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My Grandfather’s Story: Survival of Jewish Partisan Hero During WWII
During World War II, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish men and women fought back against the Germans, in military style units. These Jewish partisans established secret encampments deep in the forests and mountains and hid beneath straw in barns provided by friendly farmers. They scrounged for food to eat and clothes and fuel to keep them warm in the brutal Polish and Russian winters or the cold and wet climates farther west. Despite these hardships, they found ways to hit back at their would-be killers, interrupting food deliveries, sabotaging power plants and factories, and blowing up enemy trains.
For those of you who cannot speak Hebrew, below is a translation of his testimony.
Samek: I was born in 1914 – born in Warsaw
Q: What did you do before the war? Samek: I worked at my brothers Ganz company. It was a company that brought manufacturing from England
Q: And then you were drafted to the Polish Army?
Samek: Yes I was drafted in 1936 to the Poland army in Podz.
Q: And when you were released from the Polish Army what did you do?
Samek: I came home to Warsaw before the war
Q: And suddenly WWII broke out in September. Did they draft you back to the Army? Samek: No, they did not draft me.
Q: So what did you do in Warsaw while it was getting bombed during the breakout of the war?
Samek: I just walked the streets. I walked around to get water and bread. During this time there was nothing. We had no water. We had no bread. We had no meat. There was nothing to eat. Everything you had to go out and find. There were horses in the streets and people took knives to the horses to have a little piece of meat. We lived not far from there was a hospital. The Germans bombed the hospital killing all the sick people. Then in the public squares, the Germans captured us and forced us to bury the dead.
Q: How long did this last?
Samek: Several days. After this, there was a little quiet. The Germans would grab people off the streets and put us to work. Often burying dead. A few times the Germans picked me up and made me do all kinds of jobs for them. And this is how it continued until the opened the ghetto.
I lived on a street called Podnaitzka. In 1941, we were forced us out of our home. The Germans wanted the apartment. So we moved to another place on Gelazno street. We started a flour factory out of our home and that’s how we survived for a little while.
Q: And soon you were forced into the ghetto. What can you tell us about living in the ghetto?
Samek: Hmm…Well….Look, the ghetto…well, its tough to talk about it.
Q: OK, but please try.
Samek: People died. In the ghetto people died like flies. There was some guy….what was his name? Some crazy guy, I can’t remember his name, who would walk the streets and he would scream something about people who would go to buy food, if they died, then the food would disappear.
Q: In the ghetto the Germans forced everyone to work. Did they force you to work?
Samek: No I hid. I hid from the Germans so they wouldn’t put me to work. I tried to never be in the area of the Germans.
Q: But in the Ghetto they forced you to work, no?
Samek: Yes…but I didn’t.
Q: What was the situation in the ghetto overall? Samek: I told you, in the ghetto people died every day. There was a cart that took them to the cemetery. The ghetto was the ghetto.
Q: During the period of the ghetto, they started to capture, gather and send Jews to camps. What can you tell me about that.
Samek: No at the beginning in the ghetto they didn’t send the Jews to the camp.
Q: How long were you in the ghetto?
Samek: I was there until 1942.
Q: Woah. Thats a long time in the ghetto.
Samek: Yes it was a long time, but all the Jews there went through this. You could not walk in the streets. The Germans would catch people in the street, line them against the wall and shoot them dead.
Q: You managed to escape the ghetto? Can you explain how that was?
Samek: Yes I escaped in 1942. I walked 300km by foot.
Q: Wait wait. First explain how you got out of the ghetto. I mean they kept watch over the ghetto.
Samek: I wasn’t the only one who escaped. Others also escaped.
Q: Did you get out by yourself?
Samek: No I got out with 2 of my sisters — Leah and Masha.
Q: So you escaped the ghetto, and what direction did you walk?
Samek: We walked towards Wlodawa to where our grandfather lived.
Q: You successfully made it to Wlodawa? On the way there you didn’t get stopped?
Samek: Well along the way we made sure we didn’t get caught. It took us several days.
Q: When you got to Wlodawa what was the situation there? Samek: In wlodowa there wasn’t yet a ghetto. We just lived in some place, not with our grandfather.
Q: What was your grandfather’s name?
Samek: Abrumaleh Shechev. People who knew him said he was “tzadik gadol.” (high priest / important religious leader)
Q: When you got to Wlodawa how did you survive? Did you get a rations card? Did you have to sign in for that?
Samek: when we got to Wlodawa you didn’t need a ration card. You were supposed to go to work. The Judenreit assigned people to work, but I hid from them.
Q: So how did you live? How did you survive?
Samek: I survived. I lived with nothing. I just walked around. Soon enough, I escaped to the forest.
Q: Did you escape alone or with other people?
Samek: In Wlodawa there was a group of jews. One time me and a man named David Kreiz took a cow from the Germans. But as we were walking, the Germans found us and they caught us. They took us and the cow. I don’t know what they did with the cow. But they put us in prison. We were there for 2 weeks and then we escaped. We escaped back to Wlodawa.
There a group had been organizing…I cannot recall the name… but a group of Jews was being formed to go fight to the forest. We went to the forest. The Russians were just on the other side of the river Bug and they would come and talk to us sometimes while we were in the forest. There was a German, or maybe it was a Polish man named …I really cannot remember these things. Anyways one day the Russians came to us and said that Stalin put out an order for all of us to cross the Bug and to join the Russian partisans. And so we went with them. It was winter. We crossed the Bug. And the they drafted us into the Russian partisans. Actually, they put us through a tougher boot camp/hazing than anyone else. They forced us to do things they wouldn’t have done as a trial to see if we had what it takes. THey finally
Q: What was the name of your group?
Samek: Brigade, Nimrod.
Q: What was your role in the Partisans?
Samek: I was a soldier. They sent us on all kinds of missions. We blew up roads, bridges. How did we do it? Every Km along the road was a German soldier and they would walk from one station to the next. We hid and watched and when they moved we came out from the side and put in dynamite w/ a string hidden under the road; when the officer came in we pulled the string and blew it up. Sometimes the Germans had ammunition or food and we would take it and bring it back. Sometimes they saw us and would chase us. But we would run. They could never catch us. One time in May, 1943 I came back from the forest to come get one of my sisters out of Wlodawa, but on that exact day the Germans had captured all of the Jews in the city and didn’t let anyone leave. I came early in the morning, and they had already captured all the Jews and were starting to ship them out to Sobibor Death Camp. I ran away. I left my family and ran away back into the forest. That same night I went back to Woldawa and came back to my house. I went into the house where my parents were living, full of blood, stains on the floor, on the paintings, and no one was there. Blood everywhere. I lost my whole family. Q: This was the end of the Wlodawa ghetto and the beginning of everyone going to Sobibor and the extermination camps. Samek: Yes. Q: So what did you do next? How did you survive? Samek: I returned to the forest. I went back to my group. Q: How did you survive in the forest? How did all of you eat? Samek: We would go into houses of goyim and demanded food. We had guns which we bought, also one time we had an attack on Germans and stole their armories too. Q: What kind of weapon did you have? Samek: I had a tiny gun it was pretty worthless but it was something Q: Who was the commander of this whole operation? Who was in charge? Samek: The commander was killed by Russians, his name was, he was very famous…what was his name? He was a very talented man. It was Moishe ….. Lichtenberg. He was supposed to meet the Russians and they killed him. Q: What?! You were in Lichtenberg’s group? Wow, he is very famous. That group was really brave and did many big things. Yes, he was responsible for organizing many young Jews. Please tell us what you can tell us about this.
Samek: April of 1944. After Lichtenberg was killed and when we went from under him to the Russian partisans, the Russians would give us our missions and activities. One time the Germans caught us in the forest, and they shot at us. One of our partisans, a woman, was injured. I carried her for many kilometers in my arms to escape and get out. So many stories like this…
Q: I would like you to tell us a little about the Palinsky forest. There was known to be many Jewish partisans there. What was the relationship between the Jewish Partisans and the Russian soldiers and commanders?
Samek: The relationship was very good. They treated us fine. We did not feel anti-Semitism.
Q: In the area of Palessia the Germans made a famous blockade. Can you describe that?
Samek: Yes the story about the woman getting injured happened to us at the Palessia blockade. We escaped the blockage because eventually the Germans left. The Germans just could not find us. There were so many partisans. In that area near Pinsk, the Germans were scared of us. They organized in little areas near the trains because they were scared we would attack them.
Q: Were there many partisans who died that you know Samek: Yes of course. Q: What do you remember of being pulled into the Red Army. Samek: In April 1944 the Russians came and drafted me to the Red Army. They transferred me to Chelabinsky. I passed their basic training. First it wasn’t so simple. There was a group of Jews, and we were scared that if we stayed in the Red Army we wouldn’t be able to return to Poland. So we told our Russian commanders that we don’t want to be in the Red Army anymore, we want to be in the Polish army. The Red army asked us “what you don’t like the Red army? You don’t like the Red Army?” “no it’s fine, its very nice actually, it’s just that we want to go back to Poland” So they immediately separated us into small groups, and I was sent to the first regiment. the Commander was named chjuukov. We were sent near Prague and there i stood & served for a few months. I served and carried a very heavy automatic weapon that had to be dragged on wheels. I dragged that by hand all the way from near Moscow to Berlin. Q: Tell us about what happened with the big attack in Warsaw in Feb 1945 Samek: In warsaw, in feb 45 i got injured, so they transferred me to Russia to the hospital. I laid in the hospital for not much time. On my way back to Warsaw I remember we were on the train and another soldier coming back from the hospital very angrily was screaming that “all the Jews are sitting over there in the hospital are lazy….they are not real soldiers! If I’d catch a Jew right now I would throw him from the train!” I was scared he’d throw me off the train because I’m a Jew. So i went over to him and said, “look i’m a Jew, and I’m injured, and the wound is still open and i’m going back to serve.” The soldier asked me “where are you from?” I said I’m Jewish from Poland. and he said “ahhhh……. you’re not from Russia, you are a Jew from Poland. That’s different. You’re fine.” So thats how I got back to Berlin and this is also where I got injured once again during the final raid on Berlin. Where were you during that raid? I was in the city. But I got injured and laid in the hospital. Then i was taking back to the army in berlin until 1945 when I was released from the army. Q: Where did you go after you got released from the Army? Samek: I came back to Poland to Lodz (At this point my grandmother Guta jumps in with some Yiddish. ) Q: How long did you stay in Lodz? Samek: I stayed in lodz until I got a job in Warsaw. I went to Warsaw and worked there for a while. Finally I went back to Lodz and got married. Q: What is your wife’s name? Samek: my wife’s name is Guta Gruzbein. We were married in 1947 we stayed in Lodz until 1957 Q: What did you do in Lodz? Samek: I worked as an accountant for a pharmaceutical company <Guta is yelling> …then we moved to Holon, Israel in Dec 1956. We have a daughter named Teahfila. And two granddaughters.
Oy Gevalt! is a blog dedicated to my grandmother, Guta Gantz. An Aushwitz and Buchenwald survivor, she is not only the strongest women I’ve ever known, she also invented “Leaning In”. As in, leaning into her grandkids to get married already! She said Oy Gevalt! a lot.
For those of you non-Yiddish speakers, ‘Oy Gevalt’ is an expression of utmost anxiety, frustration or shock. Similar to how we might use “Good Grief!” or “OMG!” Often used while kvetching, it’s a very poignant expression for any working mother of two and/or software exec trying to move the needle in a hardware company. I am both.
In addition, I am an avid foodie who, before having kids, would travel the world in search of the best food, wine and chefs. I also like to write raps and listen to conscious hip hop.
You can find her:
On LinkedIn – www.linkedin.com/in/lbenzur
On Twitter – www.twitter.com/lbenzur
Liat Ben-Zur is a highly accomplished business builder and transformation leader with over 25 years of experience in product innovation, mobile and IoT disruption, and consumer and B2B growth. Her leadership roles at Microsoft, Royal Philips, and Qualcomm have driven digital transformations, launched numerous connected AI and IoT products, and built inclusive company cultures. A believer in user-centric technology, Liat has been recognized with multiple awards for her contributions to the industry. Liat holds an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and a BSEE from UC Davis, and is involved in various boards and advisory roles, helping leaders around the world use AI to reshape their industries.
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