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More than 150 O’Dowd students got an intimate look into the life of a Jewish partisan during a special screening of the documentary film Survival in the Forest: Isidore Karten and the Partisans held in the theater Oct. 20. The film’s west coast premiere was held in San Francisco that evening, with an east coast premiere set for New York City on Nov. 3.
Founder of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF) of San Francisco, Mitch Braff, arranged for the screening with social studies teacher Bonnie Sussman, who teaches a semester-long Holocaust class at O’Dowd. She also leads a Holocaust Study Tour each spring, serves on the Regional Education Corps of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and works with the JPEF.
Survival in the Forest: Isidore Karten and the Partisans details the experiences of two New York teenagers who travel with their father to Poland and the Ukraine to learn about their grandfather’s experiences as a partisan during the Holocaust. Watch film trailer…
Braff came to O’Dowd last spring to show a rough cut of the film to students in Sussman’s class. The students had the opportunity to critique the film and make suggestions at that time.
On Oct. 20, Braff and JPEF education manager Jonathan Furst brought along Harry Karten and his sons, Jonathan and Izzy, who spoke about the resistance work of family patriarch, Isidore Karten. After the screening, students had a chance to ask the Karten questions.
The film was particularly interesting to Meredith McCleary ’15, whose great uncle was a partisan fighter in Russia. In fact, she’s currently undertaking an independent study project on partisan fighting on the eastern front during World War II.
“It was really interesting to hear their story. Not many people know about the partisans,” McCleary said.
While six million Jews perished in the Holocaust, it’s estimated that more than 30,000 escaped from Nazi ghettos and camps to form or join organized resistance groups.
Partisan Isidore Karten was responsible for saving some 400 Jews – including more than 50 children – guiding them to a forest near Swirz, in what is now the Ukraine, where they hid in underground bunkers.
Still, dozens of Karten family members were killed. “I never knew my grandparents nor most of my family,” Harry said.
Harry was impressed by the attentiveness of O’Dowd students to the subject matter.
“I was looking at you while the film was showing and everybody was staring at the screen – nobody was talking or twitching. It hit everybody in some way, and I think when you walk out of here you’re not going to be the same person that walked in,” he said.
Harry hoped that the students learned that not all Jews went like sheep to the slaughter in World War II. “There was resistance,” he said.
McCleary was struck by how different life might have been for so many families had the Holocaust never occurred.
“Six million (people killed) is such an indiscriminate number. You just can’t fathom how many people that is,” she said. “But when you hear the personal stories you really understand the impact.”
Added classmate Kelly Johnson, “It’s hard not to think about all the lives that could have been.”