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A Partisan from Vilna (Jews of Poland) Paperback – April 1, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Arguably the most extraordinary Holocaust survivor of our time, Rachel Margolis left a safe hiding place to join her (doomed) family in the Vilna Ghetto, then left the ghetto to join the anti-Nazi partisans in the forests. After the collapse of the USSR, she helped build a small Holocaust museum, then rediscovered, transcribed and published the lost diary of a Christian Pole who witnessed tens of thousands of murders of Jews by enthusiastic Lithuanian nationalists. In her mid eighties, she published the Russian original of this memoir. The local anti-Semitic press focused on one paragraph, took it out of context, and then – in May 2008, armed police came looking for Rachel and a fellow woman partisan survivor. Currently living in Israel and prevented from returning to her native Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania) by the prosecutors’ campaign, she is a survivor who can’t return home. This book is the reason why. In publishing it in English, Academic Studies Press does a great service to both the dwindling community of Holocaust survivors, and the growing community of readers who just want to know." (Dovid Katz, Professor of Judaic Studies, Vilnius University; Director of Research, Vilnius Yiddish Institute www.HolocaustInTheBaltics.com)

“One of the last surviving partisans of Vilna, Rachel Margolis has written a vivid and compelling account of the murder of Lithuania’s Jews, and of the battle for survival and dignity amongst those who escaped. It is also a testament to those who in the midst of degradation and destruction continued to embrace the best ideals of humanity even as they determined to resist and fight back against the Nazis and their local collaborators. And, at the same time it is an intimate portrait of a creative and vibrant community, the Jews of Vilna, as well as a deeply personal account of growth and maturity in the midst of that turbulent and tragic period.

This book serves as a stark reminder to those who would deny or trivialize the reality of the Holocaust in Lithuania and reminds us once again of the human dimension of that genocide. The questions that it raises about resistance and complicity, collaboration and betrayal, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, are questions that resonate even today. It is only by facing the past and that we can hope to build a better future. Rachel Margolis, through this memoir, as well as her other activities in Vilna, has helped set us on that path. We are all in her debt for doing so, and can only hope for the widest possible impact of this evocative, authentic and powerful memoir.” (Mark Weitzman, Director of Government Affairs, Simon Wiesenthal Center)

"Rachel Margolis’ A Partisan from Vilna is an important memoir. Like many survivor memoirs, there are three major sections: Before, During and After. But unlike most memoirs Margolis expends considerable time and energy depicting her youth in Vilna as the daughter of a prominent physician. She also describes vividly the transition in Vilna from independent rule to Soviet rule and then the German invasion and its aftermath; mass murder followed by ghettoization. As a Partisan fighter she offers important information on the struggle within the ghetto between resistance forces and the general population. She engages the all important issue surrounding the decision by the resistance leader Wittenberg to give himself up and thus save – at least for a time – the ghetto from German retribution, and finally she takes us through the great debate in Vilna between those wanting to wage battle within the ghetto and those who felt that the only meaningful way to fight was to go to the woods. Throughout, she also shares with the reader the personal story of her own life; her relationship with her parents; her intellectual maturation and independence, her separation from her parents and their deaths, and her finding love in the midst of catastrophe. As if these issues were not sufficient to give the memoir significant importance, Margolis portrays with candor and considerable insight the tensions between Jewish Partisans and Soviet fighters, between Polish and Lithuanian forces and also the peasant population surrounding the woods. She does not portray herself as a hero but in the ordinariness of everyday life under the most extraordinary of conditions. The result is a compelling, powerful and poignant memoir that takes us inside the ghettos and the bunkers, inside the woods and the dugouts, into the battles and the struggles for survival that shaped her young life." (Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical And Religious Implications of the Holocaust, Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University)

"This English translation of the memoir of Rachel Margolis, a Lithuanian Jew who survived the Vilna ghetto to become a freedom fighter, is introduced with a brief history of Jewish life in Vilna, one of the oldest centers in the Baltic for Jewish scholarship. It ends with an epilogue written by her cousin Marjorie that gives a chilling picture of the amount of anti-Semitism that still exists in Lithuania. The memoir itself is a series of vignettes. Her life before the war takes up more than half the book and is filled with family tales, school friends and her anger at her father's many affairs. Margolis does not make the dead into saints. The last third of the book relates her experiences in the war as it slowly becomes clear that Jews are not simply to be persecuted, but exterminated. She does not romanticize partisan life, either. They endured cold, disease, poor food, personal antagonisms and betrayal. While the writing style is somewhat clumsy, the force of the story carries the reader through." ((Annotation ©2010 Book News Inc. Portland, OR))

"Lithuanian war hero Rachel Margolis is one of the most courageous women in her country's history." (Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown The Independent)

About the Author

After the Holocaust, Rachel Margolis received a Ph.D. in biology in and taught until the late 1980's. She then co-founded Lithuania's only real Holocaust museum, the Green House in Vilnius. She is also responsible for the discovery and transcription of the Kazimierz Sakowicz diary, published here in the US under the title, Ponary Diary: A Bystander's Account of Mass Murder (Yale University Press, 2004).

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Product Details

  • Series: Jews of Poland
  • Paperback: 520 pages
  • Publisher: Academic Studies Press (April 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1934843954
  • ISBN-13: 978-1934843956
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,867,114 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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The first half of the book was way too long, repetitive and eventually boring. Little Rachel was pampered, Daddy's little girl, trips, hikes, skiing, piano lessons on a Bechstein, for crying out loud:the grandest of grand pianos!and it seemed all so ordinary to her. After pages and pages of redundant looking through rosy glasses, Mommy off to Paris a few times for this or that, the comings ad goings of a wealthy family.... and then, the world came crashing down!
That's when Rachel's writing shifted into high gear! Father, a physician, wisely had kept gold pieces around for a rainy day, and he spent a great deal of it paying gentiles to take in his daughter. Thousand of Jews were being rounded up and murdered by the SS under orders to kill all Jews (the fact unknown at the time). No one really believed they'd be next. But Father knew he had to save his daughter. Rachel could have had it easy, but her good upbringing wouldn't let her sit around, so she helped with food preparation and laundry besides keeping up with her studies. After several such moves to different families who were willing to risk sheltering her, Rachel had had enough: she wanted to be with her family in the ghetto. Amazing.
There she met the man she fell in love with, made friends. She write about the arguments for and against staying in the ghetto to fight from within, or, try to escape and flee to the forest where everyone knew partisan groups lived and made havoc for the Nazi invaders.
Their escape from the ghetto is a story worthy of any adventure film. And life in the forest was the farthest thing in the world for the young, spoiled Jewish girl from Vilna. Her growth as a person, her tenacity, bravery, is quite remarkable.
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Format: Paperback
In his Introduction, Antony Polonsky alludes to WWI-era Jewish conduct that tended to support the premise that Polish Jews were politically opportunistic, and lacking natural loyalty to Poland. He writes: "The Poles effectively lost power in the region after the Uprising of 1830 and after 1863 the Tsarist authorities attempted to undermine Polish influence in the region. Those Jews who sought to escape from their inferior status saw no reason to take on the disabilities to which the Poles were now subject." (p. 14). Also: "Polish society in Vilna was strongly nationalistic and relations between Poles and Jews here were tense and were exacerbated by the fact that a significant proportion of the Jewish elite here had been Russified in the nineteenth century and that a section of the Jewish leadership had supported the incorporation of the town into Lithuania in response to Lithuanian promises of far-reaching Jewish autonomy." (p. 17).

Polonsky discusses the 1944 massacre of Poles in the village of Koniuchy [Kaniukai], by Soviet-Jewish bands. (pp. 41-42). He tries to downplay the number of Jewish participants as "under a hundred" in comparison with 400 Russians. He also repeats the falsehood about Koniuchy being a center of collaborationist police and of resistance to partisans (p. 42, 49), but correctly concludes that: "As so often happen in such incidents, there were also many innocent victims". (p. 42).

The Introduction has an interesting account of Yitzhak Arad, the former head of Yad Vashem, and onetime Jewish partisan and NKVD member. He faced investigation for possible war crimes--until external pressure stopped the investigation. (pp. 49-50; see also p. 514).
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Rachel Margolis has written a beautifully evocative memoir of her early life in Vilna, leading up to her becoming an anti-Nazi partisan in the forest. Her deeply felt, intimate memories of her girlhood bring prewar Vilna to life in the most affecting way. Her love of flowers and pine-scented forests, music, discussion, food... her honesty and humility... her unsentimental but loving portraits of people who perished... all provide an extremely powerful prelude to the terror-filled months in the forest. I've read many Holocaust-era memoirs, but I don't think any were so effective as this one in tracing the progression from ordinary girl to guerrilla fighter. The detailed picture of prewar life makes vivid the magnitude of what was lost when Vilna's Jewish community was destroyed. Very highly recommended.
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