The Bielski Brothers: A Brief History
During the Second World War, a group of Jewish partisans, known collectively as the “Bielski Partisans,” waged war against Nazi occupiers across Western Belarus and Poland. Using guerrilla-style tactics, the Bielski Partisans carried out numerous attacks on railways, depots, bridges, and telegraph stations; effectively disrupting German supplies and communications across this region of the Eastern Front. Perhaps the most important contribution of the Bielski Partisans, however, lies with their efforts to rescue Jews from German captivity. In two years, the partisan group managed to rescue more than a thousand captured Jews; individuals who would have surely been killed by the Germans in their quest to exterminate the Jewish race.
The Bielski Brothers
Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski were three of twelve children that were born in Stankevichi, Poland (now Belarus). They were one of the only Jewish families in the small community; a fact that forced the family to become very self-sufficient from the onset, due to anti-Semitic feelings in the region at the time. By December 1941, following the invasion of the German Army, both of the Bielski parents, along with two of the youngest siblings were killed by the Nazis. With the German Army killing Jews by the thousands (or forcing them to live in ghettos), Tuvia, Zus, Asael quickly sought refuge in the woods, finding homes for a number of their siblings and surviving relatives among friendly neighbors.
Formation of the Bielski Partisans
Within months of their family’s murder, the brothers fled further into the woods (accompanied by thirteen others) in an attempt to escape certain death. By the Spring of 1942, the brothers began to gather each of their relatives, along with a handful of various weapons, and set up camp in a wooded area between Minsk and the Neman River.
As Jewish persecution began to grow substantially, Tuvia Bielski, the oldest brother of the group, sent word to the local Nowogrodek Ghetto in an attempt to lure additional Jews to the woods to escape imprisonment and/or death. Although his younger brothers initially resisted the idea (arguing that a smaller group would be easier to protect), the brothers soon relented and agreed that the group should be expanded to incorporate Jews beyond their own family. As news of his group grew among local Jews, hundreds began fleeing the local towns and villages in an attempt to elude their Nazi captors. Tuvia never turned a Jewish individual away, and cared for children, the sick, the old, and injured. By the Fall of 1942, nearly one-hundred individuals had relocated to the Bielski camp, braving extreme conditions to reach the brothers.
Bielski Brothers' Camp
As the Bielski forest camp expanded in numbers (growing in excess of 1,000 individuals), the Bielski brothers helped establish a school for the children, a court (to maintain law and order in the camp), a hospital, and a synagogue for religious services. The group also established a machine shop and tannery, and worked tirelessly to teach each of the camp’s survivors to fight and defend themselves in the event of conflict with the Nazi occupiers.
Tuvia and his brothers also carried out numerous raids against Nazi occupiers in the Nowogrodek region. In particular, the partisans often attacked Nazi sympathizers which included Belorussian police and local farmers who had betrayed local Jews in the area. The brothers would routinely pillage supply depots and enemy outposts for food, equipment, and medical supplies; striking rapidly and disappearing into the woods just as quickly. By October 1942, as word spread about the brothers and their operations against Nazi forces, the brothers were approached by a group of Soviet partisans that operated in the region, and formed a mutual alliance. On numerous occasions, the Soviet partisans and the Bielski brothers led joint strikes on Nazi targets in the area, destroying railway lines, communication arrays, and supply depots.
As the Bielski camp continued to expand with each passing month, security became a major concern for Tuvia and his brothers, as it became exceedingly difficult to conceal the camp from local peasants and officials. As a result, the Bielski brothers were forced to repeatedly move their camp; particularly after being assaulted on several occasions from a massive anti-insurgency campaign implemented by the German Army in August of 1943.
Their final camp, known affectionately as “Jerusalem,” allowed the Bielski brothers and their Jewish companions to finally enjoy a sense of relative peace and security, as the camp’s isolation and remoteness provided them with a great deal of concealment from the outside world. From this new position, the Bielski brothers continued to support Soviet partisan efforts in the region.
In July of 1944, the Red Army was able to finally liberate the area surrounding the Bielski camp from German control. The brothers gleefully reported to the Soviet commanders that their group had succeeded in rescuing around 1,140 Jews from the Nazis, and had killed a total of 381 enemy combatants (Britannica.com). The arrival of the Red Army was not entirely positive, however. As the camp members returned to their former homes, many discovered, to their horror, that their homes had been destroyed or pillaged. Moreover, countless family members and friends of former neighborhoods and villages had either been killed or had went missing during the German occupation. To add to their grief, many of the men in the camp were drafted into the Red Army, and were forced to participate in the pursuit of Nazi forces. These individuals included Tuvia’s younger brother, Asael (who would later be killed in combat at the siege of Konigsberg).
Bielski Brothers After WWII
Following the war, Tuvia and Zus immigrated to Israel in order to escape from the growing sense of anti-Semitism across Europe. While in Israel, the brothers soon found themselves in the midst of another war, however, as Israeli and Arab forces became embroiled in bitter fighting between 1948-1949. After surviving a second war, Tuvia and Zus decided it was time to move to the United States, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. There, Zus developed a trucking and taxicab company, while Tuvia worked as a delivery driver for his brother Walter, who had also immigrated to the United States.
Despite saving over 1,100 fellow Jews from certain death, and waging courageous raids against Nazi forces, Tuvia and Zus never sought recognition for their heroic actions, and preferred a life away from the public view over one of fame. In 1987, Tuvia Bielski died and was buried in Long Island, New York. A year later, however, surviving members of the Bielski camp were able to raise funds to have Tuvia’s body exhumed and relocated to Jerusalem, Israel. Here, Tuvia was given a proper hero’s funeral, with full military honors by the Israeli military for his actions.
"Our revenge is to live. We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals. We have all chosen this - to live free, like human beings, for as long as we can. Each day of freedom is a victory. And if we die trying to live, at least we die like human beings."— Tuvia Bielski
Tuvia Bielski was born to David and Beila Bielski on 8 May 1906 in Stankiewicze, Russian Empire (Now Belarus). Tuvia was the third eldest child of twelve children. Little is known about Tuvia’s childhood. However, it is known that Tuvia was quite intelligent, and learned multiple languages during his youth including Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and even German. During the First World War, Tuvia even served as an interpreter for the Imperial German Army while under occupation.
By the late 1920s, Tuvia was drafted into the Polish Army where he later became a corporal with the Thirtieth Infantry Battalion. After his brief service, Tuvia returned home, where he rented a mill in order to provide additional income for his family. In 1929, Tuvia also married a woman by the name of Rifka who owned both a large house and general merchandise store; providing much needed funds to the struggling Bielski family. As the marriage was based primarily around money, both Tuvia and Rifka’s union was doomed from the start, and by 1939 the pair divorced.
Tuvia remarried in 1939 to a woman named Sonia Warshavsky. The marriage was short-lived, however, as Sonia was tragically killed while taking refuge. Details surrounding her death are sparse; however, many scholars believe that she may have been killed by Soviet soldiers. Tuvia later remarried for a third time to a woman by the name of Lila “Lilka” Tiktin. He remained with Lila until his death nearly forty-four years later.
Legacy of the Bielski Brothers
The story of the Bielski Brothers was portrayed in the 2008 movie, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia. The movie’s release was met with mixed reviews in the United States and Europe. In Poland, the movie met tremendous criticism, however, as Polish citizens criticized the movie’s omission of the Bielski Brother’s alleged involvement in in “Naliboki Massacre.” In the massacre, numerous Polish citizens were massacred by Soviet partisans in the town of Naliboki. Numerous inquiries and eyewitness reports, however, have consistently denied the involvement of the Bielski Partisans in this horrific attack.
Numerous books about the Bielski Brothers have also been released in recent years. Author Peter Duffy’s book, The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews, is perhaps the most well-known account of the brothers, and offers tremendous insight into both the camp and its participants.
Before reading this article, were you familiar with the Bielski Brothers?
In closing, the story of the Bielski brothers, their stance against Nazi Germany, and their rescue of more than 1,100 Jews is a tale of both courage and heroism. As a result of their efforts, the descendants of the individuals they rescued now number in the tens of thousands. If not for the Bielski brothers, particularly Tuvia, Zus, and Asael, many of these individuals would have likely perished under Nazi occupation in Belarus and Poland during the Second World War. As additional facts are uncovered about the brothers by scholars and historians, alike, it will be interesting to see what new information can be learned about their heroic actions.
Braff, Mitch. “Bielski Partisans.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 19 December 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bielski-partisans. (Accessed 6 June 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Alexander Zeisal Bielski," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alexander_Zeisal_Bielski&oldid=889088733 (accessed June 6, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Tuvia Bielski," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tuvia_Bielski&oldid=889322958 (accessed June 6, 2019).
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© 2019 Larry Slawson