about to see one of the greatest stories NEVER told; the largest
documented armed resistance
rescue, of Jews by Jews, during the Holocaust. The 1200 people saved
number an estimated 20,000 today. And I would now like to make it
1957, my mother, Estelle Bielski Herschthal and all of the other
brothers and sisters who survived the Holocaust had moved directly from
to America and had been living in Brooklyn with their families for 10
However, the Bielski Brothers that led the Partisans went directly to
after surviving the Holocaust, and went to war again, to help establish
State of Israel.
I was 6 yrs old, 1957, when my Mother told me that her
brother Tuvia, a great war hero, would be moving from Israel to
America. He’d be our guest for a few
weeks and would be arriving
later that night. I’d have to give my bed to
him, and now share a bed with my younger brother, all three of us
one small bedroom. I was not
pleased about this inconvenience and thoug ht,
after all, how big of a hero can he be if he has to share a room with
My brother and I were fast asleep when he finally
arrived late that night as he was when we left for
school early the next morning.
register my dissatisfaction, I poured
baby powder all over the head of my sleeping
uncle. As I started to exit the room I was
firmly and yet gently stopped and lifted by two steel
like arms. I was temporarily paralyzed with
fear and was turned around to face a giant
white powdered smiling laughing face, who gave me a big warm
welcoming hug. We were fast friends ever since.
Tuvia’s family and the other remaining
Brothers and their families arrived from Israel soon
all the Bielskis and many of the other Partisan families lived
within minutes of each other in Brooklyn
large, mostly happy family. We were close, at times it could seem too
close, and did everything together, including observing and20celebrati
holidays, birthdays, bar
mitzvahs, graduations, weddings and of course, funerals.
all these events there was a certain protocol. At a
significant moment, typically after the blessing of bread and wine,
equivalent of a blessing, an acknowledgement of Tuvia
and the Bielski Brothers for making it possible for all of us to be
matter the significance or insignificance of the event, there was
respectful proclamation of gratitude to the Bielsky partisan unit. This
continued well into the 2nd and now
present 3rd generation. Tuvia could
have cared less about these accolades. He derived his satisfaction from
observing the thriving and increasingly multiplying
descendants of those he saved.
youngsters we were fascinated by the physical aspect of what they did
mostly lost to the bigger picture.
Uncles were quite humble and hardly ever
spoke of the military aspects of their struggle, and only spoke of
was their kids or the peo ple that they saved that freely supplied
us with all
the graphic details of various battles, missions, raids, retributions
executions. Tuvia would never have any part of these
types of conversations. On the other hand, my Uncle Zus, when egged
on was all too glad to demonstrate to us
kids some of his lethal hand to hand combat techniques.
had absolutely nothing in common with other 2nd generation Holocaust
kids as their commonality was their parents reluctance
to discuss the Holocaust, whereas for us it was part of our normal
they played cowboys and Indians, we played Nazis
and Partisans. And guess who played the Nazi?
was amazed, while growing up, at how many people personally told me
over again how they owed their existence to my uncles saving them and
families. Nevertheless, it still seemed like a LOCAL vs global story.
Even though there were many articles and
books written about the Bielskis, they were mostly
testimonials written by fellow Partisans Chaim this or
Chaim that. They were not widely read or known.
time progressed from the 80s through the 90s and the Holocaust
was popularized as an academic and
subject much more light was shed on the horror that occurred to
the 6 million.
But The Bielski story was still little known. In fact, I must confess,
of us, while never doubting the essence of the story, assumed that
some of the
more implausible aspects of the Bielski story just might be slightly
or exaggerated. Well, shame on us!!
tipping point occurred several years after the last of the Bielski
died, when an Irish Catholic NYT reporter named Peter Duffy, wrote
a popular and
well researched book, published by HarperCollins in 2003, documenting
story and placing it in its proper historical context.
author had gone
back to the then newly opened Archives of the Soviet Union and
detailed records of the Bielski Partisans’ achievements. The
had some arms and intelligence supplied to them by the Russian
including a Russian liason officer who kept records
and even some photographs of what they did. The story turned
out to be much,
much bigger than previously reported. Academicians and historians
attention. Articles were written. The press picked up on it
and so did Hollywood.
movie rights were ultimately purchased from another
the name Defiance. Uncle Tuvia and the Brothers who
saved over 1200 Jews, now, ironically had their story saved
and immortalized by an Irish Catholic reporter and Hollywood.
really understand how this act of Defiance came to pass, you
the Bielski family background before the Holocaust. The Bielskis
were multi-generational, redneck, hillbilly
Jewish farmers who lived on a poor Ponderosa at the
edge of a forest in the middle of nowhere Poland, surrounded
by a Jew hating
populace (anti-semitic is too mild a word).
into the Bielskis, a little bit of Robin Hood and lot of
Sopranos, and you can first begin to appreciate their temperament.
A recent NYT
article described the Brothers as “casually violent, sexually
occasionally murderous”. I sincerely hope these traits are not
were hard drinking and hard living men who were not likely candidates
heroes . Yet, at the same time, they valued honor,
family and a full love of life.
were historically forced to defend themselves and their property
as the loc al
laws did not protect them.
acts of retribution were legendary thus making
them locally feared. Once the Nazis controlled their territory
it would have
been relatively easy to only save themselves, by simply
hiding deep in the forest where they grew up. After all,
they were expert
horsemen, outdoorsmen and survivalists. They were not accountants.
But Tuvia and the Brothers risked their own lives, by saving
those Jews, mostly strangers, unable to save themselves.
And at the same time
created a community, often- times referred to as a”Jerusalem
in the Woods” that saved their cultural
identity. And that’s what makes this story one of a kind. The
brothers loved life and were determined to fully sustain it.
showed us that real
Heroes are flawed human beings. They provided a glimmer
of light and hope, in a
time when there was none. History will hopefully look
at the Bielski story, not
a corrective to the Holocaust’s 6 million, but rather
an inspiring addendum.
Future genocides can only be stopped by international
cooperation and early
government detection and prevention. And while we pressure
governments to act,
one must ultimately summon,