Jews During World War II


Jews During World War II


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A Train in Poland

Nissan Ratzlav-Katz

My grandfather, of blessed memory, was an underground fighter – a partisan – in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. One of the main objectives of the partisans at the time was the destruction of eastbound train tracks, in order to prevent both the transport of German troops to the Russian front and the transport of Jews to their internment and ultimate deaths in Nazi concentration camps in the East.

On one occasion in 1944, my grandfather told me, his unit of partisan fighters blew up a railroad bridge and waited in ambush. When the train eventually approached, and was forced to stop in order to avoid plummeting into the depths of a canyon, the partisans charged aboard and killed all of the Nazi troops who were manning the cars. Afterwards, the partisans opened a passenger car from which they heard the sound of people excitedly talking and crying. Inside was a group of Jews dressed in their finest clothes and grasping suitcases filled with possessions – as if they were on their way to a long vacation. For their part, the Jews on board were shocked and apprehensive about the strange-looking people from the woods who had attacked their train and killed all of the Nazi soldiers. My grandfather told me that the rescued Jews, who moments before had been locked in the car, at first refused to believe that their liberators were Jewish themselves.

After some discussion, it became clear that the Jews in the railroad car were from occupied Belgium. The partisans described what awaited them in the Nazi concentration camps, but the Belgian Jews refused to believe their ears. They protested to the wild Jews from the forest that it was utterly impossible that the train was to take them to their deaths. “After all, the Germans told us that this was evacuation east for military purposes,” and, with a glance at the dark, foreboding Polish woods, "Who can believe that the cosmopolitan Germans would plan such a thing as you are telling us? In fact, the opposite is the case, we have to try and survive under the terms set by the Germans – your way is dangerous and only brings down the fury of the Germans on all the Jews.” The partisans tried to convince, cajole, plead, cry – nothing helped. They had to return to the sanctuary of the forest before the arrival of Nazi reinforcements.

The Belgian Jews waited patiently for the train to be repaired. Then, they continued on their journey eastward.

That story is one of the saddest, most chilling stories from that most sad and chilling period in history. However, more chilling is our failure to learn from those who have come before us. We still, in the words of Elie Wiesel, trust the promises of our friends more than the threats of our enemies.

While it is undeniably true that today’s train, the Arab-Israeli “peace train”, has run off the tracks, there are still those obstinate people who insist on remaining on board until the Arabs come to repair the train and carry all of us, for the sake of peace, of course, to our final destination. When Jewish leaders say that all that they are waiting for is a new leadership among the Arabs, they are saying that they are waiting for a new crew to fix the derailed train. They have no intention of leaving the train and confronting the truth of its ultimate destination.

Often, those Jewish leaders mired in the ideology of Olso appeasement pose what they deem to be a rhetorical question, “What’s the alternative?” The Belgian Jews in that Polish forest also made a calculation of “what’s the alternative.” They asked themselves: the woods or the camps? Total defiance or cooperation in an effort to appease our attackers? The answer to those now stuck in the “peace train” has to be the same as the response of my grandfather and his unit of partisans to the condemned Belgian Jews: the alternative, my brethren, is to take responsibility for yourselves and to live.

Nissan Ratzlav-Katz is Opinion Editor for


from the September 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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