Leah Johnson points to a photograph of her family on display as she spoke at the Oyster Bay Jewish Center.
The Oyster Bay Jewish Center commemorated Yom Hashoah, Day of Remembrance, on Sunday evening, April 19. It was a life-affirming night. The Holocaust memorial day was celebrated worldwide on April 21.
The OBJC guest speaker was Leah Johnson of Florida, the mother of Sarah Johnson of Oyster Bay, a member of the temple. Ms. Johnson gave a first-person account of being a member of and survivor of the Bielski Brigade, the group of Jews who under the leadership of the three Bielski brothers hid out in the woods of Belarus, survived the Holocaust, and immigrated to America.
The evening began with a video presentation of surviving members of the Bielski Brigade who told the story of their lives with the three brothers who defied the Nazis and saved their fellow Jews by hiding in the Belorussian woods. There were 14 children in the Bielski family and the oldest three made a name for themselves as being tough guys - not to be picked on - in their rural farming village between Lida and Nowogrodek, said Leah Johnson.
She said, when the Nazis invaded their town the Bielskis decided it was better to save one Jew than kill five Nazis. They gathered people, young or old, with Tuvia Bielski's one desire, that they survive. For over two and a half years they had about 1,000 people living and hiding together as a community in the woods. The story is told in Edward Zwick's movie based on the book Defiance by Nechama Tec [published by Oxford University Press in 1993] which tells the story of "The Bielski Partisans: The story of the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews during WWII" who fought the Nazis throughout the Holocaust years. The brothers, Tuvia, Zus, and Asael, were the nucleus of the group. Of the brothers, Tuvia built the community in the forest after Zus, who was more a fighter than an organizer, joined up with a Red Army brigade to fight the Nazis.
Ms. Johnson said she graduated from high school in 1939. Her father owned a department store that sold uniforms to the Polish military. The invading German Nazis gave the family a year to liquidate the store. In 1941 her father died, "He had no proper Jewish funeral," she said. When asked if she would like to return to the town, she said no. "There is an apartment house built over the Jewish Cemetery. He is buried there." His was the last Jewish funeral in her town, Lida. In the middle of the night the Germans burned the town down and the residents were left with nothing except the clothes they wore. They sought shelter with farmers in the surrounding area but the Nazis wanted them to go into the ghetto in the city of Lida, and the farmers were too frightened to keep them. The family, then the mother and four children, her uncle, his wife and son, went to the Lida Ghetto where the Germans had them unloading coal and ammunition from the trains.
Leah snuck out under the barbed wire at night to get food for the families from the surrounding farmers. When the Bielskis learned that the people in the ghetto were all going to be killed, they offered to shelter them after they escaped from the ghetto. Leah was one of those who escaped through the surrounding swamps and survived. [That scene is in the movie.]
Leah met her future husband in the forest. She said her intuition always told her when he was coming home to the woods. She said her sister was captured on a mission and was taken by train to Treblinka. "Life goes on," she said. To survive, they asked for food from local farmers who helped out of respect for her father. She made her younger brother look even younger to save him from fighting. "We did whatever we had to do," she said.
They wanted to go to Israel but first arrived in Italy where her first daughter was born on April 1, 1946. They lived in a displaced person's camp for four years; from there, they hoped to get to Israel.
About 1950, her daughter Sarah was born. Her husband had a relative in South Africa and they went there and "lived a very good life in Johannesburg," she said. In 1979 her husband died. "I have three children; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. For 36 years I was married. Even today I can't believe what has happened to us. But life is beautiful, life goes on and life is for the living."
She was asked for a timeline: She said when she went under the barbed wire to get food for the family she was 18 to 19 years old. She was 19 and a half when she met her husband in the woods; he was 23. They were born in 1920 and 1923 respectively.
She was asked if she kept in touch with the other survivors. Yes, she had: in Florida, Brooklyn, Long Island and Toronto. "There are very few left of us, just about five of the brigade are left," she said. "They were like family. There is still one to see in Florida. On Nov. 20, I will stay with Bella, Zus' wife here on Long Island."
She added, "Tuvia was our hero." She said in his early days he was considered a "playboy."
She said she didn't get to Israel in those years. "I had a baby and they didn't let us in, but we wanted to go to Israel. But I did visit two years ago."
She was asked if the movie Defiance was accurate and said, "It was very well-done but there was not enough." She added that she talked to the director Edward Zwick and he said if he told the entire story it would have taken four hours. "You done good, I told him," said Leah.
She was asked how many languages she spoke and the answer was Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, Beloruss, Italian, Czech, English and ended with, "The best country in the world is America."
She was asked how she got out of Poland and into Italy. "We saw a train going and we went into any train we could - with produce or animals. We just jumped on a train. We didn't buy tickets. And we were always walking."
She was asked if she learned to shoot since her husband did, and said, "No." She told the story of his killing the man who killed his family.
Her husband's name was Wolf William Jonson but the Canadians called him Johnson, adding an "H" to his name - when they arrived at Halifax, Canada. "Now I have a grandson, Rabbi Zeb Johnson," she added.
Rabbi Marvin Demant said, "Every story is different. Every story is inspiring and to have her daughter Sarah, here in the Oyster Bay Jewish Center is wonderful."
Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust as well as 5 million others for a total of 11 million people killed by the Nazis. Radio Free Europe remembered the Holocaust and reported from St. Petersburg, Russia on its observance. It stated: "St. Petersburg's Jewish community has observed Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day, RFE/RL's Russian Service reports.
"Aleksandr Frenkel, the director of the Jewish Community Center in St. Petersburg, told RFE/RL that Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked each year on the 27th of the month of Nissan according to the Jewish calendar, which this year is April 21.
"Frenkel said this year's Yom Hashoah coincides with the 66th anniversary of the Jewish armed resistance to Nazi troops in the Warsaw Ghetto.
"More than 120 survivors of the Nazi concentration camps gathered at St. Petersburg's Jewish Cultural House, and special morning events were held at the city's Jewish schools and synagogues.
"There are estimated to be a few hundred thousand Jews in Russia, down from more than 1 million in 1989," concluded RFE.
Rabbi Demant said, "The survivors are a dying breed and if we don't remember them, people will forget. I am one of the Baby Boomers and my grandparents were killed in Auschwitz.
"One of our congregants, Miriam Rozner, was a survivor of Auschwitz. She tells the story of her family when people were told to walk - one to the left and one to the right - one of the German officers snuck them together." Rabbi Demant, as does Leah Johnson, remembers the good people do. He said in 1934, when Hitler was coming into power, his mother came here to America.