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Book Review: Surviving the Holocaust with The Russian Jewish Partisans (1998)


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#1 dgmitchell

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Posted 30 June 2009 - 06:43 PM

Guest Book Review by Jeff Grab

Surviving the Holocaust with The Russian Jewish Partisans; Jack Kagan and Dov Cohen; copyright 1998 by Valentine Mitchell. 281 PP.

The book is composed of the eyewitness accounts of two cousins who were born into the Jewish Community in the the ethnically mixed town of Novogrodek, in what was then Eastern Poland in the 1920s. Both cousins relate their idyllic memories of childhood, near the great forests, and within the rich cultural traditions of the Jewish community or shtetl. The photos of life in old Novogrodek speak of happy, industrious, but economically stressed families; and it is related that a goodly portion of the shtetl's inhabitants inmigrated for more prosperous lives in the New World around the turn of the century. All of them should have left.


The Novogrodek shtetl's nightmare began on June 24, 1941 with a light aerial bombing that did relatively little damage- but soon large numbers of Red Army troops came flooding through the town fleeing Eastwards. NAZI was coming with a fiendish fury... and a rabidly pathological anti semitism... Both accounts detail the enslavement, outrages, robberies, and series of systematic mass murders called aktions that followed the establishment of NAZI power in the region.


In November of 1942 Berl Kagan (later Dov Cohen)-certain that he was slated to be killed in the next aktion-walked out of the Novogrodek ghetto in broad daylight to join a roving partisan group called The Bielskis in the forests. In straightforward, soldierlike prose Cohen chronicles the life of the Bielskis during this early phase; the personalities, the sometimes perilous relationships with the larger Red Partisan movement, the food gathering missions, Tuvia Bielski's "No Jew left behind" policy, the constant changes of location, and always the relentless hunting and being hunted. Cohen excelled in things military and was awarded some special training as an officer. He personally participated in raids, security movements and even guided some demolition experts on a successful mining mission on an important railway bridge on the Baranovici to Minsk line.


In the summer of 1943 the growing Bielski group was reorganized into two groups-one offensive and one defensive. They then moved close to Partisan headquarters deep in the Naliboki forest-which from Cohen's description was a virtual Partisan "state within a state" . Cohen was a member of the offensive Bielski group which made war on enemy communications, while the defensive Bielskis served the Partisan cause with their special artisans' skills-watchmakers became gunsmiths, leather workers were in great demand, machinists plyed their trade and there was even a troupe of Bielski entertainers.


It about the time of the Battle of Kursk that the Axis launched a multi divisional attack on the Naliboki stronghold, determined to crush the threat to it's rear once and for all. It was called Operation Herman. In typical guerrilla fashion the units were ordered to scatter; but for the Bielski defensive group with it's predominantly noncombatant membership this was a huge problem. How the great Tuvia Bielski saved this group boggles the mind-have you ever spent just one day in a swamp? Well try to imagine surviving six days and nights in a swamp up to your neck in water, trying desperately to avoid detection by an overwhelmingly superior military force- who are beating the bushes all about in a furious attempt to locate and kill you! Somehow, ALL of the Bielski noncombatants prevailed in this deadliest game of "hide and go seek"...


When the Axis left for good the Partisans returned to rebuild their statelet even bigger and better than before. The Peter Duffy account calls the new Bielski shtetl "The Jerusalem in the Forests," and indeed this seems to have been a happier time. For certain the German threat was receding and people were breathing easier.


In the Fall of 1943 Cohen's cousin Idel Kagan-later Jack Kagan-arrived at the Bielski camp crippled, and after a miraculous mass escape by tunnel from the Novogrodek ghetto, just days ahead of the final aktion. Kagan never became a warrior, but the account of his experiences in the Ghetto and with the Partisans is gripping and makes an excellent compliment to the Cohen book. Most fascinating are Kagan's corroborating records of the events described and the translations thereof.


The cousins tell of the liberation and their sad march through the ruins of Jewish Novogrodek; and how Tuvia Bielski kept marching Westwards as he had been informed that the NKVD-Soviet security- was looking to question him about his war time attitudes. From there the cousins went their ways-Kagan through a series of displaced persons camps and finally to England, where he became a well to do businessman-and Cohen on the ill starred "Exodus" voyage, and finally by circuitous routes to the new state of Israel where he made a career for himself in the Israeli Defence Force.


Later in life Kagan returned to Novogrodek and was dismayed to find that there was no trace of the destroyed shtetl; so he set out to locate the graves of his family, friends and neighbors; and to set things right. During the process there was one scene of an aktion that could not be located-until the town's Mayor recollected an incident from years before. It seems some Lithuanians (almost certainly former guards) had been arrested in a certain field digging through human skulls for dental gold. The missing massacre site had been found.


The monuments were dedicated and the ceremonies performed ( A photo link to the monument site). Kagan writes that the rendition of "The Partisan Song" in Yiddish and the Hativka brought tears to his eyes. See if they do not do the same for you.


This is a somewhat difficult book and I would recommend it for intermediate readers with some knowledge. The writing style is very compact, to the point, and the chapters read like "after action reports"...or crime scene statements. There is some skipping around of the timeline and some overlapping of story, and this is confusing-as are the numerous Slavic and Yiddish names and terms; which it helps for a native English speaker to sound out and pronounce. There are no maps to refer to in the index so here is one of the general area of operations. The Great Forests of Eastern Europe-the very geographic features that made survival possible-are barely mentioned. Cohen/Kagan simply present their evidence and let the reader fill in the blanks- but what a presentation of facts they make!

Jeff Grab
Bayport, Minnesota
June 2009
A link to some of my photo work; http://news.webshots.com/album/165744933gHnoFw

Edited by dgmitchell, 30 June 2009 - 09:04 PM.





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