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 Sonia Orbuch.
Courtesy of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation
In 1941, the small Polish town of Luboml fell under German occupation following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. Among the 8,000 Jews in Luboml was 16-year-old Sonia Orbuch, born Sarah Shainwald. Sarah would change her name later to conceal her Jewish identity so she could join a non-Jewish partisan unit.
News spread quickly when the Germans began killing the Jews in the ghetto. Sonia's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but his group only accepted young men—so the forest was the only hope for Sonia and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.
Sonia and her family made contact with a nearby battalion of Russian partisans through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, Sonia’s uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group.
Sonia began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for missions of sabotage and resistance. Early on, Sonia was assigned to guard duty and providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.
To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades: “One for the enemy, and one for myself.” With little training, Sonia also learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.
Sonia had a suitor in the woods, a young Jewish reconnaissance officer. In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house infected with typhus, a condition they were unaware of at the time. The typhus soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.
After the war, Sonia married Isaac Orbuch. Sonia moved to Northern California and now has two children and one grandchild.
She quietly reflects on the toll the war took on her family:
“Was it possible for everybody to fight and get out to the forest and survive, no it wasn’t. My brother did not survive, my uncle did not survive,” she says. “Many other brothers and uncles could not survive. But every person in the ghetto fought in their own way.”
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Sonia Orbuch'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?