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Monday, August 6, 2018

Jewish Partisan Leah Bedzowski Johnson Celebrates her 95th Birthday

Over 75 years ago, on the eve of Leah Bedzowski Johnson's 18th birthday, the Nazis invaded her hometown of Lida, located in the eastern half of Poland. At this time, Leah's father had just passed away, and her family was in mourning. With the arrival of the Nazis and the antisemitic policies they imposed, many more challenges lay ahead for the family.

Leah, with her mother Chasia, and her three younger siblings Charles, Sonia, and Benjamin, tried early on to escape from their oppressors. They were taken in by sympathetic farmers on the outskirts of town where they hid for a short period of time. The state soon decreed that all Jews would be confined in ghettos. The farmers could no longer safely harbor the family, so the Bedzowskis were forced to return to Lida and imprisoned in the ghetto.

Their passport to freedom arrived in a letter from family friend Tuvia Bielski, encouraging the Bedzowskis to join his brigade in the forest. Tuvia and his brothers had escaped the massacre and were hidden deep in the woods. Determined to save as many Jews as possible, the Bielski group was welcoming all escaped Jews into their encampment.

The Bedzowskis readily accepted Tuvia’s help. Tuvia sent a guide to escort the family out of the ghetto. The group traveled by night in silence, past guard dogs, under barbed wire, and often on their hands and knees. When they reached the forest, their guide told them, “You are going to live.” Leah and her family joined the Bielski Brigade that night.

Leah took on the necessary duties of the encampment including food-finding missions and guard duty. She was never safe until the war’s end, Leah and her fellow partisans in the Bielski brigade found themselves fighting and sometimes fleeing the German army. On one occasion, the Bedzowski family were separated from the rest of the group as the German army advanced towards them. As they and a few families despondently sat under a tree, wondering what would become of them, a group of young Jewish partisan men came upon them. One of the men was Velvel “Wolf” Yanson, a Jewish partisan from another brigade. Velvel left his group to become the protector of the Bedzowski family. He helped them return to the Bielski group where he became known as “Wolf the Machine Gunner.” “It is thanks to his fortitude and strength that my mother Chasia, brothers Chonon (Charles) and Benjamin, as well as the other families whom he encountered under the tree were all saved” says Leah. “If it wasn’t for him, my family would have perished and the Bedzowski/Bedzow name would have vanished for eternity.”

Leah and her husband Wolf
Velvel and Leah were married under a chuppah (marriage canopy) surrounded by their fellow partisans in the forest. The couple stayed with the Bielski group throughout the war until they were liberated. When the Soviet Army tried to enlist Velvel after the war, the couple decided to leave the country. Fleeing through Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria, they eventually crossed the Alps into Italy, where they remained for four years at a DP camp in Torino. They immigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1949, where they raised 3 children.

Leah currently lives in Florida, where she continues to be active in the Jewish community and lectures extensively about her Jewish partisan experience. She insists that not only her grandchildren and great-grandchildren know her story, but also anyone she can reach out to, especially the younger generation. “Fight for your rights. Know who you are. This is my legacy,” she says.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Leah Johnson, including five videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.

Leah and her husband Wolf circa 1978.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Featured Jewish Partisan - Joseph Greenblatt, born on August 5th

"I lost my family – lost my father, my mother, my brother, lost all the close relatives, and that was about 70 members of my closest family. It was tough to talk about it, and the refresh bring it back to your memory. It was painful. But as the time was going by, and I felt the story which I know firsthand has to be told."
– Joseph Greenblatt.
Joseph Greenblatt was born in Warsaw on August 5th 1915. He learned about resistance from his father, an army captain who had fought for Polish independence during WWI. At eighteen, Joe enlisted in the Polish army as an infantryman, and became an officer in 1938. In 1939, he was mobilized and sent to the Polish-German border. He witnessed the German invasion directly, and fought for almost twenty days before being taken prisoner and sent to a German POW camp. It was in the camp that he began to establish connections with the newly formed Armia Krajowa (AK). The AK hijacked a German truck and transported Joe to a hospital, freeing him and his fellow prisoners.

Joe returned to Warsaw only to find the Jewish population of the city walled into a newly formed ghetto. Though they were imprisoned the Jews of Warsaw were far from passive; underground resistance units had already begun to form. Joe used his army connections to amass a stockpile of black market weapons. There he also met and married his wife, the younger sister of a comrade in arms.
In the spring of 1943, rumors of a full-scale liquidation began to circulate. Joe and the other partisan commanders decided it was time to act. Disguised as Nazis, they attacked German soldiers as they entered the ghetto. Joe remembers how men from his unit threw a Molotov cocktail into a tank, destroying it and killing several Germans. Joe eventually escaped from the ghetto through the sewer system, emerging in the Gentile quarter. Hiding his identity with a Christian alias, Joe made contact with his old POW comrades and joined the AK. For a while, he worked as a member of the Polish underground, raiding a German train depot and aiding in the assassination of a prominent SS official. In late 1944, he was remobilized with the Polish army.

When Germany surrendered, Joe was working as the commander of a camp of German POWS. After the war, Joe went to work for the Irgun under the command of Menachem Begin, traveling between Belgium and Israel as an arms dealer.

Joseph and his wife eventually moved to the United States, settling in Anaheim, California. Sadly, Joe passed away on March 11th, 2003 at the age of 87.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joseph Greenblatt, including four videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Left: Joseph Greenblatt and his wife Irene, 1944. Right: Joseph and Irene, 1978.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Simon Trakinski (z''l) - Escaped from the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto and fought as a Jewish partisan

"Is it the same to Jews as it is to Americans to study the revolutionary war and its heroes, right? People put their chest in front of English muskets to build a country, we put our chest in front of German Muskets to defend ourselves from annihilation and maybe prevent the deaths of other Jews."
— Simon Trakinski.
Simon Trakinski was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1925. Like many others, his family fled to the east when the war began in 1939, and sought refuge in the Russian village of Smorgon. The Germans invaded Russia in 1941, occupying Smorgon, and forcing all Jews into the ghetto.
Around this time, rumors started to circulate about escaped Soviet POWs and their partisan activities. When Simon’s family was transferred out of the Smorgon ghetto to Oszminian, he took with him the guns that a sympathetic German officer gave to his friends, telling them armed resistance is “the way of honest individuals these days.” Unfortunately, he never saw those guns again after he gave them up to a man connected with the underground in Oszminian. Soon after, the Trakinski family was taken out of Oszminian and transported to Vilna, where Simon was assigned to a work brigade building trenches.
In Vilna, Simon joined up with the United Partisans Organization, a resistance group headed by Abba Kovner. In early September of 1943, the Nazis locked down the ghetto, and the FPO realized the Germans were getting ready for its destruction. Simon took part in FPO’s failed uprising in the ghetto, but later escaped with the rest of his group when the Nazis blew up their headquarters with dynamite. They regrouped outside the city, hoping to join Markov’s all-Jewish brigade, which had ties with the FPO. Simon, like many of his partisan peers, left his family behind in the ghetto.
By this time, the partisans were a formidable presence in the area, and controlled the woods. Simon initially fought with the Markov Brigade, an all-Jewish otriad organized by a Russian partisan leader named Fyodr Markov. However, the Germans soon began a blockade of the swamps where Simon and the partisans were hiding; Simon escaped, but in the ensuing chaos, Markov’s all-Jewish brigade was disbanded and Simon was on his own again.
On his way to a relative Simon hoped would provide safe harbor, he ran into a Soviet partisan unit. Luckily, the unit was in need of locals familiar with the area, and Simon was accepted into their ranks. The unit was part of the regular Soviet army. They took orders from Moscow by radio and received air-dropped supplies towards the end of the war. Simon worked as a spy and a saboteur, gathering information about troop and supply movements, which his group used to effectively mine roads and blow up bridges. His group was especially active in disrupting the Berlin-Moscow rail route, which the Germans used for supplies. On one of the missions, Simon’s otriad attacked the rail line with several thousand other partisans, blowing up miles of tracks. The Germans guarding the tracks were so overwhelmed by the attack that they fled from their bunkers into the woods instead of fighting back.
As the war continued, Simon left the partisans to work for the Soviet government as a schoolteacher in a remote Russian village. When the war ended and the “iron curtain” began to descend across Eastern Europe, Simon returned to Poland and smuggled himself into the West. He spent three years in Austria attempting to immigrate to the U.S., before finally being allowed to enter in 1948.
Simon died on January 2nd, 2009, surrounded by his loving family at his home in New York.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Simon Trakinski, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Bill Trakinski, Simon’s brother and fellow partisan. Vilna, 1945.

Family photo, Passover weekend. From left to right, Simon Trakinski, Simon's father Moses, mother Esther, uncle Zev, brother Bill and in the center Simon's grandmother Chaja. Smorgon, Belarus, 1931.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Leon Idas, born July 11, 1925, Fought for the Liberation of Greece at 16

"We are Jewish, and you know what happened to the Jews, I said, they round them up and we come here, we didn't care if it is Communists or Royalists or Democratic, Conservative, we come here to become Partisan, to fight the common enemy — the Nazis."
— Leon Idas.

      Leon was born July 11, 1925 in Athens, Greece. He grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with his father, a textiles merchant, mother, four brothers, and sister. Leon attended a private school run by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Christian theology Leon learned proved useful as a means to keep his Jewish identity hidden during the war.
      Shortly after the beginning of the German occupation of Greece in 1941, sixteen year-old Leon joined a group of partisans fighting for the liberation of Greece under a socialist banner. At that time, there were three groups of partisans in Greece: socialist, democratic, and loyalist. Leon fought and served as communications specialist with the partisans for more than three years, winding wires through the trees in various villages to establish telephone communication.


Leon Idas training to use a machine gun.

      The partisans lived in, and organized armed resistance against the German army, from bases in the mountains of Greece. Aided by nearby villages, British airdrops of supplies, and their own resourcefulness, the partisans primarily employed ambush and guerrilla tactics against the German army. The Germans in turn attempted to eliminate the partisans by destroying villages that supported them.


Leon Idas (middle) with two army friends

      Leon spent more than three years with the partisans. During that time, Leon suffered through hunger, lice, a lack of adequate clothing, and had virtually no contact with his family — save for a single encounter with one of his brothers who was fighting for another partisan group.
At the end of the war in December 1945, Leon left the partisans and returned to his family home in Athens. Once there, he was reunited with what was left of his family and learned that his parents and brother Gabriel had died in Auschwitz during this time.


      Leon eventually made his way to the United States with no more than 50 cents in his pocket, and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. He married and raised a family of three sons and one daughter, and started his own clothing business, Royal Vintage Clothing. Leon passed away on April 12th, 2013, and was laid to rest in the private Jewish Family Cemetery on the island of Samos, Greece, alongside his grandfather Leon Goldstein and Uncle Albert Goldstein.

      Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Leon Idas, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Leon's son, Sam Idas, has created a photo montage of Leon's life. He was gracious enough to share it with JPEF - click here to view the montage video.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Celebrating Joe Kubryk's 92nd Birthday - July 1st

"We had a very difficult time in the partisans among our own soldiers. What happened is we had Ukrainians, we had Poles, we had Polish soldiers that escaped from the prisons of Juaros and came to the partisans. And we had Russians. None of them really liked the Jews."
- Joe Kubryk on being a Jewish partisan.

Joe Kubryk was born in the Russian Ukraine, not far from Odessa, on July 1st, 1926. Before the war, the Kubryk family did not experience much antisemitism, but after the war broke out, Joe’s village was filled with Ukrainian fascists, who cooperated with the Germans to kill Jews. When Joe saw the Germans rounding up his classmates, he knew he had to run for his life. In August 1941, not long after his friends were taken by the Nazis, Joe left the village. He found a Ukrainian farmer who hired him as a farmhand. The farmer had not idea Joe was Jewish as Joe was fluent Ukrainian. While Joe cried himself to sleep at night, he never let anyone see him doing it. He didn’t want to explain why he was crying.
Near the end of 1941, Russian partisans came scavenging for food at Joe’s farm. Curious, he asked them who they were. “Russian partisans,” came the reply. “Who are you?” When they heard he was Jewish and alone in the world, they said, “You are one of us,” and took him to a camp in the forest of Drohobicz. A few months after Joe arrived, a junior secret service was formed. Joe and the other teenagers began serious training in spying — learning how to recognize guns, artillery pieces and officers’ insignia. They were “toughed-up” in the training, taught secret codes and the rules of espionage. The Junior Secret Service spied on German troops. Platoon by platoon, they counted men, checked equipment, noted who the ranking officers were and where they were camped. They also provided information to saboteurs who mined bridges and railroads to disrupt German military activity. Joe still bears the shrapnel scars he received during gunfights with the German army, and a German bombardment left him deaf in one ear.
After the war, Joe worked for the Bricha, the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel. Joe then fought in Israel’s War of Independence and worked for the Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, before moving to America, where he became a successful businessman.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joe Kubryk, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Our study guides section also contains a guide titled Joe Sasha Kubyrk: Teenage Partisan Spy.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Shalom Yoran - The Defiant

Shalom Yoran was born Selim Sznycer in 1925 in Warsaw, Poland. When Shalom was 15 years old, his family fled east, leaving the Nazi-occupied area of Poland for the Soviet side. However, a year later the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the Yoran family found their new home, the village of Kurzeniec, occupied by the Nazis. Two years later, in 1942, the Nazis established a Russian POW camp in Kurzeniec, where the prisoners were treated brutally. Shalom first learned about the partisans through stories he was told by escaped Soviet POWs. The day before Yom Kippur 1942, the Kurzeniec ghetto was ordered to be liquidated.
Shalom was given an early warning, but his family was not as lucky. Shalom and his brother Musio managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, and were forced to listen as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. The brothers later found out their parents were among them. The farmer whose barn they hid in turned out to be friendly, and the brothers safely made it to the woods - the Naroch puscha - where they found many other survivors in hiding. Shalom reasoned it was only a matter of time before the Germans conducted an organized raid on the forest, so the brothers decided to leave the area. After the brothers recruited three younger refugees to follow them, the boys spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where they built a zemlyanka for shelter and lived mostly off a large store of food they took from local farmers.

Detailed map of Shalom's journey through northeastern Poland
At first, they resorted to stealing and begging, but Shalom eventually had an idea: he fashioned the tops of his boots into a holster, and whittled a wooden handle to look like the one on a Soviet Nagan revolver. No longer needing to steal potatoes in the dead of night, Shalom now demanded provisions, brandishing his holstered "weapon". The balance between menace and generosity was of vital importance, and for a long time the peasants did not suspect anything. However, one night as they ventured into the village one last time to acquire matches, an angry mob chased them down and beat them with sticks. Though he was robbed of all his clothing, Shalom miraculously escaped with his life, and even managed to avoid frostbite as he ran barefoot through the snow. Luckily, all five of the group survived the assault and managed to return to the zemlyanka.
In the spring of 1943, Shalom and the group ventured out of their hiding area. By this time, the tide was turning for the Nazi war effort, and the German army was suffering serious setbacks both in Africa and on the Eastern Front. On the road to Zazierie, the boys encountered fellow survivors of the Kurzeniec ghetto and a group of partisans roaming the village. Since neither he nor his group had weapons, Shalom was denied entry into the group — a common practice among the partisans. Unsure of what to do, Shalom and his brother stayed in the puscha. Though their winter companions went their separate ways, they were soon joined by others, including some escapees from a labor camp in Vileika.
Shalom and his companions spent the rest of the spring trying to join partisan groups roaming the area, but without weapons, they received the same reply every time. Finally, a partisan commander relented and offered them a deal: they would be allowed into the partisans if they returned to Kurzeniec and burned down a factory that made wooden rifle butts. For this mission, they were given a handgun with a single bullet and two hand grenades. Despite the suicidal odds, they were successful. However, when they returned to the partisan camp, they were met by a different officer, who took away their weapons and reprimanded them, threatening to shoot them if they didn't leave. The Russian partisans never even thought they could succeed, and had no intention of letting Jews into their group. Little did they know that the group's commanding officer - the one who initially gave the Jews the assignment - was himself a Russian Jew.
Shalom's lucky break came when the commander of a "specgruppa" - a small unit created for a specific purpose - came through the area looking for guides. During the Soviet retreat in 1941, the local peasants had picked up many weapons abandoned by soldiers. The group's mission was to find and collect these weapons, along with food. Here, Shalom witnessed first-hand the methods of Soviet-style coercion, which ranged from the polite display of a grenade on the table to beatings and mock executions.
But in the end, the specgruppa found the weapons caches, and for his work, Shalom and Musio were both given working rifles (though Shalom's did not have a butt, and Musio's was sawed-off).
Shalom in British uniformAfter his work with the specgruppa, Shalom heard rumors of the formation of an all-Jewish otriad, organized by one Colonel Markov, who by that time had a brigade of over a thousand partisans under his command. He was in contact with the FPO in Vilna, and their members formed the core of an all-Jewish otriad called Miest - the Russian word for "revenge". Since they brought weapons, Shalom and his companions were readily accepted into the unit. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit ambushed the retreating German troops, cutting communication lines, blowing up bridges, and destroying railroads. The unit was disbanded and merged with another otriad some months later. This would not be the last all-Jewish unit Shalom belonged to during the war - and, unfortunately, not the last to be disbanded by the Soviet high command.

When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom and the rest of his comrades were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war.
In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British Military passport, and joined the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. Shalom became a leader in the Israeli aerospace industry.
Shalom moved to the US in 1979 where he lived with his wife, artist Varda Yoran. Shalom passed away on September 9, 2013 leaving a tremendous legacy.
In 2003, he published his memoir, The Defiant: A True Story of Escape, Survival & Resistance. The book, written shortly after the Shoah but rediscovered many years later, is dedicated to his parents. Click here to listen to Larry King reading excerpts from the book.

From left to right: Shalom, Steffi, Markh, and Musio. Steffi was the widow of Markh's close friend in Vilna. Budapest, 1945.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Revolt of the 12th Sonderkommando in Auschwitz - October 7, 1944

On October 7th,1944, at a line-up around three in the afternoon, a revolt in the Auschwitz concentration camp began with the swing of a hammer and a shout of “Hurrah!” from Chaim Neuhof, who had been a Sonderkommando – one of the prisoners selected to work in the gas chambers and crematoria – since 1942. The remaining Sonderkommando followed and assisted Neuhof in attacking the SS guards with hammers and axes that were smuggled in with the help of local partisans. An especially sadistic SS guard was thrown into the ovens after being stabbed - but still alive.

SS guards were quickly alerted about the revolt and, easily outnumbering the prisoners, opened fire on the insufficiently armed Sonderkommando. But the prisoners, who had also smuggled small guns into camp through connections with local partisan groups, were not easily defeated. After strapping explosives to captured guards, a group of prisoners blew up Crematorium IV, killing themselves and their captors. Some of the prisoners cut through the barbed-wire fence, creating a crucial escape route out of the camp.

The ruins of the destroyed crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The revolt was work of the prisoners in the 12th Sonderkommando – young, able-bodied men who were given the grisly task of working in and around the gas chambers. They escorted newly arrived prisoners to their deaths, searched the bodies for valuables, and disposed of them in the crematoria. For performing these duties, they were reviled by the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Furthermore, their knowledge of the inner workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Every few months, SS guards killed the old Sonderkommando and replaced them with new prisoners. Though the 12th Sonderkommando learned of their pending liquidation from the camp's underground military leaders only earlier that day, the revolt had been planned months earlier.


Rosa Robota
Four women working inside the camp, Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, Ala Gertner and Roza Robota, played a crucial role in this revolt. These four female prisoners provided ammunition for blowing up Crematorium IV – Wajcblum smuggled out the gunpowder from the munitions factory, where she worked along with Safirsztain and Gertner. Robota, who worked in a clothes depot adjacent to one of the crematoria, helped smuggle out the powder. The men in the camp's resistance underground recruited Robota because they were acquainted with her from their hometown, where she was a member of the HaShomer HaTzair Zionist youth movement. Through a complex communication network, she and the other women were able to slowly pass on the ammunition to the Sonderkommando leaders by hiding it in the false bottom of a food tray. This powder was used to manufacture crude explosives and primitive grenades for the attack.

Despite the extensive preparation of the prisoners, the revolt was quickly subdued by the SS guards, whose superior automatic weapons were no match for the prisoners’ arsenal. The Nazis rounded up all the escapees. Another two hundred prisoners were lined up and executed as punishment for the revolt. One of the Sonderkommando revealed the names of the four women responsible for smuggling in the gunpowder - but despite months of torture, the women refused to reveal any other accomplices. On January 5, 1945, they were all hanged in front of the entire female camp population. “Be strong and be brave,” Robota shouted defiantly to her comrades as the trapdoor dropped.

This was the last public execution in Auschwitz – twelve days later, the camp was deserted as 56,000 prisoners were forced on a death march by the Nazis in a last attempt to destroy any evidence of their mass killings. On January 27th, the 7,500 remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet army.
Click here to learn more about women who participated in resistance against the Nazis.