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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Borszczower Bande Liberates Prisoners on November 17, 1943

The Borszczower Bande was a small yet bold resistance group formed by Jews from the Borszczow ghetto in western Ukraine. The leaders were Wolf Ashendorf, Joel Weintraub, Kalman Schwartz and a Jewish soldier of the Red Army named Lyoveh.

The Borszczower Bande was a small yet bold resistance group formed by Jews from the Borszczow ghetto in western Ukraine. The leaders were Wolf Ashendorf, Joel Weintraub, Kalman Schwartz and a Jewish soldier of the Red Army named Lyoveh.

Before the ghetto was liquidated by a series of aktions, resistance groups formed. “In October 1941 we started to organize ourselves,” said B. W. Ben-Barak, a member of the Borszczower partisan group. Gathering small arms weaponry, the resistance managed to escape into the forest before the ghetto was ordered to be liquidated in 1943. Throughout that summer, they carried out attacks on Ukrainian policemen and nationalist groups.

Group photo of attending partisans at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan.

In November 1943, the Borszczower Bande then planned an attack on the German prison in Borszczow. Led by Ashendorf, they released all fifty prisoners on November 17. This brazen victory overshadowed their demise. After facing hostility from locals, the Bande was attacked by a much larger group of German forces. They inflicted casualties on the Germans, but the Borszczower group’s losses were greater and they were forced to disperse. Some who fled found no choice but to commit suicide, their last defense against dehumanization. Those others who survived joined with Kovpak’s soviet partisan brigade.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jewish Partisans honored in New York City

Over 55 Jewish partisans gathered together in New York City on November 6th and 7th to commemorate the enduring legacy they share and to be honored at the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation’s 2011 Tribute Dinner. Traveling from throughout the United States, many with children, grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren in tow, they reconnected with friends and quickly rekindled the strong bonds that will forever unite them.

The celebration began with a Sunday afternoon reception for partisans and their family members, hosted by JPEF, at the Park East Synagogue. Laughter resonated throughout the space as partisans embraced one another, tears of joy welling in their eyes. For many, this was the first time they had seen one another in over sixty-five years. Allen Small, who traveled from Palm Beach Gables, Florida, was overjoyed to be reunited with Leon Bakst who came from Dallas, Texas.

Over 400 guests packed the stylish art deco Edison Ballroom the following evening to formally recognize and honor the courage and sacrifice demonstrated by these Jewish partisans during World War II. Mistress of Ceremonies Dana Tyler, Senior News Anchor for WCBS-TV and actor and Emmy winner Edward Asner, the cousin of partisan Abe Asner, paid tribute to each of the honorees. With their black and white partisan photograph projected on screen, each partisan was individually honored and identified by name, country of birth and the partisan group in which they served. In all there were 23 women and 33 men, representing brigades from Belarus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, Russia and France. Included among the attending partisans were six married couples, three sets of siblings, a rabbi, a cantor and a mohel.

Guests watched in awe as each partisan, most in their eighties and nineties, stood to accept their honor with the same characteristic strength and determination that empowered them to fight back so many years before.

In his address Asner stated, “JPEF is important because it puts the legacy of the Jewish partisans front and center, as no other organization does. It stays committed to its mission and does not deviate.”

Lauren Feingold, granddaughter of partisans Dr. Charles Bedzow and Sara Golcman Bedzow also spoke. As the first third generation representative to the JPEF Board, Lauren worked closely with her grandfather, who serves as JPEF’s Honorary International Chairman, to promote the Tribute Dinner and guarantee its success. Like Lauren, many of those involved in the recently formed 3G group, are already working to ensure that young people everywhere are empowered by their grandparent’s examples, and she challenged her peers to join in this quest. She was followed by Charles who spoke movingly to his fellow partisans reminding them that they share a unique and important legacy; one which must be passed from generation to generation.

In a fitting testament to this charge, Cantor Shira Ginsburg, grandaugher of partisan Judith Ginsburg, closed the event with a performance of the song “Who Am I”, about her family and the inspiration of her grandmother’s partisan legacy. As Shira’s beautiful voice filled the room, more than forty third generation teens and young adults raised white candles high, signaling their commitment to keep the flame alive.

JPEF extends its sincere appreciation to event co-chairperons Esther-Ann Asch, Suzanne and Elliott Felson, Kim and Jonathan Kushner and Diane and Howard Wohl for their dedication to ensuring the success of this remarkable event.

Links to press materials about the event:
Jerusalem Post article.
Jewish Week article.
An article in the Algemeiner.
WCBS nightly news video.
More photos from the event on our Flickr page.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Partisan Legacy Honored in New York City

Fifty-five surviving partisans, many traveling from as far away as California, Colorado and Tennessee, attended the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation's Tribute Dinner on Monday, December 7th. For many, this was the first time that they had seen one another in over 60 years. Allen Small and Leon Bakst were reunited for the first time since the War. Growing up together in a small town, in what is now Belarus, they attended the same school. Fighting with different partisan brigades during the war, they had last seen each other at a DP camp in Germany before coming to the United States. Another partisan stated that this was one of the “best nights of his life.”

Group photo of attending partisans at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan.
NEW YORK (JTA) — Allen Small, 83, and Leon Bakst, 86, hugged each other so tight, Small said, “I couldn’t let go.”
Their embrace at a synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side was 65 years in the making.
Small and Bakst grew up a few houses apart in Ivye, Belarus, attending the same school and synagogue before reality turned black, back when their names were Avraham Schmulewitz and Leibel Bakst, and Ivye belonged to Poland and the Nazis had not yet invaded. They last saw each another in 1946 at a displaced persons camp in Munich.
During the two years preceding their liberation by the Red Army in 1944, the then teenagers fought the Nazis in separate brigades in the vast Nalibotskaya Pushcha forest. For their daring, Small, now living in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Bakst, of Dallas, along with 53 other Jewish partisans from across the United States, were honored here at a synagogue reception Nov. 6 and a gala dinner the next evening.

Click here to read the rest of this article.

Click here to read another article about this event from the New York Jewish Week.

Click here to view a video about this event that aired on CBS News New York.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Daniel Craig as older Tuvia Bieski on hack license prop for Defiance

Daniel Craig as an older Tuvia Bielski

If you’ve seen the movie Defiance, you’ll recognize Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, but you won’t recognize the above prop made for the film. It’s a New York City hack license picturing Craig as an elderly Tuvia; the scene (intended as the opening for the film) took place in the 1980’s long after the Bielski brothers lived and fought in Nalibocki forests.

“All of us have gotten into cabs in New York, and we assume that that person is just a person driving a cab.” That’s the kindling behind director Edward Zwick’s idea for the original opening scene in Defiance. Hear the rest of Zwick's thoughts on the scene in this video clip. The idea’s merit is one of relevance and human interest—little known to the Bielski story is how Tuvia and Zus modestly and anonymously lived out their post-war lives in New York City.

However, Zwick didn’t intend the movie to be a romantic or comprehensive overview of the Bielski’s biographies; he wanted the film to express the absolute physical and moral struggles during that particular moment in their lives. In this way, the discarded prop serves as a symbol of artistic integrity. “I didn’t want it to be comfortable,” Zwick said at a JPEF event this Spring, “I wanted it to capture the feeling.” For more on Defiance — including educational material and interviews with Tuvia Bielski's brother Aron — go to www.jewishpartisans.org/defiance.

Visit the JPEF website for our acclaimed Defiance curriculum. Additionally, E-Learning classes on Defiance are available at www.jewishpartisans.org/elearn/web/.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Partisan Tools for Survival: the Instrument of Illusion

Many who know Jewish partisan stories also know that victory was not only about physical resistance—mining railroad tracks or killing German soldiers—it was also about spiritual and intellectual resistance. One such model of mind over matter is the power of resourcefulness; partisan stories often feature the instrument of illusion saving the day.

Ben Kamm
Many partisans recall the tactical trickery they used to defeat enemies. Ben Kamm’s unit would strategically place Soviet parachutes (used to drop supplies) in an area away from camp, wait for Germans to bomb the parachutes, and cut the German airplanes down with machine guns. Likewise, Jack Kakis’ partisan unit developed oft-used deceptive strategies, and for him it was all in the details. He recalls their method for mining the roads, “You put the mines underneath [a piece of rubber] and you make some truck marks on top of the soil.” When the Germans surveyed the roads, they assumed it was as safe for them as for the last truck that supposedly drove by.

Abe Asner on a horse
Sometimes ingenuity was purely off the cuff: prior to approaching a group of Lithuanians and their machine gun in the forest, Abe Asner realized he and his outnumbered companions had to devise a plan so they would not be massacred. That's when Abe saw a natural hill within the Lithuanians' view and had a brilliantly simple idea. The seven partisans walked all around the hill several times, which gave the Lithuanians the impression that a great number of partisan soldiers were surveying the area. The Lithuanians quickly abandoned their plan and ran away.

Bernard Musmand's survival was dependent on pretending to be something he was not. Hiding in an all boys' Catholic school in France, Bernard had to play a part he knew very little about. The first day, got a hold of a Bible and spent half the night studying in the bathroom. He explained: “I became such a good Catholic that the priest at one time asked me if I want to go to the seminary, Catholic seminary.”

In Bernard Druskin’s case, however, reasons for deception could also err on the side of recreation:

“You know we used to give the dynamite to the peasants? For booze, in exchange for booze. We used to tell them that's soap. They didn't know what is. Mylo, mylo, mylo — that was soap, used to tell them it was soap.”

Wherever illusion came from—pre-existing resources, extemporaneous action, or pre-planned strategies—many partisans speak of these ephemeral instances of trickery as possessing the power to turn the tables in the fight for survival.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This Month in Jewish Partisan History: Revolt in Sobibor Extermination Camp

Those who escaped from the Sobibor Extermination Camp in Poland furnished detailed-first hand accounts of their revolt. Their stories will be a legacy for all who lived and died in the gates and for the events that happened in October of 1943. A small town on the eastern edge of Poland, Sobibor was the locale for an extermination camp. Outside the camp, a 100-meter long road that the Germans called Himmelstrasse (Road to Heaven) led the way to the gas chambers, where approximately 250,000 Jews and Soviet POWs were executed.

On September 23, 1943, Alexander Pechersky, a Lieutenant Quatermaster of the Red Army arrived at Sobibor and was chosen for labor. When Solomon Leitman explained to him that in this small plot of land hundreds of thousands of Jewish women, children and men were murdered, he thought of escape, initially wondering, “Should I leave the rest of the prisoners to be tortured and murdered?” He then writes in his memoir, “I rejected this thought.” Pechersky became a figure of authority when he stood up to a German guard at the camp. That’s when people began to approach Pechersky with ideas for an escape plan.

Leon Feldhendler had been leading discussions for an escape, but was unable to come up with a suitable plan, as the camp perimeter was planted with mines. Pechersky and Feldhendler realized that if they could kill the SS officers while other Soviet POWS raided the arsenal, they could take the camp and escape through the gates.

On October 14, 1943, participants led by Pechersky and Feldhendler covertly killed 11 SS personnel with knives and axes; they covered the blood with sawdust. However, an SS guard who had left the camp and returned early discovered one of the bodies and began to shoot at prisoners. At the sound of gunshots, Perchersky cried out for the others to begin their revolt. Some prisoners had obtained hand grenades and guns, others rushed out of their workshops to escape, some who were unaware of the revolt chose not to leave. All who stayed were executed.

Out of 550 prisoners of Sobibor, 300 made it out of the prison gates; though many, including Leon Feldhendler, were caught by German soldiers and local collaborators. Within days of the revolt, Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, razed, and planted over with trees. After the war was over, only 53 Sobibor prisoners had survived. Pechersky and other survivors joined up with partisan brigades, including an all-Jewish otriad called Yehiel’s Group, and continued to sabotage the Germans. Others who survived were able to, in their own way, bring their perpetrators to justice. Thomas Blatt interviewed former German guard at Sobibor, Karl Frenzel, and contributed to the book, Escape from Sobibor, which gives various personal accounts of the events. Finally, Esther Raab, Thomas Blatt, Chaim Engel, Regina Zielinski, and Kurt Thomas gave these amazing interviews to USC Shoah Foundation, here.

For more information on the story of Sobibor and its participants, see these articles:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Featured Jewish Partisan - Marisa Diena, born on September 29th

"They didn’t know that I was Jewish. It didn’t cross my mind because there, like I said, everyone thought that I was Mara... But there was also Ulisse, Polifemo, Lampo, Fulmine ... they all had battle names. You didn’t know anything about anyone. It wasn’t important. So most people didn’t know that I was Jewish."
— Marisa Diena.

Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy, on September 29, 1916. Eight years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy, Marisa was taught to love Fascism. However, in 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, banning Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.

After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique; since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion. As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to her commander. In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.

In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25th, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa remained in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children. She passed away on May 8th, 2013.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Marisa Diena, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.