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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Sukkot, the Holocaust, and Spiritual Resistance

As Sukkot 1941 approached, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto were in tremendous peril. Food was running scarce, and Jews were desperate to gather whatever resources they could, no matter the cost. But for a few days of that fateful year, the crowds did not seek food, form lines to exchange heirloom jewelry for sundries, or stand for hours for a chance at obtaining enough sustenance for their families Instead, they waited to bless the miraculous appearance of the four species celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkot: etrog, lulav, hadas, and aravah.

In the spirit of true non-violent resistance, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto chose to celebrate in the face of loss, death, and violence. The leader of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to gather the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrogs (citron) were not only scarce, but practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time. However, as though it too intended to take its part in the resistance, the etrog appeared and was brought back into the ghetto.

Though outlooks were becoming grim due to recent violence and worsening conditions, Jews from all classes and levels of religious commitment came to stand under the makeshift sukkah. Despite the severe scarcity of firewood in the ghetto, an amount was specially set aside to build the sukkah. A single act of celebration became a moment of courageous resistance, with residents of the Lodz Ghetto choosing not only to celebrate holidays in defiance of Nazi policy, thereby endangering themselves, but also by dedicating precious resources for ritual use.

This Sukkot, standing underneath your own sukkah with etrogim, think not only of a bountiful new year’s beginning, but of the atmosphere in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941: frigid, destitute, oft hopeless, and yet, under the sukkah, brave, defiant, and proudly Jewish. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Featured Jewish Partisan - Nina Grutz Morecki (z"l)

Nina Grutz Morecki (z"l) was 18 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. Nina endured the loss of her mother, father, sister and brother-in-law before being sent to Janowska Concentration Camp as part of a work detail.

She luckily escaped a killing pit outside of the camp, and fled deep into the forest where she encountered the Polish Underground and the partisans, for whom she worked for almost a year and a half. Nina provided them with important stamped documents that allowed them to create chaos and havoc among the German military, and perhaps even save other resistors. She did this knowing the danger and the terrible punishment she would face if caught.

Toward the end of the war, Nina met and married another survivor from Lvov, Josef Morecki. Together, they had three grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren at the time of Nina’s death in 2012.

Read about Nina's incredible story, and share your family's partisan stories here.

Featured Jewish Partisan - Marisa Diena, born on September 29th

"They didn’t know that I was Jewish. It didn’t cross my mind because there, like I said, everyone thought that I was Mara... But there was also Ulisse, Polifemo, Lampo, Fulmine ... they all had battle names. You didn’t know anything about anyone. It wasn’t important. So most people didn’t know that I was Jewish."
— Marisa Diena.

Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy on September 29, 1916. Marisa was 8 years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy and was taught to love Fascism. In 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, which banned Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.

After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique. Since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion. As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to her commander. 

In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.
In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. 

After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa remained in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children. She passed away on May 8, 2013.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Marisa Diena, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Jewish partisan Charles Bedzow Fought with the Bielski Brigade


Charles Bedzow was born Chonon Bedzowski on September 28, 1924 in the town of Lida, located in present-day Belarus. Once the Germans occupied Lida, Charles and his family were stuffed into an overcrowded, disease ridden ghetto within the town. He and his family suffered under the constant threat of starvation in the gradually worsening conditions. In the spring of 1942, he watched as his fellow townspeople were methodically slaughtered, but by a miracle, his immediate family was spared.

Fortunately, partisan leader Tuvia Bielski was a family friend to the Bedzowski family as the two families had been close before the war. After the occupation, Tuvia sent a message to the Bedzowski family – the message urged them to escape the liquidation of the ghetto by fleeing into the nearby woods, where the Bielskis had set up camp after the liquidation of their own village. Charles escaped to the woods and joined the Bielski Brigade. Because the Bielski camp allowed refugees regardless of their age or gender, Charles was joined by his mother, Chasia, his older sister Leah, younger sister Sonia, and younger brother Benny. Almost the entire family survived the Holocaust – an extreme rarity.

The Bedzowski family’s escape into the woods was complex and extremely dangerous. They traversed the treacherous landscape, crawled under fences and walked through the woods for two days, exhausted. Charles reported his thoughts upon arriving at the Bielski camp: “This must be one of the few places in all of Europe where Jews can move in total freedom.”

Despite the fact that like many partisans, Charles was only 17 when he entered the Bielski Brigade, he was quickly entrusted with dangerous work. His missions included the gathering of supplies for the group, scouting, sabotaging German efforts, and participating in ambushes. One such ambush occurred on January 28, 1944. A group of Bielski partisans went to a local village, pretending to be drunk. Their raucous noise alerted the locals, who notified the Germans nearby. 150 partisans lay in wait for the Germans, and they killed 26 policemen and eight Nazi officers during the ambush.

Unfortunately, the Bedzowski family’s participation in the partisan movement was not without a price. On one of her missions to bring medicine and Jews to the brigade from a nearby ghetto, Charles’s sister, Sonia, was caught by enemy forces and sent to the Treblinka death camp, where she died.

Following the war, the remaining members of the Bedzowski family wound up in a displaced persons camp in Torino, Italy. Charles married a fellow partisan from Poland, Sara Golcman, in 1946. In 1949 he and his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he started a successful international real estate firm. Charles and Sara had three children; his surviving brother and sister went on to raise families of their own, and his mother, Chasia, not only survived the war, but went on to live with Charles until her death in 2000.
Charles is JPEF’s Honorary International Chairman. His story is featured in We Fought Back, an anthology of partisan stories from Scholastic publishing. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Charles Bedzow, including three videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Featured Jewish Partisan - Brenda Senders, born on August 20th

"You know, you were not fussy where you sleep or where you lay down, and sometimes they ask me how did you get food. You know, you go in with guns and the person will not give you food so you take it yourself. It was a war, it was not a matter of being polite or this way or the other way. It's being survival was at stake."
— Brenda Senders.
Brenda Senders was born in 1925 in the town of Sarny, then part of Polish territory. She was the daughter of a forester, and one of two sisters (the third died during a dysentery epidemic in the ‘30s). Her father was a respected man in the community, and had helped many of the peasants build their houses. During the First World War, he had served as a translator in the German territories. The impression he took away of the Germans as a cultured people prevented him from taking any rumors of Nazi atrocities seriously.
Sarny was located far to the east, on the Sluch River. Consequently, it fell under Soviet control in 1939. As it was for many partisans, the most prominent impact from the Soviet occupation for Brenda was that she spent two years learning the Russian language. But everything changed in the summer of ’41, when the Nazis occupied Sarny and forced all its Jews into a ghetto.
In 1942, the Nazis closed the ghetto and sent the remaining inhabitants to a death camp. A few electricians managed to smuggle a pair of wire cutters into the camp and cut a hole in the fencing, allowing Brenda, her sister, and hundreds of other prisoners to escape. Many of the escapees were caught, but Brenda and her sister knew the surroundings well and ran straight for the Sluch River, crossing it into the forest. Eventually, Brenda made it to a nearby village, where she sought out her grandfather’s neighbors for help. Initially, Brenda and her sister were separated during the escape, but luckily Brenda found her hiding at the neighbors’, along with her uncle.
After several months in hiding, Brenda connected with a large Soviet-backed partisan unit, made up of 1600 people. Although she was unarmed, Brenda’s determination to fight convinced the partisan general that she was fit to join. She left her sister hiding with a local peasant, and learned how to shoot a gun and ride a horse. She then joined the partisan cavalry, and became one of the general’s bodyguards.
Brenda’s unit was constantly on the move. They occupied villages, conducted ambushes, shot passing German troops, blew up bases, and obliterated bridges and train tracks. “We didn’t let [the Nazis] rest day or night,” Brenda recalled proudly.
After the war, Brenda left Russia, escaping through Slovakia into Austria. She ended up in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Braunau Am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, where she was reunited with her sister. In the DP camp, Brenda met her future husband, Leon Senders, a former partisan from the famed Avengers unit. Brenda and Leon married in 1945 and left for Italy, eventually immigrating to the United States that same year. Brenda passed away in September of 2013; Leon passed away earlier that year, in July. They are survived by three children and seven grandchildren.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Brenda Senders, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Jewish Partisan Leah Bedzowski Johnson (z''l) - Honoring her 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 Bedzowski Family was 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. 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 lived in Florida, where she was active in the Jewish community and lectured extensively about her Jewish partisan experience. She insisted that not only her grandchildren and great-grandchildren knew her story, but also anyone she could reach out to, especially the younger generation. “Fight for your rights. Know who you are. This is my legacy,” she always said. Leah passed away on December 4, 2019. May her memory be a blessing.

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.

Jewish Partisan - Bernard Druskin, born on August 18



"The only thing we used to get [...] parachuted is dynamite, ammunition, and arms, and the rest, we had to live off the fat of the land."
- Bernard Druskin.

Bernard Druskin was born on August 18, 1921 in Vilna, Poland. He was the oldest of the three Druskin children – his two little sisters were named Rachel and Marilyn, and his family worked in the felt supply business. Following the Nazi occupation of Vilna, the Druskin family was sent to live in the Jewish ghetto.

Bernard became a Jewish partisan after escaping from the Jewish ghetto in 1940. He escaped with the help of a compassionate Nazi soldier who showed him how and when to escape. After escaping the ghetto, Bernard lived with friendly farmers, chopping wood for them all day in exchange for his meals. Bernard later found out his family had been executed in retribution for his escaping. Bernard remembers, “I had no reason to live on.”

Bernard then joined the FPO, the United Partisan Organization, and procured a radio to listen to the BBC. Bernard hid in the forests of Belarussia’s Naroch Forest and lived in a camouflaged zemlyanka, or underground bunker. Bernard worked under the Markov brigade and with Commander Jurgis, the head of the Lithuanian Brigade. He spent his time sabotaging railroad lines and phone lines, and stole food and supplies from the German army. Bernard and his compatriots once blew up 5 km of train tracks used by the Nazis, in different sections, calling it "Hanukkah lights."

At times, different groups of partisans competed to see which group could blow up the most trains. The partisans were directly aided by the Russian government, who sent bi-weekly parachute drops of armaments and supplies, and on holidays, vodka.

In July 1944, the Red army liberated the city of Vilna. Instead of taking the German troops as POW’s, the Red Army disarmed them and turned them over to the partisans.

Bernard describes his life as a partisan as the most difficult thing he had done. “Let me tell you something,” Bernard recalled “To be a partisan, it’s not human.”

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Bernard Druskin, who passed away on March 24, 2008, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.