Essie was only 16 when the Germans invaded Novogrudek, Poland (now Belarus) where she lived with her mother, father, two younger sisters, one younger brother and one older brother. At first, the Nazis simply ordered all Jews to bring anything of value to the town square, withholding was punishable by death. Next, a few days after Hanukah, all Jews were ordered to remain at home until further notice. Further notice came in the form of an order for all Jews to report to the town courthouse. The next day, families were sent out to the courthouse and into the courtyard. Essie’s father had been the only bookbinder in town and she recognized a Nazi officer as one of his previous customers. She went up to the officer and reminded him of her father and his job. The officer called her father up and the two of them, father and daughter, were taken back into the building and down to the basement with about 700 other Jews. Essie learned later that everyone in the courtyard was killed that day, about 4,000 people.
The Jews in the basement were soon taken to live in a ghetto, where they lived 10 people to a room, 40 people to a house.
In the ghetto, the Nazis put everyone to work. At first, Essie retrieved bricks from bombed out buildings. Later, she worked in the home of a Polish couple who were very kind to her. Although they provided Essie with a good midday meal, she could not take any back to her father, so they were forced to illegally barter to obtain food for him. Conditions in the ghetto were dreadful and the lives of the Jewish residents always hung in the balance: “aktions” could happen at any time.
One day, after Essie was no longer working for the couple, the wife came to the ghetto and offered to help Essie escape and join a partisan group. Despite misgivings about leaving her father, Essie decided to go, but four days later she returned to the ghetto and her father. Nevertheless, she continued to think about joining the partisans. Finally, one December day, Essie snuck out of the ghetto with 3 other people and walked 15 miles to find the Bielski Partisans hiding in a forest.
The Bielski Partisans were led by Essie’s cousins Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski. Life in the forest was hard and cold, but at least Essie felt free. After a month, she wrote her father and asked him to join her. This time he relented and even eventually adjusted to the difficult way of life in the forest. The number of Bielski Partisans began to increase as more and more Jews found their way there, preferring to die fighting for their lives. Essie was given a makeshift rifle, which she learned to care for and use and she became a guerrilla fighter at the age of 16.
But the life of a partisan was also uncertain and they had to be prepared to pick up and leave their camp in the forest and move to another area any time the Nazis got too close. Eventually, the partisan group grew to 12000 Jews and they decided to go deeper in the woods, so that they could build camouflaged bunkers or Ziemlankas. Here the partisans had only the most basic comforts and yet the new camp contained everything they needed. Members of the partisans often got food, blankets and even cows, taking them from the farmers in the area – but a cow was never taken unless the farmer had more than one. Shops were set up which included places to have sewing, tanning, gun and shoe repairs done. There was even a hospital and a quarantine area for contagious diseases. At one point, Essie’s father performed a wedding in the camp.
There were also Russian Partisans in the area, who were rivals with the Jewish Partisans. The Russians felt their purpose was to sabotage or ambush the Germans any and every way they could, but believed the Jewish Partisans only wanted to save Jews. One time, when they needed to know the whereabouts of the German Army, Essie volunteered to go with a group to the Russian Partisans to obtain this information. The Russians refused to tell them until Essie, the only female in the group, proved what kind of a fighter she was. They took her along on one of their missions, but Essie never had to fight. Instead, one night the Russian Partisans became the greatest danger for her and she had to hide from them. The next day, she realized she had to travel back with the Russians so she could return to the Jewish partisan camp. But the Russian leader had another plan and left her stranded, lost and far from camp. Using her wits, Essie finally did make it back to camp on her own.
Sometime later, Essie went on her last mission – a plan to ambush the German army. Even though the Germans were in retreat, the Jewish Partisans were no match for them. Somehow, they were caught in the crossfire between the Russians and the Germans and lost several partisans that day.
But that day was also the last day of the war. Essie, her father and all the other Jewish Partisans were free, but now they had to figure out how to pick up their lives.
This is a story told in a simple straightforward way, making it a perfect YA book. It had grown out of an art project Essie Shor had done for a course she was taking at Lehman College in the Bronx, taught by her co-author Andrea Zakin. It is a wonderful example of survival and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.
I have given just a bare bones outline of Essie’s story and the book should be read to understand her thoughts and feelings about what was happening to her and her family. There are also a few offshoot stories laced throughout the book that need to be read to be appreciated.
This book is recommended for readers 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL
More information about Essie and the Bielski Partisans may be found at
Florida Holocaust Museum offers an education guide at
Courage and Compassion: the legacy of the Bielski Brothers
Hear Essie tell part of her story herself, courtesy of the Florida Holocaust Museum on YouTube
You might remember and even have seen a movie called
with Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber that came out in 2008. It is based on the story of the Bielski Brothers Partisans. Essie was one of the original 25 members of this group. Unfortunately, it is rated R for violence and language. Defiance
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