At 83, Essie Shor of the Bronx has her first book coming out in a few weeks, timed to coincide with the release of the major Hollywood film, “Defiance,” which opens a limited engagement here Dec. 31 and wider release two weeks later. Both her book and the movie address the story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish partisans who helped save hundreds of Jews in the forests of Nazi-occupied Belarus.
Shor was a key member of the group for two years, as a rifle- and gun-toting teen sent on dangerous missions to convince Jews to leave their ghettos and come live, and fight, in the forest.
Hers is a harrowing true story of a girl whose town, Novogrudek, was invaded when the Nazis rounded up and killed 4,000 people in a single day, including her mother and two sisters. Her two older brothers also perished during the war. Shor escaped the ghetto and joined her three cousins — Tuvia, Zusia and Asael Bielski — and about two-dozen others in the forest. From 1942 to 1944, the group grew to include more than 1,200 and often fought alongside Russian partisans.
Shor is hoping that the movie, starring Liev Schreiber, Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell, will pique interest in the history of the largest of Jewish partisan groups during World War II.
“With the movie coming out, my daughter said this is my chance to tell my story,” Shor noted the other day.
She had been working on it for years already. A bright, feisty woman who married and moved to New York after the war, Shor became a substitute teacher in the public school system, retiring only three years ago. It was while taking a class on early childhood education at Lehman College in 2001 that her teacher, Andrea Zakin, encouraged her to tell the story of her partisan experiences. The two collaborated on Shor’s memoir, “Essie: The True Story of a Teenage Fighter in the Bielski Partisans,” which is 80 pages and aimed at a young adult audience.
Shor said it is “as honest as the day” and emphasizes the bravery of those who fought and endured with the partisans.
Watching the new film at the Museum of Jewish Heritage was a “very depressing experience,” Shor said, because it brought back painful memories of her youth. She said that parts of the film version are exaggerated — she helped, “through channels,” to convince the filmmakers to scale down a scene of a Jewish wedding in the forest, complete with white dress and headpiece for the bride. But she said “the acting is superb and I think it will make a hit.” Most importantly, she said it gives lie to the notion that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter.
“This movie shows that they did try, but they couldn’t succeed against a regular army.”
Shor is hoping her book will be a success, filling the void as a firsthand account of a girl who not only survived the Nazi terror but fought it as well.