Rochel (Rose) Berman Wolfe was born on March 15, 1918, in Novogrudok, Poland, to Reuben and Sarah Berman. Rochel was eighteen months old when her mother died and only knew her stepmother, Rivka, whom her father married a year later. Rochel grew up with seven siblings: Zisel, Avram, Gershon, Meir, Bella, Rivka, and Raisl. They were a close-knit, generous family who welcomed anyone into their home. There was always a place to sleep and a chair at the table at the Berman house for those in need.
Before the war, Rochel became a dressmaker’s apprentice to a woman named Henia Berman in Novogrudok. In 1939, Rochel married Eliahu Ostashinski, a young man she knew from school. That year, World War II began, and Rachel’s peaceful life drastically changed. The Russians occupied Novogrudok in 1940 until the Germans broke the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Rochel gave birth to a daughter, Sara Frayda, on June 27, 1941.
Much of Novogrodok was destroyed during the bombings, and the Germans occupied the town in July 1941. Anti-Jewish laws were immediately put into effect. One of Rachel’s brothers was taken away, and Jewish homes were plundered. An air of uncertainty fell over the village until winter struck, along with the Germans’ ultimate plan – to kill the Jews of Novogrudok. Jews were taken from the streets and forced to dig ditches for mass graves.
On December 5, 1941, the Jews of Novogrudok were forcibly taken to the town’s bombed-out courthouse. They were allowed to take only what they could carry. The shattered windows let in the bitter cold as Rochel, Eliahu, and their baby huddled together to stay warm. They were forced to stay at the courthouse for two days. Some Jews tried to run but were shot in the attempt. Others tried to believe everything would be all right, thinking back to how the Germans behaved during World War I. However, Monday morning came, and the selections began. Nearly all of Rochel’s family were shot into mass graves that day. Rochel was also looking after her late brother’s two young boys, Yankel and ____. When selections began, she had the daunting task of deciding which to give up. Yankel was spared.
After the selections, Rochel, Eliahu, their daughter, and Rochel’s sister, Bella, were taken to a ghetto near Novogrudok, where they shared one small room with eight people. Through the kindness of their neighbors and friends who risked their lives to bring them food, they had plenty to eat. A Russian police officer named Karpilovski, who had been a recipient of the Berman’s generosity, never forgot the family’s kindness. When the Germans emptied the ghetto of food, Karpilovski came at night to deliver bread and milk to Rochel’s family. “Don’t worry, as long as I live, you won’t be hungry,” Karpilovski assured them. Despite the horrible conditions, the ghetto brought them together like one family. If one person hurt, everyone hurt. One day before the inspection by the Germans, all the residents hid in the basement. To not give their location away, Rochel was forced to suffocate her daughter to silence her.
Reeling from this indescribable loss, Rochel and Eliahu planned to escape the ghetto along with Rachel’s twelve-year-old nephew, Yankel Berman. Before they left, they made contact with a friend who lived outside the ghetto. In exchange for Rochel’s valuable coat, the friend would have a rifle waiting for them upon their escape. Timing their escape by the guards’ movements, they fled to a contact house outside of the village, where they reunited with Rochel’s sister, Bella.
After leaving the contact house, they ran into the Naliboki Forest to join the Bielski Brigade, a group of Jewish partisans led by the Bielski brothers. They arrived at dawn, and Rochel looked around as the camp began to awake. In the morning light, women patrolled the camp and cooked over a fire as men returned with food scavenged from the villages and farmers. It was October 1942, and the partisans numbered 60. In the two years Rachel and Eliahu stayed with the Bielski Brigade, the number grew to 1200.
Eliahu taught incoming partisans how to use a rifle and went on missions to sabotage German communications. Young Yankel, too, served as a partisan and helped derail German trains while Rochel cooked for the partisans and guarded the camp. In summer, they slept in tent-like structures. In the winter, they had underground houses. The camp emerged into a small village with a bakery, bathhouse, shoemaker, and tailor. The Germans struggled to locate the partisans, and when they got close, the group escaped. They waded through water and wilderness before finding a new place to build a camp. Despite the many life challenges in the partisans, the good outweighed the bad for Rochel and her family. In the ghetto, they were treated like animals. With the partisans, they were free people. Sequestered away in the vast forest, they could sing, dance, and rebuild their shattered lives.
Toward the end of the war in the east, a battle emerged between the retreating German Army and the partisans as the Russians pushed forward. On the day of the liberation by the Russians in July 1944, Eliahu was killed in battle. No one wanted to tell Rochel what had happened to her husband, and she couldn’t believe that Eliahu could be dead. Finally, she went to the hospital tent in camp and overheard two injured partisans list the names of those who had fallen that day.
Two days after liberation, Rochel, Bella, and Yankel returned to Novogrudok, where their friend, Sabina, took them into her home. Rochel was numb from the shock of what she lost during the war and didn’t want to leave Sabina’s home. But after two weeks, the sisters left. After a period of time, Bella married Motke Lubchansky and moved into a neighboring city while Rachel lived in her brother’s former house. She sent their nephew to Poland, afraid he would be conscripted into the Soviet Army.
When Bella had a baby, Rochel traveled back and forth to help her sister. Around this time, she decided to sell her house and move to Poland. After she refused to sell the house to a man she did not trust, he fabricated a story in which he told the Soviet Secret Police that Rochel wasn’t visiting her sister in the city but selling on the black market. The police burst into Bella’s home when Rochel was visiting one day and took everything they had, including gold left by their father. They were both arrested and forced to leave the one-month baby alone. Bella was soon released; however, Rochel was kept in prison for three days.
As life once more became dangerous in Novogrudok, Rochel fled Russia with Bella, her brother-in-law, and their baby. They went first to Białystok, Lodz, then Lublin. In Lublin, Rochel met Chaim Wolfe, an old acquaintance from Novogrudok and her brother-in-law’s friend. Eight months later, they were married in a DP camp in Salzburg, Austria, on January 17, 1946.
Rochel and Chaim immigrated to Canada, arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on February 13, 1948. They settled in Toronto, where Rochel worked in a factory and later ran a clothing store with her husband. Here she also adopted the English name Rose. It was a difficult life, and they worked hard, but Rochel felt great happiness at the birth of her sons, Martin and Ralph. Rochel’s sister, Bella, and half-sister, Rivka, both survived the war. Rivka immigrated to Palestine in 1935. Rochel and Rivka were reunited twenty-six years later at Martin’s Bar Mitzvah in Toronto.
Rochel suffered from nightmares about the war. She shared her experiences with her family, close friends, and her five grandchildren. With all the horrors Rochel endured, she was sustained through the Holocaust by her faith and desire to see the end of the Nazis. Rochel passed away on June 5, 2001.
Rochel’s experience with the Bielski partisans was portrayed in the 2008 movie Defiance. Of the 1,200 survivors, there are now more the 20,000 offspring.