The Bielski partisans were an organization 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 occupied 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 the Stalinist Soviet Union.
The Bielski family took part as low level administrators in the new government set up by the Soviets which strained their relations with the local Poles, to whom the Soviet Union was an occupier. Following the Germans' Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Union that began on June 22, 1941, Nowogródek became a Jewish ghetto, as Nazis took over those lands and implemented their genocidal policies (see Holocaust in Poland and Holocaust in Belarus).
The four Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Alexander (also known as "Zus"), Asael and Aron Bielski managed to flee to the nearby forest after their parents and other family members were killed in the ghetto in August 1941. Together with 13 neighbors 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 labored on belts, bridles and saddles. A metalworking shop established by Shmuel Oppenheim repaired damaged weapons and constructed new ones from spare parts. A tannery, constructed to produce the hide for cobblers and leather workers, became a de facto synagogue because several tanners were devout Hasidic Jews. Carpenters, hat-makers, barbers, watchmakers served their own community and guests. The camp's many children attended class in the dugout set up as a school. The camp even had its own jail and court of law.
Some accounts note the inequality between well-off partisans and poor inhabitants of the camp.
The Bielski group's partisan activities were aimed at the Germans 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 100,000 Reichsmarks 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.
Like other partisan groups in the area, the Bielski group would raid nearby villages and forcibly seize food; 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 willingly help the Jewish partisans.
The Bielski partisans eventually became affiliated with Soviet organizations 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 partisan leaders split the group into two units, one named Ordzhonikidze, led by Zus, and the other Kalinin, commanded by Tuvia. Fighting on the Soviet side, they 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. According to partisan documentation, the Bielski fighters from both units claimed to have killed a total of 381 enemy fighters, sometimes during joint actions with Soviet groups.
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 rumors 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 where they operated a successful trucking business. When Tuvia died in 1987, he was buried in Long Island, New York, but a year later, at the urging of surviving partisans in Israel, he was exhumed and given a hero's funeral at Har Hamenuchot, the hillside graveyard in Jerusalem. His wife, Lilka, was buried beside him in 2001.
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. Aron lives in Florida. None of the Bielskis ever sought any recognition or reward for their actions.
Stankiewicze (Stankevichi) no longer exists. It was at, just off Route P11, approximately halfway between Biarozauka and Navahrudak.
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[who?] do place members of the Bielskis' unit at the massacre, former members of the brigade and other historians[who?], 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[who?] working at the Institute have asserted in other publications, however, that the Bielski brothers had not been involved in the massacre.
Books and film
Two recent English language books have focused on the Bielski story: Defiance (1993) by Nechama Tec and The Bielski Brothers (2004) by Peter Duffy. The group is also mentioned in numerous books about this period in history. A new book (January 2009) in Polish by two reporters from Gazeta Wyborcza, Odwet: Prawdziwa historia braci Bielskich (Revenge: The True Story of the Bielski Brothers) focuses on the larger political and historical context in which the partisans operated, specifically the fighting between Polish and Soviet resistance groups in the Kresy (former Eastern Poland) region. Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War, by Allan Levine (first published 1998, 2008 reissue, by Lyons Press), tells the story of Jewish fighters and refugees in forests across Europe, including the Bielski partisans. With Courage Shall We Fight: The Memoirs and Poetry of Holocaust Resistance Fighters Frances "Fruma" Gulkowich Berger and Murray “Motke” Berger tells the story of two Bielski Brigade fighters before, during and after the War.
An episode of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? featured UK television personality Natasha Kaplinsky discovering that her great uncle Ytsak Kaplinski was a member of the Bielski partisans. He survived the war and emigrated to South Africa.
The feature film Defiance, co-written, produced and directed by Edward Zwick, was released nationwide on January 16, 2009. It stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay as Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron Bielski respectively. It opened to mixed reviews and raised questions about the roles various groups played during the war.
- Abba Kovner
- Rescue of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust
- Kastner's Train
- Schindler's List
- The Pianist
- World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West
- "THE BIELSKI PARTISANS". United States Holocaust Museum. Archived from the original on 14 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
- Tec, Nechama (1993). Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-509390-9.
- Snyder, Timothy, "Caught Between Hitler & Stalin", The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 7, April 30, 2009,  (restricted)
- Duffy, Peter, The Bielski Brothers. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 0-06-621074-7. p.214-217
- (Polish) Piotr Zychowicz, Bielski pomagał Żydom, ale też ich wykorzystywał, Rzeczpospolita, 23-01-2009
- "Family Camps in the Forest". Shoah Resource Center. Retrieved 2009-01-22.
- A Hollywood Movie About Heroes or Murderers?, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2008-06-16
- (Polish) Piotr Głuchowski, Marcin Kowalski, Wymazany Aron Bell (Aron Bell Erased), Gazeta Wyborcza, 008-06-16
- (English) The True Story of the Bielski Brothers (Polish) Prawdziwa historia Bielskich, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2009-01-06
- Duffy, Peter, The Bielski Brothers. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 0-06-621074-7. p. 281: "The numbers are cited in the partisan histories of Ordzhonikidze (Fond 3618; Opus I; File 23) and Kalinin (Fond 3500; Opus 4; File 272) in the Minsk archives. The Kalinin history is also available at Yad Vashem (M.41/120).
- (Polish) Piotr Głuchowski, Marcin Kowalski, Wojna polsko-ruska pod bokiem niemieckim, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2009-01-13
- The report (in Polish) about the IPN investigation of Naliboki massacre and other crimes committed by Soviet partisans from Naliboki Forest
- (Polish) Bogdan Musiał, Bielski w puszczy niedomówień, Rzeczpospolita, 31-01-2009
- Marissa Brostoff, "Polish Investigators Tie Partisans to Massacre," Forward (8/7/08) http://www.forward.com/articles/13935/
- "Jewish Brothers' Resistance Inspired'Defiance'". National Public Radio. 2008-12-28. Retrieved 2009-01-20.
- Levine, Allan. Fugitives of the Forest. New York: Lyons Press, 2008.
- "Defiance". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on 21 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-20.
- Kamil Tchorek (2008-12-31). "Country split over whether Daniel Craig is film hero or villain". London: The Times. Retrieved 2008-12-31.
- Alperowitz, Yitzchak. "Tuvia Bielski", in Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust vol. 1, p. 215–16. Illustrations.
- Arad, Yitzhak. "Family Camps in the Forest", in Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust vol. 2, p. 467–469. Illustrations, map.
- Smith, Lyn. Remembering: Voices of the Holocaust. Ebury Press, Great Britain, 2005, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2006. ISBN 0-7867-1640-1.
- Announcement of the start of the IPN investigation (unofficial English-language translation).
- Review of "Sowjetische Partisanen in Weißrußland", by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, in Sarmatian Review, April 2006.
- Berger, Ralph S. and Albert S. Berger, editors "With Courage Shall We Fight: The Memoirs and Poetry of Frances "Fruma" Gulkowich Berger and Murray "Motke" Berger". Comteq Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-935232-20-9.
- Duffy, Peter, The Bielski Brothers. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 0-06-621074-7.
- Eckman, Lester and Lazar, Chaim, The Jewish Resistance: The History of the Jewish Partisans in Lithuania and White Russia During the Nazi Occupation 1940–1945. Shengold Publishers, 1977. ISBN 0-88400-050-8.
- Levine, Allan, Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War. Stoddart, 1998. Reissued with a new introduction by The Lyons Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59921-496-2.
- Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-509390-9.
- Bielski partisans on National Public Radio
- The Bielski Partisans Holocaust Encyclopedia United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Jewish partisans directory (searchable) (partisans.org.il)
- Tuvia Bielski, Commander of a Jewish Partisan Unit in Belarus, Novogrudok, Poland Film and Photo Archive, Yad Vashem
- Naliboki, Poland, May 1944, Jews in the Tuvia Bielski Partisan Family Camp in the Naliboki Forest Film and Photo Archive, Yad Vashem
- Bielski partisans in the Naliboki forest Simon Wiesenthal Center Photo album
- The Stories of Those Rescued by the Bielski Partisans from Lida Lida Memorial Society Homepage First and Second Hand Accounts
- Voices on Antisemitism Interview with Daniel Craig from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Official remembrance of the Bielski Brothers in Belarus, Poland and Israel
- Florida Holocaust Museum's Bielski Exhibit with Artifacts and History of the Bielski Resistance Movement.