Ms. Lankovich, a squat Polish woman with an infectious laugh and a tendency for nonstop chatter, promised to show me to the exact location of the Jewish village. After we bumped along a road leading into the heart of the woods, she ordered the driver to stop his Russian military-style jeep. "This was the area," she said, hopping from the vehicle and pointing to the trees surrounding the truck.
Despite her age, Ms. Lankovich, as if energized by memory, began walking through the thick foliage so quickly it was difficult to keep up. "Here was one of the spots where they had a shelter," said Ms. Lankovich, pointing at a small pit filled with rainwater. It looked no different from any other hole in the woods. But Ms. Lankovich was insistent.
She pushed branches from her face as she moved forward, stopping momentarily to pick berries and point out evidence of more Bielski living quarters. And she kept talking. "When I would come to the camp, I couldn't just walk around wherever I wanted. The guards stopped me. I would tell them that I wanted to see a friend of mine named Sulia. Then they sent somebody and Sulia would come and take me into the camp.
"It was beautiful," she said. "It was like Minsk."
I tried to picture how these woods had looked more than half a century ago. What was it like in the bustling kitchen, which was watched over, I had been told, by a blunt man with a perpetually bloody apron who frenetically stirred a series of pots with a long wooden spoon? What did people talk about in the living quarters, the earthen dugouts covered with wooden roofs that were often occupied by people from the same village or who worked in the same profession? How did the gunsmith, whose pounding hammer could be heard all day long, manage to repair nearly destroyed rifles recovered from the countryside? After so many years of continuous growth of vegetation, it was hard to spot evidence of the brothers' base.
Similarly, the brothers themselves seemed to disappear after the war. Asael joined the Red Army and was killed fighting Nazis in East Prussia just seven months after leaving the forest. Tuvia and Zus moved to Israel, where they worked a variety of manual jobs. By the middle of the 1950s, both were living in a middleclass neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, raising families with wives they had met while commanding their forest troops. Zus was more successful, eventually owning a small trucking and taxi company, while Tuvia, the great commander who rode a white horse, had a harder time of it. He drove a delivery truck and struggled to keep food on the table for his family. Tuvia passed away in 1987, Zus in 1995. They were forgotten men, average immigrant Americans trying to provide a solid future for their children.
In search of their fast-disappearing tale, I sought out each of the brothers' widows, proud guardians of their husbands' memories, and the fourth brother, Aron (Bielski) Bell, who was a plucky, twelve-year-old forest scout during the war years. I interviewed more than fifty survivors from the brothers' camps and mined every document, memoir, and photograph I could find that pertained to the forest experience. I spoke with gentile partisans and peasants, some of them allies of the brothers, some of them enemies. I discovered a book-length manuscript written by Tuvia Bielski, never translated into English and unknown to even his family.
It was stirring journey that turned me from a dispassionate outsider to someone with a deep personal connection to this community, its history, and its membership. So much so that, as the great survivors finally met their inevitable ends, I felt great sadness, not because they were important sources but because I had come to know them as friends.
And so I felt honored, and a bit undeserving, as I stood in the huge puscha at the site of the Bielski brothers' greatest triumph, one of the most sacred spots of World War II - a place not of Jewish death but of Jewish life. When I closed my eyes and listened to the voices of the survivors, I could almost see the place that so many of them came to call Jerusalem.
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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