BELARUS      

Unsung Heros -
The Bielski Partisans


By Jennifer Lau, February 2001

Among the accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust are the extraordinary tales of survival in the concentration camps and inspirational tales of rescue and concealment of Jews by gentiles. What seems to be lacking are tales of Jews saving other Jews; the remarkable story of the Bielski Partisans is an example of this apparent omission. Moreover, the efforts of the Bielski Partisans is considered to be the largest mass rescue of Jews by Jews, as stated in sociologist Nechama Tecís book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. This resistance group started and was based in Western Belarus, an area first occupied by the Russians in 1939 and then by Germans in 1941.

The mandatory placement of Jews into ghettos and the news of widespread massacre of Jews prompted brothers Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski to openly defy the authorities. Each brother separately sought refuge in the forests surrounding their home village of Stankiewicze and also changed their identities and pretended to be Christian. By 1941 the German plan of the elimination of Jews was underway with the systematic execution of entire populations in small towns and internment in ghettos. Among those placed in ghettos were several members of the large Bielski family, including the brothersí parents and two younger brothers, who were placed in the Nowogrodek ghetto. The death of their family members in the ghettos, a result of German raids of the ghettos, prompted the brothers to come out of hiding and take action.

Asael started the partisan group in the forests near Nowogrodek early in 1942 with several other members of the family; Tuvia and Zus joined the group months later with escapees from ghettos. The brothers sought to find arms and pledged to rescue and shelter fellow Jews. They took advantage of the fact that German troops avoided the forests at night to set up tents and to find peasants willing to trade food for work. Anti-Semitic propaganda soon spread among the peasants, who were now reluctant to help the Jews, fearing punishment or death. It was also in 1942 that the group became an official partisan detachment (otriad), formally calling themselves the Zhukov otriad, after the Soviet Commander in Chief of the Western Front, but informally it was known as the Bielski otriad.

Tuvia was chosen as the commander, being the eldest of the three brothers, in charge of the overall operations as well as security. Asael was named second in command, in charge of the daily activities and of the armed men, while Zus was the head of reconnaissance in charge of obtaining information essential to the groupís safety. The group was constantly on the move, and steadily grew, with the majority consisting of the elderly and women and children from surrounding ghettos. Although there was growing sentiment that the members without arms were a liability, Tuvia insisted that the group would travel as an entire unit, and refused to leave anyone behind. He also stressed the importance of saving lives above all else Ė it was his goal to save Jews, not to kill Germans.

The group soon formed alliances with non-Jewish partisan groups, most prominently with Soviet partisan units, one under Victor Panchenko, leader of the Octiaber otriad (so named after the October Revolution) and later was incorporated into a larger otriad, under the leadership of General Planton (Vasily Yehimovich Chernyshev). Also, contrary to the policy of rescue over revenge, members of the otriad instilled fear in Nowogrodek as they exacted vengeance on the members of the Belarussian police and peasants who were collaborating with the Germans, killing as many as possible, and leaving notice of their deeds. Also, the otriad destroyed crops and sabotaged German supply lines going to and from local farms in order to deprive the German forces of recouping their supplies

Although there were instances of opposition and episodes of insubordination among the more militant members of the otriad, Tuvia had the final say in all the decisions. By 1943, the otriad was based in the Nalibocka forest and resembled more of a community than a military operation, with schools, workshops, a synagogue, and a dispensary along with permanent shelters. The otriad consisted of over 700 men, women and children, and a substantial bounty was placed on the Bielski brothers, Tuvia in particular; it was at this time the Germans launched a massive hunt to find the Bielskis. The otriad fled into the denser areas of the forest, and discounting the suggestions of leaving the unarmed civilians and forging ahead with only the armed units, Tuvia moved the entire group further into the forest.

Throughout 1943 and into 1944, the Bielski Partisans rescued Jews in the ghettos and constantly moved around the forests in efforts to evade the Germans. There were some losses due to coordination miscalculations, and by the end of the war the Bielski otriad emerged out of the Nalibocka forest and into Nowogrodek after the Russian liberation of the area with over 1,200 men, women and children. The tale of the Bielski Partisans is a story of survival, faith and the triumph of the human spirit in times of adversity and terror.

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