Growing up, Rabbi Zev Johnson was regaled by his grandmother Leah Bedzowki Johnson’s compelling and harrowing accounts of the two years spent hiding in the Belarusian forest as a Nazi resistance fighter during World War II.

“I always looked up to my Bubba,” says Johnson – the last name is an anglicized version of the original surname Yonson – affectionately plying the Yiddish term for ‘grandmother.’ “She stood up for physical resistance against all odds. The reason I’m alive today is because of her.”

On Nov. 16, Johnson, the on-campus rabbi at the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center at the University of Texas, hosted his grandmother as a guest lecturer at the Austin center. Before a crowd of an estimated 100 people, the feisty survivor recounted her experience as a member of the famed Bielski Brigade, a Jewish partisan group responsible for saving the lives of 1,200 men, women and children and considered the single largest rescue of Jews by Jews during the Holocaust.

“She inspired a lot of us,” says Alix Schliker, a UT business major. “ ‘Know who are you,’ she told us. ‘Don’t be afraid of being Jewish.’ It was a universal message to fight for what you believe in.”

“She kept saying, ‘We survived for you,’ ” echoes UT senior Dahlia Hellman. “I always find it fascinating that people could live through this and still be so positive.”

For decades a story largely untold, the Bielski Brigade, led by brothers Tuvia, Zus and Asael, was chronicled in director Ed Zwick’s 2009 film “Defiance” and in the History Channel documentary “The Bielski Brothers.” But it’s only over the past year that Bedzowksi Johnson has taken her personal story public.

“All my people are dying off,” she explains of her decision to tackle the lecture circuit. “Soon the Bielski resistance group will be forgotten. I’m doing this so the world knows, because for so long nobody knew. We were fighting for our lives. We were saving other Jews.”

Contrary to the deep-seated misconception that all the Holocaust’s victims marched like cattle to the gas chambers, there were 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish resistance fighters during World War II. What differentiated the Bieski Brigade from other groups was its aim to save all Jews, not only the able-bodied ones fit for physical battle. The goal was to save as many people as possible.

“There was a boy of three,” Bedzowki Johnson remembers. “There was a boy of two.”

Rabbi Zev Johnson, on-campus rabbi at the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center applauds his grandmother’s speech.
Rabbi Zev Johnson, on-campus rabbi at the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center applauds his grandmother’s speech.

She was 16 in 1939, the year the Germans stormed Lida, the Belarusian city in which she and her family lived. They were sitting shiva, the seven-day period of ritual mourning, for Bedzowski Johnson’s father – “It was the last Jewish funeral in Lida,” she recounts – when the city started to burn.

Initially, they fled to villages on the outskirts of town, taken in by a series of gentile farmers. But when the Germans issued a decree forcing all Jews back to Lida, Bedzowki Johnson’s family found itself ensconced in a ramshackle hut on the edge of the impoverished, barb-wired ghetto.

“We had no food,” she glumly recalls of the eight-month period. “We had nothing.”

They soon got word of Hitler’s master plan to annihilate the Jewish people. “We didn’t know what to do,” says Bedzowki Johnson. “Then one day, a gentile man who was with Tuvia Bielski brought a note advising my mother to come the forest.”

Their escape facilitated by that same man, Bedzowski Johnson and her siblings – two brothers and a sister – took to the woods. (Their mother joined soon after.) They ran for two days straight, disappearing deeper and deeper into the forest.

“What we did would not have been possible without our commander, Tuvia Bielski,” Bedsowski Johnson affirms. “He was our king. He was everything for us. With him, we knew that we were okay.”

She was 20 when she met Wolf Yonson, known to partisans by his alias, “Wolf the machine gunner.” They were married in the woods in the early part of 1943.

Bedzowki Johnson and her two brothers survived the war. Sonia, their sister, was captured by the Nazis. (They later heard she was sent to Majdanek, a death camp in Poland.) After logging time in a displacement camp in Torino, Italy, Bedzowski Johnson and Yonson eventually settled in Montréal where they raised three children.

“There are survivors who choose to remain silent,” says Murray Johnson, their son. “Then there are those that choose to tell their stories. My parents spoke openly about their experiences so as to create an awareness that this never happens again.”

For Bedzowki Johnson, slated to appear at Jewish-affiliated venues across the United States, continued silence is not an option.

“I’m doing this for my children and their children,” she declares, a slight catch in her throat. “They should not be ashamed to say, ‘I am Jewish.’ They should fight for their rights. They should know who they are. This is our history. And many people do not know. They ask, ‘Is it possible what happened?’ It’s possible. Sometimes I’m staring in the mirror looking at myself and even I don’t believe.”