“You survive for a purpose that’s bigger than yourself.”
– Lt. Yehuda Bielski
In September I attended a special screening of the movie “Defiance” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. The film attempts to depict the formation of the Bielski partisans and some of their early exploits in the dense forests of Belorussia during the Holocaust.
The daylong event was held for Bielski family members and hosted by Robert Bielsky (he spells his name with a “y” rather than an “i”), the affable son of Bielski partisan leader Tuvia. Some 150 people were on hand, while many others were unable to attend because of age, illness or distance.
Why the Bielskis? There were, after all, other Jewish partisan groups that fought bravely and heroically against their Nazi oppressors. And they too must be honored. Yet the Bielski name resounds.
Perhaps it is because their story of survival against all obstacles – slaughter, flight, hunger, fear, intramural rivalries, assassination, execution and murder, ambushes – provides an awesome inspirational message about Jewish resistance and hope.
The Bielski triumph is a moral victory of heroic dimension, and it is a testimony to the invincible human spirit in the face of monstrous evil and demonic barbarism. Extraordinary times create extraordinary people.
It was one of the darkest periods in human history, when European anti-Semitism – always hissing, spluttering and periodically bursting for over a thousand years – finally exploded. In 1933 Hitler established his dictatorship and a new Germany arose with a new kind of war. Europe was to be made Judenrein with not even the possibility of future Jewish life. The evolution of mechanized mass murder was expedited. Every single Jewish man, woman and child was in peril.
By the time the master race invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 in Operation Barbarossa, many of Poland’s 3,250,000 Jews were dead, dying or locked up in ghettos waiting to die. The combination of German deception, indifferent bystanders and ferocious hatred of local collaborators doomed the Jews.
Those trapped – like my mother, Lola Hudes, who escaped from German-occupied Lodz – fled eastward to the Russian sector. The Soviet-German non-aggression pact that divided up Poland and enabled Hitler to wage war on September 1, 1939 would afford some measure of safety in the still neutral Russian sector.
Drunk with power and conquest, the Nazis turned against their Slavic allies with frenzied ruthlessness, fury and savagery. In 1941 Hitler told his generals that the war against Russia “is one of ideologies and racial differences that will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness.”
With the rapid advancement of German forces into Russia came a new policy against the Jews – the systematic destruction of every single Jewish person and community. No village, town or city was to be spared. No place was too far. No conditions were too difficult. And no exceptions were to be made.
In conjunction with the German army, four special mobile SS execution squads – Einsatzgruppen – were formed to follow the Wehrmacht into Russia to carry out the slaughter in which combat troops also participated. They were enthusiastically aided and abetted by local collaborators as well as Lithuanian, Latvian and Ukrainian militias and policemen who were noted for their sadism and brutality toward Jews.
Massacres began immediately and the killing was continuous. Most of the slaughter was done by mass shootings of people into trenches and pits. Sometimes little children were not shot – they were caught by their legs, their heads were smashed against trees and they were then thrown into the pits still alive.
* * *
There were hundreds of Bielskis living in the Belorussian city of Novogrudek and surrounding towns and villages. My father, Yehuda “Yudl” Bielski, was the youngest of seven siblings. His three brothers had immigrated to America long before World War II, when he was still a little boy. Two married sisters with growing families remained in Novogrudek.
A third sister had been killed as a teenager when her head was bashed in with a rock. The incident was hushed up, but Yehuda’s father wrote a letter to his sons in New York with the sensitive details.
Yehuda attended the Tarbut Zionist school and learned to play the violin and guitar. He was an excellent dancer and a superb athlete. Cleanliness and good grooming were important to him and he coined the term “malbushim” for those who neglected such matters. He was fluent in Yiddish, Polish and Russian, and spoke Hebrew and German.
In 1939 Yehuda was fighting at the front as a lieutenant in the Polish army. Badly wounded, he made his way to a Warsaw hospital. He had barely recovered when the good nuns there helped him escape the SS sweep. Yehuda returned home to Novogrudek, having witnessed many German atrocities along the way, and resumed a more or less normal life for the next two years.
And then, suddenly, the Final Solution arrived at Yehuda’s doorstep.
The Germans first bombed Novogrudek. Then German troops entered followed by the Einsatzgruppen. Violent assaults and shootings of Jews in the streets began immediately. They were taken into forced labor. The Germans confiscated their jewelry, money and goods. Killing and looting were widespread.
Two ghettos were established at each end of the city. They were surrounded by barbed wire and closely guarded by Lithuanians and Ukrainians. “Selections” were routine and people disappeared. They were usually taken to the nearby woods, forced to undress and shot. After one of the ghettos was liquidated, those who remained alive were transferred to the other one. The terror resumed.
Yehuda, a prisoner in the ghetto, received a letter delivered by a Christian friend from his older first cousin Tuvia, who had recently fled with his three brothers, sister and several relatives.
“We are hiding in the forest,” wrote Tuvia, “and we do not plan to submit to the Germans. Bring your wife, a few good men and we will build something together. Please do not hesitate. I hope to see you soon in the forest.”
Yehuda immediately began to plan the escape he’d been thinking about for some time. On a dark night, he led nine people to the ghetto fence surrounded by guards. Silently, fence boards were broken and the escapees crawled through a hole and then across an open field to the surrounding woods. They walked all night.
When Yehuda finally met up with his cousins, the development of the Bielski group took a new turn. It would now include non-relatives. The Bielskis decided not to turn away any Jew who came to them seeking refuge.
At a meeting held shortly after his arrival in the forest, Yehuda stood up – confident, daring, urbane – and spoke: “We have come here into the forest, my dear ones, not to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves. We have come here, every one of us, to stay alive. We must think only of one important thing: revenge and revenge again on the murderers.”
He then outlined his plan to secure weapons and attack the enemy. When it was agreed upon, Yehuda continued: “We must choose a commander and we must give our unit a name. For the responsibility of commander, I nominate my cousin, Tuvia Bielski.”
The group now included a definitive military focus. Thus the Bielski partisans emerged.
Led by the charismatic, courageous and cunning Tuvia, who had grown up with his large peasant family in a tiny rural Belorussian village, the Bielski partisan camp expanded as more and more Jews, ranging from young children to the elderly, arrived. A base camp was established surrounded by smaller camps.
People slept in camouflaged bunkers built underground. They dug wells, built a synagogue, bathhouse, makeshift hospital, school, theater, and workshops where tailors made clothes, cobblers resoled shoes and craftsmen repaired guns. A primitive forest village evolved.
People worked, quarreled, prayed, married, and conceived babies. A strict hierarchy existed and everyone knew his place. Challenges to the authority of the Bielski brothers were at times resolved through the end of a gun barrel. But despite hunger, exposure to severe winters, collaborators and German patrols, those who came under the orders and protection of the Bielskis survived while tens of thousands were massacred around them.
Meanwhile, the military unit of the Bielski partisans smuggled Jews out of ghettos; procured weapons, food and supplies any way possible; sabotaged German supply trains; retaliated against collaborators who turned Jews over to the Germans; and fought a guerilla war against German troops.
In Belorussia, Red Army partisan formations had also begun fighting in the forests behind German lines. Everyone was suspect to the paranoid dictator Stalin, and from the beginning these formations were put under control of the dreaded NKVD (secret police). The NKVD not only shot Russian officers suspected of disloyalty but actively targeted Polish officers regarded as enemies of the Soviet regime.
For the Bielski partisans, this presented another dangerous predicament. The necessity of cooperating with the Russians and being accepted as allies of the Red Army (which could supply them with weapons and ammunition) was vital. Though they were never Communists, it was crucial for the Bielskis to convince the Russians this was both a Soviet and Jewish struggle toward the same goal – victory over the Germans.
Subduing his quick temper and flying fists, Tuvia managed to persuade the Russians that the Bielski fighters were comrades essential to Soviet success.
Pro-German enemies surrounded them everywhere in the forest. Fighting against both the Russians and Jewish partisans were anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic Polish partisan units, the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army), Cossacks, and Belorussian soldiers. The appreciative Germans even allowed them to lead their own regiments.
In the vortex of this abattoir, Tuvia made it his business to shield Yehuda, the former Polish officer, from the NKVD. Though very different by education, experience and temperament, the two cousins worked well together in the forest. Both understood the nature of their enemies and the tactics required to deal with them. Tuvia also needed Yehuda’s military expertise.
And they shared something else in common. “The worst day in the forest was when we lost Ida and Sonya [the wives of Yehuda and Tuvia] in a German ambush,” a partisan tearfully recalled years later.
Yehuda became known as “the mystery man.” Somehow, he was never around when the Russians showed up. It was only after being liberated by the Soviets in 1944, when about 1,200 Jewish men, women and children walked out of the forest, that the NKVD finally caught up with him.
When Yehuda returned to Novogrudek he was summoned to NKVD headquarters, where he was interrogated. Afterward he was warned: “We know who you are. We know where you are. And we know what you did during the war. When we’re ready for you, there’s no place you can hide.”
That night, he and Lola (whom he married after she joined the Bielski partisans), wearing their darkest clothes and carrying a few meager possessions, climbed atop a coal train heading west. Hanging on for dear life to the slippery coal, they arrived in Hungary where Yehuda was recruited by the Palestinian Jewish underground.
Avoiding British patrols, he escorted 200 Holocaust survivors in a dilapidated vessel to British-occupied Eretz Yisrael. “We have to build a Jewish country,” he declared.
* * *
Once again Yehuda became “the mystery man” when he joined the Irgun underground, engaging in activities that could have ended with his neck in a British noose. About a year later Tuvia and his wife, Lilka, arrived in Palestine where they eventually moved next door to Yehuda and Lola. Both couples became parents of a daughter and two sons. Yehuda, the only Bielski to be commissioned an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, fought with distinction and honor for the creation of the new Jewish state.
The two families were close in form but not in substance. In some ways they could have been living at opposite ends of the globe. Lola had grown up in a cultured home with private schools, skiing holidays, doormen, and servants, and she could never reconcile herself to the profane language of the Bielski brothers, their affinity to vodka and their less positive pursuits during the war.
Underwear, for example, was a much needed and prized possession in the forest. Lola – who survived interrogation by Adolph Eichmann, escaped from the Stolpce ghetto and endured in three partisan groups – was shocked when the Bielski leadership demanded hers as the price of admission. “They gave the women’s underwear they collected to their wives and girlfriends. This was so ugly and low,” Yehuda lamented.
Lola had also witnessed the shooting of a Jewish partisan by Tuvia in the forest. And then there was the matter, mentioned earlier, of Yehuda’s dead teenage sister back in Novogrudek. According to Yehuda and the letter his father sent to his three sons in New York, Tuvia was involved in that heinous incident. So Lola and her family remained aloof, and contact was kept to a minimum in Israel and later in America.
With “Defiance” soon to be released, some Poles and Lithuanians have emerged to defame and diminish the Bielski partisans, claiming they were no better than bandits and thieves who roamed the Belorussian forests killing innocent civilians. Some people will believe almost anything about Jews, so long as it’s negative. The calumnies of anti-Semites are legendary, and in some quarters anti-Jewish prejudice remains unabated.
So as I watched my brother Y.E. Bell, an online columnist for The Jewish Press, and four generations of my Bielski relatives – lawyers, teachers, military officers, homemakers, rabbis, artists, doctors, businesspeople – enjoying themselves during that special Sunday screening, I thought about how the Bielski partisans, with all their assorted human strengths, frailties and social differences, had frustrated and ultimately foiled Hitler’s plans to eliminate them.
They survived them all – the Wehrmacht, Einzatsgruppen, SS, collaborators, Red Army, NKVD – and now it is up to their descendents, who number in the tens of thousands, to live up to their legacy and never forget or forgive.