Sonia Orbuch was 17 when she joined a resistance group to fight the Nazis.

Courtesy of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (Sonia Orbuch); KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images (Top); dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo (Bottom)

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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, SL.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.9

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.1, Civ.6, His.1, His.2, His.4, His.9, His.14

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FLASHBACK

True Teens of History

The Girl Who Fought the Nazis 

Seventeen-year-old Sonia Orbuch was one of thousands of Jewish teens who risked their lives to fight the Nazis during World War II 

As You Read, Think About: How can learning about the past teach us about the present?

Shots were being fired in all directions, but 17-year-old Sonia Orbuch wasn’t afraid. An endless stream of wounded soldiers needed her help.

It was early 1944, and Sonia’s unit was fighting a bloody battle during World War II (1939-1945). The teen and hundreds of others were trying to prevent the Germans from capturing a key train station in the Soviet Union (see map, below)

Despite having no formal medical training, Sonia would spend the next 10 days on the battlefield. She barely slept or changed her clothes and had little to eat but crackers and bread. Day and night, she cared for injured troops, some whose limbs had been blown off. Since supplies were low, she had to reuse the same bloodied bandages over and over—all while dodging bullets herself. 

Shots were being fired in all directions. But Sonia Orbuch, 17, was not afraid. So many wounded soldiers needed her help.

It was early 1944. Sonia’s unit was fighting a bloody battle during World War II (1939-1945). The teen and hundreds of other people were trying to keep the Germans from capturing a key train station in the Soviet Union (see the map, “The War in Europe,” below).

Sonia had no formal medical training. But she would spend the next 10 days on the battlefield. She barely slept or changed her clothes. She had little to eat, other than crackers and bread. Sonia took care of injured troops day and night. Some of their limbs had been blown off. Supplies were low, so she had to reuse the same bloodied bandages over and over. She had to dodge bullets the whole time.

“The sounds from the front were terrifying,” Sonia recalled years later. “A relentless barrage of grenades, cannons, and rockets roared through the cold air. Any moment, I thought, we could be blasted to bits.”

At the time, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Nazi forces were carrying out their plan to conquer Europe and annihilate its Jews. Yet hundreds of thousands of Euro­peans were determined to stop them. These brave men and women, many of them teens, formed organized resis­tance groups to fight the Nazis.

Under the cover of darkness, these fighters, called partisans, blew up factories and railroads, stole weapons, and upset the flow of supplies to German troops. Some even confronted enemy soldiers on the battlefield.

Many of the partisans had military experience, but others were ordinary citizens. Like Sonia, 30,000 were Jews—fighting for their lives—and deter­mined to avenge the loss of their loved ones. After all, the Nazis had murdered many of their friends and relatives, and they weren’t going to give up without a fight. 

“If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew,” Sonia said years later. “That itself gave me strength to go on.”

“The sounds from the front were terrifying,” Sonia recalled years later. “A relentless barrage of grenades, cannons, and rockets roared through the cold air. Any moment, I thought, we could be blasted to bits.”

At the time, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Nazi forces were carrying out their plan to conquer Europe and annihilate its Jews. Yet hundreds of thousands of Europeans wanted to stop them. These brave men and women formed organized resistance groups to fight the Nazis. Those groups included many teens. These fighters were called partisans.

Under the cover of darkness, the partisans blew up factories and railroads. They stole weapons and upset the flow of supplies to German troops. Some even came face to face with enemy soldiers on the battlefield.

Many of the partisans had military experience. But others were ordinary citizens. Like Sonia, 30,000 were Jews. They were fighting for their lives and were determined to avenge the loss of their loved ones. After all, the Nazis had murdered many of their friends and relatives. They were not going to give up without a fight.

“If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew,” Sonia said years later. “That itself gave me strength to go on.”

Hitler’s Rise to Power 

As a young girl growing up in Luboml, Poland, Sonia never would have pictured herself fighting the Nazis. Back then, she lived with her parents and two older brothers in a small two-bedroom house on Chelmska Street. Sonia was quiet and studious, and loved going to the beautiful synagogue in town. 

But outside her close-knit Jewish community, anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) was a fact of life. For centuries, Jews’ religion and rituals had often kept them separate from other Europeans—and routinely made them a target.

In nearby Germany, Hitler and his Nazi Party had risen to power by tapping into that bigotry. At the time, Germany was struggling. Its defeat in World War I (1914-18) and the economic crisis that followed left the nation humiliated and poor. 

Hitler gave Germans a scapegoat for all the country’s problems: Jews. He blamed them for the nation’s high unemployment rate and called them “subhuman” and “an inferior race.” Once in power, Hitler stripped German Jews of their rights and forbade them from working certain jobs. But that was only the start.

In September 1939, days before Sonia was set to begin ninth grade, Hitler invaded Poland, sparking World War II. From that moment on, her life would never be the same. 

As a young girl growing up in Luboml, Poland, Sonia never would have pictured herself fighting the Nazis. She lived with her parents and two older brothers in a small two-bedroom house on Chelmska Street. Sonia was quiet and studious. She loved going to the beautiful synagogue in town.

But outside her close-knit Jewish community, anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) was a fact of life. For centuries, Jews’ religion and rituals had often kept them separate from other Europeans. It routinely made them a target.

In nearby Germany, Hitler and his Nazi Party had risen to power. They did it by tapping into that bigotry. Germany was struggling at the time. Its defeat in World War I (1914-18) and the economic crisis that followed had left the nation shamed and poor.

Hitler gave Germans a scapegoat for all the country’s problems: Jews. He blamed Jews for the nation’s high unemployment rate. He called them “subhuman” and “an inferior race.” Once in power, Hitler stripped German Jews of their rights. He forbade them from working certain jobs. But that was only the start.

Days before Sonia was set to begin ninth grade in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. That started World War II. From that moment on, Sonia’s life would never be the same.

Forced Into Hiding 

Within months of the war’s out­break, Hitler had invaded much of Europe. Many people in the growing German empire soon turned against their Jewish neighbors, setting synagogues on fire, destroy­ing Jewish businesses, and beating Jews in the streets. The vicious attacks prompted hundreds of thousands of Jews to try to flee their homes. 

But many of them had nowhere to go. Several nations, including the U.S., had set quotas that limited the number of refugees they would allow in. Sonia’s family was trapped.

When the Nazis arrived in Luboml, they forced the town’s 8,000 Jews into a crowded ghetto surrounded by fencing and barbed wire. Sonia, her parents, and 13 friends and relatives were crammed into a two-room house. By then, her brothers had already left to fight the Nazis—one with a partisan unit, the other with the Soviet army. She would never see them again. 

Each resident of the ghetto was given just one slice of bread a day and made to perform backbreaking work for hours at a time. Instead of going to school, Sonia and other young girls had to lug huge steel rails. If they stopped to catch their breath for even a second, they risked being beaten by Nazi guards. 

Then, in the fall of 1942, rumors spread that the Nazis were planning to kill all the Jews in the ghetto. For two days, Sonia and the 15 other people in the house hid inside—and didn’t dare make a sound. Every few minutes, they could hear German trucks passing by outside. But it wasn’t until years later that Sonia found out what happened: The Nazis had rounded up all the Jews they could find—1,700 men, women, and children—and dragged them to the country­side. There, they were lined up in front of giant pits and shot.

Within months of the beginning of the war, Hitler had invaded much of Europe. The German empire was growing. Many people living there soon turned against their Jewish neighbors. They set synagogues on fire, destroyed Jewish businesses, and beat Jews in the streets. The vicious attacks caused hundreds of thousands of Jews to try to flee their homes.

But many of them had nowhere to go. Several nations, including the U.S., had set quotas that limited the number of refugees they would allow in. Sonia’s family was trapped.

When the Nazis arrived in Luboml, they forced the town’s 8,000 Jews into a crowded ghetto. The ghetto was surrounded by fencing and barbed wire. Sonia, her parents, and 13 friends and relatives were crammed into a two-room house. By then, her brothers had already left to fight the Nazis. One brother was with a partisan unit. The other was with the Soviet army. She would never see them again.

Each resident of the ghetto was given just one slice of bread a day and made to perform brutal work for hours at a time. Sonia and other young girls had to move huge steel rails instead of going to school. If they stopped to catch their breath for even a second, they risked being beaten by Nazi guards.

Then, in the fall of 1942, rumors spread that the Nazis were planning to kill all the Jews in the ghetto. For two days, Sonia and the 15 other people in the house hid inside. They did not dare make a sound. Every few minutes, they could hear German trucks passing by outside. But it was not until years later that Sonia found out what happened. The Nazis had rounded up all the Jews they could find. This included 1,700 men, women, and children. The Nazis dragged them to the countryside. There, the people were lined up in front of giant pits and shot.

You Might Need to Know . . . 

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

The Nazis round up Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland in April 1943.

World War II (1939-1945) was a global conflict that pitted the Allies (led by the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) against the Axis Powers (led by Germany, Italy, and Japan).

Ghettos were crowded areas of cities often surrounded by fencing or barbed wire. As Hitler’s empire grew, European Jews were forced into such places. From there, they were often sent to concentration camps, many of which had been designed as killing centers.

World War II (1939-1945) was a global conflict that pitted the Allies (led by the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) against the Axis Powers (led by Germany, Italy, and Japan).

Ghettos were crowded areas of cities often surrounded by fencing or barbed wire. As Hitler’s empire grew, European Jews were forced into such places. From there, they were often sent to concentration camps, many of which had been designed as killing centers.

Surviving in the Forest

Since it was no longer safe to stay in Luboml, Sonia and her parents decided to make their escape. In the dark of night, they fled into a nearby forest with little more than the clothes on their backs. 

For nearly a year, they hid in the woods, where temperatures remained below zero for days at a time. They built a small hut out of twigs and leaves and ate whatever they could find. Eventually, they learned of a band of partisans about 6 miles away and realized their best chance at survival was to join them.

It was no longer safe to stay in Luboml. Sonia and her parents decided to make their escape. In the dark of night, they fled into a nearby forest. They had little more than the clothes on their backs.

For nearly a year, they hid in the woods. Temperatures remained below zero for days at a time. They built a small hut out of twigs and leaves and ate whatever they could find. Eventually, they learned of a band of partisans about 6 miles away. They realized that their best chance at survival was to join them.

Center for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society Brussels, Belgium

ACTS OF SABOTAGE: Partisans derailed this German train during World War II.

Life as a Partisan

When Sonia arrived at the com­pound, she was amazed. It was like a small town, with dozens of people cooking, sewing clothes, and laughing. “The camp hummed with the sort of human activity I hadn’t known in years,” she recalled. 

Sonia and her parents were given a tent and assigned jobs. Her father was sent out to raid farms and villages for food, while her mother worked as a cook, preparing hearty soups with potatoes and meat. Sonia, mean­while, was taught to care for the wounded, bandaging soldiers injured in battle and creating herbal medicines out of whatever she could find in the forests.

When Sonia arrived at the compound, she was amazed. It was like a small town. Dozens of people were cooking, sewing clothes, and laughing. “The camp hummed with the sort of human activity I hadn’t known in years,” she recalled.

Sonia and her parents were given a tent and assigned jobs. Her father was sent out to raid farms and villages for food. Her mother worked as a cook, making hearty soups with potatoes and meat. Sonia was taught to care for the wounded. She bandaged soldiers injured in battle and made herbal medicines out of whatever she could find in the forests.

Over time, Sonia was transformed into a fighter. She learned to shoot a rifle, serve as a lookout, and guard the compound. She even went on missions to plant land mines along Nazi train tracks. Wherever she went, she carried two grenades—one for the Nazis and one for herself. Above all else, she refused to be taken alive.

“I would have been happy to die,” she said, “so long as I was fighting the Germans at last.”

Over time, Sonia became a fighter. She learned to shoot a rifle, serve as a lookout, and guard the compound. She even went on missions to plant land mines along Nazi train tracks. Wherever she went, she carried two grenades. One was for the Nazis and one was for herself. Above all else, she refused to be taken alive.

“I would have been happy to die,” she said, “so long as I was fighting the Germans at last.”

A Bittersweet Ending

In the spring of 1944, Sonia’s unit was drafted into the Soviet army. As the group prepared to leave, a senior official who had been protective of Sonia pulled her aside, fearful that she would die in combat. He gave her a horse and told her to flee with her parents to a nearby village, where a family would help them. Shortly after they arrived, however, Sonia’s mother contracted a disease called typhus. She died within days. Sonia, now 18, was devastated.  

By then, the Nazis had retreated, and it was finally safe for Sonia and her father to return to Luboml. But when they got there, nothing was the same. Much of the town had been burned down, including their home. 

A few months later, in May 1945, Germany surrendered. In total, the Nazis had killed 6 million European Jews and more than 5 million others, including Communists, Poles, Roma, Serbs, and the disabled. Many had been shot and thrown into mass graves, or herded into gas chambers. Others died in the camps of star­vation or disease. About 1 million of the victims were children.

In the spring of 1944, Sonia’s unit was drafted into the Soviet army. As the group got ready to leave, a senior official who had been protective of Sonia pulled her aside. He was afraid she would die in combat. He gave her a horse and told her to flee with her parents to a nearby village, where a family would help them. But soon after they arrived, Sonia’s mother came down with a disease called typhus. She died within days. Sonia, now 18, was devastated. 

By then, the Nazis had pulled back. It was finally safe for Sonia and her father to return to Luboml. But when they got there, nothing was the same. Much of the town had been burned down. That included their home.

A few months later, in May 1945, Germany surrendered. The Nazis had killed 6 million European Jews and more than 5 million other people. The others included Communists, Poles, Roma, Serbs, and the disabled. Many had been shot and thrown into mass graves. Some were herded into gas chambers. Others died in the camps of starvation or disease. About 1 million of the victims were children.

Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation and Faye Schulman: A Partisan’s Memoir, Second Story Press

FIGHTING BACK: A group of Jewish partisans in the Soviet Union in 1944

Fighting Prejudice 

Shortly after the war, Sonia met her future husband, Isaak, a fellow Holocaust survivor. In 1949, they moved with their young daughter and Sonia’s father to New York City. Soon, Sonia had another child, a son. But the war—and everyone she had lost—was never far from her mind. 

In 2000, Sonia was instrumental in founding the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, a group that preserves the memory of the brave men and women who risked every­thing to fight the Nazis. She passed away last fall at the age of 93.

Shortly after the war, Sonia met her future husband, Isaak. He was a fellow Holocaust survivor. In 1949, they moved with their young daughter and Sonia’s father to New York City. Soon, Sonia had another child, a son. But the war and everyone she had lost was never far from her mind.

In 2000, Sonia helped found the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. That group preserves the memory of the brave men and women who risked everything to fight the Nazis. Sonia passed away last fall at the age of 93.

“You can always fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism.”

In the years before her death, Sonia often spoke about her life during the Holocaust to ensure that her story—and those of other partisan fighters—lives on. 

“I want young people to know that we were fighting back,” she said. “And that you can always fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism.” 

In the years before her death, Sonia often spoke about her life during the Holocaust. She wanted to make sure that her story and those of other partisan fighters lives on.

“I want young people to know that we were fighting back,” she said. “And that you can always fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism.”

Write About It! Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place this year on May 2. Imagine that your school will be holding an assembly to honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Using details from the article, write an informational essay about Sonia to be read aloud at the assembly, including who she was and why we should remember her. 

The War in Europe 

By the end of 1942, the Nazis had dominated much of Europe.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

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