"I will be famous when I'm dead." -Tuvia Bielski
Three men, brothers, saved as many Jews during World War II as Oskar Schindler, and organized a military force that killed hundreds of enemy soldiers, nearly as many as did the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Their names were Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski; and to the twelve hundred Jews who walked out of the Belorussian forests in July 1944, and to the several generations of offspring of those survivors, these men were legend, revered as heroes. But outside this core group, the men behind the largest and most successful Jewish fighting and rescue force of the war have gone almost entirely uncelebrated; in the sixty years since, only a few books have detailed their achievements and hardly a plaque bears their names.
I stumbled upon this story while conducting a random online search. A stray reference to "Forest Jews" stirred my curiosity and led me down a path that would consume me for three years to come--a path that gave me a remarkable opportunity to gather the firsthand stories of Holocaust survivors, in a few cases just months and even weeks before they died.
And so, after dozens of interviews during which I heard stories about life in the forests of current-day western Belarus, where the Bielskis' stand against the Germans resulted in the creation of a village with makeshift workshops and primitive dwellings, I found myself, on June 27, 2001, standing at the edge of the largest of these forests. Guided by an elderly Polish woman named Leokadia Lankovich, I had a chance to imagine what it must have been like.
But nothing about the Naliboki Puscha - puscha is a word common to the Polish, Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian languages that means "dense forest" - indicated that it had been host to anything out of the ordinary. It looked like any forest in any country. Yet some of the most extraordinary acts of wartime courage and ingenuity occurred among these pine and fir trees.
The Bielski group contained an astonishing eight hundred Jews when it reached these woods in the summer of 1943. More than a year earlier, the brothers had established a forest base, populated by several relatives, in the woods near the Bielski family homestead. The oldest and wisest of the three, Tuvia, had insisted that the group be open to all Jews, no matter whether they were young or old, healthy or sick, soldier or invalid. "I would rather save one old Jewish woman," he would say, "than kill ten German soldiers." Slowly more people arrived, often rescued from the ghettos by Bielski fighters, until the unit was a huge collection of escapees moving from forest to forest one step ahead of the Germans.
In August 1943, Hitler sent his most ferocious and lawless troops into this puscha, with the intent to kill every member of the Bielski group. In a desperate bid for survival, the brothers led all eight hundred members through miles of puscha swamps as gunfire whistled past their heads and shouts of enemy soldiers filled their ears. They finally reached an isolated island in the very heart of the great forest, where they lived, in silence and without food, until the Nazis gave up their hunt. Not a single person was lost. It was an escape of breathtaking audacity.
Afterward, the three brothers identified a secure, dry spot in the puscha, where they directed the construction of a miniature city. It had living quarters; workshops for tailors, shoemakers, seamstresses, and carpenters; a large herd of cows and horses; a school for sixty children; a main street and a central square; a musical and dramatic theater; and a tannery that doubled as a synagogue. To the weary Jews who had narrowly escaped death by fleeing ghettos and labor camps, it was like a vision from another world, an astonishing place where Jews lived in freedom in the heart of Nazi-dominated Europe.
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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