On VE Day, We Remember the Partisans Who Risked Everything for Freedom
Idols of white supremacy are today heading into the twilight, as the dark side of long-vaunted “heroes” finally comes under scrutiny. This goes not just for the United States’ founding fathers, but also some of those who joined the fight against Nazism and the Holocaust. Men like Churchill, Stauffenberg, and Schindler did eventually turn against fascism — but they were themselves implicated in imperial conquest and rapacious exploitation.
Hollywood has in recent years served up all manner of fantastical exploits portraying resistance to Nazism, from Inglourious Basterds to Jojo Rabbit. Yet such movies are perversely untroubled by the concern to spread awareness of real-world examples. The other side doesn’t seem to share this memory loss: around the world, monuments to the Nazis and their collaborators still number in the thousands. When establishment press does turn to overlooked accounts of resistance fighters to fascism, they are too often cloaked in identitarianism and voided of the participants’ real politics.
These politically conscious anti-fascist fighters fought for future generations. But they remain buried under the weight of Cold War narratives writing them out of history — and often overlapping with fascist anti-communism. The actual historical record is filled not with opportunistic and compromised imperialists of the likes of Churchill, but the courage and bravery of women, children, disabled people, and ethnic minorities. Marked for either total subjugation or murder by the Nazis and their allies, they joined the struggle against fascism. True paragons of virtue really are there to be found — if only the lingering Cold War shadows had not prevented light from being shone in the right places.
The histories of female, child, disabled, and ethnic minority fighters against fascism underlines the folly of “totalitarian theory.” For all the crimes of Stalinism and the purges, the claim that the war was fought between twin totalitarianisms elides the willfully ageist, sexist, and racist character of fascism. It deliberately targeted entire categories of humans — especially women, children, and the disabled — in a way that Soviet communism never did. The following examples taken from Soviet memory culture in fact reveal that those most celebrated, emphasized, and remembered were women, children, minorities, and the disabled — partisans who fought for their own liberation and for that of everyone else.
Targets, but Fighters, Too
Well into our own day, popular representations from films to podcasts continue to slight and marginalize the memory of such fighters who came from attacked and vulnerable groups.
While the Nazi genocide of the Romani people and mass murder of the differently abled remain underemphasized, perhaps even less well known were genocidal plans that targeted East Europeans and envisioned the near absolute subjugation and removal of women from public life. The Generalplan Ostintended a “clearing” of 80 percent of the native inhabitants of Eastern Europe. Even within Germany itself, the Nazi regime began to bar women from judgeships from the start, gradually moving on to prohibit higher education for women. By the late 1930s, even new grammar schools would not take on women as students.
Perhaps it is all the more significant, then, that some of the sharpest swords in the arsenal against fascism were wielded by women. In their roles as snipers and fighter pilots, whom the German army notoriously nicknamed “the night witches,” women met and exceeded the level of achievement of their male counterparts.
Behind the front lines in occupied countries, women played a leading role as partisans. In fact, these crews were not only the most effective resistance to fascism but ended up as one of the most gender-equal institutions in modern European history. These partisans didn’t have a bird’s-eye view over battle, and many enjoyed neither direct state support nor connections with a more powerful ally. Often, they were individuals with their back against the wall, willing to take up arms and make a contribution to a global struggle. Decisive were the twenty-five divisions of partisans who fought on Soviet territory behind German lines. But there were also independent or small units who actively fought back, even faced with harrowing odds.
There was Roza Papov, a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo, already a doctor before World War II. Serving among Josip Broz Tito’s Communist-led partisans in Yugoslavia — the one European country where anti-fascists succeeded in liberating themselves from the Nazis — she was put in charge of recruitment and the network of field hospitals. Later, after the war, she was promoted to general — the first ever woman to take up such a role in the Balkans.
The cartoonish fantasies of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, populated by swashbuckling Americans, distort history and miss the real-life stories of underground squads that really did target fascists. One notable fighter was the Sephardic woman Violeta Jakova from Sofia, who took out a Nazi-allied Bulgarian general as well as the Bulgarian chief of police. Violeta was only captured after a fierce gun battle.
On the other side of Europe, in the Netherlands, Hannie Schaft was a member of a resistance council where she helped obtain IDs sorely needed for Jews in hiding. Also a member of an assassination squad that often traveled by bicycle, Hannie refused any actions that could jeopardize the lives of children. She personally assassinated the Dutch collaborator that handed over the entire registry of Jews from the city of Haarlem. Barely two weeks out from the end of war, she was captured and identified by the red roots of her hair. Executed at close range, when at first only wounded, she told her killers, “I shoot better.”
Even the youngest women distinguished themselves as partisans. Hailing from Leningrad, fifteen-year-old Zina Portnova was waylaid at her grandmother’s in Vitebsk, Belarus, over her summer holiday in 1941, at the moment Adolf Hitler launched his invasion. In this Soviet republic, a quarter of whose population was killed during the war, she joined the Young Avengers and got a job as a dishwasher at the local German officer’s mess hall. She managed to poison the soup of over one hundred fascists — and survive sipping some herself under examination to evade imprisonment.
After she was nursed back to health by her grandmother, her entire unit was betrayed and almost all thirty members were murdered. When she set out to find the traitor, she was seized. During interrogation, she grabbed the Mauser of the Gestapo that abducted her and shot him and two other officers. Zina was then shot trying to escape. Imprisoned and tortured for months, she even had her eyeballs pried out. Blinded, she tried to throw herself under a car, but was attended to by German doctors so the torture could be continued. But she never turned on her comrades.
The Black Bread of History
Cases like Zina’s were almost entirely unique to the Eastern Front, where the child populations of entire countries were robbed of innocence and forced to live in everyday terror. These child fighters are what the Soviets would come to commemorate as “pioneer heroes,” adolescents who managed to hold back the fascist assault on their world. With none of the egoism, airs, or petty conflicts of adults, their record, largely unknown in the West, forms what some have called “the black bread of history.” Their indomitable will to hold up signs of resistance was, as their adopted slogan said, “for their friends.”
There was Marat Mazey from Minsk who survived his father’s purging in the 1930s and then his mother’s hanging by the Germans in 1942. He carried on after her example, sheltering and tending to partisans. Marat’s size aided in escaping through enemy lines for reinforcements, and survivors remembered how, even wounded, this teenager would exhort soldiers on to fight. Finally, off on a scouting mission, he and his commander were surrounded by Germans. The adult was instantly shot, but they wanted to take the boy alive. At the age of fourteen, the boy raised a grenade over his head, protecting his comrades, and took some fascists with him into the beyond.
Another form of resistance was more spiritual than material, of which there are undoubtedly countless cases never recorded. It illustrates how the Holocaust is so deeply embedded as to be indivisible from the war history of Soviet lands, in a way that the Anglosphere struggles to grasp.
Within the ranks of the Red Army, numerous minorities were mobilized from across Central Asia and Siberia to roll back the fascist tide. At the time, they were demonized as “barbaric Asiatic hordes.” But it is to these various small nationalities, largely unknown in the West, to which most of Europe owes its freedom — and the reality that casualties were not far worse. To mention just one extraordinary case: Mikhail Devyataev, an ethnic Mordvin, was shot down and imprisoned first in Lodz and then Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he managed to obtain the identity of a deceased Soviet soldier. Pressed into slave labor at the V-2 ballistic missile plant at Peenemünde, he and a group of fellow Soviet prisoners managed to take down a guard. They used his uniform to not only escape but commandeer the commandant’s H22 bomber. Flying off the island, fending off German and then Soviet defenses, Devyataev and his crew managed to provide critical intelligence about the V-1 and V-2 “revenge” rockets that claimed the lives of several thousand British civilians.
Finally, given that the Nazis systematically murdered the differently abled, there is some poetic justice that there were several cases of distinguished Soviet pilots who carried on after being maimed for life. The Soviet fighter ace Aleksey Maresyev survived an eighteen-day escape journey on foot after being shot down behind enemy lines. Marked as a hopeless case due to blood poisoning and gangrene, he suffered the amputation of both legs. Incredibly, Mareseyev returned to flight barely over a year later, wearing prosthetic devices and completing another eighty combat sorties.
Writing these heroes out of the story of the “greatest generation” is yet another form of pernicious revisionism. Together they form not only a message in a bottle for the continuing battle against fascism, but a lodestar of feminism, childhood empowerment, and anti-fascist internationalism. When too many preferred to look away, they set a lesson for posterity of true solidarity. They formed small sparkles of light amid the darkness, leaving us a legacy of men and women who fought for a better humanity.
Adam J Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York.
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