At a table in the darkened Edison Ballroom in Midtown Monday night, as gentle klezmer music played, Robert Zelwin raised his wine glass in a toast.
“To the partisans,” he said, as members of his family extended their glasses and clinked them together. Zelwin added, “To everyone who isn’t here.”
The toast included Zelwin’s parents, members of the legendary Bielski Brigade that fought the Nazis in Belarus, whose exploits have recently been popularized in two books and a major-studio 2008 feature film, “Defiance.” Sam and Ida Zelwin joined the forest-based brigade in Belarus after escaping the Polish city of Novogrodek in 1941.
“My dad lost his whole family, my mother lost her whole family except one brother. But they knew there was a God because they survived,” said a tearful Zelwin, who lives in Cleveland and has a cleaning supply business.
His parents died in 2005 and 2006, before they were aware of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, which gathered 55 honorees for its tribute dinner in Manhattan, the largest gathering since the group was founded in 2000.
But Zelwin, 61, attended on their behalf with his older brother and sister and many of their children.
The evening brought together surviving partisans with the hundreds of children and grandchildren who will inherit their legacies.
Lauren Feingold, granddaughter of Bielski fighters Sara and Charles Bedzow, said in a presentation that the Bedzows always faced adverse situations by saying “We can handle it. We are partisans.”
Several guests, like Romi Cohn of Borough Park, Brooklyn, proudly displayed medals they had been awarded for their bravery. “There are very few Jews who have this,” said Cohn of the International Partisans’ Silver Star on his lapel. A well-known mohel and businessman, Cohn wrote a 2001 book about his wartime adventures in Czechoslovakia, “The Youngest Partisan.” “I was part of a unit with 60 men, and only 25 survived,” he said.
One of the hosts of the evening was actor Ed Asner, whose cousin, Abe Asner, fought the Germans in Poland. Before reading an honor roll of the fighters who were present, Asner told how his cousin, now 95, living in Canada and unable to attend the dinner, escaped German captivity with three brothers, leaving the rest of the family behind. They joined up with a Russian unit, but the Russians later had a chance to join with a better equipped Polish unit — under one condition: they dump the Jews.
“They told them they needed the Poles more than they needed the Jews,” said Asner. “But Abe and his brothers refused to give up their guns. They remained in a small partisan outfit. By the end of the war Abe’s three brothers were dead: one by the Germans, one by the Poles and one by the Lithuanians.”
Asner, 81, best known for his role as newsroom editor Lou Grant on the 1970s TV program, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and as a liberal political activist, said his cousin was the second person whose tale was documented by JPEF in 2001. “He was a survivor, he is someone very important to me, as you all have someone very important to you in this room. As partisans you fought against the Germans in Slovakia, France, Yugoslavia and Russia.”
In an interview after his presentation, Asner recalled learning about the enormity of the Holocaust as a teenager. “It’s like a creeping fungus, or a red tide,” he said. “You’re overwhelmed. You keep hearing bits and pieces and when finally the totality hits you … it’s impossible to make sense.”
Asner said he had been fascinated by resistance since reading the 1967 book “They Fought Back” by Yuri Sul. “That was an early work designed to quell the canard that Jews are cowards and didn’t fight back. Looking around this room, you see that’s not true.”
The foundation’s founding president, Paul Orbuch, said the former partisans aren’t looking for self-aggrandizement, but for lessons to be learned. “I can tell you that no partisans that I have met took it upon themselves to say they are heroes or better than anyone who perished,” said Orbuch. “They accepted that it was luck or fate” that allowed them to fight back.
The foundation, which provides educational materials through its website and curricula for schools, believes it has reached over 600,000 elementary and high school students with and hopes to reach two million more in the next few years.
“In a time of Holocaust denials and fading memories, we have a lot of work to do,” said Elliott Felson, chairman of the Foundation’s board.
JPEF founder Mitchell Braff said the gathering of 55 partisans for the event was a milestone for the 11-year-old organization. “We went out specifically to gather as many as we could so we could honor everyone, not just a couple of people,” he said. “There are more surviving partisans than I believed still with us.”
But some guests attended on behalf of partisans who didn’t live to see the defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich.
One of them was Olivia Mattis of Huntington, L.I., who has launched her own foundation to honor Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the rogue Portuguese diplomat who saved Jews with a pen rather than a gun.
Based in France, Sousa Mendes defied his government and issued thousands of visas to Nazi refugees, including Mattis’ father, in 1940. Sousa Mendes died in poverty in 1954.
Mattis had two relatives who fought the Nazis in Poland: her grandmother’s siblings, Pola Chabanski and Lutek Szajn.
“I wish I could have met my partisan relatives, but they died during the war,” she said. “This [dinner] gives me a flavor of what they did.”
Jud Newborn, who served as Founding Historian of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage from 1986 to 2000, and gives multimedia lectures on Jewish resistance across North America, said he almost decided at the last minute to attend.
"Something inside me said, “you must go, no matter what,' " said Newborn. " After all, I’d broken a decades-long barrier at the UN in 1995 by doing the first lecture ever held there on the Holocaust. My subject was nothing other than “Lions of Judah” – the complete, unsung story of Jewish anti-Nazi resistance … It was the one subject that, amid all the darkness and horror, kept me going. It still keeps me going today.”