The saga of the Bielsky Brigade highlights an extraordinary episode in the annals of World War II in which over a thousand Jews were saved by a unique partisan group that devoted itself to the rescue of Jews.
In 1941 Germany broke its nonaggression pact with Russia, invaded and occupied the Belorussian area surrounding Novaradok near the Naliboki Forest. The Nazis systematically slaughtered Jews by the tens of thousands, town by town, village by village.
As Soviet partisan groups in the region proliferated, inflicting significant damage on the Nazis, the Germans mounted several massive raids, using tanks, planes and immense firepower to wipe out the guerilla fighters. In Operation Hermann, they succeeded in killing or crippling a large number of partisan groups.
But they were never able to capture or destroy the Bielski Brigade and the Jews they protected in the forest.
“In the ghetto,” recalled survivor Leah Johnson,” we heard about a man named Tuvia Bielski who wanted Jews to join him in the forest. Young, old, sick, healthy…it didn’t matter. As long as you were a Jew, you were welcome.”
Of the Beilski’s 1200 members, only 180 knew how to use arms; the rest were noncombatants. Those trained in using weapons were assigned the most dangerous jobs; snatching Jews from the ghettos and from the claws of the murderers. This often called for military-style ambushes, raids and armed combat.
Bielski partisans’ memoirs are filled with recollections of perilous rescue missions, skirmishes with the Nazis and local collaborators, and the ongoing struggle to procure food supplies for the hundreds of people under the Bielski brothers’ protection.
Just keeping such large numbers of Jews alive in the brutally cold Belorussian winters taxed every shred of ingenuity. The size of the group also greatly increased its vulnerability to being raided by the Nazis. Despite some opposition from the group, Tuvia refused to turn any Jew away.
Word of the Jewish forest refuge spread. As the Nazis escalated the massacres of the Jews throughout Belorussia and neighboring Polish towns and villages, escaping the ghettos and joining the Bielski group became the dream of every surviving Jew in the region.
In the nearby ghettos of Lida and Novaradok, time was running out on the few hundred Jews who had thus far avoided selections and slaughter. In the spring of 1943, the Lida ghetto was liquidated. The Jews were taken by cattle cars to Majdanek where, with the exception of two people who jumped from the train, everyone was gassed.
The Jews of Novaradok feared they were next.
The Escape Tunnel
Novaradok was a Polish town with a population of about 12,000 before the war, half of whom were Jews. The peaceful ambience of the Jewish part of town changed drastically when the Nazis arrived in 1941. In one massacre after another, they gunned down Novaradok’s Jews together with thousands of Jews from other towns who had been crammed into the ghetto.
The victims—including some wounded but still alive—were thrown into trenches whose dirt-covered surface continued to heave for days with the death throes of those buried underneath.
By May of 1943, only 500 Jews remained in Novaradok, their ranks decimated by two major slaughters in 1941 and 1942, along with starvation and illness. The Nazis confined these people in the city’s courthouse, surrounded by fences and barbed wire.
They had been spared thus far for their skills. Each morning the ghetto gates would open and tailors, shoemakers, metalworkers, carpenters and mechanics were ushered under gunpoint to their workshops to sew fur linings into boots, manufacture guns, or mend German army uniforms.
On May 7th, the Nazis conducted another massacre, first summoning half of the Jews into a courtyard, saying that as superior workers, they would be getting more food rations and would be sent to a better place to work. After lulling these people into compliance, the Nazis swiftly encircled them and machine-gunned them to death.
The slaughter of these Jews took place in view of the ghetto. Following this atrocity, the remaining 250 Jews gave up their last hopes of being spared and in desperation, began plotting their escape.
“We worked for the German army, supplying their soldiers with warm clothing which they needed for the coming winter, but they still slaughtered these skilled workers, said survivor Jack Kagan, who was a young boy at the time. “Dead Jews were more important to Nazis than keeping their army warm. We knew we were not going to survive.”
Kagan was 13 when the tunnel escape plan was hatched in the summer of 1943. Having lost all 10 toes to frostbite in a failed attempt to escape, he was recovering from their amputation (by a dentist using clippers without anesthetic) when he overheard the adults formulate the plan.
It would take three to four months of painstaking labor, he heard people speculating, to excavate the 2-by-2-foot tunnel they hoped would carry them to freedom.
Initial Escape Plan Leaked to Germans
The original escape plan had been to storm the ghetto gates on a Sunday night, when the guards typically got drunk. In preparation, some people had smuggled in guns from peasants outside the ghetto, others had bribed a friendly guard for a couple of grenades; still others stole iron rods and knives from their workshops.
The plan had to be dropped when the Nazis swarmed about the main gates, poised for action, at the exact time designated for the breakout. The secret had apparently been leaked. It turned out the wife of an injured doctor who could not walk had been responsible. Not wanting her husband to be left behind and killed in retaliation –the Nazis had threatened the entire ghetto with execution should anyone attempt to escape—the doctor’s wife had tipped off the Jewish police.
Some of the younger people were enraged at the betrayal and a fierce confrontation was about to erupt. According to survivors Jack Kagan and Sonya Goridinski Oshman, that is when Berl Yoselevitch, a carpenter, came up with a compromise that defused tensions: why not dig a tunnel out of the ghetto instead of staging a breakout?
Yoselevitch proposed digging a passage from under a bed located along the northern barracks wall, closest to the outer walls of the ghetto and the woods. The tunnel would drop four and a half feet, then run north under the ghetto to a field next to the forest for about 700 feet. The weak and injured wouldn’t have to run fast or fight, he argued. They would hide themselves when everyone else left.
Once out, the Jews would join the Bielski partisans.
Tunnel Escape Plan Kindles Hope
It seemed the stuff of fantasy but the escape plan kindled hope in people’s hearts and many wanted to begin digging immediately.
Throughout the summer of 1943, Sonya recalled in an interview for a Holocaust documentary, she clawed at the soil underneath the courthouse with her fingers and a rusty metal spoon. She was 20 at the time and had seen her mother and sisters taken to their death. She and her father and a brother had been sent to the “right” during the selection.
The work was difficult and dangerous, performed with bits of metal shaped into digging tools, blankets sewn into dirt-removal bags, and wood stolen from the workshops to prop up the tunnels walls.
Much of the tunnel was dug by children and men of slight build, who could maneuver within its narrow walls. The children dug lying down, stomachs pressed against the earth. In order not to soil their only clothing and arouse suspicion, they dug without clothing or wore robes of burlap sacks or old cloth sewn especially for the task.
A daring electrician named Gershon Rakovski diverted a current from the ghetto and strung electric bulbs along the tunnel ceiling. He also figured out how to disconnect the searchlights that lit up the ghetto grounds. Occasionally he would dim or momentarily turn off the lights, so the Germans would get used to these “shortages” and not suspect anything when one took place on the night of the escape.
To dispose of hundreds of thousands of pounds of dirt displaced by the tunnel, the diggers filled sacks with earth which they then passed back until it reached holes under the beds in the ghetto. Other dirt- disposal places were under the toilets and outhouses, and in double walls built into the courthouse barracks.
Soil was also hidden in corners where the attic ceiling slanted to meet the floor, and buried under floorboards that were ripped up and then replaced. One of the group’s carpenters, using great ingenuity, laid a wooden track along the tunnel floor. He then crafted a makeshift cart with wheels to facilitate the backbreaking work of hauling tons of dirt away.
By July 1943, the tunnel was about 240 feet long and near completion. But rainy weather soaked the ground and the tunnel seemed in danger of collapsing. To remedy the problem, Berl Yoselevitch stole wood slats from his workshop to reinforce the walls and ceiling. He also organized the digging of small drains and channels in the floor to divert water.
They tunnels organizers decided to leave the digging of the actual exit until the night of the escape.
Voices of Dissent and A Secret Ballot
Novaradok survivor Eliyahu Berkowitz described the drama of the tunnel escape in his memoirs, translated from Yiddish.
“In the beginning of September 1943, the tunnel was 340 feet long. News began to circulate that the ghetto was going to be liquidated and the town would be made Judenrein. We heard from our Belarus police connections that the ghetto in Lida had just been liquidated and all Jews were taken to Majdanek. That drove us to move up the time for the escape.
“We broke the news about the tunnel to everyone in the ghetto. It created a sensation. Enormous surprise, mostly happiness. There were also voices of dissent. Some expressed doubt about the possibility of pulling off an escape under the Germans’ noses. Others feared we would be trapped alive in the tunnel. Yet others thought that “we should wait and see” what the time would bring. Maybe G-d would save us at the last minute.
“An agreement was reached to conduct a secret ballot and we would all follow the will of the majority. The result of the ballot was 165 votes for an escape attempt and 65 against. So it was decided to go ahead with the breakout and pray that G-d would help us.”
The small supply of arms was divided in two: half to those who would guard the exit the other half to those that would guard the entrance.
On September 26, 1943, about 8 p.m., Rakovski, the electrician, cut power to the ghetto searchlights and turned on the tunnel lights. It was raining heavily. Nails in the barracks’ tin roof were loosened, allowing sheets of tin to clank in the wind, amplifying the noise of the storm so sounds of the escaping Jews would be drowned out.
The people quietly assembled, waiting in the darkness for their turn to lower themselves into the lighted earth. Some families tied themselves to one another; others held hands. They encouraged one another and exchanged prayers.
“We crawled as quickly as could through the dirt,” Sonia Gorodinsky recalled. ‘G-d, please let me go through,’ I prayed. Every movement I made, I was sure the earth would collapse and bury me alive.”
Emerging at the tunnel exit, the Jews couldn’t see due to the darkness and pouring rain. Dozens became disoriented and ran back to the ghetto instead of toward the forest. Many were shot by guards who thought partisans were ambushing them. Among the slain were two of Sonya’s cousins and Berl Yoselevitch, the tunnel’s mastermind.
“I was one of the last out,” recalled Jack Kagan. “When I came out there was already machine gun fire from the watchtowers. The searchlight was cut off. It was raining. It was black. You couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face. We ran blindly.”
Of the 240 escapees that night, the majority survived the breakout, Kagan among them. In an interview many years later, he recalled being found in the woods by a Bielski partisan who escorted him to the camp. “When I saw the Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zushe, there was a joy in my heart. I felt there was hope…I felt protected.”
Sonya hid in the woods, praying she would elude the pursuing Germans and their collaborators. For two days she ate nothing. On the third day, she was rescued by the Bielski partisans who had heard about the escape, and had sent scouts to take the survivors from Novaradok to safety.
Those Who Could Not Escape
A handful of prisoners, either fearful of Nazi retribution, too weak to crawl through the tunnel, or because they couldn’t part with a sick relative, had turned down the opportunity to escape. While the breakout was in progress, those remaining behind hid behind a false wall they had erected.
“It was the night of Yom Kippur, after midnight,” writes Eliyahu Berkovitz, who had chosen to stay behind to take care of his ill sister. “After three days of hiding, the four of us decided to leave our hiding place and make our way toward the forest in search of the partisans. It was pouring rain. We came down one by one and found a hole in the fence where the police used to barter with the ghetto inmates, supplying them with food in exchange for valuables. We carried my sister who was too ill to walk.”
Somehow the group of four made it to the Sieniezyc forest which was about three miles away. From there they wandered for eight days, searching fruitlessly for signs of the Bielski camp. Famished and exhausted, they were at the end of their endurance when they encountered a Jewish partisan. Their relief was indescribable. He brought them to the camp where they were given food and drink. To their joy, they found their friends from the Novaradok ghetto. About 170 had survived.
The escapees took shelter with the Bielskis for 10 months, until the Soviets liberated the region. “We were often hungry,” he writes, as there were over a thousand people to feed in the camp. “But what did that matter? We were alive. Among Jews.”
After the war, Kagan, Goridinsky, Berkovitz and all 1200 in the partisan camp were liberated by the Soviets. Kagan emigrated to England, married in 1955 and became a prosperous businessman. In the 1990s he returned to Novaradok and located the site of the first massacre site where 5,200 Jews had been gunned down. He obtained permission from the authorities to fence off the area and erected a memorial to honor the memories of family, members and fellow townspeople slain by the Nazis.
Several years ago, Kagan and a few other elderly survivors together with 55 children and grandchildren, returned to Novaradok for the filming of a documentary about the tunnel that took them to safety. Part of the group’s mission was to find and excavate the tunnel using their bare hands and simple tools, as their grandparents had done 70 years ago during the dark days of the holocaust. The film, Tunnel of Hope, recounts this poignant story.
After the war ended, Sonya Goridinski married fellow tunnel-digger and Bielski partisan Aaron Soshman. The couple spent time in a DP camp in Italy and then emigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. Sonya devoted her life to telling her story at many Jewish schools and gatherings, graphically describing the Nazis’ atrocities, the miraculous escape from the ghetto, and the heroism of the Bielski brothers.
After the war, Tuvia and Zushe Bielski made their way to Israel and fought in the War of Independence. In the 1950s, they arrived in the United States with their families and settled in Brooklyn.
“For nearly 40 years, the brothers lived quiet lives in Midwood, thousands of miles from the war-ravaged landscape where they had sheltered hundreds of Jews and battled the Nazis. Like other immigrants, they struggled to find their niche in a new world, struggling to earn a livelihood, raising a family, and trying to let go of the past.
Tuvia drove a truck for his older brother Walter, who had immigrated to the United States before the war. A quiet, modest man, he seldom spoke of his war-time activities. Zushe opened a gas station on Kent Avenue in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Later he sold the station to start a taxi company.
Survivors and former partisans visited Tuvia regularly and cherished their kinship with him, never tiring of telling his children of their father’s heroism. Yet outside their circle of friends, they remained largely anonymous. Anyone passing these two brothers on the street would have had no inkling that they were outstanding rescuers, whose courage and humanity lit up one of the darkest hours in human history.
Although there was a brief spark of interest in their lives after the publication in 1993 of “The Bielski Partisans,” by Nechama Tec, and a more recent burst of limelight following the discovery of the Novaradok escape tunnel and a new film about the Brigade, the brothers for the most part remain unsung heroes.
Tuvia died in 1987 and Zushe in 1995. (Asael, the third brother, was killed in battle after being conscripted by the Soviets before the war’s end.)
It came as a surprise to Tuvia’s three children when a 360-page manuscript was recently discovered in YIVO’s archives that turned out to be his personal memoirs in Yiddish. His son, Mickey, went down to YIVO and identified his father’s handwriting, solving a long-running mystery about the manuscript’s author.
Part of the memoir has since been translated into English but has not yet been published. A YIVO researcher who has read the Yiddish original says the book is an “intensely gripping and personal account in rich mamaloshon, peppered with Biblical references,” of the epic story of the Beilski Brigade.
Rae Kushner’s Story
Another Novaradok escapee was Rae Kushner, who was 16 when the Germans forced her with her parents, sister and brother into the ghetto. Having survived multiple “selections” for murder — including the one in which her mother was killed — Rachel joined her brother in helping dig the Novaradok tunnel underneath the heavily-guarded ghetto.
Rae shared her memories of the legendary escape in a two-hour interview she gave in 1982 to a New Jersey Holocaust Resource Center, later archived in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Rae and her brother Chunie were given a place among the first to crawl out but she gave that spot up to be with her 54-year-old father and 15-year-old sister. “If we live, we live together. If we die, we die together,” she recalled in the interview.
That decision may have saved her life, as well as that of her sister and her father, who was so weakened by months of malnutrition that he needed his daughters to carry him. Rae’s brother, who was among the first to emerge, disappeared without a trace. He was never seen again.
Rae recalled how she, her father and sister subsisted on scraps of food they begged from local farmers for several weeks, until they were discovered by the Bielski partisans. The Kushners lived with the Bielski Brigade for ten months until the liberation in May, 1945.
After the war ended, Rae returned to Novoradok to find nothing but a destroyed city and painful memories. In 1949, she and her husband Joseph moved to New York, where they raised a family and built up a thriving real estate business. Her son Charles is the father of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.
Inside the Bielski Family Camp
Although the Bielski camp went through several phases in its three-year operation, certain basic social arrangements governed the camp throughout its existence.
One rule was that Tuvia as the commander, was the final authority. He made the decisions. Admired for his leadership, courage and fairness, he was universally respected in the camp.
Another rule was that everybody was entitled to three meals a day no matter what they contributed or did not contribute to the camp’s operation. All members were also entitled to all services free of charge, like shoe repair and clothes mending. Only the transactions with partisans from other groups came with a charge.
All profits like food, medication and arms belonged to the whole camp, not to individuals.
The camp had one communal kitchen with an appointed cook. There was a giant tureen of hot soup always on the fire; one could always ask for a portion. Other noncombatants like doctors and nurses took care of the sick and wounded.
In addition to the workshops, the Bielskis and their assistants created and maintained other institutions of community life such as a bathhouse, a bakery, a well, a mill, a shul and two medical facilities. There was even a courthouse, a jail and a cemetery.
The prison had the function of punishing people who disobeyed orders or laws. Shmuel Geller in his memoirs recalls an embarrassing episode when he and his wife were sentenced to three days imprisonment after breaking regulations during a stint on guard duty:
They Stole Milk
“It was quiet. One could only hear dreamy ‘moos’ made by the cows, “Geller relates. “We had thirty to forty cows in the camp, whose milk was kept exclusively for the children. My wife had not tasted milk for months and I, too, had an urge for some. A strong craving overpowered my common sense and I took a small pot and began to milk a cow. My wife and I debated what to do with the pot of milk. Warm it up or just drink it as is? A sudden visit by two supervisors upset our plans.
“The two men noticed the pot and the milk. They said nothing to us but at ten in the morning, we were ordered to appear at headquarters. I was ashamed to look into the eyes of my commander, Tuvia Bielski. He had always treated my wife and me with kindness. We stood there, mortified.
‘Is it true that the supervisors found milk at your guarding place?’ Tuvia inquired.
‘Did you have permission to milk the cows?’
‘No, sir.’ My face was burning from shame. There were all kinds of people milling around, watching the proceedings. Bielski also felt embarrassed by the entire business. He knew us well. He knew what kind of “criminals” were standing before him.
Still, in a stern voice, he gave his verdict: ’Three days of imprisonment.’ Two guards took us right away to prison.”
“I wanted to ask Tuvia’s forgiveness but in front of all those spectators, I was mute. I felt great regret. If not for his strict enforcement of even minor rules, who would keep order and morality in the camp?”
“There were religious people and secular ones in the Bielski camp, but a profound Jewish spirit lay at the heart of the community,” wrote a Bielski partisan.
“The shul had an important role; it kept up people’s spirits and strengthened religious life. Everyone had been through nightmares they would never forget. Some were the sole survivors of their families. Shul services, conducted with siddurim that had been smuggled out of the ghetto, connected people with their past and comforted them in their grief.
“Most people were particular about eating kosher food if it was available. There were qualified shochtim and a yeshiva student named Avrohom Shmuel Kaibovitz from Mir was appointed to oversee the laws of kashrus. Those who observed Shabbos were excused from forbidden tasks.”
Raya Kaplinski was a little girl in the Bielski camp. In an interview for a documentary about the Beilksi Brigade, she recalled her mother once calling her over and presenting her with a cracker-size piece of matzah.
“‘Rayaleh,” my mother said to me, ‘today is Pesach, when Yidden eat matzah. Here in the forest, we have to make do with very little. I saved this for you, mamaleh, so you should remember the taste of matzah on Pesach.’
“The delicious taste of that matzah I remember to this day.”