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It is one of the most remarkable dramas of World War II — untold until now.
In 1941, three young men — brothers, sons of a miller — witnessed their parents and two other siblings being led away to their eventual murders. It was a grim scene that would, of course, be repeated endlessly throughout the war. What makes this particular story of interest is how the survivors responded. Instead of running or capitulating or giving in to despair, these brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael ...
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It is one of the most remarkable dramas of World War II — untold until now.
In 1941, three young men — brothers, sons of a miller — witnessed their parents and two other siblings being led away to their eventual murders. It was a grim scene that would, of course, be repeated endlessly throughout the war. What makes this particular story of interest is how the survivors responded. Instead of running or capitulating or giving in to despair, these brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski — did something else entirely. They fought back, waging a guerrilla war of wits and cunning against both the Nazis and the pro-Nazi sympathizers. Along the way they saved well over a thousand Jewish lives.
Using their intimate knowledge of the dense forests surrounding the Belorussian towns of Novogrudek and Lida, the Bielskis evaded the Nazis and established a hidden base camp, then set about convincing other Jews to join their ranks. When the Nazis began systematically eliminating the local Jewish populations — more than ten thousand were killed in the first year of the Nazi occupation alone — the Bielskis intensified their efforts, often sending fighting men into the ghettos to escort Jews to safety. As more and more Jews arrived each day, a robust community began to emerge, a "Jerusalem in the woods." They slept in camouflaged dugouts built into the ground. Lovers met, were married, and conceived children. The community boasted a synagogue, a bathhouse, a theater, and cobblers so skilled that Russian officers would wait in line to have their boots reshod.
But as its notoriety grew, so too did the Nazi efforts to capture the rugged brothers; and on several occasions they came so near to succeeding that the Bielskis had to abandon the camp and lead their massive entourage to newer, safer locations. And while some argued in favor of a smaller, more mobile unit, focused strictly on waging battle against the Germans, Tuvia Bielski was firm in his commitment to all Jews. "I'd rather save one old Jewish woman," he said, "than kill ten Nazis."
In July 1944, after two and a half years in the woods, the Bielskis learned that the Germans, overrun by the Red Army, were retreating back toward Berlin. More than one thousand Bielski Jews emerged — alive — on that final, triumphant exit from the woods.
The Bielski Brothers is a dramatic and heartfelt retelling of a story of the truest heroism, a historic testament to courage in the face of unspeakable adversity.
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
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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.
Posted March 29, 2004
Very seldom in my avid reading, biblioholic years do I experience a boring read - this is one of the nth degree of boring reads. And, very seldom do I write a negative review. Considering the magnitude of the subject matter and content, expectations were high; the more I read, the more disillusioned I became. It is the writing style of author Peter Duffy which left me with descending hope of reading enjoyment as the book progressed. And, yes, I 'stuck it out' to the end. Duffy's manner of 'handling' the subject matter distorts and disrupts the reader's enjoyment of THE BIELSKI BROTHERS. Too many menial descriptions covering up what should be valuable, in-depth, intellectual writing. Details of trivial matters applied too often without zest. As presented, the story is slow treading in movement and progressive reporting. The author states on page 207, '¿But the work proceeded slowly, with everyone worn out from months of living like nomads.' As in the latter statement, Duffy's fails to write with enthusiasm, upbeat phrasing and non-contributive descriptions to add to the reader's enjoyment of serious material. For instance, by page 207 - three-quarters of the book is complete, but Duffy is no farther ahead in describing Bielski accomplishments than at the halfway mark. The reader is still searching for the 'vim and vigor' writing of an important part of history. In each chapter, repetitive action scenes, reporting of too many trivial movements and scenes repeated over and over leaves the reader with 'stilted' thinking -- '¿it's got to get better in reporting events¿'; it doesn't; the reporting remains weak. The two-star rating I've assigned to the book is in honor of the BIELSKI family and their peers, for the courage and determination in a time of horrendous, heinous, anti-Semitism, with one part of Hitler's determination to destruct a race and culture. With any book, a reader gains 'something' - that something for me is the discovery of the existence of the BIELSKI family. THE BIELSKI BROTHERS determinedly performed a courageous fete to help their country men, women and children. Dear reader, in Duffy's debut, you are in for a dry run of disappointing reporting of information and writing style to the approach of important subject matter. I do honor the author's quotation from The Talmud: 'Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.' Mr. Duffy, do try again and I wish you well in your future endeavors.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 5, 2003
This is the story of perserverance by brothers who, against overwhelming odds were able to save over a thousand Jews in the Holocaust. It is a story cleverly written so that a twelve year old can easily appreciate the heroics of the Bielskis and learn the horrors of the HolocaustWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 23, 2010
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