Here, There Are No Sarahs
The success of the film “Defiance,” the story of the Bielskis, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews in the forests of Belorussia, has ignited an interest about Jews who fought back. Critics have lamented the fact that the ranks of Jews who fought as partisans were few; they fear that the popularity of the film mitigates the real tragedy, that most Jews did not escape the murderous intentions of the Nazis to rid the world of Jews.
Nevertheless, Jews did fight as partisans and the Bielskis were not the exception. This book is the story of Sonia Shainwald Orbuch, who escaped the roundup of Jews in Luboml, Poland, in the province of Volhynia, now part of Ukraine, between the two world wars. Alongside Luboml’s Jewish population were poor, uneducated Ukrainian peasants as well as a Polish minority. The town in the 1930’s had roughly 7,000 people, about 4,000 of them Jews who worked mostly as artisans and merchants, and the center of Jewish life was Luboml’s Great Synagogue. All of that is gone today as the Nazis, with help from some in the local population, devastated the Jewish community.
Sonia and her father survived because they were able to escape in time, thanks to the heroic efforts of a Ukrainian neighbor who guided them to the nearby forest region where they were able to join a Soviet partisan band. Not all partisan Otriads who fought the Nazis welcomed Jews who tried to join them. The Polish and Ukrainian partisan groups, for example, were, for the most part, anti-Semitic and hated Jews as mush as they did the Nazis. Once part of the Soviet band, Sonia, whose given name was Sarah, was told that “Here, there are no Sarah’s, you will be called Sonia.” The author recalls that “I couldn’t object and wasn’t even sure I wanted to. I already felt like a changed person, and the new Russian name fit my new life.”
Of particular interest is Sonia’s description of what life was like for women in her partisan unit. There was much sexual harassment and even rape and, as she explains, “for that reason single females did tend to pick a defender, often a brawny laborer, the sort of person with whom they would likely not have had contact before the war. Not infrequently a refined middle class Jewish girl would end up with an uneducated, hard drinking Slav.” She goes on to write that sex was commonplace, often followed by unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease.
During the war, Sonia eventually lost three brothers, her mother , and two men she loved, but survived the war along with her father. She married a Jewish survivor, whom she frankly admits was not someone to whom she was readily attracted. Nevertheless, the marriage endured, and they found themselves in a displacement camp following the war, where they made money in the black market, and eventually emigrated to the U.S. This is a riveting book and a welcome addition to our understanding of how Jews who joined partisans band—at least those that welcomed Jews—survived the war.