This is the real-life story of Benjamin Levin, now 89-years-old and living in Ossining, New York, who became a vigilante freedom fighter at just 14-years-old during the Second World War.
The truth is that no one, including Benjamin, really knows how old he is; he had so many false identity documents when he was in the resistance that at the end of the war he couldn’t remember the actual date of his birth.
— McKay Smith (@McKayMSmith) April 9, 2017
It was in July 1941, when Benjamin Levin was just 14-years-old, that Nazis invaded Vilnus, Lithuania, ousting Soviet occupiers and forcing his entire family into a ghetto with all the other Jews.
The Daily Mail reports that Benjamin Levin is the last surviving member of the Jewish vigilante group known as The Avengers, a group of freedom fighters who fought the Nazi occupation while hiding in bunkers in the woods.
By his own admission, Benjamin was a wild child. He started smoking when he was 8-years-old and ran around the streets of Vilnius with a group of young hooligans. His father, Chaim, owned a gourmet food store and was a well-connected prosperous merchant.
Before Nazi occupation, their city had been an important hub of everything Jewish – there were more than 100 synagogues in the city. Chaim was a lover of German culture and initially dismissed reports of violent crackdowns on the Jewish population.
“My father was a big believer in all things German. He thought it would all blow over.”
Chaim refused to believe the news coming out of other parts of Europe, that Jewish businesses were being taken over by the Nazis and that Jews had lost all of their rights in Germany. Even though Chaim knew that the Nazis had desecrated Jewish cemeteries and synagogues and rounded up 30,000 Jewish men throughout Germany, he never believed that Jews in Lithuania were in any real danger.
But the family knew enough to go into hiding as the massacres began in Vilnius. Eventually, though, they were forced out of their home into the Jewish ghetto which had been established in the city’s old town. Benjamin’s street smarts and small frame helped him to easily move in and out of the ghetto, so he could carry messages to partisan leaders who were trying to organize an uprising. There were frequent Nazi crackdowns, and deportation raids often occurred on Jewish holidays in order to demoralize the remaining population.
Shmuel was Benjamin’s older brother; he was about 18-years-old, and he and his comrades could see what was coming. Prior to the Nazis taking control of Lithuania in July 1941, Shmuel had purchased a pistol and ammunition, the price of admission to a group of forest militants. As violence in the ghetto increased, Benjamin decided to join his older brother, sneaking out of the city to live in bunkers in the woods. Unfortunately, on arrival, he discovered that Shmuel had died just the day before whilst on a mission.
Benjamin Levin was the youngest member of The Avengers group, and he learned how to use his pistol from a fellow Avenger.
“At first, I saw this as a game. I was reading a lot of books about conspiracy and the Russian underground. For me, it started out as a great adventure.”
A few weeks into Nazi occupation, scouts sent reports about massacres and mass arrests of Jewish boys and men. Lithuanian security forces and German soldiers were going door-to-door in Vilna and detaining thousands of Jewish males, sending them on forced marches to the outskirts of the city. More than 21,000 were massacred and their bodies dumped into mass graves.
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When Chaim heard these reports from his son, he sprang into action, selling the family business in order to purchase weapons and ammunition for each member of his family so they could join the partisans. The family fled into the forest, where Chaim and his wife were offered refuge on a farm. They stayed there until the end of the war.
Levin recalls that he was forced to hide with a group of others during one of the German raids, when a baby’s crying threatened to reveal their hiding place. Benjamin was horrified to see the baby’s father grab an overcoat and smother the baby’s face.
“I think they killed the baby. I saw a lot of things. I saw very noble people become animals. And very plain people become noble. And my mother warned me that there would be worse to come.”
Benjamin’s street smarts and small size made him indispensable to the vigilantes when on sabotage missions. The group targeted bridges and train tracks to slow the movement of German troops, in addition to stalling the transportation of Jews to concentration camps.
Benjamin recalls that it was a rough life, drinking scummy pond water which left a sandy film on their throats and living off mushrooms and berries. He and about two dozen others hid in the Lithuanian woods, training and preparing attacks against the Nazis. They slept in makeshift bunkers carved from tangled scrub.
“To this day, I don’t know how we survived.”
Shmuel’s body was never recovered, and Benjamin doesn’t know how he died. But there was no time for mourning because, by the summer of 1943, Heinrich Himmler had given the order that all Jews in the ghetto were to be liquidated. The Jews were urged to resist the Nazis, but eventually, the ghettos were emptied and the Nazis rounded up the remaining Jews, shipping them off to death camps. The Avengers then worked with Russian soldiers who were advancing against the Nazis on Vilna.
In the summer of 1944, when Soviet forces moved into Vilnius, it was The Avengers who helped them liberate the town. Nazi collaborators were shot on the spot.
“We didn’t keep prisoners. There was no discussion. It was a normal thing.”
— Stacey Cole (@SC83Inquisitr) April 17, 2017
Levin doesn’t know how many Nazis he injured or killed, but it seems his vigilante activities were quite extensive because there’s still an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Lithuania, 70 years after the end of the war.
The almost-90-year-old spoke to the New York Post, admitting that, while those days are not talked about much anymore, it’s all “alive inside.”
“The moment I start to think about this, in comes more and more memories.”
The New York Post reported that Benjamin Levin’s group, The Avengers, vowed to kill as many Nazis as they were Jews who were exterminated. Benjamin agreed with his commander, Abba Kovner, who told his men that Jews should not go like sheep to the slaughter – they needed to fight back.
Benjamin Levin’s amazing story of heroism and wartime survival was originally documented by the University of Southern California’s Shoah foundation. Mitch Braff is the founding director of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, responsible for recording the wartime exploits of more than 30,000 Jewish partisans.
“This story is important because it breaks the stereotype of Jewish passivity during the Holocaust. They were responsible for thousands of acts of sabotage against the Nazis as they headed to the Eastern Front.”
This was a small group of just two dozen members, and they were a daring fighting force. During the war, The Avengers blew up five bridges, destroyed 180 miles of railroad, and destroyed 40 Nazi train cars. According to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, The Avengers killed 212 enemy soldiers. They took no prisoners; enemies were shot on the spot.
Although Benjamin’s parents survived the war, their Lithuanian neighbors executed them when they tried to reclaim their family home in Vilna. Benjamin and his sister made it to Israel, where Benjamin met his future wife, Sara, a Hungarian Jew who had escaped the Holocaust with her family.
Benjamin and Sara had been together for 66 years, and even though it was only two weeks ago that they lost their beloved Sara, their extended family is looking forward to celebrating Benjamin’s upcoming 90th birthday.
[Featured Image by nito/Shutterstock]