Shalom Yoran, a Holocaust survivor and former partisan who was born as Selim Sznycer in Warsaw, died in Manhattan on September 9 after a long illness. A decade ago he published his war memoir, "The Defiant. A True Story of Jewish Vengeance and Survival," which describes a survival journey that lasted several years.
His amazing story was featured last week in the New York Times.
Yoran's journey began in September 1942. Shalom and his brother, Musio, left the Polish town of Raciaz, which was occupied by the Nazis. The two, aged 17 and 21, bid farewell to their parents, who were unable to escape with them.
"Go, my beloved children," their mother told them. "Try to save yourselves and take vengeance for us," she requested.
The young brothers disappeared into the woods, where they hid from the Nazi enemy. Their mother, Hannah, and father, Shmuel, were killed within days of their escape.
Yoran remembers his mother's last words
The two brothers spent three years fighting the elements, injury, illness and the Nazis. After enduring the winter in an underground shelter that they had built, they shifted from trying to survive to striking back. They became Jewish partisans, joining many others in fighting an insurgent war against the occupying Germans in Poland and elsewhere.
By the spring of 1943, they had conducted their first mission: Burning a factory that made rifle butts for German weapons. Yoran began to feel that he was fulfilling his mother’s wish.
"For me, this was the turning point in the war,” he wrote in his memoir.
"Instead of constantly being on the run, or hiding underground trying to survive, I had actually participated in an attack on the German war machine. This was the beginning of my revenge," Yoran wrote.
'I dreamed of having my own country'
During the war, Yoran and his brother became full-time fighters, killing German soldiers on patrols or at their camps, planting mines, destroying roads and bridges — all while scrounging and stealing food and clothing.
They soon made their way through northeast Poland, to the forests near Lake Naroch in what is now Belarus, to join a group of Jewish partisans who were coordinating their missions with Soviet forces.
Yet even there, fighting alongside non-Jewish Russians and Poles, they encountered anti-Semitism.
"So here we were, fighting against a common enemy — the Germans, whose aim it was to totally annihilate the Jewish people and to take over the Soviet Union — side by side with fellow fighters whose own hatred of Jews was notorious," Yoran wrote.
"In this demoralizing situation I told myself again and again that I was fighting as a Jew — with them, but not as one of them. I dreamed of having my own country, of fighting for it, and even dying for it. That was what kept up my morale."
Fought Nazis almost on his own and survived
In 1945, when Germany's fate had already been determined, Yoran and his brother joined the Polish Army as Allied forces closed in on Berlin. After the war he worked for a group that helped smuggle Jewish refugees into British-controlled Palestine, resisting British efforts to prevent them from entering.
He assumed many identities on his own journey there, including that of a British soldier. Finally, to convince the authorities that he was not a refugee but a lifelong resident of Palestine, he assumed the name of a dead cousin, Shalom Yoran, in 1946.
'No person should succumb to brutality'
When the State of Israel was founded, Yoran joined the Israel Air Force, where he met his future wife Varda. At the same time, his brother Musio moved to Paris and became a professor of antiquities and West Semitic languages at the Sorbonne. He died three years ago.
When Shalom arrived in the Land of Israel after the war, he began writing about his life, recording his memories in notebooks and on loose sheafs of paper while recovering from abdominal surgery in a hospital.
Decades later, while he and his wife were clearing out their apartment near Tel Aviv, he found the papers in a suitcase. The couple spent years translating the notes from Polish into English, often first into Hebrew, until the book was published 10 years ago.
In the late 1970s Yoran immigrated to the United States, where he helped found the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.
"If there is a lesson to be gleaned, it is that no person should succumb to brutality without putting up a resistance," he wrote in his book. "Individually it can save one’s life; en masse it can change the course of history."
Seven years ago he spoke to Ynet from his home in New York, following the publication of documents showing that the Nazis sought help in their war against the partisans. He said at the time that he did not see himself and his friends as a burden on the Germans.
"I didn’t think we were fighting and affecting this huge military force. It was more like a personal suicide than a war. They were so strong, and suddenly I see a letter written by the highest commander, saying that the partisans are causing so much damage to the Germans and that they don't have the military force to fight us," Yoran said in the interview.
"I remember the first weapon I got hold of," he added. "In 1942, in Poland, I worked in the municipality as a courier. I would stand at the door, and when people came they would send me to announce their arrival because there was no phone.
"One day, German officers arrived and asked me where the mayor was. They also told me to clean their car. Next to the steering wheel I saw a German pistol. On one hand I said to myself that I must take it, but on the other hand I was afraid. It was a dilemma, because I knew I would be killed. In the end I took the gun."