"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 a long as we can. Each day of
freedom is a victory. And if we die
trying to live, at least we die like
The Bielski partisans were a Jewish militia group which rescued Jews from extermination and fought against the Nazi occupiers and their collaborators in the vicinity of Nowogródek (Navahrudak) and Lida in German-occupied Poland (now western Belarus). Under their protection 1,200 Jews survived the war, making it one of the most successful rescue missions of the Holocaust. This group spent more than two years living in the forests and was initially organized by the Bielski brothers and led by Tuvia Bielski.
The four Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Alexander ("Zus"), Asael and Aroni managed to flee to a nearby forest after their parents and other family members were killed in the ghetto in December 1941. Along with 13 neighbors from the ghetto they were the nucleus of their partisan group which was formed in the spring of 1942. Originally the group consisted of around forty people but quickly grew.
The group's commander was the eldest brother Tuvia, who had served in the Polish Army from 1927 to 1929, who "would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill 10 Nazi soldiers". He sent emissaries to infiltrate the ghettos in the area, recruiting new members to join the group in the Naliboki Forest. Hundreds of men, women and children eventually found their way to the Bielski camp, called "Jerusalem in the woods" by some members. At its peak 1,230 people belonged to the group, with 70% of its members consisting of women, children and the elderly. No one was turned away. About 150 engaged in armed operations.
The partisans (as members of anti-fascist militia groups and resistance fighters operating in the USSR and Eastern Europe were commonly called at that time) lived in underground dugouts. Utility structures were also built: a kitchen, a mill, a bakery, a bathhouse, a medical clinic for sick and wounded, and a quarantine hut to deal with infectious diseases. Herds of cows supplied milk. Artisans made goods and carried out repairs, providing fighters with logistical support and later Soviet partisan units. More than one hundred workers toiled in the workshops, which became famous among partisans. The camp's many children attended class in the dugout set up as a school. The camp even had its own jail and court of law.
Their partisan activities were aimed at the Nazis and their collaborators, such as policemen or local inhabitants who had betrayed or killed Jews. They also conducted sabotage missions, and would forcibly seize goods from locals when necessary. The Nazi regime offered a large reward for assistance in the capture of Tuvia, and in 1943 launched major clearing operations against partisan groups in the area. Some groups suffered major casualties, but the Bielski partisans fled safely to a more remote part of the forest, and continued to offer protection to non-combatants.
The Bielski partisans eventually became affiliated with Soviet partisans in the vicinity of the Naliboki Forest under General Platon (Vasily Yefimovich Chernyshev). Several attempts by Soviet partisan commanders to absorb Bielski fighters into their units were resisted, such that the Jewish partisan group retained its integrity and remained under Tuvia's command. This allowed him to continue protecting Jewish refugees along with engaging in combat activity, but would prove a problem later on.
The Bielski Jews, fighting on the Soviet side, took part in clashes between Polish and Soviet forces, and assisted in the disarmament of a group of Polish partisans by the Soviets on December 1, 1943. The Bielski partisans' leaders split the group into two units, one named Ordzhonikidze, led by Zus, and the other Kalinin, commanded by Tuvia. According to partisan documentation, Bielski fighters from both units killed a total of 381 enemy fighters, sometimes during joint actions with Soviet groups. Fifty members of the group were killed.
In the summer of 1944, when the Soviet counteroffensive began in Belarus and the area was taken over by the Soviets, the Kalinin unit, numbering 1,230 men, women and children, emerged from the forest and marched into Nowogrodek. Despite previous collaboration with the Soviets relations quickly worsened. The NKVD interrogated the brothers about rumors of loot they had reportedly collected during the war, and their failure to "implement socialist ideals in the camp". Asael was conscripted into the Soviet Red Army and fell in the battle of Königsberg in 1945. The remaining brothers escaped Soviet-controlled lands, emigrating West. Tuvia's cousin, Yehuda, was sought by the NKVD for having been an officer in the pre-war Polish Army but escaped with Tuvia's help (to Hungary and then Israel).
After the war Tuvia returned to Poland, then emigrated to Palestine (present-day Israel) in 1945. Tuvia and Zus eventually settled in the United States, where they operated a successful trucking business. The last living brother, Aroni, emigrated to the US in 1951 and changed his name to "Aron Bell". Tuvia and Zus are buried in Sheepshead Bay. None ever sought any recognition or reward for their actions.
Two English language books have focused on the Bielski story - Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (1993) by Nechama Tec and The Bielski Brothers (2004) by Peter Duffy. The group is also mentioned in numerous books about this period in history. In 2009 the History Channel aired a documentary titled The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem In The Woods, written and directed by Dean Ward. The 2008 feature film Defiance, co-written, produced and directed by Edward Zwick, stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay as Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aroni respectively.
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