Every person who experienced the Holocaust and World War II has a unique history. But those that epitomize the term and are confusing as well, are from those partisans who resisted the Nazis with force of arms. One such story is that of Abraham Asner, a Polish Jewish partisan, and if the story is confusing to us, it was deadly as well as confusing to those in the field with him. The combatants included not only his fellow partisans and Nazis, but also communist Russians, anti-communist White Russians, the Polish AKA (an anti-communist partisan organization, not always sympathetic to Jewish interests) and Lithuanians, who liked neither the Nazis nor the Russians.
Abraham Asner was born October 19, 1916, in Nacha, now part of Belarus. He was a middle child in a family of six sons and a daughter in the northeast of Poland. They were an observant family and Abraham fondly remembers celebrating the holidays. He served in the Polish Army, prior to becoming that unique sort of hero, a Polish Jew who became a partisan, resisting the Nazis until their ultimate defeat. He survived on skills, cunning, aid from others, an occasional break from Germans who for some reason, elected to let him go, and a generous dose of good fortune. Visiting a cousin in Lithuania when the war broke out, he evacuated after bombing started, but before the Nazis marched in. He was often on the move, scavenging for food, and accepting the charity of villagers, often going hungry. While in a ghetto, he worked at whatever was available, when the Germans registered those they could, then shot whomever they found not registered. Mr. Asner was often ordered to bury those murdered, in frozen ground under deep snow. Like many, he was buoyed by the belief that the Russians would come back soon.
As conditions deteriorated, he obtained a few weapons, an acquisition that sealed his decision to become a partisan. He describes his first ambush and the confusion that ensued with both sides firing and running in all directions. He and three of his brothers were frequently merging into larger groups, then splitting into smaller ones. While all were fearful of the Germans, many were also afraid of the Russians. Perhaps this convinced Mr. Asner to remain wary of all, especially the Russians.
In the fall of 1942, some in his group went back to the ghetto to avoid the harshness of winter, but then killing started there; it offered no refuge. The partisans, who were Communists, wanted the entire band to be organized under them, but some of these were common criminals, and Mr. Asner would not pledge his allegiance to them. The war continued and the partisans continued to harass the Nazis, interrupting their supply lines, often by demolition of railroad track and bridges. The partisans were sometimes infiltrated by spies, who when discovered, were put on trial and immediately executed. This often caused other, undetected spies to flee out of fear of discovery.
Once, while looking for food in the town of Znesen’ye, Mr. Asner and his brother came across a woman who wanted to join them. Abraham resisted since there was already a severe shortage of food. His brother’s convincing argument was that if their band of 33 people were going to starve, why not 34? On that, they were joined by the woman, Libke, who was later to become Abraham’s wife.
Sometimes weapons were provided by Moscow, accompanied by demands for more control. On occasion, this caused enmity among the partisans with varying loyalties toward Poland and/or Russia, frequently resulting in confusion and hostility that begat gunfire and sometimes death. And like all guerilla forces, they needed support from the populace, whose shifting allegiances could result in conflict. All wars entail confusion, often called the fog of war, to a certain extent, but with the many parties involved, it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for Mr. Anser and his band.
The Russians arrived in 1944, heralded first by artillery, then small arms fire. Many German POWs were captured, often executed before they made it behind Russian lines. The Russians immediately drafted all able partisans into the army or Soviet secret police (then the NKVD). Abraham Asner and his band of partisans had been liberated but not freed; their war was not over. Those drafted into the army were immediately sent to the front, often not returning alive. Mr. Asner avoided the army, but not the notorious NKVD. Finally, he was able to leave by virtue of a provision of law which allowed those who were Polish citizens prior to 1939 to return to Poland. From there he was able to emigrate to the U.S. because his father had lived in the U.S. for five years and his sister (the eldest child) had been born an American. Towards the end of the story we learn that his name is familiar because he is a cousin of the actor Ed Asner.
Interviewer: Sherri Weisburg
Format: Audio recording