My grandfather, Mendel Guslitzer, shared with me his incredible story before he passed away in 2004. Mendel was born in 1916 in Belarus, and was 25 years old when the WWII started. Mendel was captured by the Germans and was sent to camp. There were three amazing parts of Mendel's story: avoiding Germans finding out Mendel was Jewish, being secretly saved by a German captor, and becoming a leader of Belarusian Partisans - a resistance movement against the German Nazis.
The first part of his incredible story was that Germans screened out the Jews, by checking who was circumcised. Mendel got someone else to do that on his behalf, avoiding sure death. I am still not quite sure what kind of process Germans used for screening that Mendel was able to get someone else to pretend to be him and pass the test. Being Jewish, wasn't great for survival chances for Mendel. There was the obvious Germans threat against the Jews and high antisemitism against many Russians and Belorussians, many of whom were happy to give up Jews to the Germans. From that day, Mendel started referring to himself as Mikhail Gusev, a more typical Russian name that wouldn't raise suspicions of him being Jewish.
Saved by a German captor
Germans used healthy men for hard physical labor at the camp. Mendel spoke fluent yiddish, which is actually similar to German, and was able to communicate with his German captors. While at the work site, he was talking to one of the German captors. The German captor took pity on Mendel and helped him escape by hiding Mendel amongst many dead bodies that were regularly carried out from the camp. That was a hugh risk that the German took to help Mendel escape. There were others that he helped to escape as well. Mendel to his last days was searching for that German soldier to express his gratitude. Mendel never found him, but was always telling us and others this heartwarming story of human kindness.
During the War, there was a major underground movement of loosely organized military groups that essentially lived in the woods and attacked German troops and German trains carrying supplies.
After escaping from the camp, Mendel stumbled to one such a partisan unit and joined the partisans. He eventually became their leader. Due to a high degree of anti-semitism in Belarus at that time, it would have been likely unacceptable for them to follow a Jewish leader or even work with a Jew. Therefore, Mendel continued on with his pseudo name, Mikhail Gusev.
After the War
Mendel survived the war and eventually reunited with his young wife and daughter, who miraculously survived the War. They moved to Minsk, and they subsequently had 3 more children, one of them being my mom.
Mendel worked after the war as a director of an Orphanage, until the anti-semitic wave in Belarus forced him to be fired, as it wasn't acceptable for a Jew to be in a leadership position during the Soviet Era. He continued on as an elementary school teacher until his retirement.
Having a Jewish first name was not a great option in Soviet Belarus, and Mendel often referred to himself as Mikhail Guslitzer (still kept his last name that was Jewish). Many of his ex-partisan comrades were surprised to find out he was Jewish, but given that he saved their lives during the war under his leadership they respected him anyway. Soviets awarded many war medals to Mendel for his bravery and accomplishments during WW2 (even despite him being Jewish).
The Golden Years
Mendel immigrated to New York in 1993 with his wife and daughter. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 87, leaving behind his wife, 3 daughters, 1 son, 6 grandchildren, and 1 great grandchild. The family tree has evolved since then, and Mendel's legacy continues.