Holocaust survivor recalls resistance to Nazis

Matthew Stottlemyre

Leah Johnson was 16 years old when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. She spent the rest of her teenage years resisting Nazi forces from within Poland as part of a Jewish resistance group.

Johnson escaped from a ghetto outside her hometown of Lida, Poland, in 1943 to join the Bielski Brigade in the woods outside the city. The Bielski Brigade was a Jewish resistance group responsible for saving about 1,200 Jewish lives during the war.

She told her story to a group of 100 people Wednesday night at the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UT. The event began with a screening of the History Channel documentary “The Bielski Brothers: Jeruselem in the Woods.” The documentary featured Johnson along with other survivors who were part of the resistance group.

The creators of the 2008 film “Defiance,” which told the story of the Beilski Brigade, also interviewed Johnson. She saw the movie for the first time during a special screening in New
York City.

“The movie was well done, but not everything was shown,” Johnson said. “It was not enough.”

Rabbi Zev Johnson, Leah Johnson’s grandson, and the Rabbi for the Jewish Center said the purpose of having his grandmother tell her story was to promote Jewish awareness and raise Jewish pride.

“The typical story is how Jews were slaughtered, and that story is right and important,” Zev Johnson said. “This is the story of Jewish resistance, and this resistance saved over 1,200 lives.”

According to the documentary, the movement was the largest rescue of Jews by other Jews during World War II, and about 20,000 people are alive today as a result of the efforts of the Bielski brothers who formed the Brigade.

Leah Johnson said she met and married her husband while in the forest hiding from the Nazis. She said he was a former Russian soldier and went on missions for weeks at a time for the brigade to blow up trains and bridges or just get food.

Leah Johnson’s son Murray Johnson was also at the event to help his mother answer questions. He said she feels a connection to the forest because of the time she spent there hiding for her life.

“She has often said over the years in the woods you can take a pillow and a blanket and have a good time,” Murray Johnson said.