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Thursday, August 31, 2017

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Łachwa Ghetto Uprising

By the 1930s, Łachwa, Poland (now southern Belarus) had a majority Jewish population, which, in April 1942, was confined to a ghetto so cramped that each resident had about one square meter of living space.
In the five short months of the ghetto’s existence, the youth of Łachwa formed an underground movement led by Isaac Rochczyn and aided by Dov Lopatyn, head of the ghetto’s Judenrat. Together, they established contact with partisan groups in the area in order to secure funding and weapons, although these groups were largely anti-Semitic and did not fully support the movement.
Lachwa (now Lakhva, Belarus). Ulica Lubaczyńska (Lubaczynska Street)
In August 1942, residents heard from Jews forced to do labor outside the ghetto that nearby ghettos in Łuniniec and Mikaszewicze had been liquidated. On September 2, Łachwa was informed that local farmers were ordered by the Germans to excavate large pits outside the town. At first, Rochczyn and the youth underground wanted to attack the ghetto wall at midnight to allow the population to flee. They watched as 150 German soldiers from an Einsatzgruppe mobile killing squad with 200 local auxiliaries surrounded the ghetto. Lopatyn, however, did not want to abandon the elderly and the children, and he asked the attack be postponed until the morning, allowing the Judenrat to discuss their options.
Yitzhak/Isaac Rochzyn (or Icchak Rokchin), Łachwa Ghetto underground leader and head of local Betar Group.
When morning arrived, the ghetto inhabitants were ordered to gather for "deportation." The Germans promised Lopatyn that the Judenrat, the ghetto doctor, and 30 laborers of choice would be safe from deportation. Lopatyn refused the offer, reportedly responding: "Either we all live, or we all die."
Lopatyn and Rochczyn decided to resist. Lopatyn set the Judenrat headquarters on fire to signal this decision. The youth resistance engaged the Germans and local collaborators with axes, sticks, Molotov cocktails, and even their bare hands, while others attempted to flee. Rochczyn killed a Gestapo officer with an ax and jumped into the river but was shot and killed. Kopel Kolpanitzky, who later wrote a book about surviving the Łachwa ghetto, recalls the chaos of his escape:
“The machine guns on the other side of the river opened fire along the length of Rinkowa street, wounding fleeing Jews and killing them…I also ran quickly, as the people who ran in front of me were shot and killed, their bodies falling next to me.”
Łachwa lost the majority of its population that day. A number of survivors, however, were able to join with partisan units in the area. Dov Lopatyn, who fought alongside the youth of the ghetto, escaped to the forest and joined a partisan unit, as well. He was later killed on an operation by a landmine in February 1945. Lopatyn leaves a legacy of his courage and leadership, underneath which the Jews of Łachwa stood up to their oppressors.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

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 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.