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Celebrating survival: Remembering the Bielski Brigade

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From left, Frieda Feit (née Sluka), Rachel Sluka, David Sluka, Szyfra Sluka, and Rasza Lea Sluka. Frieda’s father, mother, and three sisters were among the 5,500 Jews killed on May 8, 1942, by the Nazis.

For many, the 2008 movie “Defiance” — chronicling the story of the Bielski Brigade, a group of Jewish partisans operating in Belarus between 1942 and 1944 — provided their first introduction to a little-known chapter of Jewish history.

But Robert Bielsky — son of the brigade’s commander, Tuvia Bielski — has heard the story all his life.

“We didn’t just hear our father’s stories,” he said. “We were born into the story, born into the history. People were always coming by to thank my father for saving their lives and allowing their families to regenerate.”

The four Bielski brothers, who hailed from a farming family in Stankiewicze, Poland, fled to the forest after their parents and other family members were killed in the Nowogrodek ghetto in December 1941. While their original goal was simply to survive, Tuvia (the eldest), Alexander (also known as Zus), Asael, and Aron ultimately created a community unlike any other partisan group. Not only did they fight the enemy, but by the end of the war the group had rescued more than 1,200 men, women, and children.

Robert Bielsky, together with six of these survivors, will speak about the Bielski Brigade at a May 17 program at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel.

The younger Bielsky spells his name differently from his father.

“My father and mother spelled it differently,” he said. “My father used the Polish spelling, my mother used the Russian. I always followed my mother.”

His parents, who had known each other as youngsters, married in the forest in 1944.

“My mother Lilka,” 18 years younger than his father, “was infatuated with my father even as a little girl,” he said. After the war, the couple immigrated to Israel, where Robert Bielsky’s brother and sister were born. In 1957, they came to the United States.

Robert, born here the following year, spoke about growing up in Brooklyn.

“There’s a bond among all those who survived,” he said, noting that his parents lived 10 blocks away from his uncle Zus’s family. “We all remained close, including first and second cousins.” Of the four original Bielski partisans, only Aron, the youngest, is still alive.

While his father and uncles “looked like anybody else,” he said, “they were bigger than life in the eyes of our family and those they saved.”

“They went into the woods to save their own lives, but their [quest] for survival turned into the largest armed Jewish resistance in World War II,” he said, explaining that while they had originally hoped simply to meld into the woods and not be discovered, their group kept growing as they met Jewish escapees in the forest.

Tuvia Bielski, right, with his daughter Ruth. His brother Zus is pictured here with his sons Jay and David. The picture was taken in Israel in 1957.

“They had to make a decision whether to organize them or go their separate ways,” he said, noting that this father believed there was strength in numbers and also hoped to create an alliance with Soviet partisans.

“He was a good negotiator,” said Bielsky, pointing out that his father’s family were the only Jews in their hometown and had learned, from necessity, to “negotiate their way out of trouble. They were also big, strong, and smart,” he said.

Bielsky confirmed that a quote often attributed to his father was accurate.

“He told me directly that he would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill 10 German soldiers,” he said.

What gave his father the greatest pleasure after the war, he added, “was when he was invited to weddings and bar mitzvahs and could look at the children and grandchildren of the people he saved.”

During the summer of 2007, Robert Bielsky went back to the woods to see where his father and the other partisans had lived for two years. On the way, he said, they stopped in at the movie set in Vilnius to speak with “Defiance” director Ed Zwick. The two had met previously in Manhattan.

Crossing the border into Belarus, “where it all happened,” he met former brigade member Jack Kagan, and the two attended the opening of a museum honoring the partisans.

Bielsky said that thanks to Kagan’s guidance — “He knew everything,” he said — as well as the help of the non-Jewish museum curator, he was able to locate the huts where the partisans had lived.

“They were still standing,” he said. “They were built very well. It was surreal to see them — they survived for 65 years.”

Last summer, Bielsky funded an excavation in the woods. The items discovered there are now housed in the Florida Holocaust Museum.

During his trip, Bielsky “went to the places they went. I got the full flavor,” he said. “My biggest amazement was that when we went from ‘a’ to ‘b’ by car, it sometimes took an hour. They walked those distances. It’s insane,” he said.

Six weeks after returning home, Bielsky set off again, returning to Belarus with his entire family to show them where his father was born. This time, he spent four days on the movie set in Vilnius, talking with the actors. His 22-year-old son, Jordan, was given a small role in the film.

Lilka and Tuvia Bielski lighting a candle at David Feit’s bar mitzvah in 1969.

“All in all, the movie was very accurate,” although some historical events were out of order, said Bielsky. In addition, he noted, the moviemakers “embellished the ferocity” of the fighting. “[The brigade] didn’t blow up tanks,” he said.

He pointed out that special screenings of the movie were held all over the country for surviving brigade members. More than 375 partisans and their descendants attended the screening in November at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.

“There was a private screening just for the Bielski family,” he added, “about 148 of us.”

Zwick, he said, was “sensitive to the comments” he received from these groups, especially from those who were connected with the events portrayed.

Bielsky, who has been speaking about the brigade for some 15 years, said that after the movie was released, “the outside world wanted to know more.” When he talks, he said, “the power of the story drives the speech.”

Tuvia Bielski’s son said he has learned a powerful lesson from his father’s experiences. “Never wait until there are no options,” he said. “When you see trouble, start planning ahead.”

Woodcliff Lake resident David Feit, a member of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel’s religious affairs committee and the organizer of the May 17 program, felt it was important for the world to know that the story depicted in “Defiance” was not fiction. “It involved real people,” he said, “people who rose to the occasion” when their lives, and those of fellow Jews, were endangered. His mother was one of those rescued.

“It is especially important for the younger generation [to know],” said Feit adding that while increasing numbers of young Jews do not feel a strong connection with Israel, “they need to understand that it is important not just historically but because it protects us. In the 1940s, there was no one to help.”

Feit pointed out that the Bielski Brigade exerted a “superhuman effort to save Jews under the eyes of the Nazis,” who placed bounties on their heads. He noted also that the major difference between this partisan group and others was its acceptance of women and children. Other groups, he said, limited themselves to fighting men.

“I want to show the new generation that this actually happened, that real, live people went through this horrendous experience, creating viable cities in the forest and moving them when they were in danger.”

He said that stories like this have been little known, and only during the past 10 to 15 years have books been published about it.

“People think of the Jews as demure lambs led to the slaughter,” he said, “but there were many, many heroes. They should all be honored.”

In addition to Robert Bielsky, the Fair Lawn program will feature six survivors of the brigade — Anna Monka, Michael Stoll, Ruth and Sol Lapidus, Lea Friedberg, and Sonya Oshman. Feit will screen a brief segment from “The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods,” a documentary that aired on the History Channel in 2006 and in which four of the above survivors participated.

Oshman, who now lives at the Jewish Home Assisted Living in River Vale, has described her journey from Nowogrodek in 1941 to the United States in 1950 as “a miracle.”

After surviving the initial German invasion of Poland — which claimed the lives of her grandparents — she managed to escape from a ghetto where Jews were being systematically murdered, losing her mother, two brothers, and her sister there. Caught once again, she and fellow prisoners built a tunnel to the outside.

“It took us about five or six months to dig a tunnel large enough for a person to crawl through,” she said. “On a rainy night in September, we decided to try to crawl out. We took a chance, and if anyone survived, that person could tell the story. I was one of the lucky ones.”

With three companions — one of whom she later married — Oshman, then 20, made her way to the Naliboki Forest, where her group met up with the Bielski Brigade. After the war, she and her husband, Aaron, moved to Italy and then to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. After that, they moved to Elizabeth.

According to a JHAL spokesperson, Oshman, who spoke frequently about her experiences at local events, moved to the facility “after falling on the ice on her way to a speaking engagement.”

Feit’s mother, born Frieda Sluka, was a young girl in the Lida ghetto when her mother and three sisters were slaughtered by the Nazis. She escaped from the ghetto and joined the Bielski partisans in 1942, remaining with them for a year and a half, until liberation by the Russians during the summer of 1944. She immigrated to the United States in 1946 and married Feit’s father, Joseph, in 1950, having met him at the Eschwege DP camp in Germany after the war. Frieda Feit — who remained close friends with Tuvia Bielski until his death in 1987 — died in 2001.

Sonya Oshman

Feit remembers Tuvia Bielski well, describing him as a “close family friend.” In fact, said Feit, “he lit a candle at my bar mitzvah.”

The program organizer recalled that once a month, the 10 or so brigade survivors in Brooklyn would get together at each other’s homes to play cards. They also shared family simchas.

“My mother didn’t talk very much about [her experiences],” he said, “probably to protect me and my sister.” She did, however, talk to Peter Duffy, author of “The Bielski Brothers” (HarperCollins, 2003).

After his mother died, Feit read the Duffy book and became more interested in what his mother had gone through. He traveled to Poland, though he was cautioned against visiting Lida. An aunt who went there subsequently described it simply as “a town with few Jews.”

Feit said the members of the Brooklyn survivors group looked “like your typical bubby and zaydie. They loved their families and children above everything. They didn’t look like fighters.”

While survivors from Lida and their families gather each May, the number of survivors is growing “smaller and smaller,” he said.

For further information about the program, call the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, (201) 796-5040.

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