Reflections on a tenacious spirit

by | Jul 14, 2014 | Book Reviews

Paula’s Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans and a Life Unexpected
Paula Berger, as told to Andrea Jacobs
Paula Burger, 2013
ISBN:978-1-938859-47-2 $18

In Paula’s Window, Paula Berger nee Koladicki re-spins the wheel of her life. At age five the Russians occupied the very old town of Novogrudek, in Lithuania, home to 6,000 Jews, 50% of the population.

When she was six, the Germans bombed the town and the Russians scattered. When she was seven, the Nazis occupied Novogrudek, which had over the centuries belonged to Latvia, Russia and Belarus. The yellow stars and the aktions were begun with eager abandon. By year’s end (1941) “…4,000 dead Jews lay under frozen blankets of blood at the bottom of a pit.”

When she was eight, having for months avoided the local ghetto, the die was cast and her father, Wolf, was planning an escape. During the summer of 1942 her mother, Sarah, was taken and subsequently murdered by the Nazis on Yom Kippur.

Hidden in an empty barrel, Paula and her younger brother, Isaac, were spirited out of town and reunited with their father. After a long night’s journey she was awakened deep in the forest, and welcomed by none other than Commander Tuvia Bielski, of the now famous Bielski Partisans.

Different from other partisan groups, this one contained more than 1,200 Jewish survivors, men, women, but practically no children. Readers will recall Nechama Tec’s 1993 account of the Bielski Partisans in Defiance and the movie of the same name directed by Edward Zwick in 2009. As gripping as they were, they pale in the face of Paula Berger’s tale of the months of freedom mixed with fear and suffering through the eyes of a girl young in years and very old in life.

When she was 11, sharing her father’s love with his then common-law wife, Chana, who was forever cold to Paula, this remnant of the Koladicki family joined Jewish survivors, wandering like defeated anonymous ghosts in a new Europe. Their papers destroyed by the Nazis, their identities obliterated, they rejoined the human race, first spending some months in Lida, then on the move once again their next stop was Lodz, where 900 Jews of the former community of more than 200,000 survived. They made their way via Prague to a DP camp near Munich. Wolf married Chana and Paula’s half-sister, Fay was born. Finally, in 1949, when Paula was 14, they were permitted to enter the United States and aided by the Joint Distribution Committee traveled to Chicago where Wolf had relatives.

A mother at 18, partner in building a successful business with her first husband, David, Paula, in her mid 40s discovered a way to express herself artistically. After studying under the tutelage of artist Morton Schneider, and at the Art Students League of Denver, she developed to where her landscapes, abstracts and signature menorahs are in private, public and corporate collections throughout the world. Now married to Sam Burger they have four children and nine grandchildren together. And in 2013 she and her “baby” brother, Isaac, attended a tribute dinner in New York City celebrating the partisans of the Bielski Brigade and honoring Commander Tuvia Bielski.

This book, as told to Andrea Jacobs, pays tribute to Paula’s courageous will and tenacious spirit. We are grateful that she chose to tell her story while her memory of 70-year-old events was sharp.