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< 12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

Combatants and Protectors

12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

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Members of the Bielski partisan family camp in the Naliboki Forest. —Yad Vashem Photo and Film Archives

When the Germans invade the Soviet Union in 1941, three Jewish brothers prepare to fight back. Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski hide in a dense forest and form a group of resistance fighters. While surviving in the forbidding wilderness, they also rescue Jews, and try to hold on to a sense community. Featuring historian Dr. J. Luke Ryder.

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Erin Harper
Deep in the Naliboki forest in Belarus, in the blackness of the night, more than 800 Jewish men, women, and children walk slowly through the dense wilderness. They push through the thick branches and foliage. The Jews arrive at the edge of a vast swampland. And, one by one, they descend into the swamp—sinking deep in the mud. Hidden in the dark, they wait—quietly—in extreme desperation to evade capture by the Germans.

It’s August of 1943. This group of Jews had been living in the forest for almost two years—fighting German soldiers, rescuing fellow Jews, and rebuilding the very life and community that the Nazis were trying to destroy. This group is known as the Bielski partisans.

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. It starts with three Jewish men, known as the Bielski brothers. Tuvia, 35, the oldest of the three. His brothers Zus, and Asael, are just a few years younger.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
Tuvia, Zus and Asael—were members of a very large family.

Erin Harper
That’s Dr. J. Luke Ryder, historian at the William Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the Museum.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
Folks who are part of this group that grew around the Bielskis always reference their strong leadership qualities that likely came from their military background, so they had this level of discipline and by all accounts, a very strong moral compass. And they spent much of their young lives doing manual labor and also navigating the nearby forests in both work and play.

Erin Harper
The land beyond the Bielski’s home is a dense forest. The Bielskis know the forest well—the twists and turns, the lush oak and pine. This area today is known as Belarus. At the time, these Belorussian territories were part of Poland. And when the Germans invaded Poland, igniting World War II, these lands became part of the Soviet Union. Two years later, although the Nazis had signed agreements, promising to not invade Soviet land, they invade anyway. On June 22, 1941, the Germans launch an air attack—bombing and burning these Belorussian territories, and immediately targeting Belorussian Jews.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
In 1941 when Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union in devastating fashion, the wide presumption of most of the world is that Nazi Germany is and will be the master of the European continent.

Erin Harper
For the Bielskis, the following days are filled with chaos. Tuvia later wrote of this moment, “The fear and panic was unbelievable...there was catastrophe in the air.” Initially, Tuvia and Zus—who serve in the army—are called to fight the Germans. But those efforts quickly fall apart—as the Germans continue their attack.

So Tuvia, Zus and Asael each obtain rifles and machine guns for protection. Tuvia and Asael take cover in the forest just outside their village. There, among the trees, they hide from the Germans. Zus wants to see his wife, who’s in a nearby town. There, he witnesses a mass shooting of Jews. Rumors had just been spreading, about German mobile killing squads and local collaborators sweeping through the area.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
They consist of about three thousand specially trained men essentially carry out mass shootings of civilians and Jews and bury their bodies in pits. This area of Belarus stands out in terms of the absolute sort of unprecedented level of bloodletting.

Erin Harper
While this violence spread across the region—several months go by. Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski continue to hide in the forest. They bring friends and family members. One man is a carpenter. And together, they build homes—tucked seamlessly into the earth.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
These were essentially dugouts that were covered with felled trees and branches and vegetation to hide them, within which there were lines of wooden bunks built and covered with straws that could be comfortable.

Erin Harper
This would become the winter home for 40 Jews. At night, they sleep shoulder-to-shoulder. Inside the bunker, it’s pitch black—except for a few logs that burn dim. And for a moment, it’s calm. But just past the forest edge, the terror and chaos rage on. And now, for Jews who are not in hiding, the Germans begin to rip them from their homes and force them into ghettos.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
These were essentially enclosed districts that isolated Jews from the non-Jewish population—specifically designed to separate, persecute and ultimately destroy Europe's Jews. The suffering in the ghettos is really hard for us to comprehend. I mean, almost immediately, Jews are living in very overcrowded and extremely unsanitary conditions.

Erin Harper
And Jews in the ghettos could not have known the terror that would come next. A few months later, in December of 1941, Germans descend onto the nearby Nowogródek ghetto, and murder four thousand Jews. Including Tuvia’s former wife, Zus’ wife and baby girl, and the brothers’ parents—who had been forced into the ghetto just days earlier.

After this deeply personal loss, Tuvia writes a letter to other family members who had survived one of the ghetto attacks. He writes, “You must get out now... there will be another slaughter. I can’t guarantee that we won’t face hardship in the woods, but at least we have a chance to live.” Still, some Jews in the ghettos believe that—as long as they follow orders from the Germans—they’ll survive in the ghetto.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
There was also a sense that those who had survived these initial actions should not leave behind members of their communities, that to leave the ghetto meant to leave those members of your family who were still surviving. And after having lost perhaps other relations or close friends, there was some sense that sticking together would be best.

Erin Harper
And many Jews could not imagine facing the harsh elements in the forest.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
You know, this forest is so much—it’s almost a combatant in the story because it is so dense and so impassable in so many ways. A lot of it is covered in swampland, with lots of wildlife, and the region has very large temperature swings between the seasons. So summers can be very, very hot and humid, and the winters can be very cold, with lots of snow.

Erin Harper
But the Germans continue their attack on Jews in other nearby ghettos. Over the next few months, thousands of Belorussian Jews are murdered in ghettos. For Jews who survive—their options are either to face certain death in the ghetto, or risk trying to survive in the wilderness with the Bielski brothers.

So, there in the forest, the group of resistance fighters—or partisans—would grow. And they need a leader. The Bielskis’ cousin Yehuda nominates Tuvia as their commander. Many said Tuvia was well-suited—that he’s both strong and compassionate. Next in command are his brothers Asael and Zus.

And in the fall of 1942, the group becomes known as the Bielski partisans. Tuvia has a specific vision for life in the forest. Tuvia insists that all Jews are welcome—whether or not they could fight back against the Germans.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
Zus’s later wife said that the “doors of Bielski brothers were always open for everybody, for the old, children, sick people. And they always had food.” It really symbolized the possibility of having a community based on a sense of inclusivity and generosity.

And I’ll give you the words of Tuvia Belski. He said, “To me, it made no sense to exact revenge. I wanted to save and not to kill.” And on another occasion says, “Don’t rush to fight and die. So few of us are left. We have to save lives. To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans.”

So the leaders of this group—Tuvia particular—were committed to the notion that with more people, the group would actually be safe. And this was not something immediately accepted by other members of the group. In fact, many, many people within the Bielski group argued that they would be safer if they kept their numbers low and excluded other members from joining or other Jews seeking shelter or safety from joining. But ultimately, the brothers—and led by Tuvia—decided that they would focus on saving as many Jews as they possibly could.

Erin Harper
By February of 1943, 300 Jews are living in the forest as Bielski partisans. As more Jews escape the ghettos, the group would grow to 700 people. Many newcomers are astonished when they arrive to see so many Jews living together.

And many partisans begin new relationships with one another. Some women said they partnered with men as a means of protection—to survive life in the forest. And some couples also pair with romantic intentions. Like Asael Bielski, who has feelings for a young partisan named Chaja. In lieu of a wedding ring, Asael presents Chaja with a pistol—as a sign of his love, and commitment to protect her.

With so many members of the group, it’s important to Tuvia to distinguish which partisans can fight in armed combat. Some men in the group have military experience, and know how to use rifles and machine guns. But in the forest, even some Jewish boys become armed fighters.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
This is something that’s discussed when it comes to Jews as as victims of the Holocaust—as opposed to to Jews as those who resisted cultural, physical, spiritual death. Despite the popular perception of Jews as sort of passive, actually armed resistance was far stronger and more varied in form than is generally acknowledged. Jews in Europe managed to launch uprisings in 45 ghettos, 18 forced labor camps and five mass killing centers created by the Nazis during the course of the Holocaust. And so this idea that Jews somehow were consigned to more passive forms of resistance or, didn't resist at all, is simply not true.

And in that regard, the Bielskis are also special because they not only offered armed resistance, but they took a broader view of their role in that movement towards armed resistance. Within these forms of armed resistance, it’s like there's this other space where it's not just about futile, but honorable effort to oppose this vastly more powerful and murderous force, but also to offer some humanity and generosity and to extend that to as many people as possible in the interest of collective survival.

Erin Harper
And for survival—food, of course—is a top priority. The partisans organize food missions. They sneak into surrounding villages and attempt to steal food from the local farmers or peasants. But in wartime, no one has enough. So sometimes they rob peasants at gunpoint. And a few times, they killed people who collaborated with the Germans against them.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
They were less emphasizing violence, although they did, in fact, have to engage in violence on plenty of occasions. And they did raid villages, and they did steal to obtain food. It may be hard for us to understand how, these folks could, in some cases, kill in what seems like to us—cold blood. I think that it’s very hard to imagine the level of extremity and adversity and all of that sort of moral calculus that goes into, well—“Do I kill this local villager who may betray my location to someone who will kill me?” I mean, these are very difficult questions. And I think that what we have to remember when it comes to, in particular, Jews in this situation is that they were living in a world that was unleashed by a murderous, genocidal regime that forced them to face such choices. This is the moral landscape in which they are living.

Erin Harper
And the Bielski partisan group is not without internal conflict. Sometimes partisans argue over who deserves more food. Others refuse to follow orders. Often, Asael Bielski is in charge of settling disputes with mediation. But other times, the brothers enforce punishments. Some partisans think the brothers are overbearing. But Tuvia sees discipline as essential to the group’s survival.

Dr. J Luke Ryder
It’s important to remember that Tuvia, Zus and Asael—they were all military people. I mean, they had all served in the army. They had a sense of what kinds of rules and regulations permit people to survive and function in a very adverse set of circumstances.

Erin Harper
And in their resistance, the Bielski partisans are not alone. Soviet soldiers and other local Belorussian partisans are fighting a common enemy. So early on‚ despite having different political ideologies, Tuvia and local Soviet commanders decide to cooperate in order to take on the Germans.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
Their relations were not always sunny. There’s a larger goal of defeating Nazi Germany and we're going to put aside whatever other differences we may have ideologically or otherwise, and cooperate.

Erin Harper
The Bielski fighters also carry out their own missions—often led by Zus. They disable German trains, blow up rail lines, bomb bridges. In the meantime, German soldiers are hunting partisan groups, and posing a constant threat of attack. And in the summer of 1943, the Germans are closing in. So Tuvia makes the difficult decision to leave the forest he knows—and take the group to the Naliboki Forest, nearly 20 miles away.

The Naliboki forest is much larger and more dense—with wandering rivers, and vast areas of swampland. Being difficult to navigate, the Naliboki wilderness will provide better protection against enemy attack. So they make the journey. But the Bielski partisans didn’t know that their new home in the Naliboki forest would bring immediate danger. Tuvia gets word that German killing squads are approaching. By the next morning, they’ll be surrounded by German soldiers.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
They are unable to completely quell this partisan movement that has really taken root right around the Naliboki forest.

Erin Harper
So the Germans deploy military and local police in a massive manhunt. They declare, “Partisan groups are to be annihilated.” Tuvia doesn’t know their next move. But, one of his partisans, Michel, comes to him. Michel had been a forest surveyor, and he knows the land well. He explains that there’s a large swamp nearby. Several miles into the swamp, there’s an island. At nightfall, they will wade through the swamp to the island, and hide from the Germans.

That night, when they reach the edge of the swamp, Michel goes first. In the dark, one by one, some 800 Bielski partisans slowly enter the marshland. The adults carry the children on their shoulders. Many push through the mud barefoot—their shoes will only get stuck. With every step, they sink deeper.

The trek is long, and the partisans need to sleep. Some partisans tie themselves to a tree or climb up to sleep in the branches. At morning light, mist rises off the swamp. And in the distance, they can see the island. Once they arrive, the partisans have nothing to do but wait—wait for the Germans to leave the Naliboki forest.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
After trekking through this very forbidding swampland, they spend ten days covered with mud, trying to evade the patrols of Germans and Belorussian collaborators that are hunting them.

Erin Harper
Meanwhile, the Germans are crawling through the dense Naliboki forest, hunting the partisans. The Bielski partisans eventually leave the island, and make their way back to camp. But when they arrive, they find it destroyed. Now, exhausted, hungry, it’s time to start again. They must move deeper into the forest, and start the arduous build of a new camp. But this camp would be different. This time, they would create a hidden village—a Jewish community.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
In terms of making use of the talents of the community, people we’re expected to offer services in some way. So if you were a carpenter,  you immediately got to work on building whatever bunker or whatever it might be. This was a group effort, and really required the commitment of all of these people, and one that involves ingenuity and practicality and resourcefulness.

Erin Harper
The Bielski partisans build a village. Some 20 bunkers for their living quarters. And a large structure for—what they call—workshops. Inside, women sew warm clothing—anything the partisans need. They also set up a hospital to treat partisans who are sick or injured. Across the way, they construct a school for more than 50 children in the camp. They also build a flour mill, a bakery, and, of course a kitchen, where cooks make potato soup, or porridge cooked over a fire.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
Merely carrying on some of the more day to day tasks and rituals, like sharing a meal, or singing a song. Their ability—because of this protected community—allowed them to maintain a sense of connection to this era that in all other ways was lost, and a society that in all other ways seemed to have been completely destroyed.

Erin Harper
And with the forest protecting them—some partisans continue their religious observances—including Yom Kippur—a holy day of atonement in the Jewish faith. And in the forest, in October of 1943, a Bielski partisan named Raya, welcomes the observance at nightfall, with song and prayer. She said, “I remember it was very cold. The sky was clear and there were big stars.” She continues, “...Everyone knew the tune of the prayer, and we sung it from memory while we thought of our families. I remember looking up at the trees, and it was as if they were singing with us.”

The partisans also play music—a guitar, an accordion, a violin. They form a troupe to perform on special occasions. They dance, act, tell jokes, and sing songs.The leader of the troup, Sulia, said of the performers, “They needed laughter and we did too.” Another Bielski partisan named Liza later wrote of these occasions, she said, “It seemed like a fantasy from another world… [We were] the same people—flesh and blood—but stronger and freer…”

By the spring of 1944, the Bielski partisans have grown to more than 1,200 Jews—men, women, children, and elderly. Outside the forest, the war is still going on, although, the fate of Nazi Germany has changed course. It’s become clear that Nazi Germany is losing the war.

Then in June of 1944, a Soviet general rides into the camp. He tells the Bielski partisans that the Soviets have pushed the Germans back, and regained control of the Belorussian capital. Within weeks, the Soviets take control and liberate Belorussian territories.

But the Bielski partisans would meet one last fight. Within days, German soldiers retreating West towards Germany, start running right into the Bielski camp. The Bielski fighters shoot at the Germans through the trees. Hearing the gunfire, the nearby Soviet partisans join in, as they dominate the Germans. After the violence subsides, Tuvia discovers that several of his partisans were killed in the battle.

Hours later, the partisans hear more soldiers approaching through the trees. The partisans begin to run away—but wait—they notice it’s not the Germans. It’s the Soviet Army taking back control. Suddenly they realize the war in Belorussian territories is over. And with that, the Bielski partisans’ time in the forest—has ended.

After three years of living in the forest, many of the partisans had memorized the earth under their feet. To many—at first—the forest seemed an impossible threat. In the end, the forest was not the enemy. But rather, the protector. And although each partisan had stared death in the face—perhaps in the forest—many were able to hold onto who they were. A few days later, the Bielski partisans walk out of the Naliboki forest—in a line stretching more than a mile long.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
Despite the fact that everyone knows that Nazi Germany will fall, the war is still on. Even when the war is completely over, many who returned home found other people living in their houses. And in many cases, the locals who now occupied the property that they had owned, were violently antisemitic and refused to give them quarter, or to discuss returning their property. And in many cases, this was violent. So the violence and hostility does not end.

You're returning—like so many Polish, and Belorussian, or Ukrainian Jews—returning to communities that no longer exist, both physically, spiritually and culturally. There were very few joyous reunions. In many cases, families and friends were dead—had been murdered. And so despite this really almost impossible story of survival, the environment that they reenter after the war is tinged with this realization of all that's been lost.

Erin Harper
When the war ended in Belorussian territories, the Bielski partisan group had grown to more than 1,200 Jews. The majority—women, children, and elderly. Today, the Bielski partisans are considered one of the largest rescues of Jews by Jews in the history of the Holocaust.

Dr. J. Luke Ryder
And in this broader sense, I think that the unit came to symbolize that not only would Jews not willingly or passively allow themselves to be murdered in large number, but that they would attempt to create some kind of community of hope in this very disrupted and hostile environment. And this was really a beacon of hope for Jews in an otherwise extremely bleak situation.

And there’s something that comes up again and again in the literature about this group of people. And that is, what made them—like why were they able to do this? And I don't think that there's a very clear-cut answer. There was a very special quality possessed particularly by this family—the Bielski family—that allowed them to lead this effort. And I don't pretend to know, character-wise, exactly what makes it possible for people to persist, and sort of not just persist, but create in these adverse circumstances.

Erin Harper
Looking back, many Bielski partisans reflected on what it was like to survive in the forest. One man, named Charles, who was 17 when he arrived at the Bielski camp, later said “In the woods we were free. That’s all I can tell you. We had freedom.”

After Belorussian territories were liberated, some Bielski fighters were drafted into the Soviet Army—including Asael Bielski. Asael was killed while fighting the Germans just months before the defeat of Nazi Germany. Tuvia Bielski, with his wife Lilka, and with Zus Bielski with his wife Sonia, initially moved to Israel, and later settled in the US. Tuvia and Zus each worked in transportation—driving trucks and taxis based out of New York. Tuvia passed away in 1987. And Zus, in 1995.

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. Joining us today was Dr. J. Luke Ryder, historian at the William Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the museum.

Our story is informed by the work of author and journalist, Peter Duffy. As well as sociologist and Holocaust survivor and scholar Nachama Tec, who wrote the book Defiance, which inspired the 2008 film of the same title.

Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from the Crown Family Philanthropies and from Laura Ginns and Family. Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this episode. Send an email to podcast@ushmm.org, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. If you love our show, please follow us on your favorite podcast app. Thanks for listening.