‘Four Winters’ Reveals Jewish Women’s Armed Resistance to Nazis During World War II

In the stunning new documentary Four Winters, award-winning filmmaker Julia Mintz shatters myths of Jewish passivity during World War II, highlighting stories of Jews who escaped to the forests of Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Belarus and banded together in partisan brigades to fight back against Nazis and their collaborators.

Partisan and photographer Faye Schulman. The film includes many of Schulman’s photographs from her time as a partisan.

Fleeing from cities and towns, some jumping from trains headed to concentration camps, over 25,000 Jewish partisans, many just teenagers, courageously fought back against the Nazi attacks, all while hiding for four years deep in the forests.

“All I owned was my camera, leopard coat, rifle and a grenade in case I’m captured … the pillow was the rifle, the walls were the trees and the sky was the roof,” said partisan Faye Schulman.

Mintz’s film interlaces compelling archival images and interviews with eight of the last surviving partisans—five women and three men—who share stories about their lives before, during and after the war.

Photograph of Jewish partisans in the forests of Eastern Europe during World War II. Photograph by Faye Schulman, back row, third from right.

“This film has been a passion project of mine from its conception,” said Mintz. “I have spent the past 20 years engaged in films on social justice and human rights. As an art activist, telling stories that engage people and create a relatable, empowering and inspiring opportunity for us to find our own connection is really, really important.”

While many documentary films on the holocaust feature scholars and historians, Four Winters focuses exclusively on the voices of the partisans themselves, who were in their 80s and 90s when Mintz interviewed them.

“What became really evident to me was that this was the final opportunity to hear the actual people who lived this history in their own words—for them to tell their truths, their experiences, their stories,” said Mintz. “I wanted to revisit the raw quality and have them be able to really share. A lot of the partisans told me things they never told their families or other people.”

I understood I could not behave as a woman. I had to behave as a partisan, as a soldier.

—Luba Abramovitz, partisan fighter during World War II

The partisans describe how they were raised in close-knit Jewish families and communities that were shattered by Hitler’s armies and how they transformed from innocent young people into fierce partisan soldiers to fight the Nazis who had murdered so many of the people they loved. They lived for four long years in the forests with no shelter but what they could build from sticks and leaves and with little to eat but what they could gather, hunt or steal from collaborators in nearby towns. They also stole weapons and ammunition and, from the forests, fought campaigns against the Nazis, blowing up trains, burning electric stations and attacking Nazi headquarters. Their stories are poignant, shocking, deeply reflective and sometimes even funny, taking the viewer on a roller coaster of emotions from empathy to awe.

Julia Mintz is a writer, producer and director, who has worked on films shortlisted for the Academy Awards, premiered at Cannes, Sundance and TriBeCa, and winning Emmy, Peabody and festival awards. Four Winters has already won best documentary at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

Mintz focuses in particular on the stories of Jewish women’s resistance, which she says are often missing from mainstream histories.

“I wanted to include the stories that I never heard, that I didn’t get to read about as a young person when I learned about the Holocaust. They gave us Anne Frank, and we saw Auschwitz, and then we heard stories of righteous Gentiles. There were three options: Hide in an attic, hide in a wall with some righteous Gentiles or be herded on a train and murdered. That was my perception of what was possible. I needed for myself, and for my daughter frankly, another option, another story—the stories of resistance. This was something that I was really hungry for in terms of what we could pass forward.”

As the writer, director and producer of Four Winters, Mintz was fully independent, which posed challenges for fundraising but also gave her the opportunity to delve deeply into questions she really cared about.

“Issues I believe are really important had been sidelined in the telling of many of the facets of Holocaust history, where women’s resistance stories were just not front and center,” said Mintz. “I had the privilege of asking the questions that I always wanted to ask. The men had to transform but the women had to transform to become something for which there was no reference. Jewish women were not part of the battles of history that they had been taught about. They learned to use a gun. They learned to adapt and become what they needed to be. I’m trying to give these women their rightful place in history.”

There were three options: Hide in an attic, hide in a wall with some righteous Gentiles or be herded on a train and murdered. That was my perception of what was possible. I needed for myself, and for my daughter frankly, another option, another story—the stories of resistance.

Julia Mintz
Julia Mintz and Faye Schulman during an interview for the film.

Mintz has included stories of how women navigated the war years as women, including their experiences of sexuality, abortion and motherhood.

“The resiliency and self-determination, the courage, ingenuity and grit these women embodied—it’s our collective legacy. I hold them as my sheroes. I have learned from them that I am so much stronger, so much more resilient. My goal for the film is that people recognize the depth of their strength and that they can tap into that themselves during challenging and difficult times.”

With the recent resurgence of extreme right-wing authoritarianism in the United States and abroad, these critical lessons come not a moment too soon.

“These women are an inspiration for their willingness to fight back against fascism and bigotry and hate and oppression, and ultimately fight for their lives.”

Four Winters premieres at the Film Forum in New York City on September 16. Tickets here. Follow the film on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.