UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH
A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance
My Parents' Biographies
Freedom Fighters of Nekamah
The 'Bart Family Collection' that includes original letters, postcards, photos and other memorabilia used to document UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH will be permanently archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
Leizer Bart was born on June 15, 1915 in Hrubieshov Poland, a small town near Lublin. The town had about 30,000 inhabitants; one third of the population was Jewish. Most of the town's people were very poor and anti-Semitism was high among the local Polish residents. At the age of thirteen, Leizer joined HaShomer Hatzair, a left wing Zionist group. Several years later he left his hometown for a farming kibbutz (haksharah) in Czestochowa, Poland. At the kibbutz he became a leader who trained younger members farming skills in preparation to go to Palestine. Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, at the age of 24, he fled with members of his Zionist group eastward from Czestochowa back to his hometown of Hrubieshov. At home, he begged his younger brother Michael to flee with him even further away to Vilna. But his brother refused, and decided to stay with their parents and younger sister Munia. His family's home was located next to the Bug River, which under the Non-Aggression Pact became the German-Soviet border. Leizer speculated that his family could propel a small boat across the river into Soviet territory if needed to escape the German occupation. With members of his Zionist group, he then left his family behind and fled to Vilna which was considered a safe zone since it was under Soviet control.
The city of Vilna had a population of 220,000; over 70,000 were Jewish. Leizer found a place to live on the outskirts of town in one of two large buildings on 37 Subocz Street along with other members of his Zionist group and other refugees who had fled Poland. On June 22, 1941 the Germans broke the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Two days later the Germans occupied Vilna. Leizer was forced into the Vilna ghetto on September 6th. There was not enough housing in the two ghettos to accommodate the amount of Jews being forced into these sealed areas. Jews who had no family were at greater risk of being left without a residence to sleep and ended up in a courtyard. Leizer signed up at the ghetto administration to work and was assigned the task of being a guard at the ghetto’s main gate. Several months after the formation of the ghetto, he joined the F.P.O. underground movement together with other members of his Shomer Hatzair Zionist group. At the gate, he became a Sergeant and was able to help the FPO smuggle arms and other needed contraband for the growing numbers of young people who wanted to resist the German occupiers. Leizer met Zenia Lewinson at a Zionist meeting in a ghetto apartment occupied by her cousin, Fania Bulkin. Leizer and Zenia met, fell in love, and were married on May 23, 1943, ninety days before the ghetto was liquidated. Their wedding date was on Lag BaOmer. On September 15, 1943 eight days before the ghetto's liquidation, a member of the underground Leon Bernstein bribed a Lithuanian guard for the use of a truck to get to the outskirts of town. Fourteen members of the underground including Leizer and Zenia escaped through a side gate. The group was led by Shlomo Brand who was originally from Leizer's hometown. From the outskirts they walked all night to the edge of the Rudnicki forest about 25 miles south of the city. They then walked 10 miles deep into the forest to meet up with two other underground groups from Vilna that had arrived shortly before them. As they were walking, Leizer heard what he thought to be German soldiers up ahead and pushed Zenia into a ravine, and then jumped on top of her in order to shield her from expected bullets. Minutes later he felt a tap on his shoulder from a rifle butt of a Russian partisan. In the words of underground member Fania Bulkin, "we walked all night in the forest; it was very difficult to survive." In the forest Leizer and Zenia became members of the Avengers (Nekamah) battalion commanded by Abba Kovner. Leizer was a main line fighter who participated in many battles and took part in the mining of enemy railway lines and trains. Leizer was very proud of his accomplishments as a partisan fighter against the Nazis and of his Zionist membership. Many times he asserted with much pride in his voice, "Abba Kovner was our commander," and when Zenia was in the room she would nod with a big smile. The partisan fighters had coordinated their efforts of resistance to avenge the honor and dignity of their families and for those still alive in work camps in the city’s surrounds.
At the war’s end Leizer and Zenia traveled to his hometown. A neighbor explained to Leizer what had happened in Hrubieshov. The Jews had been hauled off in two different round ups, but his sister was taken earlier by some local townspeople. No one in Leizer's family survived. His mother Ida Bayla Gal, father Israel David Bart, brother Michael, and sister Munia were all killed. His family's home had been occupied by Poles. Leizer, hardened by war, approached his home armed with a pistol and demanded that those residing inside leave within 24 hours. After leaving his home he was approached by a local Catholic priest that had grown up nearby. The priest recommended Leizer and Zenia leave town immediately and warned them, "These people have no intention of giving back your house; there will just be another dead Jew." Zenia said at that moment Leizer was very angry and they left for Lublin.
Leizer's long time dream was to go to Palestine. Most of the partisans set sail via the Bricha to Palestine. Zenia wanted to try and find her maternal uncles living in America and so they decided if she could locate her uncles' they would go to America, and if not they would go to Palestine. On a lucky day in January of 1948 they sailed to New York on the USS Marine Perch. For many years Leizer continued to look for his only known relative, a maternal uncle who left for America prior to the war. He never found him and not one photo of his family survived the war.
Zenia Lewinson - Bart
Zenia Lewinson-Bart was born on June 05, 1922 at 7 Sadowa Street in Vilna (Wilno), Poland--now Vilnius, Lithuania. She was raised at 29 Zawalna Street in a building owned by her grandmother Bluma Balcwinik where she lived with her mother Rose, step father Hillel Botwinik, and her younger brother Michael. Her aunt Lizzie Balcwinik lived in another apartment in the same building with her husband Wolf Skolnicki and their three sons: Shashka, Avraham and Nachum. Zenia’s other aunt, Sonia Balcwinik, lived nearby with her husband Avraham Bulkin and their two daughters: Fania & Sima. All of Zenia’s family had lived in the Vilna - Eishyshok regions for generations. Her grandmother Bluma had owned and operated a hay and grain business that sold supplies as far back as to the Russian cavalry during the period of Czarist Russia. Bluma was a shrewd and successful businesswoman. She ran a horse stable in the rear of her home and in the front was a bakery known in the area for having the best oven for making cholent. On Friday mornings the neighbors would drop off their large pots of cholent and would pick up their slow cooked meals for Shabbos dinner the next day.
Zenia had three uncles--Barney, Aaron, and Norman--who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts. The uncles left Vilna for America before Zenia was born. Although she had never met them, they wrote often. Her Uncle Barney, the oldest of Zenia’s uncles, fled Vilna at the age of 17 with his sister Lizzie to escape arrest due to their anti-Czarist activities. Barney and Lizzie were involved with the Shomer Hatzair Zionist group and they were part of the 1905 uprising in Vilna. Lizzie lived in Springfield for a year and worked as a seamstress in a corset factory. Lizzie considered staying in America, but her sister Rose urged her to return since she felt Vilna provided them an easier life, and it was a place where all three sisters could find husbands. Aaron the middle sibling fled Vilna for fear of conscription into the Russian army and headed for America. His first attempt failed due to the lack of proper papers. But, one year later he set sail again from Libau, Russia to Hoboken, New Jersey on a ship named Birma. He succeeded in immigrating, and temporarily settled in New York where he worked soldering tin roofs. The youngest, Norman also fled to America. All of Zenia’s uncles settled in Springfield. Norman died in 1932 of Tuberculosis.
In Vilna Zenia's mother Rose Balcwinik married Boruch Lewinson. Boruch died of sun stroke when Zenia was a young girl. Rose later remarried a prominent wood merchant, Hillel Botwinik. Rose owned and operated a stationary store on 7 Sadowa Street. During the summers, the family spent time at Hillel's farm called the Boulders. Zenia was a member of Betar, a right wing Zionist group and attended the Epstein-Szpeizer Gymnasium, a Jewish high school for Vilna's upper class.
Lithuanian Militia in Kovno -- June 1941.
(photo: Yad Vashem)
On June 22, 1941 the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. When the Germans began bombing Vilna, Zenia had just returned home from delivering a package to a close family friend. Zenia found out later that the apartment building she had just visited was flattened by a bomb shortly after she left. Zenia said this was the first of many times she could have been killed during the war. After the Germans occupied Vilna, local Lithuanians who were collaborating with the Germans began to round up Jewish men for forced labor. Zenia’s stepfather Hillel was taken away on July 13, 1941 for one day's labor, supposedly, but never returned. On September 6, 1941, Zenia along with her mother, grandmother and younger brother were marched into a sealed ghetto, forced to live in one small bedroom with 20 others. Their apartment included only one bathroom and one kitchen and was occupied by nearly one hundred people who divided the living space into four areas.
Zenia met Leizer Bart in the ghetto while attending a Shomer Hatzair Zionist meeting that was held in the apartment of her cousin Fania. Zenia and Leizer became friends, fell in love, and were married by one of the last remaining rabbis on Lag BaOmer, May 23, 1943, ninety days before the ghetto was liquidated. In the last days of the Vilna ghetto, Zenia was caught during a roundup and taken to the ghetto prison. She pleaded with one of the German soldiers, saying, "I can work, I can work." The soldier hit the back of her head with his rifle butt and she fell down hitting an iron gate, then the cobblestone pavement, which knocked her unconscious. When she awoke the others in her group were shot dead lying around her. She managed to make her way to the underground hiding place where she found Leizer. Eight days before the ghetto was liquidated, Zenia and Leizer escaped with a group of fourteen members of the underground led by Shlomo Brand to the Rudnicki forest. There, they joined the Avenger's partisan battalion commanded by Abba Kovner. Zenia was a camp cook and was also a courier of needed supplies between partisan camps.
In the forest, Zenia heard from some labor camp escapees that her mother Rose and brother Michael were still alive among 500 other prisoners at the HKP labor camp located on the outskirts of the city. The Red Army together with four detachments of mainline Jewish partisan fighters of Vilna participated in the liberation. The street to street fighting lasted over a week. Once the city was liberated on July 13, 1944 the partisans arrived at HKP labor camp to find that the Germans had shot all the remaining prisoners shortly before abandoning the camp. Zenia found her mother and brother still lying sprawled out in the courtyard shot dead by the Germans before they fled the city. This shock of horror caused Zenia to suffer depression for years.
Several months later, Zenia and Leizer together with most of the other former partisans left the city to avoid being conscripted into the Red Army. The Jewish partisans felt Vilna was a large graveyard occupied by residents that were anti-Semitic and were still very hostile to Jews. Zenia and Leizer headed south to Lublin, Poland. Prior to their leaving Vilna, Zenia send a postcard to her Uncle Aaron in Springfield telling him that she was the last one in her immediate family to survive. Zenia had addressed the postcard to "Springfeld, America." Seven months later, her uncle Aaron received the postcard with the sad news.
Zenia's cousin Fania was the only other member of the Balcwinik family in Europe to survive the Holocaust. Fania left Europe from Romania on November 27, 1945 heading to Palestine. Zenia and Leizer continued on to Rome, Italy and settled temporarily at a displaced persons camp, Cinecitta. Leizer was able to find employment at the Joint Distribution Committee, and they were then able to rent an apartment on Via Dei Serpenti 140/13. Zenia received a letter from her uncle in Springfield offering them sponsorship in America. Zenia was looking forward to go to America where she had uncles and numerous cousins.
Zenia and Leizer sailed from Naples to America's New York Harbor on January 3, 1948 on the SS Marine Perch, a United States troop ship. Upon their arrival on January 16th they were met by Zenia’s uncle, Aaron and her cousin Jeanette. Zenia and Leizer lived with Uncle Aaron and his wife Sadie in Springfield, Massachusetts for almost a year. Leizer worked in Aaron’s business for four years as a shipping clerk while Zenia worked sewing at Carter Shop. Zenia and Leizer went to night school to learn English, and in 1953 became United States citizens. Their sons Bruce and Michael were born in Springfield in 1949 and 1953. Zenia and Leizer loved Springfield. They were very happy to be surrounded by family and were very proud of their membership in Club Hatikvah.
In 1966, The Bart family needed to relocate to a warmer climate due to Leizer's health. Leizer had serious damage to his lungs that was caused by his wartime activities. Leizer and his older son Bruce moved to San Diego in 1966, and they were followed by Zenia and her younger son Michael in 1967.
*Bart Family Collection. All rights reserved, Copyright © 2008.
Back to Top