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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Abe Asner's Military Training Helped Him Save Lives

"Grodno still was a ghetto, and lots of people went back to the ghetto like Saul, his father, his mother. And I said, “Me and my brothers, we’re not going back to the ghetto. We’re not going. We’re going to win, doesn’t matter what. If I die, I’ll die standing up — not to shoot me in the back.”
-Abe Asner
Jewish partisan Abe Asner (z''l), was born in the district of Lida, Poland on October 19, 1916. In 1938, Abe followed in the footsteps of his brothers and joined the Polish army. On June 22nd, 1941, Abe was visiting a cousin in Lithuania when he awoke to the sight of German planes littering the sky with bombs. When German tanks surrounded the ghetto where Abe and his brothers were staying, they had to make a choice: stay among the 3,000 Jews who were facing imminent death or flee to the forests. Abe disappeared into the trees with nothing but the clothes on his back.
The forest proved to be a breeding ground for resistance fighters. Soon Abe was among 60 Jewish and Russian POWs running missions. His military training gave him the skills to kill German soldiers who attempted to search the dense forest. In the beginning, Abe thought the resistance would only last a few weeks. It continued for over four years, and their partisan unit grew to several thousand people, including the woman who became Abe’s wife.
Abe and his brothers were successful on many missions. They sabotaged enemy supplies, halted German food convoys, and rescued Jews from ghettos. They frustrated the Germans with their efficiency under the cover of darkness. “The night was our mother,” Abe remembers. Eventually the Germans placed a bounty on their heads. “So much money to catch us, dead or alive,” Abe recalls.
The ongoing violence of the Partisan missions wore away at Abe’s psyche. When the war finally ended, he worked hard to adjust to normal life. Despite the physical and emotional scars he carried, Abe knew his deeds helped to shape the lives of countless people.
Abe’s passion burned brightly when he recalled his partisan days. “We don’t go like sheep. We did as much as we could. We did a lot,” he said. “People should know somebody did (fight back). People should know.”
After the war Abe moved to Canada with his wife where they had two daughters and four grandchildren. Abe passed away on May 26, 2015 at the age of 98.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Abe Asner, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sukkot, the Holocaust, and Spiritual Resistance

Eager and apprehensive crowds were not unusual in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941. Food was running scarce, and Jews were desperate to gather whatever resources they could, no matter the cost. But for a few days of that fateful year, the crowds did not seek food, form lines to exchange heirloom jewelry for sundries, or stand for hours for a chance at obtaining enough sustenance for their families Instead, they waited to bless the miraculous appearance of the four species celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkot: etrog, lulav, hadas, and aravah.

In the spirit of true non-violent resistance, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto chose to celebrate in the face of loss, death, and violence. The leader of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, had granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to obtain the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrog (citron) was not only scarce, but practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time. However, as though it too intended to take its part in the resistance, the etrog appeared and was brought back into the ghetto.

Though attitudes were becoming grim due to recent violence and worsening conditions, Jews from all classes and levels of religious commitment came to stand under the makeshift sukkah. Despite the severe scarcity of firewood in the ghetto, wood was specially set aside to build the sukkah. A single act of celebration became a moment of courageous resistance, with residents of the Lodz Ghetto choosing not only to celebrate holidays against Nazi policy (and therefore endanger themselves), but also to use valuable resources especially for it.

This Sukkot, standing underneath your own sukkah with etrogim, think not only of a bountiful new year’s beginning, but of the atmosphere in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941: Frigid, destitute, oft hopeless, and yet, under the sukkah, brave, defiant, and proudly Jewish.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Spiritual Resistance on Yom Kippur - Ruth Szabo Brand (1928 - 2011)

Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.

In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.

Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.

The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.

Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur, 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Revolt of the 12th Sonderkommando in Auschwitz - October 7, 1944

On October 7th,1944, at a line-up around three in the afternoon, a revolt in the Auschwitz concentration camp began with the swing of a hammer and a shout of “Hurrah!” from Chaim Neuhof, who had been a Sonderkommando – one of the prisoners selected to work in the gas chambers and crematoria – since 1942. The remaining Sonderkommando followed and assisted Neuhof in attacking the SS guards with hammers and axes that were smuggled in with the help of local partisans. An especially sadistic SS guard was thrown into the ovens after being stabbed - but still alive.

SS guards were quickly alerted about the revolt and, easily outnumbering the prisoners, opened fire on the insufficiently armed Sonderkommando. But the prisoners, who had also smuggled small guns into camp through connections with local partisan groups, were not easily defeated. After strapping explosives to captured guards, a group of prisoners blew up Crematorium IV, killing themselves and their captors. Some of the prisoners cut through the barbed-wire fence, creating a crucial escape route out of the camp.


The ruins of the destroyed crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The revolt was work of the prisoners in the 12th Sonderkommando – young, able-bodied men who were given the grisly task of working in and around the gas chambers. They escorted newly arrived prisoners to their deaths, searched the bodies for valuables, and disposed of them in the crematoria. For performing these duties, they were reviled by the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Furthermore, their knowledge of the inner workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Every few months, SS guards killed the old Sonderkommando and replaced them with new prisoners. Though the 12th Sonderkommando learned of their pending liquidation from the camp's underground military leaders only earlier that day, the revolt had been planned months earlier.


Rosa Robota

Four women working inside the camp, Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, Ala Gertner and Roza Robota, played a crucial role in this revolt. These four female prisoners provided ammunition for blowing up Crematorium IV – Wajcblum smuggled out the gunpowder from the munitions factory, where she worked along with Safirsztain and Gertner. Robota, who worked in a clothes depot adjacent to one of the crematoria, helped smuggle out the powder. The men in the camp's resistance underground recruited Robota because they were acquainted with her from their hometown, where she was a member of the HaShomer HaTzair Zionist youth movement. Through a complex communication network, she and the other women were able to slowly pass on the ammunition to the Sonderkommando leaders by hiding it in the false bottom of a food tray. This powder was used to manufacture crude explosives and primitive grenades for the attack.

Despite the extensive preparation of the prisoners, the revolt was quickly subdued by the SS guards, whose superior automatic weapons were no match for the prisoners’ arsenal. The Nazis rounded up all the escapees. Another two hundred prisoners were lined up and executed as punishment for the revolt. One of the Sonderkommando revealed the names of the four women responsible for smuggling in the gunpowder - but despite months of torture, the women refused to reveal any other accomplices. On January 5, 1945, they were all hanged in front of the entire female camp population. “Be strong and be brave,” Robota shouted defiantly to her comrades as the trapdoor dropped.

This was the last public execution in Auschwitz – twelve days later, the camp was deserted as 56,000 prisoners were forced on a death march by the Nazis in a last attempt to destroy any evidence of their mass killings. On January 27th, the 7,500 remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet army.

Click here to learn more about women who participated in resistance against the Nazis.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Jewish partisan Charles Bedzow Fought with the Bielski Brigade


Charles Bedzow was born Chonon Bedzowski in 1924 in the town of Lida, located in present-day Belarus. Once the Germans occupied Lida, Charles and his family were stuffed into an overcrowded, disease ridden ghetto within the town. He and his family suffered under the constant threat of starvation in the gradually worsening conditions. In the spring of 1942, he watched as his fellow townspeople were methodically slaughtered, but by a miracle, his immediate family was spared.
Fortunately, partisan leader Tuvia Bielski was a family friend to the Bedzowski family – the two families had been close before the war. After the occupation, Tuvia sent a message to the Bedzowski family – the message urged them to escape the liquidation of the ghetto by fleeing into the nearby woods, where the Bielskis had set up camp after the liquidation of their own village. Charles escaped to the woods and joined the Bielski Brigade. Because the Bielski camp allowed refugees regardless of their age and gender, Charles was joined by his mother, Chasia, his older sister Leah, younger sister Sonia, and younger brother Benny. Almost the entire family survived the Holocaust – an extreme rarity.
The Bedzowski family’s escape into the woods was complex and extremely dangerous. They traversed the treacherous landscape, crawling under fences and walking through the woods for two days, exhausted. Charles reported his thoughts upon arriving at the Bielski camp: “This must be one of the few places in all of Europe where Jews can move in total freedom.”
Despite the fact that, like many partisans, Charles was only 17 when he entered the Bielski Brigade, he was quickly entrusted with dangerous work. His missions included the gathering of supplies for the group, scouting, sabotaging German efforts, and participating in ambushes. One such ambush occurred on January 28th, 1944. A group of Bielski partisans went to a local village, pretending to be drunk. Their raucous noise alerted the locals, who notified the Germans nearby. 150 partisans lay in wait for the Germans, and they killed 26 policemen and eight Nazi officers during the ambush.
Unfortunately, the Bedzowski family’s participation in the partisan movement was not without a price. On one of her missions to bring medicine and Jews to the brigade from a nearby ghetto, Charles’s sister Sonia was caught by enemy forces and sent to the Treblinka death camp, where she perished.
Following the war, the remaining members of the Bedzowski family wound up in a displaced persons camp in Torino, Italy. Charles married a fellow partisan from Poland, Sara Golcman, in 1946. In 1949 he and his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he started a successful international real estate firm. Charles and Sara had three children; his surviving brother and sister went on to raise families of their own, and his mother Chasia not only survived the war, but went on to live with Charles until her death in 2000.
Charles is JPEF’s Honorary International Chairman. His story is featured in We Fought Back, an anthology of partisan stories from Scholastic publishing. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Charles Bedzow, including three videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Partisan Family In The Arts - Gary Baseman

Gary Baseman is an internationally acclaimed artist whose works are best known for the award winning Disney television show, “Teacher's Pet” as well as the artwork for the board game, “Cranium.” His work has been displayed in galleries globally. However, in addition to Gary Baseman's successful career as an artist, he has an even more intriguing family history. His father, Ben Baseman, was a partisan.

When the Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and advanced eastward into Soviet-controlled Poland, Ben Baseman fled his hometown of Berezne into a nearby forest. For more than four years, he was active in Russian partisan group activities. After World War II, Ben met his wife Naomi, another Holocaust survivor, in a displaced persons camp.

Ben and Naomi immigrated to the United States in 1948, where they had their son, Gary. Growing up in the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and Fairfax in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, Gary was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household. However, his parents spoke little about their history in Europe. Instead they encouraged Gary to strive for a successful life and the ultimate fulfillment of the American dream.

Gary knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist, and pursued this passion of his after he graduated with honors from UCLA. He began gaining artistic recognition after one of his designs was published in a New York Times Sunday Book Review. Gary eventually created and sold the successful Emmy-winning cartoon, “Teacher's Pet”, to Disney in 2000. He also designed the artwork for the popular game “Cranium.”

Gary thought and focused little on his family's history – until his father, Ben, passed away at the age of 93. Soon after, Gary found a hidden book in a closet of his parents’ home. Its contents were filled with descriptions of his father’s years spent as a partisan.

Upon this discovery, Gary started exploring his historical and religious identity through his artwork. In a gallery project titled, “the Door is Always Open,” Gary created a replica of his childhood home where Holocaust survivor friends were always visiting his parents. There were Jewish themes through the exhibit, including a table set for Seder and a video of his Bar Mitzvah.

In addition to his own religious and cultural background, Gary also became interested in his father’s history as a partisan. One of the pieces featured in “The Door is Always Open” is Gary’s collaboration with internationally recognized artist Shepherd Ferry, resulting in a print titled simply “Partisan.”

Baseman also traveled to the Eastern European towns of his family’s origination. While there, he nailed photographs of his deceased relatives around the town, in an act of memoriam to the lost Jewish communities of this area. Many of his thoughts and emotions during this time of his familial discovery are reflected in sketches such as the piece below.

Looking to the future, Gary Baseman is now collaborating with filmmaker David Charles to create a movie titled “Mythical Creatures.” The two filmmakers hope to create a documentary that tells the stories of the Holocaust through unique story-telling techniques. You can see a trailer for this movie project here.

Finally, as a tribute to his father’s accomplishments, Gary is working to create a memorial installation in the same birch forest where his father fought as a partisan.


– By Mandy Losk

Monday, July 18, 2016

Jewish Partisan Moshe Baran Shares his Experiences Throughout the Northeast

The eldest of four children, Moshe Baran was born in 1920 in Horodok – a shtetl in Poland. The population of Horodok was 90% Jewish, with approximately 300 families. There were two synagogues, a Hebrew day school, a bank, a free loan association, committees to help the needy, a variety of Zionist organizations, even amateur theatre – it was a cohesive, self-sufficient community.
The Nazis broke the Ribbentrop pact and attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Five days later, they arrived in Moshe’s hometown. The edicts that went in effect soon after put the Jewish population outside of the protection of the law. Several months later, Moshe and his family were forced out of their homes and confined to a ghetto – a space of 15-20 homes for hundreds of families. Surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by Germans and local police, denied freedom of movement and opportunity to obtain food, lacking in sanitary facilities, the inhabitants began to hear rumors about the destruction of neighboring communities by the Germans. A number of young people then began to plan. However, neither escape nor resistance was actually feasible at the time – they had no weapons and nowhere to go.
In the spring of 1942, the Germans told the Judenrat to provide a number of able-bodied young men for various projects. Approximately 25-30 were selected and sent to neighboring towns. Moshe and his brother were among them. Moshe was assigned to work on building a rail line, but his brother was sent elsewhere.
In July 1942, the ghetto of his hometown was liquidated. His family survived in hiding, and joined him later in the ghetto where he was residing at the time. From six in the morning until evening, Moshe worked twelve-hour shifts, all the while receiving barely enough food to qualify as sustenance. The prisoners all knew that as soon as the work was done, they would be liquidated next. By this time, Moshe and his friends had heard about the Resistance, but they knew that without weapons, they had no hopes of joining.
The Germans who guarded them were abusive – constantly scolding, shouting, and hitting the prisoners. Only one of them, a lieutenant named Miller, did not take part in those hateful acts.
Two of Moshe’s friends worked in a warehouse where they sorted out weapons captured from the Russians. They eventually worked out a plan where they would take out weapons wrapped in rags and hide them in a nearby junkyard. On his way home from work one day, Moshe asked the sympathetic lieutenant if he could retrieve something from the pile of junk. Thus, Moshe successfully smuggled gun parts into the Ghetto.
Moshe and his friends knew of a woman who was familiar with the area, and knew where the partisans were. She would lead them to a nearby encampment, where local Jewish escapees had set up a camp in the forest. In return, she asked if she and her two little children could come along. They escaped one night, after clearing out a crawlspace underneath the barbed wire fence. Miraculously, they made it to the Jewish encampments without incident.
About a week later, two Russian officers were passing by. It turned out they were sent to organize the resistance movement - but it also turned out they were Jewish, so Moshe asked them to help him join the resistance. Because Moshe had weapons hidden in the Ghetto, the officers agreed.
The officers eventually gave Moshe the name of a local farmer who would help bring the weapons out. Moshe used the occasion to pass a note to his family in the Ghetto through the farmer. He wanted to facilitate their escape. Moshe’s brother, sister, and mother escaped during several successful smuggling operations. Unfortunately, on March 19th - two days after the last escape - the Ghetto was liquidated, and Moshe’s father, younger sister, and other relatives perished, along with several thousand other Jews from the local areas.
Moshe joined the partisans, taking part in underground activities until the spring of 1944, when the advancing Soviet army liberated the area. He took part in ambush and sabotage operations with the partisans and was in charge of recovering weapons dropped from Russian planes. As was the fate of most eastern European partisans after the liberation of their area, Moshe was drafted into the Soviet army. But his bookkeeping abilities got him attached to the local staff of the battalion as the treasurer’s assistant, which kept him well away from the front lines.
After the war’s end, Moshe eventually made it back to Russia; but as a Polish citizen, he as eligible for a travel permit back to Poland, according to the rules of the time. In Poland, he connected with the Bricha, an organization whose purpose was to smuggle Jews from Europe to Palestine.
Eventually arriving in Austria, Moshe met his future wife Malka in one of the American zones, who was herself a survivor of a forced labor camp in Poland. In 1948, Malka left for the east, but Moshe and his family were unable to follow: his mother’s niece, who was living in Shreveport, Louisiana at the time, impored them to come to the United States. Though Moshe was committed to Malka and wished to marry her eventually, the family ultimately decided to take the opportunity and come to the United States.
Moshe settled in New York, eventually marrying Malka and bringing her back from Israel. In New York, Malka worked for a number of years as the director of a Jewish preschool and Moshe was employed for many years in the real estate industry. In 1993, Moshe and his wife moved to Pittsburgh after retirement. One of their two daughters settled there in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, where the Barans found a welcoming Jewish community, and where Moshe lives to this day, active in the community and as a public speaker and blogger. He writes the blog Language Can Kill: Messages Of Genocide, and speaks regularly about his life in the partisans and about the destructive power of hatred, which can have devastating consequences if left unchecked.
This post was written by Isaac Munro, Moshe's grandson, with editorial help from the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation.