Leon in 1944 - courtesy of the Bakst family
Photo taken 2011. JPEF Archives
Leon Bakst was one of four siblings born to a wholesale merchant in Ivie, a small Polish town 73 miles west of Minsk. Leon was 15 when the Germans occupied Ivie, Poland in the summer of 1941 and forced the town's Jews into a ghetto. When they asked Leon's father what he did for a living, he lied and told the Germans that he was a brush maker -- he figured the occupiers would have more use for a tradesman. His assumptions were correct: he was spared from the initial massacre of Jewish men.
The labor camp was located in a railroad yard -- the prisoners even slept in the boxcars. Their food rations were meager, and their futures uncertain. Having heard about partisan groups living in the nearby forests, twenty of the youngsters decided to risk escape and join them. The prisoners had one tremendous advantage: the Germans were using the railroad depot to unload weapons and ammo taken from the retreating Russians. By slowly stealing rifles and stashing them in the ground, the prisoners were able to arm themselves before fleeing.
The two brothers were familiar with their surroundings, which made it easier for their group to travel at night. The rifles they stole from the Germans also ensured that the group got fed along the way. When they finally reached the Naliboki forest, the group encountered the Bielski Brigade, which at the time had about 200 partisans. Arriving with rifles, the newcomers were quickly accepted.
Leon's duties ranged from guard duty to food-gathering missions to railroad sabotage. Leon had many close calls. Once, the Germans encircled the forest and started shelling it to try and flush the partisans out. With bullets flying past and German planes dropping bombs, his group made their escape through a swamp. Leon remembers: "I could hear -- 'tsch, tsch' -- the bullets -- falling in the water right beside me and, you know, I was not afraid at all. I was just like I've been -- normal, you know, and I kept on."
After the war's end, Leon managed to leave Poland with his brother and Libby -- a partisan from another otriad and Leon's future wife. They eventually made it to a Displaced Persons camp in Munich, where Leon met Allen Small, a boyhood friend from Ivie who fought with a Soviet partisan otriad. It would be 65 years before they see one another again. (For more on their story, see JPEF's documentary "The Reunion".)
During the four years they spent in the Displaced Persons camp, Leon and Libby got married and their first child was born. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. Leon and Libby were the parents of two daughters, Marsha and Paulette (Pepe), and had two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Leon passed away on February 10, 2021, at the age of 97.