You’re Still Alive?
In the summer of 1944, days after a battered German army began its retreat toward Berlin, Russian soldiers paraded through Belorussia (now Belarus) announcing the news of Germany’s defeat.
In one village, locals gathered outside their homes to herald the Soviet liberators—and to stare in disbelief. There, emerging from the dense forest was a miles-long procession of over 1200 Jews, long presumed dead.
“How can you still be alive?” the question hovered incredulously on people’s lips as the Jews made their way toward the ruins of their homes and families.
Everyone knew that the Jews had been massacred throughout Belorussia. In town after town, residents had witnessed Nazi atrocities as the dreaded Einsatzgruppen hauled Jewish families from their homes, flung them onto trucks and drove them to the town’s outskirts, where the victims were machine-gunned into death pits.
The cities and villages were now “Judenrein.” Except for these shocking apparitions stumbling from the dense woods; men, women and children who were very much alive.
These Jews were members of the Bielski Brigade, a detachment of partisans who rescued fellow Jews from extermination and fought the Nazis and their collaborators around Novogrudek (Navarhadok) and Lida, in what was then German-occupied Poland.
The partisan unit was named for three brothers, Tuvia, Zushe and Asael Bielski, who led the organization. They and a much younger brother, Aron, grew up in the tiny village of Stankiewitz located between the towns of Lida and Novogrudek. Three generations of Bielskis had grown up here, farming the land and operating their mill.
The last generation, Dovid and Beila, had twelve children – ten sons and two daughters, some of whom emigrated to the United States before the war. Tuvia, the second-oldest child, was born in 1906. They were the only Jewish family in a village populated by less than a dozen Christian families.
In 1939, Nazi Germany had invaded Poland, setting off World War II. As part of the nonaggression pact the Soviets had signed with Hitler, western Belorussia was ceded to the Soviet Union.
On June 22, 1941, the Nazis broke the nonaggression treaty, launching Operation Barbarossa, a massive air and ground attack that shocked the unsuspecting Russians and swiftly drove them out of Eastern Poland. The Nazis installed a brutal regime over the Belorussian area surrounding Novogrudek, burning thousands of villages to the ground and murdering the inhabitants.
The German army was followed by the dreaded Einsatzgruppen, Nazi killing squads, which rounded up the Jews, murdered them in mass graves and forced the remaining Jews into ghettos. Over the next two years, in mass-shootings and executions, they killed an estimated 246,000 Jews, two thirds of the Belorussian Jewish population.
The youngest Bielski, 11-year old Aron, had hidden behind a tree when the Nazis came for his family on December 8, 1941. He saw his mother and father and two other siblings being loaded onto trucks with thousands of other Jews from nearby villages. The weather was frigid and the Jews huddled together miserably.
60 years later, Aron Bielski recalled in an interview with Jewish Partisans Educational Center (JPEC) how his mother implored a Polish neighbor who had been a friend, to please bring her a pair of boots in the frigid weather. “Where you’re going you won’t need boots,” the neighbor replied.
Aron escaped into the woods where he sought out his older brothers. They had fled weeks earlier, when the Nazis had come to arrest them, torturing his father, Dovid Bielski, when he refused to reveal their whereabouts.
Following the massacre, the Bielski brothers fled to the nearby Zabielovo and Perelaz forests, where they formed the nucleus of a partisan detachment consisting at first of about 30 family members and friends. By using their intimate knowledge of the dense woodlands surrounding the Belarusan towns of Novogrudek and Lida, the Bielskis evaded the Nazis and established a hidden base camp.
Initially, they attempted only to save their own lives and those of their family members. The family chose Tuvia Bielski, a Polish Army veteran and a charismatic leader, to command the group. His brother Asael became his deputy, while Zushe was placed in charge of reconnaissance.
With the help of non-Jewish Belorussian friends, they were able to acquire guns. The Bielski partisans later supplemented these arms with captured German weapons, Soviet weapons, and equipment supplied by Soviet partisans.
Come Join Us In The Forest!
Tuvia Bielski began to see his principal mission as saving the lives of his fellow Jews. In contrast to Russian partisan units and other Jewish units that restricted admission to young men capable of fighting, the Bielskis took in any Jew who sought their help. They encouraged Jews from the nearby ghettos of Lida, Novogrudek, Minsk, Iwie, Mir and Baranowitz, to escape and join them in the forest.
“Organize as many friends and acquaintances as possible. Send them to us in the woods. We will be waiting for you,” Tuvia wrote to Jews imprisoned in the ghetto, through guides he had sent to escort people to the camp base. In dangerous missions, these guides constantly scouted the region for Jewish escapees.
In late 1942, a special mission by the Bielskis saved over a hundred Jews from the Iwie ghetto just as the Germans planned to liquidate it. By the end of 1942, the “Bielski Brigade” numbered more than 300 people.
Asael and Zushe were initially reluctant to accept women, children and other noncombatants into their ranks as it would compromise their chances of survival. But Tuvia, 35 years old and the eldest of the three, was adamant.
“So few of us are left, we need to save lives. It is more important to save Jews than to kill Germans,” he argued. His authority carried weight with his brothers and they acquiesced.
Judenrats Discourage Escape
Before 1942, many ghetto inmates were not interested in leaving the ghetto. Unlike the Bielski brothers who were at home in the forest, most city or town people could not imagine surviving among trees, swamps, wild animals and mosquitoes.
Some feared spending the harsh winters without a roof over their heads. Others believed the risk of being caught was too high; they held on to fading hopes that they would survive if they continued working for the Germans. Many did not want to leave their families behind.
The Judenrats, the Jewish councils and Jewish police tried to prevent escapes from the ghettos. The Nazis took draconian vengeance not only on those they caught trying to escape, but also on others living in the ghetto. The fear of endangering other Jews kept many Jews from attempting to escape.
Others saw the handwriting on the wall; they were convinced all Jews were under a death sentence, and after being starved, tortured and stripped of everything, they would be butchered. For them, reaching the Bielski group symbolized the sole hope for survival.
Rumors of Secret Shtetl Where Jews Were Safe
Then on May 8, 1942, “there was a major aktion,” recalled survivor Michael Stohl in a documentary about the Bielski brothers. “They took out the whole ghetto, thousands and thousands. They were separating people, to the left and to the right, to the left and to the right. As I went outside, I heard the screams, women and children…. When I speak of it, I can still hear the voices in my head… G-d in Heaven surely heard those cries of Shema Yisroel… That day they murdered 5000 Jews at point blank range.”
After that, no one doubted the Nazis’ intentions toward those who had temporarily been left alive. Word of the “forest Jews” spread quickly: Jews in ghettos whispered the Bielski name and stories of a secret shtetl in the forest where Jews were safe.
Reaching the forest refuge of the Bielski brothers became the dream of almost every surviving Jew in the region.
“In the ghetto we heard that there’s a Tuvia Bielski who wants all Jews…old, young, children, sick, it didn’t matter, as long as you were a Jew,” recalled survivor Leah Johnson.
Survivor Charles Bedzow remembered his first impressions of the Bielski camp after he escaped the Lida ghetto as a teenager. “After the ghetto and the constant killing, after living in terror never knowing when your final hour will come, we came to this place and Jews were walking about freely! It was incredible.”
Among those saved by the brothers was 14-year-old Jack Kagan. The Germans had murdered his mother and sister along with 4,000 others in the town of Novogrudok.
“When I arrived to the camp, and I saw the two brothers, together with a reconnaissance party, probably 12 or 15 riders, on tall horses, with machine guns across their shoulders. For me it was an astounding, unbelievable sight. Here I was coming from a ghetto where there was nothing but starvation, German guards beating us, killing us… And suddenly walking into the forest and seeing Jews on horses…how was it possible? It had to be a dream.”
A Chance To Survive
Zorach Arluk, a survivor who became a partisan in a Russian partisan group insists that every Jew who fled the ghetto for the forest, did so in the hope of staying alive, not to exact revenge.
“We hoped just for a chance. A chance to survive. And if not to survive, at least to die differently from the agonizing death most Jews were forced to die. We did not leave the ghetto to fight, we left to stay alive.”
The escapees had to slip through holes in barbed wire and flee through the countryside to the forest camp. For many people, the house of sympathetic non-Jewish peasants served as a way station. There they were given food and a place to rest before members of the Bielski group would come to lead them to the base. The non-Jewish sympathizers also relayed vital information, passing on messages to people in hiding or in the ghettos.
Among this group were Konstantin Kozlovsky, and his sons Gennadiy and Vladimir, who saved many Jewish lives. After the war, they received the title of Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Bielskis had to be constantly on the alert, knowing that one false move could be their undoing. This was especially true in relation to the Russian partisans, on whom they depended for weapons, ammunition and other supplies in the forest. The Bielski Brigade had to appear sufficiently “Communist” to these Soviet groups to qualify for their help, and in projecting that image, they concealed their adherence to Jewish laws and traditions.
Although he had little formal education, Tuvia spoke many languages smoothly and had an inborn talent for leadership. He even convinced the Red Army and Russian partisans that his group was fighting for communist Russia, which allowed them access to weapons and protection from partisan fighters whom they eventually joined in battle against the Nazis. He and his brothers organized an army that guarded the village and rode through the forest pillaging enemy homes for food, livestock and weapons.
One of the most difficult challenges in the forest was how to survive the harsh Belarusian winter with its sub-zero temperatures. It was not easy to keep people from freezing to death. One solution was the construction of insulated structures. Members of the Bielski camp cut down trees and dug holes. They lined the dugout with wooden bunks, usually covered with straw. The surface of the roof was packed with dirt, branches, and vegetation to camouflage the structure from intruders.
At the beginning of 1943, the group consisted of about three hundred people, and additional dugouts were constructed. Close to each one of them was a campfire to warm the people and cook food.
In addition to battling the elements, the group also had to fight for their position in the forest among the non-Jewish partisans. Many Russian partisan groups were formed in the area as a result of the fast-retreating Red Army in 1941. Some of these Soviet partisans were suspicious of the Bielski partisans because they were a purely Jewish group with many noncombatants—“parasites” in the Soviets’ eyes.
Neutralizing this hostility and forging a working relationship with the Russian partisans against the Germans required enormous tact and diplomacy. At the same time, the Bielskis had to resist Soviet efforts to absorb Bielski fighters into their units. Their success in walking this tightrope was perhaps one of their biggest achievements, as the Jewish partisans remained under Tuvia Bielski’s command which enabled them to continue to protect Jewish lives.
Miraculous Escape Through the Swamp
The rapid growth of the camp’s population heightened the risk of its discovery by the Nazis, and the Bielskis decided to move to a new location for greater safety. Moving was difficult for many members, especially the old, the sick and the children.
Before they were able to carry out their plans, the Germans, in August 1943, began a massive manhunt directed against Russian, Polish, and Jewish partisans in the region. They deployed more than 20,000 military personnel, SS and police officials, and Luftwaffe planes to identify the partisan camps.
The Nazis publicized throughout the region a reward of 100,000 Reichmarks for information leading to Tuvia Bielski’s capture, dead or alive.
The Bielski group fled, abandoning everything they had collected over the last months. Tuvia, Asael and Zushe decided to move to the Naliboki forest, about thirty kilometers to the east of Novogrudek, a forest filled with formidable swampland. Before that, they had kept close to the villages, familiar terrain and helpful peasants; now they were entering unknown territory that was physically hard to penetrate, almost inaccessible.
But their situation was desperate and they had no choice.
The brothers led the approximately 800 members through miles of swamps to an isolated island, called Krasnaya Gorka, in the center of the forest. Tuvia Bielski in his unpublished memoir archived at YIVO, describes the harrowing escape through the swamp:
“The children were carried on our shoulders and those with the children went up front. The swamp began several hundred meters from our camp and deepened as we moved forward. The mud thickened and stuck to us. … The stronger ones and those carrying weapons followed behind. In some spots we sank up to our navels. After each deep spot we had to stop and check, we took head counts to make sure that everyone had crossed safely. It was terribly slow progress…It took us three hours to cover a distance of three kilometers.
“Finally the water started to become more shallow. Thank G-d, by supreme effort, we finally crossed.”
Chaya Bielski, Asael Bielski’s wife, remembers in her testimonial, the terror of wading through mud that pulled her down more and more deeply with each step.
“The more we walked the deeper we sank in mud. My mother became weak, she could not move her legs. The mud reached up to her hips. My brother tied her to himself with string. He dragged her after him. We walked and walked for what seemed like forever. The mud covered a wide area…When you stepped into the marsh with one foot, you could barely pull out the second one. But when hundreds of people entering at once, everyone sank even more deeply. It was terrifying.”
Unwilling to enter the swamps which were framed by tall thick reeds, the Nazis machine-gunned the area from a short distance, certain no one could survive the combination of bottomless mud and relentless gunfire. For what seemed forever, the bullets whizzed over the heads of the exhausted Jews. The Germans assessed the chances of survival in the swamp to be close to zero. Those who were not hit by gunfire would sink and drown in the swamp.
But they were wrong.
Miraculously, the entire group survived the harrowing ordeal. Evening fell and the Germans left the Belarusian woods. The Bielski group advanced to a large island in the center of the swamp, where they sank to the ground, utterly spent. For nearly two weeks, they suffered from hunger and physical exhaustion.
Gradually, the people recovered from the terrifying Nazi manhunt and harrowing escape through swampland, and began to face the next challenge: building a new home for almost a thousand people in a totally primitive setting.
Building an Island Home
The group was large and tremendously diverse, with a wide range of religious and political views; rabbis and people with little or no Jewish education; secularly educated and the practically illiterate; those from poor backgrounds with people from the wealthy upper class. Only 20 percent of the people were fighters, the majority were elderly or sick people, children and women.
Everyone had suffered trauma; loss of loved ones and the terror of near death; all had escaped mass shootings, random killings, selections or deportations.
But the will to live prevailed over all obstacles. On this island, – the only place in Nazi-occupied Europe where a concentration of Jews lived in relative safety—the group built a cooperative Jewish community. The leaders organized the skilled workers into workshops that employed at least 200 people. These included cobblers, bakers, tailors, carpenters, leather workers, teachers for the children, shochtim and blacksmiths.
The leadership managed a primitive infirmary, a school, shul, and even a courthouse/jail. Work groups supplied the camp with food and cleared the land, where possible, for the cultivation of wheat and barley.
Despite some opposition from within the group, Tuvia Bielski never wavered in his determination to accept and protect all Jewish refugees, regardless of age or gender. He and his brothers maintained a strict, military-style leadership that brooked little dissent. This was not an egalitarian, democratic society, but one whose size and makeup demanded total unity and obedience to authority in order to survive.
The new base began to slowly take on the form of a true shtetl. For the first time they were not constantly on the alert for an attack by German troops. This stability enabled the members to continue a Jewish way of life, something utterly unique for any Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Hanan Lefkowitz recalls in a Yad Vashem interview his visits to the Bielski family camp when he was a member of a Russian partisan group in the Nabolicki forest:
“I was amazed. I thought that it was all a dream. I could not get over it…there were children, old people, and so many Jews. When the guard stopped me, I spoke to him in Yiddish! I met people who knew me. That first time I could stay only an hour. After a few days, I went back and then again and again…These people gave me hope.”
Part 2 of the Bielski Brigade recounts an astounding escape by 170 people who joined the partisan group after tunneling out of the Novogrudek ghetto, as well as the drama of young teens who joined the Bielski Brigade after jumping off a Nazi deportation train to Majdanek.