Saturday, August 19, 2017
— Brenda Senders.
Brenda Senders was born in 1925 in the town of Sarny, then part of Polish territory. She was the daughter of a forester, and one of two sisters (the third died during a dysentery epidemic in the ‘30s). Her father was a respected man in the community, and had helped many of the peasants build their houses. During the First World War, he had served as a translator in the German territories. The impression he took away of the Germans as a cultured people prevented him from taking any rumors of Nazi atrocities seriously.
Sarny was located far to the east, on the Sluch River. Consequently, it fell under Soviet control in 1939. As it was for many partisans, the most prominent impact from the Soviet occupation for Brenda was that she spent two years learning the Russian language. But everything changed in the summer of ’41, when the Nazis occupied Sarny and forced all its Jews into a ghetto.
In 1942, the Nazis closed the ghetto and sent the remaining inhabitants to a death camp. A few electricians managed to smuggle a pair of wire cutters into the camp and cut a hole in the fencing, allowing Brenda, her sister, and hundreds of other prisoners to escape. Many of the escapees were caught, but Brenda and her sister knew the surroundings well and ran straight for the Sluch River, crossing it into the forest. Eventually, Brenda made it to a nearby village, where she sought out her grandfather’s neighbors for help. Initially, Brenda and her sister were separated during the escape, but luckily Brenda found her hiding at the neighbors’, along with her uncle.
After several months in hiding, Brenda connected with a large Soviet-backed partisan unit, made up of 1600 people. Although she was unarmed, Brenda’s determination to fight convinced the partisan general that she was fit to join. She left her sister hiding with a local peasant, and learned how to shoot a gun and ride a horse. She then joined the partisan cavalry, and became one of the general’s bodyguards.
Brenda’s unit was constantly on the move. They occupied villages, conducted ambushes, shot passing German troops, blew up bases, and obliterated bridges and train tracks. “We didn’t let [the Nazis] rest day or night,” Brenda recalled proudly.
After the war, Brenda left Russia, escaping through Slovakia into Austria. She ended up in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Braunau Am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, where she was reunited with her sister. In the DP camp, Brenda met her future husband, Leon Senders, a former partisan from the famed Avengers unit. Brenda and Leon married in 1945 and left for Italy, eventually immigrating to the United States that same year. Brenda passed away in September of 2013; Leon passed away earlier that year, in July. They are survived by three children and seven grandchildren.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Brenda Senders, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
"The only thing we used to get [...] parachuted is dynamite, ammunition, and arms, and the rest, we had to live off the fat of the land."
- Bernard Druskin.
Bernard Druskin was born on August 18th, 1921 in Vilna, Poland. He was the oldest of the three Druskin children, his two little sisters named Rachel and Marilyn, and his family worked in the felt supply business. Following the Nazi occupation of Vilna, the Druskin family was sent to live in the Jewish ghetto.
Bernard became a Jewish partisan after escaping from the Jewish ghetto in 1940. He escaped with the help of a compassionate Nazi soldier who showed him how and when to escape. After escaping the ghetto, Bernard lived with friendly farmers, chopping wood for them all day in exchange for his meals. Bernard later found out his family had been executed in retribution for his escaping. Bernard remembers, “I had no reason to live on.”
Bernard then joined the FPO, the United Partisan Organization, and procured a radio to listen to the BBC. Bernard hid in the forests of Belarussia’s Naroch Forest and lived in a camouflaged zemlyanka, or underground bunker. Bernard worked under the Markov brigade and with Commander Jurgis, the head of the Lithuanian Brigade. He spent his time sabotaging railroad lines and phone lines, and stole food and supplies from the German army. Bernard and his compatriots once blew up 5 km of train tracks used by the Nazis, in different sections, calling it ‘Hanukkah lights.'
At times different groups of partisans competed to see which group could blow up the most trains. The partisans were directly aided by the Russian government, who sent bi-weekly parachute drops of armaments and supplies, and on holidays, vodka.
In July, 1944, the Red army liberated the city of Vilna. Instead of taking the German troops as POW’s, the Red Army disarmed them and turned them over to the partisans.
Bernard describes his life as a partisan as the most difficult thing he had done. “Let me tell you something,” Bernard recalled “To be a partisan, it’s not human.”
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Bernard Druskin, who passed away on March 24, 2008, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Thursday, August 10, 2017
Leah, with her mother Chasia, and her three younger siblings Charles, Sonia, and Benjamin, tried early on to escape from their oppressors. They were taken in by sympathetic farmers on the outskirts of town where they hid for a short period of time. The state soon decreed that all Jews would be confined in ghettos. The farmers could no longer safely harbor the family, so the Bedzowskis were forced to return to Lida and imprisoned in the ghetto.
Their passport to freedom arrived in a letter from family friend Tuvia Bielski, encouraging the Bedzowskis to join his brigade in the forest. Tuvia and his brothers had escaped the massacre and were hidden deep in the woods. Determined to save as many Jews as possible, the Bielski group was welcoming all escaped Jews into their encampment.
The Bedzowskis readily accepted Tuvia’s help. Tuvia sent a guide to escort the family out of the ghetto. The group traveled by night in silence, past guard dogs, under barbed wire, and often on their hands and knees. When they reached the forest, their guide told them, “You are going to live.” Leah and her family joined the Bielski Brigade that night.
Leah took on the necessary duties of the encampment including food-finding missions and guard duty. She was never safe until the war’s end, Leah and her fellow partisans in the Bielski brigade found themselves fighting and sometimes fleeing the German army. On one occasion, the Bedzowski family were separated from the rest of the group as the German army advanced towards them. As they and a few families despondently sat under a tree, wondering what would become of them, a group of young Jewish partisan men came upon them. One of the men was Velvel “Wolf” Yanson, a Jewish partisan from another brigade. Velvel left his group to become the protector of the Bedzowski family. He helped them return to the Bielski group where he became known as “Wolf the Machine Gunner.” “It is thanks to his fortitude and strength that my mother Chasia, brothers Chonon (Charles) and Benjamin, as well as the other families whom he encountered under the tree were all saved” says Leah. “If it wasn’t for him, my family would have perished and the Bedzowski/Bedzow name would have vanished for eternity.”
Leah currently lives in Florida, where she continues to be active in the Jewish community and lectures extensively about her Jewish partisan experience. She insists that not only her grandchildren and great-grandchildren know her story, but also anyone she can reach out to, especially the younger generation. “Fight for your rights. Know who you are. This is my legacy,” she says.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Leah Johnson, including five videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
With Courage Shall We Fight:
The Memoirs and Poetry of Holocaust Resistance Fighters
Growing up, I never knew any of the former Partisans to be reticent about speaking of their experiences. My parents were passionate about Holocaust education and about educating people to the fact that Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. They wanted the world to know that when they could, Jews fought back, physically and spiritually. In writing this book, my brother Al and I sought not only to honor our parents, but to continue their mission of educating people about their experiences, as well as the experiences of others, during the Holocaust.
My Dad, Murray Berger, was born in a shetl called Wseilub, in what was then Belorussia, White Russia. My Mom, Frances Gulkowich Berger, was raised in Korelitz, Poland, a shetl in the county of Novogrudek. The world that my parents lived in was destroyed by the Holocaust.
Sensing that a massacre was soon to take place in the Novogrudek Ghetto, my Dad was determined to escape. He and others wanted to join the Partisans, guerrilla fighters, and fight the Nazis. They wanted to do this despite the fact that there was tremendous anti-Semitism among the Russian and Polish partisans. Many of them would readily kill a Jewish fighter for a good pair of boots. But then word came that the Bielski Brothers were forming a Jewish partisan unit.
My father was among the first seven men to escape from the Novogrudek ghetto and join the Bielskis. Another eight, including my uncle, Ben Zion Gulkowich, followed soon thereafter. Those fifteen men elected Tuvia Bielski to be their Commander. The Bielski Brigade was born. Both independently and along with Russian detachments, it fought the Nazis. It engaged in sabotage, blowing up bridges and rail lines, destroying telephone lines, bombing Nazi police headquarters and, at times, engaging in open combat. And, very importantly, the Bielski Brigade rescued other Jews. The Bielski detachment grew into a forest community of more than 1200 Jews. It was the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews.
In the summer of 1942, the Nazis massacred over 4,000 Jews from the Novogrudek ghetto. My Mom and my aunt Judy Gulkow survived by hiding in a cesspool for six days, without food or water. They were rescued by my uncle, Ben Zion. Shortly thereafter, with about two dozen others, they escaped and joined the Bielski Brigade. My Mom was the first woman in the Brigade to be issued a weapon.
With Courage Shall We Fight is a compilation of my parents’ writings and my Mom’s poetry, as well as a pictorial history. It tells about their lives before, during and after the War. It is first person testimony in my parents’ own words. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum described With Courage Shall We Fight as a memoir of “defiance, determination and resistance.” I agree. But it is also a story of love and of hope.
The picture on the cover of the book was taken in 1945 in a displaced persons camp in Romania nicknamed “Kibbutz Tulda”. All are former members of the Bielski group. My Mom is the one with the hat, my Dad the one in the cool glasses. We chose this picture because despite what they all endured, they look so happy, happy to be alive.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Eager and apprehensive crowds were not unusual in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941. Food was running scarce, and Jews were desperate to gather whatever resources they could, no matter the cost. But for a few days of that fateful year, the crowds did not seek food, form lines to exchange heirloom jewelry for sundries, or stand for hours for a chance at obtaining enough sustenance for their families Instead, they waited to bless the miraculous appearance of the four species celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkot: etrog, lulav, hadas, and aravah.
In the spirit of true non-violent resistance, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto chose to celebrate in the face of loss, death, and violence. The leader of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, had granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to obtain the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrog (citron) was not only scarce, but practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time. However, as though it too intended to take its part in the resistance, the etrog appeared and was brought back into the ghetto.
Though attitudes were becoming grim due to recent violence and worsening conditions, Jews from all classes and levels of religious commitment came to stand under the makeshift sukkah. Despite the severe scarcity of firewood in the ghetto, wood was specially set aside to build the sukkah. A single act of celebration became a moment of courageous resistance, with residents of the Lodz Ghetto choosing not only to celebrate holidays against Nazi policy (and therefore endanger themselves), but also to use valuable resources especially for it.
This Sukkot, standing underneath your own sukkah with etrogim, think not only of a bountiful new year’s beginning, but of the atmosphere in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941: Frigid, destitute, oft hopeless, and yet, under the sukkah, brave, defiant, and proudly Jewish.
Monday, October 10, 2016
Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.
In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.
Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.
The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.
Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur, 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Charles Bedzow was born Chonon Bedzowski in 1924 in the town of Lida, located in present-day Belarus. Once the Germans occupied Lida, Charles and his family were stuffed into an overcrowded, disease ridden ghetto within the town. He and his family suffered under the constant threat of starvation in the gradually worsening conditions. In the spring of 1942, he watched as his fellow townspeople were methodically slaughtered, but by a miracle, his immediate family was spared.
Fortunately, partisan leader Tuvia Bielski was a family friend to the Bedzowski family – the two families had been close before the war. After the occupation, Tuvia sent a message to the Bedzowski family – the message urged them to escape the liquidation of the ghetto by fleeing into the nearby woods, where the Bielskis had set up camp after the liquidation of their own village. Charles escaped to the woods and joined the Bielski Brigade. Because the Bielski camp allowed refugees regardless of their age and gender, Charles was joined by his mother, Chasia, his older sister Leah, younger sister Sonia, and younger brother Benny. Almost the entire family survived the Holocaust – an extreme rarity.
The Bedzowski family’s escape into the woods was complex and extremely dangerous. They traversed the treacherous landscape, crawling under fences and walking through the woods for two days, exhausted. Charles reported his thoughts upon arriving at the Bielski camp: “This must be one of the few places in all of Europe where Jews can move in total freedom.”
Despite the fact that, like many partisans, Charles was only 17 when he entered the Bielski Brigade, he was quickly entrusted with dangerous work. His missions included the gathering of supplies for the group, scouting, sabotaging German efforts, and participating in ambushes. One such ambush occurred on January 28th, 1944. A group of Bielski partisans went to a local village, pretending to be drunk. Their raucous noise alerted the locals, who notified the Germans nearby. 150 partisans lay in wait for the Germans, and they killed 26 policemen and eight Nazi officers during the ambush.
Unfortunately, the Bedzowski family’s participation in the partisan movement was not without a price. On one of her missions to bring medicine and Jews to the brigade from a nearby ghetto, Charles’s sister Sonia was caught by enemy forces and sent to the Treblinka death camp, where she perished.
Following the war, the remaining members of the Bedzowski family wound up in a displaced persons camp in Torino, Italy. Charles married a fellow partisan from Poland, Sara Golcman, in 1946. In 1949 he and his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he started a successful international real estate firm. Charles and Sara had three children; his surviving brother and sister went on to raise families of their own, and his mother Chasia not only survived the war, but went on to live with Charles until her death in 2000.
Charles is JPEF’s Honorary International Chairman. His story is featured in We Fought Back, an anthology of partisan stories from Scholastic publishing. Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Charles Bedzow, including three videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
With an explosion akin to thunder, the train splintered into a thousands pieces, instantly killing the German soldiers inside. In the aftermath of the deafening explosion, no one noticed a group of men silently crawling back through an open field near the tracks, then vanishing into the nearby woods, the growing twilight reducing their movements to shadows.
One of those individuals was Solomon (Sol) Lapidus, a Jewish youth from Belarus, on his first assignment from headquarters. He was given instructions to place dynamite in such a way as to destroy the third car – his careful follow-through ensured that the train tracks located on the bridge were also devastated. His reputation for precision on assignments spread up the chain of command, and Sol became well-known throughout partisan groups as a demolitions expert.
Lapidus was born on May 10, 1923 in Minsk, Belarus. His mother was a Russian teacher, and his father ran the printing department for a newspaper. His immediate family spoke only a little Hebrew. In childhood, his main exposure to Jewish culture came from his grandfather, with whom he attended services every Shabbat. He was the middle child in a family of many siblings. His oldest brother, a well-known musician, was drafted into the army to entertain troops all over the world, and once performed for the Queen of England in London.
Lapidus did not come to be a demolitions expert through sheer talent alone. Like many other Polish children, before the war he attended camp every summer. However, since Poland knew that a war was bound to break out sooner or later, many of their camp activities actually provided youth with specific military training. He chose to learn demolition by cable, which came in handy for his first assignment as a partisan.
He languished in the prison camp with hundreds of Red Army POWs until August of 1941, when he and a group of others - including his commanding officer - managed to escape with the aid of local peasants, who provided wire cutters and instructions on which direction to escape to. Hours before dawn, Lapidus crawled on his stomach to the relative safety of the woods with seventeen others. During his escape, he found himself in the middle of crossfire between the Wassof partisan group and the Germans, and was wounded. Although he had only the use of a straw to cleanse his bullet wound, he recovered without complications.
Escaping deep into the woods, Lapidus went on to join the Chokulov partisan group, hiding his Jewish identity because of the antisemitism that existed within the ranks. The partisan life was primarily a means of survival, but the group also participated in a number of attacks on railroads and other targets, earning Lapidus respect within the partisan ranks for his demolition expertise.
Lapidus’s partisan encampment was located near the forest where the Bielski partisans had set up camp. Because the Bielskis sometimes worked with the Soviet partisans, Lapidus had a chance to visit the camp, where he met Tuvia Bielski for the first time in September of 1942. They quickly became friends, and Lapidus valued the kinship that an all-Jewish partisan unit provided him – after all, he could not even reveal his Jewish identity to his own otriad.
Lapidus remembers Tuvia as someone who valued the integrity of all the members in his group, and did not discriminate against anyone based on their gender or age. He had innate leadership abilities, and knew how to raise the morale of his partisans. “[Y]ou're not doing it for yourself, you're taking nekamah1 for someone else who got killed,” Tuvia once told his group. The two met at least once a week and collaborated on many joint operations.
Inspired by his love of performance arts, Lapidus organized an entertainment group made up of a dozen partisans who sang, danced and played music for nearby partisan camps. The Soviet command granted them permission to perform – the presence of partisan entertainers in the region could easily be turned into beneficial propaganda. The performances were lengthy affairs lasting one and a half to two hours. The entertainers’ reputations preceded them – they became so famous that wherever they went next, a platform stage would be awaiting them, built by the hosting otriad.
Lapidus’s younger brother fought with him in the partisans. Unfortunately, on one occasion, his brother became separated from his group during a mission, and was killed by enemy crossfire. Deeply affected by this incident, Lapidus withdrew from assignments and instead used his demolition expertise to train peasants who had recently joined as partisans.
Lapidus met his wife Ruth towards the end of the war at a concert in Lida. He already had a girlfriend whom he planned to marry, but quickly ended it after meeting his future wife, falling for her beauty and good nature. Ruth had been in Asner's partisan group, but later she joined the Bielski group. When Lapidus got sick with typhus, and his doctor passed away leaving him without the proper care, Ruth nursed him back to health and saved his life.
Looking back on his time as a partisan he states “[we] prove[d] that we are people that survive[d] because we [fought] for it, not [because] somebody else was fighting for us.”
Lapidus received many metals of honor for his bravery as a partisan, including the Order of Lenin, one of Soviet Union’s most prestigious honors. He immigrated to the United States, with Ruth where he became a successful businessman and raised his children.
– By Julia Kitlinski-Hong
1. A Hebrew word meaning 'vengeance'.
A condensed version of this biography will appear in the Partisan Biographies section of the JPEF website next week - with excerpts from his recent video interview with JPEF.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Rachel Margolis was born in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, in 1921. In 1941 Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and Rachel was sent to live in hiding with a Christian family. A year later, she decided instead to move to the Vilna Ghetto; a ghetto so terrible that over the two years of its existence, the population fell from 40,000 to only a few hundred. During her time in the Vilna Ghetto, Rachel joined the Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (the United Partisan Organization), headed by Abba Kovner.
When the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, under the orders of Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, Rachel and her future husband escaped to the surrounding forests. Although they faced the constant threat of starvation and disease – not to mention capture by their oppressors – the partisans actively fought back by blowing up Nazi lines of communication.
The sole Holocaust survivor in her family, Rachel went on to gain a Ph.D. in biology and worked as a teacher until the late 1980s. In 2005, Rachel found and published the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who witnessed the Ponary massacre of 1941 to 1944, which killed up to 100,000 people, the majority of whom were Jews. In a turn of events that astonished the international community, the Lithuanian authorities sought to question her in 2008 for her role in alleged war crimes. The motivation behind this is an ongoing historical revisionist movement that seeks to equate Soviet occupation with the Nazis and the Holocaust by describing it as a 'double genocide'. In 2010, Rachel published her own memoir, A Partisan from Vilna, chronicling her early life and battle to survive Nazi oppression during World War II.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
"Why would a man in grave danger create art? For an artist, the motivation to create is even more powerful than existence itself."
— Alexander Bogen.
Alexander Bogen’s sketches during World War II show a tremendous knowledge of the human condition: an abandoned child in the streets of the Vilna ghetto, an old man who is dying, comrades drinking vodka and playing cards around a bonfire. Although condemned to record his subjects often without—or in place of—the ability to save them, his passion for art was a weapon in itself against the Nazi forces.
Bogen was, however, able to save a great deal of lives through his efforts as the commander of a partisan unit. Born in 1916, Bogen grew up in Vilna, Poland, and studied painting and sculpture at Vilna’s university. When World War II began, he left and joined a partisan movement in the endless forests surrounding Lake Naroch in Belarus. Facing discrimination from the non-Jewish partisans, Bogen assisted in forming an all-Jewish otriad called Nekama, meaning Vengeance. He served as a unit commander, helping transport people from the Vilna ghetto before it was liquidated.
During the war, Bogen compulsively sketched his surroundings to document ghetto and partisan life, dropping his gun to capture his brothers in arms. In the forest he scavenged scraps of packing paper, burnt twigs, charcoal from fire to continue his representations of life. These sketches serve as an invaluable record not only of Jewish partisan life, but also of human perseverance.
Once the war was over, Bogen completed his studies at the university and worked as a professor of art. The versatility of his work after the war blossomed and Bogen became famous in Poland as an artist, set designer and book illustrator.
For Alexander Bogen, who wrote on his work, art fulfilled several needs:
For more of Alexander Bogen’s story and artwork: