Book review: We Fought Back: Teen Resisters of the Holocaust

After this weekend’s horrific events in Charlottesville, I thought I’d share a nonfiction YA book about Jewish teenagers who escaped death marches, labor camps, and ghettos to fight Nazis.

This collection of seven individual stories, based on author Allan Zullo’s interviews with each participant, highlights eastern European partisans who “wreaked havoc on the Nazis through guerrilla warfare and sabotage.” Simultaneously thrilling and harrowing, these tales honor real-life heroism while remaining truthful about the costs of war.

Chonon Bedzowski was 17 when his family took refuge with the Bielski Brigade. He describes 800 men, women, and children marching single-file through 24 miles of swamps and back again to escape the Luftwaffe. Yet Chonon’s recollection of joining the largest Jewish partisan unit in all of Nazi-occupied Europe is largely one of finally feeling unafraid to be himself.

Sarah/Sonia Shainwald, the only woman in this collection, served as a 15-year-old field nurse in the Ukranian city of Kovel. Day and night, carts of wounded soldiers awaited Sonia’s care. Lacking medical supplies, she reused bandages from the newly dead and held dying soliders’ hands when there was nothing more she could do. Despite all she saw, she “felt liberated ever since her first day as a partisan.”

Surviving subzero winters in swamps and forests, Jewish partisans had to evade violent anti-Semitism even from their comrades. At 15, Paul Strassman blew up a Nazi supply train, only to have his team leader aim a gun at him and suggest, “Let’s get rid of the Jewish kid.” Romi Cohn secretly supported 58 Jewish families as a 15-year-old, but was in constant danger of exposure from his non-Jewish neighbors. Sixteen-year-old Frank Blaichiman rooted out Nazi collaborators–usually ordinary citizens–attempting to destroy him and his friends.

Yet shining through these stories is each teen’s righteous determination to survive and fight back.

The end of each chapter describes the person’s after-war experiences. Most emigrate to America, become citizens, raise children, and create businesses, charitable foundations, and books to ensure that their stories are never forgotten.

I recommend this book for readers age 12 and up because of its mature themes and honest depictions of wartime violence. It is an effective reminder of how previous generations fought back against virulent racism. Our job now is to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

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