The Bielski Brothers: Jews Who Fought Back Against Hitler's Germany
In 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union. Aaron, Tuvia, Zux and Asael Bielski were brothers living in the rural village of Stankevich. This is located in modern-day Belarus. The three brothers were horrified as they viewed people from their village and surrounding villages be systematically murdered by German soldiers. During this action, tens of thousands of civilians were killed. The Jewish Bielski brothers decided to fight back.
During the spring of 1942, the Bielski brothers began working on a plan for protection. They were led by Tuvia Bielski and worked to gather together over 30 members of their family who had survived the German slaughter. They also welcomed any friends who were non-Jewish and wanted to be with them. Once the Bielski brothers had gathered as many people as they could, they began to obtain as many guns as possible for their protection. When this was completed, the group went to the forest. This is a place where the Bielski brothers had spent a lot of time when they were young. The group created by the Bielski brothers grew to 100 members by the fall of 1942.
In the beginning, the main focus of the efforts of the Bielski brothers was to save the lives of fellow Jews and fellow villagers. Soon they realized this would not be enough; they would have to form a fighting force. They had to become a group able to fight back against the Nazis and any of their supporters. The Bielski brothers created a military unit with Tuvia Bielski as commander. Zus was made chief of reconnaissance and Asael was made a deputy. Their military unit grew during 1942. They would spend a lot of time at night working to obtain food for their group from local peasants. The group worked to identify and execute anyone collaborating with the Nazis. They struggled when this had to be done to a person who had been friends of their family and lived in their village. The group believed they had to develop a reputation of being feared if they were going to survive.
By November 1943, the Bielski Brothers and their followers had built a camp in the forest. They called it Jerusalem. This camp had a horse-powered mill, large kitchen, blacksmith forge, bakery, blacksmith forge, a school for over 60 children, synagogue, gunsmith shop as well as a tailor shop where 18 men worked. This was a time when Tuvia became a beloved figure in the camp. He would give regular speeches to entire gatherings of the camp residents. Tuvia would have tears running down his face as he shared what was happening to other Jews. Asel and Zus regularly led military expeditions against the Germans.
The members of the Bielski partisans would target their military efforts on Germans and anyone who was collaborating with them. In one case, they killed over a dozen people who had betrayed Jewish girls to the Germans. They regularly would kill collaborators whose names they would get from captured Germans and other collaborators. Another part of their warfare involved conducting sabotage. The Bielski partisans were so successful at conducting war against the Germans, leaflets were dropped in the areas near the forest. In 1943, the dropped leaflets promised a $50,000 Reichsmark reward for anyone who provides assistance which would result in the capture of Tuvia Bielski. After this was unsuccessful, the reward was increased to $100,000 Reichsmark. Until 1948, the Reichsmark was the currency of Germany.
A major forest clearing operation was conducted by the Germans in December 1943. It was known as Operation Hermann or Big Hunt. It's objective was to eliminate the village and the Bielski partisan group living in the Naliboki Forest. In the initial stages of the operation, the villages around the Naliboki Forest and Camp Jerusalem suffered major casualties. This caused the Bielski partisans to break into small groups and meet back at a former camp they had in the Jasino forest. All the villages around the Naliboki forest were wiped out. Any non-Jewish resident able to work was sent to Germany to become part of slave labor. The others were murdered. The forest was filled with Jews who had escaped the ghetto, Polish and Belorussians as well as Gypsies who were able to get free from the Germans. Most of them wanted to join the Bielski partisan group.
During operation Big Hunt, many of the communities were wrecked by the Germans, but there still remained important things for survival. The crops in the fields had not been touched and neither had the many beehives. Several farm animals roamed around the devastated villages as well as in the forest. All the buildings in the villages had been totally or partly demolished. They were a valuable source for building materials. Many destroyed buildings had important household goods. Much of the materials were gathered, the fields tended and significant foraging was done by the Bielski group.
After the Germans left, the Soviet military moved into the area of the Naliboki Forest. Many times, the local Soviet commanders tried to get the Bielski fighters to join their units. Each attempt was resisted by the Bielski partisans. The members of the group were determined to keep their integrity and continue under the command of Tuvia Bielski. This enabled the group to continue their mission of protecting Jewish people and engaging in combat activities on their own terms. The Bielski partisans would go to local villages and forcibly seize food. When peasants refused to share their food, they were subjected to violence by the partisans. This resulted in many peasants being hostile toward the Bielski partisans.
Combat Operation Assessment
The Soviet command records during this time showed in two years of operations, the Bielski partisans killed approximately 14 Germans, 33 provocateurs, spies as well as 17 police. Other documentation covering the time of early 1943 to the summer of 1944 showed the Bielski partisans carried out over 37 combat missions. They destroyed 2 locomotives, more than 22 train cars, 32 telegraph poles, and over 3 bridges. During the war, they killed over 380 enemy fighters and lost 50 members of their group.
A large Soviet counteroffensive started in Belarus during the summer of 1944. The area where the Bielski partisans operated was taken over by the Soviets. The group was over a thousand people at this time. Over 70 percent were elderly, women and children. They all made their way to the village of Nowogrodek. At this time, the group decided to disband.
Once the war was over, Tuvia Bielski went to Poland. In 1945, he emigrated to the newly formed Israel. Zus and Tuvia Bielski eventually went to New York and spent the rest of their lives there. The brothers operated a trucking company business that was very successful. Tuvia Bielski died in 1987 and was buried in Long Island, New York. The surviving partisans were able to get Tuvia's remains exhumed and sent to Israel. There he was given the funeral of a hero in Har Hamenuchot, Israel. He was buried in Jerusalem at a hillside grave.
The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews written by Peter Duffy was published on June 15, 2004. Defiance written by Nechama Tec was published December 26, 2008. Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War was written by Allan Levine and published on October 3, 2008.
The Bielski Brothers is a documentary released May 11, 1994. It was produced by Soma Films Ltd. Defiance is a movie released January 16, 2009. It was produced by Grosvenor Park Productions.
Bielski Brothers Video
The Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy HarperCollins; ISBN: 0066210747 2003
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