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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

More than 15,000 People Today Owe Their Lives to Tuvia Bielski (z''l), Born May 8, 1906

Over seventy years ago on a rainy night, Rae Kushner, her sister Lisa, along with Sonya and Aaron Oshman, escaped through a narrow tunnel from the Novogrudok ghetto together with 250 other Jews. They hid in an area nearby to elude the pursuing Germans and their collaborators. Many in the group were shot and killed. Rae, Lisa, Sonya, Aaron and others were rescued by the Bielski partisans, who had heard of the group’s escape and sent in scouts to take the survivors from Novogrudok to safety.

The group, founded by Tuvia Bielski and his brothers Asael and Zus – along with help from youngest brother Aron – provided a haven for all Jews fleeing the Nazis and their collaborators. For three years, the Bielski partisans survived in the forests of Belarus, engaging in armed combat and disrupting the Nazi war machine with acts of sabotage. Their primary mission, however, was always the preservation of Jewish lives. Tuvia proclaimed, “I would rather save the life of one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazis.” By the end of the war, the Bielski partisans managed to save over 1,200 Jews.

Tuvia was one of 12 children, born to a miller father on May 8, 1906 in the rural town of Stankiewicze. They were the only Jews in a small community, and quickly learned how to look after themselves. When the Germans invaded in June 1941, the brothers sought refuge in the woods where they had spent time as children. Asael and Zus, who were hiding together, set about finding safe homes for a dozen or so of their surviving relatives. Tuvia, who was staying further to the north, moved relatives in with friendly non-Jews. But by the spring of 1942, the three decided it was time to relocate all the relatives into a single location in the woods.

The brothers moved quickly to build a fighting force from the escapees. These escapees joined forces with the growing group of Soviet partisans who were engaging in guerrilla attacks against the occupiers. In October 1942, a squad of Bielski and Soviet fighters raided a German convoy loaded with supplies, killing at least one German soldier. “It was satisfying in a larger sense,” Tuvia wrote of the first attack on Nazis in his 1955 Yiddish language memoir, “A real spiritual high point, that the world should know that there were still Jews alive, and especially Jewish partisans.”

The group continued to grow until the end of the war. Committed to protecting all Jews – regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, or level of religious observance – the Bielski Otriad provided shelter for Jews like Rae, Lisa, Aaron and Sonya. They worked endlessly to free hundreds of Jews from other ghettos. Among them were Leah Bedzowski Johnson, her sister Sonia, brothers Charles and Benjamin, and their mother Chasia, who escaped from the Lida Ghetto with Tuvia’s help. Sonia Bedzowksi was later captured en route to the Lida ghetto to secure medicine for the partisans and killed in Majdanek. The rest of the Bedzowski family stayed with the Bielski Otriad until the end of the war. Now living in Florida, Leah expresses her lifelong gratitude, and praises Tuvia’s leadership and humanity: “Tuvia Bielski was our commander. He was always around us and he wanted only to save Jewish lives to make sure that our people continued and multiplied. I would not be alive today if it was not for Tuvia and neither would my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Bielski partisans guarding an airstrip. Leah's husband, Velvel "Wolf" Johnson, is in the bottom center with his machine gun.
While imprisoned in the Lida Ghetto, Michael Stoll had heard tale of the Bielski partisans and vowed to escape and join the group. That chance came when he and 11 others jumped from a train bound for the Majdanek concentration camp. Finding themselves in the middle of “no man’s land,” they were eventually able to connect with the Bielski Otriad. Michael says, “If it had not been for Tuvia, we would not have survived. He was a good man. A legend.”

Operating in the Naliboki forest, Tuvia set up a functioning partisan community that included a hospital, classrooms for children, a soap factory, tailors, butchers, and even a group of musicians. Everyone in the Bielski Otriad worked to support one another – even the youngest children like Ann Monka contributed by keeping people’s spirits up with singing and entertainment. Ann recalls that Tuvia had special pride for the children of the Bielski Otriad, and took great strides to protect them and ensure their survival. “At one time there was a rumor that he was going to send some of the children to Moscow since we did not know when the war was going to end. He wanted to make sure that the children were safe. The children were the future of the Jewish people. We would not be here if it were not for him. Without him we had no chance for survival. Thousands are alive because of Tuvia.”

Indeed, because of Tuvia’s strong and effective leadership and his determination to save as many Jewish lives as possible, there are more than 15,000 people today who owe their lives to him. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Rae Kushner (z''l), Lisa Riebel(z''l), Leah Johnson, Charles Bedzow, Benny Bedzow (z''l), Chasia Bedzowski (z''l), and Sonya and Aaron Oshman (z''l), and 1,200 other survivors of the Bielski Otriad.

Tuvia and Lilka together after the liberation.
While in the forest, Tuvia met and married Lilka. Together they had three children: Michael (Mickey), Robert and Ruth; and nine grandchildren: Jordan, Taylor, Ariel, Tori, Sarah, Brenden, Sharon, Talia, and Vanessa. After the war, Tuvia and his family moved to Israel, and then later to the United States. For more than 30 years, he and his brother Zus operated a trucking company in New York City. Tuvia passed away on June 12, 1987 at the age of 81.

Inspired by Tuvia’s remarkable courage and compassion, and the legacy of the Bielski Otriad, in 2008 Paramount Pictures portrayed his story in the major motion picture “Defiance”, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia (see an image of Daniel Craig as Tuvia on a fake cabbie license for a scene that ended up getting cut from the film). In cooperation with Paramount and film director Edward Zwick, JPEF developed a unique curriculum for educators, which incorporates scenes from the film to engage students in critical thinking about History, Leadership, Ethics, and Jewish Values.

Leaders of the Bielski otriad posing in front of an Israel-bound ambulance they helped fund, circa 1960s. From the right: Tuvia & Lilka, Zus & his wife Sonia, Lea and Pesach Friedberg.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org/defiance for more about the Bielksi partisans and the film 'Defiance', including a 5-page Tuvia Bielski study guide/biography. Educators can take a free online class on how to teach about the Bielskis and use the guides, films, and lesson plans with our E-Learning platform.

Watch a short film on the Bielskis, narrated by Ed Asner, here:
In 2013, JPEF honored Tuvia, his brothers Asael, Zus and Aron, and all Bielski partisans, at a dinner in New York City. Eighteen surviving Bielski partisans attended the gala, where "The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers", narrated by Liev Schreiber, and featuring partisans and their children, was shown.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Martin Petrasek Celebrates His 93rd Birthday

Martin Petrasek was born in Chust, Slovakia in 1926. In 1938, Czechoslovakia became the first victim of Hitler’s expansionist plans when Germany annexed a group of German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland (Hitler invaded the rest not long after). However, the region of Slovakia was granted autonomy in return for supporting the Nazis and rounding up and deporting its Jewish population. Martin got a job in a furniture factory where the foreman protected him, but he still lived in constant fear of being sent away. When he fell ill and was sent to a sanatorium in the mountains, he took the opportunity to leave and sought refuge in a monastery.

While at the monastery, Martin found a partisan pamphlet calling on Slovaks to resist the occupation. He decided that it was time to fight back. A local sympathizer gave him the name of a contact for the resistance in a nearby town. Martin found the man and was inducted into a partisan brigade.

Martin Petrasek's partisan identification card
Martin worked as a spy, scouting the movements of troops and conducting hit-and-run attacks against local German forces. Soviet paratroopers had organized his brigade, and they regularly airdropped supplies to the partisans.

After the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, public opinion in Slovakia began to turn against the Nazis, and in 1944 Slovaks staged a widespread uprising against their occupiers. However, the uprising was short lived — Hitler sent in elite SS units that brutally repressed the resistance, and the retreating German army conducted “clean-up” operations on their way back from the Eastern front.
The brigade knew that retreating Nazis were scouring the forest and killing every partisan they found. Instead of staying in the path of Germans, Martin’s brigade decided to advance to the front to reunite with the Red Army. They met up with the Romanian army en route, and were liberated.

Martin joined up with the Czechoslovakian army and became a military police officer responsible for punishing soldiers who deserted from the front. After the war, Martin defected from Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, entering West Germany and moving to Israel. Martin eventually immigrated to the United States in 1959. He lives there today, along with his wife and his two grown children.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Martin Petrasek, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Martin (center) at the 2011 Partisan Tribute Dinner in NYC

Friday, April 5, 2019

David Broudo - Born April 8, 1924 in Saloniki, Greece

In 1941, the Germans occupied Greece, dividing the country among the Fascist Italians and Bulgarians and establishing a Greek collaborationist government to control the important regions of Athens and Thessaloniki (or Saloniki). This is where David Broudo was born in 1924. Descendants of the Sephardic Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492, and some made their way to Greece. The Broudo family had lived in Saloniki since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Greece's involvement in WWII began in October of 1940 when Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion through Albania. The Greek army not only managed to successfully repel the attack, they also drove the Italians back, occupied a quarter of Albania, and subdued 530,000 Italian troops. Although this was the first victory for Allied forces in WWII, the Germans immediately closed in on Greece through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, bringing an end to the Greco-Italian War and beginning the Nazi occupation of Greece. Over the next year and a half, the Jewish Greek population became increasingly marginalized, and in 1943, the entire Broudo family was deported.

Unlike other members of his family, who were sent directly to Germany, David was sent to a holding camp near Lamia, Greece. With one desperate and courageous attempt, David leapt onto the roof of a passing train, escaping the grasp of the Nazis.

David made his way to the forest where he came across a brigade of Greek andartes, the Greek guerrilla fighters who first appeared in the mountains of Macedonia in 1941. Once Broudo revealed his identity, he learned that the resistance group contained other Jewish members. For the next year, David fought as a guerrilla resistance fighter with the andartes, participating in the pitched gun battles of Crete and Lamia, during which many of his comrades fell to German bullets.
David Broudo (far right) with the Greek partisans, 1943

He helped destroy the supply lines the Germans had established for their campaign in North Africa by blowing up bridges and trains, sabotaging the train tracks. Most ingeniously, he smuggled munitions supplies destined for the resistance movement in Athens, past the German blockades, by emptying milk barrels and filling them with guns. His fighting prowess earned him an officer’s commission with the Greek resistance. By the time of the liberation he was planning and executing sabotage missions, as well as interrogating high-ranking German prisoners.

In 1944, Broudo and almost 50,000 other Greeks were imprisoned for their war efforts. From the prison, David was sent with forty-five other men to a desolate Greek island where he spent three and a half years, afterwards being transferred to prisons in Agrinio, Corfu, Oiru, Lamia, Zakynthos, and Evia. Of the experience Broudo said:

“This was a Greek island that was empty of human beings, only the wind. Not one person was on this island. The sea winds moved and nothing else. No one lived there. They would come and bring water and speak with ships once a week if they could enter. The water on the island was saltwater. Once, they didn't show up for a month. Airplanes flew over and dumped water and that was it.”

After the liberation, David's partisan efforts continued. As he described in a JPEF interview:

“After liberation, we went there and waged war against the English, against those who sat in Cairo. But in Cairo, half of them were Communists. Those people in Cairo who escaped Greece when the Germans invaded included officers, half of whom were Communists. The English were put into jails in Cairo. Afterwards, they were brought to Greece, and they were with the king and tanks. For the first time, I saw these tanks that Churchill brought with him, him being in Libertania in a hotel.”

When the war ended, David was sentenced to death by Greek authorities. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison and in 1956 he was deported to Israel where he lived until his death on January 16, 2011. Several decades after the war, the Greek government recognized David Broudo and the efforts of the partisan fighters.
David Broudo and other partisans, date unknown.

Broudo wrote an article entitled “Saloniki Memories,” about his experience in the war, and collaborated with another Jewish andarte on a book about the history of the Saloniki Jews.

Watch JPEF's interviews with David Broudo.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Hirsh Glik, Poet/Songwriter - Hymm of the Jewish Partisans

In the summer of 1944, Hirsh Glik disappeared from the ghetto in Goldfilz, Estonia, and was presumed dead. He was only twenty-two but had devoted his life to writing and had already established his legacy through the song, “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“Never Say”). This song was a triumphant and hopeful call for defiance, inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Never Say” became a beacon to many and quickly grew to be known as the “Song of the Partisans.”

Hirsh Glik was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1922. He demonstrated talent early: at age thirteen he began to compose poetry in Hebrew—and then solely in Yiddish—and his works were published frequently in the Jewish-Soviet press. When the Germans occupied Vilna in June 1941, Glik was sent to work the peat bogs in Biala-Waka, Rzesza. Displacement and grueling labor did not prevent him from writing: in between hauling impossible loads of turf, Glik would ask friends to hum a tune so that he could improvise lyrics. When Biala-Waka was liquidated in 1943, Glik returned to the ghetto in Vilna and joined the United Partisans Organization (FPO), where he took part in the literary scene. Here, Glik first recited “Never Say” to a poet friend, Shmaryahu Kaczerginski, at an event arranged to pay tribute to Yiddish writers, called “Spring in Yiddish Literature.” The scope of anguish, defiance, and hope in the song made it an anthem to many in Vilna.

Glik was also inspired by the actions of Vitka Kempner, a founding member of FPO, and wrote “Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt” (Still the Night is Full of Stars) about her first act of sabotage, blowing up a Nazi train line.

The struggle to survive at Biala-Waka, Vilna, and later Goldfilz in Estonia, never broke Hirsh Glik’s inspiration to write. He composed sometimes on scraps but mostly in his head, reciting poems to other prisoners. Some written copies of Glik’s poems were discovered buried beneath the Vilna Ghetto. Though most of his words were lost, “Hymm of the Jewish Partisans” is considered worldwide one of the most important anthems of Jewish partisans and is still sung today in remembrance of those who died in the Shoah.

Hymm of the Jewish Partisans (audio)
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
From lands so green with palms to lands all white with snow.

We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,

And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!


The early morning sun will brighten our day,

And yesterday with our foe will fade away,

But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as motto generations must remain.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It's not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,

With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.


Therefore never say the road now ends for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

Transliterated Yiddish:
zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.

kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s'vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!


fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,

shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!

s'vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,

un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor –
vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.


dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un nit mit blay,
s'iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl oyf der fray,

dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent

dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent.
to zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,

khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.

kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho –
es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

The song called Zog Nit Keynmol in Yiddish is known simply as the Hymn of the Partisans. From the ghettos and the camps it has journeyed across generations to become the official hymn of many Remembrance ceremonies in Israel and abroad. The words were originally written by Yiddish poet and resistance member Hirsh Glik, who was only 21 years old when he first recited it at a Yiddish literature event in the Vilna ghetto. Though Glik disappeared and was presumed to have died a year later, his song quickly spread beyond Vilna — the song's tone and mood perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the various resistance movements around Europe.

Four years after the fall of Hitler, the tune would be used as a form of resistance against another 20th century tyrant. Paul Robeson traveled to Moscow in June 1949 to give a performance to an audience that included many Communist Party elites, as well as what little remained of the Jewish intelligentsia after Stalin's purges. At the end of the concert, Robeson stunned the audience with a surprise rendition of the Partisan Hymn. His introductory remarks contained references to the Yiddish language, the deep and enduring cultural ties between the US and Russian Jewish communities, as well as to leading Jewish intellectuals who had been "disappeared" by the regime.

The remarks, the spontaneous translation of the song to the shocked audience, and thunderous applause that followed were cut from the recording by Stalin's censors, but the chaos is evident in the mixture of applause and jeers that follow the actual performance. Lamentably, Robeson kept his criticisms of the Soviet Union to himself when he returned to the United States, not wishing to be used by right-wing political groups to advance their causes. But the recording remains, as does the pain and fury in Robeson's voice.

“Zog Nit Keynmol” Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

Zog nit keyn mol az du geyst dem letsten veg,
Khotsh himlen blayene farsthtelen bloye teg.
Never say you are walking your final road,
Though leaden skies conceal the days of blue.

Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sha'ah,
S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot mir zaynen do!
The hour that we have longed for will appear,
Our steps will beat out like drums: We are here!

Fun grinem palmenland biz vaysen land fun shney,
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey.
From the green lands of palm trees to lands white with snow,
We are coming with all our pain and all our woe.

Un vu gefalen s'iz a shpritz fun undzer blut,
Shprotzen vet dort undzer gevurah, undzer mut.
Wherever a spurt of our blood has fallen to the ground,
There our might and our courage will sprout again.

S'vet di morgenzum bagilden undz dem haynt,
Un der nekhten vet farshvinden miten faynd.
The morning sun will shine on us one day,
Our enemy will vanish and fade away.

Nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in dem kayor,
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.
But if the sun and dawn come too late for us,
From generation to generation let them be singing this song.

Dos lid geshriben iz mit blut un nit mit blay,
S'iz nit keyn lidel fun a foygel oyf der fray,
This song is written in blood not in pencil-lead.
It is not sung by the free-flying birds overhead,

Dos hot a folk tsvishen falendike vent,
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent!
But a people stood among collapsing walls,
And sang this song with pistols in their hands!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sima Simieticka, Born In 1923

The eldest of two daughters, Sima Simieticka was born on March 8, 1923 to a family of tailors in Warsaw. Her father left the family for Russia when she was only two years old – he went to the newly-established Soviet state to seek his fortunes, but instead ended up in front of the firing squad for being a Trotskyist.

Sima and her sister lived with their mother and grandfather, who both worked as tailors, often accepting bartered goods in payment for their services. The family was very poor, and often went hungry.


Despite these difficulties, Sima attended school until the age of 14. Two years later, in autumn of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and the family fled across the Bug river to Soviet-occupied territory. Unfortunately, Sima’s grandfather stayed behind.

Sima and her family ended up on a work farm, where they remained for a time, doing whatever work needed to be done. Though life under the Soviets was difficult and fraught with hidden dangers1, Sima and her family persevered.

At one of the camps, she was forced to work on a farm located outside of the camp premises. Compared to the camp, she was treated nicely there and even received extra bread rations, which she was careful to share with her mother and sister (by walking as fast as possible so she wouldn’t have time to eat it all).

When a rumor spread that her labor camp was about to be burned, she found a hiding place underneath an oven in a local hospital. She remained there for three days with ten other people, hiding in silence. Unfortunately, her mother and sister were not allowed inside the hiding place – there was not enough room or air for them. She was not the only one burdened by such difficult and harrowing moral choices – in a small, airless hiding space, the price of silence was often paid with a crying infant’s life. Her mother and sister were both gassed and then burned in the ovens.

After ten days of hiding in the cramped space, Sima decided she would rather be shot by a guard than burned alive or suffocated, so she left her hiding place. She vividly remembers her escape, how she took off her wooden shoes and crawled underneath the barbed wire. The camp was burning; it appeared that no guards remained on the premises, but she heard music coming from a watchtower, so she knew to be wary. In the bitter cold of the midwinter night, she ran to the house of the farmer she worked for. His dog recognized her and started barking, but she called out its name – “Lizek, be quiet!”

She was lucky: the farmer was friendly, and prepared a bed for her. Early the next morning, he woke her up, gave her a big breakfast, and told her where the partisans were. For one week she walked through the deep snow and across frozen rivers – only to be turned down for being Jewish by the first brigade she came across.

She did better with the next brigade – a group of about 15, which allowed her to join. The brigade accommodated Russian soldiers, some Belarussian civilians, and even a German deserter. Though she was a Jew and a woman, she was accepted because she was one of the first and worked as a nurse. She was even issued a weapon, although she never had occasion to use it, and could have easily been robbed of it by antisemitic partisans who took to harassing other Jews in the otriad. And as a young woman trying to survive on her own in the forest, she was constantly under threat from the men she lived with. “You defend yourself as long as you can. If you cannot anymore, you stop defending yourself,” Sima stated grimly.

The otriad focused on survival; when they were not on the move, they spent much of their time hiding in zemlyankas – holes in the ground covered with branches, where about 4-10 people could stand upright. They gathered food by taking supplies from peasants, and by foraging for berries and other edible growth.

Soviet parachutists landed in the spring of 1944, bringing with them guns and liberation. Free to go wherever she wanted, she chose Lodz, arriving there on the back of a truck, uninjured and in good health. In Lodz, she was able to locate her cousins with the aid of the Joint Distribution Committee. They had returned there as well, after surviving the deportations to Siberia.


Sima and her husband Stanley

Eventually, Sima met her husband and together they immigrated to Germany. Though Sima received an offer and the necessary immigration papers from her uncle to join him in Brazil, Sima’s husband refused to leave Germany and give up his career in medicine to become a tailor in a foreign land. Consequently, they remained in Germany for the rest of their lives.

Jessica Tannenbaum, Sima’s daughter in law, visited JPEF's offices in spring 2013 from Weiden, Germany, sharing Sima's story of resistance and survival, as well as cherished photos and mementos. Committed to perpetuating the Jewish partisan legacy and ensuring that the tragedy of the Holocaust is remembered.

1. On one occasion, the local Soviet administration asked all the refugees where they eventually wanted to end up. Nothing happened to those who said “Russia”, but anyone who said “Poland” or “Warsaw” was deported to Siberia. Some of Sima’s cousins were deported there in this fashion.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Leon Senders (z''l), disrupted the Nazi war machine as a radio operator with the Soviet partisans after escaping the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto

Leon Senders, a Jewish partisan from Vilna, disrupted the Nazi war machine as a radio operator with the Soviet partisans. Leon was born on March 19, 1923, to a secular Jewish family with strong Socialist sympathies. Though Vilna is the historic capital of Lithuania, it was at the time controlled by Poland, which had occupied the city in the aftermath of World War I, during a territorial dispute. Leon’s father was an oven-maker, and they enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life. As a high school student, he attended a technical school, gaining mechanical experience that would prove invaluable during the war.

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 to Russia with them, his father urged him to go, saying:
“Go, you are a youngster. You are…eighteen years old…If anything will happen, people like you and your boys will go first into the...camps.’”
With no clear destination other than ‘east’ and no plans for the future other than escape, Leon said goodbye to his family and left Vilna. Leon's father, mother, and younger sister ultimately perished at the hands of the Nazis. His older sister was the only immediate family of his to survive. She eventually settled in Israel after the war.

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 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.
"I couldn't understand even what...they are talking about - I never heard about anything 'ghetto' and...it was something brand new, I couldn't understand it."
Leon’s job was to be the line of communication between the partisans and the regular army. The town he was sent to was a railroad junction by the border. It was of vital strategic importance to the German occupiers – because of the difference in the gauge between the Russian rails and the narrower German/Prussian type, all supply shipments had to be reloaded onto a different train at this junction, providing the partisans with ample opportunity for reconnaissance and sabotage.


Leon Senders with his future wife Brenda

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 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 malfunctioned, and he would have to scavenge batteries from the villages and string them together to power the radio. Sometimes, the radio had trouble broadcasting the signal, and at other times it would take him the entire day to send just one message; this would slow down the unit and could have even resulted 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 18, 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


Leon (z''l) and Brenda (z''l) at their Florida home

Leon and Brenda with their children and grandchildren on their 50th Anniversary in 1996.


1. A mid-sized city about 400 miles southeast of Moscow that took in many of the refugees fleeing eastward.