Leon Bakst was one of four siblings born to a wholesale merchant in Ivie, a small Polish town 73 miles west of Minsk. Leon was 15 when the German army invaded eastern Poland in the summer of 1941, occupying Ivie and forcing the town’s Jews into a ghetto.
When the Germans asked Leon’s father what he did for a living, he lied and told the Germans that he was a brush maker. Though he traded in raw materials required for making brushes, he had never actually made a brush in his life. However, he figured that the occupiers would have more use for a tradesman than a merchant. His assessment of the situation was correct – he was spared the initial massacre of influential Jewish men. It would not be the last time his quick wits would save him and his family from annihilation. During the next round-up, as the family was approaching the SS officials in charge of choosing the next massacre victims, Leon’s father put his wife and daughters behind himself and his two sons – he realized the Nazis were more likely to spare able-bodied men than families with lots of women and children. The gamble paid off: seeing only a father and his two teenage sons from their vantage point behind the table, the SS men hurriedly dismissed the family.
By this point in the war, the Nazis were not particularly concerned about hiding their true plans for the Jews of Poland. Leon and his brother were among those forced to dig mass graves a mile outside of their town. Leon remembers seeing the soldiers execute one of the crew:
Months later, Leon and his older brother, along with 200 other young people, were selected by the local Judenrat council to go to a labor camp in Lida, another town 25 miles west of Ivie. The tragic separation from his family actually saved his life, but he never got the chance to see his parents again – the Germans destroyed their ghetto shortly after he left, as he learnt later.
The labor camp was located in a railroad yard – the prisoners even slept in the boxcars. Their food rations were meager, and their futures uncertain. However, the prisoners had one tremendous advantage: their job was to load trains bound for Germany with weapons and ammunition captured from the retreating Russians. Having heard about partisan groups roaming the nearby forests, twenty of the youngsters decided to risk escape and join them. By slowly stealing rifles and stashing them in the ground, the prisoners were able to arm themselves before fleeing.
Having spent many summers in the area, the two brothers were familiar with the surroundings, making it easier for their group to travel at night. The rifles they stole from the Germans also ensured that the group got fed along the way, and their numbers kept them safe from bands of former Russian soldiers turned bandits and marauders – men who would not hesitate to kill a stray escapee for a pair of boots or a rifle.
Having finally reached the Naliboki forest, the youngsters encountered the Bielski brigade, which at the time had about 200 partisans. Since the group arrived with rifles, the Bielskis quickly accepted the newcomers.
During his time with the Bielskis, Leon was involved in a series of tasks ranging from guard duty to food-gathering missions to railroad sabotage. As he says, the main purpose of the partisans was to keep the members of the group alive. By 1945, the Bielskis saved more than 1,200 Jewish lives.
After the war’s end, Leon managed to leave Poland with his brother and Libby – a partisan from another otriad and Leon’s future wife. They eventually made it to a displaced persons’ camp in Munich, where Leon met Allen Small, a boyhood friend from Ivie who fought with a Soviet partisan otriad. It would be 65 years before they see one another again. (For more on this story, see JPEF’s documentary “The Reunion”.)
During the four years they spent in the displaced persons’ camp, Leon and Libby got married and their first child was born. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. Leon currently lives in Dallas, Texas. He has two daughters. Of his legacy as a partisan, Leon says: