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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

JPEF's Tribute to Larry King (z"l)

By Mitch Braff

Fifteen years ago, I was finishing four documentary films for JPEF on “Living and Surviving in the Partisans” that were going to be released with the study guide of the same title.

I was looking for a narrator, someone with a great voice and hopefully at least a little well known; someone who would help garner attention for the organization. I was having breakfast at Nate and Al’s in Beverley Hills when I spied Larry King sitting with a few of his friends a couple booths over. As I later learned, he went there every day for breakfast when he was working in Los Angeles. “He’d be perfect for this project,” I thought.

I channeled my inner stalker and waited until he finished his breakfast, left the restaurant, and was walking over to his waiting car. I nonchalantly jumped up and followed him, and just before he reached the door, I introduced myself and dropped Ed Asner’s name. I told him that Ed had recently narrated a film for JPEF and I asked Larry to narrate the newest films. To my surprise, Larry said yes to the project! I didn’t know it at the time, but he had just completed the reading of an audio book about Jewish partisans, one about the famed Avengers brigade and was already interested in the subject of Jewish resistance. He was very interested in Jewish partisan resistance. He liked the work JPEF was doing, took my card, and said that his office would call me to make arrangements.

Excitedly, I anticipated and waited for the call – but it never came. 

A month had passed, and I needed to finish the film. I was stuck. I had no way of contacting Larry. The only place I knew I could find him was at Nate and Al’s, but I was 350 miles away in San Francisco and not about to go full stalker. 

One morning I was struck with an idea…. I called Nate and Al’s around 8:00 am. To my surprise, when I asked for Larry King, I was told to hold. About 30 seconds later his deep and distinct voice came on the phone. I re-introduced myself, and he told me to call him later that day at his office. He gave me his “direct line.” I was in.

Or so I thought.

I called him that afternoon, already picturing the two of us in the studio together; Larry complimenting my script and direction....Unfortunately, I was brought back to reality by the sound of the phone ringing  and ringing without an answer. I soon realized that he didn’t have voicemail (“This is 2005, come on,” I thought to myself) and no assistant picked up. I was not deterred. I called the following day, and the next day, and the next, and had the same experience. I couldn’t give up. Over the next couple of months, I called many times; perhaps 80 times.  I would call him after breakfast, when I was in the car, after lunch, and no one ever picked up. Not ever. 

One day, I was doing my daily “Larry call” around 5:40 pm. Most of my previous calls were in the morning or early afternoon. I never called this late.  It rang and rang as it always did.. As I was about to hang up, that distinct voice came on the line....and to my amazement it was Larry! The number he gave me was to a phone at his desk, the desk he sat at every day, just before recording “Larry King Live” at 6pm PST.

A week later, I found myself face to face with Larry King in the studio, where we recorded the narration for four documentary films for JPEF.

Larry went on to record more films for us, excepts from another book, and even offered to participate as the star attraction for one of our fundraisers. His distinctive and eloquent voice made everything he did for us more engaging and impactful. The organization, the board, and stakeholders, all loved his participation. He raised the bar for our work. 

I will always remember him as a sweet and generous man – though to be honest, he wasn’t the greatest at taking my direction in the studio. He wanted to do it his way.

Of course. He was the legendary Larry King.

We will all miss him.

Larry King’s work can be heard in the JPEF films and on our website:

Living and Surviving in the Jewish Partisans: Food
Living and Surviving in the Jewish Partisans: Medicine
Living and Surviving in the Jewish Partisans: Winter and Night
Living and Surviving in the Jewish Partisans: Shelter
Fighting on Three Fronts: Antisemitism and the Jewish Partisans
Partisan Hideout Page – JPEF Website

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Jewish partisan Judith Ginsburg turns 96 years old!

Today, Jewish partisan Judith (Yudis) Ginsburg (Kosczeinska) celebrated her 96th birthday.

Judith was born into a large and well-to-do family in Lida, Poland. She lost most of her family in the slaughter on May 8, 1942 when 6,000 Jews of Lida were murdered by the Einsatzgrupen. She remained in the Lida ghetto with her oldest sister and her sister’s two children until the liquidation of the ghetto.

As a teenager, Judith escaped from the line of Jews being marched to the trains bound for Majdanek. She was rescued and joined the Raschinsky Otriad, serving as a combatant. Antisemitism in her unit was rampant and to avoid danger, Judith left to join the Bielski brigade, for the rest of the war.

Upon liberation she returned to Lida, and found that the city had been completely destroyed. Her entire family had been murdered, and she was again alone. The situation in Lida was dire; there was very little food and most of the buildings had been burned out. Because he had been designated a war hero, Motke Ginsburg and his family occupied a large house in Lida and they were feeding anyone who needed food. It was there that Judith met the Ginsburg family and her future husband, Motke. After the tragic murder of Motke’s brother Tzalke, the family left Belarussia for Poland and then traveled to the Ferenvald displaced person’s camp in Germany.

Four years later in 1949, Judith, Motke and their two children Chaim and Rivka, immigrated to the United States and settled in Troy, NY. Life was not easy at first, but conditions improved as Motke started earning a living as a cattle dealer. Judith had two more children, Fran and Sheri, both born in America. Today, Judith has 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren and the number continues to grow. Judith has always been held in high esteem by her friends and the community at large. Today she is the beloved matriarch of the Ginsburg family and lives in Coconut Creek, Florida.

At Judith’s 90th birthday party in 2015, she and several of her fellow Jewish partisans, sang the Hymn of the Jewish Partisans for her many guests.

To honor Judith Ginsburg's 95th birthday on in 2020, her family founded the Judith and Marvin (z’’l) Ginsburg Jewish Partisan History Education Fund to support JPEF’s efforts to educate young people through the lessons of the Jewish partisans.

Judith & Marvin (z''l) were, and remain, dedicated to educating future generations about the remarkable resistance of the Jewish partisans. It was essential to them that young people be presented with an accurate history of all forms of Jewish defiance against Nazi oppression. You can help JPEF fulfill their commitment by making a gift toward the fund.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Remembering Jeff Gradow on his January 5th birth date

“It's hard to describe how a human being, being a prisoner, and suddenly he gets the power to fight back, even psychologically, he knows that he might get killed, but nobody worried about it. The main thing what happened in our minds is 'kill the Germans, kill those police officers.' But you [don't] worry about it – I never worried about myself, I might get killed. All I wanted is just fight them.”
–Jeff Gradow

Jeff Gradow escaped into the woods from a labor camp in Bialystok, and soon found a partisan unit where he became a trained fighter, participating in sabotage missions until the end of the war, when his partisan unit was assimilated into the Red Army and was sent to the front lines.

Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 to a middle class Jewish family in central Poland. When he was only 14 years old, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved Poland in half – his town of Mlawa was located on the western side of the divide, and thus fell under the control of the Germans.

With the arrival of the Nazis came immediate danger: prior to the occupation, his father had a dispute with a neighbor over some horses and a wagon, and the newly-instated police force – made up mostly of Polish locals who required little incentive to settle old scores with their Jewish neighbors – were looking to arrest him. Those arrested were often never seen again, so his father hid with a local farmer outside of town, taking Gradow with him.

They remained there for a few days, but upon learning that the German-Soviet border was still easy to get across, they left for Soviet-occupied Bialystok, located just east of the dividing line. There, they settled down temporarily – Gradow’s father, Lohim, got himself a job and Jeff went to school, where he learned to speak Russian. Unfortunately, travel restrictions made it impossible to send for the rest of their family – Jeff’s mother and two younger sisters remained in Mlawa.

This did not last long, and their life in Bialystok soon changed for the worse. The Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invaded Soviet-occupied territories in July of 1941. This included Bialystok, whose Jewish inhabitants were treated by the invaders with particular brutality and ruthlessness. Less than a week after their arrival, Nazi troops locked around two thousand Jews inside the Great Synagogue – the largest wooden synagogue in Eastern Europe at the time – and burned it to the ground. Many other homes in the neighborhood were pillaged, looted, and burned that day, and many more people were murdered. During the mayhem, Jeff’s father Lohim was seriously injured by a grenade thrown into their house; he did not survive to see another morning. Alone, Jeff wandered the streets until sympathetic neighbors offered him shelter.

The Nazis forced every Jewish male in Bialystok to work. Jeff’s first assigned task was to dig ditches in a cemetery with some Russian PoWs. After the ditches were dug, Jeff watched as the Nazis shot all the Russians; Jeff and other survivors were then forced to bury them.

The Nazis eventually started quartering Jeff’s labor group inside a train station during nights, and he was not allowed to return to his neighbors. During the days, the group was forced to lay timber on the highway so that German military vehicles could pass through in the winter, when all the roads turned to mud. Jeff’s labor group was comprised of civilians; consequently, it was guarded by soldiers who were older and slower than the group of Russian PoWs working just up the road. These older soldiers had a habit of resting their legs once a day and took a 20-30 minute afternoon break, allowing the laborers to do the same.

Fed up with forced labor and believing he has nothing to lose, Jeff decided to make a run for it during one such break. When the soldiers weren’t looking, he slid into a ditch on the side of the road and bolted into the forest. He heard rifle shots in the distance as the German guards discovered they were one prisoner short, but he was already deep in the woods, and no one pursued him.

Jeff wandered the forest for three days, lost and alone, surviving only on wild blackberries. On the third night, he found a farmhouse and, taking a chance, knocked on the door. Jeff was wearing a Russian military jacket belonging to one of the shot Russian PoWs, and he had learned to speak fluent Russian in school during his time under Soviet occupation. Consequently, the farmer who opened the door was not able to discern whether the starving, rain-soaked prisoner before him was a Russian PoW or a Jew – a lucky situation for a young Jewish boy alone in the Polish countryside to find himself in.

The farmer sheltered him for the night and pointed him in the direction of a village under the control of local partisans. There, Gradow was given directions to the main partisan encampment in the woods after being deemed too young and inexperienced to be an enemy spy. The camp was a diverse one, comprised mainly of Jews and Russian soldiers, and included families. Jeff was even able to speak Yiddish to the guards at the encampment, who were surprised to learn that he survived an escape from a labor group. Rather than continue to wander through the woods, hungry and alone, Jeff joined the partisan group and immediately begun weapons training.

* * *

At that point in the war, partisan groups like Jeff’s were still mainly concerned with self-preservation. As the Soviets fought on and their situation began to improve, partisan units got more organized and better equipment became available. This is when their missions began to change, recalls Jeff, and focused more on sabotage, disruption of communications, and the elimination of local police. Jeff became a seasoned guerrilla fighter, traveling by night with all his belongings, in case the Nazis got tipped off to the whereabouts of his unit’s base camp. Oftentimes, they would come across traces of their old hideouts, destroyed by the Nazis.

The partisans lived in zemlyankas – holes four to five feet deep dug in the ground, covered by branches and dirt. Each one could sleep around 15 people; Jeff’s entire unit was comprised of around 100-150 people. The partisans slept during the day (except those who stood guard), and traveled by night.

In late 1943, the Soviets began airdropping supplies for the partisans. This included explosives – Jeff and a few of the other partisans used them to derail a German train in the dead of night. They slipped away amidst heavy Nazi casualties and confused machine gun fire. Such missions were only attended by a handful of partisans while the others stayed behind. However, when it came to missions like food-gathering or reprisals against collaborators, the entire unit followed – a handful of partisans went in, but the rest stayed behind, encircling the town to make sure the group was not caught unawares.

In the spring of 1944, Jeff’s unit joined other nearby partisan groups to defend a bridge for an upcoming Soviet tank assault. They succeeded, allowing the Russian troops to roll in and liberate the area. No longer in hiding, the local partisan groups gathered in the nearby town of Baronovich, where they were immediately absorbed into the Russian army. Gradow’s group was assimilated into the 348th “Bobruyska” Division and ordered to join the western front.

Jeff Gradow and a friend after the war.

Jeff fought on until he was badly injured near his hometown of Mlawa in August of '44. He was sent to a military hospital deep inside the Soviet Union, in the town Michurinsk, some 400km southeast of Moscow. The war ended during his recovery, and he sought leave to return to his hometown.
Only twenty years old, Jeff returned to Mlawa to find out that his mother and sisters (along with the rest of his extended family) were murdered in the Treblinka concentration camp. He left Poland shortly after and made it to the French sector of Berlin, where he spent the next four years before immigrating to New York City in 1949 via his great-uncle, who sponsored his arrival through the Displaced Persons Act program. In 1954, he married and moved to Los Angeles, where he raised two children. He passed away on June 23, 2014.

Jeff Gradow and JPEF Board President Elliott Felson at the 2011 Partisan Tribute Dinner.

Visit to find out more about Jeff Gradow, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.