Between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews escaped the ghettoes and work camps of Nazi-occupied Europe, fleeing to the forests for shelter where they formed groups and fought back against the Nazis and their collaborators. These brave Jews are known as the Jewish Partisans.
It is important to note that for most victims of the Holocaust, the chance to escape and join the partisans never came. Only very few Jews had the means and the opportunity to escape, and even then, the choice was difficult. Most of these young people were their families’ lifelines for survival in the ghettoes and camps, smuggling in available food and information whenever possible. The Nazis and their collaborators also used a method called Collective Responsibility to deter Jews from escaping the ghettos and camps. Collective Responsibility meant that for each person who escaped, 10 to 25 remaining people would be killed or executed, beginning with the escapee’s family.
Daily survival in the forests was very difficult. Exposure and starvation posed as great a threat to the average partisan as did discovery by a Nazi patrol. Shelter was a small dugout in the ground. Adequate clothing and food was scarce. The winter months meant enduring freezing temperatures, but welcoming snow, as it masked the smoke from a campfire.
In the face of these challenges to survival, which often meant risking death to seek or steal food from local villages, the Jewish Partisans organized to sabotage and resist the Nazis. Their missions, carried out in military-style units, were very successful in destroying thousands of trains. Apart from mining train tracks, partisans sabotaged communications lines, exploded Nazi-controlled farms and power plants, and successfully rescued scores of other Jews still imprisoned in ghettoes and camps.
Many Jewish Partisans fought alongside local groups also resisting the Nazi occupation. Making themselves known to other groups held many risks, however, as anti-Semitism was widespread in the rural areas where Jewish Partisans hid and carried out their missions. Many thousands of Russian soldiers, trapped in Eastern Europe after Hitler invaded Poland, escaped and formed partisan groups. These Russian partisan groups greatly aided many Jewish Partisans in their struggle to fight and survive in the forests. Among the Russians, however, there was also anti-Semitism.
Though people of all ages became Jewish Partisans, many were very young. Children as young as nine years old fought, and many Jewish Partisans were between the ages of 17 and 25. Most commonly, men and boys carried out all partisan missions, although in some camps, girls and women worked and fought alongside them.