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Jake Murray
The Boy Who Fought Hitler

Thousands of Jewish teens fought the Nazis during World War II. Ben Kamm was one of them.

By Lauren Tarshis
From the May / June 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify main ideas as they build knowledge and learn vocabulary related to the Holocaust.

Lexile: 800L-900L, 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: V
DRA Level: 50
Topics: History,

JEWISH PARTISAN EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION 

You probably know a kid like Ben Kamm—the boy with big ideas and a quick smile, the one who will lead you off on an adventure and make sure you get home safely.

Ben grew up in a different place and time than you—in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1920s and ’30s. But he was enough like you and your friends that you should be able to picture him: short but strong, his clothes rumpled from wrestling with his little brothers, his eyes bright and playful.    

Try to imagine Ben running through the crowded city streets with his friends, zigzagging around finely dressed ladies and fruit sellers and men with long, gray beards. You can hear him laughing with his friends and shouting goodbyes as they all head home for dinner.

But wait, do you hear that too?

As Ben walks by a neighbor, the man hisses something in Polish.

Brudny Zyd.

Dirty Jew.

Ben’s skin prickles, but he doesn’t glance at the man. The truth is that he is used to these words. Anti-Semitism—prejudice against Jewish people—is a fact of life in Warsaw, as it is in many European cities.

Like most of Warsaw’s 350,000 Jews, Ben tries not to think too much about it. The man’s words are like the bitter wind that blows off the nearby Vistula River. Ben shivers for a few moments. But he holds his head up and keeps walking. He quickly forgets about the man.

Keep picturing Ben in your mind as he walks up to his spacious apartment, where his four little brothers happily pounce on him, where his father looks up from his evening paper and smiles, where his mother serves a delicious dinner in their cozy dining room.

HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES 

The Rise of Hitler

Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in 1933.

Hateful Lies

This is where Ben’s story takes a sharp turn into one of the most evil chapters in history: the Holocaust.

As Ben’s family is enjoying their dinner, Germany’s leader, a man named Adolf Hitler, is plotting the destruction of Europe’s 9.5 million Jewish people.

Hitler rose to power in Germany during a time when the country was struggling. In 1918, Germany had been defeated in World War I. The German people felt humiliated, tired, and bitter. Hitler and his political party—the Nazis—gained power by tapping into these feelings.

Jewish people had lived in Germany and throughout Europe for centuries. But their unique religion and rituals often kept them separate. As a result, some people were prejudiced against them.

Hitler stood in crowded auditoriums and gave speeches filled with hateful lies about Jews. He said they were “subhuman” and “an inferior race.” He said they could not be trusted.

His lies fanned the flames of centuries-old prejudice against Jewish people. “Eliminate the Jews,” Hitler proclaimed, “and you will eliminate all of Germany’s problems!”

Hitler’s words spread from Germany to other countries in Europe. Many people turned against their Jewish neighbors. Synagogues were destroyed. Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized or burned to the ground.

By 1945, 6 million Jewish men, women, and children would be dead. Nazi troops and their helpers shot them, starved them, worked them to death. Many died in prisons known as concentration camps. The Nazis built these prison camps just for the purpose of killing Jewish people.

But for most of Ben’s childhood, he and his family were happy and comfortable. Nobody suspected that this kind of hateful violence was even possible. “Who could imagine such things?” Ben would say decades later. “Who could imagine?”

JIM MCMAHON/MAPMAN® 

By 1942, the Nazis controlled most of Europe.

Nazi Invasion

Ben was 18 when German troops invaded Poland and World War II began. With shocking speed, life for Poland’s Jews changed. Many lost their businesses or were fired from their jobs. They were not allowed to set foot in public parks or libraries, or to go out after 5 p.m. Anyone who broke these laws could be shot.

Ben’s parents wanted to leave Poland. But Hitler and the Nazis quickly took over most of the countries in Europe. Escape became impossible.

And then, starting on October 12, 1940, all the Jewish people in Warsaw and the surrounding towns were forced to move into one tiny area of the city. The area, which became known as the Warsaw ghetto, was surrounded by a 10-foot wall topped with barbed wire and broken glass.

Armed police herded hundreds of Jewish people through the streets. Ben looked with sorrow at those around him—women holding tight to their babies, men in business suits, teachers from his school, little girls wearing their fanciest shoes and dresses. No one was permitted to bring more than a few belongings.

Ben saw a sneering policeman shove an old woman who lagged behind the crowd. The policeman’s eyes were filled with disgust. Ben gripped his youngest brother’s hand, his heart pounding with fear and horror. The Nazis and their helpers, he realized, did not see them as humans. He felt like an animal—a helpless animal.

Roughly 400,000 Jewish people were crammed into the ghetto. Ben’s family moved into one small room. The gates to the ghetto closed.

Nobody was allowed to leave.

Rage at the Nazis burned inside Ben as life in the ghetto became increasingly desperate. One day, a policeman drove through the streets with a smile on his face, firing his gun. An epidemic of the deadly illness typhus swept through the crowded apartments, killing thousands. Each person was given only a tiny amount of food.

HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS VIA GETTYIMAGES 

The Warsaw Ghetto

This photograph was taken in 1943 by a Nazi official. It shows Jewish people being ordered out of the ghetto. Most are thought to have been murdered in concentration camps.

Jewish Fighters

Like many young people, Ben soon learned tricks for sneaking out of the ghetto to find food for his family. There were holes in the wall and tunnels that led to the other side. With his blond hair and blue eyes, Ben blended in easily with the rest of the Polish population. Plus, he had an aunt on the outside. None of her neighbors knew she was Jewish, and she managed to help Ben without attracting suspicion.

Even with his aunt’s help, though, Ben and his family were slowly starving. They could do nothing, it seemed, except wait for death.

But Ben would soon learn that he could do something after all—if he dared. Tens of thousands of people, including thousands of Jews, were fighting back against the Nazis. They were called partisans. Like characters out of Robin Hood, they worked from bases hidden deep in the thick forests of Eastern Europe. Some were hardened fighters. Others were teenagers—mostly boys, but a few girls as well. They blew up factories, sabotaged railroads, stole weapons shipments, and upset the flow of supplies to German troops.

In several partisan forest camps, fighters also protected large numbers of Jewish families who had escaped the ghettos. The most famous partisan group was commanded by the Bielskis, three Jewish brothers who had fled a ghetto in Belorussia (now the country of Belarus) after the Nazis murdered their family. The brothers fought German troops, though their focus was protecting a community of about 1,200 Jewish men, women, and children.

Stories about partisans like the Bielskis spread through the Warsaw ghetto, offering a glimmer of hope to boys like Ben. One day, Ben’s aunt told him about a Polish partisan group in a forest 100 miles away. With his family’s blessing, Ben snuck out and joined up.

JEWISH PARTISAN EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION

The Rebel Fighters

Jewish partisans like these young men and women built secret bases in forests and launched attacks on Nazis.

Terrible Rumors

Ben struggled to adjust to life with the partisans. He had to learn to shoot, to fall asleep on the cold forest ground, to sneak up on Polish policemen and steal their weapons. Danger lurked everywhere in the hostile countryside, where Poles could earn rewards for turning in Jewish people to the Nazis.

But Ben’s experiences had toughened him. His bravery and skills soon earned him the respect of the most experienced fighters.

A few months after joining the partisans, Ben received word that his family was in trouble. He rushed back to Warsaw and was shocked by what he found in the ghetto. Orphaned children begged in the streets. His family was living in despair, sharing their single room with three other families. Each week, the police rounded up more people and sent them away to work as slaves. None returned. There were terrible rumors—that the Nazis were murdering Jewish people in concentration camps.

Ben stayed in the Warsaw ghetto for two days, sneaking in and out to steal food for his family. He wanted to take his brothers back to the forest with him. But many in the ghetto were sure the war would soon be over. Ben’s parents believed the younger boys would be safer in the ghetto.

For the rest of his life, Ben would break down in tears when he recalled the moment he left his parents and brothers to rejoin the partisans. He would never see his family again.

HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES 

The End of the War

By the time the war ended in 1945, more than 60 million people had died. Many cities in Europe, like Warsaw, pictured here, were left in ruins. They would take years to rebuild.

Luck and Sorrow

For the next two years, Ben fought with a group of about 1,600 partisans. Their base was in the forest, and it was almost like a town. There were cooks who prepared food, cobblers who repaired shoes, and musicians who provided moments of joyful escape.

Ben volunteered for dangerous missions blowing up trains that carried supplies to German troops. Often, he and his fellow partisans discovered Jewish people hiding in the forests. “Old, young, children,” Ben said. “We took them with us, and they survived the war.” In 1945, the war ended with Germany’s defeat. Many of the Nazis who helped murder Ben’s family were executed for their crimes. Hitler, a coward in the end, took his own life.

Ben was 24 years old when it was finally safe to come out of the forest. Little was left of the laughing boy who had once sprinted through the peaceful streets of Warsaw. But like many survivors of the Holocaust, Ben was determined to rebuild his life. The Nazis had stolen his family. They would not steal his future.

Ben married and moved to America. He created a happy family and a successful business. Before his death in 2010, he was interviewed about his life. You can see him on camera, his eyes still bright, his face amazingly free of anger and bitterness.

“I can’t forgive people who killed innocent people,” he said, but he considers himself lucky. “I’m alive and can tell the story.”

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More About the Story

Skills

main idea, vocabulary, text features, author’s craft, cause and effect, inference, key details, analyzing, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors

Purpose

“The Boy Who Fought Hitler” introduces students to some of the horrors of the Holocaust through the story of a teenage Jewish partisan. It provides background on Hitler’s rise, while focusing on an inspirational teen’s resistance.

Structure

The text is mainly chronological. It includes narrative and informational passages.

Language

The article includes some challenging domain-specific vocabulary related to the Holocaust. It opens by addressing the reader directly. 

Knowledge Demands 

Some knowledge of World War II will be helpful for comprehension but is not required.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Teaching Difficult Topics

  • Introducing an article having to do with the Holocaust might seem daunting, especially if you have students unfamiliar with this horrific chapter in history. Although the article is not graphic, it is frank about Hitler’s hatefulness and the Nazis’ mass killing, including of Ben Kamm’s family. We hope that by reading Ben’s story, however, students will see that people have stood up to oppressors and helped others even in the worst circumstances. See our Strategies for Teaching the Holocaust for helpful ideas.

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (40 minutes, activity sheets online)

  • Direct students to examine the illustration, headline, and subhead on pages 4-5. Ask them what they think is happening in the illustration and whether they know who Hitler was. 
  • Distribute the vocabulary activity to preview words related to the Holocaust. Highlighted terms: anti-Semitism, humiliated, political party, rituals, inferior, eliminate, synagogues, ghetto, epidemic, sabotaged, executed

2. Close Reading

Read the article as a class. Have students read it a second time in small groups, answering the close-reading questions. Regroup to discuss the critical-thinking questions. 

Close-Reading Questions

  • Reread the first line of the article. Why do you think the author describes Ben Kamm as someone you might know? (author’s craft)
    The author probably wants readers to relate to Ben and realize that even though he lived in a different time and place, in many ways he was just like kids now. 
  • Reread the section “Hateful Lies.” How did Hitler convince Germans and other Europeans to turn against the Jewish people around them? What happened as a result? (cause and effect)
    When Germany was struggling after World War I, Hitler told lies claiming that Jews were to blame for the country’s problems. As a result, people burned synagogues and destroyed Jewish-owned businesses. By the end of the war, Hitler’s Nazi Party had killed 6 million Jewish people. 
  • In the section “Nazi Invasion,” what happened on October 12, 1940? How did this affect Ben and his family? (cause and effect)
    On that date, Nazis started moving all the Jews in Warsaw, Poland, into a tiny area called a ghetto. Ben’s family lived in one small room. Illness spread through the ghetto; there was little food; and people were treated as if they weren’t humans. 
  • Reread “Jewish Fighters.” What does this section header refer to? (main idea)
    It refers to Jews who joined others to fight back against the Nazis. These fighters, called partisans, lived on bases hidden in forests, and they took action to disrupt the Nazis’ fighting, like stealing weapons and sabotaging railroads. They also sheltered Jewish families. 
  • Based on “Terrible Rumors,” what do you learn about the kind of person Ben was? (inference)
    You learn that Ben was very brave as a partisan fighter. You also see how devoted he was to his family and the risks he took to try to rescue them.
  • In “Luck and Sorrow,” what was the partisan base where Ben lived like? (key details)
    It was like a small town, with 1,600 people. In addition to the fighters, there were helpers like cooks and cobblers. 
  • What happened to Hitler and the Nazis when the war ended? What happened to Ben? (key details)
    Hitler committed suicide. Many Nazis were executed for their crimes. Ben had lost his family, but he moved to America and rebuilt his life.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • In the end, Ben says he considers himself lucky because he’s “alive and can tell the story.” Why is telling the story important? (analyzing)
    It is important so that people in Ben’s time and in future generations know what happened. It can be hard to imagine what people went through in the Warsaw ghetto, and how bravely the partisans resisted the powerful Nazis. By telling his story, Ben helps others picture what Jews experienced, which in turn helps people make sure it doesn’t happen again to anyone. 
  • Some stories have more than one main idea. In this article, what is a main idea about what happened during World War II? What is a main idea about Ben and the partisans? (main ideas)
    A main idea about World War II is that across Europe, Hitler and his Nazi Party made Jewish people the target of lies and hatred. In Warsaw, Jews were forced into a tiny area called a ghetto. A main idea about Ben and the partisans is that they bravely fought back against Hitler’s forces. 

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Main Ideas

  • Distribute the main ideas activity and have students complete it in groups. Then invite them to respond to the writing prompt at the bottom of page 9. 

Ideas to Engage and Inspire

Explore a Website The website of the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation, www.jewishpartisans.org, offers information and videos about the partisans, including clips of an interview with Ben Kamm. Some of the content will enhance the article for readers. But we highly recommend previewing the site first to decide which parts are appropriate for your students. 

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Gather students in a small group and lead a brainstorm for words to describe Ben Kamm. Try to come to a consensus on which words best describe him, then ask students to find text evidence to support each one. 

For Advanced Readers

As students respond to the writing prompt on page 9, guide advanced readers to do research about the partisans and include information from at least one other source in their speech.

For ELL Students

Go over these expressions from the article, which might be unfamiliar to ELL students: fanned the flames (p. 6): made worse; a glimmer of hope (p. 8): a little bit of hope; with his family’s blessing (p. 8): with his family’s approval; took his own life (p. 9): killed himself

For Small Groups

After reading the article once as a class, divide students into groups for a second read. Ask half the groups to annotate details that show what Ben Kamm was like and how he fought Hitler. Ask the other half to annotate details that show how Hitler and the Nazis treated Jewish people. Then regroup as a class to share findings.