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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Celebrating Chanukah: An Act of Jewish Resistance

On a Friday evening in December 1932 before the start of Shabbat, the Posner family prepared to light the 8th candle on their Chanukiah as they had done on each of the preceding nights. Across the street from their home stood the town hall, a large and imposing work of old-world German architecture. A Nazi flag prominently hung from the side of the building, flapping in the cold December wind.

Already a powerful political party in 1932, the Nazis did not shy away from using antisemitism as the driving force behind their politics; Rachel Posner considered this as she looked at the menorah prominently displayed in her window in juxtaposition to the flag. Committing one of the earliest documented acts of Jewish resistance to Nazi oppression, she took this photograph, which was subsequently published in a local newspaper.
Rachel Posner was married to Rabbi Akiva Posner, a doctor of philosophy and the only rabbi for the small Jewish community in Kiel, a north German harbor city. Kiel’s congregation of around 500 was not particularly religious, according to Akiva and Rachel’s granddaughter Nava, but Shabbat services were well-attended by Jews and non-Jews alike who wanted to hear Rabbi Posner’s lectures. Though the Nazi party was gaining strength and routinely paraded through the streets, the Posners “were not afraid”, says Nava. It would take another year for that to change.
One year later, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, marking the official start of the Third Reich’s twelve-year reign of terror and oppression. That night, the Nazis organized a torchlight parade; thousands poured into the streets to celebrate the appointment, cheering their new Chancellor and waving the flag bearing the Nazi Party’s dreaded emblem – the infamous black swastika.
Two Symbols
Though the swastika had been an ancient symbol of auspice and power1 in use throughout the entire world for well over ten thousand years, the Nazis co-opted it to symbolize Germany’s racial heritage, connecting with it the racial mythology of the ‘Aryans’ to their future destiny under the Third Reich as conquerors of the world. Nazi propaganda eventually went as far as to state that the swastika in the new German flag symbolized the “victory of the Aryan peoples over Jewry”.
By contrast, the Chanukah menorah – known as the Chanukiah – has a clear and unambiguous meaning. The miracle of the oil burning for eight days is one of the more popular stories in Jewish tradition, and continues to enjoy almost universal recognition today. The true miracle of Chanukah, however, is the act of defiance and the victorious struggle of a small band of Jewish warriors led by Judah Maccabee2 against Greco-Macedonian oppression. The Chanukiah should be proudly displayed in one's window to signify the miracle of the Maccabees' victory. However, this was difficult for Jewish communities in Europe, where the danger of anti-Semitic hostilities was a constant threat.
* * * *
Incorporating a line from a popular Nazi youth party anthem of the time, Rachel wrote the following lines on the back of the photo she took:
"Chanukah, 5692.
‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.
‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

(note that the actual Jewish year was 5693)
The Posners left Germany in 1933, not long after Hitler was given Chancellorship. In the prior spring, the murder of a local lawyer by a Nazi mob during a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses shocked the Posners. (Rabbi Posner had to personally see to it that the man was buried properly.) Shortly before he left, Akiva warned his congregation of the Nazi menace and of the ruin it would bring to the German nation, urging them to leave. After the speech, several congregants told him that he was already a marked man.
Kiel’s Jewish population heeded Posner’s advice – of the 500 Jews that lived in Kiel, only eight died in the concentration camps; the rest had emigrated. After leaving, the Posners eventually settled in Jerusalem, where Akiva helped build a synagogue and a library, and where their descendants live to this day.
The swastika symbol, heralding death to Judaea, is banned in many European countries, and its use is illegal in Germany. The Chanukiah that sat in the Posners’ window in Kiel is on year-round display at Yad Vashem – except for the eight days of Chanukah, when the family proudly displays its lights in the window of their home.

Akiva Baruch Mansbach, the great-grandchild of Rabbi Akiva Baruch Posner (z''l) and a soldier in the IDF, salutes the family Chanukiah.
JPEF's Education Manager Jonathan Furst interviewed the family, who gave us the details and permission to use the photo. The original photograph will be featured in our upcoming Tactics of Resistance lesson plan and E-Learning module – watch our blog for updates in 2013!

1. The origins of the swastika are shrouded in speculation – its twisted form is hypothesized to represent the sun, the seasons, the elements, or perhaps even the tail of a comet. To the Kuna people of Panama, it is the octopus that created the world. Though Hitler “personally” adopted the symbol in the 1920s, it was in use by German populist – or völkisch – movements long before that (including the quasi-occult Thule society, which had numerous ties with the Nazi party). The aforementioned Kuna – who assumed autonomy from the rest of Panama in 1930 – are the only ones who still use the swastika on their flag. In 1942, they added a nose ring to the center to distance themselves from the Nazis.
2. It is said that Judah received his surname, which may be interpreted as “hammer”, because of his ferocity in battle.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Jewish Partisan Frank Blaichman Celebrates his 94th Birthday - Sunday, December 11th

"Those who could not come with us, that could not fight, we found shelter for them by farmers, some of them, who made bunkers for them; and they lived there until the area was liberated. And then in Parczew Forest there were maybe 200 Jews like that, in the forest, living until the end. They were under our protection. All the bandits knew if they were going to touch them, they were going to be punished for that."
— 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.

Young Frank (left) with his friends.

Frank's wife Cesia (z''l) in 1945.

Frank Blaichman with Defiance director Ed Zwick

Frank Blaichman with Jewish partisans Rose Holm (center) and Isadore Farbstein (left).

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Jewish Partisan Walter Marx (z''l) 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 Luxemburg, 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 - now 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 13th, 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.



Monday, October 31, 2016

The Resistance of Herschel Grynszpan

In all of Holocaust history, Herschel Grynszpan is considered to be one of its more controversial – and curious – figures. But regardless of the moral ambiguity of the choices he made, his actions had a major influence on the course of events. He also goes down in the books as one of the first Jews to defy Nazi Germany.
The child of Polish immigrants, Grynszpan was born in March of 1921 in Hanover, Germany. As a teen, he studied at at Yeshiva in Frankfurt before returning to Hanover, where he applied to move to Palestine. However, his young age and small size were against him, and his request was denied.
Upon being denied entry into Palestine, Herschel illegally snuck into Paris in 1936 to live with his aunt and uncle. For the following two years he persistently tried to gain legal residency in France, but was consistently denied (possibly due to the political climate at the time). His re-entry papers into Germany were expired, and Poland had just passed a law that stripped anyone living abroad for over five years of Polish citizenship – in effect, Herschel became a person belonging to no state, and simply continued to reside illegally among the Orthodox community in Paris.
In 1938, approximately 12,000 Polish Jews were rounded up and forced onto boxcar trains destined to Poland – which had no desire to admit them, and they were left stranded at the border. Among these Jews were Grynszpan's family: his mother, father, and siblings. From the border town they were staying at, one of them managed to send Herschel a postcard detailing their mistreatment by the Germans.
Alarmed by the news, Herschel implored his uncle to send them financial help, which his uncle refused to do: his finances were already stretched thin by the illegal immigrant living in his home. The 17-year old youth walked out on his uncle that day, and with the little money he had in his pocket, he purchased a gun. He then proceeded to go to the German embassy in Paris. Herschel requested to talk to an embassy official, and the clerk on duty at the time, Ernst vom Rath, was sent to inquire about Herschel's intentions. Claiming vengeance for the 12,000 deported Jews, Herschel then shot vom Rath, who died two days later in the hospital.

Ernst vom Rath
The timing for this event turned out to be disastrous for German Jews. This was all the excuse the Nazis needed to continue with their antisemitic plans: Goebbles gave an impassioned speech that day, which fueled the flames of a nationwide pogrom that subsequently became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.
But the case was not as clear-cut as the Nazis had hoped.
Urged by his legal defense team to “de-politicize” the assassination, Grynszpan claimed that he wanted to assassinate the German ambassador not for political reasons, but because vom Rath had seduced Grynszpan after promising him help with his immigration status – and then turned his back on the promise. French law was much more tolerant of crimes of passion than of politically-motivated assassinations, so Grynszpan would likely avoid the guillotine with such a defense.
As time went on, it became clear that neither the defense nor the persecution – led by a German lawyer sent by Goebbles to find evidence of a Jewish conspiracy – were in any hurry to proceed with the trial. The proceedings were further complicated by the outbreak of the war, so Grynszpan spent the next two years languishing in French prisons. Once Germany invaded France, he was sent from prison to prison, until German agents found him in Toulouse. He was taken into German custody in 1940 – Goebbles and the Nazis hoped to use him for a show trial to prove the complicity of “international Jewry” in the assassination. Because the Nazis needed to keep Grynszpan in good shape for the political theater he would be forced to take part in, he was sent to Sachsenhausen, where he was housed in a “bunker” reserved for “special prisoners”, including the last chancellor of Austria.
What happened to him during and after the war is a mystery. The show trial Goebbles had wanted never materialized – the initial procedural delays took two years, by which time Goebbles and others became aware of the “homosexual defense” Grynszpan was planning to use. Though the relationship may have been fabricated, vom Rath's homosexuality was quite real, and would have caused the Reich great embarrassment. By the time Hitler found out the whole truth about the case (presumably through Bormann, as Goebbles was not wholly forthcoming about the details), the regime was in no mood for more show trials – the failure of the Riom trials in France showed just how dangerous such theater can be to the persecuting regime, and the Reich had more pressing matters to deal with, such as their military setbacks in the Soviet Union and American involvement in the war. Grynszpan's fate was placed on indefinite hold and, after being moved to Magdeburg prison, he disappeared from the official record.
Some claim that he must have been executed by the Germans at one point or another; others claim he made it out of prison and lived out the rest of his life in Paris under an assumed name. The West German government declared him legally dead in 1960. His parents managed to survive the war – they fled to the Soviet Union after their deportation to Poland in 1939, and eventually immigrated to Israel.
Though the assassination of vom Rath, the individual, was ultimately a tragedy – vom Rath himself was under investigation by the Reich for purported pro-Jewish activities – the reasons behind Grynszpan's youthful act of passion against the regime struck a sympathetic chord with many people, and helped focus the world's attention on what was going on in Germany at the time. The subsequent events of Kristallnacht and the horrified reaction by the rest of the world put an end to a decade of appeasement of the Nazi regime. In the end, the spirit behind Grynszpan's resistance is universally resonant, even though the act itself is indicative of just how complicated and morally ambiguous the use of violence can be in such situations. He is quoted as saying, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth.”

–By Mandy Losk

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Don Felson (z''l) Dynamited Railroads to Disrupt German Conveys Carrying Supplies

Don Felson was born October 12, 1925 in Glubokie, Poland. A small town about a hundred miles northeast of Vilna, the town sits on a low plain amidst hills in present-day Belarus. In 1941, the Germans invaded Glubokie, promptly establishing a ghetto for the town’s Jewish inhabitants.
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.

The Felson family: Stan Felson on the left, Don Felson on the right
Six months later Stan returned for Don. Though Stan made it seem like joining the partisans was a matter of survival, Stan’s haggard and disheveled appearance made Don skeptical. At first he declined, but with his mother’s urging, he agreed to join Stan. He brought their mother and younger brother along with them, sequestering them in a friendly village while the two teenagers went off to join the Panomorenko company. However, a few months later the SS murdered Don’s mother and brother – along with the entire village – after having learned that a mother of a partisan was living there.
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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Abe Asner's Military Training Helped Him Save Lives

"Grodno still was a ghetto, and lots of people went back to the ghetto like Saul, his father, his mother. And I said, “Me and my brothers, we’re not going back to the ghetto. We’re not going. We’re going to win, doesn’t matter what. If I die, I’ll die standing up — not to shoot me in the back.”
-Abe Asner
Jewish partisan Abe Asner (z''l), was born in the district of Lida, Poland on October 19, 1916. In 1938, Abe followed in the footsteps of his brothers and joined the Polish army. On June 22nd, 1941, Abe was visiting a cousin in Lithuania when he awoke to the sight of German planes littering the sky with bombs. When German tanks surrounded the ghetto where Abe and his brothers were staying, they had to make a choice: stay among the 3,000 Jews who were facing imminent death or flee to the forests. Abe disappeared into the trees with nothing but the clothes on his back.
The forest proved to be a breeding ground for resistance fighters. Soon Abe was among 60 Jewish and Russian POWs running missions. His military training gave him the skills to kill German soldiers who attempted to search the dense forest. In the beginning, Abe thought the resistance would only last a few weeks. It continued for over four years, and their partisan unit grew to several thousand people, including the woman who became Abe’s wife.
Abe and his brothers were successful on many missions. They sabotaged enemy supplies, halted German food convoys, and rescued Jews from ghettos. They frustrated the Germans with their efficiency under the cover of darkness. “The night was our mother,” Abe remembers. Eventually the Germans placed a bounty on their heads. “So much money to catch us, dead or alive,” Abe recalls.
The ongoing violence of the Partisan missions wore away at Abe’s psyche. When the war finally ended, he worked hard to adjust to normal life. Despite the physical and emotional scars he carried, Abe knew his deeds helped to shape the lives of countless people.
Abe’s passion burned brightly when he recalled his partisan days. “We don’t go like sheep. We did as much as we could. We did a lot,” he said. “People should know somebody did (fight back). People should know.”
After the war Abe moved to Canada with his wife where they had two daughters and four grandchildren. Abe passed away on May 26, 2015 at the age of 98.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Abe Asner, including six videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sukkot, the Holocaust, and Spiritual Resistance

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

Spiritual Resistance on Yom Kippur - Ruth Szabo Brand (1928 - 2011)

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.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Revolt of the 12th Sonderkommando in Auschwitz - October 7, 1944

On October 7th,1944, at a line-up around three in the afternoon, a revolt in the Auschwitz concentration camp began with the swing of a hammer and a shout of “Hurrah!” from Chaim Neuhof, who had been a Sonderkommando – one of the prisoners selected to work in the gas chambers and crematoria – since 1942. The remaining Sonderkommando followed and assisted Neuhof in attacking the SS guards with hammers and axes that were smuggled in with the help of local partisans. An especially sadistic SS guard was thrown into the ovens after being stabbed - but still alive.

SS guards were quickly alerted about the revolt and, easily outnumbering the prisoners, opened fire on the insufficiently armed Sonderkommando. But the prisoners, who had also smuggled small guns into camp through connections with local partisan groups, were not easily defeated. After strapping explosives to captured guards, a group of prisoners blew up Crematorium IV, killing themselves and their captors. Some of the prisoners cut through the barbed-wire fence, creating a crucial escape route out of the camp.


The ruins of the destroyed crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The revolt was work of the prisoners in the 12th Sonderkommando – young, able-bodied men who were given the grisly task of working in and around the gas chambers. They escorted newly arrived prisoners to their deaths, searched the bodies for valuables, and disposed of them in the crematoria. For performing these duties, they were reviled by the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Furthermore, their knowledge of the inner workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Every few months, SS guards killed the old Sonderkommando and replaced them with new prisoners. Though the 12th Sonderkommando learned of their pending liquidation from the camp's underground military leaders only earlier that day, the revolt had been planned months earlier.


Rosa Robota

Four women working inside the camp, Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, Ala Gertner and Roza Robota, played a crucial role in this revolt. These four female prisoners provided ammunition for blowing up Crematorium IV – Wajcblum smuggled out the gunpowder from the munitions factory, where she worked along with Safirsztain and Gertner. Robota, who worked in a clothes depot adjacent to one of the crematoria, helped smuggle out the powder. The men in the camp's resistance underground recruited Robota because they were acquainted with her from their hometown, where she was a member of the HaShomer HaTzair Zionist youth movement. Through a complex communication network, she and the other women were able to slowly pass on the ammunition to the Sonderkommando leaders by hiding it in the false bottom of a food tray. This powder was used to manufacture crude explosives and primitive grenades for the attack.

Despite the extensive preparation of the prisoners, the revolt was quickly subdued by the SS guards, whose superior automatic weapons were no match for the prisoners’ arsenal. The Nazis rounded up all the escapees. Another two hundred prisoners were lined up and executed as punishment for the revolt. One of the Sonderkommando revealed the names of the four women responsible for smuggling in the gunpowder - but despite months of torture, the women refused to reveal any other accomplices. On January 5, 1945, they were all hanged in front of the entire female camp population. “Be strong and be brave,” Robota shouted defiantly to her comrades as the trapdoor dropped.

This was the last public execution in Auschwitz – twelve days later, the camp was deserted as 56,000 prisoners were forced on a death march by the Nazis in a last attempt to destroy any evidence of their mass killings. On January 27th, the 7,500 remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet army.

Click here to learn more about women who participated in resistance against the Nazis.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Charles Bedzow Celebrates his 92nd Birthday

Today, Jewish partisan Charles Bedzow celebrated his 92nd birthday. In honor of his incredible life, here is his story.

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, destitute 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 8 Nazi officers in 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.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Citizens of Denmark Foiled the Nazis' Deportation Plan on Rosh Hashana

Their mission was supposed to be easy – armed with a list of addresses, small teams (made up of men from the SS and one Danish guide) would fan out across Copenhagen and northern Zealand, and round up Denmark's 8,000 Jews who would be at home with their families observing Rosh Hashanah. They planned to send the entire population to Nazi extermination camps across Europe.

The second day of Rosh Hashana fell on October 1st, 1943, roughly a month after the resignation of the Danish government – the last political obstacle between the citizens of Denmark and Hitler’s plans to implement the “Final Solution” and eliminate all Danish Jews.

In most cases, however, the round-up teams found empty houses and apartments waiting for them. The entire Jewish population had been warned days in advance to go into hiding and to spread the word about the planned deportations. By the time the SS began knocking on doors, most of the country’s Jews were either in hiding, or on their way to the coast. Most eventually made it safely across the Øresund strait into neutral Sweden.

The majority of Denmark’s Jewish population escaped Nazi persecution, and their casualties were the lowest in all of occupied Europe. How were the Danes so successful in such a blatant act of resistance against the Nazis?

“A model protectorate”

Because of the tolerant and inclusive climate Jews have enjoyed in Denmark since the Napoleonic Wars, Danish society, by and large, considered Danish Jews to be Danes, first and foremost. Danish Jews were granted full citizenship rights almost a hundred years prior to World War II. The Danish monarch, King Christian X, defiantly insisted on visiting the central synagogue in Copenhagen even after Hitler came to power in Germany, becoming the first Nordic monarch to visit a synagogue. (However, the popular tale of the king wearing the yellow star in solidarity with Danish Jews is a myth1.) As a result of such a social climate, the people of Denmark, and the Danish Underground, naturally rallied together to hide and smuggle their fellow citizens without any friction. Many smugglers did not charge for passage, and even the Danish police helped in the rescue effort.

Germany was reluctant to pressure the Danes for several reasons. First, the Nazis hoped to promote occupied Denmark as an example of a “model protectorate” to the world. Second,Danish meat and dairy provided sustenance to over 3 million Germans. Upsetting this balance would have had negative political consequences for the Reich. Even ideologically-committed Nazis saw the need for moderation, although increased activity by the Danish Resistance, and the grim news from the Eastern Front, made moderation untenable to Hitler by mid-1943. Although the orders came from the very top, at first the Gestapo did not allocate enough manpower for the mission, and the unenthusiastic German army and navy units called in to support them often turned a blind eye to escapees.

The effort to rescue Denmark's Jews was successful, due in large part to the efforts of ordinary citizens, but prominent public figures also made significant contributions.Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German maritime attaché and a secret moderate, had lived in Scandinavian countries for many years and enjoyed a warm relationship with Denmark’s elites. On September 28th, he leaked word of the planned deportations to the leader of the Social Democrats, and the news spread across all levels of civil society. Nobel physicist Niels Bohr played a part - he petitioned the king of Sweden to make public his offer of asylum to Danish Jews shortly after he himself was smuggled into Sweden en route to the US to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. Though it is uncertain how this plea factored into the decision, Sweden announced its offer of asylum on the 2nd of October.

In the end, the Nazis managed to deport only around 450 Jews; most were sent to Theresienstadt, where they remained until the end of the war. Because of pressure from Danish authorities, and frequent visits from the Red Cross, the Nazis accepted packages of food and medicine for the prisoners. More importantly, they were persuaded not to deport the Danes to the Auschwitz extermination camp – a fate that would have meant certain death. An estimated 120 Danish Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust.

The entire Danish Underground was awarded the status of “Righteous Among The Nations”. In 1971, Yad Vashem honored Duckwitz with the same title.


1. The myth originates in pro-Danish PR campaigns of the time to counter criticism that Denmark did not adequately resist the occupation – even though to do so militarily would have been tantamount to national suicide. The effort enlisted the help of Edward L. Bernays, father of modern PR, godfather to the term "Banana Republic", and a highly controversial figure in his own right. (It is said that Nazi arch-propagandist Joseph Goebbles was an ardent student of Mr. Bernays and had memorized many of his books, despite the fact that Bernays himself was Jewish.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Partisan Family In The Arts - Gary Baseman

Gary Baseman is an internationally acclaimed artist whose works are best known for the award winning Disney television show, “Teacher's Pet” as well as the artwork for the board game, “Cranium.” His work has been displayed in galleries globally. However, in addition to Gary Baseman's successful career as an artist, he has an even more intriguing family history. His father, Ben Baseman, was a partisan.

When the Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and advanced eastward into Soviet-controlled Poland, Ben Baseman fled his hometown of Berezne into a nearby forest. For more than four years, he was active in Russian partisan group activities. After World War II, Ben met his wife Naomi, another Holocaust survivor, in a displaced persons camp.

Ben and Naomi immigrated to the United States in 1948, where they had their son, Gary. Growing up in the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and Fairfax in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, Gary was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household. However, his parents spoke little about their history in Europe. Instead they encouraged Gary to strive for a successful life and the ultimate fulfillment of the American dream.

Gary knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist, and pursued this passion of his after he graduated with honors from UCLA. He began gaining artistic recognition after one of his designs was published in a New York Times Sunday Book Review. Gary eventually created and sold the successful Emmy-winning cartoon, “Teacher's Pet”, to Disney in 2000. He also designed the artwork for the popular game “Cranium.”

Gary thought and focused little on his family's history – until his father, Ben, passed away at the age of 93. Soon after, Gary found a hidden book in a closet of his parents’ home. Its contents were filled with descriptions of his father’s years spent as a partisan.

Upon this discovery, Gary started exploring his historical and religious identity through his artwork. In a gallery project titled, “the Door is Always Open,” Gary created a replica of his childhood home where Holocaust survivor friends were always visiting his parents. There were Jewish themes through the exhibit, including a table set for Seder and a video of his Bar Mitzvah.

In addition to his own religious and cultural background, Gary also became interested in his father’s history as a partisan. One of the pieces featured in “The Door is Always Open” is Gary’s collaboration with internationally recognized artist Shepherd Ferry, resulting in a print titled simply “Partisan.”

Baseman also traveled to the Eastern European towns of his family’s origination. While there, he nailed photographs of his deceased relatives around the town, in an act of memoriam to the lost Jewish communities of this area. Many of his thoughts and emotions during this time of his familial discovery are reflected in sketches such as the piece below.

Looking to the future, Gary Baseman is now collaborating with filmmaker David Charles to create a movie titled “Mythical Creatures.” The two filmmakers hope to create a documentary that tells the stories of the Holocaust through unique story-telling techniques. You can see a trailer for this movie project here.

Finally, as a tribute to his father’s accomplishments, Gary is working to create a memorial installation in the same birch forest where his father fought as a partisan.


– By Mandy Losk

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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

    
This week, JPEF highlights Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner, partisans from the Vilnius Ghetto who eventually married.
   
Abba Kovner was born on March 14, 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 31st of 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 "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.

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 where in danger once the Nazis arrived. Later in the streets, when a group of local Jewish boys invited Leon to escape for 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 to survive, eventually settling 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 of 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 he 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 did not work, and he would have to scavenger batteries from the villages and string them up together to power the radio. Sometimes, the radio had trouble broadcasting the signal, and at times it would take him the entire day to send just one message; this would slow down the unit and could even result 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 18th, 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.

Simon Trakinski (z''l) - Escaped from the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto and fought as a Jewish partisan

"Is it the same to Jews as it is to Americans to study the revolutionary war and its heroes, right? People put their chest in front of English muskets to build a country, we put our chest in front of German Muskets to defend ourselves from annihilation and maybe prevent the deaths of other Jews."
— Simon Trakinski.
Simon Trakinski was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1925. Like many others, his family fled to the east when the war began in 1939. They sought refuge in the Russian village of Smorgon. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, Smorgon was occupied and all Jews were forced into the ghetto.
Around this time, rumors started to circulate about escaped Soviet POWs and their partisan activities. When Simon’s family was transferred out of the Smorgon ghetto to Oszminian, he took with him the guns that a sympathetic German officer gave to his friends, telling them armed resistance is “the way of honest individuals these days”. Unfortunately, he never saw the guns again after he gave them up to a man connected with the underground in Oszminian. Soon after, the Trakinski family was taken out of Oszminian and transported to Vilna, where Simon was assigned to a work brigade building trenches.
In Vilna, Simon joined up with the United Partisans Organization, a resistance group headed by Abba Kovner. In early September of 1943, the Nazis locked down the ghetto, and the FPO realized the Germans were getting ready for its final destruction. Simon took part in FPO’s failed uprising in the ghetto, later escaping with the rest of his group when the Nazis dynamited their headquarters. They regrouped outside of the city, hoping to join Markov’s all-Jewish brigade, which had ties with the FPO. Simon, like many of his partisan peers, left his family behind in the ghetto.
By this time, the partisans were a formidable presence in the area and controlled the woods. Simon initially fought with the Markov Brigade, an all-Jewish otriad organized by a Russian partisan leader named Fyodr Markov. However, the Germans soon began a blockade of the swamps where Simon and the partisans were hiding; Simon escaped, but in the ensuing chaos, Markov’s all-Jewish brigade was disbanded and Simon was on his own again.
On his way to seek safety with a relative, Simon ran into a Soviet partisan unit. Luckily, the unit was in need of locals familiar with the area, and Simon was accepted into their ranks. The unit was part of the regular Soviet army, and received orders from Moscow by radio (and towards the end of the war, air-dropped supplies as well). Simon worked as a spy and a saboteur, gathering information about troop and supply movements, which his group used to effectively mine roads and blow up bridges. His group was especially active in disrupting the Berlin-Moscow rail route, which the Germans used for supplies. On one of the missions, Simon’s otriad attacked the rail line with several thousand other partisans, blowing up miles of tracks. The Germans guarding the tracks were so overwhelmed by the attack, they fled from their bunkers into the woods instead of fighting back.
As the war continued, Simon left the partisans to work for the Soviet government, as a schoolteacher in a remote Russian village. When the war ended and the “iron curtain” began to descend across Eastern Europe, Simon returned to Poland and smuggled himself into the West. He spent three years in Austria attempting to immigrate to the U.S., before finally being allowed to enter in 1948.
Simon died on January 2, 2009, surrounded by his loving family at his home in New York.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Simon Trakinski, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Bill Trakinski, Simon’s brother and fellow partisan. Vilna, 1945.

Family photo, Passover weekend. From left to right, Simon Trakinski, Simon's father Moses, mother Esther, uncle Zev, brother Bill and in the center Simon's grandmother Chaja. Smorgon, Belarus, 1931.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Featured Jewish Partisan - Brenda Senders, born on August 20th

"You know, you didn't, were not fussy where you sleep or where you lay down, and sometimes they ask me how did you get food. You know, you go in with guns and the person will not give you food so you take it yourself. It was a war, it was not a matter of being polite or this way or the other way. It's being survival was at stake."
— 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 main feature of 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 couple of 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 their 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. Though Brenda and her sister were separated during the escape, 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. While she was unarmed, Brenda’s determination to fight convinced the partisan general that she was fit to join. Leaving her sister in hiding with a local peasant, Brenda learned how to shoot a gun and ride a horse. She 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 and 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, himself a former partisan from the famed Avengers unit. Brenda and Leon married in 1945 and left for Italy, ultimately 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.