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Friday, April 29, 2016

More than 15,000 People Today Owe Their Lives to Tuvia Bielski (z''l), Born May 8, 1906

On a rainy night, seventy-three years ago Rae Kushner, her sister Lisa and 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 and Aaron, and others were rescued by the Bielski partisans, who 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.

Born on May 8, 1906 in the rural town of Stankiewicze in western Belarus, Tuvia was one of 12 children, whose father was a miller. The only Jews in a small community, they 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, who joined forces with the growing army of Soviet partisans 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, and worked 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 enroute 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 eventually connected 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 derived special pride from 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 existences 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 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 on-line class 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, April 21, 2016

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - 73rd Anniversary Begins Erev Pesach

73 years ago this week, German soldiers entered the Warsaw ghetto, intending to deport its remaining Jewish population to Treblinka, a nearby extermination camp. Months earlier, they were met with gunfire and suffered casualties when they tried to deport several thousand Jews. For a few months, the deportations stopped, but the Germans and their collaborators returned on the eve of Passover, hoping to clear the ghetto of its inhabitants in three days.

Instead, the Germans were met with fire and bullets. Sparsely armed with a handful of handguns and Molotov cocktails, the Jewish resistance - led by Mordechai Anielewicz - repelled the initial German assault, killing German soldiers and setting fire to armored vehicles. Though the Germans came back better-organized and under the leadership of a different officer, the resistance held out for several more days. In the end, only a few dozen fighters managed to escape the ghetto through the sewers as the Germans and their collaborators systematically destroyed the entire ghetto with fire and explosions.

The legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, during which approximately 750 Jews fought off Nazi invaders longer than the entire country of France, stands as a testament to the strength of human determination and an example to all. In 2013, the Polish government dedicated the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which stands on the site of the Warsaw ghetto.

For more on the Uprising and its aftermath - as well as the 2013 commemorations of the event - please see:


Jews forcibly removed from their dugouts, on the way to deportation. One of the most famous photos of the war.

German sentries at ghetto entrance

A bunker with the Kotwica symbol of the AK resistance

Resistance fighter coming out of bunker

Housing block set on fire by German army to suppress uprising

Center-left, looking up to the left: the commander in charge of suppressing the uprising, Jürgen Stroop.

Resistance fighters captured by the Germans.

The ruins of the Warsaw ghetto after the suppression.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

David Broudo - Born April 8, 1924 in Saloniki, Greece

In 1941 the Germans occupied Greece, dividing the country among the Fascist Italians and Bulgarians, and establishing a Greek collaborationist government to control the important regions of Athens and Thessaloniki (or Saloniki), where David Broudo was born in 1924. Descendants of the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain in 1492, the Broudo family had lived in Saloniki since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Greece's involvement in WWII began in October of 1940 when Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion via Albania. The Greek army not only managed to successfully repel the attack, they also drove the Italians back, occupied a quarter of Albania and subdued some 530,000 Italian troops. Although this victory marked the first for Allied forces in WWII, the Germans immediately closed in on Greece through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, bringing an end to the Greco-Italian War and beginning the Nazi occupation of Greece. Over the next year and a half, the Jewish Greek population became increasingly marginalized, and in 1943, the entire Broudo family was deported.

Unlike other members of his family, who were sent directly to Germany, David was sent to a holding camp near Lamia, Greece. With one desperate and courageous attempt, David leapt onto the roof of a passing train, escaping the grasp of the Nazis.

David made his way to the forest where he came across a brigade of Greek andartes, the Greek guerrilla fighters who first appeared in the mountains of Macedonia in 1941. Once Broudo revealed his identity, he learned that the resistance group contained other Jewish members. For the next year, David fought as a guerrilla with the andartes, participating in the pitched gun battles of Crete and Lamia, during which many of his comrades fell to German bullets.
David Broudo (far right) with the Greek partisans, 1943

He helped destroy the supply lines the Germans had established for their campaign in North Africa by blowing up bridges and trains and sabotaging train tracks. Most ingeniously, he smuggled munitions supplies destined for the resistance movement in Athens past the German blockades by emptying milk barrels and filling them with guns. His fighting prowess earned him an officer’s commission with the Greek resistance, and by the time of the liberation he was planning and executing sabotage missions, as well as interrogating high-ranking German prisoners.

In 1944 Broudo and almost 50,000 other Greeks were imprisoned for their war efforts. From the prison, David was sent with forty-five other men to a desolate Greek island where he spent three and a half years, afterwards being transferred to prisons in Agrinio, Corfu, Oiru, Lamia, Zakynthos, and Evia. Of the experience Broudo said:

“This was a Greek island that was empty of human beings, only the wind. Not one person was on this island. The sea winds moved and nothing else. No one lived there. They would come and bring water and speak with ships once a week if they could enter. The water on the island was saltwater. Once, they didn't show up for a month. Airplanes flew over and dumped water and that was it.”

After the liberation, David's partisan efforts continued. As he described in a JPEF interview:

“After liberation, we went there and waged war against the English, against those who sat in Cairo. But in Cairo, half of them were Communists. Those people in Cairo who escaped Greece when the Germans invaded included officers, half of whom were Communists. The English were put into jails in Cairo. Afterwards, they were brought to Greece, and they were with the king and tanks. For the first time, I saw these tanks that Churchill brought with him, him being in Libertania in a hotel.”

When the war ended, David was sentenced to death by Greek authorities. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison and in 1956 he was deported to Israel where he lived until his death on January 16, 2011. Several decades after the war, the Greek government recognized David Broudo and the efforts of the partisan fighters.
David Broudo and other partisans, date unknown.

Broudo wrote an article entitled “Saloniki Memories,” about his experience in the war, and collaborated with another Jewish andarte on a book about the history of the Saloniki Jews.

Watch JPEF's interviews with David Broudo.