Friday, December 9, 2016
— Frank Blaichman.
Born in the small town of Kamionka, Poland on Dec. 11, 1922, Frank Blaichman was just sixteen years old when the German army invaded his country in 1939. Following the invasion, German officials issued regulations intended to isolate the Jews and deprive them of their livelihood.
Frank took great risks to help his parents and family survive these hardships. With a bicycle, he rode from the neighboring farms to nearby cities, buying and selling goods at each destination. He refused to wear the Star of David armband and traveled without the required permits, but his courage and fluent Polish ensured his safety.
When word spread that the Jews of Kamionka were to be resettled in a nearby ghetto, Frank hid in a bushy area outside of town. He stayed with a friendly Polish farmer and then joined other Jews hiding in a nearby forest. In the forest, the threat of being discovered was constant and Polish hoodlums beat any women who left the encampment. Frank encouraged the men to organize a defense unit. He obtained firearms by posing as a Polish policeman, using an overcoat he had found.
After a German attack on the partisans' encampment killed eighty Jews, the survivors left the forest to hide with sympathetic farmers. Always on the move, they killed German collaborators, destroyed telephone lines, damaged dairy factories and ambushed German patrols.
Frank’s squad joined a larger all-Jewish unit, with strong ties to the Polish underground and Soviet army. They were responsible for protecting 200 Jews living in a forest encampment. Only 21, he was the youngest platoon commander in the unit and escorted the future prime minister of Poland to a secret meeting with Soviet high command.
“I’m very proud of what I did all those years,” he says. “The reality was we had nothing to lose, and our way to survive was to fight.”
Frank Blaichman's memoir, Rather Die Fighting, was published in 2009 by Arcade Publishing.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Frank Blaichman, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan, as well as the Frank Blaichman: A Partisan Leader's Story study guide.
You can also read a JPEF interview with Frank Blaichman here, as well as a Q&A with schoolchildren from Toronto (click to read part one and part two of the series). Frank Blaichman is also one of JPEF's featured partisans on Facing History and Ourselves new web pages featuring Jewish resistance during the Holocaust at https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/resistance-during-holocaust.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Don, who had a job at a German POW infirmary at the time, was tipped off about the first massacre by a sympathetic German doctor, who warned him not to return to the ghetto on the night of the raid.
As Russian POWs began to escape from the camp where Don worked, rumors of partisan units hidden in the forests spread throughout the village. In the fall of 1942, Don’s older brother Stan left for the forest – he convinced a Jewish partisan who was seeking recruits to take him along, despite the fact that he had no experience and no weapon.
Filled with the need for vengeance, the boys dynamited railroads and ambushed German convoys, killing soldiers and building a reputation for valor. They also supplied the group with food by taking it from the local population and smuggling it back into the camps. As the war progressed and the German army was beaten back from the Russian interior, the Soviets began to airdrop short wave radios, weapons, and other much-needed supplies to the partisans in White Russia. The partisans were even able to evacuate their wounded behind enemy lines. Finally, when the Soviet army liberated the area, they enjoyed their hard won victory as the Germans beat a hasty westward retreat.
As was the case with most partisans, the Felson brothers were assimilated into the Soviet army, but soon became separated when Don was discharged for an ulcer he developed. Stan continued to fight in the Soviet Army, but soon reunited with Don when they met back in Glubokie, where they both made plans to flee westward. Staying clear of the Soviet army, they escaped through Poland to American-occupied Germany, where they ended up at a DP camp.
Back during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, Don’s great-uncle Saul was stationed at the front; afterwards, he managed to cross the Pacific and settle down in San Francisco. The two brothers hoped to join him there. From the DP camp, the brothers used their network of family and friends to secure visas to the United States. They arrived in San Francisco in 1947 and went to work for Saul’s contracting business. Not long after, Don met and married his wife. Their three sons took over the family business after Don passed away in 2002.
For more on Don – including 9 video clips of him reflecting upon his time as a partisan – visit his bio page on the JPEF website.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
Leah Johnson - born Leah Bedzowski - celebrates her birthday this weekend. Over 70 years ago, on the eve of her 18th birthday, the Nazis invaded her hometown of Lida, located in the eastern half of Poland. At the time, her family was already mourning the death of her father – but with the arrival of the Nazis and the antisemitic policies they imposed, many more challenges lay ahead for the Bedzowskis.
Leah, together with her mother and her three younger siblings, tried to escape from their oppressors early. They were taken in by sympathetic Gentile farmers in the outskirts of town where they hid out 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, where they were confined into a ghetto.
Their passport to freedom arrived in a letter from Tuvia Bielski, whom the family knew from the past. In this letter, Tuvia encouraged the family to join them in the forest. Tuvia and his brothers had escaped the massacres and were hiding out deep in the woods. Determined to save as many Jews as possible, the Bielski group was accepting all escaped Jews into their encampment.
The Bedzowskis accepted Tuvia’s help. He then sent a guide to escort the family out of the ghetto. They traveled by night, in silence, past guard dogs, under barbed wire, 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.
At 17 years old, Leah took on the necessary duties of the encampment including food-finding missions and guard duty. Never safe until 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 became separated from the rest of the group as the German army was advancing 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 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.”
Velvel and Leah were married under a chuppah (marriage canopy) amongst their fellow partisans in the forest. The couple stayed with the Bielski group throughout the war until they were liberated. When the Soviet Army tried to enlist Velvel after the war, the couple decided to leave the country. Fleeing through Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria, they eventually crossed the Alps into Italy, where they remained for four years at a DP camp in Torino. They immigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1949, where they raised 3 children.
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 especially the younger generation. It is important to create awareness that this never happens again. “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.
Monday, July 18, 2016
The Nazis broke the Ribbentrop pact and attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Five days later, they arrived in Moshe’s hometown. The edicts that went in effect soon after put the Jewish population outside of the protection of the law. Several months later, Moshe and his family were forced out of their homes and confined to a ghetto – a space of 15-20 homes for hundreds of families. Surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by Germans and local police, denied freedom of movement and opportunity to obtain food, lacking in sanitary facilities, the inhabitants began to hear rumors about the destruction of neighboring communities by the Germans. A number of young people then began to plan. However, neither escape nor resistance was actually feasible at the time – they had no weapons and nowhere to go.
In the spring of 1942, the Germans told the Judenrat to provide a number of able-bodied young men for various projects. Approximately 25-30 were selected and sent to neighboring towns. Moshe and his brother were among them. Moshe was assigned to work on building a rail line, but his brother was sent elsewhere.
The Germans who guarded them were abusive – constantly scolding, shouting, and hitting the prisoners. Only one of them, a lieutenant named Miller, did not take part in those hateful acts.
Two of Moshe’s friends worked in a warehouse where they sorted out weapons captured from the Russians. They eventually worked out a plan where they would take out weapons wrapped in rags and hide them in a nearby junkyard. On his way home from work one day, Moshe asked the sympathetic lieutenant if he could retrieve something from the pile of junk. Thus, Moshe successfully smuggled gun parts into the Ghetto.
Moshe and his friends knew of a woman who was familiar with the area, and knew where the partisans were. She would lead them to a nearby encampment, where local Jewish escapees had set up a camp in the forest. In return, she asked if she and her two little children could come along. They escaped one night, after clearing out a crawlspace underneath the barbed wire fence. Miraculously, they made it to the Jewish encampments without incident.
About a week later, two Russian officers were passing by. It turned out they were sent to organize the resistance movement - but it also turned out they were Jewish, so Moshe asked them to help him join the resistance. Because Moshe had weapons hidden in the Ghetto, the officers agreed.
The officers eventually gave Moshe the name of a local farmer who would help bring the weapons out. Moshe used the occasion to pass a note to his family in the Ghetto through the farmer. He wanted to facilitate their escape. Moshe’s brother, sister, and mother escaped during several successful smuggling operations. Unfortunately, on March 19th - two days after the last escape - the Ghetto was liquidated, and Moshe’s father, younger sister, and other relatives perished, along with several thousand other Jews from the local areas.
Moshe joined the partisans, taking part in underground activities until the spring of 1944, when the advancing Soviet army liberated the area. He took part in ambush and sabotage operations with the partisans and was in charge of recovering weapons dropped from Russian planes. As was the fate of most eastern European partisans after the liberation of their area, Moshe was drafted into the Soviet army. But his bookkeeping abilities got him attached to the local staff of the battalion as the treasurer’s assistant, which kept him well away from the front lines.
After the war’s end, Moshe eventually made it back to Russia; but as a Polish citizen, he as eligible for a travel permit back to Poland, according to the rules of the time. In Poland, he connected with the Bricha, an organization whose purpose was to smuggle Jews from Europe to Palestine.
Eventually arriving in Austria, Moshe met his future wife Malka in one of the American zones, who was herself a survivor of a forced labor camp in Poland. In 1948, Malka left for the east, but Moshe and his family were unable to follow: his mother’s niece, who was living in Shreveport, Louisiana at the time, impored them to come to the United States. Though Moshe was committed to Malka and wished to marry her eventually, the family ultimately decided to take the opportunity and come to the United States.
Moshe settled in New York, eventually marrying Malka and bringing her back from Israel. In New York, Malka worked for a number of years as the director of a Jewish preschool and Moshe was employed for many years in the real estate industry. In 1993, Moshe and his wife moved to Pittsburgh after retirement. One of their two daughters settled there in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, where the Barans found a welcoming Jewish community, and where Moshe lives to this day, active in the community and as a public speaker and blogger. He writes the blog Language Can Kill: Messages Of Genocide, and speaks regularly about his life in the partisans and about the destructive power of hatred, which can have devastating consequences if left unchecked.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Shalom was given an early warning, but his family wasn't as lucky. Having managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, Shalom and his brother Musio listened as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. They later found out their parents were among them. The farmer whose barn they hid in turned out to be friendly, and the brothers safely made it to the woods - the Naroch puscha - where they found many other survivors hiding out. Shalom reasoned that it was only a matter of time before the Germans conducted an organized raid on the forest, so the brothers decided to leave the area. Having recruited three of the younger refugees to follow them, the boys spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where they built a zemlyanka for shelter and lived off mostly a large store of food they took from local farmers.
In the spring of 1943, Shalom and the group ventured out of their hiding area. By this time, the tide was turning for the Nazi war effort and the German army was suffering serious setbacks both in Africa and on the Eastern Front. On the road to Zazierie, the boys encountered fellow survivors of the Kurzeniec ghetto, and a group of partisans roaming the village. Since neither he nor his group had weapons, Shalom was denied entry into the group — a common practice among the partisans. Unsure of what to do, Shalom and his brother stayed in the puscha. Though their winter companions went their separate ways, they were joined by others, including some escapees from a labor camp in Vileika.
Shalom and his companions spent the rest of the spring trying to join the partisan groups roaming the area, but without weapons, they received the same reply every time. Finally, a partisan commander relented and offered them a deal: they would be allowed into the partisans if they returned to Kurzeniec and burned down a factory that made wooden rifle butts. For this mission, they were given a handgun with a single bullet and two hand grenades. Despite the suicidal odds, they were successful. However, when they returned to the partisan camp, they were met by a different officer, who took away their weapons and reprimanded them, threatening to shoot them if they didn't leave. Turns out the Russian partisans never figured on the group taking the mission - much less succeeding - and had no intention of letting Jews into their group. Little did they know that the group's commanding officer - the one who initially gave the Jews the assignment - was himself a Russian Jew.
After his work with the specgruppa, Shalom heard rumors of the formation of an all-Jewish otriad, organized by one Colonel Markov, who by that time had a brigade of over a thousand partisans under his command. He was in contact with the FPO in Vilna, and their members formed the core of an all-Jewish otriad called Miest - the Russian word for "revenge". Since they brought weapons, Shalom and his companions were readily accepted into the unit. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit ambushed the retreating German troops, cutting communication lines, blowing up bridges, and destroying railroads. The unit was disbanded and merged with another otriad some months later. This would not be the last all-Jewish unit Shalom belonged to during the war - and, unfortunately, not the last to be disbanded by the Soviet high command.
When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom and the rest of his comrades were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war.
In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British Military passport, joining the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. Shalom became a leader in the Israeli aerospace industry.
Shalom moved to the US in 1979 where he lived with his wife, artist Varda Yoran. Shalom passed away on September 9, 2013 leaving a tremendous legacy.
In 2003, he published his memoir, The Defiant: A True Story of Escape, Survival & Resistance. The book, written shortly after the Shoah but rediscovered many years later, is dedicated to his parents. Click here to listen to Larry King reading excerpts from the book.