Before writing my book about youngsters involved in anti-Nazi resistance during the Second World War, I had a certain notion about the Holocaust. It was that, in order to save Jewish lives, you had to be a gentile. Because if you were yourself being hunted and primarily trying to survive, probably in hiding, how could you save anyone else? When I told someone about my courageous (Catholic) mother, who rescued Jewish friends in Hungary in 1944, and was asked: ‘Was your mother Jewish?’ I tried not to roll my eyes at the daft question.
Now I know better. Through my research I discovered many stories of intrepid teenagers in the wartime resistance, from all over occupied Europe – school-age heroes who acted as couriers, helped run Allied airmen’s escape routes, founded underground newspapers, sabotaged German military installations, assassinated Nazi officials and their collaborators, rescued Jews. And amongst the dozen tales related in my book, Jews have a starring role in three.
One of them was Adolfo Kaminsky, the son of Russian Jewish emigres living in France. A brainy boy obsessed with chemistry, printing and dyeing, his family evaded deportation in 1943 via false identities secured for them by the French Resistance. When resistance leaders learnt that 17-year-old Adolfo – who had been experimenting with dyes and chemicals for years – knew more about such matters than they did, he joined a small team of forgers in a secret laboratory in Paris and began producing the flawless false identity documents that saved thousands of lives. He became their No. 1 forger.
His underground activities involved visiting Jews earmarked for imminent deportation, bringing them their lifesaving documents to be filled in, so that they could ‘disappear’ in the nick of time. On one such occasion he was almost caught. He was traveling on the Metro when a Milice patrol boarded and began making its way down the train, checking identities. This paramilitary organisation’s role was to root out Jews and resistance members, and it was considered even more dangerous than the Gestapo because it comprised native Frenchmen familiar with their fellow citizens’ regional dialects and customs – very useful in catching out fugitives. The Milice were slowly advancing towards Adolfo, scrutinising documents and inspecting bags.
He tried to hide his fear but his heart was thumping. With a militiaman guarding each door there was no chance of escape. If the blank identity cards and forgery paraphernalia in his attaché case were discovered, he would be arrested, tortured for information, then sent to a concentration camp or shot.
Trying to appear confident, Adolfo stood up, proffered his ID card as ‘Julien Keller’ to a militiaman and explained that he had to get off at the next stop. The man studied the document with hard suspicious eyes. Eventually he grunted ‘All right, papers in order.’ (Adolfo knew full well his papers were in order – he’d forged them meticulously.) Then he heard the dreaded question: ‘What have you got in there?’ as the man indicated Adolfo’s case. Panic swept through him. He felt the urge to run, but that was impossible. ‘Are you deaf? What’s in there?’
‘My sandwiches.’ Adolfo opened the case so he could look inside. There were indeed sandwiches there, lying on top of the incriminating contents. ‘Julien’ gave the militiaman a silly boyish grin. Adolfo knew that playing stupid was his best cover. He’d cultivated the façade in order to call upon it when needed.
The militiaman stared at him for a moment, then waved him away. The doors opened at his station and a hugely relieved Adolfo stepped out.
For months the authorities had been scouring Paris for the elusive criminal mastermind supplying the Underground with counterfeit documents. But they were looking for an older man with a professionally equipped printer’s workshop. Not a teenager with a deceptively gormless expression, who was improvising in a makeshift lab.
A youthful demeanour and air of guilelessness, a spirit of adventure and belief in their own invincibility – these were the virtues that so often made my brave and resourceful young heroes more effective at resistance than their elders. And the wonderful thing is that they came from all backgrounds. They were the drop-out offspring of humble factory workers in industrial towns, the children of peasant farmers, the privately-educated sons of well-to-do elites, the politically-minded and the purely patriotic, the religious and the secular. What they all shared was a determination to fight back against the enemy that had deprived them of a carefree childhood.
Few struck back as forcefully as Leibke Kaganowics, a Jewish schoolboy from the small town of Eisiskes in Lithuania, who witnessed the town’s Jews being massacred in 1941 by the Nazis’ Lithuanian collaborators. Refusing to be a victim himself, he determined to join the partisan fighters he had heard about, who were encamped in the region’s vast, dense forests – impenetrable to most people – emerging only to carry out daring sabotage missions. The following year, at the age of 16, he joined a partisan group composed of Russians and Jews, who dubbed him patsan – the Russian word for ‘little kid’.
Leibke was taught to use firearms and grenades, to set dynamite to blow up bridges and buildings, to disrupt communications by cutting down power lines and telephone poles. In time he specialised in blowing up the trains so vital to the German war machine – highly dangerous work, carried out in the dead of night under the noses of armed guards. He fought against the Nazis and their collaborators in Lithuania, Poland and Belorussia, until the Russian army liberated those territories in the summer of 1944. Then he returned to Eisiskes, where he hunted down the Lithuanians who had killed his relatives, friends and neighbours – they all met their end before a firing squad.
Adolfo and Leibke survived the war – indeed Adolfo is still alive, aged 94, in Paris. Leibke emigrated to Canada after the war, changed his name to Leon Kahn and became a successful businessman and a philanthropist. He died in 2003.
Masha Bruskina’s life, on the other hand, ended in tragedy. A Jewish girl who escaped from the Minsk ghetto in Belorussia, she lightened her dark hair, assumed a Christian identity and got a job as medical assistant in a prison hospital holding wounded Soviet PoWs. She also joined a resistance cell intent on liberating 15 of the hospital’s Soviet army officers. The plan worked, initially. The escapees slipped out of the hospital and away from the city, but within days they were captured by German soldiers and shot. Together with two fellow resistance members – a teenaged boy and a middle-aged First World War veteran – Masha was arrested and tortured.
The Germans decided to make an example of them with a highly visible public hanging. On 26 October 1941, they were paraded through the streets of Minsk. A placard hung from Masha’s neck which read: We are partisans and have shot at German troops, a flagrant falsehood. Masha walked calmly in her simple dress and cardigan, gazing straight ahead. She was first to be led to the gallows and made to stand on a stool. A crowd had gathered and her executioners wanted her to face it, but she turned away. No matter how much they pushed and tried to turn her around, she remained with her back to the crowd. Finally they just kicked away the stool.
Masha was the first person to be publicly executed during the Nazi occupation of Soviet territory, which began four months earlier with Operation Barbarossa. She was 17.
After the war the Nazis’ photographs of the execution were widely published. The men who had been executed with Masha were named by the Soviet authorities and officially recognised as heroic patriots. But Masha herself was described simply as ‘unknown girl’. Decades after her identity had become well-established, the authorities continued to deny knowledge of it, because of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t until 2009 that the municipality of Minsk, in modern-day Belarus, at last amended the memorial at the execution site and included Masha Bruskina’s full name. There is also a street named after her in Jerusalem.
There were other stories of Jewish heroes that, alas, I couldn’t include in the book, not least that of the phenomenal Pinchas Rosenbaum, son of a provincial Hungarian rabbi and member of the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement. He was in Budapest at the height of the Arrow Cross murder spree in late 1944, when thousands of Jews were rounded up and massacred along the Danube embankment. If Pinchas heard that a family was about to be taken, he turned up at their address, disguised in the uniform of a high-ranking Arrow Cross officer. Taking over from the other Arrow Cross men there, he would rant at the ‘filthy Jews’ and march the terrified family away himself. But once out of earshot he would whisper: ‘Do not be afraid. I am a Jew and I have come to save you,’ before leading them to the sanctuary of a Swiss-protected safe house. With his pitch-perfect masquerade he saved hundreds of Jewish men, women and children. But my book focuses on school-age children, and Pinchas was outside the age group: he was 20.
Were I now to hear someone repeat that old saw about Jews during the Holocaust going ‘like lambs to the slaughter’, I would briskly set the record straight. But where to begin?
Children Against Hitler: The Young Resistance Heroes of the Second World War, by Monica Porter, is published by Pen & Sword Books.