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Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews

Overview

In 1941, three brothers witnessed their parents and two other siblingsbeing led away to their eventual murders. It was a grim scene that would,of course, be repeated endlessly throughout the war. Instead of running orgiving in to despair, these brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski — foughtback, waging a guerrilla war of wits against the Nazis.

By using their intimate knowledge of the dense forests surrounding theBelarusan towns of Novogrudek and Lida, the Bielskis evaded the...

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Overview

In 1941, three brothers witnessed their parents and two other siblingsbeing led away to their eventual murders. It was a grim scene that would,of course, be repeated endlessly throughout the war. Instead of running orgiving in to despair, these brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski — foughtback, waging a guerrilla war of wits against the Nazis.

By using their intimate knowledge of the dense forests surrounding theBelarusan towns of Novogrudek and Lida, the Bielskis evaded the Nazis andestablished a hidden base camp, then set about convincing other Jews to jointheir ranks. As more and more Jews arrived each day, a robust communitybegan to emerge, a "Jerusalem in the woods."

After two and a half years in the woods, in July 1944, the Bielskis learnedthat the Germans, overrun by the Red Army, were retreating back towardBerlin. More than one thousand Bielski Jews emerged — alive — on that final,triumphant exit from the woods.

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Editorial Reviews

Paula Zahn
“Powerful! The strength of the human spirt shines on in [this] beautifully written book.”
Howard Blum
“An exciting, well-paced story about honor, courage and duty. An inspiration.”
People Magazine
"As amazing as Schindler’s List."
People
“As amazing as Schindler’s List.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Captivating...a welcome story of bold, determined, and successful resistance....[An] unjustly neglected story.”
People
“As amazing as Schindler’s List.”
Dallas Morning News
“An engrossing, inspiring narrative ... of an incredible victory amid an immeasurable tragedy.”
London Times
“Remarkable [and] surprising ... Duffy’s book is a gripping and overdue tribute to the brothers’ resourcefulness and courage.”
The Spectator
“An extraordinary story of resistance.”
Washington Post
“Fast-paced and deeply moving...inspiring in its representation of the heroism of ordinary people.”
Jewish Bulletin
“A wildly daring, untold tale of resistance .... inspiring and harrowing.”
PW Daily
“[A] dramatic and heartfelt story of unbelievable courage in the face of unspeakable adversity.”
Chicago Tribune
“A haunting book...with the grip of good fiction and the punch of hard truth.”
The Economist
“A fascinating story!”
Dallas Morning News
“An engrossing, inspiring narrative ... of an incredible victory amid an immeasurable tragedy.”
Chicago Tribune
“A haunting book...with the grip of good fiction and the punch of hard truth.”
Washington Post
“Fast-paced and deeply moving...inspiring in its representation of the heroism of ordinary people.”
London Times
“Remarkable [and] surprising ... Duffy’s book is a gripping and overdue tribute to the brothers’ resourcefulness and courage.”
People
“As amazing as Schindler’s List.”
The Economist
“A fascinating story!”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Captivating...a welcome story of bold, determined, and successful resistance....[An] unjustly neglected story.”
The Spectator
“An extraordinary story of resistance.”
PW Daily
“[A] dramatic and heartfelt story of unbelievable courage in the face of unspeakable adversity.”
Jewish Bulletin
“A wildly daring, untold tale of resistance .... inspiring and harrowing.”
Publishers Weekly
This is a story about heroes, and Duffy does a masterful job of telling it. The narrative begins on a farm in Stankevich, a village in what is now Belarus. After witnessing the brutal execution of their parents by Nazi soldiers, the three Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Asael and Zus, fled into the nearby dense forest, where they joined relatives and friends, scrounged for food and weapons and inflicted whatever damage they could on German troops. As the group grew, the brothers sent word to the nearby ghettos in Lida and Novogrudek to join the steadily increasing brigade. For the Jews gated in by the ghetto walls, slated for death, word of the Bielski group was barely believable. For those who dared to believe and managed to escape, the Bielski brothers offered more than food and protection-they offered hope. The brigade grew to an astonishing 1,200 Jews who built a secret village deep in the forest. The group's cumbersome size made it an easy target, but Tuvia, the eldest brother, refused to turn any Jew away. With courage, ingenuity and sometimes sheer dumb luck, the brothers led the group through the dense forests of Belarus as the Germans hunted them down. Yet the world has heard little of this event. Years after the war, when Tuvia was living in Brooklyn, New York (all three brothers have since died), no one knew that the local immigrant truck driver had once commanded the feared Bielski brigade. It is time the three brothers received their due. (July) Forecast: This remarkable story would make a terrific movie. With good publicity, sales should be brisk. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Duffy, a freelance journalist, relates in vivid detail the World War II saga of the Bielski partisans. Led by the three Bielski brothers, these partisans formed the largest group of Jewish fighters on the eastern front and managed to save approximately 1200 Jews during the war, taking refuge in the Belorussian forest. Prior to the conflict, the Bielski brothers, in particular Tuvia, developed a reputation for being willing to respond forcefully to anti-Semitic acts. When war came, the Bielskis' history of aggressive response to threats had prepared them to fight back. Although clearly impressed with the Bielskis' accomplishments, as well as with the men themselves, Duffy does not let that detract from recounting the less noble aspects of partisan life. The Bielskis were tough disciplinarians, executing some of their own men for violating regulations and killing an entire Polish family whose patriarch was actively assisting the Nazis' extermination of the Jews. The political tensions with Soviet authorities during the war was one of the factors in the decision of almost the entire Bielski clan to emigrate to the United States after the war. Not as scholarly as Nechama Tec's Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, this book is recommended for a general audience.-Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Holocaust-related history, more uplifting than most. Freelance writer Duffy stumbled upon a stray reference to "Forest Jews" while performing a random online search. His curiosity about this mysterious term led to a New York Times story in 2000, now this book. The eponymous brothers are Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski, all born before WWI to the only Jewish family in Stankevich, western Belarus. Once a dominion of czarist Russia, the village became part of Poland after 1918, but the Soviet Union governed following the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. The intense drama of Duffy's narrative begins with Nazi German troops over-running the village in 1941. The Bielskis’ parents were killed, as were numerous other relatives; survivors were placed in a ghetto to serve as slave labor for the Nazis. Tuvia, Asael, and Zus broke out and helped others to follow. They built a rugged but survivable life in a nearby dense forest, obtaining weapons however possible to protect the nascent Jewish settlement and to conduct guerilla raids against Nazi forces. The day-in, day-out account of the next four years is an often unbearably intense chronicle of horror and courage. A novel telling a similar story would almost certainly be dismissed as outlandish, but Duffy's copious endnotes convincingly document the saga’s reality. All three brothers survived the forest years, as did and many of those they helped. Asael, conscripted into the Soviet army, died fighting German troops in February 1945. Tuvia and Zus made it to Israel with their wives, later settling in the US. Tuvia died in 1987, Zus in 1996, but Duffy had access to their widows and other relatives and uses those recollections wisely. Only the vast array ofnames, dates, and battles are sometimes difficult to assimilate. A powerful recounting of a little-known story.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060935535
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/15/2004
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 130,385
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

First Chapter

The Bielski Brothers
The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest

Chapter One

From the Tsar To the Führer

In the later years of the 1800s, Elisheva and Zusya Bielski, the grandparents of Tuvia, Asael, and Zus, settled on a plot of farmland in the tiny village of Stankevich in the Belorussian region of tsarist Russia. It was less a village than a collection of a dozen or so wooden homes on the crest of a hill in one of the poorest, most backward corners of Europe. The Bielski home stood separate from the main section of the community, positioned down the slope and on the other side of a small lake fed by a river. And outsiders they were: The Bielskis were the only Jews in town.

The family's property, leased to them by a hard-luck Polish nobleman with a fondness for drinking and gambling, had a water-powered mill and two stables. Soon after arriving in the village in a horse-drawn cart, Zusya and his youngest son, David, started a business turning grains into flours and cereals.

Elisheva and Zusya's other children were married and living in cities, as were most of the Jews residing within the pale of settlement, the huge swath of territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea, where the tsar had ordered all Jews to live. They were subject to a startling number of discriminatory and ever-changing decrees within this large ghetto, forced to pay all manner of onerous taxes, prevented from speaking their native Yiddish language in public, and forbidden from serving in even minor civil-service posts. Tsarist restrictions also made it hard for Jews to live in rural areas, but Elisheva and Zusya were long accustomed to working the land away from population centers.

Not long after the family arrived in Stankevich, the tsar issued another string of anti-Jewish decrees, including one that made it illegal for Jews to buy, sell, manage, or lease rural property. The aging couple was greatly distressed by the order, worried that they would soon be expelled from their home.

But with the resilience that was necessary for a Jew to survive under the tsar, David came up with a way to keep the family in Stankevich. He negotiated a deal with one of the neighbors, a Polish man named Kushel, transferring the property's deed into the gentile's name. The man agreed that his involvement in Bielski affairs would remain in name only, and the arrangement enabled the Bielski family to stay in business. But the stress of the situation added to the miseries of Elisheva, who was suffering from a succession of ailments. David arranged for his mother to see several doctors, but to no avail. She died in a hospital in Vilna, the Lithuanian capital to the north.

By the turn of the century, young David was ready to start a family of his own. He married Beyle Mendelavich, the daughter of a shopkeeper from nearby Petrevich, and he settled into a miller's life, content to follow the path of his aging father, who was himself content to watch the arrival of a new generation. By the time old Zusya died in 1912, Beyle had produced four children -- Velvel, Tuvia, Taibe, and Asael -- and had another on the way. In honor of David's father, the next child, a son, was named Zusya and was known variously as Zusya, Zissel, or Zus.

The children were born into a simple peasant life long before the arrival of electricity or running water in a Belarus region that had for centuries been dominated by its larger neighbors of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. It was a world of primitive wooden homes topped with roofs of straw, where a peasant's most valued possession was his horse and four-wheeled wooden cart. As the years passed, the family acquired farm animals of every variety, including a few horses, several cows, and some sheep; all the food they ate was produced by their own labor. The parents had their own room, while the children shared the remaining space, sleeping several in the same bed, or, in the summer, tired after a long day of work, on straw in the barn.

The extent of the children's education varied, but most didn't get very far in religious or secular schools. David at times would hire a teacher to come to the house. At other times, a child was sent to live with a relative in Novogrudek, the nearest city with a sizable Jewish population, to be educated in its local schools. The closest synagogue was also located in the city, a fifteen-kilometer trip that took three hours by horse and cart, making it difficult for the family to regularly attend services. Instead, a private home served as their house of worship. On the Sabbath and high holy days, the Bielskis visited the home of the Dziencielski family, who lived two kilometers through a path in the woods in the village of Big Izvah. Like the Bielskis, the Dziencielskis operated a mill and were the only Jews in their town.

David would sometimes lead the congregation in prayer, using a Torah scroll that was kept in the Dziencielski house. He didn't have much in the way of education, but he had a melodious voice and a strong grasp of the holy texts.

The children learned the local languages -- Belorussian, Russian, and Polish -- with a fluency that often eluded most Belorussian Jews who dwelled in Jewish neighborhoods in the cities. David's business required the family to come into constant contact with its neighbors, Orthodox Christian Belorussians and Catholic Poles. Fully aware that he was an isolated Jew living through a time when anti-Jewish violence was a fact of life, he developed a conciliatory nature that sought peace over confrontation.

When officials from the tsarist government arrived and announced that they suspected the family of managing the land in violation of the tsar's order, David and Beyle offered them a seat at their table ...

The Bielski Brothers
The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest
. Copyright © by Peter Duffy. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Book Description
In 1941 after witnessing the execution of their parents and two siblings, Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski fled into the forest and sent out the word that any Jews who made it to the woods would find a safe haven there. Over time, they gathered more than 1200 Jews, who lived hidden in the Belo-Russian forest. For two and a half years, at the height of World War II, the Bielski Jews courageously fought against the Nazis and built a thriving community that included a temple, a bathhouse, and a theater. The historical role of the Bielski brothers in saving Jewish lives from the Holocaust is at least equal to that of Oskar Schindler, but their story has never been told -- until now.

Topics for Discussion

  1. Members of the Bielski community had to do things they would have considered morally reprehensible outside of the forest -- lying, stealing, and even killing. Do you feel their choices were justifiable under the circumstances?
  2. What activities did members of the group develop to create a sense of community and maintain their religious and cultural traditions?
  3. Do you believe that the cultural and religious activities that the Jews implemented into their daily lives helped them make it through the war?
  4. One amazing fact about the story is that, although many gentile neighbors knew about the Jews hidden in the forest, their experience was never revealed. Why did the townspeople help keep the Bielski's secret?

About the Author
Peter Duffy, a freelance journalist, has worked for The New York Times, the New York Post and Newsday among other publications. The Bielski Brothers, hisfirst book, is being published in nine other countries and has been featured on CNN. Descendants of the three brothers have been accompanying the author on various reading events at bookstores.

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    amazing story

    I was intrigued by this story after seeing the movie, "Defiance." The story of Bielski brothers is missing from the study of the Jewish Holocaust - at least in school books. I recommend this inspiring book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    An Enlightening Read

    It is hard to take research and turn it in to a story but the author has done it well. It is a touching tale of bravery and forbearance against Germany's savage persecution of the Jews. It has now been made into a Movie starring Daniel Craig which by no means captures the true attrocities but never the less is worth seeing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Book!!

    Nicely written and research was well done. I wanted to read the book before the new movie Defiance came out and chose this book. I'm glad I did because not only was it historically accurate and nicely written it was also inspirational and gives a new light to partisan fighters. If you want to know more about the underlying acts of World War II, read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    amazing book

    Everyone should read this book. It is a true story that should be taught to all. The holocaust was an atrocious genocide. There are 6 million jews in America today and 6 million were killed during the holocaust. The Bielski brothers saved over 1,000 jews with nothing more then a determination to live. They are truly remarkable. I loved this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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