Józef Leszcz was born in 1928 in the shtetl of Włodzimierzec, in Eastern Poland (now Volodymyrets, Ukraine) into the family of a Jewish cobbler. He was the youngest of three sons. His parents Volf and Gita Leszcz were Trisk hasidim (i.e., from Trisk or Turiisk, the original home of the Twersky hasidic dynasty). Thus, the boy received a traditional upbringing. The family was poor. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s -- to 1941 (i.e. including the period of the Soviet rule) -- the second brother Jakub (Iakov) studied in yeshivot.
The Soviet annexation, in the fall of 1939, of Volhynia, where Włodzimierzec was located, improved the situation of the Leszcz family. Life was interesting since a military airfield was built near the town and the brothers liked to visit the new military installation to talk to the pilots and watch the latest Soviet films.
The German occupation of the town in July 1941 began with an anti-Jewish pogrom staged by Ukrainians. The parents did not evacuate from the town because Gita was pregnant (Józef's little sister Yeta, or Judith was born in October 1941, under the German occupation). The brothers also refused to leave the town. The family was incarcerated in a ghetto. In August 1942, the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators liquidated the ghetto. All of Józef's relatives – his parents, siblings, grandmother, and aunts and uncles with their families – were killed. Józef and several other youths succeeded in escaping from the mass killing site. Then a long period of wandering in the forest began for him. In the winter of 1943, during his short stay in a secret bunker with other Jewish survivors, he carried out a surgical operation on himself – he amputated his frostbitten thumb to save himself from gangrene. In the summer of 1943, he joined the Wanda Wasilewska Unit – a Soviet partisan unit mainly composed of ethnic Poles.
In August 1943, exactly a year after the mass murder in the ghetto of Włodzimierzec, Józef took part in a partisan raid against Ukrainian collaborationist policemen and, after the operation, personally executed two policemen. He felt the necessity to take revenge for his murdered relatives and for other Jews. In Józef's view, his revenge on the Germans had two aspects; during the war he had to kill as many Germans and their accomplices as possible and, if he survived, after the war, he would marry a Jewish woman and they would have as many children as possible. Also the children would bear the names of his murdered parents and siblings.
In January 1944, the Red Army re-captured the part of Volhynia, where Włodzimierzec was located. Józef Leszcz went to the newly opened conscription office in the nearby larger town of Sarna in order to volunteer for the Red Army and to continue taking revenge. Many Jewish partisans wanted to volunteer to join the Red Army, especially since most of them no longer had a home or family to return to. The officers of the conscription office did not want to draft Józef since he was too young. Reluctantly, they sent him to Kharkov (in eastern Ukraine) for "six months of training before transfer to the front."1. He recalled that the training was interrupted by agricultural work on a kolkhoz, to which young trainees were sent from time to time.
In October of 1944 Józef Leszcz, who had been registered in the Red Army as Volodia Leshch, was finally sent to the front lines. He was assigned to the 1st Pomeranian Artillery Division to carry out reconnaissance and communications missions. The Division was operating in the area of Narew-Pułtusk, in northern Poland, and preparing to enter East Prussia. He recalled the first period as "six weeks of artillery duels with the Germans" without advancing.2. One day, while fixing a communications line, Leszcz was wounded by a shell fragment. In January 1945, his division began its offensive against Danzig and Gdynia. Like other Red Army soldier who entered the homes of German farmers, he was shocked by their wealth and the quality of their clothes, furniture, and utensils. He wondered whether they had looted them from Jews. Later, in April 1945, Leszcz, in fact, saw tablecloths with Hebrew writing embroidered on them in a German house in the newly conquered city of Stettin. He called his commander, an ethnic Russian, Lieutenant Zosimov, and said "All this wealth that you can see here was stolen from my people, from the Jewish people!"3. To his surprise, after Zosimov saw this, he said: "In which book did I read: 'Will you murder and also inherit?'" (This quote comes from the Bible, the First Book of Kings, chapter 21, verse 19)
Leszcz's division was halted in the vicinity of Berlin and ordered to retreat to clear the area of the German military units that continued their resistance in the Red Army's rear. There Leszcz was seriously wounded – his right hand was almost torn off. The hand was amputated in a hospital. His reaction was to ask himself whether he would no longer be able to take revenge.
After the war, he was hospitalized in a Soviet hospital in Bytom (in Upper Silesia). There Leszcz began to plan how to get to the Palestine because only there, he believed, could he realize his final revenge on the Germans – bringing Jewish children into the world and raising a Jewish family. Leszcz made contact with members of the local branch of the Brikha, the clandestine organization that smuggled Jews out of Europe and transported them to the Land of Israel. After his release from hospital, Leszcz joined one of the Brikha groups. In the winter of 1946, he was smuggled from Poland to Germany, and from there, via Austria and Italy, he sailed on a ship of the illegal aliya toward Palestine. However, the ship was intercepted by the British and the passengers sent to a camp in Cyprus. After a long, detention in a camp in the Cyprus along with other Jewish survivors, he arrived in the year that the Jewish state was established.
Józef Leszch (or Yosef Lesch as he wrote his name in Israel) married and has a daughter and three sons.