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Tuvia Bielski


BIELSKI, TUVIA (1906–1987), ASAEL (1908–1944), and ZUS (1912–1995), Jewish partisans in World War II. The three brothers grew up in the small village of Stankewicze in western Belorussia. The Bielskis were a poor peasant family and the only Jews in the community. David Bielski, the father, owned a mill and the family farmed its land. They observed the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, but were on good terms and mixed freely with their gentile neighbors.

When the Germans invaded the area in 1941, the widespread murder of its Jewish population began. The brothers' first-hand knowledge of German brutality and intentions regarding the Jews prompted them to take action. At first, they hid separately in the countryside. When their parents, siblings, and other relatives were killed in the Nowogrodek ghetto in 1942, the brothers escaped into the forest. With a few guns and 30 other Jews, they formed a partisan group. Tuvia was the commander, Asael was second in command, and Zus was in charge of reconnaissance. Because they grew up nearby, the Bielski partisans knew the area and its people intimately. This served them well in their efforts to elude the Germans and their collaborators.

The Bielski "Otriad" (partisan unit) was created by and for Jews. From its inception, Tuvia Bielski insisted that saving Jewish lives was as important as acts of sabotage. Some argued that this would compromise the unit's safety, but Tuvia strictly upheld the policy of accepting any Jew into the group regardless of age, gender, or health. Its membership grew to include women, children, and the elderly. As the Final Solution gained momentum, the Bielski partisans' rescue efforts became more aggressive and innovative.

The unit took in Jews who were hiding in the forest and punished those who denounced Jews. Those who left Soviet partisan groups because of antisemitism knew they would find refuge in the Bielski unit. The Otriad even dispatched members to the ghettos to help those inside escape and join their ranks. By cooperating with Soviet partisans in anti-German operations as well as procuring food, the Bielskis earned some protection from them.

From 1942 to 1943, the Bielski group moved from place to place. When, by the end of 1943, the group had grown to 400 people, they established a more permanent base in the Naliboki forest. Within this dense, swampy forest, the camp became a small, organized community with schools, a synagogue, and workshops that enabled economic cooperation with Soviet partisans. By this time the Germans were actively searching for the Bieskis, Tuvia especially, but they evaded the enemy by moving deeper into the forest. While a small number of the unit perished, the Bielski brothers' efforts constituted the largest rescue of Jews by Jews during the Holocaust. When the Russians liberated the area in 1944, 1,200 Jewish men, women, and children emerged alive from the family camp in the forest.

Asael was killed a short time later fighting with the Russians in the battle of Marienbad, Germany. Tuvia and Zus eventually settled with their wives and children in New York.

[Beth Cohen (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.