“In July of 1944, the order from Russia arrived. The Nazis had been driven back, the Bielski Otriad (partisan detachment) was instructed to disband, and all the survivors — Jews who hid in the Naliboki forest for years — were supposed to return to Novogrudek, Poland. The partisans were to destroy all remnants of the camp to prevent retreating German soldiers hiding in the woods from setting up a base…”
Well-known Denver painter Paula Burger begins her story at a turning point in her young life, when after two years, more than 1,250 Jews who had hidden in the forest — including Paula, age 9, her little brother, Isaac and her father — marched out in a long line and headed to points around the world.
Her new book: “Paula's Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans and a Life Unexpected” has occupied much of the past three years. “I always had it in my head, I just kept putting it off,” she said on March 5.
She has been speaking at schools and to local groups for some years and when she was ready to write, she enlisted Andrea Jacobs, who “has a heart that hears,” to assist her. They sat at Burger's kitchen table every Sunday to record Burger's memories — a difficult task for both and especially draining for Burger, Jacobs comments in an Afterword.
Throughout, one is conscious of the artist's eye and awareness as she describes a happy day when she was about 7, walking with her father in the snow. She remembers her mother and the parents' grocery store.
Then, the Nazis invaded, there was a massacre and Jews who survived were confined to a ghetto. Burger clutched her doll as they were herded away from their ranch. There were almost no children in the ghetto, she recalls. They had been killed.
Her father had a network of friends and probably had met the two older Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zus, before the war, she writes. He almost immediately began to plan an escape and she recalls promising her mother that she would care for Isaac if anything happened to her parents — a heavy responsibility for a 7-year-old.
Her father was gone for long periods and one day, the Nazis took her mother away. Paula never saw her again. Her father sent for her and her brother. A friendly farmer smuggled them out of the ghetto in an empty barrel. He took them to the forest that would be their home for two years, including two hard winters.
She tells of the leader, Tuvia Bielski, who held this group together and was credited with saving many lives. (A movie called “Defiance,” about this remarkable story, was recently released on DVD.)
Burger's book continues to tell of her life after the rescue, the eventual move to America and her later development as an accomplished painter. (She has exhibited work throughout the metro area, including in Littleton, Greenwood Village and Highlands Ranch.)
As the book developed and her speaking commitments grew, she says she has ceased painting for going on three years now. “I just can't get my head around it,” she says.
She speaks several times a week, including regular visits to Ponderosa High School in Parker over the past four years. She hopes to add book clubs now.
“I'm committed to do it,” she said. “I have crazy dreams. It's what I do. A lot of people (who have had this experience) can't do it.”
“Paula's Window” is available at Tattered Cover, where she published it, and through Amazon. She can be reached at Burgerart@comcast.net.