Unlike other partisan groups, the group led by Tuvia Bielski and his brothers wasn’t focused on fighting the Nazis, but on saving as many Jews as possible. Deep in the impenetrable forests of Belorussia, their camp provided refuge for hundreds of elderly, women and children.
As the only Jewish family in Stankiewicze, a small village in Eastern Poland (now Western Belarus), the Bielski boys learned from an early age that strength and daring were key factors to survival. Tuvia, who stood out for his compassion and intelligence in the family of twelve siblings, was the more retired of the four brothers who went on to form what became known as The Bielski Otriad. There was also hard-working and daring Asael, who hoped to take over his father’s mill one day, and brash Alexander, known as Zus; they all had their parents frequently negotiating with the authorities over their aggressive behavior. Aron, a pre-teen when the war broke out, had the daring required to gather intelligence. There wasn’t a person around for miles who hadn’t heard of the brothers.
A Refuge in the Forest
During the First World War, Tuvia served as an interpreter for the Imperial German Army, which occupied the western territories of the Russian Empire. Already a speaker of Yiddish, he learned to speak the German language. In 1927, he was recruited into the Polish Army, where he eventually became a corporal in the 30th Infantry Battalion. His military service over, he returned home in an effort to add to his family’s income. When Operation Barbarossa, the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, broke out, Tuvia, Asael and Zus were called up by their army units to fight against the German occupiers.
In early July 1941, a German army unit arrived in Stankiewicze. Tuvia, Asael and Zeus were 35, 33 and 29 years old respectively. While the Bielski family initially managed to avoid the German onslaught, Asael and Zus, following their father’s advice, fled to the limitless forests. “They knew the forest like you know the five fingers on your hand,” recalls Aron.
In December, the Germans began actively exterminating the Jews in the area. Over five thousand Jews were marched to a long grave and shot. The others were rounded up into the Novogrudok Ghetto. Tuvia, who had been hiding in nearby Lida disguised as a gentile, returned home to find that his parents and two of his siblings had been killed. He found safe houses for his remaining relatives, until the spring of 1942, when, despite the misgivings of his family, he insisted that they flee into the forest. Within a short time, he persuaded his brothers that their camp should provide refuge for other Jews. Many of these Jews arrived from the neighboring Lida and Novogrudok ghettos after being led out by special partisan guides.
Konstantin Kozlovski, a non-Jew, helped hundreds of Jews escape the Novogrudok ghetto by providing a half-way house that sheltered the escapees until, once a week, they were transferred to the Bielski camp in the forest. By the autumn of 1942, the camp had swelled to over a hundred members. “It seemed like a fantasy,” a member says recalling his arrival at the camp. “A kind of gay abandon filled the air.” Another survivor recalls, “When I saw Tuvia, I was happy. I knew we would survive…we were protected.” Unlike other partisan camps, who recruited young men who would be able to fight against the Nazis, Tuvia’s group provided refuge for the elderly, women and children. “I would rather save one old woman than kill ten Nazi soldiers,” he said. By the summer of 1943, Tuvia was the leader of 700 people.