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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

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

Thursday, August 20, 2015

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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Featured Jewish Partisan - Bernard Druskin, born on August 18

"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. The oldest of three, he had two sisters named Rachel and Marilyn. His family was 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, which he did 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 found out later that 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. Hiding in the forests of Belarussia’s Naroch Forest, he lived in a camouflaged zemlyanka, or underground bunker. Bernard worked under the Markov brigade and with Commander Jurgis, head of the Lithuanian Brigade. He spent his time sabotaging railroad lines, phone lines, and stealing 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 being very difficult, as the most difficult thing he has done. Living in the woods was tough. “Let me tell you something,” Bernard recalls, “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 13, 2015

Celebrating Leah Johnson's August 14th Birthday

Leah Johnson - born Leah Bedzowski - celebrates her birthday this week. 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.”


Leah and her husband Wolf

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.


Leah and her husband Wolf circa 1978.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Featured Jewish Partisan - Joseph Greenblatt, born on August 5th

"I lost my family -- lost my father, my mother, my brother, lost all the close relatives, and that was about 70 members of my closest family. It was tough to talk about it, and the refresh bring it back to your memory. It was painful. But as the time was going by, and I felt the story which I know firsthand has to be told."
- Joseph Greenblatt.

Joseph Greenblatt was born in Warsaw in 1915. He learned about resistance from his father, an army captain who had fought for Polish independence during WWI. At eighteen, Joe enlisted in the Polish army as an infantryman, becoming an officer in 1938. In 1939 he was mobilized and sent to the Polish-German border. He witnessed the German invasion directly and fought for almost twenty days before being taken prisoner and sent to a German POW camp. It was in the camp that he began to establish connections with the newly formed Armia Krajowa (AK). The AK hijacked a German truck, transporting Joe to a hospital, freeing him and his fellow prisoners.

Joe returned to Warsaw, only to find the Jewish population of the city walled into a newly formed ghetto. Though they were imprisoned the Jews of Warsaw were far from passive; underground resistance units had already begun to form. Joe used his army connections to amass a stockpile of black market weapons. He also met and married his wife, the younger sister of a comrade in arms.

In the spring of 1943, rumors of a full-scale liquidation circulated. Joe and the other partisan commanders decided it was time to act. Disguised as Nazis, they attacked German soldiers as they entered the ghetto. Joe remembers how men from his unit threw a Molotov cocktail into a tank, destroying it and killing several Germans. Joe eventually escaped from the ghetto through the sewer system, emerging in the Gentile quarter. Hiding his identity with a Christian alias, Joe made contact with his old POW comrades and joined the AK. For a while, he worked as a member of the Polish underground, raiding a German train depot and aiding in the assassination of a prominent SS official. In late 1944 he was remobilized with the Polish army.

When Germany surrendered, Joe was working as the commander of a camp of German POWS. After the war Joe went to work for the Irgun under the command of Menachem Begin, traveling between Belgium and Israel as an arms dealer.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Joseph Greenblatt, who passed away on March 11, 2003 at the age of 87, including four videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Featured Jewish Partisan - Moshe Baran

The eldest of four children, Moshe Baran was born in 1920 in Horodok – a shtetl in Poland. The population of Horodok was 90% Jewish, with approximately 300 families. There were two synagogues, a Hebrew day school, a bank, a free loan association, committees to help the needy, a variety of Zionist organizations, even amateur theatre – it was a cohesive, self-sufficient community.

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.

In July 1942, the ghetto of his hometown was liquidated. His family survived in hiding, and joined him later in the ghetto where he was residing at the time. From six in the morning until evening, Moshe worked twelve-hour shifts, all the while receiving barely enough food to qualify as sustenance. The prisoners all knew that as soon as the work was done, they would be liquidated next. By this time, Moshe and his friends had heard about the Resistance, but they knew that without weapons, they had no hopes of joining.

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.

This post was written by Isaac Munro, Moshe's grandson, with editorial help from the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Featured Jewish Partisan - Simon Trakinski, born on July 13th

"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.