In December 1941, the Nazis murdered thousands of Jews in the Baranowicze region in western Belorussia. Among them were four members of the Bielski family: the mother, the father, and two sons. Four other sons survived: Arczyk, Asael, Tuvia, and Zus. They—along with 13 others—fled into the woods.
Tuvia Bielski sent a message to the Jews in the Nowogrodek ghetto to organize as many friends and acquaintances as possible and to send them to him in the woods. At first, only eight people answered Bielski’s call.
But over the next two years, Tuvia Bielski’s group grew to over 1,000 as more Jews fled to the forests rather than report for deportation. He never turned away any Jew, whether armed or unarmed, young or old, healthy or in need of medical attention. He insisted that resistance and rescue must go hand-in-hand.
As the Bielski’s forest camp grew, it eventually included a school for children, a clinic, a law court, and a synagogue. It also included numerous workshops, including a machine shop to repair weapons and a tannery. The camp became a mobile and dynamic Jewish community—both a family camp and a fighting unit.
Tuvia Bielski’s partisans inspired terror in the Nowogrodek region and took vengeance on the Belorussian police and on farmers who had betrayed or killed Jews. The Bielski brigade pillaged food, attacked the enemy, and destroyed supply depots. As a result, the Nazis offered a reward of 100,000 marks for Tuvia Bielski’s capture.
In the summer of 1943, the Nazis went deep into the Nalibocka Forest to fight Jewish partisan units, including the Bielski partisans. The Soviet army commander in the region, who was allied with Tuvia Bielski, called upon him to divide the camp between fighters and civilians so that the able-bodied would not be hindered by those among them unable to resist.
Tuvia Bielski refused. He moved his camp even further into the densest parts of the Nalibocka Forest. Bielski would not abandon women, children, and the elderly; he would not leave them behind to die defenseless and alone.
In the summer of 1944—when the war ended in Belorussia—over 1,200 men, women, and children emerged from the forest and marched into Nowogrodek. They had survived thanks to the daring of the Bielski partisans who insisted that rescue and resistance were inextricably connected.
Tuvia Bielski, the charismatic commander of the Bielski partisans, immigrated to Palestine in 1945, where he fought in the 1948 Israel War of Independence. He, along with his wife, Lillian (Bielski) Bell, whom he married in 1943 and who remained with him in the forest—gave birth to a daughter and two sons. They immigrated to the United States in 1956 to join his brothers. Tuvia Bielski died in 1987 at age 81.