Despite great obstacles, Jews throughout occupied Europe attempted armed resistance against the Germans and their Axis partners. They faced overwhelming odds and desperate scenarios, including lack of weapons and training, operating in hostile zones, parting from family members, and facing an ever-present Nazi terror. Yet thousands resisted by joining or forming partisan units. Among them was Jeff Gradow.
Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 in a small town near Warsaw. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he and his father fled east into Soviet territory. In east Poland, his father got work in a factory in Bialystok and Jeff went to Russian school, soon becoming fluent in the language. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) in 1941, Jeff was taken to work as a laborer for the Germans, digging mass graves that he feared would be his own.
Eventually, Jeff took his chances and escaped into the forest. The partisan encampment he found lacked weapons and intelligence contacts needed to target nearby German troops. However, in the spring of 1943 the Soviets made contact with the group, airdropping weapons and explosives to them and sending in professional Russian paratroopers, armed with shortwave radios.
Reorganized by the paratroopers and boasting a much larger stockpile, the brigade began to fight in earnest. They carried out hit and run sniper attacks, mined roads, and cut phone lines. As the front began to move west, the brigade stood guard over the local bridges, preventing them from being destroyed by retreating Germans and holding them long enough to allow the Soviet tanks to cross.
In the summer of 1944, Bialystok and Baronovichi were liberated by the Soviets and Jeff’s partisan group was absorbed by the Red Army. He was sent to the front and later discharged after being shot in the hand by a sniper. He was sent to a hospital outside of Moscow to convalesce and by the time he recovered, Berlin was occupied and the war was almost over. He fled Russia and entered West Germany, eventually making his way to the United States and settling in Los Angeles. He passed away on June 23, 2014. He is survived by two children and three grandchildren.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What obstacles and limitations did Jews face when considering resistance?
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Jeff Gradow's decisions and actions? Are these factors unique to this history or universal?
- How can societies, communities, and individuals reinforce and strengthen the willingness to stand up for others?