NEW YORK — Four hundred people gathered in New York on Monday to honor the legendary Bielski brothers, the partisan leaders who saved more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.
The four brothers, Tuvia, Asael, Zus and Aron, were feted, along with all the partisans of the Bielski Brigade, at the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation’s annual gala dinner.
Some 150 descendants of the Bielski partisans, including many of the their grandchildren, attended the dinner.
Eighty-seven-year-old Aron Bell, the youngest and last surviving of the four Bielski brothers, minced no words in instructing the third generation.
“They should be good Jews. That means they should go to the synagogue and support Israel. Supporting Israel is the most important,” he said. “If they don’t, some day they will pay for it.”
The event was not only a celebration of the WWII-era Jewish fighters, but also a chance to recognize members of the third generation who are perpetuating their grandparents’ legacy.
WCBS-TV senior news anchor Dana Tyler was mistress of ceremonies, Professor Alan M. Dershowitz gave the evening’s keynote speech, and “Defiance” actor Liev Schreiber narrated a short film about the partisans. But it was the surviving Bielski brigade members and their grandchildren who were the true stars of the evening.
With the steady demise of Holocaust survivors and the aging of their children, the torch of partisan memory and heritage has been passed to the third generation, whose members make up a large portion of the estimated 20,000 people descended from the Bielski partisans and the Jews they saved.
“When someone tells you that your grandfather saved their life, that has a big impact on you,” said Matthew Bielski, the 29-year-old grandson of Zus Bielski.
As co-chair of a special third generation committee, Bielski spearheaded an effort to collect information on adult grandchildren of partisans living all over the world working to carry on the partisans’ legacy.
On Monday, seven exceptional members of the third generation were formally recognized, including an Israel Defense Forces battalion commander, a South African playwright who produced a show about the partisans, and a Boston-area educator who started an innovative school for Orthodox girls.
‘When someone tells you that your grandfather saved their life, that has a big impact on you’
Among those recognized were Rabbi Zev Johnson, 32, and his sister Tanya Johnson, 28. Rabbi Johnson and his wife run the Chabad student center the University of Texas in Austin. He remembers his grandmother Leah Johnson was always very open about her wartime experiences, as well as about those of her husband Velvel Johnson, who fought alongside her in the Bielski Brigade.
“She did it for the sake of educating us and guiding us to live in the modern world with values that are so important to her, like always living and loving life,” he said.
The rabbi, who became involved with Chabad as a college student, also recalled that his partisan grandmother encouraged his personal religious journey.
“I think she saw my growing religious observance as a reflection of her own upbringing,” he noted.
Tanya Johnson convenes third generation Holocaust survivors in Dallas and has staffed eight Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, making sure they always include partisan education during visits to Yad Vashem.
She remembers knowing as a child that her grandparents were in the Holocaust and that they fought for their lives, but it was only in high school that she fully grasped what it meant to be a partisan.
“I’m honored to continue that legacy. I see it as my mission to do so,” she said.
The elderly partisans are not about to let their grandchildren off the hook.
“The grandchildren should know where they come from and know what it means to live in a free society. The Holocaust should not be forgotten,” said Ann Monka, who was sitting at a table full of family members, including her brother Michael Stoll and sister Bella Goldfischer Wagner. The three siblings, their parents and a cousin all managed to survive the war together as Bielski partisans.
Rabbi Johnson, recognized for his efforts to preserve his grandparents’ memory and perpetuate their values, doesn’t need any convincing. He just looks at a famous photo of the Bielski brigade for inspiration.
“That’s my grandfather in the middle of the front row, the one with the machine gun,” he said. “He is the fighting force — both physical and spiritual — behind me as I educate young Jews today.”