When the Germans entered western Belarus in Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941, taking the area from the Russians, who had occupied it from late 1939, they soon instituted a wave of terror against the Jewish inhabitants, crowding the Jews into ghettos and duplicating the terrible conditions for Jews that they had previously imposed in German occupied Poland. Many of the Jews of the area were pushed into the ghetto of Novogrodek and the situation deteriorated.
[Place on side] A COUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER THE GERMANS ATTACKED WESTERN POLAND IN SEPTEMBER 1939, THE RUSSIANS (ACTING ON A SECRET AGREEMENT MADE PREVIOUSLY WITH THE GERMANS – THE MOLOTOV-RIBBENTROP AGREEMENT) INVADED EASTERN POLAND. THE TWO POWERS WERE ALLIED UNTIL THE GERMAN ATTACK ON RUSSIA IN JUNE 1941 – KNOWN AS OPERATION BARBAROSSA. THE GERMANS INVADED THE FORMER POLISH TERRITORIES OF RUSSIA AND THEN RUSSIA ITSELF AND INSTITUTED A SIMILAR REGIME AS IN POLAND, GHETTOISING THE JEWS IN THE RUSSIAN TERRITORIES: NOW HOWEVER, THERE WAS A NEW ELEMENT – A PLAN FOR MASS DESTRUCTION.
The Bielskis were a family from a small village who went to Novogrodek. Several of the Bielski family, including the parents, were killed and four brothers, Tuvia, Alexander, Asael (grown men) and their younger brother Aron escaped into the nearby forest, where they began to reorganize what was left of their family. Soon there were a few dozen of them there and with the help of some rifles and small arms that they managed to obtain from arms that the Russians had left behind, they began to organize a partisan community to help the Jews that were still alive in the area and to fight against the Germans. Altogether they survived for some three and a half years in the forests of the area.
During that time, the Bielski brothers organized a community that seems to have been totally unique among the many Jewish partisan groups (which were part of the larger mostly Russian partisan movement that developed in that area of Eastern Europe, fighting the Germans from the forests.) The uniqueness of the Bielski brothers’ community was not in its willingness to fight against the Germans, nor in its attempts to help the local Jews. Both of these things were common to many of the Jewish groups.
What characterized the Bielski group was its willingness to take in all Jews into its framework, including women and children who were not capable of fighting actions against the Germans. Not all of the members of the group were happy about the fact that a whole community of non-fighters was protected by the fighters. By the time the members of the community came out of the forests in mid-1945 they numbered over 1300 members! The great numbers endangered the survival of the group making it much more difficult for them to conceal themselves in the forests without being found by the Germans who for years sought them out. In addition it also posed enormous logistical challenges to find enough food, clothes and other supplies to keep a group of this size alive for years in the harshest of conditions. But the brothers decided that a community of Jews helping other Jews was a value in and of itself and early on they opposed and apparently even killed those in the group who tried to resist the communal ideal. The community retreated for years to the deepest and most inaccessible parts of the forest and built there camps with buildings and huts which lasted for many years. There were attempts by the Russian commanders of the overall partisan struggle in the area to break up the Jewish group and to add the fighters to their own groups but the brothers resisted strongly and the group stayed a group (at times divided up into different sub- groups but always seeing themselves as responsible to the Bielski brothers) till the end.
In the following anecdote, Tuvia Bielski reflected years later on the visit of the partisan commander, the Russian General Platon to their camp.
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…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.
From the website of the Holocaust Research Project.
A fascinating eye witness report on life inside the forest camps comes from an oral interview with Sonia Boldo Bielski, wife of Alexander (Zus) Bielski which was recorded in 1995 within the framework of an oral history project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The interview was conducted in English, which of course, was not Sonia’s mother tongue. A few pieces from the interview which was long and comprehensive are brought here. The language has been changed only where it is crucial for the meaning and the changes have placed the changes within round brackets.
When I came into the forest, they had only 75 people… This was the beginning of the partisans … people …went away from the ghettos. They didn’t have a place there. And… the doors (of the Bielski) brother(s) were open for everybody, for old, children, sick people. And they had always food. They didn’t have steaks, but they have bread and water. They were very good. ..Later …many people came in. So there were men that said, “Listen, why do I have to go and grab food and risk my life? My wife is not here, my children are not here. Why should I risk the life
for them?” [i.e. to defend people who are not going to fight against the Germans as partisans]. But the (brothers) said, “Everybody who is coming has to have a place here. And everybody will have a piece of bread.” They will not have maybe something else, but bread they will (have). (There) was one kitchen, one big kitchen and they were cooking potatoes with a piece of bread. And this was the food. Later, when…(more and more) people came in… they went out and [took food from the Germans who]… came into the village [in order to]… collect bread and butter and milk and meat, whatever. So we were putting ambushes [for the Germans to take the food that they had taken from the villages]…
[Would the group have survived without the brothers’ leadership?]… Never. Never. Nobody [else] knew the forest. They were born there. They were born in a small village, and they knew the forest and they knew the people. They knew everything. How could 1 survive, or somebody else? All 1,200 people, nobody would survive. ..You know, Jewish people, they are not going to the forest. They are in the city. …They (only) survived because of the Bielskis brothers. I cannot say because of Tuvia, because of Asael. because of Zusia. No, the three of them, they were one. Because nobody did (anything which) the other one didn’t want…. All of them, they work together. …They were together. And that is (why) we survived…
[In the camp there were]… they called them ziemlankas — for the winter. It was like small rooms. And many – this was one row with houses, second row, third one. They had a factory. They made there – bakers they had – they (made) bread…. They made other foods. They made… the saddles for the horses. They made boots for people. And the Russian partisans, they were coming there. …[The brothers] send people out, and the people (were) bringing [supplies from the villagers who were afraid of the partisans]… They were not hungry. They had about 1,000 people…
I remember today there was a time that too many people came in. They were sick, and old, and children. So the other two brothers said, “Listen, we are taking too many [people]. What will be the end? Now is summer, is not too bad, (but) in the winter” – so Tuvia said… “I don’t care. 1 have to give (a) place to everybody.” The other partisans, they didn’t want them…
[Why did the brothers take everyone in?] I think because of the good heart. They are wonderful people with a good heart. If he had a piece of bread, he will divide it between – if there (are) four people there, or six people there, he would divide it. He will give you the last bite. They were wonderful, wonderful people… They are not born (any) more like that. Maybe they are born but we don’t know them. Only because of the good heart. Because they could (have survived alone)… And remember. 1,500 people they took …out [of the ghettoes and the towns] and 1200 people, I think, survive. They lost about 300 people. But they did a very good job. I think in…history you cannot find [other examples] like that. Maybe, but 1 don’t know. 1 know… Polish history. 1 know … Jewish history. I know… French history. But I (never heard anything) like that. (That) people should (share) their lives with people (that) they didn’t know even. They were great, great people. And good people.
You have to listen. And they were listening. There were people very sick with typhus. With everything in the forest, in the [forest], we had doctors, we had nurses. We (had) everything…
Interviewer: Didn’t some people just want to kill the first people who had typhus [because of] fear?
Yeah, but they didn’t let them…. This was a couple of people that got typhus. And the doctor said, “It’s no good because everybody will get. So maybe you should put them away [i.e. take them out of the camp and leave them to die].” So they [the brothers] said, “Oh, no. We will take.” The hospital was far away a little from the camp, and the doctors and the nurses worked with them together, and said “They can die by themselves, but we will not kill sick people.”… But there were people that said, “We have to kill them.” But nobody (was) killed and everybody got well because of the hearts, the Bielskis’ heart…
Most [of the people who were living in the camp]… were very good people. You know, they were always giving a hand to the other ones. If I had another pair of shoes, I would give to the other one, the ones that didn’t have. They were not grabbing everything for them(selves). No, there were not too many like that, if you had a couple of people, so they were not with the groups [really accepted into the community], they were lonely. And if you were good with (everybody)… you work together, you were not so lonely. You spoke about your families. You spoke about your future, what (will) be. You were singing. They were dad this was nice to talk, to remember. Not to forget.
United States Holocaust Museum website.
[Place on side] THERE WERE MANY JEWISH PARTISANS IN THE FORESTS OF EASTERN EUROPE. THEY PLAYED A PART IN THE WIDER SOVIET PARTISAN MOVEMENT THAT ACTED AGAINST THE GERMAN FORCES THROUGHOUT THE GERMAN OCCUPIED AREAS IN EASTERN EUROPE. THE BIELSKIS WERE ONE OF MANY GROUPS ALTHOUGH THEIR SIZE AND THEIR POLICY OF INCLUDING FAMILIES APPEAR TO HAVE MADE THEM UNIQUE.
FOR THE EDUCATOR:
- There is the possibility of watching with the group the full length feature film “Defiance” which came out in 2008. If there is a decision to watch the film it is suggested that it is shown before, and not instead of the authentic texts below with the suggestion for questions and an activity modified accordingly, some of the questions being hooked on to the film. There are two possibilities for discussing the film. One is to use the following questions after the film is shown and the other is to stop the film in a number of different places to ask the students the questions as they come up in the film. If you decide to do the latter, it is suggested to stop it in the following places:
- Near the beginning when refugees start trickling in to the forests and an argument begins between the brothers over taking care of the refugees. Should they take responsibility or not? Defend your position.
b. When Yitzchak the “intellectual” suggests the word ‘community’ to Tuvia: what could that mean? What might he have in mind?
- When Tuvia’s leadership is challenged by “Arkady” later on over the question of food rations: what is the best way to deal with the issue in general and the challenge to Tuvia’s leadership specifically?
- Regarding the development a couple of minutes later, what does the group feel after Arkady is shot?
- When Tuvia hears that a baby has been born within the camp, what should he do?
FOR THE EDUCATOR:
As far as is known, this is the clearest example of a group of partisans who successfully put communal values higher – or at least on the same level – as the fight against the enemy. As is clear from the pieces here, the community not only developed into a highly organized group but despite internal opposition (who might, presumably, in extreme cases, have been the intended occupants of the jail), expanded to an extent that certainly could be considered to have endangered the other group members, because of the uncompromising principles of the clearly remarkable brothers. A speculative question is asked here about the educational values that the brothers perhaps internalized from their parents in order to raise the question of family values relevant to the students themselves.
- What are your impressions of the pieces that you have just read? How would you characterize the behavior of the brothers? What words would you use to describe their behavior?
- If all four of the brothers thought the same way, it is safe to assume that they received several value based educational messages from their parents. What might these have been?
- Have you heard these kinds of ideas within your own family? When? In what context? What specific situations brought up these ideas in your family?
- In what way, if at all, do you understand the connection between this story and the Rabbinic idea brought in the introductory piece, “If one person is able to save another and does not save him, he transgresses the commandment “don’t stand on your neighbour’s blood”. (Leviticus 19:16). Similarly, if one person sees another drowning in the sea, or being attacked by bandits, or being attacked by wild animals, and, although able to rescue him either alone or by hiring others, does not rescue him… he transgresses in each case the injunction, “don’t stand on your neighbour’s blood.”
- The situation that the Bielskis faced raised conflicting values. What were some of these values? Phrase your answer by noting the conflicts: on the one hand … and on the other …
- In pairs or small groups, discuss the pros and cons of the arguments for keeping the camp as a lean “fighting machine” dedicated solely to the attempt to fight the Germans and to preserve the lives of the fighters against the idea of developing the sort of community that the Bielskis clearly tried to develop. Discuss the risks that the brothers were willing to take and try to work out why they would take these risks.
- After discussing all of the arguments that you can think of, write in dramatic form an argument between two or more participants, at least one of whom represents one of the Bielskis while at least one represents an opponent, over the question of what to do with the typhus victims.
- Read two or more of the scripts out and then discuss the issue with the whole group. What do you think about the issue of the typhus victims?
- Finally, why do you think that there was a jail in Bielski’s camp as the first description makes clear? Who do you think they might have considered placing in the jail?ncing…
The fun was, they were sitting together near the fire and singing and talking. That was the fun…Everybody was getting near the fire. Everybody was looking for somebody, for a little warm talking, remember the house, remember the parents…