NEW YORK — For Matthew Bielski his saba and savta (grandfather and grandmother) were nothing short of modern day Maccabees.
As the grandson of Jewish partisans Sonia and Zus Bielski, Mattthew Bielski, 33, frequently heard stories about surviving frigid winters deep in the Nalibaki forest, in northwestern Belarus. He also heard about what it was like to rise up and kill Nazis — lots of Nazis.
That’s because his grandparents were part of the legendary Bielski brigade, led by brothers Zus (Alexander), Tuvia, Asael and Aron. All told, the group rescued more than 1,200 Jews from extermination during World War II.
“Stories of survival and fighting back. Stories of revenge and killing. These were the stories I heard growing up at backyard barbecues and bar mitzvahs. My grandmother would say, ‘He killed a lot of Nazis.’ But I also remember sitting on his [Zus’s] lap and him smelling like a cigar. He was very loving and he definitely inspired me,” Bielski said.
As he grew older he realized his family’s stories differed from those heard by most of his peers — particularly if their family perished in ghettos or German extermination camps. He also realized Jews worldwide, people he had never met, had a stake in his family’s story.
And so a few years ago, Bielski got involved with the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation as co-chair of a special third generation committee that collects the stories of the adult grandchildren of partisans.
On Sunday November 5, the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, JPEF, honored him for his work.
“It’s not just a Bielski thing. It is inspirational to me to keep the story alive, for people to know how Jewish partisans rose up against the Nazis, and that we can do it again,” he said.
JPEF also honored Elliott Felson, son and nephew of partisans Don and Stan Felson. As JPEF board president, Felson has also worked to incorporate the role of partisans in Holocaust education.
The event’s keynote speaker was Jon Avnet, director of the television miniseries “Uprising” about the Warsaw Ghetto, and the producer of “Black Swan,” “Risky Business,” and other films.
Additionally, the event recognized the actions of partisans such as Motke Ginsburg, who blew up 17 trains loaded with Nazi soldiers; bombed a hydroelectric plant; and killed more than 60 Nazi soldiers during an ambush. His fiancé, Judith, jumped from a train heading for the Majdanek concentration camp and served as a combatant before joining the Bielski Brigade.
“As with all Holocaust survivors, the number of partisans is dwindling. JPEF wants to celebrate their miraculous stories of courage in the face of evil so we may honor the Jewish partisan legacy and continue to educate the world through their stories,” Mitch Braff, JPEF founder and board member, said in a statement.
Braff founded JPEF in 2000 to highlight a piece of what he said was overlooked history — organized, armed Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Using multimedia and interactive educational curricula, JPEF brings Jewish resistance stories to more than 1 million students annually.
Powerless doesn’t mean passive
Learning about these partisans and their accomplishments adds another dimension to Holocaust history and changes the way people think about the Jewish experience during the period, said Dr. Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar, lecturer, former executive director of the Shoah Foundation, and JPEF board member.
“We want to teach solidarity among victims, you have to begin to imagine the resources you do have. Just because Jews were powerless doesn’t mean Jews were passive,” Berenbaum said.
During WWII upwards of 30,000 Jews fought back against the Nazis, according to JPEF. Operating in almost every European country, from Belgium and Poland to France and Greece, they blew up armored convoys and rescued people from ghettos. They cared for wounded soldiers and punished collaborators, sheltered civilians and sabotaged German communications and supply lines.
The majority of the partisans, many of whom were teenagers, joined organized resistance groups after escaping work-camps and ghettos. Some hid in cities, others in mountains. And still others, like Bielski’s grandparents, hid in the forests.
The Bielskis are very unique because they did rescue and resistance
“The Bielskis are very unique because they did rescue and resistance. The resistance-only groups would only save people of fighting age. What made the Bielski Brigade unique was they accepted men, women and children and elderly. They created a Jewish community in the forest under the most horrific conditions imaginable. Everybody did something,” Berenbaum said.
Doing something is in the Bielski blood. Matthew Bielski’s father, Jay, who was born in Tel Aviv, served in the United States Marines before going to Israel as a lone soldier to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Born and raised in New York, Matthew Bielski, a dual American–Israeli citizen, decided to enlist in the IDF after he graduated Binghamton College.
“I always wanted to do it. I grew up around it, I don’t know that my parents expected me to do it, but they weren’t surprised. It’s in my lineage,” he said.
While serving as a paratrooper from 2005-2007 he lived in Ramat HaShofet, a kibbutz in northern Israel. He said he often thought of his grandfather Zus during training and during the 2006 Lebanon war.
My grandmother would always say not to forget you’re a Bielski
After serving in the IDF, Bielski returned to the States and earned a master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University intending to work in Homeland Security or a related field. Instead he landed a job in finance. When his younger brother decided to serve in the IDF, Bielski moved to Tel Aviv to be there for him. While there he earned an MBA from Bar Ilan University.
Bielski said he found the narrative of the Jewish fighter much more ingrained in Israel than in the US. That’s something he’d like to see more of in US Holocaust lessons.
He recalled a night many years ago, when he was a camper at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. It was lights out and the counselor was telling the bunk a story. It was about WWII and how the Jews fought back. And Bielski, then 12 or 13 years old, suddenly realized it was a story about his family.
“My grandmother would always say not to forget you’re a Bielski. That you can always resist, you can always do something,” Bielski said. “That’s relevant today when you think about what’s going on around the world, in Syria, wherever.”