Despite great obstacles, Jews throughout occupied Europe attempted armed resistance against the Germans and their Axis partners. They faced overwhelming odds and desperate scenarios, including lack of weapons and training, operating in hostile zones, parting from family members, and facing an ever-present Nazi terror. Yet thousands resisted by joining or forming partisan units. Among them was Leah Johnson.
Leah Bedzowski was on the eve of her 18th birthday when the Nazis invaded the town of Lida in the eastern half of Poland. At the time, her family was already mourning the death of her father and, with the arrival of the Nazis and the antisemitic policies they would impose, many more challenges lay ahead of them.
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 had to return to Lida, where they were confined to a ghetto.
Their passport to freedom arrived in a letter from Tuvia Bielski, a friend of the family. Tuvia and his brothers were hiding out in the forest and accepting all Jews into their group. In the letter, Tuvia encouraged the family to join them.
Accepting Tuvia’s help, the Bedzowskis escaped from the ghetto by night, 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.
Leah took on the duties of the encampment, including food-finding missions and guard duty. Never safe until war’s end, Leah and her fellow partisans often found themselves fighting or fleeing the German army. Once, as the German army was advancing towards them, the Bedzowski family became separated from the rest of the group. Unsure of what to do, they were sitting under a tree when a group of young Jewish partisan men found them. One of the men was Velvel “Wolf” Yanson, a Jewish partisan from another brigade. He helped the family return to the Bielski group where he stayed behind and 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....If it wasn’t for him, my family would have perished and the Bedzowski/Bedzow name would have vanished for eternity.”
Velvel and Leah were married under a chuppah amongst their fellow partisans in the forest, and stayed with the Bielski group throughout the war until they were liberated. Afterwards, the Soviet Army tried to enlist Leah’s husband, so the couple fled the country through Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria until eventually crossing the Alps into Italy, where they remained for four years at a displaced persons camp in Torino. They emigrated 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. “Fight for your rights. Know who you are. This is my legacy,” she says.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What obstacles and limitations did Jews face when considering resistance?
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Leah Johnson's decisions and actions? Are these factors unique to this history or universal?
- How can societies, communities, and individuals reinforce and strengthen the willingness to stand up for others?