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

Overview

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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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

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: 9780066210742
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/12/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.05 (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 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2004

    Inspiring - but Author's Writing Disappointing

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2003

    Bielski Brothers; Brothers To All Humanity

    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 Holocaust

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2010

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