Gertrude Boyarski

Gertrude Boyarski in wedding portrait taken after the war, 1946

Photographed by Mitch Braff in February of 2003


Gertrude 'Gertie' Boyarski was born in Derechin, Poland in 1922. When Gertie was a teenager, the Germans invaded her town and forced the Jews into a ghetto. Because Gertie's father was a butcher and a house painter, he was regarded by the Germans as a 'useful' Jew. The Boyarskis were moved to a guarded building just in front of the ghetto's entrance.

Approximate area of partisan activity for Gertrude Boyarski

On July 24, 1942, a night of terror descended on the ghetto. When the Nazis began massacring over 3,000 Jews, the Boyarski family managed to escape into a nearby forest. In order to join a partisan unit, Gertie's father, brother, and other Jews had to prove themselves by attacking the town's police station. They killed the guards and took the station's weapons and ammunition stash barehanded. In the months that followed, Gertie saw her mother, father, sister, and brother murdered before her eyes in surprise attacks by German soldiers and by antisemitic Poles who hunted the woods for Jews.

Bereft of family and seeking revenge, Gertie left the shelter of the family camp, where she had been living, and sought to join a Russian partisan detachment. The leader of the detachment, Commander Bulak, initially brushed her off. "I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family," Gertie insisted. Impressed by her conviction, Bulak agreed under one condition: she must prove her worth by standing guard alone, for two weeks, a mile from the partisan encampment. "I was alone in the woods. Each time I heard a little noise, I thought it was Germans. Two weeks — it was like two years." But Gertie persisted and was accepted into the group. She fought as a partisan for three years, aggressively attacking German soldiers who came to the surrounding villages.

In honor of International Women's Day, Gertie and her friend volunteered to demolish a wooden bridge used by the Germans. However, they had no supplies. They asked for kerosene and straw at a local village. When the villagers replied that they had none, the two partisans unslung their rifles and gave them five minutes to find the supplies. The villagers quickly complied, and the two partisans made their way to the bridge.

When the German soldiers saw the fire that Gertie and her friend had lit, they began shooting. "We didn't chicken out," Gertie said. Instead, they grabbed burning pieces of the bridge and tossed them into the river until the bridge was destroyed.

After the war, Gertie married a fellow partisan and they settled in the United States. The memories of war would haunt her for many years to come.