Mira Shelub did more than simply survive the Holocaust. She resisted it.
You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but for two years the sweet-faced 92-year-old lived with a unit of wartime partisans who hid in the Polish forest and hunted down Nazi soldiers with deadly efficiency.
That was from 1942 to 1944. Shelub was barely in her 20s at the time.
After the war, she carved a happy life in San Francisco with her late husband, Norman Shelub, running a Financial District sandwich shop and, later, working for S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services counseling Russian immigrants on adjusting to American life.
With the publication of her autobiography, “Never the Last Road,” Shelub reveals the story of her early years as a Yiddish-speaking girl growing up in a Polish shtetl, and as a forest-dwelling resistance fighter during the war.
“I see this choice as my passage to adulthood,” Shelub writes of her decision to join the partisans after the Nazi invasion. “I began anew, going from victim to master of my own fate. Fighting back … shaped my character and the rest of my life.”
Shelub and her co-author, historian Fred Rosenbaum, will appear at the Yom Ha-Shoah Community Day of Remembrance and Learning on April 19 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
Rosenbaum has co-authored three other autobiographies of Holocaust survivors, two of them former partisans like Shelub. He says the partisans shared several attributes.
“All were very young,” he notes. “They are unlike other survivors [in that] they did not experience the camps. It was no picnic living in the forest, but it was very different from living in Auschwitz. They did not have the sense of humiliation and shame. Not only were they regarded as heroes, they regarded themselves as heroes.”
Shelub was not able to speak with J., but Rosenbaum gladly told her story.
Rosenbaum, the founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, met Shelub in 2011 on a Lehrhaus trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Baltic nations. Struck by her story, he wanted to help her get it in writing.
One aspect of her life he hoped to capture was her happy childhood in Zhetel, a Polish town that boasted a remarkably diverse Jewish community. Zionists, socialists, talmudists and Yiddishists lived and argued side by side there. As an ardent lover of the mamaloshen, Shelub counted herself among the latter.
“Most people think shtetl residents were Orthodox,” Rosenbaum says, “but it was so varied. Mira was not religious, coming from an adamantly secular family, but not Zionist either. I wanted the reader to get into the shoes of the Jews of 1930 and track the richness of that Yiddish culture in Poland.”
Shelub attended the prestigious Real-Gymnasium in Vilna, a state-accredited Yiddish secondary school, but her education was interrupted — first by the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland from September 1939 to June 1941, then by the subsequent German takeover, when life for the region’s Jews turned hellish.
By February 1942, Shelub, her parents and siblings were sent to the Zhetel ghetto. Nazi troops twice carried out mass executions of the town’s Jews, but Shelub’s family made it into a forced labor camp. She and her sister Sarah were smuggled out by partisans in the fall, and later the rest of the family joined them in the partisans’ forest hideout.
That’s where, as Rosenbaum puts it, she went on “the strangest first date in history.”
Shelub found herself on patrol with Nuchem Shelubski, a young Jewish partisan commander from a neighboring shtetl. Both had their faces camouflaged with tar. Even in that dark, dangerous night, sparks flew and a lifelong love affair began.
Life in the forest was dangerous. Many of their Russian allies were as anti-Semitic as the Germans. Partisans were subject to hunger, cold and death, especially when carrying out missions. Shelub’s mother died in a raid on the hideout, but the rest of her family survived the war (though her frail father died soon after liberation).
“When people talk about liberation, they talk about the American and Soviet tanks coming into the capitals, with the Nazis scurrying away. In a sense, that doesn’t apply to the partisans. Their liberation came when they fled from the ghetto to the forest. In that sense they liberated themselves.”
Mira and Nuchem (who later changed his name to Norman Shelub) married and, after time in a Displaced Persons camp, immigrated to California. They started a family — two sons and a daughter — settling into the good life. Norman Shelub died of a heart condition in 1977, but Mira went on to attain a master’s degree in counseling.
She still lives in the house they bought in 1959. She doesn’t get out as much as she used to, but hopes to attend the JCCSF Yom HaShoah commemoration. Rosen-baum is hoping she will read aloud passages from the book, and perhaps sing the partisan anthem from which the book title, “Never the Last Road,” was taken.
“She sings it in Yiddish,” he says. “To hear it from someone who was herself a partisan and sang it in the forests in 1944 is a link with the survivors.”
“Never the Last Road: A Partisan’s Life” by Mira Shelub and Fred Rosenbaum (269 pages, Lehrhaus Judaica and JFCS Press)
Fred Rosenbaum will discuss Mira Shelub’s story at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, April 14 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. www.oaklandsinai.org; Rosenbaum and Shelub will appear at the Yom HaShoah Community Day of Remembrance and Learning at 3:15 p.m. April 19 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. www. jccsf.org