Thursday, August 10, 2017
Leah, with her mother Chasia, and her three younger siblings Charles, Sonia, and Benjamin, tried early on to escape from their oppressors. They were taken in by sympathetic farmers on the outskirts of town where they hid 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 and imprisoned in the ghetto.
Their passport to freedom arrived in a letter from family friend Tuvia Bielski, encouraging the Bedzowskis to join his brigade in the forest. Tuvia and his brothers had escaped the massacre and were hidden deep in the woods. Determined to save as many Jews as possible, the Bielski group was welcoming all escaped Jews into their encampment.
The Bedzowskis readily accepted Tuvia’s help. Tuvia sent a guide to escort the family out of the ghetto. The group traveled by night in silence, past guard dogs, under barbed wire, and 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.
Leah took on the necessary duties of the encampment including food-finding missions and guard duty. She was never safe until the 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 were separated from the rest of the group as the German army advanced 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 Bedzowski 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 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 out to, especially the younger generation. “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.
Monday, May 1, 2017
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.
Tuvia was one of 12 children, born to a miller fathher on May 8, 1906 in the rural town of Stankiewicze. They were the only Jews in a small community, and 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. These escapees joined forces with the growing group of Soviet partisans who were 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. They worked endlessly 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.”
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 had special pride for 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 lives 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.
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.
Watch a short film on the Bielskis, narrated by Ed Asner, here:
Monday, June 1, 2015
With the help of Tuvia Bielski, siblings Charles Bedzow and Leah Johnson escaped the Lida ghetto before its residents were rounded up, shot and tossed into mass graves. Their biographies are available on the Partisans section of our main website. Charles Bedzow (born Chonon Bedzowski) and Leah Johnson (born Leah Bedzowski) grew up in Lida, a Polish town located in present-day Belarus. When they were in their mid-teens, the Nazis invaded Poland and confined Lida’s Jewish population into a ghetto, where their family lived in overcrowded, pest-infested quarters. Miraculously, the siblings' immediate family escaped the massacres that followed months later.
Convinced no one would be spared, the Bedzowskis were resolute to get out. Help came from Tuvia Bielski – the Bielskis knew the Bedzowskis, and Tuvia managed to get a letter to them to ask if they would join him and his brothers. They escaped the ghetto to join the Bielski brigade in the woods, where both Charles and Leah served as scouts, stood guard, and went on supply-gathering missions, among other things.
Charles and Leah survived the war with the Bielski camp and escaped to a DP camp in Torino. They and their families – both were now married – immigrated across the Atlantic to Canada.
Read the biographies here:
Friday, October 19, 2012
Actor Liev Schreiber Narrates Documentary “The Reunion” – World Premiere to Be Held in New York at Paley Center for Media
NEW YORK CITY – October 19, 2012 – The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF), an organization dedicated to inspiring the next generation by teaching the history and life lessons of Jewish partisans, will host the premier of its latest documentary “The Reunion”, narrated by actor Liev Schreiber who portrayed Jewish resistance fighter, Zus Bielski, in the film Defiance. The premiere will be held at the Paley Center for Media on October 22.
The documentary was inspired last fall, when JPEF hosted a reunion for all surviving Jewish partisans in New York City. 55 Jewish partisans attended the event, WCBS Anchor Dana Tyler was the emcee and actor Ed Asner gave a special presentation.
Allen Small and Leon Bakst were close friends growing up in Poland, both fought against the Nazis as Jewish partisans, and each lost their families during the Holocaust. They said goodbye, for what they thought was the last time, 66 years ago in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Their story unfolds in The Reunion, written and produced by JPEF’s executive director, Mitch Braff.
"This is an important story that must be told. I was happy to contribute to The Reunion, in hopes of helping ensure more people learn what the Jewish partisans went through and the incredible things they accomplished," said Schreiber. "Working on Defiance was a powerful and very personal experience for me. It was the beginning of an awareness and commitment that I'm certain will be with me for the rest of my life."
JPEF develops free educational materials for schools on the 30,000 Jews who fought against the Nazis as partisans. The Jewish partisans saved thousands of lives and destroyed thousands of German trains and convoys. Small, who now lives in Florida, Bakst, who now lives in Texas, and other partisans - including Frank Blaichman and Romi Cohn from New York, as well as Leah Johnson from Florida – are featured in the film. The movie answers questions about their very challenging life experiences.
Ticket sales can be purchased either on site or online at www.jewishpartisans.org/reunionNY. All proceeds from the ticket sales go towards developing JPEF’s curriculum. Members of the press, partisans and their families are invited to attend complimentary. A preview of the film can be seen at www.jewishpartisans.org/reuniontrailer.
About Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation:
JPEF is a not for profit organization and is the only association in the world solely committed to teaching the history and life lessons of the 30,000 Jews who fought back as partisans during World War II. More than 6,500 schools and synagogues worldwide use the organization’s free curriculum targeted for 7th-12th grades. Our mission is to develop and distribute effective educational materials about the Jewish partisans and their life lessons, bringing the celebration of heroic resistance against tyranny into educational and cultural organizations. For more information about the organization, the curriculum, to connect with other partisans or to donate, please visit www.jewishpartisans.org.