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Friday, May 8, 2020

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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Featured Jewish Partisan - Norman Salsitz, born on May 6th

Norman Salsitz was born May 6, 1920 in Galizia, a small town in southern Poland. Though he had seven different names in his lifetime, Norman Salsitz has always remained the same at his core: tough, resourceful, and honest. The youngest of nine siblings, Norman was among the Jewish inhabitants that were forced into a ghetto in June of 1941 by the Germans. Looking for strong labor, the Germans selected Norman and other healthy young Jews to dismantle recently decimated ghettos. While Norman worked to destroy any remaining signs of his heritage and religion, the Germans began sending his friends and family to the death camps.

Norman knew that with each ghetto they demolished, the workers drew closer to their own murders. In October of 1942, Norman organized an escape group of 55 people and fled to the surrounding forest. He had money he found during his ghetto work, and used it to buy his first revolver. The sympathetic Pole who sold him the weapon also led Norman to a group of resistance fighters in the woods. These fighters fought through harsh weather conditions on rough terrain to dismantle and damage German railroads, mills, and police stations.


Norman and his wife Amalie, 1945

In 1944, Norman joined the AK Polish Underground, despite the strong presence of antisemitism. He knew that as a Jew, he would never be able to make the contribution to defeat the Nazis he wanted to without disguising his Jewish identity and joining the powerful AK. Norman worked with the Underground to defeat their common foes until the command was given to seek out and kill Jews being hidden on a farm. Norman volunteered for the mission, killing the Poles who had been sent with him and rescuing the Jews in hiding. He then fled the AK and returned to his original partisan unit, where he remained until he was liberated by the Russians.


Norman in a Polish army uniform, 1944

Norman Salsitz’s mother’s dying wish was for her son to keep their stories alive. He has honored that wish by writing books and speaking about his war experiences. From the horrors of mass murder to the inspiration of weary fighters singing hymns, Norman continues to fight for the truth. “This is why I keep going,” he says, “we have to tell the world what the German murderers did to us.”

Norman Salsitz passed away on October 11, 2006. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Norman Salsitz, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.


Norman during a JPEF interview, 2002

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Jewish Partisans Joe (z'') and Rose Holm

This mini-biography tells the story of two Jewish partisans in Poland who fought in Chiel Grynspan's unit and later married one another.

Jewish partisans Rose Duman and Joe Holm were born in neighboring villages near Zaliscze, Poland. In 1941, Germans killed Joe's mother and five brothers, as well as 20 other members of his family. At 19, he entered the forest, where he knew other Jews were gathering.

Joe Holm met Chiel Grynspan and other partisans in the forest, where he proved himself skilled with a gun, and adept at demolition. Holm had two roles: his extensive knowledge of the forest and local villages made Holm an invaluable guide for his group. Holm also traveled in and out of the forest, finding food and medical supplies necessary for the unit's survival.

Near Zaliscze, Rose’s family owned a prosperous farm, where Joe would often stay overnight on Shabbat. When partisan groups began allowing a few women to join, Joe appeared on Rose's doorstep. He said, “I'm going; you come with me.”

As partisans, Rose and Joe carried out dozens of missions. Once, traveling with a Polish general into the forest, their group was ambushed. Joe and Rose ran through gunfire, and managed to deliver the General safely to the camp. Later, Rose found bullet holes through her sweater, as a testament to their narrow escape. In another narrow escape, Joe Holm and his cousin Jack Pomeranc stood before a firing squad with 80 other partisans, and prepared to be executed. Just before the signal to fire was given, Joe said, “Watch me, and do what I do.” He wrestled a gun from a German soldier and started firing. Joe Holm was shot in the arm, but they and two other prisoners escaped. All the rest were killed.

Rose and Joe stayed with the Grynspan unit for the duration of the war, living in the forest for over three years. Later, Rose and Joe married and left Poland for Germany, eventually emigrating to the United States. In New York, they built a family and a successful business. Joe Holm died in 2009. They were married for 65 years.

“We survived with our bare hands,” Rose recalls. “I just wanted to live, to see the end of Hitler,” she adds. “I was angry. It was important to me to do something, before I died.” On teaching the history and legacy of the Jewish partisans, Rose Holm says, “It is important to teach kids to fight back. To speak up.”

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Rose and Joe Holm, including four videos of Rose Holm reflecting on her time as a partisan.

Monday, May 4, 2020

RECAP: JPEF's virtual Yom HaShoah Commemoration on April 22

On April 22, the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation hosted a special virtual commemoration of Yom HaShoah v'HaGevurah. Over 600 people joined us live on Zoom, with hundreds more joining in on Facebook Live from countries such as Canada, Israel and South Africa. Rewatch our stirring event where we remembered those we lost and those who fought back during the Holocaust.

During the event, we:
  • Remembered Those Lost During A Special Ceremony.
  • Celebrated the Perseverance and Resilience of the Jewish Partisans.
  • Learned How They Took Care of One Another During Challenging Times.
  • Heard the First Hand Real Life Experience of A Teenage Jewish Partisan.
The gathering FEATURED:

Keynote address by Dr. Michael Berenbaum, renown Holocaust Scholar.

Q&A Session with Jewish Partisan, Allen Small, who fought the Nazis and their collaborators as a teenager.

Email questions for Allen Small to events@jewishpartisans.org, or tweet your questions to @jpeftweets.

Wednesday, April 22nd
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM – PST
1:00 PM – 1:45 PM – CST
2:00 PM – 2:45 PM – EST
(Via Zoom)

To maintain the security of our virtual commemoration, we will email your zoom link 2 hours in advance of the program.

Hymn of the Partisans (Kog Nit Mol Zeyn) Sing A Long, led by Cantor Shira Ginsburg.

About Allen Small

Allen Small


As the German Army liquidated the town of Ivie, Poland, during the summer of 1941, 14-year-old Allen Small's mother told him to hide in the attic. Escaping execution, he went on the run and soon became a partisan fighter with the Stalinskaya Brigade.

When the war ended, Allen was drafted into the Soviet army, but in 1946, aided by a Zionist organization, he snuck into the American Zone. At a DP camp in Munich, he ran into a childhood friend, Leon Bakst, who had also survived the war as a partisan.

The reunion of these partisans, 65 years later, is the subject of in JPEF's film, "The Reunion," narrated by Liev Schreiber: http://www.jewishpartisans.org/films.

On January 15, 2020, Allen celebrated his 92nd birthday.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Jewish Partisan Leon Bakst Celebrates his 94th Birthday

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.

The Bakst 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:

“It was a Rabbi’s son – he had a little bit…one arm. [It] wasn’t as strong as the other; it was kind of a weak arm. So after we got through digging out, before we’re fixing to go back to the ghetto, [they] shot him, right there in front of the grave. And we left.”

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 learned 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”.)


Leon and Libby in Munich, 1946.

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:

“When I was in the underground, it was a happy time of my life because I felt I’m fighting not only for myself, I was fighting for freedom, and [to] take revenge for the Jewish people. That's what I’m proud of it. And that’s why I take, I keep on living for it, you know, and I can try to tell as many people I can to relay the message to them, what happened in World War II to the Jewish people, [that] some of the people were heroic and they went to the underground and fought."


Leon with Allen Small (left) at the NY premiere of "The Reunion".

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Martin Petrasek Celebrates His 94th 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

Monday, April 13, 2020

Mourning the Loss of Jewish Partisan Benjamin Levin

We went on actions, like cutting telephone poles. A bridge - to destroy something. They always liked to go with me because I knew the forest, and had the instinct in the forest - how to move and where to go and what's going on.
— Benjamin Levin
Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Levin escaped execution when Germany invaded his hometown of Vilna in July 1941. A plucky young man, accustomed to running around the streets with his friends, he knew the area well and managed to evade Nazi capture during the first weeks of the occupation.
Tipped off by friends, Benjamin and his family fled from the village before the Vilna ghetto was erected, but they later returned during what they perceived to be a period of relative calm. Unfortunately, this calm was short lived and violence against the Jews continued to erupt. Deciding that it was not safe to remain in Vilna, Benjamin’s father Chaim encouraged him to escape to the woods with a group of other young Jews, and join the fighting partisan units.
Benjamin and his companions joined a brigade composed of Jews, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians, led by an old forester whose expertise kept the city boys alive. Upon the complete liquidation of the ghetto, other survivors from Vilna joined them.
Although he was a teenager, Benjamin knew the forests well and was well acquainted with the customs of the local peasants. These traits made him a valuable asset to the group on food and supply raids, and on missions to destroy bridges.
While Benjamin survived the war, and witnessed the liberation of Vilna, sadly the Nazis and their collaborators killed his parents and older brother. After the war, he made aliyah to Israel where he married and had two children.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Benjamin Levin, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. The NY Post featured Benjamin in a April 2017 article.

Benjamin passed away on April 13, 2020.