Jews, but he also expressed his hope for change, and called for active resistance.  Several of his original ghetto songs, as well as his translations into Yiddish of Russian wartime verses, were popular among the Jewish partisans.  He also authored new songs in the partisan forests – composing lyrics even while he marched to battle. More significant still were Kaczerginski's activities as a collector of folklore from the ghettos, camps, and partisan outposts.   Appointed historian – along with the great Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever – of the Voroshilov Brigade (named for the commander-in-chief of the Soviet partisan forces), Kaczerginski began jotting down lyrics while the war still raged. His first publications appeared soon after hostilities ceased, in Warsaw, Paris and New York. Kaczerginski eventually emigrated to Argentina, where he continued to publish personal and historical accounts of Jewish resistance during World War II.   Having survived the war and its aftermath, he met his death in an airplane accident near Buenos Aires, in April, 1954. His work – his songs, memoirs, histories, and especially his collections of music folklore from the time of Shoah – will remain a monument to creativity in adversity, to the imagination and ingenuity of those held captive in the ghettos and camps and, in the free forests, of the Jewish partisans.

Sources

Brown, T.A. & Levin, D., 1962. The Story of an Underground: The Fighting Organization of the Kovno Jews during World War II, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem.  

Levin, D., 1985. Fighting Back: Lithuanian Jewry's Armed Resistance to the Nazis, 1941-1945, New York: Holmes & Meier.