Seeking Kin: Giving partisans their due

 JTA’s new column, “Seeking Kin,” aims to help reunite long-lost friends and relatives.

BALTIMORE (JTA) — On a chilly, late-summer night in 1943, approximately 200 Armenian mercenaries wearing stolen German Army uniforms attacked a German base in the Nazi-occupied Ukrainian-Polish region of the Carpathian Mountains. The fighters seized what ammunition they could and set the base on fire.

Bronia Szyr watched the inferno from a nearby home that she and fellow partisans had commandeered. Because the base was full of ammunition, it “exploded like an atom bomb,” she recalled. But the night’s attacks were not over. A half-kilometer away, other partisans dynamited a passing train transporting German soldiers to the Russian front, shooting those who fled the derailed cars. Within minutes of the train attack, Bronia and every partisan around beat a hasty retreat.

“We had to move fast, because the [German] reinforcements would be coming right away,” she said.

Now 86 years old and living in Florida, Brenda Senders — Bronia’s name since settling 60 years ago in the United States with her husband, Leon, a partisan in Lithuania — is proud of the attacks and of her year-long service in the partisans.

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“These incidents [hurt] them badly. It felt good. They destroyed my family, everybody,” she said of the Nazis. Senders’ mother, Leah; sister, Esther; and brother, Solomon, were shot in the ghetto near their home in Sarny, Ukraine. Senders’ sister, Sima, survived the war by hiding in a nearby forest and now lives in Washington, D.C. Senders thinks that their father, Shmuel, was killed after escaping the ghetto.

Brenda and Leon Senders will be among 50 former partisans who will be honored at a Nov. 7 dinner in Manhattan.

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, which is sponsoring the event, spotlighted individual partisans at previous gatherings. This time, it is casting a wider net. The organization hopes that JTA’s readers will urge friends, neighbors and relatives who fought with the partisans to stand up and be counted so their heroism can be recognized. 

“Some of these people are so old that, rather than honor one or two, why not honor all the partisans?” explained JPEF’s executive director, Mitch Braff. “We’re having the dinner because they inspire the next generation to make a difference. We really want to do something special for the partisans, so we’re inviting them to attend, free of charge. Our goal is to make this one of the best nights of their lives so that they feel truly special.”

One of Braff’s colleagues has devoted the past two months to searching for partisans. Many partisans, like concentration camp survivors before them, are reluctant to discuss their experiences and often must be prodded to do so for history’s sake, Braff said.

JPEF recently enlisted talk show host Larry King and Hollywood veterans Edward Zwick and Liev Schreiber to film public service announcements to publicize the event on-line; Zwick directed and Schreiber acted in the acclaimed 2008 film, "Defiance," based on the real-life story of the Bielski brothers, who organized Jewish partisans in Poland. Several children of deceased partisans plan to travel from Lithuania, Australia and Israel for the dinner, Braff said.

JPEF also is reaching out to partisans through synagogues, Jewish organizations, Holocaust-education museums and teachers with whom it has worked on curricula.

The dinner will climax a busy two days in New York, including leading discussion groups with partisans’ children and grandchildren and videotaping interviews with partisans who have not yet been recorded. JPEF has filmed lengthy interviews with 44 partisans the past few years, Braff said.

Despite the acclaim brought through Defiance’s release, widespread unfamiliarity with partisans’ heroism persists, he said.

That derives in part from their wartime need to keep their religion hidden from the Russians, Poles and others whose non-Jewish units they joined. Braff estimated that 30,000 Jewish partisans fought in 10 countries, with Jews constituting 10 percent of Lithuania’s 22,000 partisans.

Fighting with a unit in Czechoslovakia’s Tatra Mountains, Abraham “Romi” Cohn’s commander changed Cohn’s identity to the fictional “Jan Kovac” and ordered him to pose as a Catholic for his own good.

“You didn’t advertise that you were Jewish because the partisans, even though they fought the Nazis, didn’t love Jews,” said Cohn, 82, a Bratislava native who lives in New York and ran a successful building company. Perhaps one other partisan in his unit was Jewish, Cohn said, and only 25 of the 250 men remained alive at war’s end. Cohn’s father, Leopold, survived the Shoah and later moved with him to the United States; two of Cohn’s sisters, Sarah and Hannah, survived, too, and live in Israel. 

The trauma of the murders of his mother, Emilia; brothers, David and Jacob; and sisters, Devorah and Hedwig, along with painful memories of his six-month service in the partisans, kept Cohn silent until 2006.

“After the war, I came back [to Czechoslovakia] and tried to function as a human being. I had to support two sisters who survived. I used to have nightmares of being in the mountains — running, shooting, moving — and when I got up, the sheet was wet from sweat. I thought, ‘The Nazis couldn’t kill you, but you’ll kill yourself by thinking and speaking about it.’ So, I told myself I shouldn’t think about it,” Cohn related.

“My name came up in Yad Vashem testimony, in cross references, because I supplied people in hiding with financial aid. Yad Vashem approached me [to ask me] to give testimony, and I said, ‘By no means.’ Then, when the Holocaust deniers came out, I said to myself, ‘You cannot be selfish. You have to tell your story.’ When I was approached again, I decided to testify for Yad Vashem. I went to Israel to do that five years ago.”

Cohn’s journey in November will require merely crossing the East River from his Brooklyn home.

“People should know,” he said of the dinner, “that there were those who resisted the Nazis.”

Please send a message to seekingkin@jta.org if you know Jewish partisans from World War II who should be honored at the November dinner or if would like our help in searching for your own long-lost friends or family. Please include the principal facts in a brief e-mail (up to one paragraph) and your contact information.

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