Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Jewish Partisan Returns

Jewish Resistance

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
—Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters

Narrated by Tovah Feldshuh [born in 1952 in New York City], this film was released by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF), which is based in San Francisco, California. It writes the following short blurb about this documentary: “Former Bielski partisan Lisa Reibel journeys back to her home in Belarus for the first time after nearly 65 years. Experience how her story of escape, struggle and success affects her family [of] three generations.” This non-profit organization has made a dozen excellent documentaries about Jewish courage and survival in the face of evil.

There was Jewish resistance; there were Jewish heroes; and their story needs to be heard to counter a misinformation campaign and to correct wrong perceptions. Here is what JPEF writes: “Most people have never heard of the 20,000-30,000 Jews who fought back against the Nazis as Jewish partisans. These Jews were responsible for blowing up thousands of armored convoys and thwarting the Nazi war machine in countless ways, including rescuing people from the ghettos, procuring food and medicine, tending to wounded soldiers, sabotaging German communications and supply lines, punishing collaborators, sheltering civilians and saving thousands of Jewish lives.”

The Bielski Partisans organized the largest Jewish resistance during the war, and thus saved 1,236 lives. These men, viewed as Jewish heroes, have their story told in the popular film, Defiance (2008). The reason why they did what they did is simple enough to understand, says the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “After the Germans killed their parents and two brothers in the Nowogrodek ghetto in December 1941, three surviving brothers of the Bielski family—Tuvia (1906–1987), Asael (1908–1945), and Zus (1910–1995)—established a partisan group. Initially, the Bielski brothers attempted only to save their own lives and those of their family members. They fled to the nearby Zabielovo and Perelaz forests, where they formed the nucleus of a partisan detachment consisting at first of about 30 family members and friends.”A fourth and much younger brother, Aharon [1927–], also joined the group.

While the Talmudic injunction cited above is related to someone standing trial before a judicial body for capital crimes, there is a religious/spiritual element found within its thinking: that life is sacred and the taking of someone’s life should never be done easily and thoughtlessly and without justified moral reasons. Killing your enemies, those that declare that they want to kill you, falls under such a justified moral reason, as does the defeat of evil and the use of collective self-defense. There are times, sadly, that evil has to be used to ward off a greater evil. But this should never make us “evil.”

Moreover, even then, this should never be done with happiness, but with much sadness—that this was the only real and possible choice. Martin Buber[1878–1965], a Jewish existentialist philosopher,  elucidates this thought in an essay, “Hebrew Humanism” (1941), found in The Martin Buber Reader (ed by Asher D. Biemann, p. 162) about this necessary balance imposed on the Jewish People:
It is true that we are not able to live in perfect justice, and in order to preserve the community of man, we are often compelled to accept wrongs in decisions concerning the community. But what matters is that in every hour of decision we are aware of our responsibility and summon our conscience to weigh exactly how much is necessary to preserve the community, and accept just so much and no more; that we not interpret the demands of a will-to-power as a demand made by life itself; that we do not make a practice of setting aside a certain sphere in which God’s command does not hold, but regard those actions as against his command, forced on us by the exigencies of the hour as painful sacrifices; that we do not salve, or let others salve our conscience when we make decisions concerning public life.
Good words, indeed. 

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