Two local women who resisted the Nazis can’t forget

Some things we should never forget.

Like, the Holocaust wasn’t limited to Jews. And, Jews did fight baWe certainly must remember the six million dead. But the Nazis also killed millions of non-Jews — Soviet prisoners of war, Polish citizens, Gypsies, the disabled, political and religious dissenters, gays.

Decades ago, my first day at the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, a man who’d survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and four other World War II camps pleaded, “No matter what else you do, don’t let anyone forget the Holocaust.”

Sonia and Paul Orbuch. Photo: Woody Weingarten

I never forgot him, or the slogan “Never forget!” — the rallying cry for Jews the world over.

But it was a while before I’d encounter anyone who’d joined the resistance.

They, too, bear scars — physical, emotional.

A month ago I met octogenarian Sonia Orbuch. She fought Nazis as a teen, part of a partisan unit whose mission was resistance and sabotage, including the mining of train tracks.

Mostly she was an impromptu field nurse, helping doctors amputate limbs, treating the wounded with skimpy supplies and blood-soaked bandages — and cradling the dying.

The Corte Madera resident can’t forget the nightmare, or a brutal winter hiding in a Ukrainian forest.

She lived fearfully “all the time” then, and knows she’ll never forgive. “Even when it’s a happy moment or a holiday, I cannot smile, cannot laugh,” she told me. “The pain is tremendous.”

In a book aimed at teenagers, Sonia said, “Every day my heart aches for the loss of my mother and two brothers, dozens of other relatives, and nearly all of my childhood friends.”

But she also knows it’s crucial to dispel the myth that Jews didn’t resist the Nazis.

Her son, Paul, a San Anselmo resident, actualized his legacy by co-founding the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, www.jewishpartisans.org. It, he noted, is “seeking 100,000 teachers, Jewish and non-Jewish” to inspire new generations by showing “the history and life lessons of the Jewish partisans.”

What’s it like being a survivor’s child?

“I always go back to what Sonia’s said, ‘You have to stand up early against tyranny, oppression, discrimination, anti-Semitism, whenever and wherever it occurs, and you have to teach the kids.’”

Yet even as his messages spread hope, others dispense hatred: The Associated Press reported a 30 percent worldwide surge in anti-Semitic violence and vandalism last year, economic nosedives again making Jews scapegoats.

Paul once told a Marin Jewish Community Center audience about hearing Sonia’s friends reminisce “about the war, their losses and their survival experiences. They did so with tears and sometimes with humor. And almost always there was anger and the refrain…of ‘never again.’”

His daughter, Eva, who lives in San Jose, subsequently recalled that she’d told her bat mitzvah tutor she “understood what my grandmother had gone through. My tutor challenged me…and I came to realize…I may never be able to truly understand or feel what my family and millions of others endured. I will only be able to ask questions and grapple with my past.”

Another resister, Paula Ross, lived in Fairfax since 1990 but just moved to the Veterans Home of Yountville.

Paula Ross outside Whistlestop in San Rafael. Photo: Yvonne Roberts.

The Vienna-born 92-year-old can’t forget either — how she fought with the resistance to retaliate: “They killed my uncles, aunts, cousins and friends.”

She still doesn’t “like to talk about it, because it was very traumatic,” but, despite misgivings, she returned to Austria two years ago “and taught teenagers about the Holocaust, telling them exactly what the Nazis did.”

Morgan Blum, a Tiburon native, is director of education for the Holocaust Center, part of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco. She says a survivor once was defined as someone who’d been in a death camp but now signifies “anyone who was targeted for death and survived.”

That means they “may have been in an extermination camp, may have been a hidden child, may have been a Partisan, may have fled in 1936.”

Morgan recently gathered “600 students and teachers from 101 private, public and parochial schools to participate in our annual Day of Learning. About 95 percent were not Jewish. Over 70 percent had never heard a survivor before, but meeting one, they could make a connection.”

One attendee, after hearing about Rwandan, Cambodian, Bosnian, Darfur genocides, vowed “to prevent this from happening again, to not be a bystander.”

Another told Morgan it’s critical “to carry on this story because the next generation won’t be able to hear from a living survivor.”

Yes!

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →