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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Teenager Benjamin Levin Escaped the Vilna Ghetto to Become a Jewish Partisan

We went on actions, like cutting telephone poles. A bridge - to destroy something. They always liked to go with me because I knew the forest, and had the instinct in the forest - how to move and where to go and what's going on.
— Benjamin Levin

Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Levin escaped execution when Germany invaded his hometown of Vilna in July 1941. A plucky young man, accustomed to running around the streets with his friends, he knew the area well and managed to evade Nazi capture during the first weeks of the occupation.

Tipped off by friends, Benjamin and his family fled from the village before the Vilna ghetto was erected, but they later returned during what they perceived to be a period of relative calm. Unfortunately, this calm was short lived and violence against the Jews continued to erupt. Deciding that it was not safe to remain in Vilna, Benjamin’s father Chaim encouraged him to escape to the woods with a group of other young Jews, and join the fighting partisan units.

Benjamin and his companions joined a brigade composed of Jews, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians, led by an old forester whose expertise kept the city boys alive. Upon the complete liquidation of the ghetto, other survivors from Vilna joined them.

Although he was a teenager, Benjamin knew the forests well and was well acquainted with the customs of the local peasants. These traits made him a valuable asset to the group on food and supply raids, and on missions to destroy bridges.

While Benjamin survived the war, and witnessed the liberation of Vilna, sadly the Nazis and their collaborators killed his parents and older brother. After the war, he made aliyah to Israel where he married and had two children.

Visit for more about Benjamin Levin, who lives in Ossining, New York, including five videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mourning the Loss of Jewish Partisan Cesia Blaichman (z''l)

Cesia Blaichman (z"l)

Raised in Wlodawa, Poland, Cesia Blaichman (z’’l) was still a teenager when her second cousin, Joe Holm (z’’l), rescued her, together with her three brothers, from the Nazis, bringing them to join his all Jewish partisan brigade. In April 1944, Frank Blaichman’s partisan unit joined the group, and Cesia met the man who would become her husband of 70 years. Frank recounted the extraordinary story of their combat, heroism, and ultimate triumph, in his memoir, "Rather Die Fighting".

As a Jewish partisan, Cesia fought bravely against the Nazis and their collaborators in the forests and small villages near Lublin. She nursed the wounded, cooked for her fellow partisans and participated in operations to ensure the safety of other Jews. She and her three brothers survived the war, but their parents, sisters, and many relatives perished.

Cesia and Frank married after the war and emigrated to New York where they raised a family dedicated to promoting the Jewish partisan legacy, and to ensuring that future generations are empowered to stand up against hatred and oppression.

Cesia and Frank Blaichman on their wedding day.

Frank Blaichman talks about meeting Cesia, and the impact she made on his life, in JPEF’s film "Every Day the Impossible: Women in the Partisans".

Sadly, Cesia passed away on September 24, 2015, surrounded by her family. We extend our deepest condolences to the Blaichman, Sekons and Pomeranc families.

May Cesia’s memory be a blessing.

Learn more about Cesia Blaichman's inspirational life.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Teaching About the Jewish Partisans Anytime and Anywhere with On-line Classes

Since the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF) launched its free E-Learning Platform in 2011, educators all over the world have taken more than 2,000 online courses. Through online learning, educators take JPEF’s most popular courses on the history and life lessons of the Jewish partisans at home, school, or from a mobile device.

“The E-Leaning platform JPEF developed offers the best resource for providing my congregation with the kind of professional development we need ... Being able to fit professional development into the busy lifestyle of educators, with the dual demands of family and work life, is crucial. This is the future of education,” says Saul Kaierman, Director of Education at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

Through JPEF’s partnership with Touro College in New York, educators are awarded Continuing Education Units (CEU’s), at no charge, for completing the ten, 45-60 minute courses. “We wanted to encourage educators to take these classes and provide them with this important curricula. We felt that accreditation was an essential component of the value proposition,” says Elliott Felson, JPEF’s board president.

JPEF's ELearning Landing Page

JPEF’s E-Learning collection is the most ambitious program that our 15 year-old organization has undertaken – working with a team of instructional developers, programmers, graphic designers, and educators to bring the platform to life. To help cover development and production costs, the organization relied on both institutional funders and its core of individual donors. Debrah Lee Charatan, New York Real Estate Entrepreneur, is one of the organization’s key supporters and advisors. “JPEF’s E-Learning Platform is a vital program for educators all over the world. It is something we are so happy to champion,” says Charatan.

Charatan’s support has made is possible for JPEF to offer its E-Learning classes to educators globally, including three of our more prominent programs - Teaching with the Motion Picture Defiance, Women in the Partisans, and Ethics of War.

JPEF is currently updating its entire website, and the online learning platform, for enhanced performance on mobile devices. This new release will be available in Spring 2016. To take one of JPEF’s E-Learning courses, please go to

Debrah Lee Chartan and Jewish partisan Rose Holm at JPEF's 2012 premiere of The Reunion

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 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 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 for more about Leah Johnson, including five videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Visit to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.

Leah and her husband Wolf circa 1978.