Freedom is not free
When we typically think of Jewish response to the Holocaust, we envision the Jews, to use the traditional metaphor, as sheep being led to the slaughter. In many, if not most cases, Jews did not actively, violently resist the systematic mass murder of their relatives, friends and ultimately themselves. But resistance took many forms during the Holocaust; whether it was actual armed violence, praying to God (which incurred the death penalty) or simply attempting to survive and warn the world of the atrocities. A few exceptional cases have become significantly well known, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Most of the world, however, does not know many of the true stories which are either still hidden or have only recently come to light.
One such story is that of the three Bielski Brothers (their names were Tuvia, Zus and Asael), who ultimately rescued more than 1,200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. This was the single largest rescue of Jews by Jews during the Second World War, and today about 20,000 descendants are alive due to these courageous men. I had an inside look at this amazing story, which was immortalized in the 2008 film “Defiance” starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as two of the brothers.
On Tuesday night, Oct. 26, Zvi Bielski, son of Zus, spoke at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center about his father and uncles’ experiences during the war. With close to 200 people attending, split about evenly between Jews and non-Jews, Bielski showed some clips from the movie and went on to describe them in detail. He also showed news accounts from CNN and local television stations discussing the exploits of his father and his father’s brothers, dating back to 1995 when his father passed away at the age of 83. The other two brothers died earlier; Asael in 1945 at the end of WWII, and Tuvia in 1987 at the age of 81. It has only been in the past 15 years that the family has attempted to make known this remarkable, but true story.
For three years, more than 1,200 people lived in a makeshift town, complete with a kitchen, synagogue, mill, bakery, medical clinic and even a bathhouse. In his speech, the younger Bielski emphasized repeatedly that he “is not the son of a Holocaust survivor, but is the son of a guerilla fighter.” The traditional depiction of Jews merely surviving does not apply to the Bielski family; quite the contrary: With a force of only 300 men (the rest were women, children and the elderly), they managed to kill 381 Nazis. Amazingly, at the end of their experience, it became known that of all the people whom the Bielski Brothers sheltered, only nine individuals were actually lost.
Zvi Bielski went on to say that this image of the Jew as a complacent, passive figure is so widespread that during one of his talks, there were actual protests because no one could believe Jews actually fought back. In addition, he mentioned an interesting and completely obscure historical fact, one which the Nazis were aware of but managed to successfully suppress. At least 30,000 Jews took up arms against the Nazis in the Polish and Russian resistance forces during the Nazi occupation.
After the war, Zvi’s family never sought recognition for what they did, with Tuvia even rejecting a high position in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), preferring to go into business with his brother Zus; they opened a small trucking business in New York City and worked together for 30 years. Over the years, many individuals would find the brothers and profusely thank them. To this day, their children are still thanked by survivors and their families. In the end, the Bielski Brothers simply wanted to live in freedom, as Jews and as men. They succeeded beyond their dreams in attaining their freedom and their lives. More than anyone else, they have taught me that one person can indeed make a difference and that freedom quite often starts with an act of defiance.