The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Virtual ‘Zemlyanka’

Virtual ‘Zemlyanka’

When Shalom Yoran, his brother and three other Jewish youths spent two weeks carving a hidden shelter into the frozen ground in 1942 Poland, they never could have imagined "re-creating" it more than 60 years later in cyberspace.

"I couldn’t even imagine that I would survive," says Yoran, now 80 and living in Great Neck, L.I.

After fleeing their homes, Yoran’s small group spent five months in their dank zemlyanka (Russian for dugout) in the woods of Pushta, near the border of Belarus, hiding from the advancing Germans and their many sympathizers. At first their goal was to survive the bone-chilling winter. Later they joined the resistance and helped drive the Nazis out of Eastern Europe.

Now a 3-D simulation of the zemlyanka where Yoran, then 16, and his friends dreamed of fighting back has been painstakingly created by the Jewish Partisans Education Foundation, allowing visitors to its Web site to explore the log and stone shelter with its furnace, stockpile of food, single window and even a chess set made from potatoes.

The details are so intricate that zooming in on one of the walls reveals the carvings used by the boys to keep track of the passing days, before they fled the shelter during an attack by anti-Semitic villagers.

"It’s very realistic," Yoran says.The details are based on descriptions in his memoir, "The Defiant," written in 1946 but published 50 years later by St. Martin’s Press. Audio excerpts from the book are available on the site as recorded by CNN talk-show host Larry King, who describes the construction of and daily life in the makeshift shelter.

With the Internet now the world’s foremost research tool, designing a state-of-the-art site with maximum interactivity was important to the partisan foundation’s mission of spreading the word about the little-known exploits of Jews who fought back against the Nazis, said Mitchell Braff, who started the organization in 2001.

"Most of the people who fought the Nazis were young people in their teens and 20s," says Braff, 38, a San Francisco filmmaker. "They didn’t have children of their own to care for and so they were free to fight. So we see this as a teen empowerment story of people who stood up to oppression and made a difference."

The foundation is developing curricula for seventh- to 12th-graders about the 20,000 to 30,000 Jews who are believed to have fought in partisan units, either on their own or working with the Soviet army or underground resistance units. Braff hopes the material will transform the public perception of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust.

The Web site now features on-line testimony, in text and video clips, from eight surviving partisans. Braff hopes to expand that inventory to 50 by the end of the year. After reading the stories, a visitor can click on "Ask A Partisan" to submit questions via e-mail. Braff hopes this private forum will encourage young people who might be afraid or embarrassed to ask a question in person.

"The wonderful thing about the Internet is that we can make [data] accessible to millions of people cost effectively," says Braff, whose organization is funded by a grant from the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany and private donations.

Braff, who has a background in new media, says he was able to set up the site for less than $50,000 using contacts and staff people with similar experience.He was motivated to put aside his other work and focus on partisan awareness after meeting Murray Gordon of Oakland, Calif., a friend of his mother who spent the war sabotaging Nazi trains and bridges after escaping a Lithuanian ghetto. Surprised at how little he knew about Jewish resistance efforts despite a reasonable amount of Holocaust education, Braff figured the stories were vastly undertold.

Yoran is one of 43 former partisans whose experiences he has tapped for the foundation. Yoran, his brother Musio and some friends survived initially by creating fake wooden guns and convincing local farmers they were resistance fighters in order to get food and other supplies. But one day a Pole followed them back to the zemlyanka after they went into a village to pick up a box of matches, and soon they were surrounded by marauders armed with axes who chased the Jews farther into the woods.

Yoran later took up real arms against the Nazis with partisans, many of them anti-Semitic, as well as with the Polish and Soviet armies before sneaking into Palestine in 1945. A documentary based on his book was produced last year by Chip Taylor.

Yoran sees his contribution to Braff’s Web site as another way to fulfill a promise to his mother shortly before she died in 1940: survive and tell the story of the Holocaust.

"I speak about it all the time," he says. "I feel it is my duty, while I am alive, to tell the world what happened."

The Jewish Partisans Education Foundation Web site is

read more: