When Moshe Baran sits in shul every day; he sits with thousands of people.
The 89-year-old Holocaust survivor and 16-year Squirrel Hill resident prays thinking “about the tens of thousands who would’ve gone but couldn’t make it,” said Baran.
Poland-born Baran’s warm, inclusive sentiment puts into context his history: after escaping from a ghetto in 1942, he spent three years fighting — in the forest with the Jewish underground and as a soldier in the Red Army — for his family, and his people, to once again live free.
Today, Baran’s life may not be as intense as his years spent stalking the German army, but he lives it with no less passion. His coffee table is stacked high with Jewish-themed books like Leon Kass’ “Beginnings of Wisdom: Reading Genesis.” He speaks slowly, clearly, so that every word has a purpose; he seems to be constantly thinking.
As one of around 30,000 Jewish partisans who escaped from Nazi camps or ghettos to fight as guerillas, Baran is no average survivor.
It is the stories of those 30,000 to whom the annual Yom HaShoa Program of the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation will pay tribute on Monday, April 12, 7 p.m., at Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
Mitch Braff, director of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation in San Francisco, will be the keynote speaker at the program. He said that several factors often tie partisan survivors together.
“The partisans feel it is important that we teach not only their history, but their life lessons,” said Braff, “[which include] that young people can make a difference. Stand up to tyranny, oppression, discrimination. Question authority.”
As a young man growing up in Horodok, a shtetl between Vilna and Minsk, Baran reveled in his community’s self-sufficiency, as his world consisted of “300 families, a rabbi, a few people running the shtetl; a Hebrew day school, a bank, committees to take care of orphans and widows,” said Baran. “It was self-government. You don’t need the government for anything except paying taxes.”
That freedom was short lived. First came the Russians, in the 1939 invasion, after which “we couldn’t move around freely. You had to check, register. There was a sense of insecurity; children told to spy on their parents,” said Baran.
Living in a community of 2,000 Jews, though, communism posed no threat as compared to the Nazis.
“We heard the motorcycles. Then came the trucks and soldiers,” said Baran. While the communist rule was oppressive, the Nazi takeover aimed to demonize the Jews of Horodok.
“They forced men to pull the weeds out of the cobblestones with their hands. Just to degrade you. The rabbi, with some other important people, was forced to drag a cart of flour from the mill like horses. Our whole world collapsed. You are outside the law … there is no law.”
But it was the move to the ghetto at the end of 1941 that pushed Baran to act. “I decided I didn’t want to die in the ghetto. If I died, it would be somewhere else.”
“Partisans are definitely very different than other survivors,” said Braff. But to Baran, the choice to act against the Nazis was a necessity — because he could, he did.
“It was not something that you planned. It was second to second events. You had no control over them. There was an opening, and you had to jump into it,” said Baran.
The first of such opportunities came when two of Baran’s friends discovered a cache of Russian weaponry near the site of their forced labor. The friends slyly disassembled the weapons and wrapped them in rags hidden in a junk pile; on following shifts, Baran would ask “this particular German who was nice, who didn’t harass us” to get something from the pile, thereby sneaking hidden weapons into the ghetto.
After amassing a small collection of arms, Baran met a woman who knew a place in the area where local Jews who’d escaped were hiding — but she wouldn’t coordinate the escape without her two young children. On a moonless night, just after the four watched a guard walk by, they snuck under a barbed wire fence and into the blackness.
Baran walked all night.
“In the morning, I walked out and I looked up to the sky. What was so surprising about it? From the time the Germans came, until that moment, the sky didn’t exist for us,” said Baran. “We were hunted, always thinking they were coming. I saw birds in the sky flying — I wished I was one of them.”
Joining a band of about 60 escapees, Baran lived in the deep forest, planning tasks, as they were called, “to harass the Germans — ambushes, mining roads, attacking garrisons, disrupting the hinterland.” Baran specialized in setting fires to alert the Russian army of the partisans’ location for parachute-dropped supplies.
By 1944, the Germans were blockading the partisans, forcing them “deeper and deeper into the forest and swamps,” said Baran. “To rest, you had to find a tree with roots higher than the water. Hug the tree and close your eyes. Or you slept while you walked.”
After about 10 days, the partisans were so close to the frontlines they could hear the artillery.
That winter, Baran joined ranks with the Red Army on the Baltic front. On May 8, 1945 — Baran remembers perfectly — they met the U.S. Army near Hamburg.
“That was the end of the war for me,” he said.
Baran is modest about his partisan fighting. Did he save lives? “We must’ve saved some people. The Germans couldn’t get to them.” What did he learn from the fight? “The ability to gain confidence in other people.”
Maybe the modesty springs from Baran’s belief that every Jew was, in some way, a hero, a partisan.
“The people who the Germans put in ghettos had never seen a weapon,” he said. “By the time they were in the ghetto, they were so malnourished and so demonized that if you didn’t commit suicide, it was a form of resistance.”
To Braff, telling partisans’ stories is crucial to what he says is “the number one question young people ask about the Holocaust: Why didn’t the Jews fight back?”
“Many young people tell us they feel proud after learning about the partisans,” said Braff. “They no longer see their ancestors only as victims.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)