AHS freshmen create Jewish Resistance exhibit
ALPENA — An “untold story” about Jewish teens resisting Nazi rule amid murderous conditions during World War II is being told this summer at Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan.
Created by 92 freshmen from Alpena High School, the exhibit is based on the book, “We Fought Back: Teen Resisters of the Holocaust,” by author Allan Zullo. It opened with a reception Wednesday at the museum.
The exhibit, “We Fought Back,” is the product of two months of research and dedicated work by these freshmen in the American Perspectives PBL (Project-Based Learning) classes taught by Christi Schultz and Eric Mitchell. Schultz teaches the English portion of the classes, and Mitchell instructs the history segments.
“Last year when we were thinking about what we wanted to do with World War II, as a project we really thought, ‘What’s the most untold story of World War II?’ and this is what we came up with,” Mitchell explained. “Kids ask every year, ‘Why didn’t they fight back?'” He said that through this project, “you can see that they did, and all the ways how. And kids get really interested in World War II. … It’s a story worth telling, and that’s why we wanted to tell it.”
Students broke into groups and each group was responsible for part of the exhibit, which features an entrance banner, an educational brochure, two dioramas, and nearly 20 exhibit panels bearing photos and educational background pertaining to each topic.
“We started with reading the book, and we developed themes,” Schultz said. “One group designed the brochures, another group designed the opening panel (banner). Each group designed a different panel.”
Panels highlight the following topics: Partisan Survival In the Forest, Jewish Partisan Zemlyankas (shelters), Interior of Zemlyankas, Mending a Broken Wing, Wonder Women of the Partisans, Sonia Shainwald (Sarah Orbuch) and Sara Fortis, Guerrilla Warfare and Sabotage Used to Fight Nazi Enemies, Partisan Weapons: How They Fought Back, Romi Cohn, Paul Strassmann, Partisan Rebel: Frank Blaichman, The Camp That Saved Thousands, Rae Kushner, Selim Sznycer (Shalom Yoran), Partisans’ Path to Resistance, Living as A Jewish Partisan, World War II and Partisan Battles, and How Did the Jews Resist?
“Contrary to popular belief, Jews resisted against the Nazis and their allies in WWII,” the brochure reads. “These brave men and women were referred to as partisans. … Jewish partisans fought against tyranny, oppression and mass murder. They fought to take revenge for all of their loved ones who suffered and those killed by the Nazis.”
Throughout Europe, 30,000 Jewish partisans, many of them teens, fought back in a variety of ways, some violent and some non-violent. They hid and lived in forests, and many changed their names and helped others to change their names so they no longer sounded Jewish, making it easier to fake one’s identity as a Gentile and escape death by genocide.
Freshmen who participated in this project learned a lot and enjoyed the experience, which they shared with attendees at the opening reception on Wednesday.
“I didn’t know that the Jews fought back at all during World War II, so this is pretty interesting for me,” said Cash Spleet. “When we were told we were making an exhibit for the museum, I thought that was pretty cool, and it’s something I haven’t done.”
Spleet designed the panel about partisan Rae Kushner.
“I wrote about how she was put in a ghetto and she and 700 other partisans dug a big tunnel and escaped,” Spleet said. “Not all of them made it though, because a lot of them got shot, but she was able to make it into the woods and join her partisan group.”
Alexis Liske also worked on the Kushner exhibit.
“I didn’t know about Jewish partisans before this project,” Liske said, explaining that the panel features sections about Kushner’s life before, during and after being a partisan during wartime.
Allan Holben said he learned that “The Jewish people weren’t just sheep being led to slaughter. They took charge. A big handful of people took charge and they fought back. That’s one of the big reasons we did this exhibit, to let people know that they didn’t just accept their death. They fought back.”
“I think the biggest takeaway for me is that I always thought the Jews were kind of like sheep that kind of just followed along with what the Nazis said because they were scared, but this taught me that they fought back,” Spleet said. “I got, kind of like, a whole new respect for people who fought in World War II, and Jews who went through concentration camps, and all that.”
Gabrielle Orr learned not only about the Jewish partisans, but how to make a brochure as well.
“It’s very informative to the public,” Orr said of the exhibit. “I think it’s good for people to understand, back then, what people had to go through, and what people were appreciated and what people weren’t appreciated.”
Reggie Rambus found it interesting to learn how young these Jewish resisters were.
“I learned that these partisans weren’t like 30 years old, or 40, they were pretty young, like around our age,” said Rambus, who is 15. “So every time I thought about that, I could never imagine me fighting in the middle of the woods for my life.”
Through this project, Emily Black learned to use her public relations skills as well as honing her English and history skills.
“We created the thank-you panel, but we were community outreach, so we talked to our community partners, so we talked with the library, the museum, even the Jewish Partisan Foundation based in California,” Black explained.
She found the experience inspiring, and she admired the strength of those involved.
“I learned a lot about the mentality you had to have,” Black said. “So, these 15- to 18-year-old kids were fighting in the woods, freezing cold, not being able to go outside during the day, and you know, you have to think about the mentality and the state of mind that you had to keep during that situation.”
Kegan Sharako designed the panel about how the partisans resisted.
“There are three main types of Jewish resistance,” Sharako explained. “There was the resistance that wasn’t really confrontational with the Nazis, it was more like, behind the scenes. So things like destroying supply lines and destroying ammunition. The second one is confrontational resistance, which is engaging the Nazis in battle and other things like that. Then there was the third one, which was non-confrontational and non-harmful resistance, like making paintings and poetry to express how they feel during this time.”
Ande Fisher’s group did the panel called “The Wonder Women of the Partisans.” He said that “even though they were deemed less useful,” many women played a vital role in the resistance.
“We talked about how women partisans played a role,” Fisher said. “They didn’t just perform the traditional roles of cooking, cleaning, caring for the wounded, stuff like that. They actually went out and they fought and they made an impact in the war.”
For more information, visit the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation website at www.jewishpartisans.org. To learn more about the book, visit Zullo’s website at allanzullo.com.
The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation provided students with resources and educational materials. The Besser Museum assisted students in creating their exhibit. The Alpena Public Library printed the banner. Amanda Pilarski’s AHS Digital Media Class printed the exhibit panels and labels using Adobe Photoshop.