By The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation
On September 1, 1939, German tanks and army units poured across the Polish border, while German bombers took to the skies to pound Poland's cities. Four weeks later Poland surrendered, bowing to vastly superior forces.
After their victory the Germans wasted little time in launching their war on the Jews. Businesses were confiscated. No Jews were allowed on the streets between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Jews were not allowed to use public transportation. They were forced to wear armbands with a Star of David and made to perform forced labor. But the worst was still to come. "The Jews must be "finish[ed] off," declared Poland's new rulers.
Having fought against anti-Semitic neighbors throughout his youth, Ben was well prepared to fight as a partisan.
Ben Kamm was 18 years old when the Germans invaded. Life had been good to him until that point. He had a nice room in a comfortable apartment he shared with his parents and four younger brothers. Owned by his grandfather, the building also housed his extended family. His father ran a thriving meat business that had been in the family for generations. And yet, anti-Semitism had been a constant feature of his daily life. In Ben's memory, he and his fellow Jews from Warsaw were taunted consistently. As he put it, "We were abused every single day -- they called me 'dirty Jew, lousy Jew' -- and every single day we had to fight." Having fought against anti-Semitic neighbors throughout his youth, Ben was well prepared to fight as a partisan.
Into the Ghetto
A year after the German invasion of Poland, the Polish Jews were forced into ghettos -- forced mostly by superior German strength but persuaded to go through lies about eventual freedom. Warsaw, the Polish capital, was divided into "Aryan" and "Jewish" sectors that were separated by an eleven-foot wall capped by broken glass and barbed wire. Within weeks, close to a half million Jews had been uprooted and squashed into apartments lining the 73 streets that constituted Warsaw's ghetto. The Kamms packed a few bags of clothes and a handful of mementos for their relocation. They said goodbye to their spacious apartment in Warsaw and moved into a single room with seven other people in the ghetto.
The ghetto itself was quickly overrun by hunger, disease and death. Smuggling food or goods into the ghetto was punishable by death. In fact, just after the Kamms had moved into the ghetto, notices went up announcing that the death penalty would be given out to any Jew who was simply caught leaving the ghetto without permission, smuggling or not. As Ben explains, "They kill you if they find you, but you have to do it to survive" and Ben wanted not only to survive himself, but to help feed his family. Flouting Nazi orders, Ben began smuggling. As the war intensified and conditions worsened, starvation and disease stalked the ghetto. The future looked bleak.
Ben's appearance helped him out: with his blond hair, blue eyes, and perfect command of Polish, he was able to move among Christian Poles without arousing suspicion. Moreover, Ben's aunt lived in the "Aryan" section of town. None of her neighbors knew she was Jewish, having for years lived as a Christian married to a Polish officer. She too was blond and blue-eyed and was willing to risk her own safety to help her family on the Jewish side of the wall. The aunt had a son who owned a print shop and who began printing false identity papers. Ben was "conscripted" to deliver the forgeries. In return, his aunt provided meat and marmalade for his family. While it was dangerous work, Ben enjoyed defying the enemy and hungered to contribute more to hasten its defeat.
The Call of the Partisans
In the spring of 1941, Ben's aunt had a piece of exciting news; partisans were rumored to be fighting the Germans near Lublin, approximately 100 miles from Warsaw. "I didn't know what a partisan was," Ben recalls. "I just wanted to go fight the Germans because of what they did to the Jews." Electrified, he convinced nine of his friends to escape the ghetto and to attempt to join the fighters. Ben was barely 20 and had never been away from his family for any length of time, but neither he nor his family members expected the separation to be long. "We thought the war would be over in a couple of months. Russia and England and France are in the war, they're gonna crush Hitler. So we didn't expect this, the war to last."
The young men set out for Lublin without a single gun or piece of ammunition. In the town of Krasnik they found Grzezor Korczynski, a partisan commander who had been an experienced former Polish officer. Korczynski could have easily rejected the possibility of new recruits given their lack of arms. As Ben explained: "If you don't have a gun, no way you can survive." Because Korczynski's group was small, though, "with [only] maybe 5 to 8 people," according to Ben, he accepted the newcomers whose first job was to procure arms. Guns were not only necessary for killing Germans, they offered protection against "Polish bandits... because they were thirsty to kill Jews just like the Germans." Guns could be used, too, to persuade farmers to give up food and provide them shelter.
Obtaining a gun was not that difficult -- once you already had one. "So we decided to make an ambush on the Polish police. They used to ride on bicycles. We used to go in the forest. When the three policemen passed by, we grab them, take away their guns."
Life on the Run
The transition from city-dweller to partisan was difficult for Ben. "Everyone slept in a barn," he recalled. "During the day we talked about how to ambush the Germans, how to get food, and how to get rid of the lice. One million lice! Everybody had lice. Do you know that for three years I never took a shower or bath? I didn't know what a bath was."
While the partisans were eating in a barn, the Polish police came and shot five of them. The barn's owner had betrayed them.
Worse than lice was the danger that came from one's fellow humans. One day, while the partisans were eating in a barn, the Polish police "came and shot five of them." The barn's owner had betrayed them. The incident prompted three of Ben's men to quit being partisans and to return to Warsaw. Only Ben decided to stick with Korczynski, determined to fight until there were no Germans attacking.
Despite his conviction, however, Ben too, was soon headed back to Warsaw. A letter from his mother, delivered through an intricate system of couriers, made it plain that they were starving. Ben sewed pockets into his pants and shirts and filled them "with beans, beans, beans, beans, and all kinds of other packages." Using the familiar smuggling routes, he snuck back into the ghetto. What he saw filled him with horror. "People -- dead people -- laying in the streets. Children begging. People begging. Horrible. Horrible." Thousands of Jews had already been deported. As his mother had indicated, Ben's family was in dire straits. They lived in a single room with three other families and were close to despair.
Ben spent only two days in the ghetto after which he never saw his brothers and parents again. Looking back, he regrets not trying to take his younger brothers with him when he left. At the time, though, he felt it would be safer for them to stay behind and believed that his family would survive. As Ben put it: "I think that the human mind cannot comprehend what happened. That they were going to take people and gas them and kill them by the millions, it didn't even come into my mind."
Back to the Woods
Ben rejoined the Korczynski brigade with a renewed sense of purpose, volunteering for one dangerous mission after another. Among the most dangerous was the liberation of a forced labor camp. The Janow Lubelski camp was situated in a meadow close to a forest. Inside were approximately 1,000 Jews working on a vast irrigation project. The partisans surveyed the camp and planned their attack. "We stayed in the ravine all day until the sun went down," Ben remembers, and "when it got dark we crawled up to the camp." They waited patiently for the signal to attack. When it came, they rushed in and killed the guards. The mission came off exactly as planned. To mark the event in his memory, Ben took the gold cufflinks off the commandant of the camp, later donating them to the Russian war effort.
With the opening of the Janow Lubelski camp, the Jews interned there were free to leave, but at great peril. "We couldn't take them with us," explained Ben. "We didn't have the guns. We didn't have the food." Some inmates ran off to the forest, while others remained in the camp. "They were scared. They didn't know what to do, where to go. They stayed there. Next day Germans came in, took them someplace else."
While it might seem that escape was the best option, it is important to bear in mind that the local population was hostile, the terrain difficult, and provisions absent. In the camp, the prisoners at least knew what to expect. Germany was at war and workers were in short supply. The irrigation system they were building was nowhere near complete. Their labor was still in demand. Most importantly, the Jews at the camp could not have known that the Germans intended to leave no Jew alive. While sixty of the escapees managed to avoid recapture, the rest were rounded up and executed.
The number of people fighting with the partisans varied from week to week. One day, 16 men found their way to the partisans. "They were Polish Jews, soldiers who were prisoners of war in a camp in Lublin. They ran away and came to the forests and they found us. They were so happy," Ben recalls. But that happiness was short lived as Korczynski had them shot. At his postwar trial, the former partisan commander defended the decision, arguing that the men had refused to obey his order to join the unit. Ben believes, though, that they were killed because they refused to turn over money and gold they had with them.
"Because he killed Jews, I was angry. Eventually, he would have done it to me," Ben assumed.
Whatever Korczynski's motivation, the incident had far-reaching consequences. Ben was furious. "Because he killed Jews, I was angry. Eventually, he would have done it to me," Ben assumed. Soon after, he left the unit in protest, taking some of the other men with him. Determined to avenge the murder of fellow Jews, they went on the attack, targeting Korczynski himself. In the fighting that ensued, both sides took casualties. Ben's group eventually realized that staying in the region was too dangerous, and they decided to move on.
"We heard that in the Polish Ukraine, a big partisan movement is forming, so we walked for two weeks, and we found the Russian partisan group." It was winter and bitter, bitter cold. Ben wore "a coat made out of sheepskin. A long coat. And rags around my feet, so my feet shouldn't freeze. The worst thing was rain. After rain you're soaking wet. I mean wet. And you never take a shower, you never bathe. You stink! Unreal. Like a dead animal. Just like a dead animal."
The Fyodorov Brigade
The camp they found was larger than they had anticipated: 1,600 fighters, spread out over nearly two kilometers. Ben and his company entered the sprawling compound and were welcomed as armed and experienced fighters. The commander, General Fyodorov, took them in and formed them into a separate platoon. Ben was glad to be with the Russians, for the Russians showed greater willingness to accept Jewish partisans into their ranks than did the Poles. Some Jews even rose to important leadership positions.
The Fyodorov Brigade proved to be one of the best supplied partisan units behind enemy lines. By the end of 1943, Germany was in full retreat, enabling the Russians to support their partisans by air. Ben still marvels at the scope of the unit. "We had four different radios. If we needed help from Russia, the airplanes came. We used to get drops with ammunitions, with guns, every day. They had five doctors. They had a place where they used to fix shoes, fix clothing. We had the orchestra. We used to dance." And instead of sleeping in barns or on the ground in the woods, they slept in bunkers called zemlyankas. "We dug a hole," Ben described, "with about 50 people and covered it up with trees. Like a room. You lay down and slept on your straw."
For the first time, too, Ben and his men received professional military training. "They taught us like a regular army... to use a machine gun, to use grenades, to place mines. ...Our main job was to destroy the rail lines going to the Eastern front." The platoon went out at night to blow up the cargo trains that traveled between the towns of Kovel and Sarny, planting mines under the tracks without being detected by the German guards. They targeted the heart of the locomotive, the train's engine. A disabled locomotive would disrupt the flow of equipment, medicine and troops, weakening the German war effort and hastening the war's end. By the end of 1943, the Fyodorov Brigade had destroyed 549 trains.
The German response to the disruption of the supply lines was to cut down the forests around the tracks, post more guards, and even put an empty freight car in front of the locomotive to protect the engine. The partisans stayed one step ahead of these strategies and changed their tactics in response: "We got magnetic mines from Russia. Didn't have to dig the hole, you just throw the mine, it got stuck to the machine, went about 100 yards, and blew up." Ben's platoon then sprayed the rest of the train with machine-gun fire and confiscated the supplies meant to sustain the German war machine. Once, he recalled, "there happened to be gifts for Christmas for the soldiers, from their families. Sweaters, gloves, cakes, all kinds of things." The loss of these precious holiday presents surely had an effect on German morale.
In addition to carrying out acts of sabotage, the Fyodorov Brigade practiced humanitarian aid, helping Jews who had escaped to the woods. Whenever they found "Jews hiding in the forest, we took them with us," Ben related. "Jewish people -- old, young, children. We took them with us and they survived the war."
The Final Battles
Toward the end of the war, with the Germans headed for defeat and the Russian front nearly liberated, all Polish partisans were ordered back to Poland to carry on the struggle there. "We were 1,200 Polish citizens, mostly Jewish... we just walked from the Ukraine back to Poland." The partisans reconstituted themselves into a new group named for a well-known Polish Communist living in Russia, Wanda Wasilewska. The group continued to receive airdrops from Russia, including such needs as ammunition, mines, medicines -- even commanders. They also received regular reports from Radio Moscow. Ben made a daily habit of listening to the news and became friendly with the radio operator.
The Wanda Wasilewska brigade had two objectives: to distribute weapons to the local population and to get as many people to fight as possible. Its troops fought the Germans in what sometimes amounted to full-scale battles. One such battle took place shortly before the end of the war. "The Germans sent thousands of soldiers to get rid of us. I listened to the news from Russia, so we knew they were coming." Having encircled miles of forest, trapping the partisans, the Nazis launched a fierce attack, using every weapon at their disposal. But the partisans held firm. Finally, after 16 hours of combat, they succeeded in breaking through the German line and forcing their flight.
A few months later Germany surrendered, and the war was over. Across Europe, the partisans laid down their weapons and went back home. But for Ben, and for many others like him, there was no home to which he could return.
At a very young age, Ben faced some of the most difficult choices a person may be asked to make: to leave a family that depends on you, to go off into a world out to destroy you, to take up arms and kill and run the risk of being killed. Ben chose all of these risks, though he couldn't have known what they would lead him to do. "You know at that moment," he acknowledges, "you don't think. If you think, you wouldn't do it, because human feelings wouldn't let you. But also revenge, revenge, revenge.... I can't forgive people [who] killed innocent babies, innocent women, innocent people.... They killed the best of us."
Not a Hero
Ben is proud of having fought with three different partisan groups and of his part in destroying 549 trains, which contributed to the defeat of the Germans. But he is saddened as well. "I am just very sorry," he explains, "that more of our Jewish boys and girls did not have the opportunity to do the same as I did."
The sole survivor of his entire family, Ben now lives in Los Angeles near his two daughters and three grandchildren. He's the recipient of many honors and has been decorated by both the Polish and Israeli governments. When asked if he was a hero on account of all he did during the war, Ben answers simply, "No, not a hero.... I was lucky I'm alive and can tell the story."
Courtesy of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. Visit their website at http://www.jewishpartisans.org.
To see a video of Ben and hear him speak in his own words go to http://www.jewishpartisans.org/t_switch.php?pageName=mini+bio+videos&fromSomeone=&parnum=38
© 2006 The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation