Nechama Tec, scholar, writer and Holocaust survivor, tells the history of the largest Jewish partisan forest community and its founders, Tuvia Bielski and his three brothers.
In 1906, Tuvia Bielski was born into a Jewish family of farmers living close to the town of Nowogrodek. Theirs was the typical life of peasants living in Eastern Poland, struggling to get by and building a family, but all that changed with the Russian occupation of Poland, and later, the German advancement. When the Nazis began the mass executions of Jews in 1941, slaughtering Bielski’s parents and other relatives in the Nowogrodek ghetto, Tuvia Bielski fled to the Naliboki forest with his three brothers.
What began there as a gathering of family developed into a well-organized partisan unit with far-reaching impact. Hundreds of Jews who escaped the mass killings and deportations joined up with the Bielski otriad (“partisan detachment”) and participated in countless acts of resistance and rescue. From the depths of the forest, they staged raids on the Germans, Byelorussian police, and local farmers who had collaborated with the Nazis. They smuggled Jews out of the ghettos and picked up fugitives along the rural roads, all while building a small community in the forest.
The Bielski group, known as “Kalinin,” differed from other otriads in Belorussia in this sense of community. Rather than a group exclusively of young men, Kalinin was composed of entire families, including children and the elderly, and the group continued to welcome all Jews into their ranks, regardless of their ability to fight. Their camp resembled a small Jewish shtetl, with a school, workshops, a medical dispensary, a court of law, and even a synagogue. Nevertheless, life was harsh, with members of the otriad living under military rule and fear their constant companion.
Tec reconstructs this life in the forest, and describes its growth, its organization, and the social structures that developed to sustain the community. As the War progressed, Kalinin became by far the largest Jewish partisan group, but Bielski refused to break up his otriad or to abandon its non-fighting members. His leadership and courage held them together through the years, and finally, in the summer of 1944, after the Russian army pushed back the German forces, Bielski’s unit emerged from the forest and marched into the town of Nowogrodek. This group, now numbering 1,230, survived the War together thanks to an unlikely leader determined to keep himself and his fellow Jews alive.
Defiance: The Bielski Partisans is based in large part on personal interviews Nechama Tec conducted with former partisans, including Tuvia Bielski himself, who died in 1987 in Brooklyn, New York, where he and his family had settled in 1956. The book includes rare photographs, an organizational directory of the Bielski partisan group, a biographical appendix, and a glossary of foreign terms.
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|TABLE OF CONTENTS|
|1. Before the War||3|
|2. The Russian Occupation||14|
|3. The German Invasion||24|
|4. The Beginning of the Bielski Otriad||41|
|5. Escapes from the Ghetto||50|
|6. The Partisan Network||63|
|7. Rescue or Resistance||80|
|8. Eluding the Enemy||94|
|9. The “Big Hunt”||108|
|10. Building a Forest Community||126|
|11. The Emergence of New Social Arrangements||138|
|12. The Fate of Women||154|
|13. Keeping Order||170|
|14. The End of the Otriad||186|
|15. From Self-Preservation to Rescue||204|
|Organization of the Bielski Otriad||267|