Saturday, August 19, 2017
— 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.
Monday, March 20, 2017
Leon Senders (z''l), disrupted the Nazi war machine as a radio operator with the Soviet partisans after escaping the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto
When Poland was split by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, the Soviet Union annexed Vilna, returning it to Lithuania, and Leon and his family were shielded from much of the violence for several more years. In 1941, however, the Germans broke the pact and invaded eastward. Leon was returning from a factory picnic in the countryside when the German Luftwaffe bombed Vilna.
Though he found his apartment building smoldering in ruins, his family was staying with his grandparents and survived the bombing. Since Vilna was a major hub for Europe’s Jewish community and had a half-dozen Jewish newspapers, Leon’s family grimly kept up with the latest news out of Germany and Poland –so they understood all were in danger once the Nazis arrived. Later in the streets, when a group of local Jewish boys invited Leon to escape for Russia with them, his father urged him to go, saying:
When the railroad stopped working after the Germans bombed it, Leon and his companions hitched a ride into Soviet territory with the retreating Russians. By the time Leon ended up in Penza1, where he was scheduled to work at a tractor repair center, all of his acquaintances had either dispersed or joined the newly-formed Lithuanian division of the Soviet army (since non-Jewish Lithuanians did not consider the Nazis a threat and chose to stay where they were, the division was full of young Jewish men who fled to Russia).
Leon eventually decided to do the same, but had to beg to join the Lithuanian division, as he was not yet of age. His technical background saved him from the high casualty rate of the front lines – he was sent to Moscow to learn Morse Code, the art of deciphering telegraphs, and radio operation. For a year he spent his days going to school, living in a dormitory, sleeping in a bed and socializing with young men and women his age – a true luxury at the time for a young man in his position.
In October of 1943, armed with an automatic rifle and a short wave radio, Leon parachuted into the Lithuanian forest to join up with the partisans in the area. Some of the partisans were old acquaintances of his from Vilna – when they told him of the horrors of ghetto life and the German atrocities, he was stunned with disbelief.
Leon used a network of local informants to monitor German movements, and he telegraphed his findings to the Soviet military through a series of coded messages. The information he provided was crucial in carrying out bombings on German supply shipments. He used a network of paid informants to gather and verify information – the more informants who had the same story, the more likely it was to be true.
To make life easier for himself back in Moscow, Leon concealed his Jewish identity, bleaching his hair blond with peroxide. He also spoke Polish, Russian, German, and Lithuanian. These proved to be almost as invaluable as the technical training: often he dressed like a shepherd or in other worn-out peasant clothing, Leon was so good at disguising his identity he was once kicked out of a farmer’s house by the very German agent who was sent to the area to track him down: the German wanted some food from the farmer, and objected to the presence of ‘Lithuanian swine’ at his lunch.
The work entailed other dangers as well – so the enemy would not triangulate his position from the transmissions he beamed to Moscow, the radio had to be constantly on the move, often as far as 9 miles out of the way. The battery he carried was as big as a brick and heavier than one; sometimes, it did not work, and he would have to scavenge batteries from the villages and string them up together to power the radio. Sometimes, the radio had trouble broadcasting the signal, and at times it would take him the entire day to send just one message; this would slow down the unit and could even result in his accidental abandonment.
After the war’s end, Leon ended up at a DP camp in Italy, where he met his wife Brenda, also a former Jewish partisan. They emigrated to the US in 1951, where they raised three children together. Leon passed away on Thursday, July 18th, 2013. Of his work, Leon said, “I would like the partisans to be remembered as a part of victory…Without them victory would be smaller than the victory that we brought to the world.”
|Leon and Brenda Senders at their wedding - November 2, 1946|
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
The world of a partisan, and especially a Jewish partisan, was a treacherous, restless, stressful world. They braved the most unendurable conditions—extreme cold, hunger, fatigue—and survived through the will to fight and persevere. Sometimes they received food, shelter, supplies, information, and medical attention from nearby communities. However, Jewish partisans could not fully trust the often anti-Semitic locals, though their services were necessary. Preventative measures were therefore taken: food and supplies were acquired at gunpoint or with some cunning and often improvised deception. Frank Blaichman recalls, “We had information that a farmer had hidden weapons. We made up a story to tell him that we were Russian paratroopers and we needed the weapons. We had our men far away with broken pitchforks that looked like a gun with a bayonet in the background, so to the farmer he looked like he was dealing with the real thing.” Even medical care was forcefully taken when sympathetic doctors were not available.
However, locals who empathized with Jewish partisans or simply shared the same feeling of opposition toward German occupation were a great asset to partisan survival. Leon Idas found that there were local villagers who were friendly and freely informed partisan troops of German movements, and would even escort disguised partisans to the city hospitals to get them aid. Harry Burger found that locals offered up their barns to shelter and care for traveling partisans. Burger and Idas, however, lived and fought in southern Europe, where there was less anti-Semitism. In Poland, Sonia Orbuch did not encounter many sympathetic locals; although, she owes much of her survival to one citizen by the name of Tichon Martinetz who was instrumental in connecting her with the Russian partisans and also supplied the brigade with food in the bitter winter of ’42. Frank Blaichman spent much time with farmers who hid him and his comrades, cooked meals for them, even washed their clothes. “The locals were anti-Semitic, but they were not killers,” Frank Blaichman explained. “When they saw that we took care of German collaborators they were more willing to help us. Without their help we would have never survived.”
According to partisans such as Blaichman, local allies could make all the difference in regards to survival. Even though unsympathetic locals could be tricked or forced at gunpoint to concede services and supplies, not all of survival relies on physical needs. After being chased by locals “like an animal”, when Blaichman found friendly households which sheltered and fed him there was a sense of hope. He said, “They treated us like human beings.”