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Monday, August 18, 2014

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, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Zvi Shefet

“I managed to [avoid] those that would denounce me,” Zvi Shefet recalled of his early days during the German occupation of his hometown of Slonim, in then Soviet-occupied Belorussia. Refusing to wear the Star of David, the sixteen-year-old Jewish partisan found ways to rebel early on, even before he went into the forest to fight. With his blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fluent command of Polish, he managed to avoid unwanted attention and only went outside when necessary.

The German invasion came as a complete surprise to Zvi and his community – as in many Soviet territories, the community strongly believed in the power and protection of the Soviet army. However, the war had only lasted three days before the Germans successfully overtook the town.

On July 17, 1942, the initial “aktion”1 in Slonim took place against the Jews. Zvi's family was alerted to the situation through family friends who had relayed the news through their grief-stricken faces - the couple lived in the woods and were firsthand witnesses to the aftermath of the mass killing in the forest.

In the beginning, most Jews in Slonim found it a hard to digest these mass murders. Some continued to look for those that had been killed, only finding remains of their clothing. Others believed that the Russians would still come and save them. Looking back on experiencing this time as a child, Zvi reminisced “I thought it strange that the grown-ups were so fearful.”

Fearing for their son's life, Zvi's parents planned to send him to Warsaw with a Polish family acquaintance. Feeling hurt that they wanted to send him away, he advised strongly against separating from his family. Zvi convinced his family to let him stay with them and continue to protect them as best he could.

Soon after, the Germans forced all the Jews of Slonim into the a ghetto. Another aktion immediately followed: the Wehrmacht and the SS surrounded the ghetto, looking for males. Zvi and his father hid in a shed adjacent to their living area. Zvi's mother – who was fluent in German – answered the door and convinced the officers that her husband had gone off to work early and taken his schein (work permit) with him. The soldiers left soon after, commanding her not to let anyone else in the house.

During this aktion, the Germans had exceeded the expected amount of Jews that they were anticipating to find, prompting the authorities to declare that the killing would cease. Though some believed this news, Zvi's parents did not. The recent increase in SS men in the town caused alarm – changes like that often meant something awful was looming in the near future. The Nazis were not only targeting Jewish citizens, but also the Polish intelligentsia. Uncertainty was an air, and no one was safe.

The final aktion ended in the burning of the Slonim ghetto. Zvi's family was residing near the ghetto's edge, and thus escaped into the forest under the cover of nightfall. Zvi and his immediate family – along with some uncles, aunts and cousins – roamed the forest, motivated by rumors of Soviet partisan groups in the Pruszkov forest and the surrounding areas. They hoped the partisans would provide protection for them.

The admission to partisan groups was arms, which the Shefets and their relatives had no possession of. The group eventually went their separate ways, due to a fission that occurred when Zvi's uncle secured a spot with the Soviet partisans for only himself, his wife and two sons.

Soon after, however, Zvi and his family found a partisan center in the forest near Okinowo. This place was well-known – former POWs organized the activity of various partisan groups here. After a few days, Zvi was accepted into a resistance group called Detachment 51, and his family was assigned to a detachment created for the partisans' family members.

Due to the prevalence of antisemitism among the ranks of the Soviet partisans, a group of Jews eventually broke off and created their own unit, comprised solely of Jewish partisans. They also called themselves Detachment 51. Zvi asked to join this group. The commander, Yefim Fiodorowicz, had excellent leadership qualities and was able to inspire the group into becoming excellent fighters. The group membership was also more lenient towards women, who fought alongside their male counterparts.

Zvi continued to fight in Detachment 51 until Fiodorowicz perished; Zvi had no choice but to join another Soviet partisan unit - he fought with them until the area was liberated by the Soviet army in 1944. Unfortunately, Zvi's family was killed in 1943, when a group of Soviet partisans attacked his family's detachment instead of protecting them as they promised to.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong


Zvi Shefet visiting the cemetery at Czepelova. Photo courtesy of eilatgordinlevitan.com.


1. The German euphemism for mass executions, usually by bullets

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Leah Johnson, born on August 14th

Leah Johnson - born Leah Bedzowski - celebrated her 90th birthday this year. 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.

Friday, August 8, 2014

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Featured Jewish Partisan - Mordechai "Motele" Shlayan

The night progressed as any other evening would have for twelve-year-old Motele, who had just finished his nightly violin performance in the Solders’ Home – an extravagant fine dining establishment post in Ovruch, Ukraine, where German troops came to be entertained and fatten themselves up before going into battle. Carefully packing up his violin, he declined his usual complementary meal from the cook with the excuse that he was exhausted and preferred to go home early. A few minutes after he stepped outside the complex, the building was demolished in a fiery explosion. As the wail of the police sirens approached, Motele quickly felt his way along the darkened buildings on a pre-determined path that led to the shores of a nearby lake, whose still waters provided a silent escape. Holding his prized violin high above his head, he submerged himself up to his shoulders. On the other side, ten hands reached out and helped the young boy into the relative safety of a waiting wagon. The vehicle vanished into the woods soon after, taking their young hero with them, whose voice reverberated in the dark: “this is for my parents and little Bashiale, my sister.”

Born Mordechai Shlayan, Motele was out when the Germans forced their way into his house and murdered his entire family. He resorted to living in the Volhynia forest in Ukraine, close to the town of Ovruch. Misha Gildenman, leader of an all-Jewish partisan group, came across the young boy in the woods and took him in as his own son. In Uncle Misha’s partisan unit, Motele was a valuable asset because he could go into town and no one would assume that a child this young had ulterior motives. With his fair skin and blond hair, Motele was easily able to hide his Jewish identity and pass as a Ukrainian. His musical talent also made him an irreplaceable resource to the group – it gave him a reason to be in towns and villages, and allowed him to gather crucial information useful to the group.

In August 1943, Gildenman was receiving daily reports of towns and cities that had recently been liberated by the Soviet army. Keril, a contact in Ovruch, relayed the message to him that the Ukrainian police in the city wanted to surrender. Having learned not to trust any good news too soon, Gildenman sent Motele to see if there was any truth to the rumors.

As a skilled musician, Motele was sent to play in town for money with the other beggars. His talent – as well as his beautiful renditions of popular Ukrainian folk songs that he remembered from the streets of his own hometown – soon separated him from the other street musicians. In his pocket, he carried carefully forged papers that gave him the new identity of Dimitri Rubina. His music caught the attention of a German officer, who hired the young violinist to provide musical entertainment for German soldiers in the Soldiers’ Home after he effortlessly sight-read a piece by the famous Polish composer Ignacy Paderewski.

Motele was given free lunch and dinner as compensation, and soon noticed a worn-down storeroom adjacent to the basement kitchen that he ate his meals in, whose cracked walls had just enough room to lodge a bomb between them.

With Gildenman and the partisans’ assistance, Motele constructed an elaborate plan to blow up the Soldiers’ Home. Popov, Gildenman’s explosive expert, taught him how to assemble a bomb. For several nights, Motele left his violin in a discarded crate and smuggled the explosives in his empty violin case. Now they only had to wait for an opportune moment to arise. As fate would have it, this opportunity happened sooner than expected: Motele heard word that a division of high-ranking SS officers were being re-routed through Ovruch – traveling by rail was thought to be too dangerous due to all the recent partisan demolition activity on the railroad tracks.

Everything went according to plan and at three in the afternoon, SS officers arrived in their polished boots and limousines. Dinner was served, wine was drank and merriment was had. Shortly after eleven, a boy ran out of the restaurant into the darkened street – and the men inside met their fate.

Motele was killed in a German bombing raid in 1944, when he was only fourteen years old. In 1996, Amnon Weinstein, a master violinmaker residing in Israel, began an extensive search for violins that had once been played by Jewish prisoners and partisans in concentration camps, forests and ghettos. Twenty-four violins were recovered and restored. One of these was Motele’s. In September 2003, it was played before thousands of people in Jerusalem in a gala concert in the Old City.

–By Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Bialystok Ghetto Uprising

In the grim history of the Bialystok ghetto, an act of resistance that occurred right before its eventual destruction by the Germans in August of 1943 places it among only a handful of such incidents during the war. Inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish resistance fighters in the Bialystok ghetto fought the Nazis during the last days of the ghetto's existence, after the Germans commenced with their plans to liquidate its entire population. The conditions of the Bialystok ghetto were different from that of other ghettos in Poland, and this ultimately decided the outcome of events.


Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof in 1934.

Bialystok was a city in northern Poland, annexed by the Soviets in 1939. The city was surrounded by deep forests, its houses made mostly of wood. The Jewish population – which made up a large fraction of the mill and skilled workers in the city - was an essential element of the city's economy. This fact would prove integral to the ghetto leadership's survival strategies.

The Soviet occupation ended when Nazi troops entered the city on June 27, 1941. Immediately, the soldiers forced hundreds of Jews into a synagogue and lit it on fire. Only few survived1 while most were burned to death. The next week, more than 5,000 Jews were shot in the streets. After these initial killings, 50,000 Jews were forced to move into the small confines of the Bialystok ghetto.

Conditions in this ghetto were somewhat unique to their situation. The community had limited access to the outside world, as many of the ghetto's residents had access to work in factories located in other parts of the city. The main body of the population also had a positive relationship with the Judenrat, which was headed by Ephraim Barasz. He was a well-respected man who worked hard to stress the economic importance of the Jews dwelling in the ghetto. Because of their economic importance, he and many of his comrades were convinced that the Jews of the Bialystok ghetto were immune to the fate of other ghettos. As a result, Barasz saw no reason to organize a resistance effort.

Having fled Vilna with a handful of resistance fighters, a man named Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof organized Bialystok's resistance movement, establishing the Anti-Fascist Fighting Bloc with his remaining followers. There were large disagreements within the fighting group about what should be done to effectively resist the Nazis. Some people, such as Judith Nowogrodzka, argued that the Jews should put all effort into escaping to the nearby forests and joining the liberation front, while others such as Teneboim believed that fighting the Nazis was the most effective. Ultimately, the group decided to the support resistance both with partisan groups and within the ghetto.

Teneboim and his organization faced many challenges when planning the Bialystok uprising. Acquiring weapons was extremely difficult. Ultimately, they were only able to gather one machine gun, and approximately two dozen hand-guns and several dozen grenades. However, an even greater obstacle was the lack of cooperation from the Judenrat under Barasz who believed that its Jews were in no risk of death therefore resistance was unnecessary. Tenenboim, considering the massacres at Ponary, believed the case to be otherwise.

On August 15, 1943, Barasz was notified by the Nazi gestapo of their plans to liquidate the Bialysok ghetto. He told nobody. When the resistance movement noticed the increase of German troops surrounding the Ghetto's border, they knew something was afoot. Caught by surprise and with little time, the rebels had no time to organize an effective strategy, and made do with what they could. Furthermore, the rest of the ghetto population had little reason to join the resistance, as most still had doubts about their ultimate fate, and did not wish to perish in an uneven struggle.

On August 16, 1943, with the majority of the ghetto's residence lined up outside to board the train to the camps, the Nazi troops were met with bombs dropped from windows of houses. However, Warsaw provided the Germans with experience, and they were well-prepared for a counter-attack. Furthermore, the low-rise wooden buildings and fences provided much less shelter for the rebels than the large brick edifices of Warsaw. As a result, the uprising only lasted a short time – the last handful fighters were unearthed from their bunker hideout five days later.

Although the uprising may not have been as successful as its leaders would have hoped, the actions of these brave men and women displayed courage and pride even when it seemed as if all hope had disappeared. Though most of the fighters perished – and the rest of the inhabitants were sent to meet their fate in the camps – a few fighters managed to break through the ghetto fence and flee to the countryside, joining partisan units that would eventually see these lands liberated from the bloody grip of the cruel occupiers.

–By Mandy Losk


1. A Polish cobbler named Winicki managed to make an opening into the burning building from the outside.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

JPEF Partners With Britannica Encyclopedia

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation is pleased to announce its partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica for The Holocaust Project.

The Holocaust Project is Britannica’s effort to make available to the public its extensive coverage of one of history’s darkest chapters. Britannica is offering this content to partnering institutions for dissemination to their members and website visitors.

More than a hundred articles comprise Britannica’s coverage of the Holocaust — topics range from the rise of Hitler and an overview of the camps to the symbolic meaning of the swastika and the Holocaust in art and memory. Britannica’s coverage includes biographies, essays, photographs, and videos, as well as discussion prompts appropriate for the classroom.

JPEF has contributed to Britannica's Holocaust project entries on “Jewish Partisans” and “Bielski Partisans.” All of the content was sourced from JPEF's website.

See below for the full list of resources available through The Holocaust Project:

Part 1: Hitler and the Origins of the Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 2: The Holocaust

Discussion Questions

Part 3: The Allied Response: Should the Allies Have Bombed the Camps?

Discussion Questions

Part 4: The Christian Response: The Actions of the Church

Discussion Questions

Part 5: Art, Meaning, and Memory

Discussion Questions