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06 March 2011

The Partisans of Vilna

"In Honor of Dr. Halina Kustin Jagendorf &
The Partisans of Vilna"

"On its altar they gave the prime of their lives."
-Abba Kovner

Leslie Schwartz' dear friend Dr. Halina Jagendorf fought the Nazi's when she was a mere teenager. She and her mother and brother were part of the famous partisans of Vilna, fighting in the forests of Rudnitska. Dr. Jagendorf's mother Dinah Mishcon Kustin was a cook for the partisans. Halina served as a field nurse. She fought with the great Abba Kovner. (Pictured to the left)

On July 13, 1944 the partisans then united with the Soviet Army liberated Vilna. The Nazi's never could overcome the partisans; their resistance was critical to the allied efforts, and I don't believe they were ever given the credit they truly deserve. They were featured in a documentary film Partisans of Vilna. For a preview of the film click here.

"It seems to me a stone/
Seeing us, would burst into tears."
(from "It Was a Summer Day" Partisans of Vilna Songbook)

Leslie knew Halina since his earliest days in the United States. At the time, 1947, Leslie was seventeen years of age. He attended Jefferson High school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn; Halina and her brother Abe also attended the school for immigrants who did not speak English. Leslie told me there were about twenty holocaust survivors in that high school; he recalled they all were able to communicate by speaking Yiddish (which he learned in the concentration camps). Leslie said he was very happy to go to high school, "I enjoyed what I missed as a 14 year-old -- that period I lost -- I was reunited with kids."

At the time the two year age difference between Halina and Leslie, "like day and night" in Leslie's own words, sealed his fate; all he would ever be to her was "a kid." For a European woman, a younger man was not so attractive! Halina was a brilliant and beautiful older woman. What did Leslie have to offer her in those days? Leslie had no shot in her eyes.

They lost touch for many decades. Occasionally, Leslie would hear from her brother, Abe, who had left the US and moved to Israel. Abe used to chastise Leslie for staying in the US, always telling him his place was in Israel, but Leslie felt very connected to the US, and America truly became Leslie's home (though I would also consider Leslie a citizen of the world!). As the years passed by there were many changes in both lives. Halina had married a prominent New York physician, and she herself earned a Doctorate in Psychotherapy and began a long, successful practice in New York City.

Leslie was only reunited with Halina a few years ago after receiving a wedding invitation to Abe's son's wedding in Israel. Abe told Leslie, "my sister would be happy to see you." Despite her immense professional success, Halina had gone through more than her share of hardship in this country; in fact, one could argue that her battles against the Nazi's were nothing in comparison to the trials and tribulations she would endure later in life. This kind of chaotic life is certainly not unusual for a combat veteran, holocaust survivor -- anyone with PTSD (though it wasn't diagnosed in those days) would have to struggle mightily to keep one's life from completely unraveling, almost at regular intervals, as those waves of trapped energy (experiences from the war years locked within one's human form) regularly spiral outward, like squall bands from a hurricane, affecting everyone within close range of the survivor. This phenomenon is mostly invisible and undocumented but very real. I saw this in my father's life and in so many others. The war never truly ends for someone like Halina, its echoes always reverberating in strange and grotesque ways, a constant internal battle, like a war against the peace and prosperity of her new life in America -- how could the chaos not return? Yet she always faced everything stoically and with honor, but by this point (2006-2007) in her life, the visit from Leslie, a face from the past, would bring her immeasurable comfort and joy.

Leslie is no longer an insignificant kid, but a loving presence from better days! Leslie tells me of their genuine affection for each other, their bonds forged in the horrors of war, and she has told Leslie "there are certain things I would not discuss with anyone but you." Halina suffered terribly during the war. They lived in the forest for years while fighting the Nazi's, and she did everything she could to keep her family together, but her sacrifices were great. No teenager should have to go through what she did -- all just to survive. Interestingly, she often tells Leslie how she "would [still] love to be 18 again."

Leslie tells me his relationship with Halina is one of the most important in his life, almost as if he feels responsible for keeping her spirit alive. They talk frequently, and when he is in New York, he visits her quite often. Now, her health is failing, and she is mostly confined to a wheelchair; she lives with her husband (who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease) and daughter Lorri, a brilliant mind in her own right, and Leslie really feels a part of their family. He said, "the whole thing really affects a guy like me." Leslie vowed to Halina in the dedication to his forthcoming book, "you will never walk the last road alone."

Death Is Not To Be Preferred
by Abba Kovner

When leading a band of harried fighters
or standing face-to-face with the enemy,
holding out in the siege
and standing alone
on the ramparts,
he never said death is to be preferred,
that life is negotiable;
by severe privations
he never asked anything
of Almighty God
but to grant him favor
and ease his pain
when he leads the congregation
in communal prayer;
and forgive our sins
in love
and joy
and gladness
and peace
O God,
And Awesome.

Note: Halina's story, "My Mother Halina Kustin Jagendorf, Partisan," by Lorri A. Jagendorf is featured on page 382 in Anthology on Armed Jewish Resistance 1939-1945 Volume II by Isaac Kowalski.


  1. hello,
    my name is Shai Kustin. I am Abe Kustin's son and I would like to find out what is the purpose of this story? Is it going to appear in a book?

    Thanks in advance

  2. Hello Shai,
    At this time there are no plans for a book, though I think there should be one! Halina and Leslie will be doing a program at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ in October 2012 in which they will discuss their friendship and experiences over the years. The documentary film about the Partisans and Leslie's documentary will be also shown at the event.


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