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The Defiant

Led Jewish resistance.

Selim Sznycer, aka Shalom Yoran, was a Polish Jew who escaped the mass murder of all the Jews in his town, including his parents, and wanted to fight Nazis. However, when he tried to join a Russian resistance group, they rejected him for being Jewish, which led him to create his own militia of 200 Jews who hid in the forest and carried out acts of sabotage against the Nazi occupiers.

Selim Sznycer was born in Poland in 1925. After the Nazis invaded Warsaw, the Sznycer family fled to a different part of Poland, the town of Kurzeniec, occupied by the Soviets. But in 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. and despite their best efforts to escape the Nazis, Selim and his family found themselves living under Nazi occupation once again.

The Jews of Kurzeniec were forced into a squalid ghetto. Not far away was a Russian POW camp, where the prisoners were suffering from abuse, starvation and disease. Local Soviet partisans were forming militias to fight the German occupiers, and Selim heard about the nascent resistance movement from an escaped Russian POW.

The day before Yom Kippur in 1942, Nazi high command gave orders to “liquidate” the ghetto – meaning kill all the inhabitants. From a contact in the resistance, Selim learned of the horrific plan, and he and his brother were able to escape from the ghetto and hide in a nearby barn owned by Polish peasant, Ignalia Biruk, who took in the terrified Jewish boys at great risk to herself. From his hiding place, he heard the sounds of all the Jews in the ghetto being massacred, including his own parents. He later remembered his mother’s last words to him, “She told me, ‘Go fight… try to save yourselves, avenge our death and tell the world what happened.’ These are the words that guided me through that dark period, what gave me strength to fight, and what inspires me to share my story today.”

That winter, Selim, his brother and three friends hid in the Polish forest near the Sang river. They survived the brutal cold by building an underground bunker. A few kindly locals periodically gave them some food, but most of their provisions were stolen.

Selim wanted to fight the Nazis who had taken everything from him, and in 1943 he and his small group approached a Russian partisan unit, but they wouldn’t allow the five Jews to join because they had no weapons. Desperate to join the fight, Selim persisted, and finally the unit commander told him that if they returned to Kurzeniec and blew up the Nazi munitions factory, they would be allowed to join the resistance group. The Russians assumed the Jewish boys couldn’t possibly survive the dangerous mission, but they carried out the bombing successfully and returned to the forest, only to be told the real reason they were rejected: they were Jewish.

Undeterred, Selim wandered the forest in nearby Belarus looking for Jews who wanted to fight. He formed an all-Jewish resistance unit featuring 200 fighters. After the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad, Selim and his group harassed and sabotaged the retreating German soldiers. They blew up bridges and railroad supply lines. In 1944, Belarus was liberated by the Soviets, and Selim and the other Jewish resistance fighters went from the firing pan to the fire: they were drafted into the Red Army, where they were viciously persecuted for being Jewish, enduring beatings and near-starvation. Selim managed to escape and flee to Italy, where he illegally fought with the British Army until the war ended in 1945.

Selim used a fake British passport to emigrate to Palestine, then occupied by the British who severely restricted the number of Jews who could enter the territory. Like many Jews, when Selim got to Israel he dropped his Polish name and started using his Hebrew name: Shalom Yoran. He joined the Israeli Army and became a decorated Air Force officer. He built a successful career developing the Israeli aircraft industry. He was a founding member of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and a governor of Tel Aviv university.

In 2003, Selim/Shalom published “The Defiant,” a memoir about his experience as a resistance fighter during the war. He dedicated the book to his parents. Shalom Yoran died in 2013 at age 88, survived by his beloved wife Varda, and their children and grandchildren.

For fighting Nazis and avenging his parents’ deaths, we honor Shalom Yoran as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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