Next week’s release of “Defiance,” the film about the Bielski partisans who fought the Nazis and saved hundreds of Jews in Belarus, will shine a rare spotlight on resistance during the Holocaust. That’s a topic that has long interested Mitchell Braff, 42, founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, which offers a trove of information about resistance to the Nazis and resources to be used with the film at www.jewishpartisans.org/defiance.
How has your organization grown since you founded it eight years ago?
We originally interviewed 40 partisans about their experience during the war and now have produced nine short films narrated by Larry King, Ed Asner and Tovah Feldshuh, and have 15 curriculum pieces, including some about the Bielskis.
The surviving Bielski brothers came to America, where they lived and died in relative obscurity without their story being told until now. What other fighters are alive today whose stories are untold?
There were 20,000-30,000 Jews like the Bielskis and nearly all their stories are unknown. That’s why our organization started. Over 40 of them are featured on our Web site, and a majority of them are still alive.
Why haven’t we heard more about people who stood up to the Nazis?
Many of the partisans did not want their story to be told. It was very difficult. Nearly all of them, including the Bielskis, lost a significant number of family members. They were lucky they had the opportunity to fight back and didn’t want to take anything away from survivors who didn’t.
Aside from the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland and the Bielski Brigade in the Soviet Union, where else did Jews fight the Nazis?
We have maps on our Web site, and you can see that places with the largest populations of Jews is where there was the most partisan activity: in Russia, Lithuania and Poland. But there were also Jewish partisans in Italy and Greece.
Many of the death camps did have uprisings. People resisted in many ways, including spiritual resistance — teaching Hebrew, acknowledging Jewish holidays.
Where did the unusual term ‘partisan’ come from? In America it usually refers to politics.
It’s really a word that is more European, not a word we use much here. Some people pronounce it parti-ZAN.
How did you become so fascinated with partisans?
I didn’t know what a partisan was until eight years ago when I met a man named Murray Gordon and he told me his story, which was very inspiring. At the time I had a company making films for corporations. He didn’t want to do an interview; it was too difficult to talk about it. He was fighting the Nazis on the Russian front when he was 16. When I was 16, I was living in a suburb of San Francisco thinking about who I wanted to invite to the prom.