Forged in Hell
At 16, Sonia Shainwald fled impending slaughter and risked her life as a Jewish partisan fighter.
Sonia Orbuch does not like weakness. But today, safe in her Corte Madera townhouse with its swag curtains in soothing shades of peach, Sonia is getting teary.
You might expect tears, given the story she's telling: how 16-year-old Sonia Shainwald fled impending slaughter in the Jewish ghetto of Luboml, Poland, and finally arrived in the forests to join the Soviet anti-German resistance. There she served as a doctor's assistant, treating the injuries of partisan fighters who embarked on regular missions to blow up Nazi trains and disrupt communications. The amputations were horrific. Her uncle was killed. But the partisan leaders imparted one key lesson: You are not allowed to cry.
The partisan leaders imparted one key lesson: You are not allowed to cry.
And today, Sonia insists, she would not be crying were it not for her arm, recently broken in a fall and held in a sling. Sonia, 82, is dressed down in a brown velveteen tracksuit, her weight supported by a cane and her eyes less alert than usual.
"I'm a little more emotional now because of the pain medication," she says matter-of-factly in her faint Polish accent. She gestures to a box of See's candy. "Have a chocolate."
She wears her amber hair well coiffed and holds her regal nose high, and even with her eyes damp there's no mistaking the inborn strength that must have sustained her through those war years. Sonia was always one to face hard realities. When a teenager, hiding in a crawl space from the Germans for two days with 16 other Jews, Sonia realized that her mother would not live much longer, and matter-of-factly told her father that they would have to run, as Germans were beginning to liquidate the ghetto.
The families had no food in the crawl space, only a tomato on a stick that they would pass around to moisten their lips. "Where did I get the right to tell my father we had to run?" Sonia says. "But I saw it's a lost matter, at least if we go out we have a chance. And my father said, yes, we are going."
"Unfortunately, we heard a shot right away," Sonia says. The bullet killed her aunt.
The remaining family crawled beneath a fence and reached a street ringed with guards. Sonia's father ran and a shot rang out. Her mother ran after him and another shot sounded. A different aunt told Sonia that they would have to run back, but she refused, crumpling into a ball on the ground. Then her mother returned. Her father had made it across the street. A policeman had shot in the air. Sonia's mother bribed him with a ring, and he let the family flee.
They ran about 20 kilometers to the village of Nudyze where Sonia's mother was born, hoping to find friends. The occupants of the first house they approached offered bread and water but insisted Sonia's family leave. Then Sonia's mother remembered her brother, Tzvi, a trained scout. "If you find us my brother, we will leave," she said.
"When my uncle came, my hope was so great," Sonia remembers. "I thought, now we'll have a chance to survive. He lived in that village, he knew everybody, he was well liked. He would lead us to a place to hide."
The uncle's heroics were not as immediately effective as the family hoped. He led them to the forest at the crux of the borders of Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, where a peasant came upon them and began crying when he spotted Sonia. "He said to my uncle, 'You older people have lived already, but she didn't have a life. Look at her! If you will go deeper into the forest I will help you with food.' "
It was this peasant, Tichon Martinetz, who proved to be the family's salvation -- and eventually led them to the resistance fighters. With the potatoes and clothes he scavenged, the family survived the harsh winter, living in a hut. By spring 1943, Tichon was warning them of Ukrainian nationalists lurking in the forests. The family fled back to a house in the village, where a widow kept them in the barn, but as spring approached, she feared they would be discovered. Soon Tichon came. "He said, 'There are partisans in the area, but the rumor has it they kill Jews'," Sonia says. "We had no choice." Too emaciated to walk, the family was taken by horse and wagon to meet the partisans.
"Finally, someone came out and looked at us, skeletons, my father had a red beard," Sonia said. "He said, 'OK, how many of you are trained to use dynamite? Where are your weapons? We didn't have any weapons. But my uncle said he was from the area and knew every spot."
The partisans took in the family -- and Sonia discovered a life in the forest she could never have imagined. The resistance fighters had underground bunkers, arrangements for washing laundry and cooking food -- a whole system of society. Sonia's uncle was assigned as a scout to the partisan high commander. Her mother's duty was to cook, her father's to gather or steal food from the villages. Sonia's position was as an amateur nurse to the camp's doctor.
Treating the fighters' wounds was often gruesome. Sonia, then 17, wasn't going to receive special treatment either. After several months, the Russians started grumbling that Sonia was never sent on a mission; soon she went. During the battle for Kovel in Poland in 1944, she even spent 10 days at the front. "Daytime, you had to lie still because the (German) planes are flying overhead dropping bombs," she remembers. "And here I'm helping the doctor cut off limbs and so on." The Russians had 70 wagons of wounded people on that mission. When Sonia arrived back at the camp, her parents didn't recognize her.
Even through the worst of it, Sonia had a newfound will to live.
Yet, even through the worst of it, Sonia had a newfound will to live. "I was so happy that I could take part in fighting these Nazis that kill us," she says. "Suddenly, I was not afraid of bombs, me, the youngest child, a girl who had been afraid of a fly."
Though she had this sense of power, suffering losses was difficult. On an early reconnaissance mission, Sonia's Uncle Tzvi was shot. When the commander arrived back at camp and informed the family, Sonia's mother broke down. The commander told her simply, "Here you are not allowed to cry."
"My uncle had already lost a wife and two lovely children," she says, dabbing her eyes. "He would get depressed and say to us, 'If I hadn't saved you, I could go into any peasant house and they'd hide me, I wouldn't have to sit in the cold and freeze and hunger and dirt and lice and you name it.' So many times I've wondered. ... He brought us hope."
Sonia also lost a kind of romance. When the commander's wife told her she had better pair up with a lieutenant or else fend off more forceful advances, another young Jew in the group, Pyotr Menaker, offered to pose as her boyfriend. He would play his guitar while riding his horse, and he and Sonia would sing and talk, but he never laid a hand on her. He left on a reconnaissance mission and never returned. Sonia still has one of his love letters.
Finally, as the Soviet Red Army advanced, the partisans knew they would have to make contact with them. Sonia accompanied a reconnaissance unit to the edge of the forest. It was a confusing time, and difficult to tell who was on which side. The leader decided to ride out. He gave Sonia his satchel and told her to take it back to camp if he did not survive. The group he rode out to welcome turned out to be Ukrainian nationalists, not the Red Army. He was shot, and Sonia returned to the forest with his belongings.
When the partisans did connect with the Red Army, Sonia's parents were fearful of joining, knowing they would be sent to Moscow while Sonia would be required to enlist. A Jewish partisan officer pressed them to leave the unit instead, and secured draft deferment papers. He installed them in a peasant's house, threatening to return and kill the owner if he did not care for the family. But as the front began to roll back, Sonia's family fled the approaching battles. They took refuge in an abandoned building with other homeless Jews. The building was infected with typhus, and Sonia's mother died from the disease.
That final loss was perhaps the hardest of so many. After the war, Sonia returned to Luboml to find that of its 15,000 Jews, only 50 survived. Sixty members of Sonia's extended family had been killed. She also lost her two brothers as well as her mother. Her father survived and remarried.
She met her future husband, Isaak Orbuch, while making her way west to a refugee camp with her father. Sonia and Isaak spent four years in a displacement camp and finally came to Brooklyn, where they had two children together and 52 years of marriage until her husband's death in 1997. For most of those years, Sonia rarely spoke of her life in the Polish forests.
"The pain was so great," she says. "And I always felt my story was not important, that people who went through concentration camps, they have a far more important story."
But six years ago, a staff member at the San Rafael Jewish Community Center learned of Sonia's partisan past, and asked her to speak about it. That 15-minute talk led her to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, which soon conducted a lengthy interview, and Sonia began to find her voice.
"What I like most is to speak to children, because they need to be told my story and to hear the message that you should never, never give in," she says. "You should not say it cannot be done. It must be done."
She never imagined sharing her story this way. "My dream in the forest was: If I could only have paper and pencil," she says, nodding with mild regret. "Write down the seasons changing, the animals gathering food, the leaves' colors and everything we were going through."
Her mind recorded what paper couldn't. Today Sonia shares her story dozens of times a year even though clearly, beneath her steely strength, it still causes her pain.
"I lived this!" she says, incredulous. She stifles a tear, and reaches for a chocolate.
This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
For more articles about the Jewish partisans, visit www.jewishpartisans.org