Bielski partisans

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The Bielski partisans were a group of Jewish partisans (an irregular military group) who fought against the Nazis during World War II. They rescued Jews from extermination. They fought against the Nazis, who had taken over Poland. They also fought against people who cooperated with the Nazis. They lived and fought around Nowogródek (Navahrudak) and Lida in Poland (now western Belarus). They were named after the Bielskis, a family of Polish Jews who led the group.

Under the Bielski partisans' protection, 1,236 Jews survived the war. This was one of many remarkable rescue missions in the Holocaust.[1] The group spent more than two years living in the forests and was initially organised by members of the Bielski family.

Background[change | change source]

The Bielski family were millers and grocers[2] in Stankiewicze (Stankievichy) near Nowogródek. At the beginning of WWII, this area belonged to the Second Polish Republic. It was taken over by the Soviet Union in September 1939 (cf. Polish September Campaign and Soviet invasion of Poland) as part of an agreement between Nazi Germany and Josef Stalin's Soviet Union that they would not fight each other.

The Bielski family served as low-level administrators in the new government set up by the Soviets.[3] This made many local Poles unhappy, because they saw the Soviets as occupiers.

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany began Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. Nowogródek became a Jewish ghetto. The Nazis took over and began their genocidal policies in Poland and Belarus.

Partisans[change | change source]

Formation[change | change source]

The Bielski's parents and older family members were killed in the ghetto on 8 December 1941. The four Bielski brothers - Tuvia, Alexander (also known as "Zus"), Asael, and Aron Bielski - managed to escape to the nearby forest. Together with 13 neighbours from the ghetto, they formed their partisan combat group in the spring of 1942. Originally, about forty people were in the group, but it grew quickly.

The oldest brother, Tuvia, was the group's commander. Tuvia had served in the Polish Army from 1927 to 1929, rising to the rank of corporal. He had been interested in the Zionist youth movement. He sent people to sneak into 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. At its largest, 1,236 people belonged to the group. Seven out of every ten members were women, children, or elderly. No one was turned away.[1] About 150 group members used weapons to fight the Nazis and the people who cooperated with them.[1]

Organization[change | change source]

The partisans lived in underground dugouts (zemlyankas) or bunkers. In their forest camp, they built many things, including:

Members of the group did many different jobs. For example:

  • They milked cows to get fresh milk
  • Artisans made and repaired things. This helped the group's fighters keep fighting. Later, the group provided support to Soviet partisans in the unit as well
  • Over 125 people worked in workshops
  • Tailors fixed old clothing and made new clothing
  • Shoemakers fixed and made shoes
  • Leather-workers worked on belts, bridles, and saddles
  • Workers in a metalworking shop fixed damaged weapons and made new ones from extra parts
  • Some group members worked as carpenters, hat-makers, barbers, and watchmakers

The group also set up a school in one of the dugouts. The camp even had its own jail and court of law.[4]

Some accounts say that poor members of the group were not treated as well as richer members.[5]

Activities[change | change source]

The Bielski group's partisan activities were aimed at the Germans and their collaborators (people who cooperated with the Nazis, like Belarusian volunteer policemen or local residents who had betrayed or killed Jews). The group also used sabotage to fight the Nazis. The Nazi regime offered a reward of 100,000 Reichsmarks to anyone who could help them catch Tuvia Bielski. In 1943, the Nazis led major efforts to get rid of all partisan groups in the area. Some of these groups suffered major casualties, but the Bielski partisans fled safely to a deeper part of the forest, and continued to offer protection to the non-fighters among their band.

Like other partisan groups in the area, the Bielski group would raid nearby villages and force people to give them food. Sometimes, peasants who refused to share their food with the partisans were attacked or even murdered. This made many of the peasants in the villages angry at the Bielski partisans, though some would willingly help the Jewish partisans.[6][7][8]

The Bielski partisans eventually teamed up with Soviet groups around the Naliboki Forest under General Platon (Vasily Yefimovich Chernyshev). Soviet commanders tried several times to get Bielski fighters to join their units, but they refused. Tuvia continued to command the Bielski partisans. This allowed him to continue in his mission to protect Jewish lives along with engaging in combat activity. However, it would also cause problems later on.

The Bielski partisan leaders split the group into two units, one named Ordzhonikidze, led by Zus, and the other Kalinin, commanded by Tuvia. Fighting on the Soviet side, they took part in fights between Polish and Soviet forces. On 1 December 1943, they helped the Soviets disarm a group of Polish partisans.[9] According to records kept by the partisans, the Bielski fighters from both units claimed to have killed a total of 381 enemy fighters, sometimes during joint actions with Soviet groups.[10]

Disbandment[change | change source]

In the summer of 1944, the Soviets began to fight back against the Nazi occupiers in Belarus, and took over the area. At this pint, the Kalinin unit, which included 1,230 men, women and children, came out of the forest and marched into Novogrodek.

Even though they have previously worked and cooperated with the Soviets, relations between the Soviets and the Bielski partisans got worse quickly.[11] The NKVD started interrogating the Bielski brothers about the rumours of loot they had reportedly collected during the war, and about their failure to "implement socialist ideals in the camp".[11] Asael Bielski was conscripted into the Soviet Red Army and fell in the Battle of Königsberg in 1945.[11] The remaining brothers escaped Soviet-controlled lands, emigrating to the West.[11] Tuvia's cousin, Yehuda Bielski, was sought by the NKVD for having been an officer in the pre-war Polish Army. However, with Tuvia's help, he managed to escape to Hungary, then to Israel.[12]

Post-war[change | change source]

Burial place of Tuvia Bielski

After the war, Tuvia Bielski returned to Poland, then emigrated to present-day Israel in 1945. Tuvia and Zus eventually settled in New York, where they ran a successful trucking business. When Tuvia died in 1987, he was buried in Long Island, New York. However, a year later, surviving partisans in Israel got his body to be exhumed (taken out of the ground). He was given a hero's funeral at Har Hamenuchot, the hillside graveyard in Jerusalem. His wife, Lilka, was buried beside him in 2001.

The last living Bielski brother, Aron Bielski, emigrated to the US in 1951. He changed his name to "Aron Bell." The remainder of the Bell family now lives in upstate New York and California. Aron lives in Florida. None of the Bielskis ever sought any praise or reward for their actions.

Yehuda Bielski, their first cousin and fellow partisan, moved to Israel to fight in the Irgun.[13]

Stankiewicze (Stankevichi) no longer exists. It was at 53°39′15″N 25°39′2″E / 53.65417°N 25.65056°E / 53.65417; 25.65056 (Stankiewicze), just off Route P11, approximately halfway between Biarozauka and Navahrudak.

Allegations of war crimes[change | change source]

Some of the members of the Bielski partisans (but not the Bielski brothers themselves) have been accused of war crimes in the villages near them. In particular, Bielski partisans have been accused of being involved in the 1943 Naliboki massacre of 129 people, committed by Soviet partisans.[14] Some witnesses and some historians[who?] say that members of the Bielskis' unit were at the massacre. However, former group members and other historians[who?], say this is not true.[15] They say that the partisans did not arrive in the area until several months later.[16]

The Polish Institute of National Remembrance has been investigating the massacre since the early 2000s. As of April 2009, it has not issued official findings.[14][17] However, some historians[who?] working at the Institute have written in other publications that the Bielski brothers had not been involved in the massacre.[15]

Books and film[change | change source]

Two recent English language books have focused on the Bielski story: Defiance (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. A new book (January 2009) in Polish by two reporters from Gazeta Wyborcza, Odwet: Prawdziwa historia braci Bielskich (Revenge: The True Story of the Bielski Brothers) focuses on the larger political and historical context in which the partisans operated, specifically the fighting between Polish and Soviet resistance groups in the Kresy (former Eastern Poland) region. Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War, by Allan Levine (first published 1998, 2008 reissue, by Lyons Press),[18] tells the story of Jewish fighters and refugees in forests across Europe, including the Bielski partisans. With Courage Shall We Fight: The Memoirs and Poetry of Holocaust Resistance Fighters Frances "Fruma" Gulkowich Berger and Murray “Motke” Berger tells the story of two Bielski Brigade fighters before, during and after the War.

In 2006, the History Channel aired a documentary titled The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods, written and directed by filmmaker Dean Ward.[19]

An episode of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? featured UK television personality Natasha Kaplinsky discovering that her great uncle Ytsak Kaplinski was a member of the Bielski partisans. He survived the war and emigrated to South Africa.[20]

The BBC series Ray Mears's Extreme Survival featured an episode about the Bielski partisans.[21]

The feature film Defiance, co-written, produced and directed by Edward Zwick, was released nationwide on 16 January 2009. It stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and George MacKay as Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron Bielski respectively. It opened to mixed reviews[22] and raised questions about the roles various groups played during the war.[23]

Related pages[change | change source]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "THE BIELSKI PARTISANS". United States Holocaust Museum. Archived from the original on 14 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
  2. Tec, Nechama (1993). Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-509390-9.
  3. Snyder, Timothy, "Caught Between Hitler & Stalin", The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 7, April 30, 2009, [1] (restricted)
  4. Duffy, Peter, The Bielski Brothers. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 0-06-621074-7. p.214-217
  5. (Polish) Piotr Zychowicz, Bielski pomagał Żydom, ale też ich wykorzystywał, Rzeczpospolita, 23-01-2009
  6. "Family Camps in the Forest" (PDF). Shoah Resource Center. Retrieved 2009-01-22.
  7. A Hollywood Movie About Heroes or Murderers?, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2008-06-16
  8. (Polish) Piotr Głuchowski, Marcin Kowalski, Wymazany Aron Bell (Aron Bell Erased), Gazeta Wyborcza, 008-06-16
  9. (English) The True Story of the Bielski Brothers (Polish) Prawdziwa historia Bielskich, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2009-01-06
  10. Duffy, Peter, The Bielski Brothers. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 0-06-621074-7. p. 281: "The numbers are cited in the partisan histories of Ordzhonikidze (Fond 3618; Opus I; File 23) and Kalinin (Fond 3500; Opus 4; File 272) in the Minsk archives. The Kalinin history is also available at Yad Vashem (M.41/120).
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 (Polish) Piotr Głuchowski, Marcin Kowalski, Wojna polsko-ruska pod bokiem niemieckim, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2009-01-13
  12. http://www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/37115/
  13. http://www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=37115
  14. 14.0 14.1 "The report (in Polish) about the IPN investigation of Naliboki massacre and other crimes committed by Soviet partisans from Naliboki Forest".
  15. 15.0 15.1 (Polish) Bogdan Musiał, Bielski w puszczy niedomówień Archived July 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Rzeczpospolita, 31-01-2009
  16. Marissa Brostoff, "Polish Investigators Tie Partisans to Massacre," Forward (8/7/08) http://www.forward.com/articles/13935/
  17. "Jewish Brothers' Resistance Inspired'Defiance'". National Public Radio. 2008-12-28. Retrieved 2009-01-20.
  18. Levine, Allan. Fugitives of the Forest. New York: Lyons Press, 2008.
  19. "The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods" – via www.imdb.com.
  20. "Natasha Kaplinsky Episode Guide - Who Do You Think You Are Magazine". www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com.
  21. http://www.2ndgeneration.org.uk/event.php?a=view&event_id=40
  22. "Defiance". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on 21 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-20.
  23. Kamil Tchorek (2008-12-31). "Country split over whether Daniel Craig is film hero or villain". London: The Times. Retrieved 2008-12-31.

References[change | change source]

Further reading[change | change source]

  • Berger, Ralph S. and Albert S. Berger, editors "With Courage Shall We Fight: The Memoirs and Poetry of Frances "Fruma" Gulkowich Berger and Murray "Motke" Berger". Comteq Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-935232-20-9.
  • Duffy, Peter, The Bielski Brothers. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 0-06-621074-7.
  • Eckman, Lester and Lazar, Chaim, The Jewish Resistance: The History of the Jewish Partisans in Lithuania and White Russia During the Nazi Occupation 1940–1945. Shengold Publishers, 1977. ISBN 0-88400-050-8.
  • Levine, Allan, Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War. Stoddart, 1998. Reissued with a new introduction by The Lyons Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59921-496-2.
  • Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-509390-9.

Other Websites[change | change source]