Lesson 4 of 5
Two 50-minute class periods

Sonia Orbuch: Becoming a Partisan

From the Unit:

Essential Questions

  • How did experiences during the Holocaust impact young people’s identities?

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Identify the roles Sonia that assumed during the Holocaust from ages 14 to 19
  • Analyze and discuss the expectations that were placed upon Sonia in these roles 
  • Classify the different obstacles Sonia faced in each of these roles
  • Better understand the challenges of becoming part of a partisan group


Sonia Orbuch was 14 years old when the Nazis invaded her town and 16 when she fled with her parents to the woods in an effort to avoid the atrocities the Jews were facing. She did not make the individual choice to flee, or to become a partisan. It was made for her because of her age and circumstances. However, as time went on, she did fully assume her role as a partisan in the resistance movement.

In this lesson, students will develop a deeper understanding of the complexities that young people faced during the German occupation of Poland by identifying the different roles that Sonia Orbuch adopted over a five-year period of her teenage years. Students will be asked to work in small groups to illustrate the expectations, obstacles, and risks that accompanied each role Sonia assumed. Participation in this activity will enable students to identify the complex roles teenagers took on in their struggle to survive. 


Background Material on Poland


  1. Introduce Sonia Orbuch and Her Experience as a Partisan
    • Prior to playing the video clips, introduce Sonia Orbuch by having students read Sonia Orbuch’s biography.
    • Show and discuss the video “Joining the Partisans” or distribute the transcript if you are unable to project video in your classroom. Ask students: 
      • Why did the family take the risk to meet the partisan group?
      • Did they have a different choice at the time?
      • According to Sonia, why was her uncle valuable to the partisans?
    • Show and discuss the video “Partisan Life” or distribute the transcript. When Sonia reflects on the possibility of being killed, what do you think she means by dying as a “fighter” and “not because she was born a Jew”?
    • Show and discuss the video “Life on the Front Lines” or distribute the transcript. Ask students to consider these questions: 
      • In what ways was Sonia adapting to life as a partisan?
      • By this time, what role has she taken on as a member of the partisans?
    • Before showing the final video, explain to students that some time has passed in Sonia Orbuch’s story, and in the next clip she speaks about why she thinks she had the strength to bear the harsh conditions the partisans endured. Then show and discuss the video “Killed as a Fighter, Not Because I am a Jew,” or distribute the transcript. Ask students:
      • How has Sonia changed since she first met the partisans in the forest?
      • What can you point to as evidence of how she has changed?
  2. Identify Roles
    • Working in small groups, have students use the Role Chart graphic organizer to document the roles Sonia Orbuch took on between the ages of 14 and 16. Three evident roles students might choose are teenager living at home under the German occupation, teenager living in the forest alone with her parents, and teenage becoming a Jewish partisan. Students may identify other roles she assumed, as well, and add them to the chart. (See below for an example.)
    • Reconvene as a class and have groups share their charts and discuss similarities and differences between them.  


    EXPECTATIONS Placed on Sonia

    OBSTACLES Sonia Must Have Faced

    RISKS Sonia Must Have Taken

    Teenager living at home under Nazi occupation

    -She can persist, even in great fear

    -She can emotionally handle watching loved ones get taken away in the trucks

    -Avoiding being picked up by the truck

    -Figuring out when to into hiding

    By staying at home, she can be detected more easily and potentially be deported


  3. Identify Sonia’s Identity Development through Her Quotations 
    • Remaining in their small groups, have students choose one quotation and consider how Sonia’s identity shifted over the five-year period, using the associated discussion questions that follow:
      • To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades: “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”
        • From what you have learned about Sonia’s life over this short time period, when do you think she began to identify herself as a partisan?
        • What are the implications of her deciding to take her own life before being captured? Do you think this was for self-protection, for the protection of others, or for other reasons?
      • “I was not alone, and if I was going to die, I was going to die as a fighter, not because I was born a Jew. I was going to die as a fighter, and that is what kept us going.”
        • Sonia is speaking about herself only, using “I,” until the end of the statement, when she uses the word “us.” What do you think this might reflect about her changing perception of her own identity and roles?
        • How and why do you think Sonia’s perception of herself shifted from being a victim of circumstance to being a fighter and member of a resistance group?
      • “I was eager to have children as soon as possible. I felt it was a statement of defiance to show that the Jewish nation lives on.”
        • What is the message Sonia wants to share with the world by having a child?
  4. Wrap Up the Lesson
    • To conclude the lesson, return to Sonia’s biography and focus the discussion on the shift in Sonia’s identity that began when the Soviet partisans changed her name.

      In her memoir, she recalls how it happened:

    “Registration was simple: In the open air, a man holding a notebook briefly queried each of us and recorded our responses. When I gave my name as Sarah, he shook his head in disapproval. ‘Here, there are no Sarahs,’ he stated. ‘You will be called Sonia,’ and he wrote that down. I couldn’t object and wasn’t even sure I wanted to. I already felt like a changed person, and the new Russian name fit my new life . . .”

    (From Here, There Are No Sarahs, 2009, by Sonia Orbuch and Fred Rosenbaum.)

    • Tell students: Consider the relationship between your name and your identity. Based on the quotation above, what impact did changing her name have on Sonia’s identity? Why do you think it mattered? Why do you think she kept the new name after the end of the war?

Looking for a Research Project for Your Students?

Investigate the lives of the Jewish partisans with these multimedia resources.


Lesson 1 of 5

Understanding Resistance

Students learn about the concept of resistance as they are introduced to firsthand experiences of the extraordinary Jewish partisans. 

Lesson 2 of 5

Frank Blaichman: Ethics in a Time of Genocide

Students discover how a partisan unit developed its own ethical framework in the face of life-threatening situations.

Lesson 3 of 5

Vitka Kempner: Identity and Resistance

Students consider how identity, and in particular how age and gender, shaped a partisan's actions.

Lesson 4 of 5

Sonia Orbuch: Becoming a Partisan

Using a role identifying activity, students analyze the various roles undertaken by a teenage partisan during the Holocaust.

Lesson 5 of 5

Creating Student Projects

Using a project-based learning approach, students produce a museum exhibition that displays the stories of different partisans.

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