The Bielski Group. Source: USHMM.
Before his death in 1987, Tuvia Bielski told his wife, Lilka, “I will be famous when I am dead.” Bielski and Lilka were living in Brooklyn, New York, where they seemed to be a typical immigrant family. Bielski, who spoke thickly accented English, worked as a truck driver delivering plastic materials to companies throughout the New York metropolitan area. Bielski was in reality the man who many consider among the greatest heroes of anti-German resistance in World War II—a man who master-minded and led one of the most significant Jewish rescue and resistance operations of the Holocaust.
Tuvia Bielski. Source: USHMM
It is a profound irony that he would be forced to wonder when he would get full credit for his achievements. In its outlines, Tuvia Bielski’s story sounds like the far fetched creation of a Hollywood scriptwriter. From a small village in the country now called Belarus, Tuvia and his brothers Asael, Zus, and Aron escaped from invading Germans into a nearby forest and then created a refuge for other local Jews there. But the Bielskis did more than hide and save lives: periodically a group of them emerged from the trees on horseback, sub-machine guns strapped to their shoulders, to ambush the enemy. In time, the forest settlement became like a small town, complete with shoemakers and tailors, carpenters, and hat makers, a central square for social gatherings, a tannery that doubled as a synagogue, and even a theater troupe. Ultimately, the Bielski brothers saved the lives of 1,200 Jews and killed more than 300 enemy soldiers.
The Bielski partisans’ achievement is on par with more famous acts of wartime courage such as those performed by Oskar Schindler and the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In fact, their resistance was more successful then both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the work of Schindler in both numbers of lives saved and numbers of Germans killed. Tuvia Bielski was a deeply complex man: cruel and tender, charismatic and profane, hotheaded and composed. But he was above all passionate and utterly determined, possessing a connection to the sufferings of the Jewish people that bordered on the mystical. Members of the partisan group remember him as super-human, riding atop a white horse in their forest enclave. “He was sent by God to save Jews,” said Rabbi Beryl Chafetz, who as a rabbinical student took refuge in the Bielski camp. “He wasn’t a man, he was an angel,” said Isaac Mendelson.
During World War II, the majority of European Jews were deceived by the German’s meticulous “disinformation” campaign. The Nazis detained millions of Jews and forced them into camps, promising them safety in exchange for their work. In reality, many of these “work camps” were death camps where men, women, and children were systematically murdered. Yet approximately 30,000 Jews, many of whom were teenagers, escaped the Nazis to form or join organized resistance groups. These Jews are known as the Jewish partisans, and they joined hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish partisans fighting against the enemy throughout much of Europe.
Sometimes they fought alongside non-Jewish partisan units. In some units they had to hide their Jewish identity, even though they shared a common enemy, the Germans. Many partisan units were so antisemetic that fighters of the same unit could not openly reveal that they were Jews. Other partisan units were purely Jewish. In the case of the Bielski’s, they were composed not merely of fighters, but of women, children, and the elderly.
Jewish partisans blew up thousands of German supply trains, convoys, and bridges, making it harder for the Germans to fight the war. Partisans also destroyed German power plants and factories, focusing their attention on military and strategic targets, not on civilians. Most partisan units wanted young men who could fight to join their ranks, and many were hostile to Jews. Not the Bielskis, however. They took in hundreds of the elderly, ill, women, and children.
In The Woods, We Were Free
Tuvia, Asael, Zus, and Aron Bielski were four of 12 children born to a miller and his wife in the rural village of Stankevich, near Novogrudek. The only Jews in a small community, they quickly learned how to look after themselves. Unlike their father, who had a conciliatory nature, the three oldest brothers wouldn’t hesitate to fight to defend their family’s honor. Their reputation was fearsome: it was rumored among the peasants that Asael and Zus had murdered a man.
Asael Bielski. Source: USHMM
The four brothers had four different personalities, but one common purpose. The brothers complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Tuvia was more refined than his younger brothers. A tall, dark-haired man known by neighbors as the “Clark Gable of the Bielskis,” he was an avid reader who loved to recount religious stories to illustrate current dilemmas. It was thought by many that he was destined for great things.
Asael was the most reticent of the three older brothers. Hardworking and loyal, he enjoyed operating the family’s business and planned eventually to take over his father’s responsibilities at the mill. Zus was the brash one. He would throw punches first, ask questions later. His parents, it seemed, were always negotiating with the police to keep him out of trouble. Aron was a pre-teen when the war began. Still, he helped gather intelligence. His youth camouflaged his role as a partisan, and it made him an indispensable member of the group.
When the Germans arrived in western Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, the four brothers were 35, 33, 29, and 12. In the first months of the occupation, Bielski family members avoided the German onslaught, but by December 1941 the invaders had captured and killed the brothers’ parents and two of their younger siblings. Thousands of other Jews from the region were either killed by the Germans and their collaborators or forced to live in ghettos.
The brothers sought refuge in the woods where they had spent time as children. Asael and Zus, who were hiding together, set about finding safe homes for a dozen or so of their surviving relatives, including Aron. Tuvia, who was staying further to the north, moved relatives in with friendly non-Jews.
By the spring of 1942, Tuvia, Zus, and Asael decided it was time to relocate all the relatives into a single location in the woods. Many were wary of venturing into the wild, but the brothers were insistent. In a forest about a mile from the nearest road, they made an encampment where everyone slept under blankets propped up by tree branches. The brothers also sought to obtain weapons for the group’s protection.
As the murders and torture of the Jews increased in the Novogrudek ghetto, and in others further away, Tuvia decided to expand the group beyond their relatives. Asael and Zus initially opposed the plan, thinking that it was best to keep the unit small and manageable. But Tuvia insisted. “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill 10 Nazi soldiers,” he said. He argued that they couldn’t sit idle while their people were being slaughtered.
“Asael and Zus would never have had the old people and women,” Aron recalled. “They would have their wives and girlfriends, but no way in hell would they have chosen to take all those people.” Emissaries were sent into the ghettos to retrieve Jews or urge them to leave; despite the dangers, many were eager to risk flight. By the autumn of 1942, the Bielski group included nearly 100 members. “It seemed like a fantasy from another world,” wrote one inhabitant after the war. “A kind of gay abandon filled the air; biting frank talk spiced with juicy curses; galloping horses and the laughter of children. Suddenly I saw myself as an extra in a Wild West movie.”
“Compared to the ghettos, it felt like heaven,” said Charles Bedzow. “In the woods, we were free. That’s all I can tell you. We had freedom.”
Jerusalem In The Forest
The brothers moved quickly to build a fighting force from the escapees, who joined forces with the growing army of Soviet partisans engaging in guerrilla attacks against the occupiers. In October 1942, a squad of Bielski and Soviet fighters raided a German convoy loaded with supplies, killing at least one German soldier.
Zus Bielski. Source: USHMM
“It was satisfying in a larger sense,” Tuvia wrote of the first attack on Nazis in his 1955 Yiddish language memoir, “A real spiritual high point, that the world should know that there were still Jews alive, and especially Jewish partisans.” The strength and reputation of the brothers’ unit—formed as a military outfit with Tuvia as commander, Asael as deputy commander, and Zus as chief of reconnaissance—grew throughout late 1942. The young fighting men, a minority of the overall Bielski population, spent long nights obtaining food from local peasants—sometimes stealing it—in order to feed the group. They also sought out and executed Nazi collaborators, including one man who lived in the Bielskis’ boyhood village and was once close to the family. The brothers knew that the group needed to be feared if it had any chance of surviving in such a hostile environment. And it worked: the size of the unit increased, seemingly with every passing day.
With the arrival of the frigid Belarus winter, the brothers worried about the prospect of their people freezing to death. They organized the construction of large wooden living quarters, known as zemlyankas in Russian. Built partially into the ground, the structures utilized earthen walls to contain as much heat as possible. The dank, dark spaces were far from luxurious, but they kept the large group protected from the bitter Belorussian winter. “It also helped if we had a little vodka,” remembered one survivor.
The dropping temperatures brought an increase in enemy activity. One night, a unit of German-allied police rushed towards the camp and shot a guard. Alerted by the gunfire, the entire population fled deeper into the woods to safety. Another time, 10 Jewish fighting men from the unit were killed by a troop of German gendarmes who were tipped off by two Belorussian collaborators. The Bielskis were incensed by the act, and Asael and a crew of fighters led a revenge attack, killing both the collaborators and several others. The questions of revenge and “an eye for an eye” made for long conversations within the group. Were the Bielskis going to ruthlessly kill others, inspired by acts of revenge? Or, were they going to be different? The group grew again in the spring of 1943. A key factor in their success was that Tuvia, Zus, and Asael all had military experience prior to the German invasion; important training that only a small percentage of Jewish partisans had. The brothers were soon watching over nearly 800 Jews, constantly moving the ragged band to new locations, to keep one step ahead of the Nazis. It was clear that the local peasants knew where the Jews were hiding, and Tuvia was increasingly worried about the unit’s safety.
He had reason to worry. On June 9, 1943, the Bielski camp was once again attacked. This time, 10 Jews lost their lives. The brothers decided to relocate once again, to the dense Naliboki forest,many miles from the village of their boyhood. After an exhausting march to the forest, which was home to many Soviet partisan units, the group suffered the biggest attack yet from the Nazis. They escaped by retreating to an island in the middle of a swamp, and although the fighting lasted more than a week, only one partisan was lost.
In the weeks following the attack, the brothers located a dry spot in the dense forest and began work on a new camp. “It really was something special,” said Jack Kagan, an escapee of the Novogrudek ghetto who emigrated to London after the war. Completed in October and November 1943, it had a large kitchen, a bathhouse, a blacksmith forge, a small horsepowered mill, a bakery, a tailor shop staffed by 18 men, a school for some 60 children, a gunsmith shop, and even a jail. It came to be called Jerusalem [see map on page 6]. “Everybody was gainfully employed and it was an embarrassment if you weren’t working,” Tuvia said in his 1946 book, Yehudai Yaar [Jews of the Forest]. “We spent many hours after work in small groups meeting in and around the camp. The younger people always gathered around the campfires, talking and singing. These were not official parties in the Soviet mold that we were forced by the few Communists among us to attend on occasion. Around the campfires we would sing songs in Yiddish, Hebrew and our conversations always gravitated to the present and future of Israel.”
Source: © Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. Used with permission.