Sarah Shainwald was 16 when German forces took over her hometown in eastern Poland and began killing Jews in the town of Luboml in 1941. Her family fled to nearby forests and survived the freezing winter before joining a band of Soviet resistance fighters who targeted Nazis troops by blowing up trains, ambushing convoys and sniping at outposts. Her uncle, Tzvi, was a trained scout and gained the family entrance with the partisans. The group thought “Sarah” sounded too Jewish, so she was renamed Sonia. To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two grenades — “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”
She said later, “Suddenly, I was not afraid of bombs — me, a girl who had been afraid of a fly.”
In 1944, Sonia and her parents left the partisan and took refuge in an abandoned house infected with typhus, unbeknownst to them. The typhus claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving just her and her father.
Close to the end of the war, after German forces had retreated, Sonia and her family returned to Luboml. Of the 8,000 Jews that had thrived there before the war, only 50 remained.
After the war ended, Sonia — who kept her partisan name — married Isaak Orbuch, a former officer of the Polish cavalry. After four years in a displaced-persons camp, the couple emigrated to the U.S. in 1949. Settling in California, the couple raised two children. Her husband died in 1998.
Later in life, Sonia became active in preserving the memory and history of partisan fighters — she helped found the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, which honors the memory of the 20,000-30,000 Jews who fought in resistance groups in World War II. In 2009, she published her autobiography, Here, There Are No Sarahs.
Sonia Orbuch died on Oct. 8 in California at the age of 93. She is survived by a son, a daughter and a granddaughter. Fred Rosenbaum, her co-author and longtime friend, wrote a eulogy that was read at Orbuch’s funeral. “She deeply touched young people in particular, teens who were the same age as Sonia when she fled to the forest and fought back.”