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Monday, July 1, 2024

Leon Idas, born July 11, 1925, Fought for the Liberation of Greece at 16

"We are Jewish, and you know what happened to the Jews, I said, they round them up and we come here, we didn't care if it is Communists or Royalists or Democratic, Conservative, we come here to become Partisan, to fight the common enemy — the Nazis." – Leon Idas.

Leon Idas was born July 11, 1925 in Athens, Greece. He grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with his father, a textiles merchant, mother, four brothers, and sister. Leon attended a private school run by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Christian theology Leon learned proved useful as a means to keep his Jewish identity hidden during the war.

Shortly after the beginning of the German occupation of Greece in 1941, sixteen year-old Leon joined a group of partisans fighting for the liberation of Greece under a socialist banner. At that time, there were three groups of partisans in Greece: socialist, democratic, and loyalist. Leon fought and served as communications specialist with the partisans for more than three years, winding wires through the trees in various villages to establish telephone communication.


Leon Idas training to use a machine gun.

The partisans lived in bases in the mountains of Greece where they organized armed resistance against the German army. Aided by nearby villages, British airdrops of supplies and their own resourcefulness, the partisans primarily employed ambush and guerrilla tactics against the German army. The Germans in turn attempted to eliminate the partisans by destroying villages that supported them.


Leon Idas (middle) with two army friends

Leon spent more than three years with the partisans. During that time, Leon suffered through hunger, lice, a lack of adequate clothing, and had virtually no contact with his family, save for a single encounter with one of his brothers who was fighting for another partisan group.

At the end of the war, in December 1945, Leon left the partisans and returned to his family home in Athens. Once there, he was reunited with what was left of his family and learned that his parents and brother Gabriel had died in Auschwitz during this time.


Leon eventually made his way to the United States with no more than 50 cents in his pocket, and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. He married and raised a family of three sons and one daughter, and started his own clothing business, Royal Vintage Clothing. Leon passed away on April 12, 2013, and was laid to rest in the private Jewish Family Cemetery on the island of Samos, Greece, alongside his grandfather Leon Goldstein and Uncle Albert Goldstein.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Leon Idas, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Leon's son, Sam Idas, has created a photo montage of Leon's life. He was gracious enough to share it with JPEF - click here to view the montage video.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

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.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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, March 21, 2024

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

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

When Poland was split by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, the Soviet Union annexed Vilna, returning it to Lithuania, and Leon and his family were shielded from much of the violence for several more years. In 1941, however, the Germans broke the pact and invaded eastward. Leon was returning from a factory picnic in the countryside when the German Luftwaffe bombed Vilna.

Though he found his apartment building smoldering in ruins, his family was staying with his grandparents and survived the bombing. Since Vilna was a major hub for Europe’s Jewish community and had a half-dozen Jewish newspapers, Leon’s family grimly kept up with the latest news out of Germany and Poland – so they understood all were in danger once the Nazis arrived. Later in the streets, when a group of local Jewish boys invited Leon to escape to Russia with them, his father urged him to go, saying:
“Go, you are a youngster. You are…eighteen years old…If anything will happen, people like you and your boys will go first into the...camps.’”
With no clear destination other than ‘east’ and no plans for the future other than escape, Leon said goodbye to his family and left Vilna. Leon's father, mother, and younger sister ultimately perished at the hands of the Nazis. His older sister was the only immediate family of his to survive. She eventually settled in Israel after the war.

When the railroad stopped working after the Germans bombed it, Leon and his companions hitched a ride into Soviet territory with the retreating Russians. By the time Leon ended up in Penza1, where he was scheduled to work at a tractor repair center, all of his acquaintances had either dispersed or joined the newly-formed Lithuanian division of the Soviet army (since non-Jewish Lithuanians did not consider the Nazis a threat and chose to stay where they were, the division was full of young Jewish men who fled to Russia).

Leon eventually decided to do the same, but had to beg to join the Lithuanian division, as he was not yet of age. His technical background saved him from the high casualty rate of the front lines – he was sent to Moscow to learn Morse Code, the art of deciphering telegraphs, and radio operation. For a year he spent his days going to school, living in a dormitory, sleeping in a bed and socializing with young men and women his age – a true luxury at the time for a young man in his position.

In October 1943, armed with an automatic rifle and a short wave radio, Leon parachuted into the Lithuanian forest to join up with the partisans in the area. Some of the partisans were old acquaintances of his from Vilna – when they told him of the horrors of ghetto life and the German atrocities, he was stunned with disbelief.
"I couldn't understand even what...they are talking about - I never heard about anything 'ghetto' and...it was something brand new, I couldn't understand it."
Leon’s job was to be the line of communication between the partisans and the regular army. The town he was sent to was a railroad junction by the border. It was of vital strategic importance to the German occupiers – because of the difference in the gauge between the Russian rails and the narrower German/Prussian type, all supply shipments had to be reloaded onto a different train at this junction, providing the partisans with ample opportunity for reconnaissance and sabotage.


Leon Senders with his future wife Brenda

Leon used a network of local informants to monitor German movements, and he telegraphed his findings to the Soviet military through a series of coded messages. The information he provided was crucial in carrying out bombings on German supply shipments. He used a network of paid informants to gather and verify information – the more informants who had the same story, the more likely it was to be true.

To make life easier for himself back in Moscow, Leon concealed his Jewish identity, bleaching his hair blond with peroxide. He also spoke Polish, Russian, German, and Lithuanian. These proved to be almost as invaluable as the technical training. Often dressed like a shepherd or in other worn-out peasant clothing, Leon was so good at disguising his identity he was once kicked out of a farmer’s house by the very German agent who was sent to the area to track him down – the German wanted some food from the farmer, and objected to the presence of ‘Lithuanian swine’ at his lunch.

The work entailed other dangers as well. So the enemy would not triangulate his position from the transmissions he beamed to Moscow, the radio had to be constantly on the move, often as far as 9 miles out of the way. The battery he carried was as big as a brick and heavier than one; sometimes, it malfunctioned, and he would have to scavenge batteries from the villages and string them together to power the radio. Sometimes, the radio had trouble broadcasting the signal, and at other times it would take him the entire day to send just one message; this would slow down the unit and could have even resulted in his accidental abandonment.

After the war’s end, Leon ended up at a DP camp in Italy, where he met his wife Brenda, also a former Jewish partisan. They emigrated to the US in 1951, where they raised three children together. Leon passed away on Thursday, July 18, 2013. Of his work, Leon said, “I would like the partisans to be remembered as a part of victory… Without them victory would be smaller than the victory that we brought to the world.”


Leon and Brenda Senders at their wedding - November 2, 1946


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

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


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

Thursday, March 14, 2024

"Resist, resist, to our last breath!" - Abba Kovner (z''l) and Vitka Kempner (z''l) galvanized resistance in the Vilnius Ghetto

    
In honor of their shared March 14th birthdays, JPEF highlights Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner, partisans from the Vilnius Ghetto who eventually married.
   
Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. His family eventually emigrated and he spent his high school years in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania — the preeminent center of Jewish culture and learning at the time, often referred to as the "Jerusalem of Europe" — where he joined the Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir youth movement and attended the University of Vilna as an art student.


Exactly four years younger, Vitka Kempner was born on the same day in the Polish town of Kalish, located near the Polish-German border. As a teen, Vitka joined the militarist Betar movement, later switching to Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir at the behest of her friends.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna with a number of other youngsters, including her younger brother. Vilna was still a free city, and served as a hub for the various Zionist youth movements searching for passage to Palestine, away from the troubles of Europe.
      
Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, occupying Vilna and forcing its Jews into a ghetto. Abba Kovner, who watched through his window as Nazi soldiers tore an infant from a mother’s arms and smashed it against a wall , had no illusions about the intentions of the occupiers. Hearing rumors of killings and mass graves in Ponar1, Kovner and his youth group friends realized that armed resistance was the only possible course.


"Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter, Jewish youth! Do not believe those who are deceiving you. Out of 80,000 Jews of the Jerusalem of Lithuania (Vilna), only 20,000 remain. In front of your eyes our parents, our brothers and our sisters are being torn away from us. Where are the hundreds of men who were snatched away for labor by the Lithuanian kidnappers? Where are those naked women who were taken away on the horror-night of the provocation? Where are those Jews of the Day of Atonement? And where are our brothers of the second ghetto? Anyone who is taken out through the gates of the ghetto, will never return. All roads of the ghetto lead to Ponary, and Ponary means death. Oh, despairing people, - tear this deception away from your eyes. Your children, your husbands, your wives - are no longer alive - Ponary is not a labor camp. Everyone there is shot. Hitler aimed at destroying the Jews of Europe. It turned out to be the fate of the Jews of Lithuania to be the first. Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter. It is true that we are weak, lacking protection, but the only reply to a murderer is resistance. Brothers, it is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of killers. Resist, resist, to our last breath!"
         
With these rousing words, spoken at a soup kitchen on December 31, 1941, Kovner galvanized the youth movements and the United Partisan Organization, or FPO (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye) for short, was formed. Their first commander was Yitzhak Wittenberg. Their only objective was armed resistance – anything else was seen as a waste of time. They snuck out of the ghetto to execute sabotage missions, manufactured bombs, trained fighters, set up illegal printing presses, and acquired weapons that were smuggled into the ghetto in false-bottomed coffins or through the sewers.

Vitka Kempner was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage; smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The Germans did not even suspect Vilna’s Jews – organized partisan resistance simply wasn’t on their radar yet.
The FPO continually pleaded with the Jews of Vilna to join the partisans in a popular uprising, but the majority of the Jewish population actually considered the rebels a liability and a danger to the ghetto’s survival. The Germans reinforced this notion with pressure on the local Judenrat. Finally, after some skirmishes with the FPO, the Germans threatened the ghetto with total liquidation, which led to Yitzhak Wittenberg’s voluntary surrender; he was then promptly tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Before he surrendered, however, Wittenberg appointed Kovner as the new leader of the FPO.

The Germans liquidated the ghetto anyway, deporting its 12,000 remaining inhabitants. The FPO evacuated hundreds of fighters out of the city through the sewers, as Kovner and others briefly fought the Germans from atop abandoned buildings. Vitka herself led the last group of fighters – including Kovner – out of the city to the Rudnicki forests. The FPO was thus transformed into a partisan unit, naming themselves Nakam, or "The Avengers." 


Abba Kovner (center) and Vitka Kempner (right) with fellow partisan and life-long friend Rozka Korczak.

Vitka was appointed commander of a patrol group in charge of gathering information and maintaining ties with the Vilna underground. It was during this time that Kovner and Kempner began their relationship. Their all-Jewish group was unique; Kovner was convinced that Jews could gain self-respect through fighting, and that Jews must fight as Jews, so he refused to be absorbed into other Lithuanian or Russian partisan groups. The group earned a distinguished record — they destroyed over 180 miles of train tracks, 5 bridges, 40 enemy train cars, killed 212 enemy soldiers, and rescued at least 71 Jews, including prisoners from the Kalais labor camp. They also managed to destroy Vilna's power plant & waterworks. At the end of the war, Vitka was awarded Soviet Union’s highest badge of courage.


Abba Kovner at the old FPO headquarters in Vilna after the liberation.

The couple saw Vilna liberated in 1944, entering the city with Soviet troops. Gathering the surviving members of their old youth group, Kovner helped organize the Beriha2 movement, which helped smuggle hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe into British-mandated Palestine. Kovner and Kempner also organized a secret revenge unit, which sought to poison German POWs at a Nuremberg camp (the accounts on the effectiveness of this mission vary, though hundreds of POWs fell ill and had to be hospitalized).

Eventually, Kovner and Kempner were smuggled into Palestine, where they married. During the Israeli War of Independence, Kovner went on to lead the Givati brigade, and wrote ‘battle pages,’ which contained morale-boosting essays and news from the Egyptian front.
     
He went on to testify at the Eichmann trial in 1961, play a major role in the construction and design of several Holocaust museums, and write several books and poems that recount his experiences, for which he won the 1970 Israel Prize in Literature. He lived on a Kibbutz with Vitka and other survivors from the underground until his death in 1987 from cancer.
     
Though she initially had a hard time adjusting to the Kibbutz life, and suffered from health problems, Vitka found her calling when she started helping children with their studies, and eventually turned to the field of special education. At age 45, she went on to study clinical psychology, receiving a degree from Bar Ilan University and developed a new form of non-verbal color-based therapy. She passed away on February 15, 2012, on the Kibbutz she called home for more than fifty years. 

Abba and Vitka are survived by four grandchildren and leave behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.


Clip from a video interview by JPEF "The only punishment is death in the partisans"
Video Transcript: "I wanted in a few words to tell what life was like in a partisan forest. We were part of a Lithuanian/Russian partisan brigade, where the rules were very strict, almost incomprehensible to a Western person, who lives in the present time. Actually, everything was tuned towards fighting...life was very, very hard, and the rules were strict. If somebody would transgress even the smallest rule, the only punishment was death. Actually, there wasn't any other punishment. So let's say, we had to have food in order to survive. So to get food we'd go out on operations." 
-Vitka Kempner

Watch Vitka's video testimony about her wartime partisan experiences on the JPEF Partisans page. . Vitka is also featured in JPEF's short film: Women in the Partisans

Abba Kovner (far left) at a reunion of Vilna partisans.
1. Ponar was an oil storage facility site abandoned by the Soviets halfway through its construction; it had many large pits dug for the oil warehouses, which the Nazis deemed a convenient place for mass executions.
2. Jewish partisan Allen Small credits the Beriha with helping him escape from the Soviet Army.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Miriam Brysk – born March 10, 1935 –Child Holocaust Survivor and Partisan

 

Miriam (Mirka) Miasnik Brysk was born on March 10, 1935, in Warsaw, Poland. She was the only child of Bronka and Dr. Chaim Miasnik, and her parents affectionately called her by her nickname “Mirele.” She grew up on Zelazna Street, with her father’s medical office adjoining their apartment. Her father was a well-known and respected surgeon, an occupation that would later save their lives. She received much love and attention from her extended relatives and grandparents, and she grew especially close to her maternal Aunt Ala, who lived nearby.

When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Miriam was four years old. The Russians urged able-bodied men to cross into Soviet-occupied Poland. Her father and uncles had gone ahead to Lida, where the family planned to reunite. After Poland fell to the Nazis, Miriam, her mother, and Aunt Ala fled for the border that partitioned German-occupied and Soviet-occupied Poland. They arrived in Lida, where they reunited with Miriam’s father and her uncles, Sevek and Tadek. Despite the chaos around her, Miriam felt comfortable in Lida. She enjoyed nature, picking delicious crisp apples from the orchard in the fall and juicy berries in the summer. Miriam felt she didn’t lack for anything, except that she desperately missed her grandparents in Warsaw.

In the summer of 1941, Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Once again, Miriam heard the roaring of low-flying planes, this time over Lida. They invaded in the early morning; her father and uncles had already left for work. As flames engulfed the city, Miriam, her mother, and Aunt Ala fled to the outskirts of town. After the fires died down, the trio returned to their home which was miraculously still standing. Miriam was overjoyed to be reunited with her father and uncles. However, the retreating Soviet Army ordered able-bodied men to report for military duty. Failure to report was punishable by death. Miriam’s Uncle Sevek had received a call-up notice and was forced to report for service.

The Germans bombed Lida again, this time with greater fury as their grip tightened around the city. On Friday, June 27, 1941, German ground troops entered the city. The following day, the Gestapo SS and SD stormtroopers were sent to kill the Jews of Lida. Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David on their clothing, and anti-Jewish decrees were enforced. Jewish professionals were ordered to come forward and identify themselves. While this group included Miriam’s father, he was spared from death. He was a surgeon and therefore “useful” to the Nazis, as he could operate on wounded Nazi soldiers.

The Lida Ghetto was established in November-December 1941. Thousands of Jews were forced into a dilapidated part of Lida and crowded into small houses. Jewish men and women were ordered to do forced labor, and a Judenrat (Jewish Council) and Jewish Police Force were put into action to enforce Nazis’ commands under the threat of death.

Ghetto life was a slow death as fear, disease, and malnutrition pervaded Miriam’s daily existence. The ghetto was sealed on May 7, 1942. The following day, the Nazis massacred the Jews in the first large aktion. The SS and local collaborators surrounded the ghetto and attacked the Jews with metal pipes and butts of guns. Miriam clung to her parents as they were forced into the streets at the crack of dawn. Terror, panic, and fear consumed Miriam as her mother tried to help a woman cover her baby but was hit from behind and forced to retreat.

They were ordered to assemble and march to the outskirts of Lida. They could hear machine guns fire in the distance as they came to an intersection. The Gebietskommissar and the SS examined papers and waved them in one of two directions: Aunt Ala and Uncle Tadek were sent to the left, while Miriam and her parents were sent to the right—to death.

Soldiers beat them to make them run faster. As they ran, the sound of gunfire grew louder and closer. Amidst the noise and chaos, soldiers were yelling at them. One repeatedly shouted, “Doctor, go back!” Her father wore a red cross armband, and his surgical skills were vital to the Nazis. The soldier physically stopped Miriam’s family and ordered the three of them into the left line. By the narrowest of margins, they survived. The Jews in the left line were ordered to be silent, lie on the ground, and be counted. Next, they were forced to bow to the Germans in appreciation for being spared.

At dusk, they were led back to the ghetto. Soon, rumors spread that ghetto children would be murdered while their parents were doing forced labor. Miriam’s parents sent her to live with a Catholic woman whose daughter’s life Miriam’s father had saved. However, when it became apparent that the killing of the ghetto children was a rumor, Miriam returned to the ghetto and was reunited with her family. Shortly after, Aunt Ala and Uncle Tadek decided to escape the Lida Ghetto and return to Warsaw to be with their parents. Miriam never saw them again.

After the liquidation, young Jews in the ghetto began preparing to fight back. Their center of activity took place in the attic of 15 Kholodna Street, where they gathered rifles, grenades, and ammunition that was smuggled from outside the ghetto. However, many Jews were against the idea of armed resistance, convinced that working in Nazi factories would save their lives. The armed resisters left the ghetto and joined partisans in the forests.

On November 9, 1942, the partisans in the Lipiczany Forest wanted Miriam’s father in the forest because of his renowned surgical skills. “Broneczka, how can we take a child of seven into the bitter cold of winter, to an unknown place?” Miriam heard her father whisper. “This may be our only opportunity for survival,” came her mother’s response.

Miriam and her parents packed their belongings and were smuggled out the ghetto under the cover of darkness by a group of partisans. They crossed the partially frozen Niemen River and walked deep into the thick Lipiczany Forest. The forest was so dense that very little sunshine managed to penetrate through the canopies, and fog lingered among the thick undergrowth. The impenetrability of the forest made it an ideal hiding place, as the Germans were hesitant to send their soldiers into an area so difficult to navigate.

They reached the all-Jewish partisan camp the following night. Miriam and her parents were assigned sleeping places in an underground cellar called a ziemlyanka, an earthen dugout lined with logs to insulate the floor and wooden boards to sleep on. A small fire vented to the outside, like a fireplace, to keep the space warm. Miriam was overwhelmed by the newness of this life and approached a group of armed partisans with a question. “Are you afraid of living in the cold forest?” she asked them. “We are not afraid,” they laughed. “We have guns to protect us. We are no longer living in the ghettos.” This answer made her feel safe and proud to be a Jew.

Miriam was the only child in the group. Nonetheless, she was assigned specific chores that were required for the group’s survival. She helped collect wood for fires and melted snow for drinking and washing. Her mother cooked for the camp, while her father was sent on missions to treat wounded partisans throughout the forest.

In mid-December 1942, three weeks after they arrived, they learned that a large contingent of German troops had entered the wilderness to capture and kill the partisans. Miriam’s father was away helping injured partisans. Miriam and her mother attempted to keep up with armed partisans as they ran in different directions, but they did not want a child with them in case she cried and gave them all away. Miriam and her mother joined a small, barely armed group of stragglers and headed deeper into the forest. They were cold, lost, and hungry for days, and were nearly discovered by German soldiers. They ran into various Russian partisan groups who would not give them protection. After weeks in the cold, Miriam and her mother came upon a partisan who brought them back to Miriam’s father.

Because Miriam’s father was the only surgeon in the forest, requiring him to travel to various partisan camps, the Soviet high command oversaw the establishment of a central forest hospital for the entire Lipiczany wilderness. It was constructed on a small island, surrounded by vast swamps. Her father was instrumental in recruiting forty Jews to staff the hospital along with Jews to carry out raids to secure food. Miriam and her mother were brought to live in the hospital, sharing a ziemlyanka with the hospital staff. The hospital was heavily guarded and, for additional safety, Miriam wore boys’ clothing, and her head was shaved. “Now you look like a real partisan, Mirele,” the hospital staff remarked.

The hospital expanded as more facilities were built to accommodate operating rooms and hospital beds. Miriam often watched her father operate late into the night. Because the hospital was staffed by Jews, her father convinced the raiders who went on food missions to “lose” some food along the way. This lost food went to family camps, an action that was undertaken with secrecy so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Russians in charge. Acts of anti-semitism occurred daily, as Jews were singled out by Russian partisans.

Disguised as a boy, Miriam helped around the hospital by carrying large wooden logs used for making fires or building new structures and assisted the nurses in sterilizing materials for surgeries. In addition, she often cleaned the partisan machine guns and rifles because her small hands were an asset. On her eighth birthday, Miriam’s parents gave her a pistol. She felt like a true partisan.

In the early summer of 1944, the Soviet Army liberated the east. The partisans converged to meet the liberators, hugging and saluting them with tears in their eyes. For Miriam, it was a time of both joy and deep sorrow for all she had lost during the war.

After the liberation, the Soviets sent them to the nearby hamlet of Szczuczyn. Her father was awarded the Order of Lenin, one of the highest medals bestowed in the Soviet Union. However, they were not content to settle for life under communism, nor to endure the rampant anti-semitism in post-war Europe. Miriam’s parents each had brothers who were living in America and decided to try and reunite with them. Young Miriam could not even imagine a place on earth not ravaged by war.

Miriam and her parents traveled through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania before arriving in a Displaced Persons camp in Allied-occupied Austria. They were then transported to Italy by Jewish soldiers who were part of Bricha, a clandestine operation that helped Jews escape post-war Europe to Israel. While Miriam longed to immigrate to Israel, her parents decided that America would be best because they had family there. With her uncles’ sponsorship, Miriam and her parents left Naples, Italy, and sailed to Brooklyn on the Marine Falcon in February 1947.

Miriam was struck by the naivete of Americans towards the war and resented their remarks that dismissed her war experiences because she was a child. She struggled in school, trying to catch up for all the years she had lost, and her relationship with her parents was strained. Miriam felt alone and abandoned in her pain, devoid of love and support.

However, life changed for the better in 1955 when Miriam graduated from New York University, an accomplishment for which she had struggled long and hard. She was passionate about science and majored in biology and chemistry. Around this time, Miriam’s cousin introduced her to Henry Brysk, a young physicist and assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. They were married in June 1955.

Miriam and Henry have two daughters, Judy and Havi, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, with another great-grandchild on the way. Miriam earned her M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Michigan, and Ph.D. in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Columbia University. She is Professor Emeritus, was the director of Dermatology Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, and has published eighty-five peer-reviewed scientific research manuscripts.

After returning to Eastern Europe in 2002, Miriam decided to write her memoir Amidst the Shadow of the Trees, and channel her suffering and pain into art. She has made a commitment to spend the rest of her life remembering the Holocaust through writing, art, music, and poetry.

Miriam has created three large bodies of art, In a Confined SilenceChildren of the Holocaustand Scroll of Remembrance along with 25 solo art exhibits and several works that are in the permanent art collection at Yad Vashem. In addition to her memoir, Miriam is also the author of Etched in My Memoryand The Stones Weep: Teaching the Holocaust Through a Survivor’s Art.

You can find Miriam’s work on her website: www.miriambrysk.com.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sima Simieticka, Born In 1923

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sima and her husband Stanley

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

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

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

Friday, March 1, 2024

Bring Jewish Women in the Partisans to Women's History Month with JPEF's Resources




March 2024 marks the 44th Women's History Month. 
JPEF's website
has an extensive library of easily accessible resources and lesson plans to help educators and parents teach about the history of women in the Jewish partisans.

So many brave women — young and old alike — fought back to defeat the Germans and their collaborators. JPEF is proud to share these women's stories. Please check out the following resources on our website:

* Curriculum, film, and related historical links can be found on the Women in the Partisans Resource Page.

* Everyday the Impossible: Jewish Women in the Partisans
 
is a 15-minute film about the women who made up less than 10 percent of the partisans. The film introduces viewers to eight Jewish partisans as we hear their firsthand experiences from the partisan camps.

A Partisan Returns is a riveting story of former Bielski partisan Lisa Reibel's escape from the Novogrudek ghetto, and her journey back to visit her home nearly 65 years later.

Pictures of Resistance is JPEF's traveling photographic exhibit, showcasing pictures taken by Faye Schulman, the only known Jewish partisan photographer.

Consider reading these five excellent books about Jewish women partisans, all of which are featured on the JPEF website:
* Background, in-depth information, and great techniques for teaching about Jewish women partisans in your classroom is the focus of JPEF's online course, which awards CEUs.

Please be sure to visit our Jewish Partisan Community website to read the learn about the more than 40 women who fought as Jewish partisans, whose biographies we have published since 2017.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Jewish Partisan Walter Marx (z''l) – born February 27, 1926 – Lost His Family Home on Kristallnacht

"I believe that the Italian partisans were very effective in pinning down a certain amount of German troops...And of course, the Italians, partisans, were ultimately in a position to arrest Mussolini and to put an end to the fascist regime in Italy... I believe that the Italian partisans did a lot to reestablish the good name of the Italian people by wiping out some of the bad things that the fascist had committed. And by putting themselves on the side of the allies, they negated the portion that Italy had played in being part of the, uh, fascist axis comprising Germany, Italy, and Japan."
–Walter Marx

Walter was born on February 27, 1926 to a family of wholesale paper merchants in Heilbronn, an industrial hub in southern Germany. When the antisemitism he experienced from his classmates and teacher became unbearable, 9-year-old Walter was sent to Luxembourg to live with relatives and attend school there. When the Nazi Aryanization laws came into effect in 1938, Walter’s father was forced to relinquish control of their business; on Kristallnacht, the family home was destroyed and his father was taken to Dachau, where he lost a finger to frostbite after being made to stand out in the rain all night. The Germans eventually released his father and both parents left the country to join Walter.
But only 10 days after Walter's family managed to secure an apartment in Luxembourg, the Nazis invaded, eventually expelling Walter and his family down to the southern coast of France, where they lived in an apartment until 1942. Walter was 14 at the time, and found work as an errand boy to support the family. In 1942, the Germans occupied the town and the family got word that Jewish males were being arrested, so they fled to the village of Lamalou-les-Bains, in the interior of France. There, the French police arrested Walter's father and he was never heard from again - they eventually found out he was sent to his death at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland.

The remaining family got word that the Jews were relatively safe in the Italian-occupied part of France, so they made their way to Nice, where they were directed by the local Jewish community to a nearby village by the name of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, which became a safe haven for Jews1.

You could hear Yiddish. You could hear French. You could hear Polish. You could hear Russian. You could hear any language, any European language, you know and people were standing in the street talking loud and nobody could touch them because the Italians were protecting us. This was fine and this, these were probably the best days of my life. I was 17 years old at the time and also my father was missing. You know, he had been deported before. We were pretty happy.

But those days came to an end in autumn of 1943 — Mussolini was deposed, and the Italian army capitulated to the Allies. Having no reason to remain in France, the Italian army started simply walking back home across the Alps. Having heard that the Germans were heading for the village, Walter's family — along with around a thousand other Jews — followed the retreating army over the mountains into Italy.

There were no roads. People were carrying children. People were carrying suitcases which they abandoned after a short while and we walked for two or three days until we descended on the other side...

The first small town in Italy they reached was Borgo San Dalmazzo. It had already been absorbed by the German army, and Walter was warned to flee by an innkeeper's daughter he befriended, as the Germans were rounding up all foreigners, and anyone who failed to report to them will be shot. Exhausted by the trek, the family decided to flee no more and reported to the German authorities. They were put in a camp with 350 other people, and Walter was put to work clearing out equipment and supplies left behind by the fleeing Italian army in their barracks. One night, he broke one of the vertebrae in his spine, and was hospitalized for months. "I screamed and I lost consciousness and I remember waking up as my companions, with a German soldier, with an SS actually, an SS man, were carrying me to a hospital," he remembers. While he was in the hospital, the same innkeeper's daughter would come to visit him every few days. It was she who informed him that his mother and cousin were deported to a concentration camp along with the other 350 prisoners, where they were both killed.

At the end of his convalescence, the hospital director told Walter that the SS were inquiring if he was fit enough to be transported, so Walter fled to Genoa, where the bishop of Cunio was supposed to arrange for help. However, the arrangement fell through, and Walter had no choice but to return to the inn at Borgo San Dalmazzo. Though his young acquaintance there was not able to shelter him, she promised to introduce him to the Underground, as his thick German accent would have raised some suspicions if he had tried to go there by himself.

Walter joined the Underground in 1944. Because his spinal injury left him unable to walk without a cane, his primary responsibility was to solicit food from Italian farmers and manage paperwork. They lived up in the mountains in groups no larger than 20-25 people. The area was under partisan control: the local population was largely supportive, and the local authorities issued most of the partisans fake ID documents. To explain his thick accent, Walter's ID stated that he was born in France, near the German border.

One day, Walter was rounded up while attempting to buy food and taken to a jail in Cunio. After several days, as he was being taken to interrogation, a man walked up to him and offered to help him if Walter would act as an Italian interpreter for the German SS. Walter agreed, and to his surprise, the policemen that were escorting his group to interrogation simply let the strange man lead him away, out of their sight. As an Italian interpreter for the SS headquarters, he gathered critical intelligence, which he would relay every night to his liaison - a double agent working for the Underground. With the intelligence he learned, Walter even captured an Italian spy sent to locate Jews and partisans hiding in the mountainside. His unit actively engaged the Germans, once stalling a convoy of troops from advancing on a strategic road to France by employing mortar and small arms fire.


Walter after the war

After the war, Walter studied to be a dental mechanic in a school outside Paris, and eventually immigrated to the United States in October of 1946. He married his wife Ellen in 1950, and settled down in New York, finding work with a freight forwarding company in lower Manhattan.

In 1997, Walter was invited by the Italian government to be honored for his role in the Underground. The woman who hid him in her parents' hotel — then in her 80s — was there in the crowd as he gave a speech, and when he mentioned her role in his story, she raised her hand and shouted, "I was that lady!" Walter eventually invited her to New York, where she spent a week with his family. This touching story made the front page of the New York Times.

Walter passed away on August 13, 2013. He is survived by his wife, three sons, and five grandsons.

Speaking about his odyssey through war-torn Europe, Walter would often tell his children, "the experience has helped me face life with a lot of courage, and surviving has given me a sense of pride."

1. Due to the efforts of Angelo Donati, an influential Jewish banker who used his military and diplomatic connections to get the Italian authorities to protect the Jews from the Germans and the French, the Italian authorities of Nice sent any Jewish refugees to Saint-Martin-Vésubie, where they lived under the protection of the Italian army.