COVID-19 defeats the last of the Partisan Avengers

Benjamin Levin, a partisan who lived in the Vilna forests and survived a Siberian gulag, succumbed to COVID-19.

Jewish fighters from the Vilna Ghetto (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jewish fighters from the Vilna Ghetto
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There is a sad irony in the fact that Vilna-born Benjamin Levin, who as a young teenager had been part of a group of partisans who resisted the Nazis, who lived in the Vilna forests, and who was later arrested by the NKVD and sent to a gulag in Siberia for trying to smuggle Jews into Palestine, then escaped, joined the Irgun, was the ship's engineer on board the Altelena, and jumped off in the nick of time, should succumb to COVID-19.
It somehow did not fit into the story of his life.
Admittedly, Levin, who died on April 13, lived to the advanced age of 93, but given that he was such a tough old bird, he might have lived for several more years, had he not been infected with the virus.
He is believed to have been the last of a group of partisans who called themselves The Avengers.
When the Germans invaded Vilna in July, 1941 and began rounding up occupants of Jewish homes, they. did not find the 14  year old Levin, his older brother Shmuel, his sister Bluma  or their parents, who had been tipped off and had gone into hiding.
Levin's father Chaim was a well educated and prosperous businessman, who was a great admirer of German culture and who initially could not believe that Germans were capable of the atrocities ascribed to them.  But once he realized the bitter truth, he sold his business in order to have sufficient funds with which to buy guns and ammunition in order to equip his family.
By his own admission, Levin, to the consternation of his parents was a wild kid who as early as age eight was smoking  cigarettes and running around with street gangs.
This rebellious streak would serve him in good stead as an adolescent.
While running around with delinquent boys, he learned to know Vilna like the back of his hand, and later, when  he joined the partisans, he was able to carry out sabotage operations and injure and kill Nazis aided by his intimate knowledge of Vilna's every nook and cranny.
The partisan group that he joined called themselves the Avengers.  Their commander was one of the most famous of Vilna Jewish partisans -  Abba Kovner.
The Nazis quickly established the Vilna Ghetto, and during the second half of 1941, aided by Lithuanian collaborators, murdered 40,000 Jews, most of them in the Ponary forest, which after all these years, still bears the stench of death.
Of Vilna's 80,000 Jews, only 22,000 survive, including Levin's parents and sister. His brother who was in another partisan group was killed in action, though Levin learned  where or what exactly happened to him. Levin's parents were killed by Lithuanians after the war when they tried to reclaim their home.
In early 1942, Kovner who was a poet, published a manifesto in the larger of the two Vilna ghettos in which he urged fellow Jews to recognize that the Nazis wanted to destroy them. He told them not  to believe that they were going to labor camps when in fact they were being taken to be killed in Ponary.
Kovner exhorted them to revolt and rise up to fight the Nazis and not be taken like sheep to the slaughter.
Kovner survived the war as did his wife Vitka Kempner  who was an extremely active partisan in her own right, albeit a member of his group.
After the war, Kovner led a vengeance organization  whose mission  it was kill former Nazis and their collaborators, and was also active in helping to organize illegal immigration to British Mandate Palestine.
Levin was also was also part of this, but during the war itself, in addition to sabotaging trains, destroying miles of railroads, cutting telegraph wires, blowing up bridges, and injuring and killing Nazis, his diminutive size, which may have been somewhat of a disadvantage before the war, became extremely advantageous during the war.  He could scout and disappear easily, and when Jews entrusted him with their valuables to sell or to exchange for food, no-one really suspected him of being more than a ragamuffin.
It was in Israel that he met his wife Sara, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who was active in pulling illegal immigrants out of the water before they were spotted by the British.
After their marriage, the couple moved to New York where they raised their two sons.
Various organizations engaged in recording Holocaust history, eagerly pursued Levin and asked him to Yet again tell his story.
In one of the most widely published photographs of Kovner's Avengers, Levin is seen squatting in front of his comrades. Although their acts of heroism and resistance have been well documented, it is not quite the same as being face to face with one of the heroes of the story.
Now, there are none, but their stories have become legacies in chapters of the ongoing chronicle of the Jewish People.