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 Shalom Yoran.
Shalom Yoran was born in 1925 in Warsaw, Poland. When Shalom was 15 years old, his family fled eastwards, leaving the Nazi-occupied area of Poland for the Soviet side. A year later, though, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the Yoran family found their new home, the village of Kurzeniec, occupied by the Nazis. Two years later, in 1942, the Nazis situated a Russian POW camp in Kurzeniec, where the prisoners were treated brutally. Shalom first learned about the partisans through rumors told to him by escaped Soviet POWs . The day before Yom Kippur, 1942, the order was given to liquidate the Kurzeniec ghetto.
Shalom was given an early warning, but his family wasn't as lucky. Hiding in a barn, Shalom listened as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. He spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where, along with his brother and three friends, he built a zemlyanka (underground bunker) for shelter and lived off mostly a large store of food they stole and begged from local farmers. In the spring of 1943 Shalom located a partisan unit. But because neither he nor his group had weapons they were not allowed to join—a common practice among the partisans.
Another unit’s commander initially refused to let them in. When they persisted, they were offered a deal; if they returned to Kurzeniec and blew up the factory that made parts for rifles there, they could join. The Russian partisans considered it a suicide mission against this well guarded building, but Shalom and his friends succeeded regardless. Returning victorious, they learned the Russian partisans did not expect them to succeed and never intended to let them into their group because they were Jewish. Shalom then helped to form an all Jewish unit with over 200 Jews. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit harassed the retreating German troops, blowing up bridges and destroying railroads.
When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom, along with his comrades, were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war. In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British military passport, joining the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. In 2003, Shalom Yoran published his memoir, entitled The Defiant.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What obstacles and limitations did Jews face when considering resistance?
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Shalom Yoran'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?