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 Joe Cameron.
Joe Cameron was born in 1922, in the Polish town of Eishyshok, near the Lithuanian border. In 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis occupied his town and forced the Jews into a ghetto. Joe and his father escaped from the Eishyshok ghetto before the Nazis and their collaborators murdered its Jewish inhabitants. Joe spent several months living in the forest, but eventually cold and hunger drove him back into the ghetto of a neighboring town.
Once again, he escaped just as the ghetto was being liquidated, but this time he had more luck; he found a group of fellow escapees hiding in the woods. They were beginning to organize themselves into a partisan unit when Joe joined them. Looking back, Joe reflects, “We had more luck than sense.”
Although Joe's unit contained many Russians, they did not seem to be in close contact with Moscow. Joe remembers wanting to sabotage German trains but not having the mines or explosives to get the job done. Instead, his unit used fuel and an explosive bullet to destroy the tracks. Eventually, they did blow up trains. Joe remembers destroying a Polish dairy factory as well, in order to prevent the milk from being delivered to the Germans. His unit also successfully counterfeited a huge number of German Reichsmarks, which were used to bribe the local population. Many of the villagers in the area were supportive of the partisans, supplying them with food and information about the movements of the German troops, even allowing them to dance with local girls at village festivals. Joe recalls that German planes circled the forests, hunting down the partisans who lived there.
In 1944, Joe and his unit were liberated by the Russian Army, which he would go on to join. When asked about his experience, Joe has this advice to offer: “Don't give up. Don't give in. Take a chance.” Joe eventually moved to the United States where he met his wife and had two children.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What obstacles and limitations did Jews face when considering resistance?
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Joe Cameron'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?