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by Leonard Tushnet
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, “Honoring the Jewish Resistance.” Originally published in 1961.
JEWISH DOCTORS, distinguished in every branch of medicine, have not had a reputation as military leaders or organizers. Yet almost all the doctors in the Polish resistance movement were Jewish — and the entire Russian partisan force owes a great deal to a little Jewish doctor in Byelorussia.
Dr. Yehezkel Atlas was born in 1910 in Chornski Gora, near Lodz, Poland. His father was a merchant of modest means. After the usual Orthodox Jewish religious education and the completion of courses open to Jews in the secular schools, young Atlas was faced with the customary choice of those Jews who wanted to study medicine but were kept from doing so by the quota system: he could be baptized as a Christian or he could leave the country to study elsewhere. He went to the University of Bologna, from which he received the M.D. degree early in 1939.
He returned to Poland just before the outbreak of World War II. When the Nazis overran Poland, Dr. Atlas, his parents, and his 17-year-old sister Celina, a dental student, fled with thousands of other Jews into that part of the country that had been taken over by the Soviet forces. The family settled in Kozlowszczyzna in the Slonim district of Western Byelorussia. Here he began the practice of medicine.
Two years of uncertainty followed, as the situation of the Jews under Nazi domination deteriorated. Refugees escaping across the border brought horrible tales of torture and genocide. Despite the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty, there was an unsettled atmosphere, felt more by the Jews than by their neighbors. Finally, on June 22, 1941, with the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the situation of the Jews became desperate.
The Slonim district quickly fell under the attacks of the Germans. Bitter persecution followed, with inhuman decree after inhuman decree reducing the Jews to the status of barely tolerated beasts of burden. It culminated in the setting up of ghettos in preparation for the “final solution of the Jewish problem” by disease, starvation, and extermination.
In May 1942, the ghetto of Kozlowsczyzna was liquidated. Heyk, the Gestapo leader of Slonim, arrived with a squad of Lithuanians notorious for their hatred of Jews. On his order, all the Jews of the town — with the exception of Dr. Atlas — were taken out to the market place and shot, their bodies dumped into a mass grave.
When the extermination squad came to the Atlas home, his parents were seized immediately. Dr. Atlas was spared because doctors were needed by the Nazis. There was some hesitation as to his sister, but when he said she was his sister, not his wife, she also was taken. For the rest of his life, he reproached himself for this needless adherence to the truth; he said that had he followed Abraham’s example in reverse (Genesis, 20:2), she would have been saved from the general massacre.
THE GERMAN ADMINISTRATION sent him to be the local physician in the village of Wielka Wola, on the River Szczara. The village was surrounded by dense forests, those of Ruda Jaworska, Dombrowszczyzna and Lipiczany. For two months, he carried on his duties as doctor in the village, which had never had any medical services in the past. He became popular with the peasants, who showed their appreciation by bringing food to supplement his official rations. Busy as he was, he could not drive out of his mind the desire to try to destroy the Nazi monsters, but the thought of vengeance seemed a fantasy as the Germans were winning victory after victory.
This period of despair ended when the peasants, realizing that he could be trusted, told him that there lived in the forests groups of former Soviet soldiers, left behind in retreat, as well as scattered active Communist Party members who had fled from the village. The forest dwellers were unorganized, each concerned with his own problems: to stay alive, to heal his wounds, to get arms and ammunition for defense against the exploratory and punitive raids of the Nazis into the forests.
When Dr. Atlas learned of their existence, he saw the possibility of building a guerrilla force at some time in the future, one that would harass and ultimately destroy the Nazis. The peasants had informed him that large caches of arms, abandoned by the Soviet forces in their hasty retreat, were hidden nearby. With the aid of the several friendly peasants, Atlas made contact with a small band of the forest dwellers. He brought them food, treated their wounds, and directed them to the hidden weapons.
Dr. Atlas remained in the village, using his post as a source of information. He saw no point in joining the forest dwellers at this time. But on July 24, 1942 came the dreadful news of the liquidation of the Dereczyn Ghetto, about 30 kilometers from Wielka Wola. Hundreds of Jews had been murdered there by the Germans, their Lithuanian contingents, and the local police. Only a score of Jews who had been safely concealed during the slaughter had escaped. During the following nights, they fled across fields and swamp to the nearby forests. Eleven reached the woods near Wielka Wola, where they met Dr. Atlas on one of his missions. Bella Hischhorn, a refugee who later became a nurse with the partisans, described him as “a lean but handsome young man, with blue eyes and curly brown hair, wearing a peasant shirt and high Russian boots, and carrying a revolver in his belt.”
The refugees told Atlas their sad tale. They informed him that they wanted to join the partisan group, which they had heard was in the forest. Atlas decided for security’s sake to tell them that no such group existed, but he led them into a safe clearing and returned later with food and weapons.
THE NAZI OCCUPATION forces had threatened the peasants of the vicinity with death if they sheltered Jews or gave any aid to refugees. The decree began to be enforced by public hangings. The peasants reluctantly withdrew their help to the forest dwellers, who quickly felt the effects of the cutting off of their supplies. When Dr. Atlas sensed that the situation was becoming desperate, he left the village to live permanently in the forest. With the few survivors of the Dereczyn massacre and several other stragglers as a nucleus, he organized a Jewish partisan band, the first of many guerrilla troops to be formed in that area.
He worked feverishly, for he knew that there was little time left. The efficient German war machine was about ready to clear the forests of their “illegal” occupants. There were those who could not join with the fighters because of their illness or their wounds. Atlas organized support for them, but felt that that was not his main task: The Jewish partisans were not to be a self-help organization, they were to be fighters. Arms were taken care of carefully, and supplies gathered until the Little Doctor thought he was ready for combat.
His original purpose was to destroy the German garrison at Dereczyn and execute judgment on the Germans and their helpers. The increasingly strict Nazi decrees, however, had squeezed scores of Soviet soldiers out of their hiding places in villages and forced them to seek refuge in the forests. Because of their numbers, they were forced to form more or less organized groups that soon coalesced into guerrilla bands. A central partisan command was set up under Boris Boolat, and the Jewish partisans came under its control. But the central command was not at all glad to have them: Jews were traditionally peaceful people, and their recent tribulations had impressed many of them with the need for self-preservation at any cost. When Dr. Atlas asked Boolat to be allowed to act according to his plan, he was initially put off.
But his solicitations finally wore down the partisan command. On August 10, 1942, Atlas was given permission to attack Dereczyn. He set out at the head of his men. Fearing that because of his medical training he would be called on to act as field surgeon, he took Bella Hirschhorn along with the company to give first aid as needed.
In the battle that followed, the Jewish partisans showed amazing bravery. They succeeded in driving out the Germans and seized the town. On the mass grave of the Dereczyn Jews, they executed forty-four policemen before retreating with fresh arms and equipment taken from the garrison.
This victory, one of the first in the entire partisan movement, spread the fame of Commander Atlas throughout the forests. The Russians, who had been skeptical of the fighting talents of the Jews, now accepted them fully. The Jewish partisans became known as the Atlasites. The partisan command itself had been urging Dr. Atlas to be a military surgeon because of the shortage of medical men, but now they desisted, deciding that Atlas was more valuable as a military leader.
Equipped with the booty from Dereczyn, the Jewish partisans, all young men, now all had high Russian boots, leather knapsacks and shirts, as well as good small arms and ammunition. Their fresh military appearance, no less than their initial success, welded them into a disciplined organization far different from the original bunch of despairing, ragged refugees. They felt themselves to be a band of avengers of their kinsmen, and expressed their hatred of the Nazis in quite dramatic ways.
Atlas told his company: “Our struggle only began with the defeat of the Germans at Dereczyn. Your lives came to an end in the slaughter of the 24th of July. Every additional day of life is not yours, but belongs to your murdered families. You must avenge them.” He asked every candidate who wished to join the company: “What do you want?” The expected answer was: “I want to die fighting the enemy.”
One episode, from a later period, illustrates the romantic sense of high adventure shared by Atlas and his group. He had made a vow to say kaddish over the graves of his parents and his sister. One night, together with a companion, Berik, who had had relatives in Kozlowszczyzna, he stole away from the camp. Under the very noses of the Germans, with weapons at the ready, they recited the prayer over the mass grave.
This exploit made him more glamorous than before to the Jews of the forests, but his other qualities endeared him even more. He was, to his people, the very personification of justice and truth. As an intellectual, as well as a physician — both honorable titles to Jews — he never looked down on his men, most of whom had been workers. He treated them as equals, and set an example in his own actions for all to follow — and they did, reasoning that if an educated man could find nothing too hard or too demeaning to do, how much more should simple folk do the same things?
ON AUGUST 15th, Atlas set out with several fighters from his group to a place twenty kilometers away near the town of Belitza on the River Niemen. His goal was to burn the bridge over which the Germans transported military equipment eastward. On their way, they met people fleeing in terror from Zhatel (Zdzientziol), where a general slaughter of the inhabitants had taken place. From them, they heard that a special German corps was on its way. In spite of the news they pressed on, and did not turn back until they saw the bridge collapse in flames.
The Jewish partisans had plenty of small arms but needed the explosives necessary for acts of major sabotage. Atlas succeeded in wangling two large shells from the central command. He personally removed the detonator mechanisms so that ordinary grenade fuses could be used. His unit set out to the Rozhanka station where, on August 24th, they derailed a train, the first such operation in the region. More derailments soon took place; other partisan groups followed their example.
Emboldened by their victories, the Atlasites, with additional partisan support, attacked Kozlowszczyzna. They were repelled, but nevertheless the Atlasites had a new tale to tell about their commander. The Germans were fortified in a woods near the River Szczara; the partisans were on the opposite bank. A large group of Nazi soldiers tried to cross the river in boats, but halfway across they met withering fire from the partisans. Most of the Nazi force drowned; others swam back and withdrew in confusion to their own lines.
The partisans saw two Ukrainians beginning to wade out of the river to get to their posts about a hundred meters away. Dr. Atlas sprang into the stream, followed a moment later by Elijah Kowensky. Swimming rapidly, they overtook their enemies and killed them, then swam back across the river under a hail of bullets.
The unsuccessful attack on Kozlowszczyzna triggered new German moves to clear the area of the partisans. An expanded guard force was sent to Ruda, a village in the heart of the forest. The presence of German troops and outposts, as well as the increasingly frequent punitive sorties into the forests, limited the movements of the partisans. It became urgent to drive out the Nazis.
The Atlasites attacked the Ruda forces on October 8, 1942. They drove out the garrison and held the surrounding area for a short time only, but long enough to gather considerable first-class arms and new equipment vitally necessary for the rapidly approaching winter. Dr. Atlas feared that the bitter winter cold of Byelorussia and the snows would hamper the mobility of his forces. In addition, their tracks could be easily followed to their secret camps. There was little he could do other than to preserve the health and welfare of his men and women throughout the dangerous months to come. He ordered the digging of large underground caves; he gathered great stores of food. In his new capacity of work-organizer, he led with the same good example as when fighting.
In a very short time — much shorter than he had counted on — winter quarters were ready, well stocked with flour, meat, potatoes and dried vegetables. Arms were kept in good order. Again the farseeing military leader, Dr. Atlas decided to forestall the inevitable boredom of enforced idleness among his company. Before the winter was well under way, he started operations against the enemy again. Nazi troops were ambushed, supply convoys intercepted, trains derailed.
The Germans resolved to put an end to the guerrilla warfare. Troops withdrawn from the Eastern Front, with added fresh reserves, were concentrated in the area. On November 21, 1942, a concerted attack was made on the partisans. Although it was not completely successful, great casualties were inflicted. Among those fatally wounded was Dr. Atlas, at the head of his fighting group, near Wielki Oblovic. His last words were: “Lads, I appoint Elik Lipszowicz to take my place. Pay no attention to me. Go on fighting.”
The Atlasites, their number sharply reduced after this attack, became part of a Soviet partisan regiment. Dr. Atlas was posthumously awarded a Hero’s Medal by the Soviet Union. He had been a military commander for less than six months, but his actions in that crucial early time of the formation of the partisan movement left behind a clear line of moral struggle for the Jewish fighters who later distinguished themselves in the war against Hitlerism.
Dr. Leonard Tushnet, a practicing physician in New Jersey for forty years, was a student of the partisan and ghetto resistance movements. His writings encompassed Jewish history, medicine, and science fiction.