The Bielski Partisans:     fighting back: a ‘forestJerusalem’ story

March 18, 2019 by Tamara Vershitskaya and Leslie Bell
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Novogrudok is a small city in Western Belarus (formerly Byelorussia).  A country of rolling hills with thousands of streams and lakes, over 40% of its territory is dense primeval forest where wolves, bears, wild boars, and bison roam.  Once the hunting grounds of Russian and European aristocracy, it was also important and well-known centre of Jews who lived there since the 15thcentury.

“Because the hour we have hungered for is near, Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: we are here!” 

Hirsh Glick (1922-1944)    — Zog Nit Keyn Mol (‘Never Say’)   The partisan Yiddish anthem of  the Holocaust

Bielski partisan fighters (Naliboki Forest, Belarus, 1943)

From Belarus came three presidents of Israel – Chaim Weizmann, Zalman Shazar, and Shimon Peres; and three prime ministers – Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.  Also from Novogrudok and its surrounding region came the largest Jewish partisan detachment not only in Belarus, but throughout German occupied Europe during World War II.

David Bielski and his younger brother, Zelig, were born in a rural Belarusian village, part of tsarist Russia, towards the end of the 19thcentury. Their paths diverged in the beginning of the 20thcentury when they were young men.  However, they found themselves together again when, in the freezing winter of 1942, they were forced to undress with their families and hundreds of fellow Jews, and machine-gunned into pre-dug ditches by Nazi extermination squads plus their enthusiastic Lithuanian collaborators.

About 4,000 Jews from Novogrudok were massacred that first all day slaughter.  Of the 10,000 people who lived in the city, 6,000 were Jews.  David’s two oldest sons and Zelig’s three had immigrated to America in the 1920’s.

Before the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941,

David and his wife were the only Jews living in their small village.  They owned a mill and had 12 children.  The children were proud of their Jewish heritage and did not believe in turning the other cheek when confronted by anti-Semitism. Their combative sons, Tuvia, Asael and Zus, well over six feet, knew how to use their fists, scythes and hatchets; they settled scores.  Woe unto any local who harmed their family or ridiculed their religion.

Tuvia Bielski (Belarus, 1930’s)

Tuvia would later become the well-known and charismatic commander of the Bielski Partisans, one of the most successful and impressive rescue operations during the Holocaust.

Tuvia attended a religious school but showed little interest. From 1921-1939 about half of Belarus was controlled by Poland and he was drafted into the Polish army. Two years later, corporal Tuvia Bielski returned home, got a job as an assistant bookkeeper and married.  It was an unhappy marriage.  He fell in love with another woman and divorced his wife.

Zelig married a girl from a family that had lived in Novogrudok for 500 years. Her family owned the second largest brick house on Market Square that still stands today.  He opened a glazing business and they had seven children. Their youngest child, Yehuda (Yudel) would later lead an escape with nine others from the heavily guarded Novogrudok ghetto into the forest.

Yehuda attended the Zionist Tarbut School.  He learned to play the violin and guitar, was an accomplished ballroom dancer and an excellent athlete.  He was also drafted into the Polish army.  When Lieutenant Yehuda Bielski returned to Novogrudok, he got a job as a school athletics coach and married his fiancé who owned a beauty salon.  He was a quiet, very private man.

The army called up Yehuda when Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939.  Badly wounded in battle, he escaped from a Warsaw hospital when the SS stormed the hospital looking for officers and Jews.  He maneuvered his way home where the Soviets were now in control.  As his wound healed, he worked on his wood house that also still stands today.

When the Germans reached Novogrudok, Yehuda found himself on the ghetto selection line to the massacre pits.  After a second selection, he planned an escape.

Just then he received a letter from his older cousin, Tuvia, delivered by their Christian friend, Kostik Kozlovsky, urging him to bring his wife and some good men to the forest where “we will build something together.”  Tuvia had escaped with 20 family members from a village he was hiding in.  He needed Yehuda’s military expertise.

One night, leading his wife and eight potential fighters, they removed the ghetto fence boards, cut through the barbed wire and escaped across an open field to the forest.  When they finally reached his cousins, Yehuda addressed the group: “We have come here to stay alive.  We must think only of one important thing, revenge and revenge again on the murderers.” Acquiring weapons and attacking the enemy was his answer.

With Tuvia’s authoritative leadership and Yehuda’s military focus, the Bielski Partisans emerged.  It now included people who were not relatives.

Tuvia and his brothers, Asael and Zus (a fierce fighter), organized the Bielski detachment.  Their 13-year-old brother, Aron, was a forest scout.  Tuvia accepted and protected desperate Jews of all ages, and created a family partisan camp.  “Because we are so few, it is important for me that the Jews stay alive,” he said.

The grandmother of Jared Kushner (President Trump’s son-in-law) joined the Bielski partisans after escaping with her sister and father from the Novogrudok ghetto into the forest.  By the autumn of 1943 there were 750 people in the partisan camp.  Satellite camps were added.

Several dozen underground bunkers were built in the main camp.  The largest could house about 40 people.  In the center were the headquarters and meeting place. It included assorted workshops, a mill, bathhouse, laundry, synagogue, school, infirmary, and jail.

Some extraordinary Belarusians, at enormous risk to themselves and their families, helped Jews escape from ghettos and tunnels.  The Germans brutally killed the families of those who helped Jews.  In Jerusalem, 711 Belarusians are honored and memorialized at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

The military wing Yehuda organized proved to be extremely effective guerrilla fighters and saboteurs.  Aided by their Belarusian friends, they acquired ammunition and equipment.  They captured German weapons and uniforms. They received many more weapons and equipment from the Soviets.

According to the Russian archives, the Bielski partisan fighters derailed German trains with manpower and equipment, blew up rail and highway bridges including hundreds of meters of tracks plus German vehicles.  They assassinated hundreds of German soldiers and officers, the collaborating Belarusian auxiliary police, and local farmers who identified and killed Jews.

Yehuda’s life was always in peril.  Stalin had ordered that all Polish officers be shot on sight.  There were Moscow-led detachments and NKVD (secret police) partisan units fighting in the forest.  But Tuvia had a friendly working relationship with several Soviet commanders and protected his cousin.  Yehuda eluded the Russians and acquired a moniker: “the mystery man.”

One day Tuvia asked him to select several fighters and rescue the parents of Sonia, a Bielski partisan, from the heavily guarded Novogrudok ghetto.  That was her condition for marrying Tuvia’s brother, Zus. “A suicide mission,” Yehuda recalled. The well armed

partisans entered the ghetto and brought back to the forest her parents and several others.  They all survived the war.

Tragically, Tuvia’s wife and Yehuda’s wife were killed in a German ambush.  In time, Tuvia and Lilka, his wife’s relative, became a couple.  Yehuda befriended Lola who had escaped from Poland and joined the Bielski detachment, her fourth partisan group.

Liberated in the summer of 1944 by the Red army on its way to victory in Germany, approximately 1,230 men, women and children in the Bielski detachment walked out of the forest.  Today they have over 25,000 descendants.

Tuvia and Lilka married; Zus and Sonia married.  (Asael was killed.)  Yehuda married Lola.  The Bielskis made their way to Palestine.  Yehuda was commissioned a lieutenant in the IDF and fought in Israel’s War of Independence.  Again he was wounded in battle.  Tuvia and Zus also participated in the war, and on May 14, 1948 Israel was reborn.

In the 1950’s the Bielski families immigrated to America where they were reunited with siblings they had not seen in over 30 years.

This year marks the 75thanniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the barbaric German invaders.  Belarus had the largest partisan (374,000) and anti-Nazi underground movement (70,000) in Europe during World War II.  Loss of life was in the millions.  Over 800,000 Jews were killed in a Holocaust by bullets.

Dozens of descendants of the Bielski Partisans will be coming to Novogrudok this summer to honor the legacy and heroism of their families, and of the non-Jews who hid and helped them.  They will be warmly welcomed with celebrations and festivities.  They will be able to see for themselves “Forest Jerusalem” as the locals used to call the Bielski partisan camp.

Tamara Vershitskaya is the researcher and curator of the Jewish Resistance Museum in Novogrudok. She can be contacted at wtamar@mail.ru and +375-29-8602949.

Leslie Bell, Ph.D., is a writer and adjunct professor at the City University of New York.

The story of the Bielskis was portrayed in the 2013 movie “Defiance” starring Daniel Craig. This is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus.

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