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Judith Ginsburg: in the Jewish Resistance During WWII

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
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One of the fortunate few who survived the Holocaust, young Judith Ginsburg served with a Jewish resistance group that successfully fought the Nazis. Learn how she endured though horrific times.

Today 84-year-old Judith Ginsburg lives in Florida, not far from two of her four children. Originally from the city of Lida, which is now in present-day Belarus, Ginsburg is appreciative for what America has done for her. She admits that while she and her late husband were never rich, they have lived a good and normal life. Yet as a Holocaust survivor Ginsburg is haunted by what had happened to her over 60 years ago, a time when her family and thousands of other Jews perished.

“How I survived I don’t know,” she says. “But I survived with tremendous guilt. Why did I survive? Why not my family? It’s been sixty-something years and I still wake up with that guilt.”

Her personal story represents both the horrors of the Holocaust and the human will to survive. Despite tremendous obstacles and dangers Ginsburg ended up as a member of the Bielski partisans, a group of Jewish resistance fighters who rescued over 1,200 Jews during World War II. In the wake of the recent film Defiance, which tells the story of the Bielski brothers-led unit, Ginsburg is now sharing her memories from that time.

As a teenager Judith was living in Lida—which was under Soviet control—when events unfolded that would change her life. The first happened in June 1941 as the Germans bombed her city and then put the Jews in a ghetto. “We were camped into two streets,” she recalls. “It was very old homes…five families in a little apartment, and they started organizing the ghetto. They started to take us to work right away.”

The second devastating event happened on the morning of May 8, 1942, when the Germans ordered everybody out of their houses to start marching outside of the city. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Ginsburg says. “While [the soldiers] were walking us, they were beating us. They were killing people who couldn’t walk. They took children from their mother’s arms. It was just terrible.”

During the march, the German soldiers divided the Jews into two separate lines: to the right represented those who would die, and the left was made of up of those who would live. Ginsburg and her sister and brother-in-law were put on the right line, but Ginsburg’s brother, a tailor who made the soldiers’ uniforms, convinced the Germans to put them on the left. In the end, over 5,000 Jews were murdered that day.

“Some of them were not even killed,” says Ginsburg. “They were thrown into the ditches where they dug. They made them get undressed and they were shooting some of them. A lot of people were buried alive.”

The 1,800 survivors of the massacre returned back to the ghetto, but the disruption wasn’t over. On Sept. 22, 1943, the Nazis returned again and ordered the Jews to walk to the train station. “We knew they were going to kill us,” Ginsburg says. “We never heard of concentration camps.”

It was a scene similar to what happened the year before: there were beatings, shootings and killings during the journey. While walking alongside her sister, Ginsburg came to the attention of a German soldier who was sympathetic to her plight. “He said to me, ‘You’re so young and you’re pretty.’ Tears came out of his eyes. I knew he was probably feeling sorry for us. My sister [who was with her children] noticed it and she said that’s good. ‘Tell him you’re gonna run.’”

With another girl, Ginsburg plotted her escape as they were nearing the station. By that time children were screaming and yelling. “I said to the German, ‘I’m gonna run but you could shoot us,’”says Ginsburg. “’Please don’t catch us.’ We start running, and they start shooting. I don’t know if anybody was killed but they made a commotion so we could escape. We jumped [and] ran over to the street.”

After their escape, the two girls went to a village where they were taken in by a shoemaker and his wife. They provided bread and milk to the hungry escapees. “[He said,] ‘God sent you to me because the Jews were good to me, and I will help you as much as I can.’ We were crying, and he was crying with us.”

Ginsburg had already heard of the Bielski partisans, who were hiding in the forest. While waiting along with other survivors to be picked up by the partisans, she was approached by a man in a hearse from the Russian unit. “He said, ‘Who are you?’” says Ginsburg. “I told [him] who my father is. He said, ‘I knew your father very well and I will help you.’”

The man contacted the Russian commander, who in turn took in six survivors including Ginsburg. Eventually she joined the Bielski partisans, whose mission was to forage food to feed the Jews. “It wasn’t easy,” she recalls, “and people didn’t give you the food. You had to take the food. They didn’t rob—they took just for survival.”

Four months later Ginsburg and the others were liberated. She returned to her city and later married one of the partisans from the Russian unit. In 1949, the couple immigrated to the United States where Ginsburg’s husband became a cattle dealer. They settled in upstate New York, bought a farm and raised a family.

Ginsburg now resides in Florida—her husband passed away three years ago. She had always told her children what had happened during the war so they would never forget. “Every time when you talk it still hurts,” she says. “I had to do it for my children’s sake. They had to know what we went through.”

In looking back at her life, Ginsburg adds: “Time teaches you a lot. I’m not brave now and I wasn’t brave then, but I did what I had to do.”

More about Judith Ginsburg and the Bielski partisans

An interview with Ginsburg published on South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com
Background on the city of Lida
A history of the Bielski partisans from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Web site
Defiance movie Web site