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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Share the Legacy of Jewish Partisan Sonya Oshman (z''l)


The eldest of four children, Sonya Oshman (z''l) was born in 1922 to a family of wealthy Novogrudok merchants. Novogrudok was a Polish town with a population in the thousands, approximately half of whom were Jewish. The Gorodinskys were well-respected, and Sonya’s father was occasionally called upon to mediate tensions between the town’s Polish and Jewish communities.

Sonya had planned to enroll in medical school in Bialystok the year that the Soviets invaded. Although the Soviets deported many Jews to Siberia, the Gorodinskys were left alone. Life changed drastically when the Nazis occupied Poland. They systematically murdered most of the town’s Jewish population, including Sonya’s youngest brother and grandparents.

By May of 1943, only 500 Jews remained in Novogrudok – mostly skilled laborers and their families. The Nazis confined them to the city's courthouse, where they lived in squalid conditions in what became a makeshift ghetto. On May 7th, the Nazis conducted another massacre, reducing the ghetto population by half. Following this massacre, the remaining 250 Jews began plotting their escape. The initial plan to storm the courthouse gates fell through when the Nazis discovered their plot. Instead, the escapees decided to dig a tunnel underneath the ghetto into the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would allow the sick and the elderly enough time to get out.

The work was difficult and dangerous. The excess earth had to be disposed of, and the summer rains threatened to collapse the tunnel. To avoid suspicious dirt stains, those digging wore burlap sacks – or dug naked. Even in these dire conditions, Sonya found a ray of hope when she befriended and fell in love with Aaron Oshman during the time they spent digging together. They would later marry. Just a month before the escape, Sonya’s father was transferred to another ghetto, along with a handful of other skilled workers. She never saw him again.

The escape finally occurred on a rainy September night. About seventy of the escapees – including two of Sonya’s cousins and the tunnel’s mastermind – lost their lives when they accidentally ran back towards the ghetto and were shot by the guards, who mistook them for ambushing partisans. Most of the other escapees, including Sonya, eventually made it to relative safety at the Bielski partisan camp. There, she was reunited with her one surviving brother Shaul, and with Aaron.


As a member of the Bielski partisan group, Sonya performed many important duties and was instrumental in safeguarding the camp population by standing sentry.

After the war ended, Aaron and Sonya traveled across Europe, finally making it to a displaced person’s camp in Italy. Their first child was born shortly before they arrived in the United States and settled in Brooklyn.

Sonya dedicated her life to sharing her story and to teaching people about the resistance of the Jewish partisans. She traveled extensively and spoke in schools, synagogues, and community centers across the country.

Sonya and Aaron were married for 56 years, had two sons Matthew and Theodore, and four grandchildren. For more on the inspiring life of Sonya Oshman, the Novogrudok tunnel escape, and the Bieslki brigade, please watch the JPEF documentary, A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters. and read Gila Lyon's excellent biography in Tablet magazine.

Sonia passed away on March 2, 2012.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Celebrating Joe Kubryk's 95th Birthday - July 1st

"We had a very difficult time in the partisans among our own soldiers. What happened is we had Ukrainians, we had Poles, we had Polish soldiers that escaped from the prisons of Juaros and came to the partisans. And we had Russians. None of them really liked the Jews." - Joe Kubryk on being a Jewish partisan.


Joe Kubryk was born in the Russian Ukraine, not far from Odessa, on July 1st, 1926. Before the war, the Kubryk family did not experience much antisemitism, but after the war broke out, Joe’s village was filled with Ukrainian fascists, who cooperated with the Germans to kill Jews. When Joe saw the Germans rounding up his classmates, he knew he had to run for his life. In August 1941, not long after his friends were taken by the Nazis, Joe left the village. He found a Ukrainian farmer who hired him as a farmhand. The farmer had no idea Joe was Jewish as Joe spoke fluent Ukrainian. While Joe cried himself to sleep at night, he never let anyone see him doing it. He didn’t want to explain why he was crying.

Near the end of 1941, Russian partisans came scavenging for food at Joe’s farm. Curious, he asked them who they were. “Russian partisans,” came the reply. “Who are you?” When they heard he was Jewish and alone, they said, “You are one of us,” and took him to a camp in the forest of Drohobicz.

A few months after Joe arrived, a junior secret service was formed. Joe and the other teenagers began serious training in spying — learning how to recognize guns, artillery pieces and officers’ insignia. They were “toughed-up” in the training, taught secret codes and the rules of espionage. The Junior Secret Service spied on German troops. Platoon by platoon, they counted men, checked equipment, and noted who the ranking officers were and where they were camped. They also provided information to saboteurs who mined bridges and railroads to disrupt German military activity. Joe still bears the shrapnel scars he received during gunfights with the German army, and a German bombardment left him deaf in one ear.

After the war, Joe worked for the Bricha, the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel. Joe then fought in Israel’s War of Independence and worked for the Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, before moving to America, where he became a successful businessman.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joe Kubryk, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Our study guides section also contains a guide titled Joe Sasha Kubyrk: Teenage Partisan Spy.

Shalom Yoran - The Defiant [Born June 29, 1925]

Shalom Yoran was born Selim Sznycer in 1925 in Warsaw, Poland. When Shalom was 15 years old, his family fled east, leaving the Nazi-occupied area of Poland for the Soviet side. However, a year later the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the Yoran family found their new home, the village of Kurzeniec, occupied by the Nazis.

Two years later, in 1942, the Nazis established a Russian POW camp in Kurzeniec, where the prisoners were treated brutally. Shalom first learned about the partisans through stories he was told by escaped Soviet POWs. The day before Yom Kippur 1942, the Kurzeniec ghetto was ordered to be liquidated.

Shalom was given an early warning, but his family was not as lucky. Shalom and his brother Musio managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, and were forced to listen as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. The brothers later found out their parents were among them. The farmer whose barn they hid in turned out to be friendly, and the brothers safely made it to the woods – the Naroch puscha – where they found many other survivors in hiding. Shalom reasoned it was only a matter of time before the Germans conducted an organized raid on the forest, so the brothers decided to leave the area. After the brothers recruited three younger refugees to follow them, the boys spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where they built a zemlyanka for shelter and lived mostly off a large store of food they took from local farmers.

Detailed map of Shalom's journey through northeastern Poland

At first, they resorted to stealing and begging, but Shalom eventually had an idea: he fashioned the tops of his boots into a holster, and whittled a wooden handle to look like the one on a Soviet Nagan revolver. No longer needing to steal potatoes in the dead of night, Shalom now demanded provisions, brandishing his holstered "weapon." The balance between menace and generosity was of vital importance, and for a long time the peasants did not suspect anything.

However, one night as they ventured into the village one last time to acquire matches, an angry mob chased them down and beat them with sticks. Though he was robbed of all his clothing, Shalom miraculously escaped with his life, and even managed to avoid frostbite as he ran barefoot through the snow. Luckily, all five of the group survived the assault and managed to return to the zemlyanka.

In the spring of 1943, Shalom and the group ventured out of their hiding area. By this time, the tide was turning for the Nazi war effort, and the German army was suffering serious setbacks both in Africa and on the Eastern Front. On the road to Zazierie, the boys encountered fellow survivors of the Kurzeniec ghetto and a group of partisans roaming the village. Since neither he nor his group had weapons, Shalom was denied entry into the group — a common practice among the partisans. Unsure of what to do, Shalom and his brother stayed in the puscha. Though their winter companions went their separate ways, they were soon joined by others, including some escapees from a labor camp in Vileika.

Shalom and his companions spent the rest of the spring trying to join partisan groups roaming the area, but without weapons, they received the same reply every time. Finally, a partisan commander relented and offered them a deal: they would be allowed into the partisans if they returned to Kurzeniec and burned down a factory that made wooden rifle butts. For this mission, they were given a handgun with a single bullet and two hand grenades. Despite the odds, they were successful. However, when they returned to the partisan camp, they were met by a different officer, who took away their weapons and reprimanded them, threatening to shoot them if they didn't leave. The Russian partisans never even thought they could succeed, and had no intention of letting Jews into their group. Little did they know that the group's commanding officer – the one who initially gave them the assignment – was himself a Russian Jew.

Shalom's lucky break came when the commander of a "specgruppa" – a small unit created for a specific purpose – came through the area looking for guides. During the Soviet retreat in 1941, the local peasants had picked up many weapons abandoned by soldiers. The group's mission was to find and collect these weapons, along with food. Here, Shalom witnessed first-hand the methods of Soviet-style coercion, which ranged from the polite display of a grenade on the table to beatings and mock executions.

But in the end, the specgruppa found the weapons caches, and for his work, Shalom and Musio were both given working rifles (though Shalom's did not have a butt, and Musio's was sawed-off).

Shalom in British uniformAfter his work with the specgruppa, Shalom heard rumors of the formation of an all-Jewish otriad, organized by one Colonel Markov, who by that time had a brigade of over a thousand partisans under his command. He was in contact with the FPO in Vilna, and their members formed the core of an all-Jewish otriad called Miest - the Russian word for "revenge". Since they brought weapons, Shalom and his companions were readily accepted into the unit. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit ambushed the retreating German troops, cutting communication lines, blowing up bridges, and destroying railroads. The unit was disbanded and merged with another otriad some months later. This would not be the last all-Jewish unit Shalom belonged to during the war – and, unfortunately, not the last to be disbanded by the Soviet high command.

When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom and the rest of his comrades were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war.

In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British Military passport, and joined the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. Shalom became a leader in the Israeli aerospace industry.

Shalom moved to the US in 1979 where he lived with his wife, artist Varda Yoran. Shalom passed away on September 9, 2013 leaving a tremendous legacy.

In 2003, he published his memoir, The Defiant: A True Story of Escape, Survival & Resistance. The book, written shortly after the Shoah but rediscovered many years later, is dedicated to his parents. Click here to listen to Larry King reading excerpts from the book.

From left to right: Shalom, Steffi, Markh, and Musio. Steffi was the widow of Markh's close friend in Vilna. Budapest, 1945.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Jewish Partisan Sonia Orbuch (z''l) was born on May 24, 1925

“I didn’t even bend down my head, I wasn’t worried that I was going to get killed, If I was going to get killed I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew.” — Sonia Orbuch, during JPEF interview.

Sarah Shainwald was 14 years old and ready to begin high school when the bombs began falling on September 1, 1939, marking the official start of World War II. The Soviets invaded Poland from the east and Luboml was handed to the Russians under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland between the two powers.

For two years, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war with worries about her family’s future. Then in 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family were confined to the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.

When Nazis began killing Jews in the ghetto, it did not take long for the news to spread. Sarah's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but this group only accepted young men – so the open forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.

Eventually, Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, her uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group. Thus Sarah began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for sabotage and resistance missions.

Sarah was renamed Sonia by the partisans, for 'Sarah' is not a common Russian name and would have exposed her to danger from various anti-Semitic elements. Early on, Sonia was assigned guard duty and tasked with providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.

In the winter of 1943-44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. The camp had several thousand members and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital. Sonia recalls her day-to-day experience there:

“During the daytime, the fights were terrible...you didn’t take off your shoes, you didn’t wash; you barely ate. You just worked very hard providing whatever comfort your could... I was frightened, horrified at the numbers of people we lost.”

To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades with her at all times: “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”

In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house. They were unaware that the house was infected with typhus, which soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.

As the war ended, Sonia focused her energy on getting to America. Sonia eventually moved to Northern California. But the past was never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia always said. “I see them always before my eyes.”

In her JPEF interview, and during many classroom visits and Yom HaShoah presentations, Sonia defiantly proclaimed, “I want young people to know we were fighting back and that you can always find a way to fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter and not because I am a Jew. That itself gave me strength to go on."

Sonia realized that while terror was raging around her, kindness always managed to shine through. “I feel great respect for the Russian people who were so brave and helpful to us,” Sonia said. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”

Sonia vividly recounts her struggles and perseverance during the war in her memoir Here, There Are No Sarahs.

Sonia passed away on Sunday, September 30, 2018, surrounded by family and loved ones. She was 93 years old. During her lifetime, she inspired and touched the lives of so many. You can read more about Sonia's incredible life in the San Francisco Chronicle, London Times, and Washington Post.

The Board and staff of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation extend their deepest condolences to Sonia's family and friends.

Sonia is survived by her son Paul Orbuch and daughter-in law Lisa King, her daughter and son-in-law Bella and Dan Whelan, her granddaughter Eva Orbuch, and her step-granddaughter Fraya King.

May her memory be a blessing.

Sonia was the subject of JPEF's 2012 Youth Writing Contest and is pictured here with winner EJ Weiss.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about the life of Sonia Orbuch, including seven videos of Sonia reflecting on her time as a partisan. You can also download our study guide Sonia Orbuch: A Young Woman With The Russian Partisans.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

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.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

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 3, 2022

Jewish Partisan Leon Bakst (z''l) was born on May 3, 1923

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 passed away on February 10, 2021, at the age of 97. He was the father of two daughters, Marsha and Paulette (Pepe), two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Of his legacy as a partisan, Leon said:

“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".