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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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 18th, 1921 in Vilna, Poland. He was the oldest of the three Druskin children, his two little sisters 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.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Jewish Partisan Leah Bedzowski Johnson Continues to Inspire

Over 70 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 4, 2017

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.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

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 12, 2017

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 29, 2017

Celebrating Joe Kubryk's 91st 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.

Monday, June 26, 2017

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.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Featured Jewish Partisan: Chaya Porus Palevsky

Obeying a last-minute command from a friend, Chaya jumped off a train filled with residents of the Swieciany ghetto, bound for the town of Kovno. Not long afterwards, in Vilna, she learned that everyone left on the train – including her entire family – was murdered by the Nazis.
Swieciany (Švenčionys), the small town where Chaya was born, is located in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, 84 kilometers north of Vilnius. In June 1941, the Nazis forced all the town’s Jews into a ghetto. Chaya and her family helped house runaway Jews, and their home transformed into a meeting place for people who wanted to learn about the war. Chaya's sister Rochel, a registered nurse, worked in a secret hospital and was known as the “angel of the ghetto” for her tireless efforts helping the sick.

The town of Švenčionys, circa 1916 (German postcard)
After learning of her family's fate, Chaya turned her grief into action by joining a partisan group led by Fedor Markov, a well-respected teacher from her hometown. Typically, women were not allowed to fight in resistance groups, but Chaya gained admittance by proving her usefulness with her small handheld Belgian gun. Her group formed alliances with other Jewish partisan groups, and a larger Jewish unit was formed. They called it “Nekamah” – which means revenge in Hebrew. Markov boldly stated “You should be proud, you are young and very brave people.” Nekamah flourished into a thriving partisan outpost, with around ninety members, all living deep in the woods in zemlyankas (underground bunkers that held up to twenty people, carefully camouflaged into the forest floor). There were also smaller bunkers, including one designated for ill partisans.
Chaya's partisan group lived up to their name, as they participated in significant acts of retribution against the Nazis. Nekamah burned down an electric station, derailed trains, and destroyed German weapons and food sources. They were also active in communicating news about the resistance and warning people in nearby villages and ghettos about the Nazis’ plans of mass extermination.
The small percentage of women – including Chaya – who had gained membership into partisan groups, experienced a different set of hardships than their male counterparts once they were accepted. Unwanted advances from male partisans were all too common. Women were often assigned to gender-related tasks like cooking and cleaning, instead of fighting.

Partisans from the "Nekama" unit. Photo credit: Ghetto Fighters House/Eliat Gordon Levitan.
Eventually, Nekamah was dismantled by the Soviets, who would not allow Jewish partisan groups under their watch. After liberation, Chaya went on to marry a fellow partisan, Simon and immigrated to New York City, where they opened a jewelry business. They had two sons and remained active in assisting Holocaust survivors in finding employment.
To find out more about Jewish women partisans, please visit our curriculum page.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sonia Orbuch, Born May 24

“I didn’t even bend down my head, I wasn’t worried that I was going to get killed, If I was going to get killed I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew.”
— Sonia Orbuch, during JPEF interview.
Sarah Shainwald was 14 years old and ready to start high school when the bombs began falling on September 1st, marking the official start of World War II. The Soviets invaded Poland from the east and Lubomi was handed to the Russians under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland between the two powers.

For two years, with Lubomi under the Soviets, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war with worries about her family’s future. Then in 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family were confined to the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.
When the Nazis began killing Jews in the ghetto, it did not take long for the news to spread. Sarah's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but this group only accepted young men – so the open forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.
Eventually, Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, her uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group. Thus Sara began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for sabotage and resistance missions.
Sarah was renamed Sonia by the partisans, for 'Sarah' is not a common Russian name and would have exposed her to danger from various anti-Semitic elements. Early on, Sonia was assigned to guard duty and providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.
In the winter of 1943-44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. The camp had several thousand members and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital. Sonia recalls her day-to-day experience there:
“During the daytime, the fights were terrible...you didn’t take off your shoes, you didn’t wash; you barely ate. You just worked very hard providing whatever comfort your could...I was frightened, horrified at the numbers of people we lost.”
To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades on her person, “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”
In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house. They were unaware that the house was infected with typhus, which soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.
As the war ended, Sonia focused her energy on getting to America. These days, Sonia lives in Northern California. But the past is never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia says. “I see them always before my eyes.”
Sonia defiantly proclaims. “I want young people to know we were fighting back and that you can always find a way to fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter and not because I am a Jew. That itself gave me strength to go on.
Sonia realized that while terror was raging around her, kindness always managed to shine through. “I feel great respect for the Russian people who were so brave and helpful to us,” Sonia says. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”
She continues to share her experiences - most recently, she participated in our live Q&A Partisan Webcast. Over twenty schools tuned in to watch. She was also featured in several of the winning essays from our 2012 Youth Writing Contest - click here to read them. Pictured below is Sonia with last year's contest winner EJ Weiss:
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about the Sonia Orbuch, including seven videos of Sonia reflecting on her time as a partisan. You can also download our study guide Sonia Orbuch: A Young Woman With The Russian Partisans.
Sonia has written about her experiences in the partisans in her book Here, There Are No Sarahs: A Woman's Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream, available on Amazon.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jewish Partisan - Harry Burger, born on May 10th

Harry Burger was born on May 10th, 1924 in Vienna, Austria. The son of a textile merchant, Harry enjoyed an affluent and comfortable upbringing. As a child growing up in a large house, he was left to his own devices a great deal, which helped form his defiant and independent character.
The family lived in Vienna until 1938, when Germany annexed Austria and the German Nuremberg laws were put into effect there. Harry remembers the day he was barred from entering the building of his Jewish school:
“I went to school the next possible day and at the door they were waiting for me and the other Jews and says, ‘You don’t belong to this school anymore. You get out and you go to the next block or two and there’s a public school, and that’s where you’re gonna go.’ So not thinking of nothing, we went up there and I went in. They took me to a classroom and about 30 kids jumped on me and beat the heck out of me.”
As the Nazis continued with their campaigns of persecution in Austria and other occupied territories, the Burger family made plans to escape to France. They escaped through Italy (travelers did not require permits to enter an ally of Germany), where the borders were more porous.
Their hopes for a safe, quiet life were dashed when France was conquered by Germany in 1940. While trying to get a visa to Cuba, Harry’s father was arrested and detained for many months, only to be sent to Auschwitz in the end. Meanwhile, Harry and his mother remained in Nice.
In the summer of 1940, rumors of an impending German invasion were in the air. But instead of the German army, Nice and the surrounding areas in the southeast of France were occupied by the Italians – a gift from Hitler to Mussolini. The Italians were not nearly as abusive to Jews, and life under the Italians was good.
As the war progressed, Italy experienced humiliation on the battlefield and growing discontent at home. The occupation of southeastern France did not last, and the Italians eventually returned across the Alps. Harry, his mother, and 700 other Jews took the opportunity to follow them into Italy, but the Nazis were not far behind. When they arrived at an Italian fort, Harry learned the Nazis were en route to collect the Jews. Harry and his mother escaped capture, while more than 350 of the others were taken by the Nazis.
Right around this time, Italy withdrew from the war, Mussolini was deposed as a leader and the Germans were “coming to the rescue of their allies” by occupying the northern half of the country. Harry and his mother were living in a barn on the Italian-French border when he spotted a group of Italian soldiers. They told them they were leaving for the mountains because the Germans have occupied the town, and Harry asked if he could join them.
“I said to him, ‘Is there a chance that I can join you?’ And he says, ‘Sure.’ And he motioned to one of his guys and he came with a rifle and he gave me the rifle and says, ‘You know what that is?’ I says, ‘Yeah, it’s a rifle.’ ‘You know how to shoot it?’ ‘No. No idea.’ He showed me. He handed it to me and says, ‘You are now a Partisan.’”
In this fashion, Harry Burger became a partisan in the First Alpine Division, where he used his fluency in German to interrogate captured soldiers. As was the case with many Italian partisans, Harry was given a nickname – Biancastella, after the last name of the officer with whom Harry had to exchange his civilian clothes. The officer needed civilian clothes to go into town and find out the latest war news; unfortunately, the officer never returned, and Harry was left with his uniform – and his ID card.

Harry Burger - aka "Biancastella" - in the mountains
Initially, the First Alpine Division was under-equipped, however they eventually received Allied support in the form of airdropped munitions and clothing. One of First Alpine’s most important tasks was to sabotage German electric capabilities. Northern Italy had an electrically powered train system, meaning the destruction of local electric plants seriously hindered German mobility.
After the war, Harry was reunited with his mother and returned to France. He stayed in France for five years working as a photographer. In 1950, Harry immigrated to the United States, eventually finding photography work with two prominent television networks. Harry has one child and four grandchildren.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Harry Burger, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Harry's book about his time in the partisans - Biancastella - is available on Amazon.

Harry Burger with fellow Jewish partisan Enzo

Monday, May 8, 2017

Featured Jewish Partisan - Norman Salsitz, born on May 6th

Norman Salsitz was born May 6, 1920 in Galizia, a small town in southern Poland. Though he had seven different names in his lifetime, Norman Salsitz has always remained the same at his core: tough, resourceful, and honest. The youngest of nine siblings, Norman was among the Jewish inhabitants that were forced into a ghetto in June of 1941 by the Germans. Looking for strong labor, the Germans selected Norman and other healthy young Jews to dismantle recently decimated ghettos. While Norman worked to destroy any remaining signs of his heritage and religion, the Germans began sending his friends and family to the death camps.
Norman knew that with each ghetto they demolished, the workers drew closer to their own murders.
In October of 1942, Norman organized an escape group of 55 people and fled to the surrounding forest. He had money he found during his ghetto work, and used it to buy his first revolver. The sympathetic Pole who sold him the weapon also led Norman to a group of resistance fighters in the woods. These fighters fought through harsh weather conditions on rough terrain to dismantle and damage German railroads, mills, and police stations.

Norman and his wife Amalie, 1945
In 1944, Norman joined the AK Polish Underground, despite the strong presence of antisemitism. He knew that as a Jew, he would never be able to make the contribution to defeat the Nazis he wanted to without disguising his Jewish identity and joining the powerful AK. Norman worked with the Underground to defeat their common foes until the command was given to seek out and kill Jews being hidden on a farm. Norman volunteered for the mission, killing the Poles who had been sent with him and rescuing the Jews in hiding. He then fled the AK and returned to his original partisan unit, where he remained until he was liberated by the Russians.

Norman in a Polish army uniform, 1944
Norman Salsitz’s mother’s dying wish was for her son to keep their stories alive. He has honored that wish by writing books and speaking about his war experiences. From the horrors of mass murder to the inspiration of weary fighters singing hymns, Norman continues to fight for the truth.
“This is why I keep going,” he says, “we have to tell the world what the German murderers did to us.”
Norman Salsitz passed away on October 11th, 2006.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Norman Salsitz, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Norman during a JPEF interview, 2002

Monday, May 1, 2017

More than 15,000 People Today Owe Their Lives to Tuvia Bielski (z''l), Born May 8, 1906

Over seventy years ago on a rainy night, Rae Kushner, her sister Lisa and Sonya and Aaron Oshman escaped through a narrow tunnel from the Novogrudok ghetto together with 250 other Jews. They hid in an area nearby to elude the pursuing Germans and their collaborators. Many in the group were shot and killed. Rae, Lisa, Sonya and Aaron, and others were rescued by the Bielski partisans, who heard of the group’s escape and sent in scouts to take the survivors from Novogrudok to safety.

The group, founded by Tuvia Bielski and his brothers Asael and Zus – along with help from youngest brother Aron – provided a haven for all Jews fleeing the Nazis and their collaborators. For three years, the Bielski partisans survived in the forests of Belarus, engaging in armed combat and disrupting the Nazi war machine with acts of sabotage. Their primary mission, however, was always the preservation of Jewish lives. Tuvia proclaimed, “I would rather save the life of one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazis.” By the end of the war, the Bielski partisans managed to save over 1,200 Jews.

Tuvia was one of 12 children, born to a miller fathher on May 8, 1906 in the rural town of Stankiewicze. They were the only Jews in a small community, and quickly learned how to look after themselves.
When the Germans invaded in June 1941, the brothers sought refuge in the woods where they had spent time as children. Asael and Zus, who were hiding together, set about finding safe homes for a dozen or so of their surviving relatives. Tuvia, who was staying further to the north, moved relatives in with friendly non-Jews. But by the spring of 1942, the three decided it was time to relocate all the relatives into a single location in the woods.

The brothers moved quickly to build a fighting force from the escapees. These escapees joined forces with the growing group of Soviet partisans who were engaging in guerrilla attacks against the occupiers. In October 1942, a squad of Bielski and Soviet fighters raided a German convoy loaded with supplies, killing at least one German soldier. “It was satisfying in a larger sense,” Tuvia wrote of the first attack on Nazis in his 1955 Yiddish language memoir, “A real spiritual high point, that the world should know that there were still Jews alive, and especially Jewish partisans.”
The group continued to grow until the end of the war. Committed to protecting all Jews – regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, or level of religious observance – the Bielski Otriad provided shelter for Jews like Rae, Lisa, Aaron and Sonya. They worked endlessly to free hundreds of Jews from other ghettos. Among them were Leah Bedzowski Johnson, her sister Sonia, brothers Charles and Benjamin, and their mother Chasia, who escaped from the Lida Ghetto with Tuvia’s help. Sonia Bedzowksi was later captured enroute to the Lida ghetto to secure medicine for the partisans and killed in Majdanek. The rest of the Bedzowski family stayed with the Bielski Otriad until the end of the war. Now living in Florida, Leah expresses her lifelong gratitude, and praises Tuvia’s leadership and humanity, “Tuvia Bielski was our commander. He was always around us and he wanted only to save Jewish lives to make sure that our people continued and multiplied. I would not be alive today if it was not for Tuvia and neither would my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Bielski partisans guarding an airstrip. Leah's husband, Velvel "Wolf" Johnson, is in the bottom center with his machine gun.
While imprisoned in the Lida Ghetto, Michael Stoll had heard tale of the Bielski partisans and vowed to escape and join the group. That chance came when he and 11 others jumped from a train bound for the Majdanek concentration camp. Finding themselves in the middle of “no man’s land,” they were eventually able to connect with the Bielski Otriad. Michael says, “If it had not been for Tuvia, we would not have survived. He was a good man. A legend.”

Operating in the Naliboki forest, Tuvia set up a functioning partisan community that included a hospital, classrooms for children, a soap factory, tailors, butchers, and even a group of musicians. Everyone in the Bielski Otriad worked to support one another – even the youngest children like Ann Monka contributed by keeping people’s spirits up with singing and entertainment. Ann recalls that Tuvia had special pride for the children of the Bielski Otriad, and took great strides to protect them and ensure their survival. “At one time there was a rumor that he was going to send some of the children to Moscow since we did not know when the war was going to end. He wanted to make sure that the children were safe. The children were the future of the Jewish people. We would not be here if it were not for him. Without him we had no chance for survival. Thousands are alive because of Tuvia.”

Indeed, because of Tuvia’s strong and effective leadership and his determination to save as many Jewish lives as possible, there are more than 15,000 people today who owe their lives to him. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Rae Kushner (z''l), Lisa Riebel(z''l), Leah Johnson, Charles Bedzow, Benny Bedzow (z''l), Chasia Bedzowski (z''l), and Sonya and Aaron Oshman (z''l), and 1,200 other survivors of the Bielski Otriad.

Tuvia and Lilka together after the liberation.
While in the forest, Tuvia met and married Lilka. Together they had three children: Michael (Mickey), Robert and Ruth; and nine grandchildren: Jordan, Taylor, Ariel, Tori, Sarah, Brenden, Sharon, Talia, and Vanessa. After the war, Tuvia and his family moved to Israel, and then later to the United States. For more than 30 years, he and his brother Zus operated a trucking company in New York City. Tuvia passed away on June 12, 1987 at the age of 81.
Inspired by Tuvia’s remarkable courage and compassion, and the legacy of the Bielski Otriad, in 2008 Paramount Pictures portrayed his story in the major motion picture “Defiance”, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia (see an image of Daniel Craig as Tuvia on a fake cabbie license for a scene that ended up getting cut from the film). In cooperation with Paramount and film director Edward Zwick, JPEF developed a unique curriculum for educators, which incorporates scenes from the film to engage students in critical thinking about History, Leadership, Ethics, and Jewish Values.

Leaders of the Bielski otriad posing in front of an Israel-bound ambulance they helped fund, circa 1960s. From the right: Tuvia & Lilka, Zus & his wife Sonia, Lea and Pesach Friedberg.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org/defiance for more about the Bielksi partisans and the film 'Defiance', including a 5-page Tuvia Bielski study guide/biography. Educators can take a free on-line class how to teach about the Bielskis and use the guides, films, and lesson plans with our E-Learning platform.
Watch a short film on the Bielskis, narrated by Ed Asner, here:
In 2013, JPEF honored Tuvia, his brothers Asael, Zus and Aron, and all Bielski partisans, at a dinner in New York City. Eighteen surviving Bielski partisans attended the gala, where "The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers", narrated by Liev Schreiber, and featuring partisans and their children, was shown.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Martin Petrasek's Partisan Story Shared at the Bay Area Day of Learning

Martin Petrasek was born in Chust, Slovakia in 1926. In 1938, Czechoslovakia became the first victim of Hitler’s expansionist plans when Germany annexed a group of German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland (Hitler invaded the rest not long after). However, the region of Slovakia was granted autonomy in return for supporting the Nazis and rounding up and deporting its Jewish population. Martin got a job in a furniture factory where the foreman protected him, but he still lived in constant fear of being sent away. When he fell ill and was sent to a sanatorium in the mountains, he took the opportunity to leave and sought refuge in a monastery.
While at the monastery, Martin found a partisan pamphlet calling on Slovaks to resist the occupation. He decided that it was time to fight back. A local sympathizer gave him the name of a contact for the resistance in a nearby town. Martin found the man and was inducted into a partisan brigade.

Martin Petrasek's partisan identification card
Martin worked as a spy, scouting the movements of troops and conducting hit-and-run attacks against local German forces. Soviet paratroopers had organized his brigade, and they regularly airdropped supplies to the partisans.
After the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, public opinion in Slovakia began to turn against the Nazis, and in 1944 Slovaks staged a widespread uprising against their occupiers. However the uprising was short lived—Hitler sent in elite SS units that brutally repressed the resistance, and the retreating German army conducted “clean-up” operations on their way back from the Eastern front.
The brigade knew that retreating Nazis were scouring the forest and killing every partisan they found. Instead of staying in the path of Germans, Martin’s brigade decided to advance to the front to reunite with the Red Army. They met up with the Romanian army en route, and were liberated.
Martin joined up with the Czechoslovakian army and became a military police officer responsible for punishing soldiers who deserted from the front. After the war, Martin defected from Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, entering West Germany and moving to Israel. Martin eventually immigrated to the United States in 1959. He lives there today, along with his wife and his two grown children.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Martin Petrasek, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Martin (center) at the 2011 Partisan Tribute Dinner in NYC

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - 74th Anniversary Begins Erev Pesach

74 years ago this week, German soldiers entered the Warsaw ghetto, intending to deport its remaining Jewish population to Treblinka, a nearby extermination camp. In the months before Passover, there was a halt on deportations due to earlier failed attempts to deport Jews that were met with gunfire and  resulted in casualties. However, the Germans and their collaborators returned on the eve of Passover, hoping this time to clear the ghetto of its inhabitants in three days.

Instead, the Germans were met again with fire and bullets. Sparsely armed with a handful of handguns and Molotov cocktails, the Jewish resistance - led by Mordechai Anielewicz - repelled the initial German assault, killing German soldiers and setting fire to armored vehicles. Though the Germans returned better organized and under the leadership of a different officer, the resistance held out for several more days. In the end, only a few dozen fighters managed to escape the ghetto through the sewers as the Germans and their collaborators systematically destroyed the entire ghetto with fire and explosions.
The legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, during which approximately 750 Jews fought off Nazi invaders longer than the entire country of France, stands as a testament to the strength of human determination and an example to all. In 2013, the Polish government dedicated the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which stands on the site of the Warsaw ghetto.
For more on the Uprising and its aftermath - as well as the 2013 commemorations of the event - please see:

Jews forcibly removed from their dugouts, on the way to deportation. One of the most famous photos of the war.

German sentries at ghetto entrance

A bunker with the Kotwica symbol of the AK resistance

Resistance fighter coming out of bunker

Housing block set on fire by German army to suppress uprising

Center-left, looking up to the left: the commander in charge of suppressing the uprising, Jürgen Stroop.

Resistance fighters captured by the Germans.

The ruins of the Warsaw ghetto after the suppression.