Group portrait of former Bielski partisans from Nowogrodek taken in the Foehrenwald displaced persons camp. Germany, April 3, 1948.
USHMM, courtesy of Jack Kagan
Operating in Western Belorussia (Belarus) between 1942 and 1944, the Bielski partisan group was one of the most significant Jewish resistance efforts against Nazi Germany during World 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 women, children, 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.
COOPERATION WITH OTHER PARTISAN GROUPS
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.
Duffy, Peter. Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men who Defied the Nazis, saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest. New York: HarperCollins, c2003.
Glass, James M. Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Moral Uses of Violence and Will. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Radin, Ruth Yaffe. Escape to the Forest: Based on a True Story of the Holocaust. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000.
Tec, Nechama. Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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