Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Beat the Reaper

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Beat the Reaper

A Novel

by Josh Bazell

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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The United Partisan Organization
In Beat the Reaper the fictional Peter Brown/Pietro Brnwa recounts the story of how his grandparents met in the winter of 1943 when they joined the Jewish resistance movement in Poland, hiding out in the Bialowieza Forest. According to Brnwa family legend the young couple (they were both fifteen at the time) were duped into going back to Krakow in order to save her brother from the Nazis. It was a ruse and they were sold into Auschwitz. They survived because both were sent to work in the manufacturing part of the famed death camp. In one of the more poignant passages of the book Brown tells about when, as an adult, he made a trip to Poland to seek out the man who had betrayed his grandparents and, while there, he visited Auschwitz.

Although he doesn't say one way or the other, the group in the Bialowieza Forest might have been part of a larger resistance organization that was founded in the ghettos of Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania) by a young, charismatic Jew named Abba Kovner. Called United Partisan Organization-Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie - F.P.O. - it was formed in early 1942 and its motto, taken from a speech made by Kovner, was, "We will not go like sheep to the slaughter."

According to the Holocaust Research Project, "One of [FPO's] key goals was to establish ties to the Soviet resistance in the city and the forests. Kovner also sent emissaries to the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos to warn the inhabitants about the mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union and to incite resistance."

While tens of thousands of ghetto Jews were being rounded up and summarily murdered by German troops, Kovner's resistance fighters did their best by sabotaging German military trains and equipment transports. They helped hundreds escape "through the city's sewers and other outlets to the Rudniky forests where they joined Soviet partisans in many combat missions. There Kovner and his followers operated a partisan division comprised solely of Jews, and performed many heroic acts of sabotage."

While the F.P.O. achieved their aim of not going like sheep to the slaughter, they were unable to defeat their Nazi tormentors; but there is information about a lesser known post-war group supposedly called Nokmim (Hebrew for avengers) that attempted, and in many cases succeeded, to retaliate for the millions of Jewish deaths. While many believe at least part of Nokmim's membership comprised former members of the British military's Jewish Brigade, there is some speculation that Kovner was instrumental in this group as well. It is an interesting story that highlights the conflict between justice and Old Testament eye-for-an-eye revenge. Regardless, it is fact that several hundred – of the purported several million – Germans who participated in the deaths were dealt with either en masse (in 1946 nineteen hundred Nazi prisoners of war were poisoned by arsenic in their bread) or were hunted down and then simply disappeared or "committed suicide." The Jewish Brigade's activities spanned the globe for decades after the war ended.

The Bielski Brothers
A group similar to FPO was led by the Bielski Brothers in the forests of Belarus.  Their story is told in Peter Duffy's 2003 book The Bielski Brothers and in the movie Defiance, released in January 2009.

Images: Undated photos of Abba Kovner (1918-1987) from holocaustresearchproject.org

Article by Donna Chavez

This article was originally published in February 2009, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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