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Friday, April 29, 2016

More than 15,000 People Today Owe Their Lives to Tuvia Bielski (z''l), Born May 8, 1906

On a rainy night, seventy-three years ago Rae Kushner, her sister Lisa and Sonya and Aaron Oshman escaped through a narrow tunnel from the Novogrudok ghetto together with 250 other Jews. They hid in an area nearby, to elude the pursuing Germans and their collaborators. Many in the group were shot and killed. Rae, Lisa, Sonya and Aaron, and others were rescued by the Bielski partisans, who heard of the group’s escape and sent in scouts to take the survivors from Novogrudok to safety.

The group, founded by Tuvia Bielski and his brothers Asael and Zus – along with help from youngest brother Aron – provided a haven for all Jews fleeing the Nazis and their collaborators. For three years, the Bielski partisans survived in the forests of Belarus, engaging in armed combat and disrupting the Nazi war machine with acts of sabotage. Their primary mission, however, was always the preservation of Jewish lives. Tuvia proclaimed, “I would rather save the life of one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazis.” By the end of the war, the Bielski partisans managed to save over 1,200 Jews.

Born on May 8, 1906 in the rural town of Stankiewicze in western Belarus, Tuvia was one of 12 children, whose father was a miller. The only Jews in a small community, they quickly learned how to look after themselves.

When the Germans invaded in June 1941, the brothers sought refuge in the woods where they had spent time as children. Asael and Zus, who were hiding together, set about finding safe homes for a dozen or so of their surviving relatives. Tuvia, who was staying further to the north, moved relatives in with friendly non-Jews. But by the spring of 1942, the three decided it was time to relocate all the relatives into a single location in the woods.

The brothers moved quickly to build a fighting force from the escapees, who joined forces with the growing army of Soviet partisans engaging in guerrilla attacks against the occupiers. In October 1942, a squad of Bielski and Soviet fighters raided a German convoy loaded with supplies, killing at least one German soldier. “It was satisfying in a larger sense,” Tuvia wrote of the first attack on Nazis in his 1955 Yiddish language memoir, “A real spiritual high point, that the world should know that there were still Jews alive, and especially Jewish partisans.”

The group continued to grow until the end of the war. Committed to protecting all Jews – regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, or level of religious observance – the Bielski Otriad provided shelter for Jews like Rae, Lisa, Aaron and Sonya, and worked to free hundreds of Jews from other ghettos. Among them were Leah Bedzowski Johnson, her sister Sonia, brothers Charles and Benjamin, and their mother Chasia, who escaped from the Lida Ghetto with Tuvia’s help. Sonia Bedzowksi was later captured enroute to the Lida ghetto to secure medicine for the partisans and killed in Majdanek. The rest of the Bedzowski family stayed with the Bielski Otriad until the end of the war. Now living in Florida, Leah expresses her lifelong gratitude and praises Tuvia’s leadership and humanity, “Tuvia Bielski was our commander. He was always around us and he wanted only to save Jewish lives to make sure that our people continued and multiplied. I would not be alive today if it was not for Tuvia and neither would my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”


Bielski partisans guarding an airstrip. Leah's husband, Velvel "Wolf" Johnson, is in the bottom center with his machine gun.

While imprisoned in the Lida Ghetto, Michael Stoll had heard tale of the Bielski partisans and vowed to escape and join the group. That chance came when he and 11 others jumped from a train bound for the Majdanek concentration camp. Finding themselves in the middle of “no man’s land,” they eventually connected with the Bielski Otriad. Michael says, “If it had not been for Tuvia, we would not have survived. He was a good man. A legend.”

Operating in the Naliboki forest, Tuvia set up a functioning partisan community that included a hospital, classrooms for children, a soap factory, tailors, butchers, and even a group of musicians. Everyone in the Bielski Otriad worked to support one another – even the youngest children like Ann Monka contributed by keeping people’s spirits up with singing and entertainment. Ann recalls that Tuvia derived special pride from the children of the Bielski Otriad and took great strides to protect them and ensure their survival. “At one time there was a rumor that he was going to send some of the children to Moscow since we did not know when the war was going to end. He wanted to make sure that the children were safe. The children were the future of the Jewish people. We would not be here if it were not for him. Without him we had no chance for survival. Thousands are alive because of Tuvia.”

Indeed, because of Tuvia’s strong and effective leadership and his determination to save as many Jewish lives as possible, there are more than 15,000 people today who owe their existences to him. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Rae Kushner (z''l), Lisa Riebel(z''l), Leah Johnson, Charles Bedzow, Benny Bedzow (z''l), Chasia Bedzowski (z''l), and Sonya and Aaron Oshman (z''l), and 1,200 other survivors of the Bielski Otriad.


Tuvia and Lilka together after the liberation.

While in the forest, Tuvia met and married Lilka. Together they had three children: Michael (Mickey), Robert and Ruth; and nine grandchildren: Jordan, Taylor, Ariel, Tori, Sarah, Brenden, Sharon, Talia, and Vanessa. After the war, Tuvia and his family moved to Israel, and later to the United States. For more than 30 years, he and his brother Zus operated a trucking company in New York City. Tuvia passed away on June 12, 1987 at the age of 81.

Inspired by Tuvia’s remarkable courage and compassion and the legacy of the Bielski Otriad, in 2008 Paramount Pictures portrayed his story in the major motion picture “Defiance”, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia (see an image of Daniel Craig as Tuvia on a fake cabbie license for a scene that ended up getting cut from the film). In cooperation with Paramount and film director Edward Zwick, JPEF developed a unique curriculum for educators, which incorporates scenes from the film to engage students in critical thinking about History, Leadership, Ethics, and Jewish Values.


Leaders of the Bielski otriad posing in front of an Israel-bound ambulance they helped fund, circa 1960s. From the right: Tuvia & Lilka, Zus & his wife Sonia, Lea and Pesach Friedberg.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org/defiance for more about the Bielksi partisans and the film 'Defiance', including a 5-page Tuvia Bielski study guide/biography. Educators can take a free on-line class how to teach about the Bielskis and use the guides, films, and lesson plans with our E-Learning platform.

Watch a short film on the Bielskis, narrated by Ed Asner, here:

In 2013, JPEF honored Tuvia, his brothers Asael, Zus and Aron, and all Bielski partisans, at a dinner in New York City. Eighteen surviving Bielski partisans attended the gala, where "The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers", narrated by Liev Schreiber, and featuring partisans and their children, was shown.

Written by Sheri Pearl.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - 73rd Anniversary Begins Erev Pesach

73 years ago this week, German soldiers entered the Warsaw ghetto, intending to deport its remaining Jewish population to Treblinka, a nearby extermination camp. Months earlier, they were met with gunfire and suffered casualties when they tried to deport several thousand Jews. For a few months, the deportations stopped, but the Germans and their collaborators returned on the eve of Passover, hoping to clear the ghetto of its inhabitants in three days.

Instead, the Germans were met with fire and bullets. Sparsely armed with a handful of handguns and Molotov cocktails, the Jewish resistance - led by Mordechai Anielewicz - repelled the initial German assault, killing German soldiers and setting fire to armored vehicles. Though the Germans came back better-organized and under the leadership of a different officer, the resistance held out for several more days. In the end, only a few dozen fighters managed to escape the ghetto through the sewers as the Germans and their collaborators systematically destroyed the entire ghetto with fire and explosions.

The legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, during which approximately 750 Jews fought off Nazi invaders longer than the entire country of France, stands as a testament to the strength of human determination and an example to all. In 2013, the Polish government dedicated the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which stands on the site of the Warsaw ghetto.

For more on the Uprising and its aftermath - as well as the 2013 commemorations of the event - please see:


Jews forcibly removed from their dugouts, on the way to deportation. One of the most famous photos of the war.

German sentries at ghetto entrance

A bunker with the Kotwica symbol of the AK resistance

Resistance fighter coming out of bunker

Housing block set on fire by German army to suppress uprising

Center-left, looking up to the left: the commander in charge of suppressing the uprising, Jürgen Stroop.

Resistance fighters captured by the Germans.

The ruins of the Warsaw ghetto after the suppression.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

David Broudo - Born April 8, 1924 in Saloniki, Greece

In 1941 the Germans occupied Greece, dividing the country among the Fascist Italians and Bulgarians, and establishing a Greek collaborationist government to control the important regions of Athens and Thessaloniki (or Saloniki), where David Broudo was born in 1924. Descendants of the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain in 1492, the Broudo family had lived in Saloniki since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Greece's involvement in WWII began in October of 1940 when Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion via Albania. The Greek army not only managed to successfully repel the attack, they also drove the Italians back, occupied a quarter of Albania and subdued some 530,000 Italian troops. Although this victory marked the first for Allied forces in WWII, the Germans immediately closed in on Greece through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, bringing an end to the Greco-Italian War and beginning the Nazi occupation of Greece. Over the next year and a half, the Jewish Greek population became increasingly marginalized, and in 1943, the entire Broudo family was deported.

Unlike other members of his family, who were sent directly to Germany, David was sent to a holding camp near Lamia, Greece. With one desperate and courageous attempt, David leapt onto the roof of a passing train, escaping the grasp of the Nazis.

David made his way to the forest where he came across a brigade of Greek andartes, the Greek guerrilla fighters who first appeared in the mountains of Macedonia in 1941. Once Broudo revealed his identity, he learned that the resistance group contained other Jewish members. For the next year, David fought as a guerrilla with the andartes, participating in the pitched gun battles of Crete and Lamia, during which many of his comrades fell to German bullets.
David Broudo (far right) with the Greek partisans, 1943

He helped destroy the supply lines the Germans had established for their campaign in North Africa by blowing up bridges and trains and sabotaging train tracks. Most ingeniously, he smuggled munitions supplies destined for the resistance movement in Athens past the German blockades by emptying milk barrels and filling them with guns. His fighting prowess earned him an officer’s commission with the Greek resistance, and by the time of the liberation he was planning and executing sabotage missions, as well as interrogating high-ranking German prisoners.

In 1944 Broudo and almost 50,000 other Greeks were imprisoned for their war efforts. From the prison, David was sent with forty-five other men to a desolate Greek island where he spent three and a half years, afterwards being transferred to prisons in Agrinio, Corfu, Oiru, Lamia, Zakynthos, and Evia. Of the experience Broudo said:

“This was a Greek island that was empty of human beings, only the wind. Not one person was on this island. The sea winds moved and nothing else. No one lived there. They would come and bring water and speak with ships once a week if they could enter. The water on the island was saltwater. Once, they didn't show up for a month. Airplanes flew over and dumped water and that was it.”

After the liberation, David's partisan efforts continued. As he described in a JPEF interview:

“After liberation, we went there and waged war against the English, against those who sat in Cairo. But in Cairo, half of them were Communists. Those people in Cairo who escaped Greece when the Germans invaded included officers, half of whom were Communists. The English were put into jails in Cairo. Afterwards, they were brought to Greece, and they were with the king and tanks. For the first time, I saw these tanks that Churchill brought with him, him being in Libertania in a hotel.”

When the war ended, David was sentenced to death by Greek authorities. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison and in 1956 he was deported to Israel where he lived until his death on January 16, 2011. Several decades after the war, the Greek government recognized David Broudo and the efforts of the partisan fighters.
David Broudo and other partisans, date unknown.

Broudo wrote an article entitled “Saloniki Memories,” about his experience in the war, and collaborated with another Jewish andarte on a book about the history of the Saloniki Jews.

Watch JPEF's interviews with David Broudo.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Featured Jewish Partisan – Eugenio Gentili-Tedeschi, born March 31st, 1916

Eugenio Gentili-Tedeschi was born in Italy in 1916. In the aftermath of the Great War, his hometown of Turin became a hotbed of social unrest, and witnessed a great deal of political violence as the Fascists sought to suppress the socialists and other left-leaning movements. When Eugenio was ten years old, Mussolini instituted emergency measures to consolidate his dictatorial powers after several assassination attempts on his life.

By the mid 1930s, Germany’s support for Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia solidified what had been an otherwise rocky relationship between the two regimes. Though Mussolini initially showed little interest in Hitler’s racist agendas, Hitler’s influence won over: Italy’s own racial laws, based on the Nuremberg laws, were put into effect in 1938. These laws put Jews out of work, dissolved Italian-Jewish marriages, and essentially stripped Italian Jews of their citizenship and rights. As a consequence, Eugenio’s father lost his job, and Eugenio’s family went into hiding.

A young man in his 20s by this time, Eugenio traveled to Milan, where the bureaucracy was inefficient enough that he could sit for his university tests without harassment. After scoring top marks, Eugenio went to work as an architect’s apprentice in Milan, where he would stay for several years. In Milan, Eugenio got his first taste of resistance by going around with his friends and tearing down the anti-Semitic propaganda posted in the streets. Eugenio also got involved by transporting underground pamphlets from a communist print shop in Turin to Milan.

When Italy’s military situation became untenable and the king fired and arrested Mussolini, the Germans invaded northern Italy and set up a puppet government (with Mussolini at the head, freed by the Germans in a dramatic rescue). To escape the bombardment that followed the German invasion, Eugenio left Milan and fled west to the Valle d’Aosta countryside, near the French-Swiss border. There, he eventually connected with the Arturo Verraz partisan group hiding out among the mountainous terrain. He captured his life with the partisans through sketches - these are of critical historical importance, as they provide a first-hand graphical account of the partisan experience.

Eugenio and his partisan unit kept the mountain trails open for the Allies and kept the Germans pinned down in Italy, preventing reinforcements from reaching the front lines in France. He was personally responsible for hiding the dynamite used to blow up roads and tunnels underneath his bed, as well as obtaining supplies needed for daily survival, such as shoes and food. In the fall of 1944, he fought alongside British and American soldiers and then followed the front lines into France before heading back to Rome, where he learned of the liberation of Turin and Milan.

After the war Eugenio settled down to make a life for himself, marrying and continuing his studies. He would eventually become a master architect, as well as a professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan. He died in Milan in 2005.

For more on Eugenio, visit his bio page on the JPEF website for more of his unique sketches, as well as seven interview clips (including English transcriptions).

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Purim and the Partisans: A Jewish Tale of Defiance

The celebration of Purim is one of victory over an oppressor, with themes that echo throughout countless stories of the Jewish partisans during the Holocaust, including hidden identities, outwitting enemies, recruiting allies, providing food for those in need, confronting antisemitism and, of course, armed resistance.



Purim celebration held by the Beitar Zionist movement in Wlodzimierz, Poland in 1937. Thousands of Beitar members reportedly formed or joined partisans groups and participated in the in the Warsaw, Vilna, and Bialystok ghetto revolts. Photo source: USHMM.

At the climax of the Purim story, Queen Esther (whose name can mean "hidden") reveals her Jewish identity in order save her people. At significant risk to her own safety, Esther confronts her husband, King Ahasuerus, and convinces him to thwart Haman's order to exterminate the Jews of Persia. The king grants Esther and her cousin Mordecai ("warrior") the authority to issue a counter-order, allowing the Jews to take up arms against their attackers.

And he wrote in the king Ahasuerus' name, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters … wherein the king granted the Jews, which were in every city, to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them… (Esther 8:10-11)

Through a combination of intellectual planning and physical force, the Jewish people defeat Haman's antisemitic minions, and live to celebrate their victory:

The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt: and no man could withstand them; for the fear of them fell upon all people. And all the rulers of the provinces, and the lieutenants, and the deputies, and officers of the king, helped the Jews; because the fear of Mordecai fell upon them. (9:2-3)
…and the month [in which the Jews would have been annihilated] was turned for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (9:22)

As with the heroes of Purim, Jewish partisans saved thousands of lives through a combination of intellect, arms, the will to create a better future… and a great deal of mazal (luck). While Mordecai and Esther are heroic figures in Jewish lore, the day is truly won by the largely unsung Jews of Persia who united to rebel against their murderous assailants. As with the Jews of Persia, the great majority of the Jews who struggled against Nazi forces – both partisans and the millions more who engaged in unarmed resistance – remain nameless heroes, hidden in the shadows of our history.



Purim celebration in 1939. All but one person in this photograph - Jewish partisan Norman Salsitz - were murdered by the Nazis.

Today, the world continues to face oppressors who are willing to use brutal violence to attain their goals. The story of Purim, and the history of Holocaust resistance, teach us that the key to defeating injustice is using our minds, our bodies and our spirits to act justly to defend ourselves and others from tyranny, bigotry, and violence.

–Written by Eric Cohen

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Leon Senders (z''l), disrupted the Nazi war machine as a radio operator with the Soviet partisans.

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.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Jewish Partisans ,- Vitka Kempner (z''I) & Abba Kovner, (z''l) - both born on March 14th

    
This week, JPEF honors two legendary partisans from the Vilna resistance movement, who share the same birthday – and who eventually became husband and wife. Coincidences like this are uncommon, even in the realm of uncommon coincidences!
   
Abba Kovner was born on March 14, 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. His family eventually emigrated and he spent his high school years in 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.