Rita Standig had come to Congregation Etz Chaim Monroe Township Jewish Center to thank someone she had never met for her very existence.
“Your father saved my father’s life,” the Marlboro woman told Robert Bielsky.
“I hear that wherever I go in the world,” he responded.
Bielsky is the son of Tuvia Bielski, who with his brothers Zus and Asael saved more than 1,200 Jews in the forests of what is now Belarus and whose heroics became the subject of the 2008 movie Defiance.
Bielsky spoke May 23 at the biannual Isabel Buyer/Harriet and Howard Katz lecture at the synagogue in honor of Buyer, who died five years ago at age 94. Buyer was active in Etz Chaim and devoted to Jewish learning, becoming a bat mitzva at age 90.
Now a resident of Woodmere, Long Island, Bielsky recalled that while growing up in Brooklyn, other survivors would drop by regularly on weekends.
“I assumed they were relatives, but they were survivors and their families were coming to thank my father,” he said.
Bielsky said his family has tried to keep track of the 1,250 survivors who “walked out of the forest at liberation.” They now have about 20,000 living descendants.
Standig said her father, Simcha Wilenski, had escaped from the ghetto through the famous Bielski tunnel into the forest, where he lived for two years. He died in March at age 97.
The program in Monroe featured a showing of the film and a segment of a documentary being made by a Bielski granddaughter. It shows family movies, including a trip back to Navagrudak in Belarus, where children and grandchildren of the Bielskis walked through the forests where the brothers sheltered Jews following the German invasion in 1941.
They led a guerilla war against the Nazis and worked with the Russian partisans.
Bielsky’s father, whose first wife and daughter were murdered, avenged their killing. He met and married Robert’s mother in the woods.
“There was a lot of retribution,” acknowledged Bielsky. “A lot of bad things had to happen. My father did kill the policeman who killed his family. In the neighborhoods around the forest it was known that you don’t mess with the Bielskis or your whole family would be wiped out. They were feared by the Polish, the Belarussians, and the Russians.”
That attitude was transmitted to the Bielski children, who “were raised never to take no for an answer,” he said.
After liberation by Soviet forces, Zus and Tuvia were able to escape before the borders closed. Asael was not so lucky and was drafted into the Soviet army, where he was killed in battle several months later. His wife, whom he married in the forest, gave birth to a daughter, Assaela, after his death. She is now 62 and living in Israel.
A younger Bielski brother, Aron, who also escaped to the woods, is 82 and living in Florida.
Tuvia, who died in 1987, immigrated to Israel, but later came to the United States, as did Zus. They worked in the Linden trucking company of an older brother, Walter, who had come to the States before the war.
Bielsky knows his family was lucky.
“My father could fight back,” he said. “I can’t blame Jewish people who didn’t fight back because they didn’t have options. If you had a gun pointed in your face, your option was to die.”