It’s very important to take an active role in life, if simply because it is your own life, and involvement is the only way to solve any problems.
This message was delivered by World War II labor-camp survivor Moshe Baran to a standing-room only crowd at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Eberly Auditorium. His story was brought to IUP through the Six O’clock Series.
Baran, 93, of Pittsburgh, was a young man when the Nazis invaded Poland and his small town of Horodock, northeast of Minsk, in 1939. He was put into forced labor in the Kranski Ghetto in the Beliorussia area (now Belarus) after witnessing the deaths of his father and sister, as well as almost the entire Jewish population of his home town.
“I was asked the question, ‘Why are Jews always in trouble?’” Baran said during his opening remarks. “They’re not always in trouble, but there are reasons for the trouble.”
He took the moment to detail a brief history of Jewish culture and the frequent persecution seen within it, from the biblical stories of the Jews in Egypt, to the pressures felt by Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, up to the Jewish expansion across Europe and the rise of the Third Reich during World War II.
“During the persecutions, we acquired literacy,” he said. “It helped the Jewish people advance, but it also led to jealousy.”
Baran presented his story through the short film, “A Look into the Eyes of Resistance,” which included his wife Malka, who passed away in 2007.
“The invasion was an occupational force,” he said in the video, “and it affected the whole population, but particularly the Jewish population, through the policies of the Nazi government, by isolating the Jews, forming the ghettos, degrade them, demoralize them, killing the leaders, then eventually destroying the whole population.”
“When we the survivors felt the need to talk about the Holocaust after many, many years of silence, some of us began to write,” Malka said. “Others began to paint. Other people created music or theater, just to let the feelings out from within us, just to make it easier. For me, it was easier to write.”
In the film, Malka shared several poems she had written of her experiences detailing living in an occupied land.
Baran was forced to work on the train tracks, but was eventually able to escape with his brother and a few others with some smuggled weapons parts. They were able to join with other Jewish partisan fighters in the area.
“The primary task (of the partisans) was to harass the Germans,” Baran said. “We attacked the huts, attacked the movements on the highways, mined the railroads. Where they had small garrisons, at night, we would ambush the brigade.”
Life on the move with the partisans was difficult, according to Baran. Supplies often ran dangerously low, with only a few pieces of bread to last several days and very little clean drinking water. He recounted a tale of straining dirt out of some discarded soup simply so he and his friends could have a little something to eat.
Eventually, in 1944, his region was liberated and he joined the Russian army. The war in Europe ended shortly after that. Baran met Malka after the war and they moved to Israel, eventually moving to New York and finally to Pittsburgh.
Baran stressed that changing the world begins with one’s self and one’s community. He related the tale of the 1995 book “The Christmas Menorahs.” In a small community in Montana, a Jewish family had set up a menorah in their window to celebrate the holidays. One night, someone threw a rock through the window. The community responded by placing pictures of menorahs in all their windows as a show of solidarity toward their neighbor.
“You use kindness,” Baran said. “This is how you start changing the world.”