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Monday, May 24, 2021

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.

Friday, May 7, 2021

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 6, 2021

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

Monday, May 3, 2021

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".