Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications
 

Essie Shor: World War II Bielski Partisan Fighter

March 25, 2009

In this segment, Lehman Professor Andrea Zakin talks with her former student and co-author Essie Shor about their recent collaboration. Their book, titled Essie: The True Story of a Teenage Fighter in the Bielski Partisans, recounts Essie's life as a Jewish resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Europe.

12 Minutes 2 Seconds

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Transcript

00:00

[MUSIC]

SARAH SUMLER:

This is Sarah Sumler, a student at Lehman College. In this segment, Lehman Professor Andrea Zakin talks with her former student and co-author Essie Shor about their recent collaboration. Their book, titled Essie: The True Story of a Teenage Fighter in the Bielski Partisans, recounts Essie's life as a Jewish resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Europe.

00:27

ANDREA ZAKIN:

My name is Andrea Zakin. I'm a professor here at Lehman College, and in the department of early childhood and childhood education. And I'm here today to do an interview with my colleague and co-author Essie Shor. We wrote a book about her life as a partisan during World War II. So, we'll get started. Essie, can you tell us where and when you were born?

ESSIE SHOR:

I was born in the town of Novogrudek, Poland in December 1925. My town was on the border between Russia and Poland, so when the borders changed, it sometimes was considered Russia and sometimes Poland. During the war, Novogrudek was part of Russia.

01:21

ANDREA ZAKIN:

Essie, can you tell us how your life changed when the Nazis invaded your town?

ESSIE SHOR:

My life completely changed. Our house was completely burned down, as were most of the houses on my street. Everyone was afraid because of the bombing, so we and many of my neighbors fled to live with relatives. We went to live with my cousins, the Bielski, the leaders of the Bielski Brigade. Also heard rumors of Jews being killed. So, we were very frightened.

02:03

ANDREA ZAKIN:

You turned down your first chance to leave the ghetto. Why was that?

ESSIE SHOR:

There were several reasons. First, at that point it was only my father and me because the rest of my family had been killed. My other reason was that my father refused to leave the ghetto because he was afraid to live in the middle of the forest.

02:29

ANDREA ZAKIN:

Essie, how did you finally escape and join the partisan camp?

ESSIE SHOR:

First of all, most of my family had died by then. My brothers were killed when they tried to escape before we got to the ghetto. My mother and my sisters were killed by the Nazis. So, it was only my father and me. When I was living in the ghetto with my father, I worked for Polish family, Mr. and Mrs. Foltanski.

One day Mrs. Foltanski came to find me at the fence outside the ghetto. She told me that there was going to be an action at the ghetto, which meant that Jews were going to be killed. That night, I snuck out with a group of Jews through a hole in the fence. We walked 50 miles in the middle of the night and in the freezing cold to meet a man who led us to the forest. Then we walked through the night to find the Bielski Brigade. I will never forget that moment when I saw them. For the first time, I felt safe.

03:59

ANDREA ZAKIN:

I think people would be interested in knowing how Jews went from the ghetto and got to the partisans. Can you explain a little bit more about that?

ESSIE SHOR:

Yes, we had some trusted Christian people that went into the ghetto, and they-- they-- Jews in the ghetto did know because those Christians had also some partisans with them.

04:28

ANDREA ZAKIN:

There was communication between the Jews in the ghetto and the Jews in the partisans.

ESSIE SHOR:

Right. A sizable group of Jewish people went through a tunnel, originally there were 250 people that organized the tunnel, built a tunnel, and went through the tunnel. But the Germans spotted them, and they killed half of-- more than half-- of the people. About 80 people survived. And they joined the Bielski. In that place they build now a museum. And where the museum stands, that's where I survived with my father out of 4,000 people.

05:19

ANDREA ZAKIN:

Your encampment saved 1,200 Jews, making it one of the most successful rescue missions during the Holocaust. How was this accomplished?

ESSIE SHOR:

The Bielski brothers, especially Tuvia, know all about living in the woods. And so they knew the forest like the back of their hand. They also grew up knowing how to fix and take care of things, how to build, how to shoot, how to read the weather. They were trained in the Polish army.

And Tuvia Bielski assigned one of the soldiers to teach how to use a rifle and how to use a gun. Everyone also knew that the Bielskis tried their best, and that the best revenge against the Nazis was to live. And that meant for all have to help each other. We had builders and workers of all kinds. And, of course, we had fighters.

06:31

ANDREA ZAKIN:

What mission were you most proud of?

ESSIE SHOR:

Even though it wasn't a successful mission, I'm most proud of joining the partisan fighters who went to fight the Germans face-to-face toward the end of the war. But, of course, they were trained soldiers. And we were partisans. So, we-- the bottom line was that we had to retreat. But it was very special to me to see that the German army, running on all the sides.

07:11

ANDREA ZAKIN:

In order to live, you had to eat.

ESSIE SHOR:

Yes.

ANDREA ZAKIN:

So, you want to say how you got your food?

ESSIE SHOR:

I went on a number of missions together with the men. I was the only girl at that time. And we would get it from the villagers. But we were told-- have no right to take from a farmer a cow if he has only one cow. He had to have a few cows. Now, the villagers wouldn't have given it to us, that willingly. But we always made, like, a noise. Like an army, we got to--

07:57

ANDREA ZAKIN:

As if you were a lot of people--

ESSIE SHOR:

Yes, a lot of people--

ANDREA ZAKIN:

--when you weren't.

ESSIE SHOR:

But we weren't. So, we got it.

08:03

ANDREA ZAKIN:

This encampment became, like, this little town.

ESSIE SHOR:

When I joined them, there were 25 people. Later on toward the end of the war, you know, people came from different towns. They came from Lida, from Baranovich, from the surrounding towns, they came and joined us. So, that's when closer to the li-- the liberation they had the number of people.

08:29

ANDREA ZAKIN:

But that's when you had-- people who put together rifles, you had people--

ESSIE SHOR:

Oh, yeah.

ANDREA ZAKIN:

--you had doctors, you had-- I mean--

ESSIE SHOR:

That's when I got my rifle because my uncle that I helped to get out of the ghetto. He was so thankful to me. So from pieces that weren't-- they couldn't use, he put together a rifle for me and a gun later on.

08:55

ANDREA ZAKIN:

I have to say this-- this project that I asked them to do in class is a kind of Jungian thing, you know, where you have wet sand and you make this little environment that you can kind of project into. And I was just tryin' to show that when kids-- little kids do work like this, it's meaningful to them, just as it is for adults who do it, just in a different way.

So, you know, I go around the room and watch the groups working. And then I was watching Essie do hers, and it was so intriguing to me because it-- it didn't look like a fantasy environment. It looked like something real to me. But I didn't recognize what it was. So, that's when I went over, and I said, "Essie, (LAUGH) can you explain this to me?" Because I sensed some story behind it. And then when we-- when you responded to me, I was really floored.

ESSIE SHOR:

You mentioned, Professor Zakin, that-- (LAUGHTER) no, you mentioned at that time that we should construct something that remains in our minds as an important part. And this was the most important part that remained in my mind. And that's the reason I built the bunker. And when you walked over, you said, "Essie, a chimney's coming out from the ground?"

10:20

ANDREA ZAKIN:

No, I didn't know what it was. I-- I asked you to explain it.

ESSIE SHOR:

Yes, you did. But I sort of made, like, a chimney because we had a chimney. During the winter months, we would warm the-- the bunker up.

10:35

ANDREA ZAKIN:

Essie, can you explain how you changed as a person after this experience?

ESSIE SHOR:

I think I became a stronger person because I live through a terrible war. After that, whenever I felt badly, I would say to myself, "Remember, you were a partisan." And that helped me do what I had to do.

11:05

ANDREA ZAKIN:

You know, you've lived through such an extraordinary experience. What message would you like people to take away with them after reading your book?

ESSIE SHOR:

I would like everyone, especially children, to know what happened to the Jews in the war. But they should also know that the Jews fought back. I want to say to the children, always remember that each person can make a difference. You should always have courage and hope.

ANDREA ZAKIN:

We'd both like to thank Lehman College for having us here today.

11:45

SARAH SUMLER:

Visit us at www.lehman.edu. This is a production of the Lehman College Media Relations Office.

[MUSIC]

12:02

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