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The Bielski Partisans


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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).

Partisans Formation

The four Bielski brothers, Tuvia BielskiAlexander 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.

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.

The Bielski partisans eventually became affiliated with Soviet organisations in the vicinity of the Naliboki Forest under General Platon (Vasily Yefimovich Chernyshev).

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.

The last living Bielski brother, Aron Bielski, emigrated to the US in 1951. He changed his name to "Aron Bell". The remainder of the Bell family now lives in upstate New York and California.

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.



  • 1939

Poland's Resistance Against the Nazis'

From September 1939 until 1945, Poland was dominated by the Third Reich. Whereas other territories (such as Austria, the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, and eastern France) were directly incorporated into Germany, other occupied territories were administered by separate regional governors called Reichskommisariats (including in Ukraine and the Baltic).

Poland was controlled by the General Government until its dissolution by the triumphant Soviet Red Army. Headquarted in the magnificent Wawel Castle in Krakow where the old Polish-Lithuanian sovereigns resided (see my photos below), the General Government was led by Governor General Hans Frank.

Governor General Hans Frank, administrator of German-occupied Poland against whose authority the Polish Underground fought.

Hans Frank and the General Government oversaw the pacification of Polish resistance, the forced relocation of Poland's ethnic Jewish minority into ghettoes that Poland had built centuries prior to the German conquest, and the expedited completion of the creation of Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Treblinka for the Holocaust. Although Poland lost anywhere from 10-17.2% of its total pre-war population , most were not ethnically Polish.

Occupied Poland was swept by tremendous national revolt by an eclectic array of political and ideological movements, including anarchists, Communists, Jews in ghettos resisting their impending oblivion, and Polish ultranationalists who sought to re-establish the long-sought independence of the Polish nation or pursue their own ideological/ethnic interests.

One famous example of the resistance of ethnic Jews (Ashkenazim) in Poland was that of the Bielski brothers, who organized fleeing Jews into a band of partisans along the Belarusian-Polish border and assaulted German soldiers and native Polish civilians in order to steal their provisions and food. Most survived the war thanks to the Soviet triumph, and ultimately departed for Israel and the United States.

Many widely respected Polish priests in this quite religious country became willing martyrs for the sovereignty of their nation and in defiance of German administrative policy. One Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe, became canonized as a saint for forfeiting his life in place of a prisoner in Auschwitz. A shrine to him exists in the central focal point of Polish Catholicism, the Jasna Gora Basilica in Czestochowa (see photo below). His icon depicts a praying priest basking in radiant light whilst wearing a prisoner's uniform adorned with the triangle of a political prisoner/dissenter.

After 1943, as the Germans' Operation Barbarossa increasingly resulted in the impending collapse of the Third Reich whilst the Soviet Red Army approached Poland from the east, Polish nationalists initated the nation-wide revolt to throw off the remaining elements of German hegemony called Operation Tempest.

The supreme underground organization leading the revolt was known as the: Polish Underground. Although the revolt was planned in anticipation for an incoming Soviet victory, it was not at all intended to allow the re-established Polish state to become a subject of the Soviet Union. Poles today intensely lionize their independence efforts during the Warsaw Uprising at the same time as they bitterly despise the succeeding 40 years of Communist rule as a member of the semi-independent Warsaw Pact.

The most famous manifestations of the Polish Underground's revolt were the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the Polish Uprising of 1944. In 1943, the famous Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising occurred. The German government, with many Latvian, Polish, Lithuanian, and especially Ukrainian volunteers, had forced all ethnic Jews (Ashkenazim) in Warsaw and Krakow into ghettos that Poland had built centuries prior.

In resistance to the conditions they faced and in prescient awareness of the increasing extermination of Jews in Poland, Jews of the Warsaw ghetto formed bands of ad hoc resistance fighters, such as the Jewish Combat League, led by David Apfelbaum and Mordechai Anielewicz to assault German soldiers and their supporting volunteers from occupied territories.

Although typically portrayed today as a cooperative effort between Jews and Polish resistance fighters, the Poles only contributed very limited auxilary support when it was perceived to inflict a definitive blow against the General Government. Poles had little more love for the Jews than the Germans.

Many Polish nationalists today, however, insist absurdly that the Poles did all of the work, whilst Jews across the world rightfully and proudly commemorate it as an example of Jewish defiance of the Holocaust. The uprising was a disastrous failure; it only lasted a month and resulted in brutal Axis reprisals that cost over 20,000 Jewish lives for only 17 dead Axis soldiers.

Today, it is commemorated through mostly foreign funding with a massive wall (my photos below) whose reverse depicts wailing Jews and a Rabbi in an artistic expression of the ageless struggle of the Jews, and whose obverse depicts Jewish resistance fighters standing tall.

The final significant resistance was done not by Jews, but by Poles. In 1944, as the Red Army was at the gates of Poland, the Polish Underground unleashed a massive city-wide revolt in Warsaw known as the Warsaw Uprising. It lasted nearly two brutal months of constant shooting, bombing, and artillery fire and drew the Germans away from the Eastern Front. As a result, the Polish resistance made a significant impact on the war effort as a whole.

Led by civilian resistance fighters like Tadeusz Bor Komorowski and Tadeusz Pe?czy?ski, the Underground tore the entire city apart, creating a significant problem for the Governor General. Unlike the failed Jewish Uprising, the Polish equivalent in Warsaw was a tremendous success in terms of the inflicted damage, leaving more than 15,000 Germans and Nazi volunteers dead in the ensuring chaos [2]. Although the Germans ultimately obliterated the revolt, it was only a matter of months before the Soviets arrived to dismantle the General Government. 

Today, the city of Warsaw is saturated with painted black and red symbols of the Polish Underground's logo (seen below) to commemorate where significant battles were fought.The final significant resistance was done not by Jews, but by Poles. In 1944, as the Red Army was at the gates of Poland, the Polish Underground unleashed a massive city-wide revolt in Warsaw known as the Warsaw Uprising. It lasted nearly two brutal months of constant shooting, bombing, and artillery fire and drew the Germans away from the Eastern Front.

As a result, the Polish resistance made a significant impact on the war effort as a whole. Led by civilian resistance fighters like Tadeusz Bor Komorowski and Tadeusz Pe?czy?ski, the Underground tore the entire city apart, creating a significant problem for the Governor General.

Unlike the failed Jewish Uprising, the Polish equivalent in Warsaw was a tremendous success in terms of the inflicted damage, leaving more than 15,000 Germans and Nazi volunteers dead in the ensuring chaos [2]. Although the Germans ultimately obliterated the revolt, it was only a matter of months before the Soviets arrived to dismantle the General Government. 

Today, the city of Warsaw is saturated with painted black and red symbols of the Polish Underground's logo (seen below) to commemorate where significant battles were fought.The final significant resistance was done not by Jews, but by Poles. In 1944, as the Red Army.

A~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~BOUT THE AUTHOR:

James Mayfield is a historian and the Chairman of the European Heritage Library. I have a Cum Laude BA in History with a Minor in Germanic Studies (language and history), am presently working for my Masters in History, and plan to immediately progress to my PhD Doctorate. I have a special academic interest in Europe's diverse ethnic identities, languages, and cultures, and the political struggles of native European and immigrant minority identities. 

Hans Frank

Hans Michael Frank 

(23 May 1900 – 16 October 1946)

Was a German lawyer who worked for the Nazi party during the 1920s and 1930s and later became a high-ranking official in Nazi Germany. He was prosecuted during the Nuremberg trials for his role in perpetrating the Holocaust during his tenure as the Governor-General of that portion of occupied Poland that was not directly incorporated into the German Reich, although administered by the Nazis, and known as the General Government. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed in Nuremberg.

Pre-war career

He studied law, passing the final state examination in 1926, and rose to become Adolf Hitler's personal legal adviser. In this capacity, Frank was privy to personal details of Hitler's life. In his memoirs, written shortly before his execution, Frank made the sensational claim that he had been commissioned by Hitler to investigate Hitler's family in 1930 after a "blackmail letter" had been received from Hitler's nephew, William Patrick Hitler, who allegedly threatened to reveal embarrassing facts about his uncle's ancestry.

Frank said that the investigation uncovered evidence that Maria Schicklgruber, Hitler's paternal grandmother, had been working as a cook in the household of a Jewish man named Leopold Frankenberger before she gave birth to Hitler's father, Alois, out of wedlock. Frank claimed that he had obtained from a relative of Hitler's by marriage a collection of letters between Maria Schicklgruber and a member of the Frankenberger family that discussed a stipend for her after she left the employ of the family.

According to Frank, Hitler told him that the letters did not prove that the Frankenberger son was his grandfather but rather his grandmother had merely extorted money from Frankenberger by threatening to claim his paternity of her illegitimate child. Frank accepted this explanation, but added that it was still just possible that Hitler had some Jewish ancestry. Nevertheless, he thought it unlikely because, "...from his entire demeanor, the fact that Adolf Hitler had no Jewish blood coursing through his veins seems so clearly evident that nothing more need be said on this."

Given that all Jews had been expelled from the province of Styria (which includes Graz) in the 15th century and were not allowed to return until the 1860s, scholars such as Kershaw and Brigitte Hamann dismiss the Frankenberger hypothesis, which before had only Frank's speculation to support it as baseless. 

There is no evidence outside of Frank's statements for the existence of a "Leopold Frankenberger" living in Graz in the 1830s, and Frank's story is notably inaccurate on several points such as the claim that Maria Schicklgruber came from "Leonding near Linz", when in fact she came from the hamlet of Strones near the village of Döllersheim. 

It has been suggested that Frank, who turned against National Socialism after 1945, remained an anti-Semitic fanatic, made the claim that Hitler had Jewish ancestry as way of proving that Hitler was thus really a "Jew" and not an "Aryan"; and in this way, "proved" that the crimes of the Third Reich were the work of the "Jewish" Hitler. 

The full anti-Semitic implications of Frank's story were borne out in a letter to the editor of a Saudi newspaper in 1982 by a German man living in Saudi Arabia entitled "Was Hitler a Jew?". The letter-writer accepted Frank's story as the truth, and added since Hitler was a Jew, "the Jews should pay Germans reparations for the War, since one of theirscaused the destruction of Germany". The American author Ron Rosenbaum wrote about Frank:

"On the other hand, a different version of Frank emerges in the brilliantly vicious, utterly unforgiving portrait of him by his son, Niklas Frank, who (in a memoir called In the Shadow of the Reich) depicts his father as a craven coward and weakling, but one not without a kind of animal cunning, an instinct for lying, insinuation, self-aggrandizement.

For this Hans Frank, disgraced and facing death on the gallows for following Hitler, fabricating such a story might be a cunning way of ensuring his place in history as the one man who gave the world the hidden key to the mystery of Hitler's psyche. While at the same time, revenging himself on his former master for having led him to this end by foisting a sordid and humiliating explanation of Hitler on him for all posterity. In any case, it was one Frank knew the victors would find seductive".

As the Nazis rose to power, Frank served as the party's lawyer, representing it in over 2,400 cases, and spending over $10,000. This sometimes brought him into conflict with other lawyers, and one, a former teacher of Frank's appealed to him: "I beg you to leave these people alone! No good will come of it!

Political movements that begin in the criminal courts will end in the criminal courts!" In September-October 1930, Frank served as the defence lawyer at the court-martial in Leipzig of Lieutenants Richard Scheringer, Hans Friedrich Wendt and Hanns Ludin, three Reichswehr officers charged with membership in the NSDAP. The trial was a media sensation with Hitler himself testifying, and the defence successfully putting the Weimar Republic on trial, and many Army officers won over to a sympathetic view of the National Socialist movement.

Frank was elected to the Reichstag in 1930, and in 1933 he was made Minister of Justice for Bavaria. From 1933, he was also the head of the National Socialist Jurists Association and President of the Academy of German Law. Frank objected to extrajudicial killings, both at the Dachau concentration camp and during the Night of the Long Knives.

Frank's view of what the judicial process required should not be exaggerated:

“ [The judge's] role is to safeguard the concrete order of the racial community, to eliminate dangerous elements, to prosecute all acts harmful to the community, and to arbitrate in disagreements between members of the community. The National Socialist ideology, especially as expressed in the Party programme and in the speeches of our Leader, is the basis for interpreting legal sources. ”

From 1934, Frank was Reich Minister Without Portfolio.

Wartime career Ruler of occupied Poland

In September 1939 Frank was assigned as Chief of Administration to Gerd von Rundstedt in theGerman military administration in occupied Poland. From 26 October 1939, following the end of the invasion of Poland, Frank was assigned Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories (Generalgouverneur für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete), controlling the General Government, the area of Poland not directly incorporated into Germany (roughly 90,000 km² out of the 187,000 km² Germany had gained). He was also granted the SS rank of Obergruppenführer.

One of his first operations was the AB Action, aimed at destroying Polish culture, and in which more than 30,000 Poles (intellectuals and the upper classes) were arrested and 7,000 were subsequently massacred. Frank oversaw the segregation of the Jews into ghettos and the use of Polish civilians as "forced and compulsory" labour. In 1942 he lost his positions of authority outside the GG after annoying Hitler with a series of speeches in BerlinViennaHeidelberg, and Munich and also as part of a power struggle with Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, the State Secretary for Security — head of the SS and the police in the GG. Krüger himself was ultimately replaced with Wilhelm Koppe.

An assassination attempt by Polish Secret State on 29/30 January 1944 (the night preceding the 11th anniversary of the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany) in Szarów near  Krakow failed. A special train with Frank traveling to Lviv was derailed after an explosive device went off but no one was killed.

As governor general, Frank "stripped away" his appearance of culture stating to his cabinet,

“ Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourself of pity. We must annihilate the Jews. ”

The General Government was the location of four of the six extermination camps. Frank later claimed that the extermination of Jews was entirely controlled by Heinrich Himmler and the SS and that he, Frank, was unaware of the extermination camps in the GG until early in 1944. During his testimony at Nuremberg, Frank claimed he submitted resignation requests to Hitler on 14 occasions, but Hitler would not allow him to resign. Frank fled GG in January 1945, in advance of the Soviet Army.

Capture and trial Frank (center, wearing a glove after an unsuccessful suicide attempt shortly after his arrest) at the Nuremberg trial, with Alfred Jodl and Alfred Rosenberg

Frank was captured by American troops on 3 May 1945, at Tegernsee in southern Bavaria. Upon his capture, he tried to cut his own throat; two days later, he lacerated his left arm while attempting to slit his wrists in a second unsuccessful suicide attempt. He was indicted for war crimes and tried before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg from 20 November 1945 to 1 October 1946. During the trial he renewed the faith of his childhood, Roman Catholicism, and claimed to have a series of religious experiences.

Frank voluntarily surrendered 43 volumes of his personal diaries to the Allies, which were then used against him as evidence of his guilt. Frank confessed to some of the charges put against him and viewed his own execution as a form of atonement for his sins. Although on the witness stand he expressed remorse, during the trial, he vacillated between penitence for his crimes and blaming the Allies, especially the Soviets, for an equal share of wartime atrocities.

The corpse of Hans Frank after he was hanged

The former Governor-General of Poland was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity on 1 October 1946, and was sentenced to death byhanging. While awaiting execution, he wrote his memoirs. The sentence was carried out on 16 October by Master Sergeant John C. Woods. Journalist Howard K. Smith wrote of the execution:

“ Hans Frank was next in the parade of death. He was the only one of the condemned to enter the chamber with a smile on his countenance. And, although nervous and swallowing frequently, this man, who was converted to Roman Catholicism after his arrest, gave the appearance of being relieved at the prospect of atoning for his evil deeds. ”

He and Albert Speer were allegedly the only defendants to show remorse for their war crimes. "My conscience does not allow me simply to throw the responsibility simply on minor people... A thousand years will pass and still Germany's guilt will not have been erased." But four months later he insisted in his final statement, that the guilt of the Germans had been wiped out by the crimes inflicted upon them: "There is still one statement of mine which I must rectify. On the witness stand I said that a thousand years would not suffice to erase the guilt brought upon our people because of Hitler's conduct in this war.

Every possible guilt incurred by our nation has already been, completely wiped out today, not only by the conduct of our war-time enemies towards our nation and its soldiers, which has been carefully kept out of this Trial, but also by the tremendous mass crimes of the most frightful sort which-as I have now learned-have been and still are being committed against Germans by Russians, Poles, and Czechs, especially in East Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and Sudetenland. Who shall ever judge these crimes against the German people?" He answered to his name quietly and when asked for any last statement, he replied "I am thankful for the kind treatment during my captivity and I ask God to accept me with mercy.


  • 23 May 1900 – 16 October 1946

Tuvia Bielski

Tuvia Bielski 

(May 8, 1906 – June 12, 1987)

Was the leader of the partisan group the Bielski partisans who were situated in the Naliboki forest in pre-war Poland (now western Belarus) during World War II.


Tuvia grew up in the only Polish Jewish family in Stankiewicze, a small village in Eastern Poland (now Western Belarus) located between towns of Lida and Navahrudak (both housed Jewish ghettoes during World War II.) He was the son of David and Beila Bielski, who had twelve children: ten boys and two girls. Tuvia was the second eldest, after Velvel. His brothersAsaelAlexander ('Zus') and Aron were later to become members of his partisan group.

During World War I, Bielski spent a lot of time with German soldiers occupying the territories of the future Poland and Belarus. Already a speaker of Yiddish, he learned to speak German from these men and remembered it all his life.

In 1927, he was recruited into the Polish Army. After his military service was over, Tuvia returned home. In an effort to add to his family's income, Tuvia rented another mill. This was still inadequate, so in 1929, at the age of twenty-three, he married an older woman named Rifka who owned a general store and a large house.

During World War II, Tuvia Bielski led a group of Jewish refugees. He saved more than 1,200 Jews by hiding them in forests. Although always hunted by Nazis, the numbers of the refugees continued to grow. In their camp, they built a school, a hospital, and a nursery. The refugees lived in the forests for more than two years. As leader of the Bielski partisans, his aim was not to attack railroads and roads that the German Nazis were using as supply routes, although there were some such attacks, but to save Jews, who were under persecution from the Nazis during the Holocaust.

After the war, Tuvia Bielski was offered a high position in the Israel Defense Forces for his great acts of leadership; but he declined the offer, instead running a small trucking firm with his brother Zus in New York City for 30 years until his death in 1987.

He married Lilka, another Jewish escapee; they remained married for the remainder of their lives. They had at least three children—sons Michael and Robert and a daughter, Ruth—and at least one granddaughter, Sharon Rennert, who herself has made a documentary about her family called In Our Hands: The Legacy of the Bielski Partisans.

He is portrayed by Daniel Craig in the 2008 film Defiance, which has been criticised in Poland due to its omission of the alleged involvement of the Bielski group in a massacre of Polish civilians conducted by Soviet-aligned partisans in Naliboki.

The Bielski partisan group was the subject of an official inquiry by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance's Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation after witnesses testified that Bielski partisans were among the perpetrators of the Naliboki massacre; however, the investigation found no conclusive evidence linking the Bielski group to the crime

Tuvia & Lilka Bielski

  • May 8, 1906 – June 12, 1987

Tuvia Bielski

Alexander Zeisal Bielski

Alexander Zeisal 'Zus' Bielski 

(19 October 1912 – 18 August 1995)

Was a leader of theBielski partisans that rescued approximately 1,200 Jews from Nazi execution in Belarus during World War II.

Alexander "Zus" Bielski was born approximately 1912. He grew up in the only Polish Jewish family in Stankiewicze, a small village in Eastern Poland (now Western Belarus) located between towns of Lida and Navahrudak (both housed Jewish ghettoes during World War II.)

He was the son of David and Beila Bielski, who had twelve children: ten boys and two girls. With his brothers, he formed the Bielski partisans.

The group hid in the forests of Belarus throughout World War II, led by the Bielskis. Zus, along with his brothers TuviaAron, and Asael, managed to save 1,236 Jews. Although he left the partisans for the Red Army for a few months, he returned to save his brothers and the innocent Jews from the Germans. Today, those who were saved have over 10,000 offspring. His first wife, Cyrl Borowski, and infant daughter were murdered by the Nazis. One of those rescued was eighteen-year-old Sonia Boldo, whom he would later marry.

After the war, he initially moved to Israel, but left to move to New York in 1956. There, he operated a taxi fleet and a trucking company with his brother Tuvia Bielski. He died of cardiac arrest in Brooklyn at age 83. He was survived by his wife Sonia, sons David, Jay, and Zvi, and six grandchildren, Matthew, Danielle, Elan, Rebecca, Rachel and Jessica. Matt Bielski and Elan Bielski served in the elite Israeli Paratroopers.


Bielski was portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the 2008 film Defiance, which has been criticised by an online Polish news agency,, due to its alleged omission of the alleged involvement of the Bielski group in a massacre of Polish civilians conducted by Soviet-aligned partisans inNaliboki.

The Bielski partisan group was the subject of an official inquiry by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance's Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation after witnesses testified that Bielski partisans were among the perpetrators of the Naliboki massacre; however, the investigation found no conclusive evidence linking the Bielski group to the crime.


  • 19 October 1912 – 18 August 1995

Aron Bielski

Aron Bielski, later changed to Aron Bell,

(born 1927) is a Polish-American Jew and former member of the Bielski partisans group, the largest armed rescuers of Jews by Jews during World War II.

He was also known as Arczyk Bielski. The youngest of the four Bielski brothers, he is the only one still living (Asael died in 1945, Tuvia in 1987, Alexander 'Zus' in 1995).

The Bielski family were farmers in Stankiewicze (Stankievichy) near Navahrudak, an area that at the beginning of the Second World War belonged to the Second Polish Republic, but in September 1939 was seized by the Soviet Union (see: Polish September Campaign and Soviet invasion of Poland (1939)), which was then allied with Nazi Germany. After German Operation Barbarossa, Aron's brothers created a notable resistance organization, the Bielski partisans group. Aron became a member of that group.

Nechama Tec who wrote a book about them had the following to say about Aron: "Occasionally in the forest he acted as a guide. Those I spoke to agree that his participation and impact on the life of the Bielski otriad was minimal, almost nonexistent." 

While Nechama was not able to interview Aron, he was interviewed by Peter Duffy in his book. That author, in the second authoritative book about the Bielski partisans, mentions Aron about 30 times, and lists him as one of the important sources for the book. Duffy interviewed Bell for the 2000 article Heroes Among Us published in The New York Times.

Later life

After the war, Bielski returned to communist-dominated Poland, and soon after immigrated to British Mandate of Palestine. In 1954, he settled in the United States, along with his surviving brothers and their families, where he drove and then owned two trucks in New York City Aron is the only member of the Bielski family to change his family name (to "Bell").

Kidnapping charge

In 2007, Aron and his wife Henryka (then 58 years old) were arrested for kidnapping 93-year-old Janina Zaniewska. It was alleged that they flew her to Poland, under the guise of taking her to visit old friends, dropped her at a nursing home, and returned to Palm Beach, Florida. Next, they were alleged to have withdrawn $300,000 from Zaniewska's bank account (later determined to be around $250,000).

Police were contacted in August by a bank manager who wondered why the Bells were withdrawing her money. Police eventually found Zaniewska at the nursing home and arrested the couple. The charges against them carried a sentence of up to 90 years in prison, but were dropped in February 2008 after the couple agreed to repay $260,000. No wrongdoing was admitted nor proven by the prosecution.

  • 1927~

Asael Bielski

Asael Bielski 

(1908 – 1945) (pronounced ah-soil) was the second-in-command of the Bielski partisans during World War II.

Asael was the third son of David and Beila Bielski, being about two years younger than his brother Tuvia who later commanded the Bielski Otriad. The Bielskis were the only Jewish family of Stankiewicze, a small village in pre-war Poland, now Western Belarus located between Lida and Navahrudak (both of which later housed Jewish ghettos during World War II). Asael was one of 12 children—10 boys and two girls. He was quieter and more reseved than his brothers, and was content to stay on the farm and around those he knew well.

With his older brothers leaving home and his father’s health deteriorating, Asael was becoming the new head of the household. As the male leader of the family, he had to arrange the marriage of his sister Tajba to an upper-class man named Avremale.

Avremale had a sister named Chaja who was a high school graduate, which was rare for the time and place. Hearing that Asael needed help with bookkeeping, Chaja offered to tutor him.

After the Soviet invasion of Poland, the Bielski brothers collaborated with the Soviets which gained them hostility from the local Poles.


After Operation Barbarossa, Asael and two of his brothers, Tuvia and Zus, went into hiding in nearby forests.

Asael formed a group of 13, and later were joined by his brothers Zus and Aron. Tuvia's group later joined Asael's larger group. Another addition to the group was Chaja.

While before the war, Asael had had little to no chance of marrying Chaja due to their class and educational differences, during the war years, this was no longer the case. Before joining them, Chaja had lived in a ghetto at first, then fled, leaving her boyfriend there. She lived in an underground hiding spot near the home of a Christian peasant, along with her two nephews.

While in hiding she became very sick and needed medicine badly, so Asael walked all the way to the nearest pharmacy—many miles away—in the snow to get her medicine. He stayed with her until he felt she was out of harm's way. Later he bought her a gun for protection, and this served as an engagement gift. The two were married shortly before the war's end.

After the Soviet occupation of the area, Asael was drafted into the Soviet Red Army, and 6 months later was killed in the Battle of Königsberg of 1945. He never lived to see his daughter Assaela, the child he fathered with Chaja.

  • 1908 – 1945

Bielski Family Tree


Group portrait of several Bielski partisans, on guard duty at an airstrip in the Naliboki Forest.  The Bielski partisans were one of the few partisan groups that accepted women, children, and the elderly. Most other partisan groups were only open to male soldiers.

Group portrait of several Bielski partisans, on guard duty at an airstrip in the Naliboki Forest. These soldiers were part of the Jewish Bielski group known as the Kalinin detachment, who operated under the larger Russian Red Army partisan command.

Additional Background

Operating in Western Belorussia (Belarus) between 1942 and 1944, the Bielski partisan group was one of the most significant Jewish resistanceefforts against Nazi Germany duringWorld War II.

While its members did fight against the Germans and their collaborators, the Bielski group leaders emphasized providing a safe haven for Jews, particularly womenchildren, and elderly persons who managed to flee into the forests. Under the protection of the Bielski group, more than 1,200 Jews survived the war, one of the most successful rescue efforts during the Holocaust.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Germans occupied Western Belorussia (before 1939 Western Belorussia had been a part of Poland; after Germany invaded Poland in 1939 it was annexed to the Soviet Union by previous agreement with Germany).

There, German authorities killed tens of thousands of Jews in Nowogrodek (Novogrudok) District (including the cities of Lida and Nowogrodek) between July 1941 and the end of spring 1942, and confined those they did not shoot to ghettos throughout the District. When German SS and police units liquidated these ghettos in 1942-1943, they killed most of the remaining inhabitants.

After the Germans killed their parents and two brothers in the Nowogrodek ghetto in December 1941, three surviving brothers of the Bielski family -- Tuvia (1906-1987), Asael (1908-1945), and Zus (1910-1995) -- established a partisan group. Initially, the Bielski brothers attempted only to save their own lives and those of their family members. They fled to the nearby Zabielovo and Perelaz forests, where they formed the nucleus of a partisan detachment consisting at first of about 30 family members and friends.

The family members chose former Zionist activist Tuvia Bielski, a Polish Army veteran and a charismatic leader, to command the group. His brother Asael became his deputy, while Zus was placed in charge of reconnaissance. A fourth and much younger brother, Aharon (1927- ) was part of the group as well.

The Bielskis had been a Jewish farming family in the nearby village of Stankiewicze, and the brothers knew the region well. Their familiarity with its geography, customs, and people helped them elude the German authorities and their Belorussian auxiliaries. With the help of non-Jewish Belorussian friends, they were able to acquire guns. The Bielski partisans later supplemented these arms with captured German weapons, Soviet weapons, and equipment supplied by Soviet partisans.

Tuvia Bielski saw his principal mission as saving the lives of his fellow Jews. The Bielskis encouraged Jews in nearby Lida, Nowogrodek, Minsk, Iwie, Mir, Baranowicze, and other ghettos to escape and join them in the forest.

Bielski frequently sent guides into the ghettos to escort people to the forest. In late 1942, a special mission saved over a hundred Jews from the Iwie ghetto just as the Germans planned to liquidate it. Bielski scouts constantly searched the roads for Jewish escapees in need of protection.

Many Jews hiding in the forests in smaller family groups joined the Bielski group; Jewish partisans serving in Soviet partisan organizations also fell in with the Bielskis in an attempt to escape antisemitism in their units. The stream of Jewish survivors increased the size of the Bielski group to more than 300 people by the end of 1942.

Until the summer of 1943, the group led a nomadic existence in the forest. In August 1943, however, the Germans began a massive manhunt directed against Russian, Polish, and Jewish partisans in the region. They deployed more than 20,000 military personnel and SS and police officials. Moreover, they offered a reward of 100,000 Reichmarks for information leading to Tuvia Bielski’s capture.

The Bielski group, which had increased to approximately 700 Jews, was especially vulnerable to discovery by the German patrols. The group feared in part that the local peasants from whom they obtained food might betray them. As a result, the Bielski group moved in December 1943 to what became a permanent base in the Naliboki Forest, a swampy, scarcely accessible region on the right bank of the Niemen River, east of Lida and northeast of Nowogrodek.

It was in this primitive and unlikely setting that the Bielski group created a community. Despite some opposition from within the group, Tuvia Bielski never wavered in his determination to accept and protect all Jewish refugees, regardless of age or gender.

The Bielskis never turned anyone away, permitting the creation of a mobile family “camp” -- in effect, a Jewish community in the forest. The group organized the skilled workers among the Jewish refugees into workshops, which employed at least 200 people, including cobblers, tailors, carpenters, leather workers, and blacksmiths.

In addition, the group established a mill, a bakery, and a laundry. The leadership managed a primitive infirmary, a school for the children, a synagogue, and even a courthouse/jail. Work groups supplied the camp with food and cleared the land where possible for the cultivation of wheat and barley.

The Naliboki Forest was under the administration of Soviet partisans, wherever the Germans were not present. Although the Bielski group had no ideological orientation, Tuvia Bielski and the other leaders cooperated with the Soviet partisans: Bielski himself established a friendly relationship with the regional Soviet partisan commander, General Vasily Yefimovich Chernyshev (codenamed “Platon”).

Despite the prevalence of antisemitic sentiment among several of the Soviet partisan detachments, General “Platon” protected the Bielski group. He recognized the vital role of the camp as a maintenance base for Soviet partisans. In 1944, the camp leaders received weapons from Soviet partisan headquarters.

Bielski refused Soviet requests to provide an operations unit from among the approximately 150 men in his group who engaged in armed operations. He did not wish to abandon the married men, the women, and the children, for he knew that they could not survive without the armed protection of the armed men in his group.

This concern was another reason for him in 1943 to draw his entire group deeper into the most inaccessible regions of the forest. Subsequently, although the group remained de facto united and under Tuvia Bielski’s command, they formally split into the “Kalinin” and “Ordzhonikidze” detachments of the Kirov Brigade of Soviet partisans.

At the same time that it saved lives and protected the noncombatants in the camp, the Bielski group carried out several operational missions. It attacked the Belorussian auxiliary police officials, as well as local farmers suspected of killing Jews.

The group disabled German trains, blew up rail beds, destroyed bridges, and facilitated escapes from Jewish ghettos. The Bielski fighters often joined with Soviet partisans in operations against German guards and facilities, killing many Germans and Belorussian collaborators.

On June 22, 1944, Soviet troops initiated a massive offensive in Eastern Belorussia. Within six weeks, the Soviet Army had destroyed the German Army Group Center and swept westward to the Vistula River in Poland, liberating all of Belorussia.

At the time of liberation, the Bielski group had reached its peak of 1,230 people. More than 70 percent were women, elderly persons, and children, who otherwise would have perished under the German occupation. An estimated 50 members of the Bielski group were killed, an unusually low casualty rate in comparison not only with other partisan detachments but also with Jewish groups in the region.

After World War II, in 1945 Tuvia and Zus Bielski emigrated with their families to Palestine. They both fought in the Israeli armed forces during the 1948 war that established the Israeli state. They subsequently immigrated to the United States. Asael was drafted into the Soviet Army. He died on the front in East Prussia in February 1945.

Naliboki Massacre

The Naliboki massacre was the mass killing of about 128 Poles by Soviet partisans at the village of Naliboki in Nazi-occupied Poland (now Belarus) on May 8, 1943.

In the lead up to the massacre, Soviet partisans had failed to recruit the Poles of Naliboki, who were loyal to the pro-Western Armia Krajowa Polish resistance organization.

An agreement was signed between the Soviets and the Poles represented by a partisan unit led by Eugeniusz Klimowicz. The Polish and Soviet resistance forces divided local territory, agreed not to attack each other, and to act together against the Germans and bandits hiding in the nearby forests. The Soviets however did not respect the agreement. On the night of May 8–9, 1943, Soviet partisans from the Naliboki Forest suddenly entered Naliboki to kill the Polish partisans and loot the town.

After the village was overrun by the Soviet partisans, men presumed to belong to the Polish resistance were rounded up and systematically executed one-by-one or in small groups near the homes they were taken from.

Also killed during the attack were three Polish women, several teenagers and a ten-year-old boy. Houses were looted and then set on fire, including the town's churchschoolfire station and post office.

The raid took two to three hours. The partisans reported the killing of 250 people, the capture of weapons, 100 cows and 78 horses, and the destruction of a German garrison. In reality the number of victims was lower (now estimated at 120-129) and no Germans were present/killed (only one Belarusian auxiliary policeman happened to be sleeping in the town during the night of the attack). A few of the attackers, including a Soviet political officer, were killed by the defenders.

It has been alleged that the Jewish Bielski partisans supported the Soviets (with whom they had a co-operative relationship) in the massacre. But survivors of the Bielski group have denied this, particularly after the release of a film about them, entitled Defiance

The Polish Institute of National Remembrance has been investigating the massacre. Although the IPN has not reported its findings as of April 2009, one researcher from the institute has said that there's no evidence to support the allegation that the Bielski partisans were involved in the attack.

Naliboki was completely burned down by the Germans four months later, in August 1943, as part of a massive anti-partisan action code-named Operation Hermann. The remaining inhabitants were taken to Germany for forced labor.

  • Belarus
  • May 8, 1943

Then Came Operation Barbarossa

Some Jews had welcomed the Soviets as liberators, believing that life under the communists might be preferable to that of the Poles.  However time would soon disprove that theory.

Charles Bedzow from Lida, a city northeast of Novgrudek said the following:

“I remember we were very happy that the Russians liberated us from the anti-Semitic government of Poland, and we were happy that the Germans didn’t occupy our area of Belarus, but when the Russians came in, right away they took away my father’s business. I was forced to go to  a Russian school, instead of the Tarbut. The Russians forced my father to work for them. He was sweeping the floors because he was a capitalist, a bourgeois. He worked in his own store as a laborer...

In December 1940, Hitler issued a directive outlining the planned (since July 1940) attack on Russia, which was labeled Operation Barbarossa (it was originally called Operation Fritz. Hitler changed the name to refer to Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor who had set out to conquer the Holy Land in 1190). In the first phase of the attack, the German army was to engage the main Soviet force as close to the Russian border as possible and destroy it before the Red Army could withdraw to the vast interior and establish a defensive position.

The second phase aimed at establishing a front along the north-south line running from the Volga River to Archangel. German forces were to be divided into three strike forces, one which would attack north, in the direction of Leningrad, a second in the south would move against Kiev, and the center force would be directed toward Smolensk, with Moscow as its ultimate target.

The army and the air force enthusiastically supported Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union. Few people dared challenge the Fuhrer’s judgment, but Admiral Erich Raeder, the navy commander-in-chief, warned Hitler that it was a mistake to take on the Russians before finishing off the British.

Raeder offered Hitler several alternative plans, but could not dissuade him from his dreams of colonizing Russia and seizing its resources. Even as Hitler was planning his campaign to destroy the Soviet Union, he entered into a new agreement with Molotov on January 10, 1941, in which the Soviets offered economic concessions to the Germans. It was all more ironic because Hitler had refused to respond to the Soviet request to join the Tripartite Pact.

Hitler’s original plan called for the invasion of Russia to begin on May 15, but logistical problems and the need to rescue Mussolini’s forces in Africa and the Mediterranean forced a postponement. When the Blitzkrieg finally came, the Russian people were surprised; however, Stalin had ample warning of the German attack.

A variety of intelligence sources relayed information to Stalin that an invasion was imminent. Richard Sorge, his spy in Tokyo, who had access to the German ambassador’s messages, sent word of the date of the invasion. Both the British and Americans passed on a variety of warnings and details about German troop movements.

However, Stalin could not be persuaded that Hitler would turn on him and did not want to provide an excuse for him to do so. He continued to ship strategic materials as agreed in his economic treaty with Germany up until the moment Wehrmacht troops crossed into Russia.

At 4:15 a.m. on June 22, 1941, the Luftwaffe began to bomb Soviet naval and air bases, destroying roughly one-quarter of the Russian air force. Before the Russians had time to react, the German army began its three-pronged attack across the nearly thousand-mile front. Within a week, Hitler’s allies had also declared war, leaving the Soviet Union alone to fight Germany, Romania, Italy, Finland, Hungary, and Albania.

Germany attacked Russia with more than 3 million soldiers. They had more than 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, 7,000 artillery pieces, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 625,000 horses. The Romanian army contributed 250,000 men and the Finns 500,000. Initially, the Soviets had 2,500,000 men and another 2,200,000 in reserve to defend Moscow and other key cities. The Red Army had more tanks and planes than their enemies, but with the exception of many of the tanks, the equipment was obsolete or inferior.

The Russians were aided by Roosevelt’s decision to provide them with equipment according to the terms of Lend-Lease. Americans were not anxious to help the Soviets. The majority were fiercely anti-Communist and feared that providing equipment and arms to the Russians would reduce the amount available to the British. On the other hand, the public was equally if not more opposed to the Nazis and wanted to see them defeated. In retrospect, critics argued this aid should have been conditioned on Soviet behavior and commitments.

Stalin, however, was unwilling to bargain, and the Allies made no great effort to extort concessions from him. From March 1941 until October 1945, the United States provided the Russians with 15,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 350,000 tons of explosives, 51,000 jeeps, 375,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, 11,000 rail wagons, 3 million tons of gasoline, and 15 million pairs of boots. Britain contributed another 5,000 tanks and 7,000 aircraft.

No one knew it yet, but this titanic struggle between Adolf and Joe would become the key to the outcome of the entire war. For the next four years, most of the fighting would be on the eastern front, and more people would die in those battles than in all the others combined.

The Bielski Otriad's First Year: Summer 1942 - July 1943

The devestating assaults on Jews in May and June 1942 made it increasingly evident that the Germans intended on elimating all Jews in Western Belarus.  The Bielskis decided to move into the forests with surviving relatives and form a partisan unit.  Tuvia was chosen as commander; Asael was chosen second in command and directed daily activities of the unit and Zus was placed in charge of reconnaissance.   Lazar Malbin, an educated former member of the Polish army, became chief of staff.

From the outset, the top priority of the Bielski partisans was to save Jews and unlike other partisans, fighting the Nazs was not their primary purpose.  Tuvia was particularly insistent that his unit would accept all Jews:  armed, unarmed, women, children and the elderly.  No one was turned away.  At times, Tuvia's broad acceptance policy led to tension with his brothers and other armed young men.  Once the unit was formed, there was a concerted effort to send scouts to the ghettos to encourage remaining Jews to join the Bielskis. 

After an attack led to the murder of members of their group, including Tuvia's wife, Sonia, the Bielskis were always prepared to move and attack when necessary.  In April, the unit, which numbered over 400 people, settled in the area of Stara-Huta for a few months.  After escaping more Nazi raids, the group then settled in the Naliboki forest, home to many other partisan groups.

In July, the Germans set out to purge the area of the partisans, whose sabitage efforts were slowing down German military objectives.  German armored units, planes, tanks, and special forces advanced into the forest, causing partisan groups to retreat.  The Bielski unit, now numbering 700, was forced to retreat through the swamps of the Nalibocki forest to the island of Krasnaya Gorka. 

They stayed hidden in the tall grasses of the swamps, which prevented heavy German military equipment from advancing after them.  Young and strong men carried those who were unable to wade through the water, sometimes as high as waist-level.  Days of marching in cold and damp conditions led to little food left and the group remained in constant fear, hearing the continuous sounds of German gunfire.  They were safe once they reached the island, but nearly starved.  After a week, the otriad began the long journey back to Naliboki, a safe place now that the Germans had retreated.

  • 1942 - July 1943

A Look Through Belski's Camp

The camp was located in the heart of the Nelibok wilderness, around it were hundreds of square km. of old forests and marshes. The whole area was “Partisan Country”, a territory under the Soviet rule surrounded by the Nazi enemy. All that large area was under the control of the partisan commands, which were growing, ruling and directing all that was happening in that area.

On the edge of the forests, on the banks of the Neman were strong partisan groups like: ”Iskara”, ”Mitkobatshes (?)” who supervised the movement and carefully examined all comings and goings. Platoons of partisans from different units periodically left the wilderness, raided the villages and fringes of towns [where German soldiers camped] and confiscated food and clothing for the people in the forest, right under the nose of the enemy.

Only in times of the “Hunt”, when the Germans employed full divisions and dared to penetrate the wilderness with cannons, tanks and planes, only then the partisan units retreated into the dense forests looking for hiding places until the end of the ”Hunt”. And then the ” Partisan Country” returned to normality.

In the autumn of 1943, after the “Hunt”, the Soviet control of the Naliboki wilderness grew stronger. Hundreds joined the partisan groups: Byelorussian and Ukrainian policemen who realized that they backed the wrong side and were in a hurry to join the “partisanka” to atone for their collaboration with the bitter enemy, residents of villages and towns who did not want to be sent as forced laborers to Germany. Jews – escapees from the Ghettos and the working camps -, all those people looked for a haven in the ancient forests.

The roads to Belski's camp were winding and rough; all comers were forced to walk dozens of km., were bogged down in the swamps, which could be crossed only on tracks covered by planks. The Germans destroyed all the Byelorussian villages, even the smallest of settlements {chutor} at the time of the “Hunt” when part of the population was sent to Germany as forced labor and the rest were ruthlessly eliminated on the spot.

Often the person approaching Belski's camp stumbled upon ruins of towns and settlements [Naliboki, chutors and villages], destroyed peasants' huts appeared in front of him, charred chimneys', partly burnt fences, corpses of decomposed farm animals strewn around, stench in the air, frightened cats meowing amidst the destruction. For many months, the people from the Belski camp went into those settlements, to the ruins of Naliboki and Derevna, which were close by [7-10 km.], to collect anything that could be of use.

In September 1943 the camp people still went out every day in carts, dug the fields, collected potatoes in sacks, loaded them and brought them to the camouflaged stores, to be kept for the winter months. We brought from Naliboki and Derevna parts of buildings, which could be used, such as: complete windows, heaters, boilers, barrels and kitchen utensils, which were strewn among the ruins.

In the beginning, people lived in huts built out of pine tree branches. Little groups or single people built provisional shelters (“succah”, plural “succot”) They spread soft branches on the ground, covered them with blankets and peasants' fur coats. From a distance the “succot” looked like kennels. In the autumn nights people who slept in them were drenched to the bone and were forced to get out, shivering in their wet clothes, and dry themselves in front of bonfires.

Snow started to fall and often when we went out of the ”succah” in the morning the whiteness and sparkle of it surprised us. The commanders started the project of building larger huts. The work followed the design by Ribinski (Building Manager), and he was appointed to supervise the project. It was the duty of every person to take part in the work.

To begin with the foundations were dug, rectangles to the depth of 80-100 cm. Next tree trunks from the forest were planted in the foundations. The trunks were held tightly together with barbed wire, the spaces between the logs were filled with moss. The roofs of the huts were made of rough timber planks, topped with soil and camouflaged with branches of trees.

At the entrance to the hut there was a door followed inside by a couple of steps. It was dark in the hut and it took a while to get used to the thin light filtering through the open door and a tiny window in the opposite wall. You could see wooden benches covered with straw along both sides of the wall. Forty people slept in each hut side by side. In the middle of the hut stood a small iron stove. It was looted from one of the abandoned villages.

The huts were erected in two long rows, both sides of the “main street”. Every hut had a number and even a nickname, depending on the origin of its dwellers or their trade. For example, hut number 11 was called “intelligentsia”, there lived the camp doctor Dr. H., a woman dentist from Pinsk, the lawyer Volkovyski from Baranowicze and a few other professional people. The “main street” was the main traffic route; it was always alive with people and all sorts of goings on.

Partisans, women and men, strolled in the street in their typical “uniforms” partly peasant's garb, partly military, a strange combination of peasant's furs. The boots were made out of a light yellow leather, which was a product of the camp. Army hats, Russian and German or peasant's fur hats and weapons gathered from different sources. Friends met on the” main street”, as did groups of guests who frequented the camp.


Housing in the Forest

The Bielski brothers were able to do the impossible during the Holocaust. The four brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, all worked together to ban Jews in the forests of Belarus, which at the time was German occupied Poland. The brothers fled to the forest after their parents and siblings were killed by the Nazi party. They were able to survive in the forest for more than two years, and during this time they recruited 1200 Jews to their cause.


The housing set up by the Bielski partisans at first was very simple, but as numbers grew more complex designs and planning were needed. The brothers knew the forest very well from their childhood. One survivor of the Bielski partisan group, Jack Kagan stated that “They knew every tree in the forest, every place to go, where to hide and so on” (Rollings 11).

The brothers moved the group throughout the forest in attempt to dodge the Germans that were after them. At first, the group built simple homes that consisted of blankets propped up under tree branches. At this time the group was located about a mile away from the nearest road. Numbers grew even higher when Tuvia decided to expand the group that was originally just for relatives of the brothers to allowing any Jew to join.

Tuvia is quoted saying “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill 10 Nazi soldiers” (Tuvia Bielski: Rescue is Resistance 3). Tuvia is famous for taking in any Jew no matter how old, young, or sick. Tuvia would also go as far as physically sneaking himself into the ghettos in order to convince the Jews to run away to the forest with him. He was so determined to save as many Jews as possible even though his two brothers disagreed with his reasoning.

Once the group grew, and winter came, a more complex system of living was set up by the brothers. “With the arrival of the cold weather, characteristic of the Belarus winter, the brothers, worried about the prospect of their people freezing to death, ordered the construction of large wooden living quarters, known as zemlankas in Russian” (Tuvia Bielski: Rescue is Resistance 4).

These structures were halfway built into the ground in order to conserve as much heat as possible. Also, furs and any other raw materials they could find were used as insulation. After dodging another attack from the Germans, Tuvia lead the group deeper into the forest where there were thicker woods.

Here he set up his final and most efficient camp. This new camp, which included numerous “zemlankas” also “had a large kitchen, a bathhouse, a blacksmith forge, a small horse powered mill, a bakery, a tailor shop staffed by 18 men, a school for some 60 children, a gunsmith shop, and even a jail. It came to be called Jerusalem” (Tuvia Bielski: Rescue is Resistance 4). In this camp everyone fulfilled a specific role, whether it was fixing ammunition, cooking, or making shoes. These partisans were able to set up their own civilization with the leadership of Tuvia Bielski and his brothers. 


At first partisan missions were enough to keep the health up among the Bielski camp, but once again as numbers grew food became harder to come by.

“The years in the forest were arduous. Though no one in the Bielski camp died of starvation, they often came close” (Reich 1). The brothers needed to provide much for their 1200 followers, and these partisan missions were the source of obtaining supplies. Raids of villages were used to obtain any supplies that could be used for the better of the camp such as guns, food, and raw materials. “The young fighting men, a minority of the overall Bielski population, spent long nights obtaining food—sometimes stealing it—from the local peasant population to feed everyone” (Tuvia Bielski: Rescue is Resistance 3).

As the camp became larger it took a little luck for the group to get food. In one account the Germans became so fed up with the partisan group that they burned all the surrounding towns of the forest. “But they left the crops in the ground. So we dug up 200 tons of potatoes” (Rollings 41).

So in this case the Bielski partisan group benefited from the burnings and came out with much needed food. At times, the group had to be aggressive while on the partisan missions. Tuvia explained that “the group needed to be feared if it had any chance of surviving in such a hostile environment. And it worked: the size of the unit increased seemingly with every passing day” (Tuvia Bielski: Rescue is Resistance 3).

With the group being so big the Bielski’s encountered the Germans numerous times, but if it weren’t for the brother’s leadership they would not have been as heavily protected.

One particular event happened in August 1943 when “the Germans planned a massive attack on the partisans in the Nalibocka forest of western Belarus. To get away, the Bielski group walked more than a week through swamp -- water and mud often waist high -- one person tied to another” (Reich 1). In times like these, Tuvia’s leadership truly shined. "But like all charismatic leaders, Tuvia Bielski -- tall, striking and fiercely determined -- seemed to inspire those who were suffering, notwithstanding the peril they faced” (Reich 1). He was hope for the people that one day things would go back to the way they were before the war, and this shows by how people speak of him.

The Germans did much to try to stop the partisan group including bringing in “52,000 extra soldiers to combat the partisans but they failed to penetrate the forest camp” (Rollings 1). Tuvia’s keen knowledge of setting up the camp was the reason why the Germans could not penetrate it because it was in such a perfect location. Jack Kagan said “The forest is 40 miles by 40 miles. You could survive ten wars there” (Rollings 1).

With Soviet partisans around the same area, Tuvia decided that some of his men should fight with them side by side. “The brothers moved quickly to build a fighting force from the escapees, who joined forces with the growing army of Soviet partisans engaging in guerrilla attacks against the occupiers” (Tuvia Bielski: Rescue is Resistance 3).

This proved to be very successful, and the two groups did well to sabotage the Germans. One example is “In October 1942, a squad of Bielski and Soviet fighters raided a German convoy loaded with supplies, killing at least one German soldier” (Tuvia Bielski: Rescue is Resistance 3). With successful sabotages like this the group’s strength and reputation grew greatly. With Tuvia as their commander the partisans were able to go on more similar raids that loaded them up with supplies and food.

Living and Surviving as a Partisan

During World War II, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish men and women fought back against the Germans, in military style units. They established secret encampments deep in the forests and mountains and hid beneath straw in barns provided by friendly farmers. They scrounged for food to eat and clothes and fuel to keep them warm in the brutal Polish and Russian winters or the cold and wet climates farther west. Despite these hardships, they found ways to hit back at their would-be killers, interrupting food deliveries, sabotaging power plants and factories, and blowing up enemy trains.

These brave men and women were partisans, Jewish partisans. Most were civilians. Many were young, and many had left their homes behind. Being young freed them from the responsibilities that tormented those with small children or elderly parents in the besieged ghettoes. Their struggle to survive against an enemy whose goal was to wipe them from the face of the earth is a little-known part of Holocaust history.

Jewish partisans could be found in every Nazi-occupied country in Europe. Most joined existing non-Jewish partisan groups. In Lithuania, for example, Jews made up approximately ten percent of the partisan units. Jews also joined the French resistance, known as the Maquis, and fought alongside resisters in Greece and Italy.

Jewish partisans faced numerous obstacles. The German army occupied much of Europe and local police forces were under their control. What’s more, enemies of the Nazis were not necessarily friends of the Jews. Hatred or dislike of Jews was widespread, especially in rural areas of Eastern Europe. Looks or accent sometimes made it difficult for Jews to blend in. Jewish men, unlike their non-Jewish male counterparts, were circumcised and therefore could be easily identified. Many villages harbored Nazi sympathizers.

Turning in a Jew could earn a villager a bag of sugar or a bottle of vodka. Some collaborators hated Jews so much they did not bother to collect their bonuses, shooting them on sight. Even in their own partisan units, Jewish partisans were often forced to conceal their Jewish identity lest they be subject to the antisemitism of their partisan comrades. Because of these dangers, Jewish partisans sometimes chose to form all-Jewish resistance units.


Of all the challenges faced by commanders of partisan units, perhaps the greatest was feeding their fighters. Finding food depended on many factors: the proximity of friendly locals, the geography and nature of the country, the size of the partisan unit. Despite wartime shortages, in areas free from direct German rule, sympathetic townspeople and farmers could be relied upon to supply partisans with food and other necessities. In areas under German control and unsympathetic farmers, the search for food could end in death.

To procure food, partisans sometimes had to resort to force. "The friendly Polish peasant provided food for us – and the unfriendly Polish peasant provided food for us as well," recalled Mira Shelub. Mira was seventeen when she and her sister escaped to the forests to join the partisans. "When unfriendly villagers prepared food for the German occupiers, we took the food and left a receipt. The receipt said: ‘The partisans were here.’"

Another source of food were storehouses hurriedly abandoned by Germans in the wake of defeat. But this, too, brought its share of danger. "The Germans left mines and hidden bombs behind when they retreated," remembered Leon Idas, a Greek-born Jewish partisan. "We saw a nice meal in front of us, and we were hungry, but couldn’t touch it."

In order to survive, many Jewish partisans put aside traditional dietary restrictions. Gertrude Boyarski found herself doing exactly that after six days of eating only snow with 14 other partisans. "We found some potato peels with worms in them, and the head of a pig. We shared this between us. And I was crying as I was eating it, but we had gone days without food. It was a treasure."

As the war ground on, some partisan groups began receiving much-needed supplies. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet government supplied Russian and Polish partisans from the sky, airdropping ammunition, counterfeit money – and occasionally vodka and chocolate! The British did the same for the Greek and Italian partisans in the Mediterranean theater of war.

Most partisan groups, however, were quite cut off from the world, and the difficulty of feeding their troops was a constant problem for the commanders. A case in point was the all-Jewish partisan unit led by Frank Blaichman. When entering a village store or farmhouse in search of food, Blaichman and his men could not have been more courteous.

But sometimes courtesy wasn’t enough, and where courtesy failed, the threat of force would succeed. Blaichman recalled, "We went into a Polish grocery, we were polite, we said ‘Good evening.’ Please, we would like to buy bread, butter, some chicken.’ They chased us away with axes and pitchforks…. Later, when we acquired firearms we returned. We did not point them at anyone, but they could see we were armed. They said ‘Gentlemen, how can we help you? – Suddenly we were ‘gentlemen’".

The shopkeeper subsequently turned down Blaichman’s offer of payment.


In constant fear of discovery, partisans were always on the move. Eastern Europe’s vast and dense forests seemed to have been specifically designed for partisan fighting, and many Jewish partisans, local to the area, knew these forests intimately. The Germans did not, and avoided them whenever possible; they could get lost, be surrounded, killed.

The forests also concealed family camps where Jewish escapees from camps or ghettos -- many of whom were too young or too old to fight -- hoped to wait out the war, sometimes shielded by Jewish fighting groups and their allies. Establishing a camp was no easy task. Location was all-important, as was the size of the unit. Partisan camps had to be remote, yet close enough to a village or town to secure the necessities of life. Some partisan units were small, numbering dozens; others ran into the thousands. Still, large or small, all faced the problems of providing life’s basic necessities, food and shelter, to say nothing of protection from the Nazi hunters.

In the larger units, everyone had a specific task. Some foraged for food, some did the cooking, others stood guard or went on fighting missions. There were bakers, weapon cleaners, tailors, and shoemakers. The bakers and cooks needed firewood year-round. Large stores of firewood had to be laid in for warmth in winter. Both were jobs for the wood gatherers. In the quest for survival, no skill or talent was left untapped.

In summer, warm weather allowed partisan groups in Eastern Europe to survive with minimal shelter. "The trees, the sky, the pine needle ground were our summer home," recalled Mira Shelub.

In France, Italy and Greece, three factors greatly helped the partisans in their search for food and shelter: the climate was temperate, the local population tended to be more sympathetic to their cause, and antisemitism was less pronounced.

Winter, however, showed an altogether different face. Freezing cold temperatures held sway in much of Europe. Add to the threat of death by German bullet, the threat of death from exposure. Yet partisans found a way to cope.

From their Russian counterparts, they learned to build underground bunkers called zemlyankas, a Russian word meaning "dugout". Zemlyankas took many forms – some even held small stoves – but all were thoroughly camouflaged on the outside. The zemlyankas were key to partisan survival in the winter months. Mira, the seventeen-year-old partisan, spent her first winter in such an underground hut, calling it "our winter home."

Abandoned homes and barns could also serve as refuges. Farmers with a soft spot for partisans gave what help they could, often at the risk of their own lives. Sometimes, partisan units would plant their fighters in different parts of a village. If one party were caught, the others would live to fight another day. Says Shelub, "We would take over a town. We slept three in one house, three in another, and so on."


Most Jewish partisans who fled the ghettos and camps did so with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. As with food, clothing was a scarce and valuable commodity. "I had a pair of boots that a friend found for me," recollected Polish-Jewish partisan Sonia Orbuch, "but they were too small. My blisters were as big as a fist. But I had to keep wearing them. They were all I had."

Orbuch was lucky to have shoes at all. Shoeless partisans were known to resort to extreme measures to protect their feet, especially in winter. Some partisans, for example, made their own footwear by wrapping their bare feet in strips of cloth and soaking their swaddled feet in water until their "boots" froze solid.

What clothes partisans possessed often were reduced to rags through constant wear. Any opportunity to score a coat, heavy boots — anything with fur to keep out the cold — was fair game. If villagers or farmers proved uncooperative, the partisans "organized", that is, stole, the warm clothes they needed, at gunpoint, if necessary. Sometimes clothing was taken from the corpses of fallen comrades in arms.

Enemy dead likewise might yield winter coats and boots. German uniforms were especially highly prized trophies: they were warm and served as disguises for future missions. A single item of clothing could make a world of difference, like the wool blanket Greek partisan Leon Idas found after a successful skirmish with German soldiers.


One has to go back one hundred years to find a winter as cold as the one that descended on Northern Europe in 1942. Large areas of Poland and the Soviet Union shivered in temperatures that dropped to –20 degrees Fahrenheit and lower. For partisans, the record-cold temperatures proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

For one, they helped slow down Hitler’s progress, as equipment broke down and supply lines snapped, stranding troops in uniforms that could not stand up to the cold. But the snow did more than that. It also helped track down the enemy, and its brightness showed approaching figures from great distances. As Norman Salsitz recalled, "The night, the blizzard, the heavy rain, the heavy snow – these were our friends. The worse conditions were, the better it was for us."

But what held for Germans also held for partisans. Footprints in the snow could give away location. To prevent discovery, partisans would return to camp taking different routes. Some even mastered the skill of walking backwards to avoid being tracked.

Exposure to extreme temperatures could have disastrous, even fatal, consequences. The frozen legs of Polish partisan Orbuch were badly burned from sitting too near a campfire. Daniel Katz ran between five and seven miles each night in the Russian forest to keep from freezing to death. Partisans living in barns found an additional source of warmth in the body heat of animals. The unseasonably cold temperatures created other problems as well – fingers froze on weapons, guns jammed, the smoke from even small fires could be seen for miles around.

Where safe shelters were at a premium, Jewish partisans slept outside on the ground, huddled close together for warmth. Frank Blaichman remembered the winter as follows: "We slept in the forest, in the freezing rain and snow. Sometimes for several days we were wet, and hungry, and still we didn’t give up. We were hardened, not softened."


The missions Jewish partisans undertook — sabotaging German forces and supplies, handling explosives, disrupting communications — were fraught with danger. Many fell ill, many were wounded and maimed, many paid with their lives. Medical care was in short supply. Orbuch was attached to a large unit of Russian partisans and worked alongside the unit’s doctors, caring for sick and injured fighters. She recalls, "I did whatever I could for them — bring them food, give them medicine, change their bandages. There was no means of sterilization. When someone got better, we took their bandages and washed them, to use again."

Sonia also recalled doctors scouring forest floors for herbs to supplement what medical supplies were available in nearby villages or stolen from the Germans.

The most common illness was typhoid, a disease carried by lice. Because soap was scarce, partisans killed lice by boiling their clothes. But often, this was not enough. The lice spread more quickly than they could be killed and took a heavy toll.

Most partisan groups had no doctor and treated the wounded themselves, turning to village doctors only as a last resort. Doctors, like other local residents, might betray injured partisans or even kill them, as Norman Salsitz discovered in the nick of time. Wounded in a shootout with German collaborators, Salsitz went to the house of the only available physician, a Nazi sympathizer.

Salsitz pretended to be a non-Jew, and the doctor willingly treated him. But when the doctor asked him to drop his pants for an injection, Salsitz realized his life lay in the balance, for circumcision identified him as a Jew. Pulling a grenade from his pocket, he told the doctor, "If you do anything, we will both die. Just give me the shot and let me go." The doctor complied and Salsitz escaped.

Eta Wrobel was more fortunate. Shot in the leg in the course of a mission, she went to see "a Polish doctor who was friendly to us." The bullet had been lodged in her leg for months, causing pain and swelling. "I would go when his wife was not there," she recalled, "because he said he didn’t trust her.

He gave me a knife and a bottle of spiritus (alcohol). I removed the bullet myself. What choice did I have?" Later, Wrobel would use her hard-won expertise to remove bullets from the bodies of fellow partisans.

"The will to live," affirmed Wrobel, "is stronger than anything." The story of the Jewish partisans, their survival against all odds, their heroic rescue of other Jews, their defiant and often effective resistance in the face of death — all of it bears out Wrobel’s belief. Every moment held the possibility of capture, imprisonment, and execution – and many were. Many others went down in the heat of battle. And yet the Jewish partisans carried on: fighting, dying, living.

Living Conditions

German planes were often flying over on reconnaissance, looking for partisans, but the huts in the dense forest were camouflaged with tree branches and were hard to detect from the distance.

At night in the rainy season, the floor of the huts became a sticky swamp and the cold dampness caused rheumatic pain in many of the dwellers. Many complained about pains in their leg and arm joints, especially at night. Frequently problems arose when people had to relieve themselves in the cold night. They walked like drunks, stumbled against the benches, where other partisans slept, and it was a nightmare to many. But eventually we became immune to it.

It was forbidden to light stoves or a bonfire during the day for fear of the German planes discovering the camp. During the day, unoccupied people prepared wood for the fire. In the winter they went out in groups to the forest close to their huts to select dried birch trees (suchostoj).

They cut them down, sawed them into short pieces and brought them to the huts where they split them. In the evenings they lit the iron stove (kufah), which stood in the center of the hut. It became red hot and the hut dwellers huddled around it enjoying the warmth. Sometimes water was boiled on the stove for laundering an only shirt or for a wash.

Some of the people, who sat close to the stove, held pine bark soaked with resin to rekindle the dying fire. Some held splits of pine tree which were used as candles in the long evenings, their dim light leaped onto the faces of groups of men and women who sat around, pale, weather beaten faces, their thinness accentuating the stubble of their beards.

They sat and entertained themselves by singing lively songs or by telling adventurous partisan or prewar stories, in a special partisan style. Nightmarish memories of the holocaust were never mentioned on those occasions. An intimate family atmosphere enveloped the sitters around the stove. Sometimes the commander was visiting the huts, going from hut to hut, taking part in their conversations.

In the winter months small groups started to build for themselves huts in higher and drier places. The first builders were I and my wife and two young, intelligent couples. We all decided to build ourselves a more comfortable place. After receiving permission from the commander we started to build our hut a little further from the “main street” on a higher spot.

We went especially to the destroyed town of Naliboki and brought from there a big window with the windowpanes intact, a door and an iron stove. We made three separate benches, a table in the center and chairs out of stumps. The window let through a pleasant bright light. The air was dry and fresh – a crowded clump of birches, like a green wall, was seen through the window. It felt like “home”, it looked to us like a splendid villa.

We were proud of it. The camp's people arrived to feed their eyes on that miracle of “architecture” and praised its comfort. In Naliboki we also found a small tin vessel, in which we could bath. In the forest it was a valued treasure. We dug a well near the hut and had water, dirty, but still it enabled us to wash every day. What a good life!!!! In the same vessel we laundered our clothes and boiled potatoes…it was a wonder utensil for universal use.

Many followed us, a small neighborhood of small family huts appeared on the slopes of the hill above the “main street” – the “villas” of the camp.

In our neighborhood lived the camp ”Komissar” Shemyatoviec with his young wife and father in law. He belonged to one of the Russian fighting partisan groups in the area, but when the chief of staff demanded that he should be separated from his family and they should be transferred to the family camp, he preferred to come with them and join our partisans. He was a true Russian, a middle aged man, 50 years or more, with a big Kozak moustache, an angry expression on his face, broad shouldered and with heavy, bear like movements.

His influence in the camp was not felt much. Shemyatoviec met his wife in a group of Jews who wandered in the forest near his partisan camp. He gave her and her father shelter and protection in his partisan hut. It was not a union made in heaven. She was 18 years old, dark, tall, pale faced with a Jewish prettiness, and there was never a smile on her face. Her father was the same age as his son in law, bearded and religious.

We often saw him through his hut's window, wrapped in “talit” and “tefilin”, praying. In the evenings he went to the tannery, which was used as a place to pray in. Was that religious Jew happy with his Russian son in law, with whom he was forced to stay day and night? Was he suffering because his daughter was forced to be a wife to that man? – No one could tell.

There were many couples like that in the forest. The time and the hard forest life brought together many strange unions that would not be conceived in normal times. One of the couples who lived in our hut was like that: He was a middle aged crude butcher, she was a widow who lost her husband and sons and went with the butcher because of his physical strength and his work in the sausage factory.

All that made her life comfortable. Joining together as couples was premeditated. It is surprising, that in a short time after such traumatic family experiences which those people went through, they were in a hurry to start new family relationships and make themselves forget the past.

We have made a detour to the “villa” neighborhood, now we will come back to the “main street”. In the central street we have arrived to the hut of Tuvia Belski, the camp commander. Family huts of his relatives and friends were close by: his brother Asael Belski, the Boldo family, Dzienciolski and others.

The elite of the camp met often there, and spent time together. Next to the commander's hut was the surgery, where Dr. H received daily the waiting sick. The dentist, a Jewish woman from Pinsk who turned up in our partisan camp, was also working there. To relieve the partisan's toothache, she was forced to use ordinary pincers, because of the lack of instruments. There were nurses to assist them. Further on at the end of the street, was the camp's common kitchen.

Potato soup was cooked daily in a huge blackened boiler. A deep ditch was dug under the boiler, flames burst out of the smoking fire under it. A few boys, who worked in the kitchen, were splitting tree stumps and throwing them into the fire when it was necessary. The soup was usually thin and poor; it was a miracle if you managed to find some bones in it, which were sent from the sausage factory.

Sometimes, in times of “plenty”, you could get some potatoes boiled in their jackets. The commanders and their relatives and friends had food prepared in a separate kitchen, which was across the street. There was a great difference between the quality and the nutritional value of the food from the two kitchens.

That fact stirred up a lot of jealousy and anger, especially among the armed people, who demanded better food. In front of the common kitchen were long queues of people with eating utensils in their hands.

The people standing in the queue were pushing each other in order to get the first serves which were thicker. Many quarrels started because of it. The daily portions of bread were distributed at the same time.

Those social differences influenced the way people ate. The partisans, who went on “farm” operations, left for themselves [whether it was permitted or not] products, which they cooked in their huts. The common kitchen was confined gradually to serving only the lower “classes” of the camp, the “malboshim”, who had to make do with the thin portions given to them. At a short distance from the huge kitchen a bakery was built with a big oven, typical of that area, it was equipped with all the tools that could be found in the villages around, near the oven stood a primitive flour mill, where two horses circled around pulling heavy mill stones which milled flour. During the winter the bakery was nice and warm. On the holiday of the 7th of November revolution, after the parade in the open air, in the square decorated with flags, the commanders met at the bakery, and enjoyed drinking brandy out of a barrel which was brought for the holiday from somewhere.

Further on there was the bathhouse. The partisans were proud of that essential establishment; guests visiting the camp were lead to it and admired its excellent arrangements. Decisions were made on “bathing duty”. Dwellers of the huts bathed in a certain order from the early hours of the morning. There was also a room for disinfecting clothes. That arrangement was vital and very helpful, because the third Egyptian curse was very troubling to all. And in spite of the on going struggle with it, it came again with greater force to trouble the dwellers of the crowded huts.

An honorable place among the projects took the sausage-making factory, which was in a hut near by. On one of the forays a meat-mincer was found and a separate structure for smoking the sausages was built. Partisans from the neighboring units brought cattle in exchange of sausages.

In the same area was also a soap factory. Soap was made from discarded cow's milk and ashes and resembled a dark brown dough. There was not much of it, but it enabled the people to have a good wash and, now and then, launder their clothes.

Outside the “main street” there was a fenced in area for the herd of cows owned by the camp. They grazed there and their number reached at times up to 60 head. From the cow paddock the horses of the camp could be seen in the distance grazing in the forest, fenced in by empty peasants' carts, a few boys tending to the horses.

In the winter in the chilly nights, packs of wolves roamed around filling the air with their incessant howling, like crowds of women yelling desperately. Often, when the wolves drew closer, and their shining eyes could be seen in the dark, the guard was forced to shoot in the air to frighten them off.

Further out there was a muddy swamp with dense bushes and reeds. The incessant croaking of frogs always filled the air. We will go on and progress further along the main street because we have not as yet visited the nerve center of the camp. In the big square, on one side was the center of command and on the other were workshops.

In the command room you could find the commander T. Belski, his brother Asael, the commander of the fighting platoons, sitting there were: Malbin who was the chief of staff, Gordon, second in command, Pesach Fridberg from Novogudok, the storeman and Volkovyski, a lawyer from Baranovichi who was the head of the” special unit”.

In the commander's room, the operations were planned, fighting units departed from there as well as units on missions to gather food from the farms. Every day management was concentrated in that room. There was the court, which dealt with cases of discipline in the unit; sentences were handed down with the help of Volkovyski, the lawyer. The camp prison was in a special hut.


The workshops were located in a wide and roomy hut. The sounds of work were heard from afar, the pounding of the sledgehammers and the digging machines, the hammering, the sawing of wood and the wild laughter and animated conversations, spiced with the partisan's slang.

The workshops were an organized project, which deserved praise. Dozens of craftsmen, divided according to their craft, were sitting in that all enveloping hut, with a raised ceiling, and an appearance of a factory . Big windows let in a lot of light, more then enough for the various workshops in every corner of the hut. Big stoves warmed the place. It looked as if you found yourself in a workshop of ages ago, in which hundreds of workers made a communal effort to put together things from the beginning to the end of a production cycle.

The individual workshops were separated by timber partitions and in each of them worked several craftsmen. Not all crafts were concentrated in the central building. A few production facilities were scattered all over the camp. Because of security or hygiene requirements they had to be located at some distance from the camp.

All production lines were interconnected with each other. All the materials supplied by nature were utilized to the maximum. In the forest in “Robinzonda”, in the heart of the wilderness much creative imagination was invested and lots of fruitful inventiveness.

The carpenters made huge barrels for the tanners to soak the skins of the slaughtered animals; they made shelves for the storeroom, lasts for the cobblers and wooden soles for the sandals.

The tanners, a few of them were from the Koldichevo camp, erected a tannery in a remote place. They supplied leather to the shoemakers, and a few weeks after the production started one could see in the camp partisans wearing boots locally made. Raw, they stood out in their light-yellow color.

The saddlers made harnesses and saddles for the horses and belts for the partisans. The shoemakers were always loaded with work, because the people, who arrived at the camp, came with barely a cover on their body and with torn shoes after their long ordeals. There were always long queues of people wanting shoes. Some clients from other partisan groups came too, and they paid the shoemakers with some other essential products. Often that was reason enough to favor one client from another.

Gifts and products were brought from the “farm operations”. Some girls received their boots quickly, because their friends who came back from their expedition, bestowed on the shoemaker a suitable gift. At the shoemaker's workshop were about a dozen craftsmen, stooping, sewing new shoes and patching old ones, making sandals with wooden or rubber soles [from tyres].

Opposite them worked the tailors, they were also kept very busy by the demands of hundreds of partisans, whose clothing was worn out and often needed patching. The tailors also received orders from other partisan units. Often the partisans received arms and cattle for their tailoring services.

Nightshirts made from coarse peasant cloth were also made in the clothing workshop. The partisans brought that material from the villages of the area. Most of the partisans were forced to wear that nightshirt for a long time without changing. No wonder that the shirt, in spite of the disinfecting room in the bathhouse, hurt and tortured the body.

In the spring months of 1944 Soviet planes started to drop weapons into the wilderness. The parachutes were made of an excellent fine silk. It was used for making shirts and nightshirts. Great was the partisan's pleasure when he was awarded a shirt made out of fine silk of a light beige color!



Milliners and watchmakers were in great demand too

You could get a hair cut and a shave, given by the three barbers who worked near the workshops. Their instruments were blunt and ruthlessly scratched the skin, but the partisans had no other choice but to use their service. They were distracted by yarning whilst being shaved, which made them forget their pain.

Partisans, when not fighting on missions , were using the chance to come to the barbershop to have a chat, to gossip about businesses in the camp, to listen to news from the front and to joke. The conversations were in the typical partisan style, Yiddish spiced with Russian expressions, mostly crude jokes. The girls tried to compete and outdo the men with their unbridled expressions.

At a little distance from the workshops was the smithy, there the blacksmiths shoed not only the camp's horses but the horses of a number of other partisan units in the area.

One could hear the beating of the blacksmiths' hammers from afar. In a separate building worked the mechanics who repaired arms. They were putting together new weapons, using old parts, cleaning and repairing old arms. The stock of the fighting units increased, more rifles and machine guns became available. The mechanics also served other partisans in the area and were rewarded by more arms, which the clients left in the camp.

In the spring the economic situation of the camp improved. New lines of production were initiated, the allocating of chores and tasks became more efficient, and almost everyone in the camp was employed and productive.

Hundreds of people were involved in hectic activities and made an effort to forget their loneliness, the loss of their loved ones and all the traumatic experiences that they went through only a short time ago. Being productive helped the partisans to adapt to the forest's conditions and was a blessing to hundreds of partisans.

Sometimes the camp sent its own experts to fulfill important tasks in other units, like printers that published papers for the partisans in Russian and Byelorussian. Those workshops saved hundreds of people from the enemy's jaws and generally raised the moral in the “land of the partisans”. They contributed to fortifying the battle against the Nazi conqueror. The non-military workshops fulfilled partisan missions that cannot be ignored and their efforts were part of the struggle of the partisan movement as a whole.

Health Problems in Belski's Camp

Belski's camp contained hundreds of people who in the prewar days would require continuous medical treatment, some would have been hospitalized or would be buried in the cemetery. But in a partisan forest, apparently, this did not follow.

One would think that the harsh life and physical abuse in the ghettoes, the wandering without a roof over their heads, with no place to lie down and no protection from the elements, the unhygienic food and lack of nutritious meals would have destroyed the strongest of men. But what wonder, in Belski's camp almost no one died. As far as I can remember the typhus plague killed only one person, a young partisan died and was buried in the camp.

If not for the Germans and their allies there was almost no need for a cemetery in the forest. The angel of death took a holiday and let the few escapees from the ghettoes and the concentration camps to bear their partisan's lot and hope for the end of the war. Old people, women and children wandered for weeks in the swampy forests, escaping from the ghettoes and camps or during the “hunts”.

The sun was assaulting them during the day and dampness tormented them at night, when they permitted themselves a short nap on the soggy ground while their stomachs shrunk because of hunger, and yet, in spite of all that, no one among them lagged behind because of fatigue. Feverish people were forced out of their sick bed and had to flee during the ”hunt”; they were dragging themselves as best they knew how and usually the sickness was forgotten and somehow they survived.

When we escaped from the Lida ghetto, a deep, pussy wound developed on my wife's left leg. The leg had swollen and it looked like it was blood poisoning. Excruciating pain prevented her from walking, but how could we stop, when the ground was burning under our feet? Who could dream of medical help whilst fleeing? It looked like the chasers were all around us!

My wife continued walking, hopping on one foot, and did so for dozens of km., while every muscle in her body was crying because of the pain. As we made our way at night through slush and muddy clay, she was forced to walk with both legs deep in mud and filthy cold water. As it happened the mud cured the wound. The swelling diminished and the wound started to heal.

Pregnant women or those who just gave birth left their hospital beds to find refuge in the depth of the forest. They all walked without showing any signs of fatigue that anyone would notice, while fleeing the horrific enemy.

I remember one woman, a young, lonely widow whose husband perished in Lida. Grieving and looking for consolation she had a short love affair with a partisan. As a result, she, like many other women partisans, turned to Dr. H, the camp doctor. [we still lived then in our temporary ”succot”, and were digging, in groups, the foundations for our new huts].

Dr. H took the woman out of a group of diggers, went with her to one of the [then] uncompleted huts, he asked my wife for help. My wife was holding the patient; the operation was done quickly, the woman, lay on the bench, did not heave a sigh. After a short while the woman came out, pale and shaky on her legs and joined the group of diggers as if nothing had happened.

The bespectacled medical doctor Dr. H, always smiling, very thin, his clothes in tatters; with his case, which contained his instruments and medicines, was fulfilling his task faithfully, he was known as an expert in those discreet operations.

Women partisans arrived from the most distant units for that operation and usually left after a few hours, relieved of their burden. Dr. H's wife, a qualified nurse, helped him with those “humanitarian” operations; for his services the doctor received different products: pork fat, flour, etc which were an unimaginable treasure in the forest. From the partisans who went out on “farm operations”, the doctor asked for products and from people with means—gold coins. Gossip circulated in the camp that the bag, full of gold coins around the doctor's neck, was swelling.

The Belski's camp partisans who could not pay had the operation for free. He was polite and forever ready for his task. One could meet him in the morning hours, in his surgery, a hut, on the “main street”, near the commander Belski's hut.

There he received his patients who waited in a queue, helping him were a few qualified nurses like his wife and Chana Rivak from Novogudok. The groups of partisans who were hunting in the area for supplies were ordered to look for medicines. Farmers who acted as contact men (“sviznoi”), obtained medicines, which were ordered in the towns, and delivered them to the partisans. But there was always a shortage, even of the basic of medicines, in the forest.

In the afternoon the doctor made “home visits” hurrying from hut to hut to treat bed-ridden patients, then every day he went to the isolated “hospital” [one and a half km. from the camp] in a wagon pulled by a “skeleton” of a horse.

The doctor resided in hut number 11 [which was called the “intelligentsia hut” and housed 40 people]. I was his nearest neighbor, he did not sustain his personal hygiene nor the hygiene of his children. He did not take advantage of the washing facilities, which were available, even in the forest, he was shabbily dressed, and I almost never saw him wash.

When we brought our thin meals to our hut from the general kitchen, we often found some filth that was revolting, but the doctor, in all seriousness of an expert convinced us that there might be some vital ingredients in those revolting pieces, to strengthen our bodies. ” There is no need to get over anxious!” he would say. He spiced his talk with a few scientific terms, and eventually we were forced to swallow the food. The typhus plague was recurring every year in the partisans' units, it spread in the Belski's camp after the partisans of the Zukov brigade left the food for us.

The commanders of the Zukov brigade, which was leaving the forests of Naliboki to move to a distant place, permitted the Belski's camp people to collect whatever was left after the departing brigade. In exchange we had to take care of their wounded, their sick and a number of women who they could do without. Kitchen utensils were brought from the Zukov camp, parts of weaponry, food products, horses, cows, clothing like: peasants furs, trousers and boots.

A short time after the typhus plague erupted, we connected it to the gifts from the Zukov brigade. There were a few cases of typhus in that brigade and with the clothing came lice that brought that contagious disease. It was playing havoc in our camp. Every day, many times a day, the wagon was busy taking feverish people to the “hospital”.

Rivak Shlomo, who was a teacher in Novogudouk, was responsible for transferring the sick to Dr. H's hut, the pace was hectic, the hospital huts were crammed, the overcrowding started to worry the commanders. In the hospital worked a qualified nurse from Minsk, devoted to her profession, the wife of the director and theatre actor from Minsk, Shtesnovitz (?), who was one of the partisans.

There was a shortage of the simplest of drugs in the hospital. We cured the sick with a diet and boiled water, their only drink. As usual we drunk filthy water from the shallow wells we dug near the huts to a depth of a few tens of cm.

The multitude of the dangerously sick people did not have any other medicine, but in spite of the extent of the disease most of the sick were cured. And Rivak's wagon started to take the convalescing people back to the camp. They were weak, skeletal, a dreadful sight. They were given a cup of milk a day and satisfying meals at lunch and dinner. Those meals came from the commander's special kitchen

The quarrels, the personal frictions and the tension were more acute than usual in the crowded huts, but there behavior would be considered normal under the circumstances. There was only one mentally ill person in the camp.

A 17 years old boy, Yankl, was insane. German soldiers, in the ghetto, hit his head hard with their rifle butts; and his behavior was the result of that. Lonely, neglected boy, in torn clothes, his coat's sleeve torn to the shoulder, was wandering about the camp without aim; craziness was reflected in his eyes. ”Yankele-why don't you mend your sleeve?” we would ask.

He would answer sharply “ I want to shake you out of my sleeve, how can I do it if it is sewn?”. During the heavy bombardments when everything was collapsing around, Yankele would stroll in the camp, no one could convince him to hide. ”Yankele go to sleep!” they called after him,” How much can I sleep? Where do you get such a long sleep?” he answered, and went on wandering.

The daily life in our hut was like in a madhouse. And there was no room to escape to real madness, people then preferred to escape to health, to strengthen their bodies, to use their vitality, whatever they had, to continue the struggle. With hyper activity, sometimes-aimless activity, they tried to distract their mind from the terror of their life. Sleep in the camp was mostly restless.

People got out of bed a lot to urinate, especially during the rainy season, when the earth in the hut was wet. The atmosphere in the hut at night was always restive, often people tripped over each other in the dark. People did not have nightmares. It could be that this is a wrong generalization, but that was the case with most of my relatives, they dreamt a lot about food.

One of our neighbors, Sonya, a lively girl who lived in our hut with her mother, used to relate in the morning her culinary dreams. “I dreamt at night about a plate full of gefilte fish and you, Mum, grabbed it from under my nose. Why did you do it Mum?” asked the girl. The listeners implored the girl to continue her description of that gefilte fish plate and the rest of the delicacies she dreamt about.

When the Red Army liberated us and we left the camp, the “hospital” was vacated too. The wounded were put on wagons, which followed the partisans who walked, to the hospital in Novogudok.

The Children in the Camp

There were in the camp a few dozen children, they used to assemble at central places in the camp and watch the happenings. They were near the commander's room when units departed for operations, and when the partisans returned from their missions. They followed guests from other partisan units, who visited our camp. They were at every corner, wandered between the huts, and never took an eye off the happenings.

Wearing odd bits of clothing, in all strange combinations, they looked like lost creatures from a different world. They came to the heart of the wilderness (great forest) on their parents' shoulders. They were carried like that for days, when fleeing the Germans, from the ghetto, or during the” hunt” when drifting in the boggy swamps. I remember a small girl in our group of Lida Jews, which slowly meandered toward the Naliboki camp in the forest.

October's cold rains, the misty nights, which we spent on the damp ground, weakened the girl, she was feverish her parents could hardly carry her; she was slowly deteriorating in front of our eyes. One evening, at twilight, her father managed to catch with his hat a wild pigeon that stood near by. He killed it and cooked it for his daughter. She felt better and in time returned back to good health. With time all the children grew stronger, they got used to the forest and could withstand the hardship of life there.

I think that no child died in Belski's camp. During typhus plagues, the children suffered too, but recovered quickly in spite the horrible conditions. There was one boy, about 15 years of age, Y. Epstein, tall, skinny and fragile. He came to the forest with his older sister without their parents. He was visiting me often, craving for knowledge, alert and asking many questions. He was a terrific listener. He caught typhus and we were fearful that his sickly body would not withstand the disease.

After a few weeks he returned from the ”hospital”, a skeleton, but soon he started to develop, and symptoms of tuberculosis that he had before, disappeared as well.

He grew taller and became a handsome, broad shouldered fellow only to be killed by the retreating German soldiers in June 1944. We buried him with 8 other victims, before we left the camp in the wilderness. I do remember one incident when a boy died, but it only confirms the fact that the forest strengthened the children and gave them the powers to withstand hardship.

A young couple P. from Mir settled in one of the huts. They had a few weeks old baby, who gave a lot of trouble at night. It is a wonder how those parents managed to reach the depth of the forest! One autumn morning the mother screamed that the baby was not breathing. The camp's doctor decided that he was suffocated by his mother body while sleeping; the result of crowdedness. The parents cried for many days and were inconsolable for a long time.

Other children grew without parent's supervision. They peeped into every corner of the camp and it looked as if they were studying the residents and knew all their comings and goings. They adopted the coarse partisan's language and loved to spice their talk with loud curses, like the best of the partisans, who kept the Russian heritage going. They knew all that happened in the huts and gossiped like the adults.

Older boys were recruited for farm work; some guarded the herd of cows and horses and helped the people responsible for the cowshed and stables.

They took the cows to graze, and helped in the kitchen. Some of them found occupation in the workshops and became apprentices. A few children learned carpentry and shoe making. Coming out of the forest they could boast that they would be able to make a living because they learned a trade in the ”partisanka”.

A few boys aged between 13 and 14, maintained a contact between the Lida ghetto and the forest. A few times they smuggled Jews from the ghetto to the forest and did not fear the most dangerous operations.

The children assembled in the morning, after the first milking of the cows, with tins (“manashka”) in their hands, near the cowshed in order to get their daily portion of milk. The leftovers were given sometimes to women, to old people and the frail.

The children tried to compensate the severe deficit of nourishment in their diet, by collecting, in the winter, in the frozen swamps, under the snow, red berries (brusnika) that grew on tiny bushes. Groups of children were scattered around the camp looking for the red berries that peeped through the snow on a sunny day. Their happy voices rang in the forest. In the summer the children filled their tins with black berries or raspberries and brought that gift of the forest to their parents.

Some times when the hunger troubled them, the adults too, joined the children and collected mushrooms and sorrel (shchavel). They cut with a knife the birch tree bark and collected the oozing juices into their utensils. They cooked the swamp berries in the juice. The result was a thin, sweet and sour compote with a sharp smell of medicine that was reviving souls.

Those juices, so the doctor said, immunized our bodies and the nutrients in them added something to the portions of thin potato soup that most of the people ate twice a day, noon and evening. For an observer, watching those people move among the forest's growth with their children, it would have seemed like families on a holiday. But the camp people paid no attention to the charm of the forest, which they lived in for many months.

Many of us were led to the slaughter in the forests, and watched the selections, which were conducted in front of the dug graves. Often one heard a partisan say: “If I will manage to get out of these forests, I will never look at them again. Every forest brings back to me the horrific memories, the crying of the slaughtered and the smells of forests mixed with the sharp smell of the victims' blood”.

Confronting the neglect among the camp's children, the leadership decided to create for them a learning environment, like a school. Tens of children congregated every day and spent time together in a special hut, under the supervision of the woman partisan, Tsesya. They went with her for excursions, they did gymnastics, played team games; they were taught songs and sung along.

The preparations for festivities were one of the important operations of that group. For Purim, the children made masks for parents and other adults. In the afternoon all assembled to watch the performance on a specially prepared stage on a higher ground, in the big hut of the workshops. It was a winters day, wind and whirlpool of snow; we watched the children sing and recite in Yiddish or in Russian. The children were dressed up for the holiday in white shirts and red ties.

They were doing gymnastics; they danced, with the beauty of innocence on their faces and bodies. With tears in their eyes the audience followed the performance. Old, hidden memories came back, memories that were blunted by the harsh reality of the partisans. The wounds of the bereaved parents started to bleed again. By being hectically active they tried to forget their sorrow.

But with the performance, all their lost love ones reappeared. Suddenly, after a dance of a pretty group, the Politruk A. Shlachtovic stood up and started to shout in Yiddish: “Where are my children? Revenge! Revenge!” His freckled red face became even redder under his red mop of hair. He drew out his pistol and shot a few shots in the air. And again he cried: revenge, revenge! Repeating many times his crying and groaning, he left the hut shaky on his legs like a drunk. The audience sat glued to their seats, they lowered their heads and a stifled weeping was heard.

It was as if the cruel reality burst through the dark wooden walls of the workshops. The beloved children carried their velvet heads high, innocent eyes looked at us; the echo of childish gaiety turned into a terrible cry and lamentation; and every thing went down in horrific and endless flames.

The people lifted themselves off their seats, drying their eyes and as if shy sneaked out of the roomy hut, which was enveloped in winter twilight shadows.

In the heart of the last of the escapees, the remnants of the settlements, nightmarish images appeared again, the dark chasm of the cruel reality with all its terrifying experiences, opened wide in front of them. A deep feeling of loneliness, as for no reason at all, fell on everything.

It was carried to the chill and dampness of the fog, to the howling of the wind through the dense, dark forest, which stood like a wall around the camp. It penetrated the dark huts with the shadows of the people coming back from the concert. That evening, most of the huts sunk into a deep, depressing silence.


The Final Year of the Bielski Otriad: July 1943 - July 1944

The Final Year of the Bielski Otriad:  July 1943 - July 1944

After Operation Hermann, the German assault on partisans in the forests of Belarus, the partisan network in the area came under the leadership of Soviet Major Vasily Chernyshev, known as "General Platon."  He consolidated and reorganized the Jewish Bielski brigade into the overall partisan network. 

Under his design, the Bielski group was divided into two detachments:  the Ordzhonikidze, based around Stankevich; and the Kalinin family unit, located in the Naliboki.  The Ordzhonikidze unit comprised 180-200 fighters under a Soviet commander and Zus Bielski as the chief of reconnaissance.  The unit distinguished itself in carrying out sabotage actions on German supply lines and interfering with military objectives. 

Tuvia and Asael remained in charge of the Kalinin family group.  Although Tuvia strongly objected to the division, he understood that the integration of his unit in the larger partisan network enabled the Bielskis to continue rescuing Jews.  The family camp flourished under the brother's leadership.  The area became a village with all the shops, professional services and infrastructure necessary to organize and support hundreds of people.  The map of the family camp shows the variety of services the Bielski partisans had.  They built a bathhouse, two medical facilities, shops for tailoring, shoemaking and other light industries in the village in the forest. 

  • July 1943 - July 1944

Bielski Jewish Partisans


Waiting for the Liberation

Time passed, the snow thawed, the birches started to put on green leaves, the air was perfumed with aromas of the forest and above the top of the trees a soft spring sun was shining. The expectation of a change grew daily. Every evening many people congregated in the square near the commander's hut eager for encouraging news.

Scouts or guests from the partisan units who had a wireless, brought us news from the front and messages from the chief of staff of the Red Army. Connection by air with Moscow was improving all the time. More frequently, Soviet planes landed on the airport in the wilderness. Often guests from the front visited us. The partisans of our unit, under the command of I. Belski, guarded for a number of weeks the airport in the wilderness near Poldoruzshka.

The scope of the partisan attacks on communication lines grew to a great extent. During the nights, thousands of partisans raided the railways over a huge area and sabotaged them, bombing trains and cutting the enemy's movement for long periods. Echoes of explosions were heard at night from all directions; the partisans called those operations-“concerts”.

The towns and villages were filled with Ukrainian collaborators (Kuban' Cossacks?) who were brought, with the retreating German Army, from Russia. They were stationed in the Byelorussian villages. There were many clashes with them, and supply of provisions for the camp was hard to obtain.

Sometimes we received Soviet newspapers, which were parachuted from planes, with other supplies. We read them eagerly, trying to draw our own conclusions.

Occasionally, some German papers fell into the hands of the partisans out on operations; we read them too, compared them and were trying to read between the lines.

The Partisan's Chief of staff issued papers in Russian and Byelorussian. These were distributed in the area among the local population and the partisans. They were printed in the forest on tiny pages of a dark yellow color with crammed printed letters.

So, we had some good information and we could assemble the partisans together for political lectures and comments. In the evenings the partisans turned into brilliant war commentators. Arguments were going forever, about the significance of this event or other. And especially, what we had to expect when the front would reach us and the German Army penetrated the wilderness.

The German front collapsed and the Red Army advanced. Names of liberated places became more and more familiar, the Red Army already penetrated Polesie and Vohlyn, and liberated Pinsk and Rovno. Ferocious battles were going on during April near Ternopol.

The 1st of May festivities in 1944 were accompanied by encouraging messages from the front, which was advancing towards us, bringing liberation. The celebration of the 1st of May that year was a very festive occasion. In the afternoon the camp's people congregated in the square in front of the commander's hut, red flags were out, the huts were decorated.

It was a brilliant day, the spring sky was high and peaceful, about 1200 people stood in the wide square, on three sides were the fighting units, the scouts and the mounted units, their horses nicely decorated, and the armed platoons headed by their commanders. On the fourth side stood, in military order, the unarmed people.

In the center of the square stood the commanders, headed by T. Belski. He read to us the message of the Red Army chief of staff. It said that the war effort succeeded and after fierce battles over many weeks Tarnopol was conquered and the enemy had retreated in panic. Applause and shouting interrupted his words.

After that the commander gave a short speech: “Shortly we will take the war to the Nazi beast's den in Germany and there we will exterminate him. The partisans took their part in the struggle against the cruel enemy. The front is coming close fast, we can expect days of hard tests, and we must be ready for them. Victory is looking us in the face”.

What a joy it was, to hear those words! Every one was excited. The rule of evil was collapsing, the day we hoped for, the day of payback and revenge was approaching. That hope strengthened most of the people; it gave meaning to their sufferings, meaning to the worst of their moments. But there was a hidden anxiety that everyone had but no one talked about “What will face us when we will return to our places? We, the last of our people, the remnants! How will we continue?”

In the meantime we were pulled by waves of general enthusiasm. We danced till late that night and sang under the moonlight.

In June 1944 the Soviets broke the front near Vitbesk and advanced fast towards Minsk. The German Army retreated in panic from wide areas of East Byelorussia.

Many German divisions were surrounded near Minsk. At night, from a distance one could hear the sounds of muffled thunder and constant hum, which came with the wind. They sounded to us as a charming melody. We sat long at night, on the grass in front of our huts, waiting for the signs of the storm, which will bring our redemption. Excitement and tension in the camp grew stronger every day, with the echoes from the front, which grew lauder.

Scattered groups of German soldiers, who tried to escape from the Soviet encirclement, started to appear in the area. Instructions came to be on guard. The great hour we waited for was coming. The armed platoons of Belski's partisans operated against the German soldiers who wandered in the forest.

The partisans lay in ambush on roads and tracks that crossed the wilderness and eliminated many German units. Our armed units also clashed a few times with German groups. No prisoners were taken; they were all killed on the spot. Two of our members were wounded in battle, one of them had to be taken to hospital.

Tasks changed, the partisans were hunting the Germans and the Germans tried to sneak out. The mood of the partisans was elated. Our armed units enjoyed the activity. Every evening they returned all flushed and excited with new stories about their encounters in the forest. They tasted the taste of revenge.

The Germans were like hunted animals, hungry and shaky on their legs, their desperate resistance weakened. How poor and miserable looked the remnants of the army which wanted to conquer the world!

Four German prisoners were brought in front of the camp's commanders. Three were young and the fourth who was older, was crying. Two of them said that they were Communists and blame the others of being Nazis. Only one kept his “identity”, cursed the Jews and threatened them too. They were executed in the camp in front of all. Bursts of anger and revenge took hold of the people; it was so overwhelming that I prefer not to describe them.

The partisan's chief of staff was calling repeatedly to be ready. It was not known how events would develop; the front could shift to our side and it was possible that the Germans would penetrate the forests and employ all their power in battle. We had to be on guard.

In our camp we prepared for evacuation at any moment, night or day. There were trial evacuations to train the people for a fast planned departure. (within a few minutes).

Detailed instructions were given, new locations in the forest for each unit, were decided upon, tasks were allotted. We lived in an atmosphere of constant tension. Rumors chased rumors, one contradicting the other. We swung between desperation and encouragement. Alternately, we saw in our imagination the Red Army saving us, or the Germans attacking us. Since the big ”hunt” in July 1943, we gained experience and were ready to repeat it when necessary and find cover in the wide swamps of the forest.

Once, in the early hours of the morning, we were awaken by shots from the central square. We could hear clearly German voices, loud orders, screams and curses. Bullets whistled above our heads! We ran out of the hut and hid in the undergrowth, the bullets' whistled continuously. We ran down to the swamp and lay down between the dense reeds.

Terror took hold of us without knowing what happened. After a while there was silence. And then we found out that a group of 100 German soldiers was marching through the forest and surprised our people.

Our armed partisans were away and guarding of the camp was forgotten, we were open to attack. That was how the Germans could get into a few huts on their way, surprising people in their sleep. They wounded seriously the deputy commander Gordon, who slept on his bench. They threw a hand grenade into one of the common huts and shot a few people on their way. But they had to retreat quickly.

The partisans in the area heard the shots and came around. The Germans had left the camp but got into battle with the partisans who chased and eliminated them. That sudden raid by the Germans on our camp cost us nine lives, among them was Gordon who was wounded in the stomach and died after a few hours of terrible suffering, Epstein, a 16 year old boy, Patzovski, Ostshinski and others, were among the last victims in the wilderness.

After an hour a scout unit of the Red Army passed by the camp. All the camp people went towards them, they encircled the dusty and sweaty figures, hugged them, shook their hands, kissed them: “Welcome, comrades redeemers”.

The soldiers continued their mission and we returned to the camp -liberated!

Nothing was left for us to do in that camp but to bury our dead. On the hill behind the “main street” we dug a common grave, the commander delivered a short eulogy, and a salvo of gunshots ended the sad ceremony.

With heavy steps, our heads down, we went to spend our last night in the huts. It was a restless night. I sat in front of the door, unable to shut an eye. In the darkness I recognized the tall figure of the man, who walked slowly, it was the theatre director and actor of the state theatre, Shternovitz (?), a Russian, who was transferred to us after his partisan unit dispensed with its entire group of non-fighting men.

“Going home comrade?” he asked me “very soon we will be back at our places and will start a new”! “You, comrade, are going home” I answered him “it might be a destroyed home, but a home that you will be able to rebuild. We have got nowhere to return to. Nothing remained of our homes! We will go to our home towns, but only to say goodbye.” We talked a lot that night!

In the early hours of the next morning, we vacated the camp. An order was given to destroy the huts, so that White partisans won't be able to use them. We smashed the windows, destroyed the doors and benches, filled in the wells, and buried the tools; for a short time the sound of wrecking and breaking was heard in the camp.

Afterwards an order was given at the Commander's square, to take only the things we could carry on our backs. Only two wagons for the wounded, followed the marching people.

There was a long way ahead of us, fraught with unexpected dangers, and we had to be on alert! The commander, riding on his horse, scanned the marching people. One of the members of our partisan unit, P. did not follow the instruction and pushed a cart loaded with personal items. He was shot on the spot in front of his wife and small child who sat in the cart. The woman screamed a desperate scream, which shattered all of us. It was a very tragic end.

The camp that was established to save Jewish life from the hands of the Nazis ended its existence with the murder of a Jew and the destruction of a Jewish family. The suffering woman cried for days and her screams accompanied us all the way. We marched traumatized through the forest, the corpses of German soldiers in their uniforms and of animals were scattered among the tall trees.

We passed the Kremin Lake, its blue water seen between the tree trunks, and continued to walk into dense forests.

The summer heat was oppressive, we walked tired and sweating, bluish mist started to envelope the forest undergrowth, which became denser. A smell of smoke reached us, the forests were burning.

The battles that were fought there caused fires and they spread very quickly. Huge areas went up in flames, clouds of bluish-gray smoke filled the air, it was choking us and made our eyes water. We could see the silhouettes of burning trees; the fire licked the bushes, climbed up the trees and spread into the horizon. We marched in a landscape of flames, in the depth of the forest, a small distance from the sea of fire.

We reached the Neman canal, the fire stopped there. We camped under the sky. We marched like that for a few days. Leaving the wilderness we came to a busy road and marched through the village Shchorsy, the residents came out of their huts, looking with surprise in their eyes: So many Jews! So many Jews!

At the beginning we marched in a military fashion with the armed units in front of us and behind us. Later, people dispersed, walking in groups slowly in the heat of the day.

We advanced with heavy hearts, as we came closer to areas that were once Jewish. The extent of our catastrophe became clearer. It looked as if flames, which left a wasteland, surrounded our life, and we entered that wasteland.

On the horizon we could see the houses of Novogrudouk. We slept outside the town, in a farmhouse with a big yard and threshing floors around. We stretched ourselves on the chaff, exhausted from the long march. Afterwards we toured the town. The people from Novogudok, who were members of Belski's unit, brought us to the places where the ghettos were.

We stood in the places which were extermination sites, near graves of thousands of ghetto victims. The people of Novogrudok brought up memories, they walked, mourning in their own town, and so did we.

That was how all of us would return to our destroyed homes! That was the welcome that every Jew could expect on his return to the ruins of his community. We walked around the houses; in what was once a ghetto.

Christians were living there, strange apathetic eyes were staring at us through the windows. Those were our inheritors; the Jewish settlement was completely erased! Hundreds of German prisoners were concentrated in a fenced yard. Through the fence we stared at those figures; a short time ago they brought with them murder and extermination; now they had dimmed eyes, and they were lying on the ground weak and impotent!

So the day passed. In the evening, after the walk around the town, the partisans assembled on the mountain slope of the ancient castle for a liberation celebration. Thousands of partisans from all the wilderness crowded the wide square, the flag of victory went up, and the ruins of the castle were lit with a searchlight.

The speakers, partisans' commanders and officers of the Red Army stood on a stage, at the foot of the castle wall. The partisans raised the flag of the liberator, the Red Army. The Army delegates praised the partisan's struggle that hit the Nazi conqueror in its back, helping in their defeat.

The partisans last assembly was on the day after, at the farmyard that we stayed in. We stood in a rectangle, the commander gave a short speech and every one received a Partisan Certificate!

We parted with warm handshakes and went to the center of the town. We had to go back to our prewar location; the saga of the forest came to its end!


By July 1944, appoximately 1,200 Jews had joined the Bielski partisan unit.  By then, the German troops had begun retreating from the east, but continued to pose a threat to the forest inhabitants.  On July 9, several retreating Germans attacked the family camp, resulting in the deaths of nine to eleven Jews.  A few hours later, Soviet troops liberated the camp. 

The next day, on July 10, the Bielski family group prepared to leave the forest.  Tuvia gave his final speech thanking the group for their work and endurance.  He issued each member a certificate of their participation in the unit, essential to prove that they had not collaborated with the enemy and had fought to save their country from the Germans. 

After leaving the Naliboki forest, many people retuned to their former homes.  Not surprisingly, a majority found that they had been destroyed or taken by non-Jews in their absence. 

  • July 1944

Tuvia Bielski And His Partisans. Heroes Or Common Bandits?

In July, 2003, Harper Collins published a book by Peter Duffy "The Bielski Brothers. The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest”.

Contrary to Mr. Duffy?s beliefs, expressed in the interview with Paula Zahn on CNN July 8, 2003, the story of Bielski brothers wasn’t forgotten. And, they weren’t too busy to promote their story.

His is not the first reference that appeared on the subject. In 1993, Oxford University Press published „Defiance: the Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec. The account based on interviews of former partisans including Tuvia Bielski before his passing away in 1987. It includes photographs, an organizational directory of the Bielski partisan group, a biographical appendix, and a glossary of foreign terms.

Ruth Yaffe Radin wrote "Escape to the forest: Based on a true story of the Holocaust”, where Tuvia Bielski and his partisans are mentioned. There was also a documentary film written and produced by David Herman, Soma Productions in1993. And most of all, in 1947, Bielski himself wrote „Brigade in action” published in Israel.


In Poland the story of Bielski detachment „Jerusalem” and Zorin’s „Pobieda” also hasn’t been forgotten, but for the quite different reasons. Peter Duffy has never mentioned the massacre in the village of Naliboki, has he? Including it in his narrative would have made his account a completely different story. But let’s start from the beginning.

The relations between the Polish underground, Polish population, and Soviet and Jewish partisans were complex to say the least. Understanding them is the key to the Bielski brothers’ story.

History of Poland of the last 300 years proves that in times of national crisis, Jews always sided with the stronger even if it meant a betrayal of their neighbours and hosts. There has never been a case of a mistaken identity. Jews stuck out living their lives unbothered independently and separately in their communities in Poland for centuries. When their significant numbers championed Poland oppressors’ case turning against their co-citizens and hosts it always left a feeling of bitter resentment in the common folk memory.

The most recent history is of no exception.

Conditions throughout occupied Poland varied greatly. In some areas, especially in Eastern Poland, which the Soviet Union invaded in 1939, and subsequently formally annexed, the situation was particularly volatile. During the two year’ occupation till the Soviet-German war outbreak in 1941, the Soviets carried out the ethnic cleansing of Poles considered as a potential threat to full annexation of these territories into Soviet Union.

Hundred of thousands of Polish officials, officers, soldiers, policemen, teachers, churchmen, landowners, and civilians with their families were sent to Siberian concentration camps. Local Jews were those who actively helped Soviets to round them up. Many thousands of other Poles were murdered. And, local Jews who joined and led NKVD units affected these murders.

Under succeeding occupation, this time by Germans, Poles, had every right to be suspicious of Soviet motives and to expect the Soviets, at any time, to turn against them. In 1944-1950, large parts of Poland were the scenes of a massive and bloody guerrilla war of Russian and Communist against anti-Communist forces. For Poles, the WWII didn’t finish in 1945.

The undivided loyalty of the Soviet partisans was to the Soviet Union, which had sized and annexed these territories from Poland in 1939 and intended to hold on to them.

The Soviet partisans consisted mostly of former Soviet soldiers caught behind the lines of the German offensive in June 1941, soldiers that escaped from German POW camps and number of men who were parachuted in during the German occupation to lead, organize and reinforce the Soviet partisan units in the area. The field leadership was made up of NKVD officers and was subordinated to Stalin.

They treated the local population as pawns in the war against Germany and used brutal tactics, which aroused resentment and resulted in German reprisals against this population. Witness testimonies and German field reports from this period, attest to the widespread plundering and terrorisation of the population by Soviet partisans (Ereignismeldungen UdSSR and Meldungen aus den Besetzten Ostgebeiten, Institut of the National Memory [IPN] 1992).

Right from the beginning there was a political, ideological and territorial conflict between the two partisan forces – Polish and Soviet. From the outset, the Soviet partisans operating in North-Eastern Poland had as their task the undermining and destruction of the non-Communist Resistance. To accomplish this they resorted to passing onto the Germans lists of members of the Home Army and other forms of collaboration with the Gestapo, German gendarmerie and the local police.

There was also forced recruitment of the local population, mostly Byelorussians. Soviet partisans were joined by the Jews who escaped from various ghettos. According to David Melster:

The core of the first partisan detachment in the Belorussian forests consisted of escaped ghetto inmates and Red Army soldiers. Jews from the Minsk ghetto made up a significant portion of nine partisan detachments (the Kutuzov, Budenny, Frunze, Parkhomenko, Shchors, 25th Anniversary of the Belorussian Republic, No. 106 and No. 406) and the first battalion of the 208th independent partisan regiment. In the Lenin brigade (Baranovichi [Baranowicze] district) 202 of the 695 fighters and commanders were Jews, in Vpered 106 of 579, in Chkalow 239 of 1140 and in Novatory 48 of 126.

Jews composed more than one-third of the partisans in the detachments that fought in the Lida partisan zone. In the Naliboki wood [sic] 3000 of the 20 000 partisans were Jews, many of them in position of command. Incomplete data record that some 150 Jews were commanders, chiefs of staff and commissars of partisan brigades and detachments.

("Byelorussia” in Walter Laqueur, ed. "The Holocaust Encyclopaedia”, Yale University Press, 2001).

The fact that the Jews, with very few exceptions, ended up joining the Soviet partisans, who generally had the upper hand, and were treated as the enemy by most of the local Polish population, didn’t make them too many friends. Once again Jews sided with Poland’s enemies.

The only non-Soviet underground military organisation operating in this region was the Home Army (AK), which had to be ready for a fight with both, Germans and Soviets.

That there were Polish retaliations and Soviet counter retaliations was not surprising. Few of the Polish actions, however, were directed at Jews. For the most part, Jews died as members of the Soviet partisan forces. Yisrael Gutman, the director of the Centre of Holocaust Research at the Yad Vashen Institute, conceded:

One should not close one’s eyes to the fact that Home Army units in the Wilno area were fighting against the Soviet partisans for the liberation of Poland. And that is why the Jews who found themselves on the opposing side perished at the hands of Home Army soldiers – as enemies of Poland, and not as Jews. (Israel Gutman, "Uczmy si? ?y? razem” [tr. Let's learn to live together], Znak, Kraków, June 2000)

Although no one can deny that Jews in hiding were in a difficult and indeed desperate situation, yet the simplistic and much distorted picture promoted by the Holocaust literature is far from the truth. This picture – of bloodthirsty Polish partisans and farmers, who were eager to collaborate with Germans against the heroic Soviet and Jewish partisans and whose only purpose for existence was to hunt the hiding Jews down is simply a blatant lie.

Historian, Teresa Prekerowa, who was awarded by Yad Vashem for her rescue activities within the framework of the organization called Zegota (The Polish Council for Aid to Jews, run by the Home Army) notes in her essay „Wojna i okupacja” [tr. War and occupation] that when the Jews first started to escape from the ghettos in north-eastern Poland at the end of 1941, they encountered only small groups of Soviet partisans.

The Polish partisans formed later. Escapees, as more Jews, especially women joined them, established camps.
Initially, the local peasants, who were not overly rich themselves, were fairly generous in providing food, even though they didn’t have much left after they met the burdensome quotas imposed by the Germans. However, as the numbers of Jews in the forest grew, and demands for contingents (forced contributions) by the Germans and the Soviet partisans were ever escalating, the attitude of the impoverished villagers, who were subjected to these onerous burdens, started to change.

Their first concern was to feed their own families. This had to take precedence before looking after the bands of Jewish escapees. It was also more important for them to meet quotas levied by the Germans on each Polish village.

This was literally a matter of life and death for them and their families. Germans proved to treat such contingents most seriously, as they were quite capable of annihilating whole villages as a punishment for not fulfilling them. Little known in the western literature is the fact that the Germans erased from the face of Earth more than 400 Polish villages and towns.

What the villagers didn’t know was that hiding in Naliboki Forest the „heroes” of Tuvia Bielski supported by other Soviet partisans were also capable of such acts.

The virtually exclusive preoccupation of the Jews hiding in forests was not partisan warfare, but scavenging for provisions. They dispatched an endless flow of armed groups into villages to rob the peasants of their food and meagre belongings. The nature and range of the so called „economic” operations, for which Jewish partisans were notorious and which became their principal activities have been described in many memoirs, and even by the Jews themselves.

According to the widespread impression of the local population, Jews were indeed the most violent and rapacious of all the forest pillagers. They had the protection of Jews who had been accepted into the Soviet partisans and were engaged in similar raids, of „economic” operations or actions of massive proportions. Even their Soviet allies very often doubted their fighting abilities and regarded them as not much more than plunderers.

Many skirmishes took place, as the impoverished villagers increasingly opposed being systematically robbed of most of their possessions by partisans and forest dwellers.

(Yitzhak Arad, „Ghetto in flames”, p. 457).

The close association of the Jewish groups with the Soviet partisans also marked them as pro Communist and anti-Polish in the eyes of the local population.

Yet, another reason the peasants hesitated any contacts with people from the forest was because of punitive measures taken by the Germans. Many villages were burned to the ground for their perceived support of the partisans. Their inhabitants were shot or rounded up for slave labour. An assassination or insignificant sabotage operations, like tearing up a railroad track that was promptly rebuilt, caused Germans to extract punishment on the local population.

Such was the case near the town of Nowe ?wi?ciany, where some 1500 Poles were executed by the Germans and Lithuanian police in May 1942. Simply the price of 1500 Polish lives for three German lives-two soldiers and one officer, was far too high to pay. But, the Soviet and Jewish partisans could not care less. They risked nothing. It was not their or their co-patriots’ lives, it was just local Poles.

This brings us back to the subject of Tuvia Bielski and his "heroes”.

One of the earliest and most heinous episodes was the „pacification” of Naliboki, county of Sto?pce, Nowogródek province, a village located in the middle of Naliboki Forest (Puszcza Nalibocka), currently part of Belorussia.

The Polish and Belorussian villagers had formed a self-defence group to fend off Soviet and Jewish marauders that robbed them of the food and other possessions. The Holocaust memoirs branded those who attempted to protect their property as anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators.

Yet, they simply couldn’t see any reason for supporting the Jewish bathhouses, lavish lifestyle and synagogues in the forest with the fruits of their labour. Certainly not at the price of starving themselves and their families.

Józef Marchwi?ski, a Polish communist, married to a Jewish woman, for a while acted as Bielski’s deputy, described the life of plenty and leisure led by Bielski’s entourage and his „harem” of well dressed women, all whom the poor Jews branded as the „tsar’s palace”. Another communist wrote that Bielski had been eager to accept into the camp people who had had gold and other valuables, but less likely to take in the poor.

The dire condition of the people in the camps of Bielski and Zorin painted by some Jews are not quite true. In one of his reports, Bielski boasted that his unit had accumulated large quantities of provisions: 200 tonnes of potatoes, three tonnes of cabbage, five tonnes of beets, five tonnes of grain, three tonnes of meat and a tonne of sausages.

(Boradyn, „Armia Krajowa na Nowogródczy?nie i Wile?szczy?nie [tr. Home Army in Nowogrodek and Vilnius regions] (1941-1945) p. 80)

In his memoir, a leading member of the Zorin?s group presented a similar picture. Once a week, they even sent food surplus to Moscow by a plane, which landed in a field inside the forest. (Wertheim, "?ydowska partyzantka na Bia?orusi? [tr. Jewish partisans in Belorussia], Zeszyty Historyczne no. 86, 1988).

The food surplus sent to Moscow must have been taken from the impoverished Polish and Belorussian peasants, as Jews had no fields of their own to tend in the forest.

In Soviet eyes, the main "crime” of the Naliboki villagers was that when in the spring of 1943 the commanders of the Soviet partisans stationed in Naliboki Forest tried to subordinate the village self-defence unit, the Poles refused.

The joint Soviet-Jewish assault on Naliboki occurred in small hours of May 8, 1943. One hundred and twenty eight (128) innocent civilians, including women and children, were butchered in a heinous pogrom that lasted almost three hours. This surprise attack on Naliboki was carried out by the Stalin Brigade, under the command of Major Rafail Vasilevich, with the participation of the Bielski’s and Zorin’s detachments, who reported to him at that time.

The Jewish factions who did most of the pillaging and murdering of entire families were the Bielski’s „Jeruzalem” and Zorin’s „Pobeda” units. Eyewitnesses confirmed later that the majority of the 128 people killed died at their hands.

Nearly all of them were killed not in the skirmish, but in cold blood executions. Some members of the self defence group, surprised by the attack, fought back and killed a few of the attackers, but seeing their overwhelming numbers and better armaments they withdrew to the forest.

This was not the end of the Naliboki village misery. Four months later, in August 1943, as part of a massive anti-partisan operation known as "Operation Herman”, some 60 000 German troops arrived and with the assistance of Lithuanian auxiliary forces, attached to the SS and Byelorussian police, rounded up the civilian population of dozens of villages in the area of the Naliboki Forest suspected of supporting the partisans. Some 20 000 villagers were deported to the Reich as the slave labour, many were killed, while their houses were burned. The village of Naliboki was consumed by fire.

In ‘From Victims to Victors’ (p. 125), Silverman writes:

After a few weeks of fighting, the blockade suddenly ended. The German army units had been transferred to Stalingrad. Before they left, they burned all the villages in and close to the forest. The farmers in each place were told to assemble for a meeting and while they were concentrated in one building the Germans set it on fire.

Men, women and children in village after village, were burned alive. The Germans wanted to make sure that no one could, or would help the partisans and the Jews again. They tried to make sure that we were deprived of food and supplies.

It would appear that the poor peasants of Naliboki couldn’t win. First, the Soviet-Jewish partisans murdered and robbed them, then the Germans burned their village for supporting the same partisans. They were between a rock and hard place indeed.

The Polish Institute of National Memory (The Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation in ?ód?) is currently conducting an investigation into „heroic” deeds of Tuvia Bielski, Sholem Zorin and their partisans in Naliboki. This investigation was opened on March 20, 2001.

According to their report, issued on March 1, 2002, 24 witnesses have been questioned so far, most of them former inhabitants of Naliboki or nearby settlements who had been present there during the attack.

Their detailed testimonies about the course of events under investigation mention the names of some of the perpetrators, several of whom have been identified as former Jewish residents of Naliboki. The witnesses also mentioned the names of Soviet partisans.

The Naliboki atrocity was not an out of character event marking the Soviet-Jewish units.

Similar atrocity, being also investigated by Institute of National Memory, was committed in the village of Koniuchy, township of Bienakonie, county of Lida, Nowogrodek province, at the edge of the Rudniki Forest, where numerous Soviet partisan groups had their bases. Members of these groups frequently carried out raids against the nearby villages and settlements including Koniuchy.

The Rudniki Forest partisans were under the command of the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement in Moscow. The massacre at Koniuchy was committed by a group of around 100-120 partisans from various units, including a Jewish partisan unit of about 50 people strong.

The Jewish partisans in the Rudniki Forest, who had subordinated themselves to the Soviet partisan command, consisted of four divisions: "

Death to Fascism” led by Jacob (Yaakov) Prenner;

"Struggle” led by Avrasha Rasel; „To Victory” led by Shmuel Kaplinsky;

and "Avenger” led by Abba Kovner.

There were fifty partisans in each division, and the four divisions together formed the so-called Jewish Brigade, of which Abba Kovner was the commander.

(Rich Cohen, „The Avengers” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

Like in Naliboki and many other places in Poland, the purpose of those raids was to rob the local population of their property, mostly clothing, footwear, cattle and stores of flour. In the course of raids, violence was commonly used against the rightful owners. Again like in Naliboki, villagers driven to desperation formed a self-defence group to guard the village in order to prevent further robberies.

The only "crime” committed by the inhabitants of Koniuchy was the fact that they had had enough of the daily, nightly robberies and assaults, and they wanted to organize a self-defence. The Bolsheviks from Rudniki Forest decided to annihilate the village in order to terrorize into submission the inhabitants of other settlements.

For this reason, on the night of 28/29 January 1944, a group of Soviet partisans from the Rudniki Forest surrounded the village. In the early morning, they used incendiary bullets to set the buildings on fire. The escaping inhabitants – men, women and children, were shot down. Most of the village was destroyed.

In this case 17 witnesses were questioned. This group included former members of the Home Army units stationed in the Rudniki Forest and the relatives of the victims.

Some witnesses supplied the names or pseudonyms of Soviet partisans, locations of their units and their numerical strengths. They also confirmed that the largest group consisted of Jewish partisans.

These partisan units were commonly called "Wisincza”, from their base location between this village and the Kiernowo lake.
It appears from the depositions that some of the victims, especially the old and infirm, were burned to death in their homes. Those who tried to escape were fired at.

According to the Investigation Reports on Koniuchy and Naliboki, issued by the Institute of National Memory on March 1, 2002, in Koniuchy between 36 and 50 inhabitants, men, women, and children, were killed on the spot, many others were wounded. The survivors escaped to nearby villages.

But according to the perpetrators themselves, approximately 300 of Koniuchy’s inhabitants were killed in this action. It would appear that this massacre of the defenceless people is quite often mentioned in various Jewish publications and presented as a glorious battle of the heroic Jewish and Soviet partisans against Nazis and so called Nazi collaborators, that is, unarmed farmers trying to defend their property. A very curious case of murderers who take pride in their crime. Let’s look at few such testimonies:

The peasants ducked into houses. Partisans threw grenades onto roofs and the houses exploded into flame. Other houses were torched. Peasants ran from their front doors and raced down the streets. The partisans chased them, shooting men, women and children. Many peasants ran in the direction of the German garrison, which took them through a cemetery on the edge of town.

The partisan commander, anticipating this move, had stationed several men behind the gravestones. When these partisans opened fire, the peasants turned back, only to be met by the soldiers coming up from behind. Caught in a cross fire, hundreds of peasants were killed. (See Rich Cohen, "The Avengers", New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, 145)

Of course there was no German garrison in Koniuchy, only peasants from a self-defence group armed with a few rusty rifles. But this „German garrison” sounds good in the memoirs of Rich Cohen. At least it looks like there was a real battle, not just a massacre of unarmed civilians, women and children. The nearest German garrisons or police post was six kilometres away in Rakliszki.

The entire village [of Koniuchy] was laid in ashes and its inhabitants were killed – according to Zalman Wylozny who served in the „Death to Fascists” detachment.

(See Golota, "Losy ?ydów ostro??ckich w czasie II wojny ?wiatowej" [tr. Fate of Jews of Ostroleka during the II World War], Biuletyn ?ydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, no. 187, 1998, 32. Also Kowalski, "A Secret Press in Nazi Europe", 333-34; also reproduced in Isaac Kowalski, "Anthology on Armed Jewish Resistance 1939-1945", volume 4, Brooklyn, New York: Jewish Combatants Publishers House, 1991, 390-91.)

In "Destruction and Resistance”, Chaim Lazar wrote:

The Brigade Headquarters decided to raze Koniuchy to the ground to set an example to others. One evening a hundred and twenty of the best partisans from all the camps, armed with the best weapons they had, set out in the direction of the village. There were about 50 Jews among them, headed by Yaakov Prenner. At midnight they came to the vicinity of the village and assumed their proper positions. The order was not to leave anyone alive. Even livestock was to be killed and all property was to be destroyed.

The signal was given just before dawn. Within minutes, the village was surrounded on three sides. On the fourth side was the river and the only bridge over it was in the hands of the partisans. With torches prepared in advance, the partisans burned down the houses, stables, and granaries, while opening heavy fire on the houses.

Half-naked peasants jumped out of windows and sought escape. But everywhere fatal bullets awaited them. Many jumped into the river and swam towards the other side, but they too, met the same end. The mission was completed within a short while. Sixty households, numbering about 300 people, were destroyed, with no survivors. 

(See Chaim Lazar, Destruction and Resistance, New York: Shengold Publishers, 1985, 174-75)

The massacre of the population of Koniuchy, including women and children, has been described by Chaim Lazar as an outstanding „combat operation”, of which he was genuinely proud.

So, how many villagers of Koniuchy did the partisans truly murder? Fifty, as stated in the Investigation Report of the Institute of National Memory, or a few hundred, as quoted in the memoirs of the perpetrators? Perhaps, it is a case of boasting „heroes”, self-censure of IPN, or a mixture of both? I challenge any one to name all few hundred inhabitants of one’s native village after 60 years.

In his CNN interview Mr. Duffy describes Bielski’s partisans as aggressive fighters that at the end of the war, reported to the Soviets the 381 Nazi and Nazi allied fighters killed. Out of these 381 „Nazi and Nazi allied fighters” 128 were defenceless inhabitants of Naliboki. At least they were so-called confirmed kill. How many more innocent people did Bielski’s partisans kill nobody really knows.

It is not that hard to become "aggressive fighters” against unarmed men, women and children. Most likely Bielski’s partisans were aggressive plunderers, not aggressive fighters. Probably many more peasants lost their lives trying to defend their property. Of course in Jewish testimonies, they all became "Nazi allied fighters” and anti-Semites. This sounded better. There was no glory in murdering defenceless civilians.

Christopher Janiewicz and K.M., Nasza Witryna, 2003-09-02


Berl Kagan

Berl Kagan, born 1922 wass one of those who went to Palestine. He had lost his family in December 1941 and had joined the Bielski fighting detachment. After liberation he became an officer in the Russian militia. He left Russia in 1945 for a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. He was on the "Exodus" on way to Palestine but was forced to return to Germany. He arrived in Israel in 1948 and served 25 years in the Israeli defence force.

Below: Wedding portrait of former Bielski partisan, Berl Kagan. Emden, Germany, April 3, 1948.

  • 1922

Idel Kagan "Jack"

Group portrait of former Bielski partisans from Nowogrodek taken in the Foehrenwald displaced persons camp. 

Group portrait of former Bielski partisans from Nowogrodek taken in the Foehrenwald displaced persons camp.

Idel Kagan is in the center of the pyramid in the front. Chaya Bielski is seated third from the left. Her mother is to her left. Abramele Intersky is standing second from left. Taibel nee Bielski is seated third from the right. Joseph Skakun isstanding in the center.

Idel Kagan (now Jack Kagan) is the son of Yankel and Dvore (Gurevitz) Kagan. He was born in Nowogrodek, Belorussia on May 22, 1922. Yankel's brother, Moshe Kagan, was married to Dvore's sister, Shoshke, and the two families lived together.

Yankel and Moshe jointly ran a leather workshop founded by their father. Idel had one older sister, Nachama, and two cousins, Berl and Leizer. Idel attended the Hebrew language Tarbut school until 1940. When the Soviet Union occupied Nowogrodek in 1940, the school, synagogues and private Jewish businesses were closed down.

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Nowogrodek was bombed and much of the city was destroyed, including the Kagan's house. The Germans entered the town on July 4 and immediately enacted anti-Jewish laws. On December 5, 1941 Nowogrodek's 6,500 Jews were forced to assemble in the courthouse. They stood there for two days before undergoing a selection. 5,100 Jews, including Moshe, Nechama and Leizer, were taken to the village of Skridlevo and shot by Einsatzgruppen units.

The remaining Jews were confined to a ghetto. At first Idel was put to work at the military barracks in Skridlevo, and later he joined his father in the saddle-making workshop. The Germans moved more Jews into the ghetto from neighboring villages, before conducting a second round-up on August 2, 1942 which resulted in the murder of an additional 5,500 Jews, including members of the Kagan and Gurevitz families.

The Germans made plans to enclose the remaining 1,000 Jews in an Arbeitslager encircled by two rows of barbed wire, a wooden fence and guard towers. Each Jew had to wear his identification number stitched on the back of his clothes.

However, before the fence was completed, bands of Jewish youth, including Idel's cousin Berl, escaped to the nearby Bielski partisan units. Idel also began preparations for escape. On December 22, 1942, Idel tore off his yellow star and number and escaped from the camp into the bitter cold in the hope of joining the partisans. Unable to locate the partisans, Idel was forced to return to the labor camp. His feet were badly frostbitten. When gangrene began to set in he had to have his toes amputated. Idel lay hidden in a bunk unable to work for the next several months.

In May 1943 the Germans held another selection. Idel's mother and sister were among those killed. Convinced that the Germans would not leave anyone alive, in June a group of young Jews began digging a tunnel out of the work camp. Idel began to train himself to walk again in preparation for the escape. In the meantime, in July 1943, Idel's father was transferred to another camp in Koldichev, where he died the following winter trying to escape.

On September 26, 1943 Idel and about 120 other Jews escaped from the Nowogrodek labor camp through the tunnel. After several days, he reached the Bielski partisans' base camp, where he was reunited with his cousin Berl. Idel remained in the camp until the liberation of Nowogrodek on July 4, 1944. Twelve days later, the Bielski brothers led 1,230 Jews, including Idel and Berl, back to the town.

Idel stayed there for a time dealing in the black market before leaving for the West. After reaching Germany, Idel moved into the Landsberg displaced persons camp, where he joined a kibbutz hachshara [Zionist collective] made up of former partisans. In June 1947 he immigrated to England.

Extract from Jack Kagans Story

"The Germans entered Novogrudek on July 4 1941 and immediately started enforcing anti-Jewish laws. We had to wear yellow stars on our clothes, Jews lost their rights of citizenship, which meant that if someone wanted to rob you (and many did), you could not complain to the authorities, as you had no protection.

My father and uncle worked as saddle-makers. My mother, aunt and others, including myself, were working on clearing up the bombed streets. For that we were issued food cards for 300 grams of bread and potatoes a day. We were not able to go to shops as normal and had to rely on the cards for access to most of our food."

"On Saturday 26 July 1941,

Some Jewish men were rounded up by the local police and taken to the market place, where a group of SS men were waiting. I was in the market place at that time. I hid behind the ruins of a burned-out house. I heard shots being fired and an orchestra playing music. I waited there quite a while and when I reached home, I heard the awful news that the SS had selected 52 men and shot them.

Jewish women were ordered to wash the blood off the cobblestones. From time to time after that, groups of Jews were caught in the street and told that they were being sent to work. But later we would find out that they had been shot a short distance from town.

On the 6 December 1941,

The first large Jewish massacre of Novogrudek Jews took place. All the Jews of Novogrudek were told to assemble in the courthouse. The Nazis selected 5,100 men, women and children and took them to the nearby area of Scridlevo (3 km from Novogrudek). Two days later they were all murdered."

"The remaining 1,500 of us were taken to Peresika, where the ghetto was built. It was small, bunks were built: 60 cm (approx. 2 feet) of space per person. If you had to turn over in the night, you would wake up the nine people who slept in your row. It was an open ghetto, which meant we had to go out to work.

My father worked as a saddler and my mother stitched fur gloves for the German army. I worked in the Russian barracks, along with about 250 men. The work was difficult and I had a four-kilometre walk to work. I was barely 13 years old - I believe I was the youngest worker in the barracks. After a while I was transferred to a better job - wheel-barrowing stones. This work was also hard and I was beaten on many occasions." 

In May and June 1942, Jews were brought in from neighbouring towns and the ghetto became very overcrowded.

Jack remembers that...
"Various regulations were coming out daily against the Jewish population. Jews from the little surrounding towns and villages were brought to Novogrudek, starting at the beginning of May 1942. Altogether the ghetto now held about 6,500 people. Every centimetre of space was utilised. It is difficult to describe the misery of that time. People were walking around aimlessly knowing that they were sentenced to death, but not knowing when the execution would take place. Yet there was nowhere to run to."

Images of Jack Kagans family that died in the massacres:

Gitl Gurevitz 

Yankiel Kagan 

Dvora Kagan 

Nachama Kagan

Moshe Kagan

Shoshke Kagan

Leizerke Kagan

Kapushevski Chaim

Kapushevski Malke

Kapushevski Berele

Kapushevski Nochim

Yoshke and Braine
Feigl Gurevitz
(Uncle and Auntie)

Nachama Gurevitz

Chasia Gurevitz
(My cousin)

Chaike Sucharski

Srolik Sucharski

Sheindl Sucharski

"Contact with the Bielski partisans in the woods had been established, and the young prepared their escape. The Bielski brothers gave me a hope, a place to run to. I knew the youngest brother, Archik Bielski, very well.

We went to the same school and were in the same class. The four Bielski had brothers refused to submit to the German terror and had gone into hiding in the forest. They were joined by other families and people from the ghetto in Novogrudek, and the Bielski brigade was formed. Once it became known in the ghetto that there was a place to run to, people began to take the chance."

"Numbers were issued. We had to stitch one on the back of our clothes. Mine was 334. Now it was no longer a ghetto, but a work camp. We were enclosed by two circles of barbed wire with a wooden fence on the outside. Towers with searchlights and machine-guns were installed. The camp had no water facilities. Every day a number of workers had to fetch drinking water.This was our contact with the outside world."

By the end of October 1942 Jack Kagan prepared to escape and join the Bielski group of Jewish partisans in the forest.

On 23 December he managed to escape from the ghetto but because of the extreme cold, nearly froze to death in hiding. He made the difficult decision to return to camp and wait for another chance to escape.

An escape committee, led by Berl Yoselevitz, was established. It decided to attempt a mass break out from the Labour Camp. They had between them six rifles, and a few pistols and hand grenades.

The original plan was for a suicide attack on the guards, to attack the guards and run. Ninety-five per cent of the would-be escapees would have been killed. So the attack was postponed. It was then decided to dig a tunnel one hundred metres long to the other side of the barbed wire, into a field of growing wheat. To succeed would not only be a major engineering feat, but would also have to be carried out without discovery.

The work started, but had to be stopped for a while as there was not enough oxygen for the lamps to burn inside the tunnel. We had no electricity in our living quarters. Mr Rukovski, one of the inmates, was an electrician. He found the camp's main power cable leading to the workshops, and made a hidden switchboard, so that the camp searchlights could be turned on and off, and the tunnel could be lit up. 

The joiners among the prisoners prepared railway lines and a trolley. The tailors prepared bags and reins to pull the trolley. The loft was reinforced, and the dug-out earth was hidden there. Work went on secretly twenty fours a day, seven days a week. The tunnel was 1.5 metres below ground, about 60 centimetres wide and 75 centimetres high - just enough for a person to crawl through.

In August 1943 the tunnel was nearly ready. Suddenly there was a serious setback, when the Germans brought in a tractor and cut the corn. The fear was that the tunnel might collapse from the weight of the tractor, but it did not. However, if we had escaped then, probably none of us would have survived, as the German army had brought in 52,000 soldiers to launch a month-long raid on the Soviet partisans -Operation Herman. The main German base was on Novogrudok.

Once the cover of the cornfield had been removed, we were forced to extend the tunnel by another 150 metres.
As the day of the escape grew nearer, a list was drawn up of the order in which we were to go through the tunnel. I was one of the last. In front of me was my friend Pesach Abramovitz. 

Escape from the camps

The escape was on the night of 26 September 1943. It was a dark, stormy, moonless dark night, as if made to order. We assembled in the loft, very quietly, and waited in a very orderly manner. At 9 pm the line started moving forward.

Fresh air could be coming in from the tunnel as we broke through to the outside world. We made a big mistake, however, by leaving on the lights in the tunnel. Coming out into terrible darkness, some became disorientated and ran towards the camp. The guards, not knowing what had happened, started shooting in all direction. But most of us ran towards the forest and freedom. Of those who escaped, about 170 made it to the partisans, and about eighty were caught and killed.

Ten elderly people had hidden in a specially built hiding place in the loft, thinking that they were too weak to escape through the tunnel. Five days later, after the Labour Camp had been abandoned by the Germans, they simply walked out of the main gates and were able to join the partisans.

The Nazis had wanted to declare the area Jude rein (free of Jews). The only Jews left in Western Belarus at the beginning of 1944 were ninety-eight Jews in Koldichevo concentration camp. They escaped in February 1944.






  • 26 September 1943

Sonya Oshman

By Gila Lyons|April 9, 2010 7:00 AM.

I met Sonya Oshman at the world premiere of A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters, a documentary about the 1943 escape of 250 Jews, including Sonya, from a work camp in Poland through a 700-foot tunnel dug by hand.

A friend had hired me to staff the merchandise table. When I finished selling T-shirts, I stepped into the dark auditorium to listen to three women who had recently traveled back to their hometown of Novogrudek, in eastern Poland, to visit the mass grave in which their relatives were buried.


Sonya Oshman in Italy, late 1940s.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Lisa Oshman

Sonya’s speech at the podium impressed on me her sheer will to survive, gratitude for surviving, and mission to share her story. Her drive filled me with awe, but also with dread. What, I wondered, infused my life with comparable purpose and fiery will? For me, and I imagine for my peers, Holocaust stories serve a similar function as the Torah did for pre-World War II generations: They offer lessons on morality, love, death, betrayal, and triumph and provide a strong reason for maintaining a Jewish identity.

Several weeks after the film screening, I sat in Sonya Oshman’s sunny living room at her assisted-living facility in New Jersey. At 86, she was small but sturdy, with feathery brown hair, round deep-set eyes, and thin eyebrows that arched upwards when she smiled.

She wore a wool vest over her button-down shirt and a shin-length pleated skirt, all in white and brown. I had arrived fascinated by the enduring image of the Novogrudek Jews clawing at the land that had been their home for generations, escaping underground like mice. I wanted to immerse myself in Sonya’s story and to find out what kept her going. She called to me from the kitchen.

“Mamale,” she said, “what can I give you?”

From the couch I scanned framed photographs on the walls and on the top of the shiny piano. Some were sepia-toned portraits of her parents and grandparents, photos that friends had found among their belongings and mailed to her from Europe after the war. Sonya returned to the couch carrying a can of ginger ale, peeled grapefruit sections in a Styrofoam bowl, and a muffin wrapped in a napkin, all of which she saved from that morning’s breakfast, knowing I was coming.


In 1931, Sonya Gorodinsky was 9 years old, the eldest of four children, with a sister yet to be born. The family lived on Pilsudski Street, in a home next to Sonya’s maternal grandparents, who employed two young Polish women who did housework and looked after the children. “I had a good youth,” Sonya told me. “I was one of the privileged ones.”

Sonya’s parents, Abraham and Tamara, owned an appliance store. Abraham called his daughter Sonyaleh. Many of his customers, non-Jewish state officials, befriended him and called him Abramaleh, or Meme. When there was tension between the Jews and Poles of the town, they would often turn to Meme to mediate.

During the week, the Gorodinsky children ate dinner with their grandparents and were in bed by the time their parents came home from work. But on Fridays, before the Sabbath, her parents came home early. Tamara blessed the candles, and Abraham blessed the wine and challah before the meal. Sonya watched as her father gathered tzedakah to bring to the rabbi, the Jewish orphanage and hospital, and the Zionist youth movement.

The children attended Jewish schools where they studied Hebrew, Torah, and Jewish history, as well as math, science, and literature. She went on to study to be a doctor and was accepted to medical school in Bialistok, to begin in the fall of 1939.

By September of that year Novogrudek was in danger of German invasion. The Polish authorities fled, knowing they would be overpowered. The Jews there believed the Russians would be more sympathetic rulers than the Germans, and so when Soviet soldiers marched into town on September 17, they were greeted with flowers and hugs.


The afternoon of June 24, 1941, Sonya was the only one at home on Pilsudski Street. As she passed the tall brick chimney in the center of the house, she heard a bomb fall. Then another. She stood frozen while the entire house collapsed in a heavy sigh of dust and boards. After the smoke settled, Sonya stood stunned next to the brick chimney.

The Germans had invaded Novogrudek and turned the Jewish neighborhoods to rubble. The shops in the marketplace, mostly Jewish-owned, were burnt and smashed, as were the Jewish libraries and schools. Of all the synagogues, only a few walls remained. There were 300 casualties, mostly Jewish.


It was bitterly cold six months later, on Saturday, December 6, when 6,500 Jews, half the town’s population, were instructed to assemble at the courthouse yard. The Gorodinskys trudged toward the town center clutching pillows, boxes of photographs, and sacks of clothing. Soldiers locked the gates of the courthouse yard behind them.

For two days, the Jews neither slept nor ate. On December 8, Sonya’s grandparents and little brother were sent to their deaths, while Sonya, her parents, and her remaining siblings were locked into the courthouse compound along with Novogrudek’s remaining 1,500 Jews. It was a makeshift ghetto surrounded by a barbed wire and armed guards.

The people inside were craftsmen saved for their skills. Each morning the ghetto gates would open and tailors, shoemakers, metalworkers, carpenters, saddlers, and mechanics, along with their families, were ushered under gunpoint to their workshops to sew fur linings into boots, manufacture guns, or mend German army uniforms.


On May 7, 1943, there was another roundup in the courthouse square. SS guards swarmed around the exhausted crowd. Among the guards was Zbisheck, Sonya’s former neighbor, who looked her in the eye.

Zbisheck’s family had lived across from the Gorodinkys on Pilsudski Street. Zbisheck and Sonya were playmates for years. Perhaps when Zbisheck saw Sonya in the crowd he was reminded of her bicycle, her summer dresses, the scallions in her garden.

Zbisheck motioned for Sonya to follow him. They entered a room in the courthouse where the skilled workers waited, including her father. Sonya grabbed Zbisheck’s arm and whispered, “You saved my life and I thank you. But please, can you help my sister and my mother too?” Zbisheck answered under his breath that he had already risked his life to save her.

That day the ghetto population was reduced by half. Sonya heard later that her mother linked arms with relatives and her 11-year-old daughter and said “Come, let’s go together to the grave.” Now only an essential 250 workers, along with some children, remained. They began to plot their escape that night.



Sonya Oshman.
CREDIT: Courtesy Lisa Oshman

The original breakout plan had been to storm the ghetto gates on a Sunday night, when the guards notoriously drank and grew lazy. In preparation, some people had bribed hand grenades from guards, others smuggled in guns from peasants outside the ghetto, still others stole iron rods and knives from their workshops. The Jews would throw everything they had and run. The casualty rate would be high, but it would be better than certain death at the hands of their oppressors.

Everyone was ready in their places on the appointed evening. A man near the front gate was poised to throw the first grenade. Sonya, waiting in the bunk, fingered a small gold ring in the pocket of her tattered skirt. A few weeks before her death, her mother had pulled her daughter aside and tugged at her finger. Pressing something small and warm into Sonya’s palm, she said, “Listen my daughter. Have this ring. Maybe you will need it. Maybe you will survive.”

Before the first grenade was thrown, a reinforcement of guards arrived at the main gate, braced for action. The action was called off. Each subsequent night, a reinforcement of guards arrived at dusk, and the Jews eventually abandoned their escape plan. The wife of an injured doctor had leaked word of the plan, not wanting her husband to be left behind and killed. But the younger Jews didn’t want to wait for death. “We saw that everything was finished,” Sonya told me. “What was left was only one person from each family. The young people started to scream, ‘We don’t want to die like our parents died. We’ll run away.’ ” But the older people didn’t want them to run, because the Germans would kill whoever remained in retribution.

Berl Yoselevitch, a carpenter, thought of a tunnel as a compromise. The weak and injured wouldn’t have to run fast or fight. They would hide themselves when everyone else left. The Jews would dig a passage from under a bed located along the northern barracks wall, closest to the outer walls of the ghetto and the woods. The tunnel would drop four and a half feet, then run north under the ghetto to a field next to the forest. They would escape on a moonless July night, when the wheat and grass were uncut and high enough to provide cover as they ran. Once out, they hoped to join the Bielski partisans and seek revenge.

“We wanted to show the world that Jews are not sheep that go to the slaughter,” Sonya remembered. “We decided whoever will make it will make it and whoever would not would not. It was better to die this way than the other way. And maybe someone will survive to tell the world what happened.”

Digging began right away, and details were kept to a select few in order to prevent information leaks. Not everyone was for it. Some Jews feared the tunnel would be impossible to complete before the Germans found out about it. There was one man whom nobody trusted; to ensure that he wouldn’t talk to the Germans, the Jews killed him.

Throughout the summer of 1943, Sonya clawed at the soil underneath the courthouse to escape a place she had, until recently, loved her whole life. Much of the tunnel was dug by children and small men, who could maneuver within its narrow walls.

An electrician named Rakovski diverted a current from the ghetto and strung electric bulbs along the tunnel ceiling. He also figured out how to disconnect the searchlights that surveyed the ghetto grounds, and he did so occasionally, so the Germans would get used to these “shortages” and not suspect anything when one took place on the night of the escape.

The children dug lying down, bellies pressed against the earth. I asked Sonya if she remembered the smell of the earth, how it felt on her cheeks and under her fingernails. “I did not smell or feel a thing,” she replied. “We were anxious to get out as fast as we can because we had death waiting for us. I don’t even know whether I was breathing or not. I didn’t care at all, Mamika. We were full of worries that we forgot about anything else. We just wanted to get out. We wanted our lives.”

In order not to soil their only clothing and arouse suspicion, the children dug naked or wore robes of burlap sacks or old cloth sewn especially for the task. Sonya dug with her brother, Shaul, sometimes with a cousin, and with her new friend, Aaron Oshman, who at 30 was 10 years older than she and had been moved with his brother to the Novogrudek ghetto about a year earlier, when his ghetto in Ivinitz, a small town in White Russia, was liquidated.

Theirs had been a wealthy family before the war; their father owned a hardware business. When Aaron arrived in Novogrudek, he sat in an empty workshop crying for his parents. In a Shoah Testimony video interview, given before his death in 2004, Aaron recalled the first time he saw Sonya. “In walked a beautiful woman. She was 19 years old. She said, ‘Don’t cry, young man, you still have your life.’” Aaron discussed philosophy and Zionism with Sonya. He was articulate and kind. Four feet underground, muddy with damp soil, Sonya and Aaron fell in love.

To remove dirt displaced by the tunnel, the diggers filled sacks of it that they then passed back until it reached the hole under the bed in the ghetto. Half a million pounds of earth were packed into false double walls built in the courthouse barracks.

Soil was hidden in corners where the attic ceiling slanted to meet the floor, and buried under floorboards that were ripped up and then replaced. Ghetto residents smuggled sacks of soil to toilets—holes in the ground—outhouses at the end of the camp. One of the group’s carpenters laid a wooden track along the tunnel floor so they could use a cart to haul the dirt out.

By July 1943, the tunnel was about 240 feet long and near completion. But July was rainy that year, and the soppy earth leaked, muddying the tunnel. The group feared the tunnel would collapse. Determined not to let his plan fail, Berl Yoselevitch stole wood slats from his workshop to reinforce the walls and ceiling. He also organized the digging of small drains and channels in the floor to divert water.

In the meantime, the wheat fields were harvested, leaving a vast area of open ground between the camp and the forest. Rumors floated that the ghetto was to be liquidated further, leaving just 20 people alive. Many of the Jews wanted to leave immediately, but more decided to delay departure and dig 100 feet farther, which would put the tunnel’s exit closer to the forest. They’d leave the digging of the actual exit until the night of the escape.

The first people to go through would be the young, carrying shovels to dig the final distance and guns and hand grenades should they face guards when they surfaced. The older people would wait take up the rear so that if they moved too slowly or fainted they wouldn’t hold everyone else back.

In August, the tunnel was complete. It was 750 feet, and the Jews watched the late summer sky for signs of a storm that would provide cover during an escape. But the nights were clear, and the moonless days passed. While they waited, 11 skilled craftsmen, including Sonya’s father, were transferred to Koldichevo, a camp that ran a weapons factory. Of Sonya’s family of seven, only she and her brother Shaul remained in Novogrudek.

Over the next several weeks the Jews rehearsed their escape to see how long it would take. Two to three hours seemed enough time for 240 people to pass through the tunnel. They submitted names of those they wanted to leave with, and were instructed when to appear at the mouth of the tunnel.


Sunday, September 26, 1943, was a moonless stormy night. Around 8 p.m., Rakovski, the electrician, cut power to the ghetto searchlights and turned on the tunnel lights. Nails in the barracks’ tin roof were loosened, amplifying the sounds of the falling rain in order to mask sounds of escape. The Jews quietly assembled, waiting in the darkness for their turn to lower themselves into the lighted earth. Sonya stood with Aaron and her brothers. Some families tied themselves to one another; others held hands.

One couple had secretly given birth in the ghetto. Before the escape, the mother strangled her child to death—the group could not take the chance that the baby would cry during its escape and alert guards above ground.

Like the Jews fleeing Egypt, the Jews of Novogrudek crawled as quickly as they could through the dirt. Sonya was in the middle. At her hands were people’s feet, at her feet, others’ hands. She felt like a mouse in a line of them, crawling silently. She hypnotized herself with a chant: Sonya, you got to make it, you got to make it. She then changed it to, God, please let me go through. Don’t bury me. Don’t bury me. Don’t bury me. Every movement she made, she was sure that the world would bury her alive.

At the end of the tunnel, it was pouring rain, and the escapees couldn’t see in the new darkness above ground. Seventy of them accidentally ran toward the ghetto and were shot by guards who thought partisans were ambushing them. Among them were two of Sonya’s cousins and Berl Yoselevitch, the tunnel’s mastermind.

When Sonya emerged, she immediately lost Aaron and her brother in the confusion. She heard shots and shouting from the right, and to her left she could just make out a road. “I got into a little ditch and out from the ditch I went through a cornfield where the leaves and the stalks were quite high. During the night I crawled around. During the day I sat in the bushes and waited.” She had no shoes. Her dress was torn. She ate nothing.

Early the morning after the escape, Germans stormed into the barracks to see why no Jews had lined up for the daily roll. By one account, they found an ironically formal letter explaining that Jews were needed elsewhere. In another version, the letter informed the Germans that they were liberating themselves and that they would take revenge. Afraid to enter the tunnel in case bombs or traps had been set up inside, the Germans forced a member of the Judenrat to crawl through. When he arrived safely on the other end, he was hanged. Peasants crowded into the courthouse to gaze at the gaping hole the Jews had left behind.

For two weeks Sonya ran through the forests during the night and tried to rest and hide during the day. She grew so hungry that when she finally saw a little house with a light on at the bottom of a hill, she couldn’t resist trying for help, despite the frightening prospect that her fate depended on the kindness of the person inside.

Through the window she saw an old man at a table, patching clothes. He looked like pictures she’d seen of St. Nicholas, with white hair and beard. Sonya knocked on the window and when he came to the door he simply said, “I know who you are. I want to help you.”

The Novogrudek escape had been on the radio, and the Nazis announced that anyone who turned in a Jew would receive several pounds of sugar. But the man offered Sonya his cellar, about 10 feet from the house, where he stored potatoes. Sonya buried herself there, thinking about a future without her family and friends.

During the day, she didn’t move. Late each night the old man would bring her bread, a little milk, a cooked potato, whatever he had. After six weeks, he came with only a small bit of bread. He had nothing left for either of them to eat. Sonya looked at the ring her mother had given her and said, “Please take this. Sell it for food.” The man refused. The whole town knew he was poor. If he came to them with a gold ring, they would know he was hiding a Jew.

Nearby, at the edge of the forest, there was a house where people often came and went by horse in the middle of the night. He had heard that these were the Bielskis, and he offered to cover Sonya with straw in the back of his wagon and take her to that house. Sonya agreed. There she found her brother Shaul, some surviving relatives, and friends from neighboring ghettos. She also found Aaron, whom she asked to marry her.

In the Bielski group, everyone had a job to perform. While Sonya’s relatives made fur hats and boots, Sonya stood look-out on a hill. One morning about two weeks after she arrived, Sonya saw a group of men walking toward her. From their skeletal frames, she could tell that they were escapees hoping for refuge. They told her they had recently fled Koldichevo, the camp where her father had been held. Sonya asked about him. “He had escaped with us,” they told her. “He’s probably on his way to see you now.”

Sonya stood guard for two days and nights, forgoing sleep, watching for a familiar figure. Finally, on the third day, a man approached. He was smaller than her father, but, she thought, perhaps he’d shrunk under hardship. She sobbed waiting for him to reach her, to see the crinkle in his eyes, to hear him call her Sonyaleh.

When the man was near enough, Sonya saw that it was not her father.

“Why are you crying, child?”

“I am waiting for my father, Abraham Gorodinsky, from Koldichevo.”

“Stop crying, my child,” he said. “Your father is never coming.”

The man had been a doctor at Koldichevo, while her father had worked fixing watches and appliances. Each night, the Germans appointed a different inmate to guard their jewels. When it came for Abraham’s turn, he knew he was too tired to stay awake and hired a friend to take his turn rather than risk falling asleep on the job and being killed for it.

But his friend was exhausted too and fell asleep in the barracks before even taking up the post. When a guard came to check that a watchman was there, he discovered an empty chair. The next day, the Germans made all the inmates gather around as they beat Abraham so badly that his body lost its shape. “However,” said the doctor, “your father yelled to the soldiers when the beating began, saying, ‘You will kill me today, but I have a son and a daughter and they will survive and tell what happened here.’ ”

When they heard that the war had ended, the remaining Jews of Novogrudek marched back to their hometown. They found nothing but painful memories. With other refugees, Aaron and Sonya walked across Europe to a displaced persons camp in Italy. They hoped it would be a stopping point on the way to Israel, but Sonya got sick and needed penicillin, which was available then only in the United States. The couple married and departed for Brooklyn shortly after the birth of their first son.

Aaron died six years ago, after 56 years of marriage. Sonya has two sons, both lawyers, and four grandchildren. She travels to schools, synagogues, community centers to share her story. “My name is Sonya Oshman,” she says, “and I wish to speak of my father.

From 30,000 Jews [in the region], perhaps only 150 survived, and from the Gorodinsky family, I am now the only living member. My brother who escaped with me died five years ago. He was a major in the Israeli army. But I want to keep my father’s promise, so I am standing here tonight and filling out the last wish of my dad. I am telling you a little fragment of my story. In this way, I hope my father’s life will be one of the lives remembered.”

Meanwhile Novogrudek’s Jewish graveyard is overgrown, its headstones mostly missing; peasants have scavenged the granite slabs to line their basements and the walls of cisterns. Once home to 6,500 Jews, Novogrudek now has one.

Gila Lyons has written for the Forward, the New York Press, and the Berkshire Review. She is a staff writer at the health site Go Ask Alice and a correspondent for The Faster Times, and she is working toward an MFA in nonfiction creative writing at Columbia University.

Resistance In The Holocaust

by Clinton and James Patterson

Partisans from the Kovno Ghetto in the Rudniki Forest of Lithuania.

        It all started because of Germany’s defeat in World War I. The allies forced the Germans to pay unfair war damages. Inflation made money almost worthless. People became desperate. Adolf Hitler gained favor with the German people by telling them of a glorified image of Germany and he gave them an excuse for loosing the war.

He told them that the Jews stabbed Germany in the back. He said they were genetically inferior, and that they were the all-time enemy of the German people. Not everyone agreed with Hitler’s outrageous ideas, but many hoped he would solve Germany’s financial problems, and return them to their former glory.

The Holocaust took place in World War II. It was an effort by Adolph Hitler to utterly destroy the Jewish people. Six million Jews were killed in World War II, half of that six million were children and teenagers. If you had a distantly related Jewish family member, you were considered a Jew, and therefore you must be killed. This report is about resistance in the Holocaust. It’s about who resisted, and how some made it out alive.

Members of the Bielski Atriad at the family camp
in Naliboki Forest in Byelorussia

The Holocaust is not very pleasant to talk about. The Nazis put the Jews in concentration camps and ghettos, and killed them in cruel ways. They led them to believe that they would be all right; they gave false hope to them right up to their deaths, which was either in the gas chamber or by the firing squad.

The gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms, so that people would think all they were getting a shower. Even though the Nazis and their calibrators killed millions, nonetheless, some people did resist. They resisted in three different ways, armed, unarmed, and spiritual. Armed resistance was fighting the Nazis with weapons. Spiritual resistance was not letting the Nazis break you and your religious beliefs.

Resistance occurred wherever Nazis imposed their rule. In cities, ghettoes, and camps, people risked all they had to resist. Not all the people who resisted were Jewish, some were French, Polish, British, American, Soviet, and even a handful of Germans. Resistors sabotaged supply trains, planned escapes for Jews, and gave other resistors supplies. Resistance fighters were called Partisans. They fought together against Nazi oppression.

A train that was sabotaged by French resistance fighters.

Some of the resisters were teenagers.

One group, called the White Rose, was from the University of Munich, they secretly published, and distributed leaflets denouncing the Nazis, and recommended that Germans sabotage Nazi plans. They were the only organized group of Germans who resisted the Nazis.

Many Jews were put into ghettos. Ghettos were sections of a city that was walled and sealed up. Jews could not escape and usually died of disease, starvation, and shootings by the Germans. Most resistance in the ghettos was unarmed resistance because weapons were hard to come by.

Resistance fighters in ghetto revolt

For example, in September of 1942, by the time the first wave of deportations and deaths in the Warsaw Ghetto had stopped, hundreds and thousands of Jews were already dead, and only 60,000 remained in ghetto.

Underground groups such as ZOB thought the end was near. They collected as many weapons as they could. Weapons were expensive and were often bought from members of the Polish underground. Sometimes weapons were stolen.

When a second wave of deportation came and the Nazis rounded up some 5,000 Jews, the remaining Jewish resisters started throwing homemade bombs. The Germans made a strong response and many Jews were killed because they hadn’t enough weapons to fight with.

Vladka Meed

One person in the resistance was Vladka Meed, she convinced non-Jews that she was not Jewish. Using false identification papers she smuggled weapons across the Warsaw Ghetto walls. She also smuggled people out of the ghetto and found places for them to hide.


Vladka Meed’s false identification papers

Another example of Jewish resistance was a teenager named Rosa Robota. She arrived at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in 1944. She helped plan a revolt in the camp.

Rosa had the woman who worked in the munitions factory carry explosive powder out of the factory by scraping it under their fingernails. They gave the powder to a Russian prisoner named Borodin to construct a bomb.

The Germans found out about their plans. The people got scared and set off the bombs that were hidden in the crematoriums. One of the crematoriums was blown up, during the commotion six hundred people escaped, but all were recaptured or killed. Rosa and three other young women were publicly hanged.

Roza Roberta.

Frank Blakhmen was sixteen years old during World War II. He came from Kamlanka, Poland. He escaped before the Germans took the Jews into camps. He and twelve Jewish men dressed as Polish officers and got weapons from a farmer named Lemenchek. They got a total of six guns . They captured calibrators and used the information they got to blow up railroads and bridges to disrupt the German lines of communication.


Frank Blakhmen

After the war, for most Jews who had been liberated from the death camps, it was difficult for them to talk about their experiences. In fact, most Jews would not speak out until years later.

Most could not understand how there could be a God, when he allowed so many to be killed. When asked if she thought the Holocaust could happen again, Leah Harmerstein responded, "Yes, it’s possible. You see, Nazism killed not only people, it killed moral principles. Before you can kill people, you first have to kill moral principles. Then it’s possible."


This whole report was based upon this book


Vladka Meed, whose given name was Feigele Peltel, was a member of the Jewish underground in the Warsaw ghetto from its first days.

The daughter of Shlomo and Hanna Peltel, she was born on December 29, 1921 in Warsaw, where she became active in the Zukunft, the youth organization of the S.C., a strong Jewish socialist-democratic party, founded in 1897. The organization was opposed to Zionism and advocated Yiddish language and culture and secular Jewish nationalism in the Diaspora.

The title of Meed’s book, On Both Sides of the Wall, refers to how she served in the resistance by passing as a Christian outside the Warsaw ghetto. Meed was a teenager living in Warsaw when the German invasion of Poland began.

She had graduated from the Yiddish Folkshul, a secular school where all subjects were taught in Yiddish, with Polish taught only as a second language. However, she had picked up fluent Polish from her younger sister Henia, who had gone to a Polish public school.

She took the name Vladka when she was assigned outside the ghetto, on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. Because of her typically “Aryan” appearance, fluency in Polish, and resourcefulness, she was a successful underground courier.

She not only smuggled weapons across the wall to the Jewish Fighting Organization, theZOB, established in Warsaw on July 28, 1942, but also helped Jewish children to escape from the ghetto to be sheltered in Christian homes. In addition, she assisted Jews who were in hiding in the city, and established contact with those still surviving in the labor camps and with the partisans in the forest. Her father died of pneumonia in the ghetto, and her mother, sister, and younger brother Chaim were deported to Treblinka and murdered there.

Meed’s book begins with the deportations in Warsaw on July 22, 1942, and the original version ended with the Warsaw Polish Uprising in August 1944 (with a short section on her return to Warsaw after the city’s liberation by the Soviet Army in January 1945). The 1993 English edition, reprinted in 1999 and published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has an epilogue, “33 Years Later,” which also recounts Meed’s first return visit to Poland, together with her husband.

Meed’s account, which was written soon after the end of World War II, has detailed recollections of people and events that give her book a feeling of immediacy. First published in Yiddish by the Educational Committee of the Workmen’s Circle in New York in 1948, the book was based on twenty-seven articles she had written in Yiddish in 1946–1947 for The Forward. Since then, Meed’s book has also been published in English, Hebrew, Spanish, Japanese, and German. The first English edition was issued by Beit Lohamei ha-Getta’ot (Ghetto Fighters’ House) and Ha-kibbutz ha-Me’uhad Publishers in Israel in 1972.

Vladka Meed met Czeslaw (Benjamin) Miedzyrzecka, later known as Ben Meed (b. February 19, 1918 in Warsaw), in the underground in Warsaw. They married soon after the end of World War II, and arrived in New York City on May 24, 1946 on the second ship bringing survivors from Europe. Soon afterward, leaders of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) and the International Rescue Committee sent her to lecture about her experiences. Her daughter, now Dr. Anna Scherzer, was born in 1948, and her son, Dr. Steven Meed, in 1951.

Meed continued to lecture on the Holocaust, and, together with her husband, was extremely active in Holocaust education and memorialization. As vice president of the JLC, she for many years ran the Yiddish Cultural and Welfare Department and was responsible for a filmstrip and an exhibit on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. For about ten years she was the JLC’s Yiddish-language commentator on a weekly program on WEVD, the Yiddish radio station in New York.

Meed was also a leader of an effort to create a Holocaust memorial in Battery Park in lower Manhattan in the 1960s. Although the project was ultimately unsuccessful, she was instrumental in having the renowned architect Louis Kahn design a memorial sculpture for the site. She was the chairperson of cultural events for the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, held in Jerusalem in 1981, as well as the group’s second meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1983.

Writer Vladka Meed, 1963. (L to R): Hannah Frishoff, Marek Edelman, Vladka Meed.

In 1985 she initiated and for many years directed the annual American Teachers’ Seminars on the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance, which take place in Poland and Israel. She was also the coordinator of the biennial Alumni Teachers Conferences, co-sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Meed’s many honors include the 1973 award of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization (WAGRO), the 1989 Morim(Teachers) Award of the Jewish Teachers’ Association, the 1993 Hadassah Henrietta Szold Award, and the 1995 Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award. She received a Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa from Hebrew Union College in 1998, as well as a similar degree from Bar Ilan University in Israel.

  • 1921

Josef Baldo

Josef Baldo, formerly a Bielski partisan, poses with his young son.  Foehrenwald, Germany, ca. 1945.

Mass Grave

Members of the Bielski partisan group at the site of a mass grave shortly after liberation.  Poland, 1945.


  • 1945

Mordechai Schlein

Motele’s story is the stuff of legend. Gildenman’s fighters discovered him one day, sleeping in the woods. The 12-year-old son of a miller from the village of Karsnovka, Mordechai Schlein had fled to the forest after his parents and younger sister were killed in an aktion.

After joining the Jewish outfit — one of several detachments within a 1,500-strong Soviet partisan brigade — Schlein was selected by Gildenman to travel with several other partisans into the village of Ovruch on August 20, 1943, according to Gildenman’s memoirs.

Armed with false papers in case he was questioned, Schlein was instructed to join a crowd of beggars in front of the church and to play Ukrainian folk tunes on his violin. His mission was merely to keep an eye out for his fellow partisans and alert his commanders if anything happened to them.

But the boy had talent. Soon a crowd gathered to hear the melodies he remembered from his neighbors back home. Among the spectators was a German officer, who plucked him from his spot and took him to a restaurant favored by the occupiers. He was told to perform with an elderly piano player, who spread out sheet music for Paderewski’s Minuet, a popular but difficult piece written by the Polish composer. Schlein played so well that he was offered a job to perform there every day.

One day, he noticed large cracks in one of the restaurant’s storage rooms, and he hatched a plan to place explosives in the fissures. Since it was now harvest time, and there was frequent traffic between village and countryside, Schlein was able to sneak into the woods and, using his violin case, gradually transport 18 kilograms of incendiary material into the building, shoving the explosives into the cellar walls during breaks in his playing schedule.

Then he waited for the opportune moment to strike. It came when members of an SS division visited on their way to the front. After playing deep into the evening with his accompanist, Schlein adjourned to the basement as the drunken Germans took over the piano.

“In the dark he found the end of the bomb wick and ignited it,” Gildenman wrote. “When he came to the exit, he slowed down and approached the German guard and allowed himself a joke. He held up his right arm and called out, ‘Heil Hitler!’” Schlein was 200 yards away when the bombs detonated, killing an unknown number of Germans. Upon reaching his fellow partisans, Schlein raised a clenched fist to the sky and said, “This is for my parents and little Bashiale.”

Schlein would not survive the war. He was just 14 when he was killed during a German bombardment in 1944.

  • 1944


Robert Bielski, Tuvia’s son, recalled that his father was a man of few words and strong principle:

“He was proud, and he never talked about himself as a hero but always about the responsibility that we should all feel to the Jewish people. He was the calmest man, but he had a rare temper. If he was on the verge of losing it, you knew—abandon ship!”

Assaela Bielski, Asael’s daughter, who never got to meet her father, had come from Israel, where she works as a journalist. “The strange thing is that my mother had such beautiful memories of their time in the forest, maybe because that was the only time they were together,” she said.

“They had grown up right there. My mother’s stories were always funny, romantic—about how young and beautiful everyone was. And it would always be funny—they would laugh endlessly, say, when a German airplane dropped a bomb in the wrong place. Is that tragic or funny? I don’t know.”


Zvi Bielski, Zus’s son, has a lot of memories.

“My father was a very, very aggressive person, but he never hit me,” he said. He described walking in Central Park once with his father, then in his sixties, and coming upon a mounted police officer whose horse was acting up. “My father just approached the horse, which was bucking wildly—the cop was embarrassed—and my dad just calmed it down. That’s how gentle he was.”

He went on, “My dad came to visit me in Israel when I was in the Army. First he told me not to go—but when he came to visit he was so proud. He took the gun out of my hands, handled it like a pair of sneakers. ‘Never have your gun on safety,’ he told me.

He was a great father, but he was hard to impress. I used to skydive, and once I had a videotape made—a cameraman jumped out with me. I couldn’t wait to get to Brooklyn to show it to Dad! So I showed him the tape. Nothing, no expression. So, finally, I say, ‘Pop, did you see that shit!’ He looked at me: ‘So? You had a parachute, didn’t you?’


"They survived by killing Nazis," said Zvi Bielski, who would say only he's in his 50s. "They took their heads off and put them on trees so when others came to the forest they would know that the partisans were waiting for them. They killed to save Jewish people." As they eliminated the Nazis searching for them, they collected their weapons and explosives.

The Bielski Brigade also let it be known that they wouldn't tolerate those who turned in their Jewish brothers to the German occupiers. On a couple of occasions, they went to Polish homes, killed the families and burned their houses down. Nothing was taken, Zvi Bielski said, "but it left a sign that if you turn in a Jew, this is what will happen to you."


"He was the commander and most famous," he said. Tuvia Bielski declared they would save every single Jew they could find: "the sick, the old, the young, the rabbi — everybody. It didn't make a difference. That was the goal."

It was in the forest that Zus met his future wife, Sonja, who was 17 then. Zus Bielski wanted her to sleep with him, but she negotiated for him to save her parents first from a ghetto. He did and lived to be 83.


 Bielski asked his mother, now 89 and in failing health, for something special to share with the audience.

She thought for a time then said, "Tell them I was a very, very, very pretty girl."


Food was scare for those hiding in the woods, but the partisans eventually built communal kitchens, living quarters, a school and synagogues — even a bakery. The brothers also met and befriended members of the Russian army.

The Russians loved the Bielskis, Bielski said, for reasons other than that they were both fighting a common enemy. "One, they were tall, big, strong guys that walked around with machine guns and they knew the area," he said. "Two, they could drink more vodka than them. Third, they had more girlfriends." Before his death, Zus Bielski told his son he had only one regret.

"I wish I could have saved more," he said.

Tuvia Bielski's grandson, Brendon Rennert, 41, lives in Tampa and serves on the board of directors for the Florida Holocaust Museum. "I've heard lots of stories all my life from people that the brothers saved," he said. 


Raphael Cohen, 70, lives in Indian Rocks Beach, along with his mother-in-law, Mini Friedman. She's 95 and a concentration camp survivor. He said the Bielski brothers did what no one else could. "They had the courage to establish a small army to save their own," he said.

Brian Rocklin, 74, of Palm Harbor said the presentation was inspirational.

"It reminds us how precious the freedom we have in America is," he said. "We have to have the strength and resolve to protect that freedom."f another monument to the Jewish uprising, with many Jewish visitors and foreigng(CLICK TO ENLARGE




















Dear Cousin Tamara, 
               My brother and I spoke one day while we were in the forest, with about 100 jews saved.  He said “ We cant save these people. How many mouths can we feed? Where can we get this food, find areas for all these people to sleep? We can’t do this Tuvia! Its impossible.”  From that moment on I tried to stop taking more jews into our camp, but these jews were family and friends. I could not refuse.
        I wasn’t just saving these people so I could be known for doing great deeds. I just wanted these humans to be free from the ends of a riffle. I told these people that if they chose to be in the forest, they'd live free, like human beings should.  And if you decide to live with my family then you must fight. And if we die,  at least we die trying to live. We stand together as humans not animals nor slaves.  It was my duty to save these people from the corrupt world outside the forest.  And if these people didn’t like my rules they could leave and I could still save many others. 
        I had to make these people believe that they could survive by getting food from nearby farms, killing animals, stealing medicine and ammunition from German soldiers. Living like savages is better than living under German control.  I hope I could provide shelter and enough food for these jews to live.  It will be hard but I must do it or we will all perish like my family of jews in the ghetto.

Wishing you love, Tuvia
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Danielle Hancock.....Journal
 When my brothers and I heard that the regional Soviet partisan commander, General Platon, was coming for a visit, the people set to work to clean and beautify the camp in the Naliboki Forset,the  Platon arrived at our camp on 31 December 1943, with an entourage of forty people, mostly from the Kutuzov group , who acted as his personal guards. They were from Russia and their modern equipment was the envy of the entire camp.

While Platon came to our command hut, the rest of his entourage toured the camp. We treated the guest to a meal with the best of our products: sausages, pickled meats, stuffed cabbages and of course schnapps (vodka). 
             We first entered the large light-industries building. Matitiyahu Kabak, a lawyer, called the group to attention. Platon made some conciliatory remarks and told the people to get back to work. We moved from group to group, and the General was astonished at the industriousness and dedication of the workers. Esther Goroditzskaya, from Stolavitzi, was responsible for the twelve women and two sewing machines that continually hummed. Platon shook her hand and asked about the conditions, the way of life and the food. He did this with every workshop leader.
             They all praised me, the commander. The hat makers sat close by, and Platon spoke with Leibovitch, the foreman. He spent some time with the saddle makers and told the foreman that every saddle made in the camp was like ambushing the enemy. The shoemaker's workshop employed twenty-two people, and he saw a number of rifles hanging on the walls. Kolchak, the foreman of the shoemakers, described how the shoemakers kept their weapons close to hand twenty-four hours a day. There were four hairdressers workingm, and Platon invited the chief hairdresser to make a working visit to his headquarters. With this he finished meeting with the first group of workshops. 
Platon started the second round of visits with the tailors. Shmuel Kagan from Novogrudek headed a group of eighteen tailors. Platon was surprised at the quality of the goods. He was even more surprised when he met the watchmakers. They were working on many watches. Pinchuk, the foreman, explained that they did work for many people in the region. This concluded our visit to the workshops.
             Then we went over to meet with the three people in the metal workshop. Oppenheim the foreman was also a watchmaker, who had been wounded during the German attack on the Zavilovo forest. He had been on guard duty at the time and was seriously wounded. There were many weapons under repair, from rifles to machine guns, and submachine guns and they were assembling new weapons from spare parts.
             Then we went to the carpentry workshop where Netta Huberman from Mir was in charge. Here we manufactured the stocks for the rifles and submachine guns, and windows and doorframes and other articles. Outside the workshops there was a large wooden tank that served as our tannery. We had six such tanning tanks. Mordecai Berkowitz was in charge of the four blacksmiths and we prepared the charcoal ourselves. We simply burnt trees in the forest. Even the bakery supplied us with large quantities of charcoal. 
             At the time of our visit, Bashitz the blacksmith was busy manufacturing the upper parts of rifle breeches, very delicate work indeed. This made an impression on Platon and he asked for more information about the work. 
 Then Platon interjected: "Many breeches Comrade, to attack the German fascists!"
We stopped next to the empty jailhouse, and the visitor wanted to know if there was anything else to see in the camp. 
"No", I told him, "these are the flowers. The fruit is still to come."
             I took him to see the tannery, where Orkovitz from Baranovitch was in charge. His assistant was Muksay, and they worked with a dozen people. There were six wooden tanks full of hides. With the final product we produced soles and other leather goods. Platon was amazed at the ingenuity - and all within the confines of the forest.
Then we moved to the bakery where the ovens were full of bread. Mordecai Gershovitz from Lida, a noted baker, was in charge, but Platon was even more surprised when he saw our sausage factory. So I said to him, "Visit us often and we will be glad to share our bounty with you."
             From there I took our guest to show him our food stores, where we had a three-day supply of bread, meat, and two kilograms of rusks per person. Small bags of dried produce were hanging on the walls. The guest sampled several of the products.
             Then we moved on to the soap-making workshop, and he requested that we send soap to his headquarters. From there we went to the slaughterhouse. There were two ritual slaughterers, Rabbi David Brook from Novogrudok and an old man from Varnuva. They had prepared the knives and they deemed them completely kosher.
We moved to the flourmill and met with the miller Reznick. Finally, the last stop - where we witnessed the production of resins from the barks of the fir trees for use in the tannery. Shmuel Mikolitzky from Novogrudok was the expert in charge of the process. 
"Is it possible that you are making vodka here?" Platon asked.
             Then we moved on to the hospital, where we met with Dr. Hirsch, who complained to Platon about the difficult conditions and the lack of medical supplies. Platon promised that with the next supply aircraft he would send them parachute silk and more medical supplies. There were two other doctors with us at the time, Dr. Lepkovitz and a woman, but I cannot remember her name; there were also twenty nurses.
             Then we returned to our staff hut where Platon spoke for half an hour, promising help, and praising us. He then requested that I ride with him to visit Sokolov. He also insisted on seconding me to his staff, to stop all further interference and improve relations amongst the groups.
Bielski Journal

  • October, 1942

Diary Entry: Aron

"Organize as many friends and acquaintances as possible. Send them to us in the woods. We will be waiting for you." - Tuvia Bielski

Diary Entry: Aron. Asael, Zus, and I hid in the forest while Aron witnessed our family being murdered. We found him hiding in our concealed basement. Emotional pain is eating him alive. He cries for days, unable to prosper, in a terrible state of depression. We needed him to work in order for our camp to function, but after what he’s gone through it is too much to ask. Avenging our parents, I seek out the murderers. I killed all that fit his description. It lifted his spirit enough to the point where he could work.

Aron Bielski, saddest of all of us. He has hungry, but can’t eat. This hardship’s definitely struck him the hardest. It saddens me. He sits alone, drawing, writing, working. Anything he can do to pass time, pushing bad memories to the back of his head, as far as he can. He makes creative poems and drawings, always perfecting his skills.

 It is Aron who brings life to our community. He finds other survivors and introduces them to our district. Though taking in more Jews will make surviving that much harder, I cannot stand to refuse. Most of them are family and friends and denying them safety would be unbearable. 

Max Jurand. Diary Entry: Struggles. The stresses of running the camp are overwhelming. Shelter. Food. Medicine. Safety. Weaponry. Everyday a new problem arises, and everyday I have to remind myself that God will help us. He will pull through.

It was today that I found out our camp had typhus. A major problem. A contagious disease; not only would it spread around our camp, but to the near by army fighting off Germans. We would have to risk our lives and steal from  Nazi units.    My subtle cough soon became heavy, as I realized I had typhus. I could no longer participate in the taking of medicine and the difficulty of this task became harder. 

I left the responsibility on Zus. With experience in the army, I felt comfortable that him and his men would easily complete the task. I later found out that my expectations were rather high, when only he came back, wounded and out of breath. God was shining a light on our survival. My brother was alive and the medicine was intact. It was because everyone maintained their faith in God, that good fortune came. Our hopes for survival were up and we took each problem one step at a time.
   Max Jurand.   

A post-war portrait of two female Bielski Partisans Who Carried Weapons During the War

Max Cukier

Max Cukier was born into a Hassidic family in Ryki, Poland, on January 23, 1918.

Growing up as a pacifist, Max never imagined he would carry a machine gun, but his views began to change with the outbreak of the war. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Max fled to Soviet occupied territory, eventually ending up in Belarus. For the next two years he lived as a Polish refugee, persecuted by the Soviet government as a non-citizen. When the Nazis began their attack against Russia in 1941, Max went into hiding, traveling from village to village in search of food and shelter.

Early in 1942 Max saw that hiding in villages was becoming too dangerous, and he took to the woods. In the forest, he made contact with other Jewish refugees, as well as some escaped Russian POWs. Eventually he joined the famous Bielski Brigade, a combination partisan unit and family camp.

Taking the initiative, Max began to organize small units and lead missions himself, bombing bridges and masterminding a daring attack on a German bunker using an abandoned Soviet tank. During this time Max met and married his wife, and she began to accompany him on missions, becoming his lookout.

After liberation, Max first joined the Red Army and then defected from the USSR, escaping into Italy. In Italy he became involved with several Zionist organizations, even becoming an acquaintance of Golda Meir, Israel's future prime minister. He traveled to Israel and in 1948 came to the U.S. under the auspices of the Zionist Cultural Congress.

Over time, Max disengaged from the Zionist movement and began to focus on building a new life as a civilian, starting an importing business and raising his three children. Today, Max lives in Los Angeles. He has three children and three grandchildren. 

Max passed away January 17, 2011.

  • January 23, 1918~January 17, 2011

Mira Shelub

Mira Shelub was born Mira Raznov on January 13, 1922, in Zdzieciol, \Poland, to Chaim and Chana Raznov. She had one sister, Sara, and one brother, Moris. Mira’s father owned a clothing store and was also an insurance broker for a company that he owned. Her mother helped her father with his businesses.

Mira went to a Jewish school and later went on scholarship to a Gymnasium (European secondary school that prepares students for the university) in Vilna. Following the Nazi-Soviet NonAggression Pact of 1939, Vilna became part of Lithuania, and Mira was forced to change schools and learn Russian.

When Germany attacked the area, Mira returned home to be with her family. In 1941, when Germans occupied Zdzieciol, life changed once again for Mira and her family.  First forced to wear Yellow Stars of David on their clothing, Jews were then ordered into the Zdzieciol ghetto where life was incredibly difficult. During a deportation in the ghetto, Mira and Sara separated from their parents and brother, and feared they would never see their family again.

The sisters later tried to escape to the forest but were caught by sympathetic police who, instead of deporting them, sent them to Dworzec, a nearby ghetto. There, the girls were miraculously reunited with their parents and brother who had also managed to escape deportation.  

In 1942, the family escaped to the Lipiczany Forest, located outside of the ghetto, where they joined a partisan resistance group made up of both Jews and Soviets. The group engaged in acts of sabotage, including taking supplies from German peasants and attacking  Nazi resources and lines of communication.

Mira met her future husband, Norman Shelub, who was the leader of the resistance group. They quickly became close and made a promise to each other to be together forever. One day, the local police attacked the area where the family was staying and Mira’s mother was killed.   

Mira Shelub traveling after the war.

In 1944, the Soviets  liberated the area where Mira, Norman, and Mira’s family were. Her father was ill and died shortly after liberation.  Mira and Norman went to a displaced persons’ camp in Bad Gastein, Austria. After the war, they immigrated to the  United States while Mira’s brother and sister remained in Europe.  The couple lived in New Rochelle, New York, for a couple of months before settling in San Francisco near some of Norman’s family.   

Mira Shelub with her husband Norman, after the war.

Mira Shelub's husband Norman, holding their son, Irwin.

Mira and Norman had three children: Irwin, Mark, and Elaine. Norman owned a restaurant in San Francisco which Mira helped him run. In 1977, Norman died from complications after heart surgery. Afterward, Mira’s children convinced her to go back to school, and in 1988, she earned her bachelor’s degree. She went on to earn her master’s degree in counseling from San Francisco State University in 1994.

She then worked for the Jewish Family and Children’s Service counseling Russian immigrants. At the time of Mira’s interview in 1996, she had two grandchildren: Nathan and Aaron.  


Mira Shelub's husband, Norman, after the war. Norman was the commanding officer of Mira's partisan group, where they met and fell in love.

  • January 13, 1922

Norman Shelub

Norman Shelub (second from right in front row) as a partisan fighter.

Mira and Norman Shelub in Bad Gastein, Austria, in 1945

Mira and Norman Shelub (left) with Mira's sister, Sarah, and Moris Rosnow in 1947 in Bad Gastein, Austria.




A Descendant of the Bielski Partisans Salutes His Grandfather

As the final credits of the film “Defiance” rolled, Houstonian David Bach’s eyes filled up with tears. The credits informed audiences that the Bielski brothers saved the lives of more than 1200 Jews in the swampy forests of Belarus during the Holocaust. Today, their descendents number over 10,000. Bach was crying because he is one of those descendents.

“My mother’s mother lived with the Bielskis and my mother’s father fought with them.  Remember the scene in the film where the partisans were laying the bomb on the railroad tracks? My grandfather did that,” said Bach.

“Defiance” tells the true story of the Bielski brothers who fled to the nearby forests when the Nazis overran Byelorussia. Instead of operating solely as a partisan fighting unit, Tuvia Bielski (played by Daniel Craig in the film) decides to save as many of the local Jews as possible from Nazi massacre. The Bielskis were able to convince a number of resident of the nearby ghetto to escape to their encampment in the woods. Surviving the weather, disease, dissention and a German attack, the Bielski refugees lived in the forests for two years and survived the war.

“As my mother told the story,” said Bach, “my grandfather, Joseph Abramowicz, was born in Korelich. That was White Russia in 1920. His mother died when he was in grade school. His formal education stopped in third grade when, on the way to school, older bullies took pork and smeared it all over his face. He never went back to school.”

Abramowicz worked with his father as a carpenter and glazier. They lived on a farm as tenant farmers. When the Nazi Army invaded in 1941, the Germans murdered about 10,000 Jews from the region. They forcibly moved the remainder to Novogrudok, which was made into a ghetto. This was the town portrayed in the film.

“My grandfather was assigned to a work detail in the ghetto. One day he got sick and couldn’t go to work. A Jewish policeman excused his from work and he went back to his barracks, located in an old police barracks. He was trying to get comfortable on the wooden bunk and he kicked the wall. He heard a hollow sound. Being a carpenter, he realized the wall concealed a space. He investigated the space behind the wall and found an old rusted rifle, probably was a Mauser. As soon as he saw the rifle, he knew that was his ticket out of the ghetto.”

Abramowicz moved the rifle to another hiding place. When he learned there was an older woman in the ghetto with a son in the partisans, he shadowed her constantly. He told the woman he wanted to escape. At first, she denied plans to join her son. But Abramowicz persisted. The woman relented. On the date they were to escape, Abramowicz took the rifle out of its hiding spot. He placed the rifle in the leg of his pants so the muzzle went into his boot. The barrel fit in his armpit, under an overcoat, which he tied with a belt so it wouldn’t open.

“He’s waiting with the woman and the son arrives. He wanted to know who my grandfather was. My grandfather showed the partisan his gun. The partisan told him he could come, but he would have to take care of himself over of the three-day walk to the forest.

On the third night, they reached the Bielski camp.  There my grandfather met his older brother, Chaim. When Tuvia Bielski came up to them, he showed Tuvia the gun. Tuvia said he could stay. He was about 19 years old at the time. He stayed with the Bielskis for the rest of the war. While he was with the partisans, his father, sister and his sister’s family were all killed by the Nazis.”

Abramowicz was given responsibility for obtaining food and supplies from the local peasants. His other job was to lay explosives on the railroad tracks.

“The Bielskis got mines from the Russian partisans. My grandfather would dig underneath the tracks between the ties and place the mines. These were contact mines. Because of his know-how of building things, he was assigned to assemble and lay the mines. He never told us how many mines he laid because he felt bad that he caused death. Those of my grandfather’s generation didn’t like to speak about the bad things they had to do. I really don’t have a grasp of his understanding of things at the time. He concentrated on the moment--or at least that’s my inference because getting him to share his experiences was hard to do.”

In contrast to his grandfather, Bach’s grandmother was born and raised in Novogrudok.  Her family owned a kosher meat business. They were prosperous. After the German invasion, she hid for a while with some righteous gentiles. The Nazis then threatened to kill not only any hidden Jews but also the families who hid them. That’s when Bach’s grandmother left where she was hiding and went straight to the Bielskis.

“After the war, the survivors formed the Korelich Society,” said Bach. “It was like a religious fraternity of the people who went through the war years together. They held reunions for years even after many of them came to the U.S. Prior to the film, the Korelich society published a Yiddish book that listed all of the Jewish residents including those who died and those who were with the Bielski partisans.

“Tuvia Bielski and his wife came to my uncle’s bar mitzvah in the mid-60’s. For Tuvia’s 60th birthday, the society organized a big party for him at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.  My grandfather kept the invitation which we still have.”

Bach said the Holocaust played a big part in his life, especially knowing his grandfather’s role in the Bielski partisans. He found the film “close to accurate” to the stories he heard growing up.

“I did my best to watch the film not as a part of my legacy but as a move spectator,” said Bach. “I didn’t want to feel an emotional tie that might have made it difficult to watch. It is one of the better Holocaust films. As the final credits came up on the screen, my wife learned over to me and said, ‘That’s you and your sister and your mom’. 

“The Bielski brothers were the start. The effort of the partisans and the heroism of my grandfather is what got me here.”

Genesis of a Female Partisan

While the Bielski partisans were expanding their base, Lola Hudes was planning her escape from the nearby Stolpce ghetto.

Lola had come a long way to Byelorussia from her comfortable life in Lodz, Poland. Her father and oldest brother were importers. Another brother was a journalist and the third a student. One sister taught Polish and the other was a mother of three children.

Lola’s plans to attend university in France came to an abrupt halt when the Germans arrived in September 1939, renaming the German-speaking city Litzmannstadt. She soon fled east. Her fluency in German and Polish were instrumental during her journey on German military transport trains and later on foot into the Russian-occupied city of Stolpce in Byelorussia.

Safe for a short while, Lola was thrust back into the war by Operation Barbarossa. Stolpce soon became a German-occupied ghetto, and she was selected to work directly for the kommandant, thereby avoiding the massacre pits. Her language skills, including Russian, made her valuable as a translator and typist. Although working for the kommandant gave Lola some privileges and access to many areas forbidden to others, she understood that neither her duties nor the trust of the kommandant could earn her a pass from an eventual spot in a mass grave. Returning under guard every evening after her work at headquarters to a diminishing population in the ghetto convinced Lola that her luck would soon run out. She had only one option left.

“As I was planning my escape, Jakob and his brother Raffi [two young Jewish men] stopped by,” Lola recalled in her memoir One Came Back.

They had an escape plan and wanted to include me.… Raffi told me what he wanted.

“Lola, you have a pass that can get you to where the guns are kept. We need them when we will be hiding in the woods,” he said. “Are you out of your mind?” I asked. “You expect me to just walk into the room where the weapons are kept, take guns and bullets, hide them on me, and then with German soldiers walking up and down the corridors smuggle them back into the ghetto?” “Yes, Lola. You have to do it or we won’t have a chance to survive when we get out,” he said in a very matter of fact way.

“If I get caught, I’ll be shot on the spot,” I reminded him. “Lola, you are going to get shot anyway in a few days. So why not at least try to survive?” Jakob pointed out. We talked some more about how I could steal the weapons and bullets. Jakob’s idea was for me to sew some pockets into the inside of my coat and smuggle the arsenal out that way. After discussing it further, I was convinced that it was our only hope for a successful escape and survival in the woods.

We planned to flee the ghetto the following night, so I was under great pressure to get the weapons the following day. We were to meet at 10 o’clock by the ruins of a building.

But Lola’s work schedule the next day made it impossible for her to get into the arsenal storage room. She returned to the ghetto that night without the guns and ammunition. Jakob and Raffi, probably surmising that she had been caught because she did not show up at the agreed upon time, were nowhere to be found. So Lola fled the heavily guarded ghetto by crawling on her belly under the barbed-wire, avoiding the searchlights which lit up the field, and inched her way into the unknown forest.

The 21-year-old cosmopolitan woman wandered alone through a forest where she had never before set foot. Lola eventually joined two family camps and the famed Israel Kessler partisans, which later linked up with the Bielski group.

She recalled her first impressions of the place:

As soon as we arrived at the new camp, I immediately saw that it was a much larger operation with many more people. In fact, it appeared to be a community — almost like a small town.

We were sitting together as a group while Kessler was in conversation with several men from the other partisan group about their merger. “Bielski,” someone in our group whispered. And the name soon spread quickly. “That’s Bielski and his brothers,” said another man in my group as he pointed in the direction of the meeting. “Who is Bielski?” I asked. “You will soon find out,” Stefan, sitting near me, responded. Stefan did not look too happy.

It wasn’t long until I got a hint of what “you will soon find out” meant. Several men approached us. They wanted to know what items we had in our bundles, bags and knapsacks. One man took most of my underwear. In time, I would know him as Tuvia, the commander of the partisan group. I later found out that he gave my underwear to his girlfriend and sister.

Giving the Bielski brothers what they wanted, including money, watches, and jewelry was the price we all had to pay to become part of this group. And believe me, the brothers took whatever they thought could be useful to their families and girlfriends. They claimed that they needed our property to buy weapons and supplies, but an accounting after the war never took place to reveal if anything they took remained.

The camp was spread out in the woods where skilled people displaying tremendous energy were at work. The kitchen had large pots where potato soup was constantly cooking. There was a bakery with an oven. A bathhouse was constructed for washing and so that members could avoid getting typhus and other illnesses. A barber kept people reasonably neat. Shoemakers were making repairs. Tailors worked to sew old clothing and create new clothes, especially underwear which was in great demand by everyone. Carpenters built the work areas and the underground bunkers we slept in. A blacksmith took care of the partisans’ horses. A watchmaker repaired weapons.

A synagogue brought some members together for services and ceremonies, including funerals. There was an infirmary. Babies were delivered. Unfortunately, there were also abortions. For most, having babies in such a dangerous place and in such an unpredictable time was unwise. There was a dentist there as well. When children were not playing, they were educated by former teachers. Occasionally, there would even be shows performed by members of the camp. It was a village within the forest. And for those who violated the Bielski rules in this village, there was also a jail.

With no one to control them, Tuvia and Zus, especially when they were drunk, could be terrors. Tuvia and his two brothers made the law of the camp and everyone had to follow it. Zus liked to show off his gun displayed under his belt for everyone to see as he walked around the camp. But give him credit for being a real fighter which was important for our survival.

Amid the austerities and perils of camp life, Lola met and fell in love with Yehuda Bielski, who had lost his first wife to a German ambush before Lola arrived at the camp.

Life in the Bielski camp was constantly overshadowed by the danger of discovery by the enemy. Lola recalled one such lethal encounter:

One afternoon while I was knitting a woolen scarf, gunfire broke the relative quiet and calm of the camp. Germans in retreat from the east who were running for their lives through the woods stumbled upon the Bielski camp. The partisans and the Germans were in battle.

People ran for cover behind trees, rocks, and anywhere they could avoid being hit by a bullet. Still, bullets flew over my head hitting trees behind and around me. The partisans fought back valiantly, especially since they were taken by surprise when the Germans reached our camp. Explosions from hand grenades made the ground shake. The battle took about an hour, but it seemed as if I was behind that tree for days.

When the shooting stopped, I slowly and carefully walked back to our camp base. I was worried that some Germans may still be around and only be too eager to point their rifles at me and shoot. Many Germans lay dead on the ground. Closer to the base, partisans were removing their boots and clothing. They were also checking their gear for food or other items. All the weapons and bullets were placed in the center of the camp.

Soon I noticed a group of partisans standing in a circle. I could hear German being spoken. As I got closer, one of the partisans told me to leave the area. Minutes later I heard shots.

That evening Yehuda told me, “Lola, we captured two Germans. They were begging for their lives. They showed us pictures of their families, their children and parents. They weren’t very smart because they didn’t understand how we were looking for revenge after they killed our children and parents. We took off their shirts. One German had an SS mark on his arm so we killed him. The other we let go home,” concluded Yehuda.

Surviving the Holocaust

Well-armed partisans, prepared for battle, penetrated ghettos to rescue Jews. During one mission Yehuda was commanding, several residents of the ghetto were praying while Yehuda urged them to immediately leave with him and his men. God would save them, they insisted. Yehuda held up his weapon and responded, “With all respect to God, this is the only thing that will save you here.” Those who refused to leave with the partisans were eventually killed. Those who joined Yehuda survived.

Upon “liberation” by the Soviets in 1944, the Soviets told the partisans that they were now free to march out of the forest and make their way to their homes. The war was over for them.

The survivors from the Bielski camp embraced life. Yehuda married Lola and, like many other surviving partisans, went to Palestine to fight for a Jewish state. Yehuda was welcomed by the Irgun, a militant underground organization formed to defend Jews against Arab terrorism and push the British out of Palestine. In 1948, Yehuda, unlike his commander cousins, was commissioned an officer in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and fought with distinction in the War of Independence.

Yehuda, Lola, and their two children — one of whom is the author of this article — came to America in the 1950s. Yehuda’s cousins with their families followed. Today, the descendants of the Bielskis and of the approximately 1,200 people who survived the war in the Bielski camp number many thousands.

Earlier this year, Hollywood released the theatrical movie Defiance that tells (unfortunately, with a number of inaccuracies) the story of the Bielski brothers.

With stories emerging about the Bielskis varying wildly, an admonishment from William Shakespeare: “This above all: ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’” (Hamlet, act 1, scene III).

Y. Eric Bell is a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a television producer/director. He is the son of the late Lola and Yehuda Bell (formerly Bielski).

Essie Shor~ Bielski Partisan Tells her Story of 'Defiance'

By Megan James

Essie Shor was always a fighter, even before they put a rifle in her hands.

At the age of 16, rather than face certain death in the ghetto of her hometown, Novogrudek — formerly part of Poland, now of Belarus — she joined the Bielski Partisans as a guerilla fighter against the Nazis.

“It was dangerous to stay and dangerous to go,” she wrote in her new book, Essie: The True Story of a Teenage Fighter in the Bielski Partisans. “My brothers had died trying to leave and my mother and sisters had been slaughtered for staying behind.”

Ms. Shor, now a regular at the Riverdale YM-YWHA’s Simon Senior Center, recently revisited her two years as a fighter at an advance screening of Defiance, the new film about the Bielski brothers — her cousins — who led a Jewish resistance against the Nazis during World War II.

One of the original 25 members of the Partisans, which by the end of the war included roughly 1,200 Jews, Ms. Shor lived in underground bunkers in the forest, ambushing the German soldiers who hunted her. But her battle began outside a courthouse in Novogrudek.

Jews had been ordered to gather there. Not knowing what to expect, but fearing the worst, they arrived wearing all the clothes they had, layer upon layer.

Huddled in the crowd with her parents and two sisters — her two brothers had been killed trying to escape to the woods — Ms. Shor remembers asking her mother to move to the back of the crowd.

“I want to live longer,” she said.

When a high-ranking Nazi officer marched in, Ms. Shor did the only thing she could think of to save herself and her family. She yelled to the officer, who had once employed her father as a bookbinder, that he would need her father to work.

Amazingly, he agreed and ushered Ms. Shor and her father into the courthouse with the small group of Jews chosen to live. Her mother and two sisters were left behind.

She learned later that the Nazis killed 4,000 Jews that day, including members of her family.

Ms. Shor spent the next year living in the ghetto and working for a Polish family and later at the German army barracks.

“I always had revenge in my mind, because my whole family was killed,” she said. So when she heard about the Partisans, a group of Jews — most of whom had been trained in the Polish army when Jews were still allowed — who had escaped to the forest to fight the Nazis themselves, she knew she had to join.

“The perception was that Jews didn’t fight,” she said. But when Ms. Shor made it to the woods, she quickly became a warrior. One of very few women and children there, she was given a rifle that her uncle, also a Partisan, had assembled with discarded pieces of old rifles.

To convince her father to join her in the forest — he had stayed behind believing he would die either way, and it would be better to have a chance at a real burial than die in the woods like an animal — she threatened him. It was the only way, she said.

“If you want to remain my father, you must come,” she wrote him in a letter. “If you do not come, then you can no longer be my father.” Of course, he came, she said.

Hunted by the Nazis, the Partisans were forced to pick up camp and move on a regular basis. They would take supplies, like clothes, cows and food, from people in nearby villages — but they had strict rules about what they could take. “We never took a cow if they only had one,” she said

Near the end of the war, Ms. Shor’s father begged her not to go on a dangerous mission attacking Germans face-to face rather than ambushing them. She didn’t want to disobey her father, but she had to go. This was her chance to fight the Nazis, she said.

Many people were killed that day, but Ms. Shor survived. “The drive for life is very strong,” she said.

After the war, Ms. Shor got married and had two children, but it would be years before she discussed her experience as a Partisan. “I should have told my children earlier,” she admitted, but she wanted them to grow up without the horrors of war.

Now she tells the story with relative ease — though she acknowledged it was painful at moments watching the movie, and telling the story herself, she often interrupts herself, jokingly. “You have to have humor, otherwise it would be too sad,” she said, before adding, “I always loved life. Because of the circumstances, you love life even more.”

Abe Asner

"Grodno still was a ghetto, and lots of people went back to the ghetto like Saul, his father, his mother. And I said, “Me and my brothers, we’re not going back to the ghetto. We’re not going. We’re going to win, doesn’t matter what. If I die, I’ll die standing up — not to shoot me in the back.”
-Abe Asner

Abe Asner was born in the district of Lida, Poland on October 19, 1916. In 1938, Abe followed in the footsteps of his brothers and joined the Polish army. On June 22nd, 1941, Abe was visiting a cousin in Lithuania when he awoke to the sight of German planes littering the sky with bombs.

When German tanks surrounded the ghetto where Abe and his brothers were staying, they had to make a choice: stay among the 3,000 Jews who were facing immanent death or flee to the forests. Abe disappeared into the trees with nothing but the clothes on his back.

The forest proved to be a breeding ground for resistance fighters. Soon Abe was among the 60-some Jews and Russian POWs running missions. His military training gave him the skills to kill German soldiers who attempted to search the dense forest. In the beginning, Abe thought the resistance would only last a few weeks. It continued for over four years and their partisan unit grew to several thousand people, including the woman who became Abe’s wife. 

Abe and his brothers were successful in many missions, ranging from sabotaging enemy supplies to halting German food convoys to rescuing Jews from ghettos. They frustrated the Germans with their efficiency under the cover of darkness. “The night was our mother,” Abe remembers. Eventually the Germans placed a bounty on their heads. “So much money to catch us, dead or alive,” Abe recalls. 

The ongoing violence of the Partisan missions wore away at Abe’s psyche. When the war finally ended, he worked hard to adjust to normal life. Despite the physical and emotional scars he carries, Abe knows his deeds helped to shape the lives of countless people. 

Abe’s passion still burns brightly when he recalls his partisan days. “We don’t go like sheep. We did as much as we could. We did a lot,” he says. “People should know somebody did (fight back). People should know.” 

After the war Abe moved to Canada with his wife. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.


  • October 19, 1916~

Leon Kahn (1925–2003)

Leon Kahn was born Leon Kaganowicz in 1925 in Eisiskes, Poland, near present-day Vilnius, Lithuania. During the war he fought in eastern Europe with the partisans against the Nazis. In 1948, lone survivor of his family, he immigrated to Vancouver, where he made a living in various small business enterprises until he became a successful real estate developer, first with Block Brothers and then with his own company.

Kahn was noted for his humility, his contributions to the Jewish community and his work as an anonymous philanthropist. He died in 2003, leaving his wife, two sons and daughter.

  • 1925–2003

A Visit to the Jewish Partisans

by Maxime Rafailovitch, donated by the author

Lt. Volodya Vatikin [a Russian] and I were making our way through dense woods when suddenly armed men yelled, “Freeze! Hands up! Don’t move!”  With four rifles pointed toward us, we obeyed. I was not too afraid. From the mens’ accent and looks I was sure they were Jews from the Bielski otraid [detachment]. The armed men came closer and they, too, recognized that I was a Jew. They asked me if I were “amchoo” and I nodded. As for Volodya, his long blond hair, blue eyes, and his expression! They didn’t ask him.

The two heavy bags we were carrying contained a small, new automatic rifle and many bullets with it. Other armed men and women joined the group to guard us. They spoke Yiddish and some Russian. After emptying our pockets and relieving us of our revolvers, they allowed us to sit down without hands up.

A short time later we heard horsemen galloping toward us. It was late afternoon on a gorgeous summer day. The forest around us was splendid and suddenly we saw a group of well-armed men in black leather jackets wearing caps with a red star in the center. They jumped down from their horses and I was sure they were the brothers Bielski with some of their officers. One
tall fellow, who I later found out was Zus Bielski, approached Volodya and they embraced.

Vladimir Vatikin, or Volodya, had been security chief of many partisan groups. Tuvia Bielski, commander of the Bielski otriad, apologized at once to Volodya and gave him back his automatic rifles and the bullets. Our revolvers were promptly returned to us, too. The armed guards walked away satisfied. Volodya’s automatic rifle needed serious repairs and was taken to the otraid workshop. The bullets I carried were a gift for Tuvia. These bullets were very hard to obtain so it was an exceptional gift.

The Bielskis and Volodya went to a nearby tent where they stayed for some time. I was left alone with the youngest of the Bielskis, Archick, who showed me their camp. It was full of civilian people, families with children. I was astonished, not having seen Jewish families for a long time.  Archick, speaking in Yiddish and Russian, pointed out the enormous responsibility and impossible difficulties that arise with saving so many civilian people in the forest. The difficulties connected with obtaining enough food and clothing, especially for the cold winter months, were great and involved dangerous work.

Soon Archick’s brother, Zus, joined us and questioned me. In answer to his questions I told him that I had been awakened at dawn and ordered to accompany Lieutenant Vatikin (Volodya) on this mission. Our sergeant had taken away my rifle and given me a heavy bag of special bullets and a revolver.

We set out on horseback but by midday, after having gone over halfway, we had to walk because the road through the forest had become dangerous and by foot it was much easier to slip through undetected. The peasant (whom Zus knew well) at whose farm we left our horses told us that German soldiers had arrived in the vicinity of the Bielski otriad. He had obtained further information en route from some other peasants whom he knew.  After hearing my story, the Bielski brothers left together.

The next morning Volodya and I started walking back to our camp. Volodya was happy having his beloved rifle repaired and I was very glad not having the bullets to carry. The horses at the farm were ready for us. While riding Lieutenant Vatikin asked me not to tell anybody about our compromising arrival at the Bielski otriad. A Red soldier must rather die than be taken
prisoner! I promised Volodya and never told anybody until now.

As for the Bielskis’ otriad, I was very worried by what I had seen. The Bielski brothers and their helpers had a superhuman task: to save Jews and they did it brilliantly. We should all be proud of them.


Lazar Malbin

Lazar Malbin was Chief of Staff of the Bielski partisan unit that functioned as a family camp and wandered from place to place. 


Helen Cydrerowicz Terris

As someone who survived the Nazis by fleeing into the woods as a six-year-old, Helen Cydrerowicz Terris knows the meaning of the word “defiance.”

She also knows firsthand the risks and heroism represented by Jewish partisans — the same group whose wartime exploits are depicted in the current feature film Defiance. (See related story, Montville survivor stands proud in face of Defiance)

Terris, who lives in Oakhurst, and her mother, Esia Cydrerowicz, fled the Nazis and sought refuge with the Bielski brothers’ partisans. They were among the 1,200 Jews whose lives were saved by the group and whose experiences inspired the new film.

Terris was born in 1935 in Lida; the city was then part of Poland, but is now claimed by Belarus. Her parents, Esia and Arkady Cydrerowicz, were prominent among the 12,000 members of Lida’s Jewish community.

Life changed in June 1941, when the Germans invaded the city and imposed their iron grip on the Jewish population. The Jews were herded into a ghetto and their businesses were appropriated. Jews were not permitted to attend school or to speak to non-Jews and were forced to walk in the gutters rather than on the sidewalks. A death sentence was the punishment for any infraction, Terris said.

The roundups began in late 1941, and in early 1942, her father was shot during one such action. Terris and her mother heard about mass executions taking place in a nearby forest. On May 8, much of the ghetto population was heralded to the town square and were made to pass by the German guards.

“If you were told to go to the left, it meant the Germans felt you would be useful to them,” said Terris. “It meant life. But if the selection process sent you to the right, it meant death. My mother and I were sent to the right.”

As they were force-marched toward mass graves in the woods, they passed the bodies of hundreds of Jews who had been shot while trying to escape. Screams and the sound of gunshots filled the air.

Helen Terris and her mother, Esia, were photographed in 1944 in Lida.

“My mother and I took a risk and ran to a nearby house, where we saw three dead men,” said Terris. “My mother covered both of us in their blood and we lay down next to them. We didn’t dare breathe.

“In the Holocaust, you had to take chances.” 

As they lay there, two German soldiers came and stood in the spilled blood, smoking cigarettes. When they saw Terris move slightly; they grabbed her and placed a gun to her head. “Then they said, ‘Why waste a bullet,’ since I was going to die anyway,’” she said. “They finished their cigarettes and walked away. I’ve always wondered what kind of mentality would allow people to act this way.”

Bielski lifeline

While 5,000 Jews were killed that day — which became known as the Slaughter of May 8 — mother and daughter hid in the ghetto. But in September 1943, another liquidation process took place, and this time, Terris and her mother were marched to a railroad station, where a train was preparing to depart for the death camps. Once again they ran, but were separated during the chaos.

By chance, the two were reunited on a nearby farm. They knew their only chance to survive was to join a partisan group in the woods near Lida. The partisans were led by brothers Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski, who had created a partisan village that eventually sheltered 1,200 Jews. There were communal kitchens and living quarters and a makeshift school and synagogue. As the Germans searched for them, the partisans collected weapons and blew up German targets. Finally, in July 1944, the region was liberated by the Russian army.

Terris and her mother, who spent the next three years in a displaced persons camp in Austria, never saw the Bielskis again (the three brothers are now deceased). The two arrived in the United States in 1949, where Terris met her future husband, Harry, whom she married in 1955. For 50 years, she rarely spoke about her wartime experiences.

“Then, about seven years ago, my granddaughter was assigned to write a school essay about someone they considered a hero,” said Terris. “She chose me because I had survived. Then the school asked me to speak to the students. I told them everything.”

She now fulfills regular speaking engagements, has contributed to Steven Spielberg’s Shoa testimony project, and attends memorial services that commemorate the Slaughter of May 8.

“I’m gratified that I can keep the Bielskis alive by speaking in public. They were our lifeline,” Terris said. “And the victims — they can’t speak for themselves, but now they won’t be forgotten. It’s still hard for me to talk about the Holocaust, but when I speak to an audience, I am perpetuating their memories. That makes it a little easier.”


  • 1935

Sonia Bielski nee Boldo

Sonia Bielski -- the former Sonia Boldo -- was an educated 18 year old raven-haired beauty at the time she bribed a guard at a ghetto in Novogrudok to get lost as she fled to the Bielski guerrilla camp where she first met her future husband -- bearded with bullet belts criss-crossed on his chest. Zus had orchestrated her escape.


Area map of Bielski Belarus camp


Bielski Partisan Camp in Naliboki Forest 1943-1944

Sonia gave her first impression of Zus to D.J. Fricke in "He Took On The Nazis", a story for Our Townin 1995 following Zus' death. Zus died of cardiac arrest at age 83. He'd had a "bad ticker" for years and on doctor's orders ate a banana a day.

Said Sonia:


"I never saw a man like that before -- I was afraid to look at him . . But as big and strong as he was, he was very gentle."

She told the New York Times that "she first saw him standing under a tree, a tall, powerfully built man glistening with brass and bandolier. "He was shining."" Sonia also said that Zus tried to get her drunk with vodka following her escape from the ghetto, but that she bargained for a rescue of her parents from Novogrudok before agreeing to "go with him".


Sonia & Zus Bielski 
Photo: Courtesy Bielski Family

Zus saw more death and destruction during the war than Sonia, including the loss of his first wife and infant daughter, his parents and two brothers. But Sonia seemed more scarred.



Aaron Bielski (front and center)

Leah Bedzowski Johnson

It's only been for the past couple years that Leah Bedzowski Johnson has taken her story public.

She and her husband always shared with their three children tales of how they survived the Nazi Holocaust, hiding out in the Belarusian forest with members of the Jewish resistance movement.

Now, she says, it's important to share the story more widely.

“We are only a few left,” she said, her accent still thick. “Because Hitler killed 6 million Jews, but he killed Christians, and others of all nationalities. All together, he killed 11 million. I'm doing this for every people, for everyone.”

Johnson, 87, told her story Sunday night at an annual L'Chaim event for Chabad Lubavitch of South Texas, a Jewish outreach organization and synagogue.

Leah Bedzowski was 16 in 1939 when the Nazis stormed Lida, the Belarusian city where she lived. She was the daughter of a department store owner, and the comfortable life she had always known was about to come to an end.

In 1941, while the family was sitting shiva for her father, she remembers “fires raging everywhere” and being forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

The family was first taken in by a number of gentile farmers, but when the Germans forced all Jews back to Lida, they ended up in a barbed-wired ghetto. Johnson spoke of sneaking under the barbed wire at night to search for food for her mother and siblings. “If they had caught me, they would have killed me,” she said.

One day, a man brought a note telling her mother to go to the nearby forest, where three Jewish brothers, led by the eldest, Tuvia Bielski, had formed a group of “partisans” who sabotaged the Nazis and saved Jewish refugees.

Tuvia Bielski, Johnson said, “was our savior. He only wanted to save Jewish lives” — and not only the able-bodied, fit for fighting, she said, but anyone who could make it to the forest.

She was 20 when she met Wolf Jonson, known then by his alias, “Wolf the machine gunner.” They were married in the woods. A Canadian immigration worker would later anglicize Jonson by adding the H, she said.

Piotr Kolenda

Postwar portrait of Piotr Kolenda. He was a landowner from Nowogrodek who knew both the Dzienciolski and Bielski families before the war. During the war he helped hide the women before they could safely go to the forest and continued to assist members of the Bielski group while they were in the forest.

Ann Monka

Ann Monka was born in the city of Lida, Poland. It is located in the eastern part of Poland. Ann said, “It was a small city, which had a population of 30,000, of which 12,000 were Jewish.

Her immediate family consisted of her parents Leon and Sarah Stolowitzki, her sister Bella, and brother Michael. Her father was a controller of a large brewery in Lida. Ann lived in a middle class neighborhood in a wooden, three family home. The house belonged to her grandmother, who had three children and gave each child an apartment.

They spoke Yiddish in their home. Ann attended a public school from first grade through fifth. She attended a Jewish school where they spoke Hebrew and Polish. She later attended a Russian school where she learned Russian.

In 1941, after a very heavy bombing, the city of Lida was occupied by the Germans. Ann’s first recollection on this bombing was that her home was burned down right in front of her eyes and she remained homeless. A ghetto was formed and all the Jews needed to wear the yellow Star of David in order to be identified. Schools for children were interrupted.

My grandma’s family lived under the Germans for a year and a half. Ann said, “Eventually there was not enough room for 10,000 people in a small ghetto.” The Nazis took the entire ghetto out to a field, where mass graves were prepared and shot 6,700 Jews.

Among them, she lost her aunts, uncles, cousins and her little grandmother who she adored. Ann said, “As a child I found it very difficult to understand what was happening.” She lived under the Germans until 1943 when the second elimination was done by putting the remaining Jews on trains headed for Maidenek Concentration Camp.

My grandma and her mother were separated from the rest of their family because they were hiding in an attic above the brewery where her father worked. The Germans who were looking for all the remaining Jews never found them. Ann’s father, sister, and brother were put on the train.

At this point my grandma and her mother had no hope that they would ever see them again. Ann and her mother escaped hiding in the city. Ann said, “During this time there was only one thing on our minds and that was to join the Partisans.

They spent eight days looking for the Partisans in the woods. Susan Bachrach in her book Tell Them We Remember, explains that, “Life as a partisan in the forests was difficult. People had to move from place to place to avoid discovery, raid farmers’ food supplies to eat, and try to survive the winter in flimsy shelters built from logs and branches.”

They came across a man who led them to a group of about twenty people. Finally, my grandmother did not feel so alone. They slept under the trees and berries were their source of survival. “The partisans lived in constant danger of local informers revealing their whereabouts to the Germans.” Weeks went by without the Germans finding them.

Ann said, “I got up in the morning after sleeping a whole night in my mother’s lap. I got up in a very good mood. For some reason I felt warm that morning and from a distance I saw my sister.” She thought she was dreaming.

The first words out of her mouth were that Papa and Mike are alive,” Ann said. Bella told Ann the story about how they were herded onto the trains and that they had the notion to try to escape. The Germans put about fifty people in each train car and locked the cars from the outside. Every train car had a little window, small enough for a child to pass through.

Ann’s brother Mike managed to open the door from the outside by climbing through the window. “Fifty people had the opportunity to jump of this moving train; however, they froze from fear except for eleven people who courageously jumped. Among the eleven people were my father, brother, and sister,” said Ann.

Her family reunited in the woods about three months after being separated and joined the partisan group in the forest of Naliboki, close to Minsk, Russia, under the command of Tuvia and Zeush Bielski.

My grandmother Ann and her family owe their lives to the bravery of the Bielski brothers. The Bielski Brigade and “family camp” was different than most partisan groups. Most of the partisan groups consisted of single men. Because their sole purpose was to fight and inflict as much damage as they could on the enemy, membership was limited to able-bodied men prepared for battle. Those unable to fight were left to fend for themselves.

What made the Bielski camp different than other partisan groups was the fact that this camp provided shelter for women, children, and old people. In the confines of the camp the fighters protected them. The Bielski was primarily immobile. They built a small city within the confines of the dense Naliboki forest.

In the Bielski camp, everyone worked. A school was established for the children. The forest camp was half- jokingly called Jerusalem, a sardonic comment on harsh conditions in the forests.

The groups survived by raiding local communities for food and by serving as a civilian support system for other partisan brigades. Killing the enemy was only one of their tasks. Helping the members of the camp was of equal importance.

My grandmother and her immediate family were the one and only family unit that survived in tact in the Bielski camp. The Bielski brothers saved 1,200 Jews from slaughter. Today, there are over 5,600 people who owe their existence to these brave men. I am a direct survivor to the Bielski brothers.

After spending two years in hiding, Liberation came to all members of the Bielski camp. In December 1944 the camp was liberated by the Russian Army. Some of the partisan fighters met up with the Russian soldiers and were told that the war was over. The people were free to return to their hometowns.

For my grandmother this was impossible since there was nothing remaining in their town to which to return, since her home had been burned down when the Nazis first entered her town. At the end of the war, the city of Lida became part of White Russia.

Her family decided to try and return to the city of Lodz, Poland, where her father originated and had a large family. As a result of the war, my great-grandfather lost contact with his relatives. He had not been in touch with anyone from 1939 to 1945. They traveled to Lodz together to search for survivors.

Sadly, they discovered that not one member of his family had survived. In Lodz, my great grandfather lost his mother, three brothers married with two children each, two sisters married with children, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Since no family member could be located and since conditions in Poland were awful after the war, my grandmother’s family thought that their best bet would be to go to Palestine. There was nothing left for them in Poland. However, in their attempt to leave Poland they were faced with many obstacles.

They tried to get papers that would allow them to leave Poland and journey to Palestine but the British, who were in control of Palestine at the time, refused them entrance. Many ships of survivors en route to Palestine were detained in Cypress.

When survivors who were still in Europe heard about this they became afraid to attempt the journey. As a result my grandmother’s family left Poland by train and traveled to Czechoslovakia. They traveled like gypsies not knowing where they would end up. From Czechoslovakia they traveled to Hungary. In Hungary they learned of an organization known as “Unra.”

This group assisted survivors and set up D.P. (displaced persons) camps throughout Europe. With the help of the Unra my grandmother’s family received assistance and were sent to Austria. In Austria they were moved from camp to camp. They resided in four different D.P. camps.

“The displaced persons camps were a short-term solution for may refugees who were on their way home, or who showed no desire to return to their countries of origin, or who were unwilling or unable to remain in their homes once they did return.”

Life in the D.P. camp was a paradise in comparison to the life they left behind in the woods and in finding refuge after the war. In the D.P. camp the children were not allowed to go to school in Austria. The adults were not allowed to get jobs. Food was rationed and restrictions were placed on all the people.

The survivors themselves organized makeshift schools to occupy the children’s time. It took some time, but eventually the ORT organization (a non-profit organization designed to train people in a vocational trade) came to the rescue of the survivors. ORT set up trade schools.

These vocational schools provided opportunities to learn a trade. In 1947, my grandmother received a diploma in sewing from ORT. That degree proved to be very useful when she finally arrived in America.

Meanwhile, months turned into years and the survivors made new lives in the camps. However, they were anxious to move forward. My grandmother’s family continued to apply for visas to immigrate to Palestine, but was refused. Miraculously, through the newspaper they found relatives in America who were looking for any family survivors.

These relatives came to the United States through Ellis Island after W.W.I. They were my grandmother’s great aunts. Once these aunts made contact with the family in Austria, they immediately sent out an affidavit for the entire family to come to America.

Displaced Persons Camp

Group portrait of former Bielski partisans from Nowogrodek taken in the Foehrenwald displaced persons camp. Germany, April 3, 1948.

  • April 3, 1948

Aron Bielski (Brother) Speaks for The Four.

Saving Jewish Lives

And he was actually the one, it was Tuvia's idea that if they could survive 20, 30 people, why couldn't 60 survive? And if there was food for 60, there will be enough food for 120. This was his idea to save Jews. Whether it's a woman, child, old man, young man, whomever. This was his idea. The other two brothers would not: they would probably take their relatives out and they would have a small group of people. They would not undertake such a big responsibility. This comes the credit to the oldest, to Tuvia. That was his idea.

The importance of arms

Arms? Without it you're nobody. This was your life, this was your freedom. A pistol, a rifle -- this gave you everything. This gave you life. Without it you're nobody.

The will to survive

You're afraid; you know that you have to survive, you might have to fight the Nazis to survive, right? But nobody is torturing you; nobody can tell you what to do. So I guess the idea came because they were real human beings; that Tuvia was a real human being -- if ten will survive, why wouldn't survive 20. If it's not enough to go 20 miles after food, so you go 30, you go 40. But it's better than to go to the slaughterhouse, is it not?

Thwarting the Nazi effort

Look, if you go from one city to the other; somewhere along the line there has to be a bridge, or a train, right? That the Nazis use. You go, you burn up the bridge; you go, you sabotage the railroad. Or if they were accumulating cows for their food; you'd go and burn up their food. Like a terrorist group -- hit and run. The partisans (not only the Jewish partisans, but also the Russian partisans) -- they gave them a hell of a time, to the Nazis, absolutely. They could not roam around freely; they had to go in groups.

Brother Bielskis: Safe from the Nazis

What did they accomplish? Well they accomplish a hell of a lot. They saved 1200 people -- those 1200 people by now may be 100,000. There are children, grandchildren. And they were very unique; it's a very unique family. All you've heard up till now is, how people went to the slaughterhouse. But here's a totally different story; here is two men, and the Nazis never laid a finger on them -- never.

Lieutenant Jozef Niedzwiecki

Editor’s note: The 2009 movie “Defiance” tells the story of the Bielski partisans and their survival in northeast Poland, now Belarus. Little is known about the Polish Home Army of that region — their many victories against the Nazis, their tragic betrayal, connection to the Bielski partisans, and their recovery and move to Kampinos forest. The following is a brief account of one of those AK men, Lieutenant Jozef Niedzwiecki, written by his son, for Polish American Journal.

 by John Nurt

On September 1, 1939, the German Blitzkrieg struck Poland. Anchored by six armored divisions, 1.5 million personnel attacked from the north, south and west. Two weeks later, Poland was sucker-punched in the east by 500,000 Soviet Red Army troops. The besieged nation was wedged between a hammer and an anvil. In spite of the hopeless situation, the Poles fought valiantly.

My father, Jozef, was only twenty at the time. As a member of the KOP (Borderland Defense Corps), he fought in early skirmishes with the brutally-efficient Wehrmacht. By October 6, Polish forces had capitulated. Survivors numbering tens of thousands began reorganizing into resistance groups. The bulk of these clandestine units would eventually band together to form the Home Army.

My father returned to Iwieniec, in eastern Poland. The homeland he once new had ceased to exist, overrun by the opportunistic Soviets. Jozef and his brother, Jan, quietly helped organize resistance units in their region. They were soon arrested by NKVD, the maniacal Soviet secret police. The brothers were deported to prison in nearby Minsk. They would endure months of harsh beatings and interrogation.

True to form, Hitler broke Germany’s treaty with the Soviet Union. Chaos erupted as the Wehrmacht turned its war machine against the Red Army. As prisoners were marched eastward during the frantic Soviet retreat, Jozef and Jan escaped. By this time (Spring 1941), the Polish resistance had grown considerably. My father, using the pseudonym Szary (“Gray”), was tagged for leadership and helped plan the Iwieniec Uprising of June 19, 1943. It was a remarkable victory for the resistance, laying waste to a German SS garrison in a daring, well executed attack. Over one hundred enemy soldiers were eliminated and a cache of weapons captured. The attack also liberated partisan prisoners and headed off a planned roundup of the male population. Only three AK men were killed in action, sadly, my Uncle Jan was one of them.


Jozef Niedzwiecki (l.) and Jan Niedzwiecki (r.) sometime before Jan’s death on June 19, 1943.


 The German invasion left thousands of Russians stranded behind the front. A tentative working relationship grew between Polish and Soviet partisans. Although the Soviets vastly outnumbered the Poles, major actions against the Nazis were launched almost exclusively by the Home Army. In midsummer 1943, the Germans initiated “Operation Hermann.” They deluged Naliboki Forest with sixty-thousand troops in an effort to eliminate resistance activities. Soviet partisans proved unreliable, on one occasion abandoning their position and allowing Polish troops to walk into an ambush.

Despite losses during the German operation, the Stolpce Group (“Zgrupowanie Stolpeckie”) of the Home Army continued to launch successful actions. While the Poles were busy disrupting Nazi occupation forces, the Soviets schemed to undermine and eliminate patriotic Polish units. After a period of friendly cooperation, Home Army leaders would be invited by the Soviets to discuss strategy against the Germans. The Poles were then captured, disarmed, and liquidated 

Such was the fate of the Stolpce Group on December 1, 1943. Downplaying the concerns of other resistance leaders, the newly arrived Home Army commander accepted the invitation of Soviet General “Dubov,” and sent Stolpce officers to convene with Soviet partisans. En route to the meeting, the officers were surrounded by a large contingent of armed Soviets. Moments later, the nearby Polish camps were attacked. Poles who attempted to fight or flee were summarily executed. Before being shot, some were savagely tortured by their supposed Soviet “friends.” Victims were discovered with their ears and fingers cut off. The Polish officers captured were either sent to Moscow for trial or secretly murdered in the forest.

At this time, the Bielski partisans were subservient to the Soviets, and supplied fifty men for the operation. Prior to this, the Bielskis and other partisan detachments had friendly relations with the local Polish army, sharing meals and even games of chess. This relationship was eclipsed by the larger goals of Stalin and his NKVD

My father and the rest of the cavalry narrowly avoided the Soviet dragnet. They were guarding the edge of the forest that day, mindful of the frequent German patrols. They collected a few stragglers who had been lucky enough to escape the ambush. The fate of their partisan comrades became painfully clear. Soon after, Jozef’s cavalry platoon was securing a local village when Soviet partisans appeared on horseback.

The Poles withdrew from sight, allowing the enemy to approach. The Soviets were surrounded, disarmed and searched. Jozef found a shocking document in the possession of the Commissar: “Copy #7 of a secret order detailing the planned betrayal of the Home Army as directed by General Ponomarenko and General Platanow. With chilling matter-of-factness, it states that any Poles who resist “must be shot on the spot.” Indeed, my father’s discovery proved that the skirmishes and killings in the region were not isolated events. They were the culmination of Soviet policy, dictated at the highest echelons. Correspondingly, the local Home Army’s new plan for survival required total war against Soviet partisans as well as The Nazis.

The winter of 1943-44 was a desperate time for the Stolpce group. The Soviets openly targeted the families of Home Army members. Entire villages were ruthlessly erased. But the Polish partisans responded with an influx of new recruits, and their new commander, Adolph Pilch, provided courageous and wise leadership. Jozef’s young sister, Helena, also joined the partisans in the forest. After victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, the Red Army seized the initiative and surged westward towards Berlin. My father’s unit used the confusion of the German retreat to move their army to the Kampinos forest near Warsaw.

They fought many actions in Kampinos while coordinating efforts as part of the Warsaw uprising. In the aftermath of the uprising, they attacked the infamous SS RONA - Kaminsky brigade on two successive evenings. The raids caused such destruction that afterward the Kaminsky brigade ceased to exist as a unit. My father led his squadron on the second night of these attacks, in the town of Marianow. The attack was swift, destructive, and overwhelming, calling to mind Jozef’s new nom de guerre. The SS men were hit by Lawina, the “Avalanche.”

Throughout the war, my father’s Home Army units fought in over two-hundred successful engagements. He was shot twice in combat, yet never faltered in his struggle for Poland.

Only after his third injury and unavoidable capture in late 1944 did my father’s tireless service come to an end. By that time the Allied victory in Europe was imminent.

After his liberation by British forces, Jozef Niedzwiecki would emigrate to America. He arrived carrying with him the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration.

The heroic struggles of Zgrupowanie Stolpeckie, the Soviet betrayal and the discovery of the “secret order” remain largely unknown, due to four decades of Communist suppression and false accounts by Soviet partisans.

  • September 1, 1939

Celebrating survival: Remembering the Bielski Brigade

From left, Frieda Feit (née Sluka), Rachel Sluka, David Sluka, Szyfra Sluka, and Rasza Lea Sluka. Frieda’s father, mother, and three sisters were among the 5,500 Jews killed on May 8, 1942, by the Nazis.

For many, the 2008 movie “Defiance” — chronicling the story of the Bielski Brigade, a group of Jewish partisans operating in Belarus between 1942 and 1944 — provided their first introduction to a little-known chapter of Jewish history.

But Robert Bielsky — son of the brigade’s commander, Tuvia Bielski — has heard the story all his life.

“We didn’t just hear our father’s stories,” he said. “We were born into the story, born into the history. People were always coming by to thank my father for saving their lives and allowing their families to regenerate.”

The four Bielski brothers, who hailed from a farming family in Stankiewicze, Poland, fled to the forest after their parents and other family members were killed in the Nowogrodek ghetto in December 1941. While their original goal was simply to survive, Tuvia (the eldest), Alexander (also known as Zus), Asael, and Aron ultimately created a community unlike any other partisan group. Not only did they fight the enemy, but by the end of the war the group had rescued more than 1,200 men, women, and children.

Robert Bielsky, together with six of these survivors, will speak about the Bielski Brigade at a May 17 program at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel.

The younger Bielsky spells his name differently from his father.

“My father and mother spelled it differently,” he said. “My father used the Polish spelling, my mother used the Russian. I always followed my mother.”

His parents, who had known each other as youngsters, married in the forest in 1944.

“My mother Lilka,” 18 years younger than his father, “was infatuated with my father even as a little girl,” he said. After the war, the couple immigrated to Israel, where Robert Bielsky’s brother and sister were born. In 1957, they came to the United States.

Robert, born here the following year, spoke about growing up in Brooklyn.

“There’s a bond among all those who survived,” he said, noting that his parents lived 10 blocks away from his uncle Zus’s family. “We all remained close, including first and second cousins.” Of the four original Bielski partisans, only Aron, the youngest, is still alive.

While his father and uncles “looked like anybody else,” he said, “they were bigger than life in the eyes of our family and those they saved.”

“They went into the woods to save their own lives, but their [quest] for survival turned into the largest armed Jewish resistance in World War II,” he said, explaining that while they had originally hoped simply to meld into the woods and not be discovered, their group kept growing as they met Jewish escapees in the forest.

Tuvia Bielski, right, with his daughter Ruth. His brother Zus is pictured here with his sons Jay and David. The picture was taken in Israel in 1957.

“They had to make a decision whether to organize them or go their separate ways,” he said, noting that this father believed there was strength in numbers and also hoped to create an alliance with Soviet partisans.

“He was a good negotiator,” said Bielsky, pointing out that his father’s family were the only Jews in their hometown and had learned, from necessity, to “negotiate their way out of trouble. They were also big, strong, and smart,” he said.

Bielsky confirmed that a quote often attributed to his father was accurate.

“He told me directly that he would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill 10 German soldiers,” he said.

What gave his father the greatest pleasure after the war, he added, “was when he was invited to weddings and bar mitzvahs and could look at the children and grandchildren of the people he saved.”

During the summer of 2007, Robert Bielsky went back to the woods to see where his father and the other partisans had lived for two years. On the way, he said, they stopped in at the movie set in Vilnius to speak with “Defiance” director Ed Zwick. The two had met previously in Manhattan.

Crossing the border into Belarus, “where it all happened,” he met former brigade member Jack Kagan, and the two attended the opening of a museum honoring the partisans.

Bielsky said that thanks to Kagan’s guidance — “He knew everything,” he said — as well as the help of the non-Jewish museum curator, he was able to locate the huts where the partisans had lived.

“They were still standing,” he said. “They were built very well. It was surreal to see them — they survived for 65 years.”

Last summer, Bielsky funded an excavation in the woods. The items discovered there are now housed in the Florida Holocaust Museum.

During his trip, Bielsky “went to the places they went. I got the full flavor,” he said. “My biggest amazement was that when we went from ‘a’ to ‘b’ by car, it sometimes took an hour. They walked those distances. It’s insane,” he said.

Six weeks after returning home, Bielsky set off again, returning to Belarus with his entire family to show them where his father was born. This time, he spent four days on the movie set in Vilnius, talking with the actors. His 22-year-old son, Jordan, was given a small role in the film.

Lilka and Tuvia Bielski lighting a candle at David Feit’s bar mitzvah in 1969.

“All in all, the movie was very accurate,” although some historical events were out of order, said Bielsky. In addition, he noted, the moviemakers “embellished the ferocity” of the fighting. “[The brigade] didn’t blow up tanks,” he said.

He pointed out that special screenings of the movie were held all over the country for surviving brigade members. More than 375 partisans and their descendants attended the screening in November at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.

“There was a private screening just for the Bielski family,” he added, “about 148 of us.”

Zwick, he said, was “sensitive to the comments” he received from these groups, especially from those who were connected with the events portrayed.

Bielsky, who has been speaking about the brigade for some 15 years, said that after the movie was released, “the outside world wanted to know more.” When he talks, he said, “the power of the story drives the speech.”

Tuvia Bielski’s son said he has learned a powerful lesson from his father’s experiences. “Never wait until there are no options,” he said. “When you see trouble, start planning ahead.”

Woodcliff Lake resident David Feit, a member of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel’s religious affairs committee and the organizer of the May 17 program, felt it was important for the world to know that the story depicted in “Defiance” was not fiction. “It involved real people,” he said, “people who rose to the occasion” when their lives, and those of fellow Jews, were endangered. His mother was one of those rescued.

“It is especially important for the younger generation [to know],” said Feit adding that while increasing numbers of young Jews do not feel a strong connection with Israel, “they need to understand that it is important not just historically but because it protects us. In the 1940s, there was no one to help.”

Feit pointed out that the Bielski Brigade exerted a “superhuman effort to save Jews under the eyes of the Nazis,” who placed bounties on their heads. He noted also that the major difference between this partisan group and others was its acceptance of women and children. Other groups, he said, limited themselves to fighting men.

“I want to show the new generation that this actually happened, that real, live people went through this horrendous experience, creating viable cities in the forest and moving them when they were in danger.”

He said that stories like this have been little known, and only during the past 10 to 15 years have books been published about it.

“People think of the Jews as demure lambs led to the slaughter,” he said, “but there were many, many heroes. They should all be honored.”

In addition to Robert Bielsky, the Fair Lawn program will feature six survivors of the brigade — Anna Monka, Michael Stoll, Ruth and Sol Lapidus, Lea Friedberg, and Sonya Oshman. Feit will screen a brief segment from “The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods,” a documentary that aired on the History Channel in 2006 and in which four of the above survivors participated.

Oshman, who now lives at the Jewish Home Assisted Living in River Vale, has described her journey from Nowogrodek in 1941 to the United States in 1950 as “a miracle.”

After surviving the initial German invasion of Poland — which claimed the lives of her grandparents — she managed to escape from a ghetto where Jews were being systematically murdered, losing her mother, two brothers, and her sister there. Caught once again, she and fellow prisoners built a tunnel to the outside.

“It took us about five or six months to dig a tunnel large enough for a person to crawl through,” she said. “On a rainy night in September, we decided to try to crawl out. We took a chance, and if anyone survived, that person could tell the story. I was one of the lucky ones.”

With three companions — one of whom she later married — Oshman, then 20, made her way to the Naliboki Forest, where her group met up with the Bielski Brigade. After the war, she and her husband, Aaron, moved to Italy and then to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. After that, they moved to Elizabeth.

According to a JHAL spokesperson, Oshman, who spoke frequently about her experiences at local events, moved to the facility “after falling on the ice on her way to a speaking engagement.”

Feit’s mother, born Frieda Sluka, was a young girl in the Lida ghetto when her mother and three sisters were slaughtered by the Nazis. She escaped from the ghetto and joined the Bielski partisans in 1942, remaining with them for a year and a half, until liberation by the Russians during the summer of 1944.

She immigrated to the United States in 1946 and married Feit’s father, Joseph, in 1950, having met him at the Eschwege DP camp in Germany after the war. Frieda Feit — who remained close friends with Tuvia Bielski until his death in 1987 — died in 2001.

Sonya Oshman

Feit remembers Tuvia Bielski well, describing him as a “close family friend.” In fact, said Feit, “he lit a candle at my bar mitzvah.”

The program organizer recalled that once a month, the 10 or so brigade survivors in Brooklyn would get together at each other’s homes to play cards. They also shared family simchas.

“My mother didn’t talk very much about [her experiences],” he said, “probably to protect me and my sister.” She did, however, talk to Peter Duffy, author of “The Bielski Brothers” (HarperCollins, 2003).

After his mother died, Feit read the Duffy book and became more interested in what his mother had gone through. He traveled to Poland, though he was cautioned against visiting Lida. An aunt who went there subsequently described it simply as “a town with few Jews.”

Feit said the members of the Brooklyn survivors group looked “like your typical bubby and zaydie. They loved their families and children above everything. They didn’t look like fighters.”

While survivors from Lida and their families gather each May, the number of survivors is growing “smaller and smaller,” he said.

  • May 8, 1942

Honoring the memory of Tzila (Kopelowicz) Zakheim (1922 – 2003)

Tzila Zakheim, was born to Israel Chanan and Etel Kopelowicz, in Mir in present day Belarus, on the 15th September 1922. Her father Israel Chanan Kopelowicz had been married before and had six children from his first marriage. Tzila had one brother from her parent’s marriage. Tzila’s siblings from her father’s first marriage were quite a lot older than she was.

Tzila’s father, Israel Chanan Kopelowicz,
was killed in the ‘last shechitah’.

Like many of the Jews in Mir she spoke Yiddish in the home and Byelorussian outside her home. Tzila attended a government school from age six and got on well with the Polish and Russian children. In addition to her government secular schooling, Tzila, along with the other Jewish students, attended Talmud Torah to learn Hebrew.

Tzila with her younger brother, Mendel, who was killed in the ‘first shechitah’ in November 1941.

Tzila with her older brother Michael.
Michael and his wife were killed
in the forests outside Mir.

The community of Mir first heard of the Nazi’s rise to power in 1932 when Hitler came to power. They would listen to the news on the Radio and read about it in their own Yiddish Newspapers. People were worried but felt that they couldn’t do anything. Tzila’s father had no intention of leaving Mir even after he heard of the problems. He felt that he was too old to travel or to move. In those days sixty was already considered old.

The Nazi’s arrived in Mir on the Friday the 27th of June 1941. Tzila remembers the Germans marching and singing "Deutsch Dimeralus", meaning “Land Dive” and crying “Das is Hasbliskri”. The war is very quick. Tzila remembers being at home when the German’s came and that she didn’t attempt to hide.

All the changes that were made in Mir were notified to the Jews on placards. They included:

Jews must not live with non-Jews.
Jews must wear a white band on their left arm with a yellow Magen David.
Jews are not allowed to walk on the pavement.

Gentiles would walk with a stick and scream “Yud Kaput” meaning “Jew is finished” if they saw a Jew on the street. This was the first time there had been unrest between the Jews and the Gentiles in Mir.

Soon after the arrival of the Germans in Mir, the town started to go up in flames. Tzila was unsure as to how the fire started but half the town was burnt down. Her house was fortunately saved and the family welcomed neighbours into their house to live with them. People slept on the floor and they took doors off their hinges and used them as a base to sleep on. Tzila, herself, shared her bed with three other girls.

Tzila remembered that it was still dark when they first heard the shooting. She dressed quickly, as she had already heard the Germans chasing the Gentiles to dig graves with shovels; the police had already been to their houses. Tzila ran by herself to a non-Jewish family, Ignat and Sonya Yemolovitch, who lived on her street and with whom she was friendly.

She didn’t know where her family was, because there was such a lot of noise and panic in the house when the police came to chase them out. Sonya told Tzila to go to the stable; she must not remain in the house. Already hiding in the stables were  two young boys, a mother and daughter and another woman who managed to stumble into the stable. She remembered hearing the killing and shooting from the stable.

The Germans came to inspect the stable and even looked through the straw where Tzila and the others were hiding, but they were not discovered. Ignat knew of Tzila’s presence in the stable from his wife Sonya, but he did not know the others were there. Many other Jews who were hiding were found and those found were sent to their graves. This massacre came to be known as the “FIRST SHECHITAH”. Tzila’s younger brother Menachem, who was only 13 at the time, was killed running in the street.

She heard people crying out “Shema Yisroel” as they were being shot. It was then that Tzila made the decision that if she was still alive by nighttime she would run away from Mir. She was confident that she knew the way to the forest.

It was summer when Tzila first entered the forest. She had been in the forest on her own for most of the time. At first she and three girls slept on the ground and then in a bidel (hut). Intermittently Tzila would return to her friends, Sonya and Ignat, and they would give her bread and milk; Tzila and the girls ate once a day. In the winter of 1943 they slept in a zublanker (bunker). Sometimes there could be ten or more people.

One night while she was visiting Sonya and Ignat they heard shooting in the distance. Ignat told her it was too dangerous to go back to the forest. She hid in the barn until the next night. When she returned to her camp she found that they had all been shot and killed, including her brother Michel and his family.

 Tuvia Beilski was unique in that he accepted any Jew into his otriad, believing that every person had the right to life and to survive and that the best sort of resistance the Jews could possibly have would be to survive. It had become too dangerous to go to the villages, so Tzila had stopped going to Sonya and Ignat. It therefore did not matter if she was far from Mir. There were over 1000 people living in with the Bielski camp.

The war ended on the 8th May 1945. Tzila was not ready to leave. She was still working and had to pack up. She, together with Kunye and Sarah Kagan from Mir, left in July 1945. She wanted to give Sonya and Ignat ten Rouble but they wouldn’t take it as they knew Tzila’s need was greater than theirs.

Tzila and the Kagans left by train for Poland. They were too afraid to go to Bialystok as anti-Semitism was rampant there and Poles were shooting Jews. They couldn’t go to Warsaw as the whole city had been bombed and they wouldn’t have had anywhere to stay. They elected to go to Lodz. Because of the anti-Semitism in Poland they didn’t speak Yiddish in the streets; if you were caught speaking Yiddish you could be killed. They were able to find accommodation and met up with other Jews who had survived the war. It was in these sorts of instances that Jews would warn each other about leaving Poland out of fear of the Pogroms.


In 1968 Tzila and Chaim went on holiday to Israel and Tzila had a very emotional reunion with her friends from Mir and the Bielski Otriad. Her reunion with Kunya Kagan was especially poignant.

Friends from Mir in Israel

Tzila and Chaim had 3 children, Chonie, Ethel and Eileen and 12 grandchildren.

Chaim Zakheim passed away in 1983. Tzila sold the house. Her mother- in-law, who was still living with them at the time of Chaim’s death, went to live in the Jewish Old Aged Home, “Sandringham Gardens”. Tzila went to live in a flat in Yeoville in Johannesburg. Tzila travelled up and down to Israel on a regular basis to visit her daughter Eileen and her son Chonie and their families. During this time she suffered from hernias and had to be operated on several times. All the operations were successful and did not stop her from continuing her travels.

Friends from Landsberg Displacement Camp prior to her departure in 1947



Mir friend Sarah Kagan (on right)

Photos of more friends from Landsberg Camp


Tzila remained at the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp until she left for South Africa in July of 1947. She had intended going to Palestine, but the Red Cross, with the help of Mike Breslin, were able to trace her siblings who were living in South Africa.

Mike Breslin, who had seen Tzila in Mir, sent a telegram to his brother Kiva (Akiva) in Israel who sent a telegram to his brother Binyomin in Cape Town who sent the telegram to Tzila’s sister, Feigel Kramer, in Johannesburg who in turn managed to coordinate with the “Joint” so that Tzila could travel to South Africa.

With the help of the “Joint” she went to Paris. From there she was sent to London. She was told to wear a white bandage on her right arm when she reached London but was not told that it was to be used for identification purposes. Because she didn’t understand why she had to put on the white bandage she didn’t put it on, and was left stranded at the station.

She eventually found a policeman who was just about to go off duty, and in broken English managed to convey to him that she was lost. He took pity on her and after showing her around London took her home with him where she spent the night with his family. The next morning he took her to the police station where they contacted ‘The Joint’. They picked her up and explained that they were looking for someone wearing a white bandage. She stayed in a boarding house in Gower Street until she departed for South Africa.


Telegram that Tzila's half sister Feige, in South Africa, 
received from Eliezer Breslin notifying her 
that Tzila was the only person alive in her family.

The journey to Johannesburg took two days on an aeroplane called a Skymaster, landing every couple of hours along the route. She was met by her family and went to live with her half sister and brother-in-law, Feigel and Chonie Kramer. On her arrival in South Africa the spelling of her name changed, the South African’s started spelling it Cyla so on different documentation the spelling is different.

Tzila with her family in South Africa shortly after her arrival
Tzila in South Africa

In South Africa, soon after her arrival, Tzila met Chaim Zakheim. They were married in 1948.

Tzila and Chaim Zakheim in 1947 in Johannesburg, SA

Chaim Zakheim and his family had managed to leave Lithuania in 1938. His father had passed away, so his mother lived with them from the time they were married.

They originally lived in a house in Bertrams in Johannesburg until 1956 and then in a house in Bezuidenhout Valley. Tzila helped Chaim in his shop every Friday and Saturday. They had three children: Chonie (Israel Chanan), born in 1949, Ethel, born in 1952, and Eileen, born in 1954. Chaim and Tzila were determined to ensure that their children retained their Jewish roots. They all went to King David School, the Jewish Day School in Johannesburg and spoke Yiddish at home. Tzila and Chaim had both learnt to speak English but wanted their children to carry on their heritage.

  • 1922 – 2003

Marisa Diena


Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy, on September 29, 1916. Eight years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy, Marisa was taught to love Fascism. However, in 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, banning Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy. and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.

After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique; since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion.
As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to
her commander. In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.

In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25th, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa still lives in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children.

  • September 29, 1916~

Sara Fortis

Born in Chalkis, a small town near Athens, Greece, Sara Fortis never knew her father, who passed away when she was only two months old. Raised by her mother, Sara and her sister enjoyed a happy childhood. They were 100% Greek, and celebrated being Jewish by lighting candles every Friday and attending temple on holidays. 

Sara knew it was time to leave her hometown when the Germans arrived in 1941. She had heard about Jews in other small Greek towns being deported by the Nazis, and never returning. Sara and her mother escaped to Kuturla, another small village, and hid there for a short while. When it was no longer safe for Jews, Sara was told to go, although the villagers agreed to hide her mother.

Leaving her mother, Sara decided to become an andarte, or resistance fighter, to avenge the brutal rape and murder of her cousin by Nazi soldiers. Wanting to play a significant role in the group, she went from village to village and recruited other females who wanted to fight. 

Sara Fortis in her partisan uniform. Sara formed an all female band of partisans that worked on missions with the men. Unlike many women partisans, Sara and her group would go on missions and actively fought the Germans.

Sara formed a band of female andartes that became indispensable to the male fighters, transforming young village girls into women warriors. On their first mission, they were ordered to throw Molotov cocktails to distract the enemy and allow the partisans to attack. Impressed by their skills, the male partisans invited the all-female group to join in many missions.

Picture of Sara Fortis' uncle, Mordechai Frisis. Sara would work for her uncle and bring home food to her family.

They burned down houses, executed Nazi collaborators, and aided the men in a way no group of females had before. The male andartes were given credit for many missions the women completed, as it was unfathomable that women could accomplish such acts. When the women andartes stayed behind, they would often welcome the men home with cold drinks or a campfire meal. Often the women were forced to sleep next to the men and Sara constantly worried about the women’s safety.
Sara Fortis, center, in partisan uniform. Sara was wanted for her actions as a partisan and was arrested at the end of the war.

Sara Fortis in truck, waving goodbye to the camp.

Sara Fortis with unidentified group.
Sara became a prominent and well-respected figure in the andartes movement in Greece and was arrested at the end of the war. After her release, she traveled to Israel, where she met her husband, and where she still lives today.

Sara Fortis in nurse's uniform. Sara worked as a nurse at the start of the war and later fled her home town to avoid the approaching Germans.

Gertrude Boyarski

Gertrude Boyarski, born in 1922, was a teenager with a family and a home until the Germans invaded her town of Derechin, Poland. The Nazis forced the townï Jews into a ghetto. Yet, Gertieïs father, a butcher and a housepainter, was regarded by the Germans as a usefulï Jew. The Boyarskis, therefore, were moved to a guarded building just in front of the ghettoï entrance. 

On July 24, 1942, a night of terror descended on the ghetto. The Germans began a mass killing of the 3,000 to 4,000 Jews.

The Boyarski family escaped to a nearby forest. Trying to get into a partisan unit, Gertieïs father, brother and other Jews had to prove themselves and return literally bare handed to to attack the town police station, killing the guards and taking the stations stash of weapons and ammunition. In the months that followed, Gertie saw her mother, father, sister, and brother murdered before her eyes in surprise attacks by German soldiers and by antisemitic Poles who hunted the woods for Jews. 

Bereft of family and seeking revenge, she left the shelter of the family camp where she had been living and sought to join a partisan detachment under the leadership of the Russian Commander Bullock.

o achieve membership into the unit she approached a family friend already in the group, and asked him to help her get into the partisans. He replied he would help her if she became his mistress. 

Disgusted by his advances, she asked the commander himself if she could join. After proving herself by standing guard alone, for two weeks, a mile from the partisan encampment, she was accepted by the partisan unit as a fighter.

Gertie lived in the forest as a partisan for three years. Her group aggressively attacked German soldiers who came to the surrounding villages. For International Womens Day. Gertie volunteered to burn down a wooden bridge that was used by German soldiers. Gertie and her friend prepared and lit the fire. German soldiers saw the blaze and started shooting. But We didnt chicken out, Gertie says. Instead, they grabbed burning pieces of the bridge and tossed them into the river until the bridge was destroyed. 

After the war she was honored with the Soviet Union's highest award, the Order of Lenin. In 1945, she married a fellow partisan, and they settled in the United States. Gertie still grapples with having lived through the war when so many perished. I was the only one who survived. Why? Why me?  I'm always asking that question.

Gertrude Boyarski in wedding picture taken after the war.

  • 1922

Romi Cohn


Romi Cohn was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia on March 10th 1929. He was only ten years old when Germany invaded his country in 1938. When mass deportations of Jews from Slovakia began in 1942, his family was granted an ‘economic exception’ and allowed to stay. As the war dragged on, however, they realized that their position was becoming dangerous. Romi was eventually smuggled over the border into Hungary.

Unable to speak Hungarian, Romi knew that merely opening his mouth exposed him as an illegal refugee. He settled in a small town and enrolled at a local yeshiva, where the
Romi Cohn in Budapest, 1944
headmaster was sympathetic to his plight. He continued his education until 1944. When Hungary joined formally with the Axis and began massdeportations of Jews, Romi returned home to Czechoslovakia, this time carrying forged Christian identification papers.

Romi became an informal member of the underground and used his connections to help find housing for Jewish refugees and to supply them with false Christian papers. The identity papers he made were very realistic: a connection working at Gestapo headquarters supplied him with German seals to stamp the documents.

Eventually Romi was arrested on suspicion of carrying false documents and, after a daring escape, he decided to join the partisans hiding in the mountains. To reach the mountains, Romi forged a German military travel order, sending him to the last German outpost before partisan-controlled territory.

“[The Germans] all shook my hand and wished me luck. They thought I was going to go strike a blow for the Reich,” Romi remembers. By the time he joined the partisans, the Germans were already in retreat, and his brigade drove them back westward, while capturing, interrogating, and executing SS officers.

When Hungary was liberated, Romi returned to Czechoslovakia. Today he lives in the U.S., and has written a book about his wartime experiences, entitled The Youngest Partisan.

  • March 10th 1929

Dora Oltulski


Dora Oltulski was born in the village of Zgorany, near Luboml, Poland. The baby of the family, Dora was attending school in Luboml when the Germans invaded. For a year, she lived in the Luboml ghetto, working in a canning factory. It was her job there that saved her life. Hearing rumors of aliquidation, she stayed overnight at the factory instead of returning home to the ghetto, and thus was spared the fate of her neighbors. 

She and her family hid with a gentile farmer for a year before they eventually joined her sister and brother in law in the forests. In the partisans, Dora worked as a nurse in the makeshift hospital, cleaning and dressing wounds and numbing the pain of the afflicted with home made vodka.
In the forest, some young women paired themselves off with partisan captains for protection and privileges. Dora remembers how a girlfriend of hers in another camp got to ride a horse instead of walking and was spared from doing any manual labor after becoming the mistress of the camp commandant. But Dora was fiercely independent, and she resisted the advances of any man who approached her in the camp.

As the war continued, the front lines drew closer and closer to the forests around Luboml. Driven forward by the threat of desperate, retreating Germans, the unit decided their only hope was to cross the front and meet the advancing Russian army. Dora’s mother and one of her sisters were killed in this dangerous crossing. After reaching the Russians and being liberated, Dora and the rest of her family returned to Luboml, where they stayed until the end of the war.

Dora ended up in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany where she met a family friend who had known her since she was a child. In less than a year the couple were married, and a year later, still in the DP camp, Dora gave birth to her first son. The family immigrated to America in 1949, settling in New Jersey, where they still live today. The Otulskis have two grown children.

Joseph Greenblatt

Joseph Greenblatt was born in Warsaw in 1915. He learned about resistancefrom his father, an army captain who had fought for Polish independence during WWI. At eighteen, Joe enlisted in the Polish army as an infantryman, becoming an officer in 1938.

In 1939 he was mobilized and sent to the Polish-German border. He witnessed the German invasion directly and fought for almost twenty days before being taken prisoner and sent to a German POW camp. It was in the camp that he began to establish connections with the newly formed Armia Krajowa (AK). The AK hijacked a German truck, transporting Joe to a hospital, freeing him and his fellow prisoners.

Joe returned to Warsaw, only to find the Jewish population of the city walled into a newly formed ghetto. Though they were imprisoned the Jews of Warsaw were far from passive; underground resistance units had already begun to form. Joe used his army connections to amass a stockpile of black market weapons. He also met and married his wife, the younger sister of a comrade in arms. 

In the spring of 1943, rumors of a full-scale liquidation circulated. Joe and the other partisan commanders decided it was time to act. Disguised as Nazis, they attacked German soldiers as they entered the ghetto. Joe remembers how men from his unit threw a Molotov cocktail into a tank, destroying it and killing several Germans. Joe eventually escaped from the ghetto through the sewer system, emerging in the Gentile quarter. Hiding his identity with a Christian alias, Joe made contact with his old POW comrades and joined the AK. For a while, he worked as a member of the Polish underground, raiding a German train depot and aiding in the assassination of a prominent SS official. In late 1944 he was remobilized with the Polish army. 
Joseph Greenblatt with his wife Irene. Joe and Irene married each other in the Warsaw ghetto and were active members in the ghetto uprising.

When Germany surrendered, Joe was working as the commander of a camp of German POWS. After the war Joe went to work for the Irgun under the command of Menachem Begin, traveling between Belgium and Israel as an arms dealer. 

In the late 1940s, Joe and his wife immigrated to the United States, settling in New York.


  • 1915

Brenda Senders

Brenda Senders was born in Sarny, Poland, in 1925. She was the daughter of a forester, which would help her survive during the war. In 1939, Sarny fell under Soviet control, and in 1941, under German control. The Nazis forced the Jews of Sarny into a ghetto soon after. In 1942, the ghetto was closed and the Nazis sent the remaining ghetto inhabitants to a death camp

Someone managed to smuggle a pair of wire cutters into the camp and cut a hole in the fencing, allowing Brenda, her sister, and hundreds of other prisoners to escape.
Many of the escapees were caught, but Brenda and her sister were lucky enough to be hidden by a local Christian family who knew their father. Eventually, the sisters fled into the forest. 

After several months in hiding, Brenda connected with a large Soviet-backed partisan unit, made up of 1600 people. While she was unarmed, Brenda’s determination to fight convinced the partisan general that she was fit to join. Leaving her sister in hiding with a local peasant, Brenda learned how to shoot a gun and ride a horse. She joined the partisan cavalry, and became one of the general’s bodyguards.
Brenda Senders, after liberation. Brenda's gun had a 72 bullet magazine. Brenda would go on many missions with the men and even served as the General's body guard.

Brenda’s unit was constantly on the move. They occupied villages, conducted ambushes and shot passing German troops, blew up bases, and obliterated bridges and train tracks. “We didn’t let [the Nazis] rest day or night,” Brenda recalls proudly. 

After the war, Brenda left Russia, escaping through Slovakia into Austria. She ended up in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Braunau Am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, where she was reunited with her sister.

In the DP camp, Brenda met her future husband, Leon Senders, a fellow former partisan. Brenda and Leon married in 1945 and left for Italy, ultimately immigrating to the United States that same year. Today, Brenda and Leon live in Florida. They have three children and seven grandchildren.
Brenda Senders, on left, with friend after war.
Leon and Brenda Senders at their wedding. Leon and Brenda met at a Displaced Persons camp after the war.

  • 1925

Eta Wrobel

Born December 28th, 1918 in Lokov, Poland, Eta Wrobel was the only child in a family of ten to survive the Holocaust. In her youth, she was a free spirit who defied authority. As Eta puts it she was “born a fighter.” Her father, a member of the Polish underground, taught her the importance of helping people, no matter the circumstance. 

In early 1940, Eta started work as a clerk in an employment agency. Soon she began herresistance by creating false identity papers for Jews. In October 1942, the Eta’s ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were forced into concentration camps.

Eta Wrobel portrait, 1945

In the transition, Eta and her father escaped to the woods. 

Life in the woods around Lokov was extremely treacherous. Eta helped organize an exclusively Jewish partisan unit of close to eighty people. Her unit stole most of their supplies, slept in cramped quarters, and had no access to medical attention. At one point Eta was shot in the leg and dug the bullet out of her leg with a knife.

The unit set mines to hinder German movement and to cut off supply routes. Unlike the other seven women in the unit, Eta refused to cook or clean. Her dynamic personality and military skills allowed for this exception. She was active on missions with the men and made important strategic decisions. 

In 1944, when the Germans left Lokov, Eta came out of hiding and was asked to be mayor of her town. Shortly after, Eta met Henry, her husband to be. They were married on December 20, 1944. In 1947 Eta and Henry moved to the United States. They currently live in New Jersey and have three children and nine grandchildren. Eta summarizes her heroic years with the partisans by saying simply, “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive.” 
Eta died on May 26, 2008 in her home in upstate New York.

  • December 28th, 1918~May 26, 2008

Faye Schulman

Faye Schulman was born to a large family on November 28, 1919 in Lenin, Poland. She learned photography from her brother Moishe and assisted him in his photography business. 

On August 14, 1942, the Germans killed 1,850 Jews from the Lenin ghetto, including Faye's parents, sisters and younger brother. They spared only 26 people that day, among them Faye for her photographic abilities. The Germans ordered Faye to develop their photographs of the massacre. Secretly she also made copies for herself. 

"This photo is really part of my history as a partisan. This is my ‘new’ automatic rifle…. I really had to practice how to shoot this one."

‘We took this picture because Rosa and I had done something successful. Funny, I remember taking the photograph but I don’t remember exactly what we had done. There were so many experiences, so many dangerous things we did. To come out of it and take a photo was a sign of success.’

During a partisan raid, Faye fled to the forests and joined the Molotava Brigade, a partisan group made mostly of escaped Soviet Red Army POWs.

She was accepted because her brother-in-law had been a doctor and they were desperate for anyone who knew anything about medicine. Faye served the group as a nurse from September 1942 to July 1944, even though she had no previous medical experience. The camp’s doctor was a veterinarian. 
Formal burials of partisans were rare. Faye took this photograph to show the first time her detachment’s casualties were buried in caskets…. ‘These are two Jews and two gentiles, all four buried in one grave together.... They fought together against the same enemy, so they are buried together.'
Two weeks after the mass killing in Lenin, during a partisan attack, Faye escaped Lenin and joined the partisans of the Molotova Brigade. When she saw someone she knew, it was a moment of great joy…. ‘These boys escaped the Nazi-occupied half of Poland and came to Lenin in 1939, when we first met…. I was happy to meet three Jewish boys together. In my brigade, I couldn’t even say I was Jewish…. So, when I saw boys I knew, I was very happy not to hide anything’.

During a raid on Lenin, Faye succeeded in recovering her old photographic equipment. During the next two years, she took over a hundred photographs, developing the medium format negatives under blankets and making “sun prints” during the day. On missions Faye buried the camera and tripod to keep it safe.

Her photos show a rare side of partisan activity – one s a funeral scene where two Jewish partisans are being buried alongside Russian partisans, despite the intense antisemitism in the group. In another image, Schulman and three young Jewish men smile joyously after an unexpected reunion in the forest—each believing that the other had been killed. 

“I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.” She is the only known Jewish partisan photographer. 

After liberation, Faye married Morris Schulman, also a Jewish partisan. Faye and Morris enjoyed a prosperous life as decorated Soviet partisans, wanted to leave Pinsk, Poland, which reminded them of a “graveyard”. Morris and Faye lived in the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camps in Germany for the next three years and immigrated to Canada in 1948.

"We married knowing each other’s stories, two partisans, and we tried to live as if nothing had happened, building new and normal lives."

Today Faye lives in Toronto, Canada and shares her experiences with diverse audiences. She has two children and six grandchildren.


  • November 28, 1919

Meir Porges

Meir Porges was born in the Slovakian village of Mamoshova in 1920. Growing up under the Czechoslovakian government, Meir experienced littleantisemitism. It was only with the creation of an independent Slovakia in 1939, led by German collaborationists, that the situation of Slovakian Jews began to deteriorate. In 1940, Meir was drafted into the Slovakian army. As a Jew, he was not allowed to carry a weapon and instead worked as an auxiliary doing manual labor. 

As the war dragged, persecution of Jews increased. In 1942, the year that the first 

Meir Porges during interview with JPEF.
trainloads of Slovakian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, Meir was discharged from the army and sent to a forced labor camp. But he was lucky: the men guarding him had been mellowed by age and the general morale of the pro-German Slovakian army was falling rapidly. In 1944, as anger with the government mounted, the guards deserted the camp and Meir was left to join the rebel forces in the brief and bloody Slovakian uprising. 

As a rebel soldier, Meir learned how to use a gun and helped his countrymen cut off the retreat lines of the fleeing Germans. 

By the time the revolt was crushed and the Germans had reoccupied the country, Meir had secured Gentile identity papers and slipped off into the rebel stronghold of the Slovakian mountains.

He spent several months fighting alongside the Russian partisans, conducting sabotage operations and search and destroy missions. Meir remembers waiting for it to snow to carry out attacks against the Germans and engaging in fierce battles. Building fires was not allowed, for fear that it would give away their position, and the partisans were forced to seek warmth lying under pine needle branches and layers of snow.

When the Russian supply lines were cut off and the camp descended into near-famine, Meir was asked to leave. He descended from the mountains and found work in a nearby village. 

After the liberation of Slovakia, Meir, who had been active in Zionist organizations as a child, immigrated to Israel where he joined the nascent Israeli army and fought in the Arab/Israel War of 1948-1949. He and his family remain in Israel today.
  • 1920

Harry Burger

Harry Burger was born on May 10th, 1924 in Vienna, Austria. The Burger family was affluent and lived a comfortable life until 1938, when Germany annexed Austria and the German Nuremberg laws were put into effect there.

Harry Burger as a boy.

Harry Burger at his Bar Mitzvah.

Harry’s family escaped into France, hoping to flee German rule, but their plans were dashed when France was conquered by Germany in 1940. Harry’s father was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Meanwhile, Harry and his mother were moved to a makeshift ghetto in Nice, France. Their one stroke of luck was that the Italian army, which was not abusive to Jews, occupied Nice. When the Italians left France, Harry, his mother and 700 

Harry Burger, 194   other Jews followed them into Italy. When they arrived at an Italian fort, Harry learned the Nazis were enroute to collect the Jews. Harry and his mother escaped capture, while more than 350 of the others were taken by the Nazis.

Harry and his mother were living in a barn on the Italian- French border when he was approached by a group of Italian soldiers. Harry asked if he could join them. On the spot, the soldier issued Harry a rifle. In this fashion, he became a partisan in the First Alpine Division, where he used his fluency in German to interrogate captured soldiers.

Initially, the First Alpine Division was under-equipped; they eventually received Allied support in the form of airdropped munitions and clothing. One of the First Alpine’s most important tasks was the sabotage of German electric capabilities. In Northern Italy the train system was electrically powered, so the destruction of local electric plants seriously hindered German mobility.

After the war, Harry was reunited with his mother and returned to France. He stayed in France for five years, working as a photographer. In 1950, Harry immigrated to the United States, eventually finding photography work with two prominent television networks. Harry has one child and four grandchildren.
Discharge papers from the partisans for Harry Burger. Harry used his fluency in German to interogate captured German soliders.
  • May 10th, 1924

Joe Cameron

Joe Cameron was born in 1922, in the Polish town of Eishyshok, near the Lithuanian border. In 1941, after the German invasion of Russia, the Nazis occupied his town and forced the Jews into a ghetto.
Joe and his father escaped from the Eishyshok ghetto before the Nazis and their
collaborators murdered its Jewish inhabitants. Joe spent several months living in the forest, but eventually cold and hunger drove him back into the ghetto of a neighboring town.

Once again, he escaped just as the ghetto was being liquidated, but this time he had more luck; he found a group of fellow escapees hiding in the woods. They were beginning to organize themselves into a partisan unit when Joe joined them. Looking back, Joe reflects, “We had more luck than sense.”

Although Joe’s unit contained many Russians, they did not seem to be in close contact with Moscow. Joe remembers wanting to sabotage German trains but not having the mines or explosives to get the job done. Instead, his unit used fuel and an explosive bullet to destroy the tracks. Eventually, they did blow up trains. Joe remembers destroying a Polish dairy factory as well, in order to prevent the milk from being delivered to the collaborationist Armia Krajowa (AK) militia.

His unit also successfully counterfeited a huge number of German Reich marks, which were used to bribe the local population. Many of the villagers in the area were supportive of the partisans, supplying them with food and information about the movements of the German troops, even allowing them to dance with local girls at village festivals. Joe recalls that German planes circled the forests, hunting down the partisans who lived there.
In 1944, Joe and his unit were liberated by the Russian Army, which he would go on to join. When asked about his experience, Joe has this advice to offer: “Don't give up. Don't give in. Take a chance.” Joe eventually moved to the United States where he met his wife and had two children.

Jeff Gradow

Jeff Gradow was born in 1925 in a small town near Warsaw. When Poland was invaded in 1939, he and his father fled east into Soviet territory. In East Poland, his father got work in a factory in Bialystok and Jeff went to Russian school, soon becoming fluent in the language. When Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion into the Soviet Union, was launched in 1941, Jeff was taken to work as a laborer for the Germans, digging mass graves that he feared would be his own. 

Eventually, Jeff took his chances and escaped into the forest. The partisan encampment he found lacked weapons and intelligence contacts needed to target nearby German troops. However, in the spring of 1943 the Soviets made contact with the group, airdropping weapons and explosives to them and sending in professional Russian paratroopers, armed with short wave radios.

Reorganized by the paratroopers and boasting a much larger stockpile, the brigade began to fight in earnest. They carried out hit and run sniper attacks, mined roads, and cut phone lines. As the front began to move west, the brigade stood guard over the local bridges, preventing them from being destroyed by retreating Germans and holding them long enough to allow the Soviet tanks to cross. 

In the summer of 1944, Bialystok and Baronovich were liberated by the Soviets and Jeff's partisan group was absorbed by the Red Army. He was sent to the front and later discharged after being shot in the hand by a sniper. He was sent to a hospital outside of Moscow to convalesce and by the time he recovered, Berlin was occupied and the war was almost over. He fled Russia and entered West Germany, eventually making his way to the United States. Today, Jeff lives in Los Angeles. He has two grown children and three grandchild.

Jeff Gradow after the war. Jeff was shot in the hand towards the end of the war and spent time in a hospital in Moscow recovering. He later fled Russia and eventually made it to the United States.

  • 1925

Semyon Menyuk

Semyon Menyuk was born in Komarovo Village, Ukraine in 1922. The son of a woodsman, Semyon gained an intimate knowledge of the forests around his village as a child, knowledge that would later save his life. Before the war, Semyon remembers relations between Jews and Gentiles in his village as peaceful.

All of that would change in the spring of 1941, when Hitler broke the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded Ukraine. In a matter of days, Nazis occupied Semyon’s village and he and his family were sent to a ghetto in a nearby town. 

The Germans began their liquidation of the Ukrainian Jewish population in 1942. Rounded up and put on the back of a wagon with the other men in his family, Semyon made a desperate bid for survival, jumping out of the wagon and running into the forest, while the German soldiers shot round after round at him. The daring young escapee would be the only member of his family to survive the war. 

Semyon spent a year living in the forest with another Jewish refugee. Filthy, starving, and hunted, the two young men relied on Semyon’s knowledge of the woods for protection, and on a friendly villager for food and information.

Semyon Menyuk at the grave of the Jews of the ghetto where he lived. Semyon was being transported with other men from his ghetto and jumped off the truck, fleeing and hiding in the surrounding forest.

Eventually this villager helped them meet up with a small band of escaped Russian POWs, and their careers as partisans began. 

Initially, Semyon’s unit was undersupplied. They constructed makeshift mines out of old bombs and sabotaged the Germans whenever they could, taking their food from Nazi collaborators at gunpoint.

By 1944, their unit had steadily grown in number, becoming incorporated into an otriad of several hundred fighters, and they began to receive air support from regular Soviet forces. In the late spring of 1944, Semyon and his fellow partisans were absorbed into the Russian Army and sent across the Bug River to capture German officers. While carrying out his mission Semyon was wounded in the leg. He would remain in a Soviet hospital until after the end of the war. Eventually Semyon immigrated to the US, settling in New York. Today he lives in Queens.

From left to right, Sidorenna, Manya (Semyon's wife), Semyon, Zena.

  • 1922

Norman Salsitz

Norman Salsitz was born May 6, 1920 in a small town in southern Poland. Though he has gone by seven different names in his lifetime, Norman Salsitz has always been the same person: tough, resourceful, and honest.

The youngest of nine siblings, Norman was among the Jewish inhabitants forced into a ghetto in June of 1941 by the Germans. Looking for strong labor, the Germans selected Norman and other healthy young Jews to dismantle recently decimated ghettos. While Norman worked to destroy any remaining signs of his heritage and religion, the Germans began sending his friends and family to the death camps. Norman knew that with each ghetto they demolished, the workers drew closer to their own murders. 

In October of 1942, Norman organized an escape group of 55 people and fled to the surrounding forest. He had some money he had found during his ghetto work, and he used it to buy his first revolver. The sympathetic Pole who sold him the weapon also led Norman to a group of resistance fighters in the woods. These fighters fought through harsh weather conditions on rough terrain to dismantle and damage German railroads, mills, and police stations.

In 1944, Norman joined the AK Polish Underground, despite the strong presence of antisemitism. He knew that as a Jew, he would never be able to make the contribution to defeat the Nazis he wanted to without disguising his Jewish idenitity and joining the powerful AK. Norman worked with the Underground to defeat their common foes until the command was given to seek out and kill Jews being hidden on a farm.

Norman volunteered for the mission, killing the Poles who had been sent with him and rescuing the Jews in hiding. He then fled the AK and returned to his original partisan unit where he remained until he was liberated by the Russians. 

Norman Salsitz’s mother’s dying wish was for her son to keep their stories alive. He has honored that wish by writing books and speaking about his war experiences. From the horrors of mass murder to the inspiration of weary fighters singing hymns, Norman continues to fight for the truth. 

Norman Salsitz's mother Gela. Norman's mother was sent to the Belzec death camp with his five sisters.

Norman Salsitz's sisters.

Norman with Rozia Suskind, Pepka Weitz, Sucia Hoffard, Sucia Wein, and Noa Hutner. Everyone was killed except for Norman.

Norman Salsitz's passport photo.

  • May 6, 1920

Miles Lerman

Miles Lerman was born in the Polish town of Tomashov in 1920. Tomashov had a vibrant Jewish community and a strong Zionist movement. As a child Miles trained in Zionist seminarians, planning to emigrate to Palestine and live on a kibbutz.

His dreams were shattered by the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Tomashov was located only ten miles west of the Soviet-German dividing line. When the Germans invaded the Lerman family fled east to Lubov, in modern day Ukraine. In 1941, the Germans invaded Russia. Many young people fled farther east, hoping for safety deep in Russia, but Miles decided to stay in Lubov and care for his mother.

As 1941 drew to a close, the Jewish population in Lubov became increasingly segregated from the Ukrainian population, and rumors of German massacres became frequent. In early 1942, Miles was sent to a slave labor camp. When he and some fellow inmates were sent to a remote quarry site to break rocks, they decided to take their chances.

Using their shovels, they killed their guards, stole the weapons off their bodies, and escaped into the woods. In the Ukrainian forest they joined a Jewish partisan unit formed by other escapees. Miles remembers that for the next two years, the job of his brigade was “to create havoc”: they raided German outposts, destroying 

food and munitions supplies and continuing to build their arsenal. Unlike more militaristic Soviet brigades, Miles’ brigade also served as a family camp. Women, children, and the elderly were given food and shelter, and the fighting unit dealt out harsh justice to any local collaborator who dared to turn a refugee over to the Nazis. 
Studio portrait of Shmuel (Miles) Lerman in Lodz soon after the war.

In June of 1944, the Soviet Army liberated Miles’ brigade. Miles returned to Poland, visiting his decimated hometown before settling in Lublin, the new capital. In Lublin,
A group of Jewish DPs eat in the mess hall at the Schlactensee displaced persons camp. Seated with bowls before them are Shmuel (Miles) and Rozalia (Chris) Lerman.
Miles met and married Christina, an Auschwitz survivor. In 2005, they celebrated their 60th anniversary. 

Portrait of Rozalia Laks living in Lodz soon after the war.
He passed away in January, 2008.
  • 1920~ January, 2008

Sam Lato

Sam Lato was born in the town of Baronovich, Poland on February 24th, 1925. East of Warsaw, Baronovich became part of Soviet Poland in 1939. Sam and his family would not have direct contact with theNazis until the German invasion of Russia.

In the summer of 1941, his town was occupied. A few months later the Baronovich ghetto was created. Sam became a part of the resistance in the ghetto before he learned about the partisans. In Baronovich, he made cigarette lighters to barter on the black market, and smuggled in medicine and bullets. 

In the spring of 1942, the first major massacres began in Baronovich. Through luck, Sam was spared from death numerous times, but in the autumn, in the wake of a second major slaughter, he decided to take his chances and flee into the forest. Many of the other young men in the Baronovich ghetto had the same idea; when Sam finally reached a partisan encampment he learned that there were already more than a hundred Jews from Baronovich in the brigade.

On one of his first missions, Sam met a young female partisan who made a deep impression on him. They bonded quickly, and within months they were conducting missions together as husband and wife 

Initially Sam’s brigade suffered from a lack of supplies—they had no explosives to carry out sabotage and the camp itself was ravaged with typhus-infected lice. But in the spring of 1943 they began to receive direct support from Moscow. New clothes, weapons, and medicine were air dropped to them by Russian planes and elite Soviet paratroopers were sent in to help them coordinate their activities.

Sam was chosen as a paratrooper auxiliary, accompanying the Russians on their missions. In 1944, Sam was liberated by the Russians and joined the Red Army in their advance to the Baltic Sea. Sam and his wife remained in the USSR for several years following the war, but eventually they defected and fled to West Germany, ultimately immigrating to the United States, where Sam lives today.

Documents given to Sam Lato after liberation verifying the dates of participation in the partisans. The document was given to Sam in the forest and was very important to his future.

  • February 24th, 1925

Anne Monka

Monka was 10 years old in 1939, the year the War broke out in Europe. In 1941, she and her family were confined in the Lida Ghetto, where she remained until 1943. Monka, now living in New Jersey, is the youngest survivor of the Bielski Partisan Camp.

When the Nazis rounded up the Jews for transport to the Majdanek concentration camp, she and her mother hid in an attic to avoid detection; her father, brother, and sister were captured but managed to escape by jumping off the train that was taking them to their doom.

Monka and her mother made their way out of town and eventually found the Bielski partisans. They spent the next two years living with other refugees. The brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael — “built an entire city in the woods,” she told the British Jewish Telegram in an article published in May 2008, shortly after she learned about the movie. “They baked bread, had skilled people to fix things, and had their own synagogue.”



  • 1931

Miriam Brysk nee Miasnik

I was born in Warsaw, Poland in March of 1935 to parents Bronka and Chaim Miasnik. We escaped to Lida, in Soviet-occupied Belarus after Warsaw fell to the Nazis in September 1939. Lida fell in 1941, and its Jews were herded into a ghetto.

In the great slaughter of March 8, 1942, a Nazi Einsatsgruppe shot most of the Lida Jews. My family was at first selected to die, but at the last moment the Nazis decided to spare us because they needed my father's surgical skills to operate on wounded German soldiers.

That summer I was sent to live with a Christan woman because it was rumored that the Germans would kill all the Jewish children in the ghetto. I returned to the ghetto when the rumor proved false. In December 1942, Russian partisans rescued us from the ghetto and brought us to the Lipiczanska forest.

In early 1943, a partisan hospital was established in a remote part of the forest, staffed by Jewish doctors and nurses, with my father as chief of staff. My hair was shaved and I wore boy's clothing to protect me from rape.

On my eighth birthday I was given my own pistol as a present. We were liberated in the summer of 1944. In early 1945 we escaped Belarus and went to central Poland. Traveling as refugees, we traversed most of central Europe to flee the invading Soviets. Soldiers in the Jewish Brigade brought us to Italy, where we stayed for two years as DPs. We came to America in February of 1947 and settled in Brooklyn. 

  • 1935

Tamara Katz

Tamara Katz was a modern woman — the kind of person who could talk to her grandchildren about Puff Daddy, and read the business section of the newspaper every day, even though little of it was relevant to her. 
She also had the savvy to keep herself and her son alive, while on the run, during the Holocaust.
Katz died on Sunday, Nov. 21. She was 90.

She was born Tamara Kaplinski on Feb. 10, 1914 in Lida, Poland. She was an only child, and her father was a lumber broker, with an excellent reputation in the community. She attended the Gymnasium Ivrit, meaning that along with being fluent in Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish, she learned Hebrew as well.

Though she wanted to become a pharmacist, she instead became a bookkeeper. In 1937, she married Abraham Dworzinski, and in 1939, they gave birth to a son, Nathan. In 1941, her parents and husband were rounded up and shot in a mass killing, leaving her widowed with a 3-year-old child. Katz always kept a few blades of grass from the mass grave in a handkerchief.

She and her son were put into the ghetto. But when it came time to be deported, Katz understood that she should try and avoid getting on the train. She took her son and hid in an outhouse behind the train station until it was dark. She then was able to get some peasants who worked for her father to hide her for several nights, until she could get word to a cousin.

But she appeared at the peasants' home in good boots and a wool coat with a fur collar. The peasants realized her clothing could give her away. They outfitted her in old boots and clothing, to disguise her. Because her father had a good reputation in the area, and had many loyal employees, Katz found people who would hide her.

Once her cousin heard she was alive, he had someone bring her to the hideout of the Bielski brothers. In this little known story of the Holocaust, the partisans constructed a sort of shtetl hidden in the forest, and were able to save some 1,200 Jews. They also killed numerous enemy soldiers.

Katz stayed there for several months, until she was able to procure false papers. Because of her blue eyes and fluent Polish, she could pass as non-Jewish, and spent the rest of the war moving from hiding place to hiding place. While on the run, she met and married another partisan, Abraham Katz, in 1944.

At the war's end, they found themselves in Austria, at first in a displaced persons camp. Their daughter, Ruth, was born in Austria in 1946, and in 1951, the family came to the United States, settling in San Francisco. Their daughter, Elli, was born shortly thereafter.

At first, Abraham Katz went to work in the shipyards, and then he opened a fish market, where she also worked. She was widowed again in 1957, when he died from a kidney problem that began during the war. She went back to work as a bookkeeper in an antiques shop, where she learned the business. She and a partner then opened their own antiques store, called the Golden Era, on Clement Street.

For many years, she attended Anshey Sfarad, and was active with AMIT Women and Café by the Bay. She later joined Hadassah when her daughter became involved with it. Ruth Levy of San Francisco said her mother had a wonderful sense of humor, and that "education and honesty and being a mensch in family" was of utmost importance to her. "Clothes don't matter, they'll recognize you anyhow" was a common refrain.

While she was open with her family about her experiences, Katz did not easily share it with strangers. She was also fiercely independent, even into her old age. "That was her greatest strength, but it was also her great demise, too, as she got older," said Levy. "She thought she could still do things, she would forget that she wasn't 50 anymore."

In addition to her daughter Ruth, Katz is survived by son Nathan Dwiri of San Francisco, daughter Elli Price of South Bend, Ind., and three grandchildren.

  • Feb. 10, 1914 ~ December 3, 2004

Keep Retelling the Story

Aron Bell helped save Jews from perishing in concentration camps, and now he wants to save and preserve the memory of the unthinkable atrocities committed in Europe a lifetime ago.

"There are very few survivors left. I can count the ones I know on two hands," said Bell, who was honored today at the Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day at The Tradition of Palm Beaches. "The young Jewish people have to have as good of memory with this as they do with Passover. They have to remember the Holocaust."

Bell, who was born Aron Bielski, is now 82 and a resident of the town of Palm Beach.

But as a teenager, Bell teamed up with his brothers to form the Bielski partisans. The Nazi resistance group freed an estimated 1,236 Jews from concentration camps, living in the forest of what is now Belarus for two years. Most of the Jews they freed joined them in their efforts.

The story was made into the 2008 film Defiance, and was the subject of this year's Yom Hashoah remembrance in West Palm Beach.

"Because of the Bielski partisans, there are thousands of children and now grandchildren and great-grandchildren that wouldn't have been here," said Riva Ginsburg, a retired Florida Atlantic University professor and daughter of a Bielski partisan. "In my family alone, we are 34 strong because of Aron Bielski."

Today, Jewish teenagers from around Palm Beach County introduced eight local Holocaust survivors. Each lit a candle in front of an audience of more than 100 inside the independent and assisted living facility. Some, like Lisa Perlstein, were the only member of their families to survive the Holocaust. Perlstein escaped the Nazis and was hidden by a Polish family until liberation.

An estimated 6 million people were killed in the Holocaust, while only about 150,000 of those sent to concentration camps survived long enough to make it to liberation. But as the survivors dwindle, Ginsburg stressed how important it is for their offspring to continue telling the story of the Holocaust.

"We've accepted the obligation that their legacy has been given to us," she said. "We are the first generation born after the darkness, and through our parents' memories and our parents' word, we are linked to that annihilated Jewish existence whose echoes permeate our consciousness."

Preserving Jewish heritage is the reason that Maayan Doari, a 22-year-old Israeli, is living in Palm Beach Gardens for a year. Doari, who attended today's remembrance, is working with Jewish teenagers through educational programs aimed at connecting Israel with their religion.

"We need to understand our identity, because we don't all have the knowledge," Doari said. Bell said it was "heaven on earth" to have so many people learning about his two-year journey through the Nazi-occupied forests. Then, when asked if he still thinks about the Holocaust, he choked up.

"You never forget that," he said, wiping a tear.

Nowogródek Ghetto

After several mass killing operations carried out during 1941, some 1,300-1,500 Jews remained in Nowogrodek, the vast majority holders of work permits and members of the Judenrat. They were concentrated in a ghetto located in the poor Peresieka suburb on the outskirts of the city. The ghetto was divided into twelve areas, and a member of the Judenrat was placed in charge of each. A small hospital was established in the ghetto by Dr. Berkman. The ghetto was extremely overcrowded, with about twenty people to a room. 

In the spring of 1942, the Germans murdered the members of the Judenrat and a new Judenrat was appointed, headed by Haim Isakovicz. During that period, the Germans transferred 3,000-4,500 Jews from surrounding localities to Nowogrodek, transforming it into a workshop center for Jews in the area. The severe overcrowding in the ghetto caused a deterioration in the quality of life of its residents, and the Jewish Order Service took harsh steps to halt the frequent escape attempts. 

On August 7, 1942, another murder operation was carried out, in which some 3,000 of the ghetto’s residents, including children, were murdered outside the city near the village of Litowka, and another 500 were murdered in the area of the former barracks near the city. 

At this stage, about 1,250 Jews remained in the ghetto. After a while, the ghetto was divided into two parts: some 700 people with required professions and their families were moved into the buildings of the former courthouse, and the remaining 500 Jews stayed in the Peresieka ghetto. The ghetto residents persisted in their attempts to flee to the forests and find shelter among the partisan units and in the family camp established by the Bielski brothers, notwithstanding the opposition of the Judenrat and the Jewish Order Service. 

On February 4, 1943, a further murder operation was perpetrated in which some 500 Jews were killed. The survivors continued to toil in the workshops. On May 7, 1943, a selection was carried out among the professionals in the ghetto, which functioned as a labor camp. More than 300 Jews, mostly women and children, were murdered by the local police and a Lithuanian unit in Hardzilowka, near the courthouse. About 300 Jews, mostly artisans, remained in the ghetto. 

Following this massacre, a Jewish underground formed in Nowogrodek in the spring-September of 1942. An underground council with forty-two members from various parties was established, headed by Yaakov Cohen.

A number of ghetto inhabitants managed to escape, primarily with the assistance of Jewish emissaries sent from the partisan battalion of the Bielski brothers. The underground planned and organized an escape, and for three months a 250-meter-long tunnel was dug, through which the 233 Jews remaining in the ghetto tried to escape on September 26, 1943.

About 170 of them succeeded in reaching the forests, where they joined the Bielski partisans’ brigade. The rest were shot and killed either during the escape or afterwards, when they were caught by the Germans in the forests.

Leah Johnson

Leah Johnson was 16 years old when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. She spent the rest of her teenage years resisting Nazi forces from within Poland as part of a Jewish resistance group.

Johnson escaped from a ghetto outside her hometown of Lida, Poland, in 1943 to join the Bielski Brigade in the woods outside the city. The Bielski Brigade was a Jewish resistance group responsible for saving about 1,200 Jewish lives during the war.

She told her story to a group of 100 people Wednesday night at the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UT. The event began with a screening of the History Channel documentary “The Bielski Brothers: Jeruselem in the Woods.” The documentary featured Johnson along with other survivors who were part of the resistance group.

The creators of the 2008 film “Defiance,” which told the story of the Beilski Brigade, also interviewed Johnson. She saw the movie for the first time during a special screening in New
York City.

“The movie was well done, but not everything was shown,” Johnson said. “It was not enough.”

Rabbi Zev Johnson, Leah Johnson’s grandson, and the Rabbi for the Jewish Center said the purpose of having his grandmother tell her story was to promote Jewish awareness and raise Jewish pride.

“The typical story is how Jews were slaughtered, and that story is right and important,” Zev Johnson said. “This is the story of Jewish resistance, and this resistance saved over 1,200 lives.”

According to the documentary, the movement was the largest rescue of Jews by other Jews during World War II, and about 20,000 people are alive today as a result of the efforts of the Bielski brothers who formed the Brigade.

Leah Johnson said she met and married her husband while in the forest hiding from the Nazis. She said he was a former Russian soldier and went on missions for weeks at a time for the brigade to blow up trains and bridges or just get food.

Leah Johnson’s son Murray Johnson was also at the event to help his mother answer questions. He said she feels a connection to the forest because of the time she spent there hiding for her life.

“She has often said over the years in the woods you can take a pillow and a blanket and have a good time,” Murray Johnson said.

Itzke Reznik

"Killing a man is like smoking a cigarette," Itzke Reznik, known as a man of few words, was accustomed to say. Reznik, who passed away nine years ago in Canada, was one of the intrepid fighters in the so-called Bielski commandos, a Jewish group of partisan fighters headed by the Bielski brothers who fought the Nazis from their base in the forests of Belarus.

They did not hesitate to eliminate Jewish snitches and collaborators and were responsible for saving 1,200 Jews from being killed in the Holocaust. 

The Jewish partisans were remembered last night, a day before the Holocaust Remembrance Day, at a concert by the Ra’anana Symphony Orchestra. The event was organized by Holocaust survivors and their children. Gary Reznik, Itzke’s son, arrived especially from New York. Advertisement

"Dad was reticent and always refused to talk to me about what happened," he said. "But one time he opened up his heart to me and told me briefly about his and his friends’ doings. He was most comfortable in presence of his brothersin arms. They would occasionally meet, drink and reminisce."

Gary Reznik’s visit here is not his first. He first arrived in the country 40 years ago to volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces elite unit, Haruv. "I came here because I heard there were pretty girls, but mostly because I wanted to be a Jewish fighter like my dad was," he said.

After the concert, Reznik met Jack Kagan who told him his father was "one of the most daring in the group." Kagan, a plastics producer from London, is almost 80, and was only 14 when he joined the Bielski partisans. 

"I was in the Navahrudak ghetto," Kagan recounted. "It’s a city in Belarus of which half its population of 12,000 people was Jewish. It’s best known as the place where the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz was born." Shortly after Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis concentrated Jews in ghettos and later labor camps. Kagan twice managed to flee theghetto.

"The second time, two of my toes were amputated because of the cold," he said. His escape was enabled thanks to ghetto prisoners digging a tunnel dug that also allowed 230 others to reach the woods. "We heard about the Bielski brother hiding in the forest and we joined them.

During 1943, they formed a kind of shtetl in the heart of the woods ; they dubbed it "Jerusalem of the woods." Villagers from nearby areas cooperated with them once they realized the Bielskis were more dangerous to them than the Nazis : When a local farmer turned in a group of Jews that came to ask for food, they retaliated by killing him and his family, and burning down his house.

In 1944, when the area was liberated by the Red Army, a group of 700 Jewish survivors emerged from the woods.

Michael Lebowitz


Mr. Michael Lebowitz of Manalapan, formerly of Parsippany and Newark, died Oct. 4, 2007, at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. He was 90.

Born in what is now known as Belarus, Mr. Lebowitz was a Holocaust survivor. During World War II, he was a member of the Bielski Partisans and participated in the rescue of over 1,200 Jews. He came to the United States in 1948 and settled in Newark, where he owned several businesses before retiring in 1979. He divided his time between Manalapan and Florida.

Mr. Lebowitz is survived by his wife of 65 Years, Naomi (née Lungen); sons, Joel and Robert; and grandchildren, David Lee and Emily Rachel. Interment at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, Iselin. Arrangements by Freeman Manalapan-Marlboro Funeral Home, Manalapan.

  • Oct. 4, 2007

Moshe Reznik

When he was 27, Moshe Reznik joined up with the Bielski Partisans, Jewish underground fighters who risked life and limb to save other Jews and frustrate Nazis in Belarus (then a Soviet republic)

According to his own account, Reznik quickly became a leader in the organization and, in the end, was the only fighting member of his group to survive the war.
He went on to live in Jaffa, Israel, work in a government printing office and to tell his story to a second cousin from Pittsburgh, Alan Reznik, who developed a close relationship with the ex-fighter when he lived in Israel in 1959 and again in 1967.

"Moshe was a very modest man, mild-mannered and respected by everybody," said Alan Reznik. "He was kind of shy about his past. Some people knew by word of mouth, but he didn't advertise it. If you didn't know, you'd never guess he was a partisan extraordinaire."
Moshe Reznik died in Israel in 1991, but his cousin provided an account the late fighter wrote after the war, describing the partisans' activities. His story, translated from the Yiddish by O. Delatycki, follows:

In 1942, after my whole family was slaughtered, I escaped to the forest and joined a detachment of partisans under the command of Bielski. I was assigned to the group Red Reconnaissance. After several trials by fire I was given as a reward a pistol, a short rifle, and I was made leader of a group of scouts.

Our Jewish detachment was the first organized partisan force in our district and was the first to conduct diversionary actions against the German army. This caused considerable astonishment in all surrounding towns. The Germans offered a prize of 10,000 marks for anyone who would capture Bielski dead or alive.

The detachment made it its aim, by the order of Commander Bielski, to take revenge on the local farmers if one member of their family was a policeman or helped the Germans to conduct a slaughter, if he robbed or murdered. And seeking revenge we would find the guilty anywhere, even in a concealed hole.

As the Russian partisan movement had become better organized, it was decided to reorganize our detachment ... the elderly family men and the unarmed were sent to the rear, with Bielski as the commander. The young who were in a physical condition to carry arms and fight were attached to a Russian unit. The attachment would be commanded by Jews.

Zisl Bielski was nominated commander of the Jewish reconnaissance and I became the commander of a platoon of scouts. ... Because of the special tasks of my investigations, I endeavored to win the confidence and friendship of the local villagers by helping them, whenever help was needed, such as lending them horses for field work, distribution of food and protecting them from irresponsible partisans. We made, in time, real good friends who risked their lives to bring us important news from town.

The reconnaissance of our detachment was praised by the gentile partisans because of our high morals and bravery. My reports were valued by the staff of the brigade. When the Red Army returned to our district the whole unit was incorporated into the army. I was the only survivor. All others fell fighting the enemy.

According to Alan Reznik, his cousin lost both brothers in the war -- Yitzhak in the Holocaust and Avraham fighting for Berlin with the Soviets -- in addition to both parents, his wife and child. But the entire family of Moshe's second wife, Bila, survived.

The couple lived in Italy after the war, emigrated to Israel in 1950 and raised their three children there. In 1955, Tuvia Bielski -- depicted in the film by Daniel Craig -- came to Moshe for help remembering what transpired in the forest for his unpublished memoir, "Yerushalayim in Vald," or "Jerusalem in the Forest: Memoirs of the Stormy Days of the Partisans in the Forest of Western White Russia during World War II."

Bila Reznik, now 82, still resides in the couple's apartment in Jaffa. Her Pittsburgh relatives last visited in 2008.

(Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson(at)

Jack Chevlin

Jack Chevlin has lived a life of danger and accomplishment and devoted his retirement years to giving back to others.

He spent part of his childhood with a famed band of Belarusian partisans hiding from the Nazis. As an adult he taught music to thousands of students at Roselle Park High School. In later years in Monroe, he has helped raise more than $200,000 for disabled Israeli veterans.

“I like to go to minyan Saturday morning and thank God for my survival and being able to help other people,” said Chevlin, who was honored with his wife, Ethel, at the annual Israel Bonds luncheon July 18 at the Jewish Congregation of Concordia in Monroe, where he served as longtime ritual committee chair.

He previously attended Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark.

Chevlin, who took up the accordion and saxophone while in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany after the war, continued with his music education after his uncle — a Bronx dentist — brought his family to New York.

Chevlin earned scholarships for bachelor’s and master’s degrees and made a career teaching middle- and high-school instrumental music. Grateful officials in Roselle Park, where he lived and taught for 28 years, made him grand marshal for several holiday parades.

After moving to Monroe 12 years ago, Chevlin became president of the Monroe Township Holocaust Survivors, staging an annual musical show to raise money for Beit Halochem (House of the Soldier) rehabilitation centers in Israel.

In a phone interview with NJ Jewish News, Chevlin recounted how his family was saved by Nikolay Kiselev, a soldier in the Red Army who was taken prisoner but escaped in 1941, joining the Belarusian partisans in German-occupied territory.

Kiselev took out about 270 inhabitants of the Jewish settlement of Dolginovo after most had been slaughtered. Only 218 survived the arduous journey. Chevlin was eight or nine when he and his siblings — brothers Simon and Nachman and sister Sylvia — went into the forest with their parents, grandmother, and two cousins. Nachman was later killed while fighting with the Russian Army.

In 2005, Kiselev was posthumously recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, and was the subject of a 2008 Russian documentary, Kiselev’s List.

Chevlin spoke June 28 at the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe following a showing of the movie.

Chevlin has also shared his story with Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project at the University of Southern California and the Holocaust Resource Center of Kean University.

He remembers the day Nachman and several others were on guard duty, when the Germans entered the forest and the group was told to scatter quickly.

“We were being attacked by planes, artillery,” recalled Chevlin. “I was just running very fast. I heard somebody screaming and I turned around. It was my grandmother who had been hit by shrapnel in both legs. Blood was gushing everywhere.”

The young boy froze. “Then, from out of nowhere, I saw my father running,” he recalled. The elder Chevlin took the grandmother’s kerchief and tied it around her legs, and threw her over his shoulder. Father and son ran to a predetermined spot where they were all told to gather if ever separated.

The next morning the partisans told the family they would have to leave the grandmother behind as they moved on “or we would all die.”

The family tearfully left her, never expecting to see her again. Miraculously, after the war, the Chevlins learned she had survived with help from the partisans “who loved my grandmother,” and the family was reunited.

Marching more than 600 miles in a 10-week trek over mountains, through forests, and crossing rivers the group fled toward the Russian border. They suffered in small towns in subfreezing temperatures and fled to Poland at war’s end. His father bribed a guard to allow them into Czechoslovakia, where they were arrested and sent to Austria. Several months later they went to the displaced persons’ camp.

Among those saved by Kiselev, Chevlin’s extended family alone can count more than 200 descendants, including his own children. “I think we were meant to survive,” he said.

Meyer Bronicki

Meyer Bronicki,  survived the Dvorets labor camp and lived with the Bielski partisans in what is now Belarus. 

 When the citizens of Dvorets were murdered--including his father, brother, grandfather, and cousins--he escaped with his mother and spent the winter in an underground shelter in the forest. In the spring he joined the Bielski partisan group, becoming an expert in the construction of living quarters for over a thousand people without the use of nails. Mr. Bronicki survived the Nazis and the Red Army and came to the United States, where he became an electrical contractor.


Hitler Convinces People to Search

German news article  

More and more Jews have been captured through out Poland, except for the Bielski Otriad. This Otriad has lived in the forest for two years, they have stolen from farms they have killed our loyal German Soldiers they have stole the Germans guns and ammo which is off limits.  For this Otriad living in the Naliboki forest, they are wanted for 10,500 Euros dead or alive.  

Germans have been trying to capture this Otriad for two years but no German soldier has found and killed all of the Bielski Otriad.  In these hard times of the war if there is anyone out there that can kill the Bielski Ortiad you get 10,500 Euros for each body.

The Bielski Otriad is so deadly because no German soldier new that the Jews would fight back and kill German soldiers in the forest.  Killing these Jews will result in killing more Jews and helping get rid of all  Jews in Poland.  With out this Otriad it will be Easier for the Germans to capture and exterminate all Jews.  This Otriad is so horrible and if captured dead or alive you get 10,500 Euros so less Germans will die from Jews hands.
 Danielle Hancock                         

In late 1942, the Bielski brothers cleared more than 100 jews from the Iwie Ghetto. Moments before Germans liquidated the Ghetto, the Bielski Otriad escaped to the forest safely. When German officers came to relocate the Jews, they discovered that they were missing.

Leader Adolph Hitler is offering money for the location and death of Tuvia Bielskis community. “Exterminate these rodents at whatever cost. Track them. Hunt them. Sniff them down. Kill them. If they continue to steal our Jews, German power will slip. The person who finds and exterminates the Bielski Otriad will be awarded much wealth and power.”

Seeking wealth and power, many have looked for the Bielski community. Aircraft have spotted groups of people, in the hundreds but like rats, they quickly scatter and relocate. Latest sightings were at the Zabielovo and Perelaz forests. It is believed that the nucleus of the Otriad was formed here.

Any spottings, sightings, clues, or hints as to where they would be are vital and will be rewarded. If Tuvia or any of the Bielski’s themselves are turned in your life will be spared, whether Jewish or Gay, you will be unharmed. Areas to look in will be around the Lipichanska forest. 

  • 1942

Yoseph, & Itke Ass (Ash)

Esther Ass (Ash, later Klug) is the daughter of Yaakov Menachem and Baila Ass. She was born on June 5, 1928 in Nowogrodek, where her father owned a bakery. Esther had three older siblings: Itke (born July 17, 1924), Rochel, and Yosef (born February 15, 1927). The family was strictly Orthodox, and Itke studied at the famous Sara Schneirer Beis Yaakov in Krakow for three months. 

Following the start of World War II, Nowogrodek fell under Soviet occupation. Then, shortly after the German surprise attack on the Soviet Union, German troops entered the town on July 3, 1941 and some months later established a ghetto.

The family worked outside the ghetto in surrounding farms. The women worked in the fields, while Joseph and his father took care of the horses supervised by a Czech in the German army. On December 7, 1941 the Germans rounded up the Jewish community and brought them to a courthouse.

They then selected some 400 Jews to be killed. The Ass family stayed in one room. When the Germans came to their room, Yaakov and Yosef's Czech supervisor stood nearby and told the soldiers that he had already searched that room and there was no one there, thereby saving their lives.

About nine months later the Germans conducted a second Aktzia on August 7, 1942. A policeman who had known the family for years and visited their bakery offered to help. Rachel, her best friend and her friend's mother and two brothers hid in the cellar of police station under the policeman's protection.

The rest of the family hid separately in the barn of the Czech supervisor. The policeman betrayed the Jews he had promised to protect and informed on them in exchange for five kilos of sugar; Rochel was carried off carrying a book of psalms and killed. The rest of the family survived hidden in the barn by Joseph's Czech supervisor. The Czech finally saved their lives a third time help Yosef purchase a gun in exchange for his parents' wedding rings so that he could join nearby partisans.

Yosef was the first member of the family to escape to the partisans. His mother, Baila left next. Each left the ghetto, supposedly to get water, removed their identifying badge and fled. When Yaakov, Esther, and Itke left the ghetto together in September 1943, a group of 15 or 20 other Jews followed them. They went to the woods on a raft led by Itke and reunited with Yosef and Baila.

Yosef participated in partisan activities and once even killed a Nazi with an axe. Itke also carried a weapon and was one of the only armed women in the camp. Esther and her parents remained in the base camp living in a dugout bunker covered by grass. Yaakov, who had been a baker before the war, managed to bake matzah in the woods for the Pesach holiday in 1944.

Once when the Germans attacked the Bielski base, Itke who had left to get food for the family, became separated. Yosef also became separated from the rest of the family. For at least a year, Itke lived with Jewish and non-Jewish partisan groups and worked as a nurse in a hospital at another base in the woods. Despite the obstacles she faced, she managed to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath. 

Because of her dedication to her faith, Polish partisans later called her the Swieta Partizanka (saintly partisan). Her mother constantly asked people who came to the base camp whether they had seen her.

Eventually Itke found her way back. Yosef contracted typhus while in the woods and was found in ill health and covered with snow. In July 1944 the Soviet army liberated the region, and the Ass family together with the other partisans returned briefly to Nowogrodek. Baila sold groceries in train section. There, she met an orphan, Chana Chamanovitch. Chana had escaped with her father, brother and sister to Bialystok. After they rest of the immediate family were killed, she survived in hiding.

After realizing she was Jewish, Baila adopted her, and Chana joined the family when they fled to the west. They eventually made their way to Austria where they came to the Bad Gastein and Salzburg displaced persons' camps. Itke worked there organizing religious schools for girls, Bnos. Esther and Chana attended the Hebrew Chaim Nachman Bialik School. Chana managed to contact relatives in Boston and joined a children's transport to the United States

. The Ass family then emigrated from Bremerhaven, German to the United Sates in November, 1948. Esther later married Moishe Pinchos Klug from Nisko who survived in Siberia. Itke married Rabbi Pinchos Lerner and Yosef married Rivke Bedansky from Vilna who had survived as a young child in a convent.

Below: Pictured from left to right are Esther Ass, Chana Chamanovitch (an orphan who was unofficially adopted by the Ass family after the war) and Itke Ass.

  • July 17, 1924

Postwar Portrait of the Ass Family

Postwar portrait of the Ass family who survived the war with the Bielski partisans. [Photograph #49724]

Postwar portrait of the Ass family who survived the war with the Bielski partisans.

From left to right are Chana Chamanovitch (their adoptive daughter), Beila, Itka, Yaakov Menachem, Yosef and Esther Ass.

Lola Kline

Lola Kline, of Freehold Township, displays photo albums that tell the story of her uncles, Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski, who took refuge from the Nazis with more than 1,000 people in the woods of Belarus.