If you’ve heard it said that during World War II European Jews went like sheep to their slaughter, or if you think that, go see Julia Mintz’s Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance and Bravery in World War II. In her documentary, a decade-in-the-making and short-listed for an Academy Award, eight of 25,000 Jewish partisans tell their stories.
This is not the first film about Jewish partisans. In 1986, Joshua Waletsky and Aviva Kempner documented the unit of her father, Abba Kovner, in The Partisans of Vilna. In 1942, while in the Wilno ghetto, Kovner realized that relatives of the remaining Jews had been murdered in the nearby forest Ponar and argued that it was best to die fighting. To honor 55 partisans who convened in New York in the 1980s, a short documentary was made that you can watch on YouTube.
What distinguishes Four Winters is that we hear detailed accounts from nonagenarian partisans, with all the hindsight their ages can bestow, and who fought with different brigades in the woods of Poland and Lithuania. Rhythmically, like a lighthouse sweeping its forested promontory, filmmaker Julia Mintz illuminates how four men and four women, mostly teenagers, fought their way through every phase of the war. The forest was our walls, the sky our roof, says one.
We hear how photographer Faye Schulman, born in Lenin, Poland, developed pictures of atrocities underneath a blanket in the woods. We see photographs of her, rifle in hand, wearing a jaunty cap that matches her leopard-skin coat.
Michael Stoll of Lida, Poland, describes being forced into a cattle car of a train, breaking the bars of a window, slipping through it, and inching his way on an outside ledge to force open the latch of the door. All the while the train is speeding toward Majdanek, as Mintz deftly reminds us with jarring cuts between Stoll as he narrates and the tracks, railroad ties, pebbles, and countryside whizz by. This particularly resonated with me because in July 1943 my maternal grandfather, Izydor Goldberger, jumped from a train taking him from Lwów to a concentration camp. Unlike my grandfather, Stoll not only survived his leap from the moving train but so did his father and sister. But now I can visualize the way my grandfather tried to escape and resist.
Four Winters reveals the challenges of resistance and the emotional toll it took on the fighters, many of whom witnessed the murders of family members. Elegant and poised in her red metallic sweater, matching lipstick, and nail polish, Gertrude Boyarski of Derechin, Poland, tells us that as her eight-year-old brother bled to death in the snow, he urged her to save herself. These personal tragedies and others ignited the fighters’ will to live and seek revenge. One unit, in fact, called itself Avengers, or Nokmim––the unit formed by Abba Kovner and his wife Vitka Kempner.
Mintz emphasizes women partisans, whose roles have been overlooked, perhaps because none were commanders and strategists. Here we learn of their contributions as lay nurses and killers. Chayelle Palezsky, of Swieciany near Wilno, Lithuania, describes treating a cohort’s pass-through gunshot wound, clearing it of lice, an excruciating process. Of course, years of being exposed to such stresses and other horrors took its toll. Unable to feel any emotions until being liberated by Russians, she collapsed in hysteria and cried for two days. “Like a stone came out,” she tells us.
Four Winters tackles sexuality, too, and discloses that women had abortions without anesthetic and under medically primitive circumstances. Although she frankly divulges physically remaining a virgin in the woods, Gertrude Boyarski admits to another irretrievable loss of innocence––as a killer. We learn why when she tells a tale of betrayal; facing a firing squad including her former prom date, she appeals to his humanity saying, “We went to school together.” His reply: “You are a Jew so you must die.” Bullets whiz by her but catch her family. Toward the end of the film, Boyarski asks why she survived. To tell the tale, perhaps, she says, answering her own question.
The film raises the necessary and uncomfortable question of whether these freedom fighters, in their desperation to survive, became as brutal as their persecutors. One partisan tells of overhearing a German officer demand food from Polish farmers. “Have it ready tomorrow,” he commands as he strides away. Having watched this from afar, the hungry partisans later swoop in, hold up the farmer, and abscond with the food. In beating the Germans to it, they know full-well that the next day the farmer and his family will suffer severe reprisals at the hands of the Nazis. The partisan narrating this says they had no choice but to do what was necessary to survive. Other partisans recount stealing or demanding ammunition, hunting down collaborators, sabotaging trains, and blowing up bridges.
Mintz leaves us with a poignant quote at the end of Four Winters, written by Shalom Yoran, who does not appear in the film. In his memoir, The Defiant, he wrote:
If there is a lesson to be gleaned, it is that no person should succumb to brutality without putting up a resistance. Individually it can save one’s life; en masse it can change the course of history.
After the screening, my husband Ed and I debated whether the quote should have been placed at the beginning, as he thought, or worked best at the end. I suggested that it might be off-putting to pacifists and gentler audiences, but that the quote is understandable at the end of the film because of the candid anecdotes and comments of these brave Jews.
One omission, we felt, was learning what the lives of these partisans were like after the war, where they settled, their professions, and so on. Please visit the film’s website Four Winters’ website.
I hope you watch the film. Please let me know what you think.