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Life as a Jewish partisan

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Jack Sutin
Jack Sutin posed in his partisan uniform after the liberation of Jews in Eastern Europe in 1945..
Image courtesy Graywolf Press

UPDATE 12/21/2010: Rochelle Sutin died over the weekend and funeral services for her are Tuesday in Minnetonka. MPR News re-aired this story in to remember her amazing World War II survival story to tell, which she did in a best-selling book. 

Rochelle and her husband Jack fought for three brutal years as members of a Jewish partisan group in the forests of what is now Belarus.

St. Paul, Minn. -- The new film, "Defiance," tells the story of the Bielski brothers, who led a group of Jewish partisans living in the forests of Belarus during World War II. The film mirrors the experience of a Minnesota couple who fought in another Jewish partisan group in the same forest.

Jack Sutin
Jack Sutin today.
MPR image/Euan Kerr

It's been more than 65 years, but Jack Sutin still lives with the horrors of what happened when the Germans invaded. 

He lived in the part of Poland now called Belarus.  It was early 1942, and within weeks the Germans forced all the Jews to leave their belongings and move into the ghetto. There, they worked menial jobs for the invaders.

"And sometimes, if someone didn't do the job exactly the way they wanted, they were shooting him," Sutin said. "Or her."  

Sitting in his suburban Twin Cities home with his wife Rochelle, Jack Sutin tells his story matter-of-factly. 

It wasn't only the Germans they had to worry about. There was also the Polish police. His mother was a respected dentist. The Germans needed dentists, and gave her a certificate saying she was to be left alone. 

'Defiance'
Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski in "Defiance."
Image courtesy Paramout Vantage

"But unfortunately the Polish police didn't give a hoot about anything," Sutin said. "They got into the house and they killed her, and they killed 17 people of our family." 

Somehow Sutin, his father and few others escaped. 

"We ran to the woods with the ammunition that we had, a little bit, to take revenge. We didn't expect to survive," Sutin said. 

But survive they did, even with the onset of the vicious Eastern European winter. The temperatures Minnesotans have experienced in the last week were common, and Sutin and 13 others were living rough in the forest. 

They dug a bunker as a shelter, and it was then that Jack Sutin had a dream.

Book cover
The new cover of "Jack and Rochelle: a holocaust story of love and resistance."
Image courtesy Graywolf Press

"My mother's voice told me that one of the girls I knew in the town of Stolpze would come and join me," Sutin recalled, "and we would have a long life together." 

The next morning he told the others they needed to add an extra space in the bunker. They thought he was crazy, but they did as he said and in time, after a lot of horrible adventures, Rochelle joined him. She was traumatized, but he courted her and gradually he won her confidence, and they fell in love. 

"She found me in the bunker, and I took care of her, and we had a long life together," Sutin said. 

A few months later they heard about another Jewish partisan group deeper in the woods, and they went to join them. There were about 800 of them, with 200 actively fighting the Germans. 

They also heard about another, larger group nearby, led by the Bielski brothers. Sutin remembers visiting the Bielski camp. 

"And sometimes, if we were going on dynamiting bridges or highways, we were going together with some of the Bielskis' group."

Jack and Rochelle Sutin lived and fought in the forest for three years. After the war they found their way to the United States. When they told their story, however, even to other members of the Jewish community, they got an unexpected response.

"They looked at us, and I could see they couldn't believe what we were talking about," Sutin said.  

Some even said it aloud.

"So after we've seen they don't believe what we were saying, we stopped talking about it," Sutin said. 

It was only in recent years, as other similar stories emerged, that Jack and Rochelle Sutin  began to talk about their experiences. 

In 1995, Graywolf Press in St. Paul published their story, "Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance." The publisher says the book is still selling so well that it has just re-issued the title. 

Rochelle Sutin isn't in the greatest of health at the moment, but Jack Sutin says they are looking forward to seeing "Defiance."  He says it's important to tell the stories of the Holocaust when the Jews fought back.  

That point is made in the book, too, although it's important to note the final words in the story come from Jack.

"There is just one thing I want to be sure about. The people who read this should understand how much I love Rochelle."