Robert Bielsky cannot remember a time when he was not aware of his family’s unique place in Jewish history.
As one of the sons and daughters of the Bielski brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael — who organized a Jewish combat partisan group and sheltered 1,250 Jews, including women, children, and the elderly, from the Nazis in the forests of Belarus, he learned of their heritage of heroism at a young age.
Because of the Bielski Brigade, tens of thousands of descendants of the survivors they saved are alive today.
“We were born very special people,” Bielsky told NJJN as he prepared for his role as keynote speaker at the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and Kean University Holocaust Resource Center. The Holocaust Remembrance Day program will be held on Wednesday, April 11, at 6:45 p.m. at the university’s Wilkins Theatre in Union.
Bielsky (who ends his name with a “y” — “because that is the way my mother spelled it”) is the youngest of Tuvia Bielski’s three children.
Bielsky, 60, was born in Brooklyn, unlike his older brother, Michael, and sister, Ruth, who were born in Ramat Gan, Israel, where the family had moved after the war. Tuvia and Zus relocated to the United States in 1955, tired of wars after fighting for over two years in Europe. (Asael had been drafted into the Soviet Red Army and was killed in battle in 1945. A younger brother, Aron Bell, is the last surviving brother.)
The Bielski families settled in the largely Jewish Midwood section of Brooklyn. But although Bielsky said he was always aware of his father’s and uncles’ heroic accomplishments, he “didn’t discuss it with my schoolmates because that was not a subject that was openly discussed in the ’60s and ’70s. The Holocaust in general wasn’t discussed. It was not part of mainstream conversation in those days.”
He said his earliest memories are of people who came to his home on weekends to honor his parents, aunts, and uncles and the other members of the fighting partisans’ brigade. “They would bring their entire families to see [Tuvia] and give him their respect for his maintaining their bloodlines, which otherwise would have been exterminated by the Nazis.”
Tuvia never sought celebrity, Bielsky said; his father was “a very humble man who never gloated in what he or his brothers did.” When he walked down the street in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, “people who passed him never knew a hero was walking among them.”
But this quiet man of courage paid a heavy price for his heroism in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“My father had difficulty sleeping; at night, the haunting reminders came back to him,” Bielsky recalled. So Tuvia would spend sleepless nights talking with his three children about “the bad things that had occurred.”
Despite the flashbacks and horrendous memories, the family made time for rejoicing, with frequent parties and gatherings at the weddings and bar mitzvah celebrations of members of the families who had survived in the forest under the Bielskis’ protection.
“Everyone who walked out of the woods recognized they wouldn’t have a beating heart without my father and Zus and Asael,” said Bielsky. “These survivors are scattered around the world. Wherever I go, I run into a descendant who will tell me, ‘Because of your father I am alive.’ I hear that all that time.”
While other resistance groups accepted only men, the Bielski Brigade took in all Jews fleeing the Nazis. “The others didn’t want kids or women or older people because they figured it would drag them down,” said Robert. Those who couldn’t fight, he said, “had other jobs, such as gathering and cooking food. Jewelers became repairers of weapons from other partisan groups, and they traded their services for more weapons.”
The Bielskis had only one requirement for admission to their guerilla band: You had to be a Jew.
“Being Jewish was your passport to survival in the woods of Belarus. If you were a Jew, you were welcome. They had no use for any non-Jews,” Bielsky said. Entire bloodlines of Jewish families are “alive today because of what those guys did.”
The story of the Bielski brothers received widespread attention when “Defiance,” a film about their wartime achievements, opened in 2008. Actor Daniel Craig played the part of Tuvia, Liev Schreiber played Zus, and Jamie Bell played Asael; Robert Bielsky’s son, Jordan, was given a small role.
Many members of the extended Bielski family visited locations in Lithuania while “Defiance” was being shot.
Bielsky enjoyed the movie and appreciates it as one of several ways he and others are helping preserve his forebears’ legacy. He speaks often around the world about the Bielski Brigade and is eagerly awaiting publication of his father’s 400-page memoir, which was recently translated from Yiddish into English. (Tuvia died in 1987, Zus in 1995.)
“Is my family different?” he asked. “Absolutely. We grew up with a sense of purpose and a sense of what it takes to fight for what you are. We all grew up as fighters; even though we really don’t do physical fighting, we have that fighting gene in us, and I have passed it down to my two sons and two daughters and four grandchildren.”
Bielsky, a commercial real estate developer who lives in Clifton, said his intention when he speaks at Kean University “is not to deliver a message.”
“My goal is to be historically accurate and to let everyone know that Jews did not go to slaughter when they had the option to stand up for themselves.”
In addition to his speech, the program will include performances by children’s choirs from two schools in Elizabeth — Elmora Public School No. 12 and the Jewish Educational Center day school — a candle-lighting service honoring survivors, descendants, liberators, righteous rescuers, and educators; a performance by violinist Lea Karpman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors; and a rendition of “The Hymn of the Jewish Partisans” performed by a local men’s chorus.