The Bielski Brothers
I had recently watched the movie, Defiance on TV and was so moved and impressed by the Bielski Brothers that I just had to make a hub about them. There are a couple of non-fiction books about the brothers years of hiding and defending themselves in the forests of Belarus.
To give some background information, in September 1939 the Germans invaded Poland and formed a non-aggression pact with the Russians (which they would later ignore and invade Russia, thus hastening the end of World War II). Since large sections of Eastern Europe often changed hands - this area to Germany, then to Poland, or that area to Lithuania, then to Russia - although the Bielskis lived in a town called Stankiewicze which was originally in Poland, by the time of WWII, it had been taken by the Russians. The family was, according to Nechama Tec, author of the book, Defiance (upon which the movie was based) , millers and grocers in their town. However, after the occupation by the Russians, they participated in the local government, as well.
Tuvia Bielski was not the eldest child, as the movie seemed to imply. He actually was the second oldest of ten sons and two daughters. He had fought in the Polish army in his early 20's after being recruited, and when he was finished there, he returned back to his family. Because they were impoverished, he went ahead and rented a second mill to try to improve the family's financial situation. Unfortunately, even that was not enough, so he married someone older who owned a store. He and his brothers had played and hidden in the Naliboki forest, so they naturally fled there when the Nazis were threatening to find and kill them.
Tuvia was two years older than his next younger brother, Asael. Asael was a home-body who stayed in their parent's house when Tuvia and Zus had already left and married. He became the "man of the house" when their father became very sick and ran all of the family's affairs. One of his duties was even to arrange a marriage for his sister, which ultimately lead to his meeting his own future wife, Chaya. In the movie, he was relatively well represented as sensitive and shy, but able to take charge. He had actually led a group of thirteen Jews into the forest and met up with Tuvia and Zus, who were leading a smaller group. They integrated and eventually formed a larger group of Jewish partisans, also known as the Bielski Otriad.
Zus, who was the "wild" one in the movie, did in fact leave his brothers for several months to join the Russian partisans. He eventually rejoined the Bielski Otriad and, as shown in the movie, did save his brothers and the other jews from the attacking Germans. One of the people in the forest was a young woman named Sonia Boldo, who Zus later married. After the war, he moved to Israel, but settled in New York and started a trucking company and taxi fleet with Tuvia.
The youngest of the Bielski brothers in the forest was Aron. He was significantly younger than the other Bielskis hiding, as he was born in 1927 about fifteen years after Zus, who was younger than both Tuvia and Asael. He acted as a guide and scout, probably due to his age, and was a significant source of information for one of the books eventually written about the Bielskis. He is also the only one still alive.
The Bielskis had a very intimate knowledge of the forest into which they had fled, which they harnessed to save over 1,200 people. They did lose their parents and siblings in one of the ghettoes and the surviving brothers gathered thirteen others from that same ghetto to flee into the forest. Tuvia was the leader of the Otriad, as in the movie, and he routinely recruited members of ghettoes to come join him in his camp. Since Tuvia had been in the Polish Army and had even been a corporal there, he was the natural choice for commander. Most of the forest camp was made up of women, children, and elderly as Tuvia found saving Jewish lives far more important than going out and killing the enemy, in contrast to Zus. As the movie has depicted, the people had lived in zimlyankas (underground bunkers). They had to build their camp from the materials in the forest, and did quite well that way. The Otriad had a hospital, a school, a kitchen, a bath-house, a bakery, and even a mill. Many different types of artisans worked at their crafts, even in the forest. For example, there were tailors, leather-workers, shoemakers, metal-workers, carpenters, watch-makers, and tanners. Utilizing their collective talents, the Jews in the Bielski camp supported themselves and eventually, the nearby Soviet partisans. Their ingenuity is extremely impressive - especially taking into account their oppressive situation. Below is a map of one of their camps - you can note how they were able to recreate a small, self-suffient town.
While the Bielski's and their "guests" were trying to survive, they needed to sometimes go and procure food stuffs and other items from the surrounding villages. They did, as shown in Defiance, steal the necessary things from these areas, and sometimes used violence to get what they wanted. However, they generally saved any type of armed attack for Nazis and collaborators - those people who were cooperating with and helping the Nazis. The Germans targeted the Bielskis and other partisan groups living in the Belarussian forests. Tuvia ended up with a bounty of 100,000 Reichmarks on his head and, in 1943, the Germans went in and initiated a major operation against the partisan groups in the forest, which was designed to wipe out the "enemy." Tuvia and his group were able to escape further into the forest and avoided massacre. The movie depicted an uneasy but amicable association between the Soviets and the Bielski Otriad and the reality was not too far off. The Jewish partisans did provide significant material support to the Soviets in the form of artisanal services (gun repair, tailoring, etc.), but continually avoided having to send fighters to the Russians. Instead, the Otriad tried very hard to retain its unity and independence (to the extent that they could). Unfortunately, the divisive relationship between Tuvia and Zus was not just Hollywood. The Otriad was split into two separate sections - those following Tuvia (the Kalinin) and those following Zus (the Ordzhonikidze). However, both fought alongside the Soviets against the Polish and the Germans.
In 1944, when the Soviets pushed the Germans back and overtook the hiding forest of the Bielskis, the Otriad came out of hiding. The population of the forest camp, having survived the German offensives, now had to rebuild their lives - although very few would remain in Eastern Europe or Russia. Most of the remaining Jews immigrated to other countries, especially Israel and America. According to Defiance, the offspring of the people whom the Bielskis saved number in the thousands. They owe their existence to a few brothers who fled for their own lives and ended up saving over a thousand.
- The Forest Jews of Belarus
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