Novogrudok is a small city in the rolling hills of western Belarus, surrounded by lush forests full of lakes and streams, with wolves, bears, wild boars and bison prowling around the trees. Once the hunting grounds of European aristocrats, the area was also an important and well-known center of Jews since the 15th century.
From Belarus came three presidents of Israel — Chaim Weizmann, Zalman Shazar, and Shimon Peres — and three prime ministers — Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. From Novogrudok and its surrounding region also came the largest detachment of Jewish fighters in German-occupied Europe during World War II.
David Bielski and his younger brother Zelig were born in a rural Belarusian village, part of tsarist Russia towards the end of the 19th century. Their paths diverged in the beginning of the 20th century when Zelig moved to Novogrudok. However, they found themselves together again when, in the freezing winter of 1942, they were forced to undress with their families and hundreds of fellow Jews, and machine-gunned into pre-dug ditches by Nazi extermination , supported by enthusiastic Lithuanian collaborators.
About 4,000 Jews from the city and its surrounding area were killed in that first day’s slaughter.
The children of David and Zelig were proud of their Jewish heritage and did not believe in turning the other cheek when confronted by anti-Semitism. Their sons, tall and strong, knew how to use their fists; they settled scores. Woe unto any local who harmed their family or ridiculed their religion.
David’s son, Tuvia, would later become the well-known and charismatic commander of the Bielski Partisans. Zelig’s son, Yehuda, or Yudel, would go on to organize and coordinate the military wing of the Bielski detachment. The Bielski Partisans became one of the most successful and impressive rescue operations during the Holocaust. Their story was told in the Oscar-nominated 2008 movie, Defiance.
From 1921 to 1939 about half of Belarus was controlled by Poland and Tuvia was drafted into the Polish army. Two years later Corporal Bielski returned home, got a job as an assistant bookkeeper and married.
Several years later, Yehuda was also drafted into the Polish army and was commissioned as a lieutenant. After returning to Novogrudok, he became a school athletics coach and married. He was a quiet, very private man.
The army called up Yehuda when Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. Badly wounded in battle, he escaped from a Warsaw hospital when the SS stormed in looking for officers and Jews. He maneuvered his way home where the Soviets were now in control.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. When the Germans reached Novogrudok, Yehuda found himself on the ghetto selection line to the massacre pits. After a second selection, he planned an escape.
Just then he received a letter from his older cousin, Tuvia, delivered by their Christian friend. “We are hiding in the forest and do not plan to submit to the Germans. Bring your wife, a few good men and we will build something together,” Tuvia wrote. He had recently escaped with 20 family members (including his three brothers) from a village he was hiding in. He needed Yehuda’s military expertise.
One night, leading his wife and eight potential fighters, Yehuda advanced slowly while avoiding the guards to the ghetto fence where they removed the fence boards, cut through the barbed wire and escaped across an open field to the forest. When they finally reached his cousins, Yehuda addressed the group: “We have come here to stay alive. We must think only of one important thing, revenge and revenge again on the murderers.” Acquiring weapons and attacking the enemy was his answer.
With Tuvia’s authoritative leadership and Yehuda’s military focus, the Bielski Partisans emerged. It now included people who were not relatives.
Tuvia and his brothers, Asael and Zus, organized the Bielski detachment. Their 13-year-old brother, Aron, was a forest scout. Tuvia accepted and protected desperate Jews of all ages, and created a family partisan camp. “Because we are so few, it is important for me that the Jews stay alive” he said.
The grandmother of President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was among those who joined the Bielski partisans after escaping from the Novogrudok ghetto. By the autumn of 1943 there were 750 people in the partisan camp, which became known as “Forest Jerusalem.’’ Satellite camps were added.
Several dozen underground bunkers were built in the main camp. The largest could house about 40 people. In the center were the headquarters and meeting place. It included assorted workshops, a mill, bathhouse, laundry, synagogue, school, infirmary, and jail.
Some extraordinary Belarusians, at enormous risk to themselves and their families, helped Jews escape from ghettos and tunnels. The Germans brutally killed the families of those who helped Jews. In Jerusalem, 711 Belarusians are honored and memorialized at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
The military wing proved to be extremely effective guerrilla fighters and saboteurs. Aided by their Belarusian friends, they acquired ammunition and equipment. They captured German weapons and uniforms. They received many more weapons and equipment from the Soviets.
According to the Russian archives, the Bielski partisan fighters derailed German trains with manpower and equipment, blew up rail and highway bridges including hundreds of meters of tracks plus German vehicles. They assassinated hundreds of German soldiers and officers, the collaborating Belarusian auxiliary police, and local farmers who identified and killed Jews.
Yehuda’s life was always in peril. Stalin had ordered that all Polish officers be shot on sight. There were Moscow-led detachments and NKVD secret police partisan units fighting in the forest. But Tuvia had a friendly working relationship with several Soviet commanders and protected his cousin. Yehuda eluded the Russians and acquired a moniker: “the mystery man.”
Tragically, both Tuvia’s wife and Yehuda’s wife were killed in a German ambush. In time, Tuvia and Lilka, his wife’s relative, became a couple. Yehuda befriended Lola who had escaped from Poland and joined the Bielski detachment, her fourth partisan group.
Liberated in the summer of 1944 by the Red army on its way to victory in Germany, approximately 1,230 men, women and children in the Bielski detachment walked out of the forest. Today they have over 25,000 descendants worldwide.
Tuvia married Lilka and Zus married Sonia, a fellow partisan. Asael was killed. Yehuda and Lola married. The Bielskis made their way to Palestine. Yehuda was commissioned a lieutenant in the IDF and fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Again, he was wounded in battle. Tuvia and Zus also participated in the war, and on May 14, 1948 Israel was reborn.
In the 1950’s the Bielski families immigrated to America where they were reunited with their siblings whom they had not seen in over 30 years.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the barbaric German invaders. Belarus had the largest partisan (374,000) and anti-Nazi underground movement (70,000) in Europe during World War II. Loss of life was in the millions. Over 800,000 Jews were killed in a Holocaust by bullets.
Dozens of descendants of the Bielski Partisans will be coming to Novogrudok this summer to honor the legacy and heroism of their families, and of the non-Jews who hid and helped them. They will be warmly welcomed with celebrations and festivities, a long way from the spartan version of Forest Jerusalem that they built three-quarters of a century ago.
Because the hour we have hungered for is near, Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: we are here!”
— Zog Nit Keyn Mol (Never Say), the Partisan Yiddish anthem of the Holocaust, by Hirsh Glick (1922-1944)
Tamara Vershitskaya is the researcher and curator of the Jewish Resistance Museum in Novogrudok. She can be contacted via email and phone, +375-29-8602949.
Leslie Bell, Ph.D., is a writer and adjunct professor at the City University of New York. She is the daughter of the late Yehuda Bielski.