Flowers and leaves were embroidered on the front of her yellow blouse. lt was thin and dainty. His sweater was unadorned, simple, and warm. Chaya Porus and Simon Palevsky kept these garments close to them. Porus’s blouse belonged to her sister, Rachel. Palevsky’s sweater was knitted for him, a gift from his wife, Rebecca. Rebecca and Rachel were dead, along with virtually all the other members of their families, which is why Chaya Porus took such good care of the garments. She darned them with a needle borrowed from a peasant and with silk threads from a Soviet parachute.
On a summer morning in 1943, deep in the Naroch Forest, ninety-three miles east of Vilna, then part of Lithuania, these articles of clothing and the memories they evoked allowed Porus and Palevsky to keep their families near to them. For Porus and Palevsky were Jewish partisans of the Nekama Brigade—Nekama in Hebrew means revenge—and they were about to move out on a mission to attack the Nazis.
Chaya Porus never thought she would be carrying a gun and a knife. The fourth of six children in a well-to-do Jewish family in Swieciany, near Vilna, twenty-one-year-old Porus had been hoping to go to medical school in Paris when the Germans occupied her town on June 24, 1941. Within a month, five thousand Jewish men were rounded up in aktions, or mass arrests, on the streets of Vilna, and sent seven miles away to the forest of Ponar for execution. The mass murder at Ponar was, at first, kept from the Jews of Vilna and its surrounding towns, such as Swieciany. But by the end of 1941, when the Germans had already killed 35,000 of Vilna’s 57,000 Jews and, in addition, 2,500 Jews from Swieciany—with a total of 8,000 from other towns—the truth was out.
The Porus family joined the underground resistance in the Swieciany Ghetto. Their large house was used to store ammunition, guns, and stolen machinery parts from a nearby airplane factory, materials that could be fashioned into guns. Porus’s mother and her sister, Rachel—for whom Chaya had just made, as a birthday gift, a beautifully embroidered yellow blouse—packed the weapons to be smuggled out to the partisans in the forest. Chaya Porus was part of a group of Jewish students organized by Shieke Gertman to fight the Germans. Gertman was going to bring this Jewish group into the nearby forest to join Feodor Markov, one of their former teachers of Polish in the Swieciany high school. ln February 1943, Markov began organizing Soviet soldiers into a partisan group to fight the Nazis. The question was when to make the break from the ghetto to the forest. To do so—to resist the Nazis in this particularly courageous way—was an agonizing moral crisis for the young people. For the Nazis exacted terrible reprisals on the families left behind by those who fled the ghetto.
Yet the Poruses were actively resisting as a family. When Chaya took sick with typhus, she was cared for by Rachel, a registered nurse who served in the ghetto’s clandestine hospital. Chaya had not yet recovered when, in early April 1943, the remaining Jews of Swieciany were rounded up, including the Porus family. They were loaded on to cattle cars bound, allegedly, for the larger ghetto in Kovno. Each member of the Porus family carried a small bundle of personal possessions.
Chaya Porus was too weak to walk. She was ready to be carried on a stretcher to the deportation train, but her partisan friends insisted on taking her with them to Vilna. When they arrived there, they learned that the train from Swieciany had not gone to Kovno at all. Taking on, along the way, inhabitants of other smaller ghettos in the environs of Vilna— Mikaliskes, Oshmiany, and many more, with a combined total of 5,000 Jews—the train had traveled directly to Ponar, where all were herded into pits and shot.
Several days later, in Vilna, where the Swieciany partisans joined other partisan groups remaining in the ghetto, Chaya Porus, who had grown stronger, was handed a package by Luba Gurwitz, a friend of her sister’s. Gurwitz’s assignment
during the last several days had been to sort through the clothes of those killed at Ponar. When Chaya opened the package, she found the bundle her sister had carried to Ponar; it included a towel, a coat, a photo album, and the embroidered blouse.
The group of partisans Porus now joined was part of the larger United Partisan Organization (FPO in Yiddish) which was formed in January 1942 in response to Abba Kovner’s call for armed resistance in the ghetto. The armed resistance young Jews now called for was a great challenge to the ghetto leader ship, the Judenrat, which discouraged it, for such actions invited immediate and mass reprisals from the Nazis. The FPO, in turn, accused the Judenrat, which was responsible for maintaining Jewish life under impossible Nazi demands and providing work quotas for the Nazis, of unwittingly being the instrument of the Jews’ incremental demise.
Porus’s group escaped to the Naroch Forest in the late summer of 1943, joined the Markov partisans, and formed the Nekama Brigade, consisting of 200 Jewish fighters. A month later, on September 23 and 24, around the Jewish High Holidays—a time the Germans favored for such activities—the Nazis implemented the final liquidation of the 3,700 Jews still surviving in the Vilna Ghetto.
Porus met Simon Palevsky in the Markov partisan group, and the two grew close. The Jewish partisans in the forests around Vilna—and elsewhere—operated in the midst of a hostile and often antisemitic civilian population. They had
also to contend with hostility and anti-Semitism from other partisan groups, including the Soviets, who had overall command of the partisan units. The Soviets often refused to let Jews form independent Jewish partisan units and were sometimes reluctant to accept Jews into their ranks.
Still, the partisans in Porus and Palevsky’s group carried out daring missions. While they were under no illusions that they could actually vanquish the Nazis, they blew up bridges; attacked small patrols; destroyed train tracks, locomotives, and power supplies; and cut lines of communication.
The Markov partisan groups had fighting units and a working unit, which provided them with food. Nearby were a few Jewish family bunkers, where the children and elderly stayed. Porus had responsibilities in both units of the camp. At
first, she went on military missions, but later she worked primarily nursing the wounded in the family camp that supported the fighters. She also often carried a gun and a knife. But what kept her whole was the love that was growing between her and Simon Palevsky even in the midst of the war.
When the Soviet army finally liberated the Naroch Forest, Chaya Porus and Simon Palevsky returned to Vilna, where they were married in the summer of 1944.