Tuesday, August 30, 2016
— 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. They sought refuge in the Russian village of Smorgon. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, Smorgon was occupied and all Jews were forced 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 the 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 final destruction. Simon took part in FPO’s failed uprising in the ghetto, later escaping with the rest of his group when the Nazis dynamited their headquarters. They regrouped outside of 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 seek safety with a relative, Simon 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, and received orders from Moscow by radio (and towards the end of the war, air-dropped supplies as well). 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, 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 2, 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.
Friday, August 19, 2016
"You know, you didn't, 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 main feature of 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 couple of 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 their 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. Though Brenda and her sister were separated during the escape, 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. While she was unarmed, Brenda’s determination to fight convinced the partisan general that she was fit to join. Leaving her sister in hiding with a local peasant, Brenda learned how to shoot a gun and ride a horse. She 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 and 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, himself a former partisan from the famed Avengers unit. Brenda and Leon married in 1945 and left for Italy, ultimately 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.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
"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 18th, 1921 in Vilna, Poland. The oldest of three, he had two sisters named Rachel and Marilyn. His family was 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, which he did 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 found out later that 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. Hiding in the forests of Belarussia’s Naroch Forest, he lived in a camouflaged zemlyanka, or underground bunker. Bernard worked under the Markov brigade and with Commander Jurgis, head of the Lithuanian Brigade. He spent his time sabotaging railroad lines, phone lines, and stealing 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 being very difficult, as the most difficult thing he has done. Living in the woods was tough. “Let me tell you something,” Bernard recalls, “To be a partisan, it’s not human.”
Thursday, August 11, 2016
Leah, together with her mother Chasia, and her three younger siblings Charles, Sonia and Benjamin, tried to escape from their oppressors early. They were taken in by sympathetic farmers in the outskirts of town where they hid out 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 were 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 massacres and were hiding out 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 accepted Tuvia’s help. He then sent a guide to escort the family out of the ghetto. They traveled by night, in silence, past guard dogs, under barbed wire, 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 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 became separated from the rest of the group as the German army was advancing 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 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 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 especially the younger generation. It is important to create awareness that this never happens again. “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.