Mitch Braff was the typical American Jewish kid growing up with a typical American Jewish education.
He had a bar mitzva and he went to Hebrew school.
He became about the Holocaust, of course, and he did learn about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
But there was a gap in Braff’s education: he never learned about the 20,000-30,000 Jews who eluded the Nazis during World War II and fought as partisans, some as young as the teenage Braff growing up in San Francisco.
In fact, it would be years before Braff, who later became a film producer for public television, would learn anything about the Jews who fought back.
“Ten years ago, I had no idea what a partisan was,” he admitted before a crowd of more than 700 people, Monday, who gathered for the annual Yom Hashoa program at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
But Braff, the founder and executive director of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation, knows about the partisans now and he’s determined to protect their legacy.
“Partisans Resistance” was the theme of this year’s Yom Hashoa program, which was presented by the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation. Braff was the featured speaker, but partisan fighters participated in this year’s candle lighting service and Abe Salem, as he does ever year, sang the Partisan Song in Yiddish.
“I do it for 50 years,” Salem later said.
Braff’s partisans education began when he met a survivor who told how he joined a partisans group at age 15. By age 16, he and his buddies were blowing up German supply trains bound for the Russian front.
That was a far cry from what Braff was doing when he was 16, going to school and thinking about girls, he said.
“I was blown away,” he recalled. “Growing up, my Holocaust education never included partisans.”
When he asked his friends if they ever heard of the partisans, they said no.
So Braff decided to do something about it. He founded the JPEF in 2000. Today, 3,500 teachers are using the education materials provided by his organization.
Braff himself acted as a consulted for the 2009 movie “Defiance,” which told the story of the Bielski partisans. And JPEF collaborated on a curriculum guide for the movie and created a supplementary DVD.
Jewish partisans destroyed thousands of Nazi supply trains They also attacked numerous Nazi power plants and factories, and focused their attention on other military and strategic targets, not on civilians.
In noncombat roles, partisans operated as smugglers who sent children to safety, couriers who carried messages between the ghettos and forgers who created documents for use in the outside world.
In forced labor camps Jews often sabotaged guns and other products they were making for the Germans.
Braff said kids are astounded when they learn about the partisans, who provide part of the answer to one of their most-often asked questions: why didn’t the Jews fight back?
But according to Braff, resistance to the Germans took spiritual forms as well such as teaching Hebrew and holding prayer services.
“To me, the most powerful resistance was simply surviving,” Braff said, adding that going on to have children and grandchildren was yet another form of resistance.
Men and women, young and old joined Jewish partisans groups throughout 10 countries in Europe. Many Jews also joined non-Jewish partisans and had to fight not only the enemy, but anti-Semites within their own ranks.
Also Monday, survivors Les Banos, Moshe Baran, Gary Gold, Mina Rosenberg, Herman Snyder and Frances Spiegel lit candles to commemorate the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Thomas O’Brien, the retired chair of PNC Financial Services, and Thomas Usher, the chair of Marathon Oil Corporation jointly lit the candle for the righteous gentiles. O’Brien and Usher, together with Daniel and David Shapira, are co-chairing the 2009-2010 Holocaust Center Membership Campaign.
Rabbi Michael Werbow of Congregations Beth Shalom Congregation led the gathering in K’eyl Maley Rachamim and Rabbi Mordechai Glatstein recited Kaddish.
Matt May, a student at Beaver County Christian School who won second place in the Holocaust Center’s 2009 Arts & Writing Competition for poetry, read his winning entry, “I Have Forgotten.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)