The extent of the children's education varied, but most didn't get very far in religious or secular schools. David at times would hire a teacher to come to the house. At other times, a child was sent to live with a relative in Novogrudek, the nearest city with a sizable Jewish population, to be educated in its local schools. The closest synagogue was also located in the city, a fifteen-kilometer trip that took three hours by horse and cart, making it difficult for the family to regularly attend services. Instead, a private home served as their house of worship. On the Sabbath and high holy days, the Bielskis visited the home of the Dziencielski family, who lived two kilometers through a path in the woods in the village of Big Izvah. Like the Bielskis, the Dziencielskis operated a mill and were the only Jews in their town.
David would sometimes lead the congregation in prayer, using a Torah scroll that was kept in the Dziencielski house. He didn't have much in the way of education, but he had a melodious voice and a strong grasp of the holy texts.
The children learned the local languages -- Belorussian, Russian, and Polish -- with a fluency that often eluded most Belorussian Jews who dwelled in Jewish neighborhoods in the cities. David's business required the family to come into constant contact with its neighbors, Orthodox Christian Belorussians and Catholic Poles. Fully aware that he was an isolated Jew living through a time when anti-Jewish violence was a fact of life, he developed a conciliatory nature that sought peace over confrontation.
When officials from the tsarist government arrived and announced that they suspected the family of managing the land in violation of the tsar's order, David and Beyle offered them a seat at their table ...
The foregoing is excerpted from The Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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