Leah Johnson

Courtesy of the Johnson family

2011 JPEF


Leah Johnson (born Leah Bedzowski) was nearly 18 when the Nazis invaded her hometown of Lida in eastern Poland. At the time, her family was already mourning the death of her father. With the arrival of the Nazis and the antisemitic policies they imposed, many more challenges lay ahead of them.

Approximate area of partisan activity for Leah Johnson

Leah, together with her mother and her three younger siblings, tried to escape from their oppressors early. They were taken in by sympathetic Gentile farmers on the outskirts of town, where they hid for a short time. The state soon decreed that all Jews would be confined into ghettos. The farmers could no longer safely harbor the family, causing the Bedzowskis to return to Lida, where they were forced into the ghetto. Their passport to freedom arrived in a letter from a friend of the family, Tuvia Bielski, who was the commander of the famed Bielski Brigade. Tuvia and his brothers formed an all-Jewish resistance unit in the forest and accepted all Jews into their group. In the letter, Tuvia encouraged Leah's family to join them.

Accepting Tuvia's help, the Bedzowskis escaped from the ghetto by night. They sneaked past guard dogs and crawled under barbed wire on their hands and knees. "You are going to live," their guide told them when they reached the forest. Leah and her family joined the Bielski Brigade that night.

Leah's duties in the partisans included going on food missions and guarding the camp. Never safe until the war's end, Leah and her fellow partisans often found themselves fighting or fleeing the German Army. Once, as the German Army was advancing towards them, the Bedzowski family became separated from the rest of the group. Unsure of what to do, they sat under a tree until a group of young Jewish partisan men found them. One of the men was Velvel "Wolf" Yanson, a Jewish partisan from another brigade. He helped Leah's family return to the Bielskis and stayed with the group, becoming known as "Wolf the Machine Gunner."

"It is thanks to his fortitude and strength that my mother Chasia, brothers Chonon (Charles) and Benjamin, as well as the other families whom he encountered under the tree, were all saved, " said Leah. "If it wasn't for him, my family would have perished and the Bedzowski/Bedzow name would have vanished for eternity."

Leah and Velvel were married under a chuppah (wedding canopy) among their fellow partisans in the forest. They stayed with the Bielski group throughout the war until they were liberated. The Soviet Army tried to enlist Velvel after the war, causing the couple to flee the country through Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. They eventually crossed the Alps into Italy, where they remained for four years at a Displaced Persons Camp (DP) in Torino. Changing their family name from Yanson to Johnson, Leah and Velvel immigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1949, where they raised three children.

Leah lived in Florida for many years and was active in the Jewish community, lecturing extensively about her Jewish partisan experience. She insisted that every young person be educated about the resistance of the Jewish partisans and spoke with as many students as possible, throughout Florida, Texas, and along the East Coast. "Fight for your rights. Know who you are," was her message.

Leah passed away on December 4, 2019, leaving a lasting legacy.