The Bielski partisans were an organisation of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews from extermination and fought against the Nazi German occupiers and their collaborators in the vicinity of Nowogródek (Navahrudak) and Lida in German-occupied Poland (now western Belarus). They are named after the Bielskis, a family of Polish Jews who led the organization.
Under their protection, 1,236 Jews survived the war, making it one of many remarkable rescue missions in the Holocaust. The group spent more than two years living in the forests and was initially organised by members of the Bielski family.
The Bielski family were millers and grocers in Stankiewicze (Stankievichy) near Nowogródek, an area that at the beginning of the Second World War belonged to the Second Polish Republic and was seized by the Soviet Union in September 1939 (cf. Polish September Campaign and Soviet invasion of Poland (1939)) in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union.
The Bielski family took part as low level administrators in the new government set up by the Soviets which strained their relations with the local Poles, to whom the Soviet Union was an occupier.
Following the Germans' Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Union that began on June 22, 1941, Nowogródek became a Jewish ghetto, as Nazis took over those lands and implemented their genocidal policies (see Holocaust in Poland and Holocaust in Belarus).
The four Bielski brothers, Tuvia Bielski, Alexander Bielski (also known as "Zus"), Asael Bielski and Aron Bielski managed to flee to the nearby forest after their parents and other family members were killed in the ghetto in December 1941. Together with 13 neighbours from the ghetto, they formed the nucleus of their partisan combat group in the spring of 1942. Originally, the group consisted of around forty people, but grew quickly.
The group's commander was the oldest brother, Tuvia, who 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 emissaries to infiltrate 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 peak, 1,236 people belonged to the group, and 70% were women, children, and the elderly; no one was turned away. About 150 engaged in armed operations.
The partisans lived in underground dugouts (zemlyankas) or bunkers. In addition, several utility structures were built: a kitchen, a mill, a bakery, a bathhouse, a medical clinic for the sick and wounded, and a quarantine hut for those who suffered from infectious diseases such as typhus. Herds of cows supplied milk.
Artisans made goods and carried out repairs, providing the combatants with logistical support that later served the Soviet partisan units in the vicinity as well. More than 125 workers toiled in the workshops, which became famous among partisans far beyond the Bielski base. Tailors patched up old clothing and stitched together new garments; shoemakers fixed old and made new footwear; leather-workers laboured on belts, bridles and saddles.
A metalworking shop established by Shmuel Oppenheim repaired damaged weapons and constructed new ones from spare parts. A tannery, constructed to produce the hide for cobblers and leather workers, became a de-facto synagogue because several tanners were devout Hasidic Jews. Carpenters, hat-makers, barbers, watchmakers served their own community and guests. The camp's many children attended class in the dugout set up as a school. The camp even had its own jail and court of law.
Some accounts note the inequality between well-off partisans and poor inhabitants of the camp.
The Bielski group's partisan activities were aimed at the Nazis and their collaborators, such as Belarusian volunteer policemen or local inhabitants who had betrayed or killed Jews. They also conducted sabotage missions.
The Nazi regime offered a reward of 100,000Reichmarks for assistance in the capture of Tuvia Bielski, and in 1943, led major clearing operations against all partisan groups in the area. Some of these groups suffered major casualties, but the Bielski partisans fled safely to a more remote part of the forest, and continued to offer protection to the noncombatants among their band.
The Bielski group would raid nearby villages and forcibly seize food (much like other partisan groups in the area); on occasion, peasants who refused to share their food with the partisans were the subject of violence and even murder. This caused hostility towards the partisans from peasants in the villages, though some would help the Jewish partisans.
Several attempts by Soviet commanders to absorb Bielski fighters into their units were resisted, and the Jewish partisan group retained its integrity and remained under Tuvia Bielski's command. This allowed him to continue in his mission to protect Jewish lives along with engaging in combat activity, but would also prove a problem later on.
The Bielski Jews, fighting on the Soviet side, took part in clashes between Polish and Soviet forces. Notably, they took part in a disarmament of a group of Polish partisans by the Soviets on 1 December 1943.
The Bielski partisan leaders split the group into two units, one named Ordzhonikidze, led by Zus, and the other Kalinin, commanded by Tuvia. According to partisan documentation, Bielski fighters from both units killed a total of 381 enemy fighters, sometimes during joint actions with Soviet groups. 50 members of the group were killed.
In the summer of 1944, when the Soviet counteroffensive began in Belarus and the area was taken over by the Soviets, the Kalinin unit, numbering 1,230 men, women and children, emerged from the forest and marched into Nowogrodek.
Despite their previous collaboration with the Soviets, relations quickly worsened. 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".
Asael Bielski was conscripted into the Soviet Red Army and fell in the Battle of Königsberg in 1945. The remaining brothers escaped Soviet-controlled lands, emigrating to the West. Tuvia's cousin, Yehuda Bielski, was sought by the NKVD for having been an officer in the pre-war Polish Army, but managed to escape with Tuvia's help and made his way to Hungary and then to Israel.
After the war, Tuvia Bielski returned to Poland, then emigrated to present-day Israel in 1945. Tuvia and Zus eventually settled in New York. They operated a successful trucking business.
When Tuvia died in 1987, he was buried in Long Island, New York, but a year later, at the urging of surviving partisans in Israel, he was exhumed and given a hero's funeral at Har Hamenuchot, the hillside graveyard in Jerusalem. His wife, Lilka, was buried beside him in 2001. Aron lives in Florida. None of the Bielskis ever sought any recognition or reward for their actions. Yehuda Bielski, their first cousin and fellow partisan, moved to present-day Israel to fight in the Irgun.
Allegations of war crimes
Some of the members of the Bielski partisans (but not the Bielski brothers themselves) have been accused of war crimes on the neighbouring population, particularly for alleged involvement in the 1943 Naliboki massacre of 129 people, committed by Soviet partisans.
Though some witnesses and some historians do place members of the Bielskis' unit at the massacre, former members of the brigade and other historians dispute this, asserting that the partisans did not arrive in the area until several months later.
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. Some historians working at the Institute have asserted in other publications, however, that the Bielski brothers had not been involved in the massacre.