When Sonia Bielski turned 90 on April 15, she received nearly 50 calls from well-wishers around the globe who said they owed their lives to her late husband, Alexander (“Zus”), and his brothers.
The Bielski brothers led a Jewish resistance effort during the Holocaust, rescuing more than 1,200 men, women, and children by offering protection within the forests of Poland. Their heroic acts were depicted in the 2008 film Defiance.
Zus’s son Zvi Bielski, a New York City resident, spoke about his family’s legacy of courage on April 16 at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. The event, Choosing to Act: Heroism During the Holocaust, was sponsored by the school’s Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education and the former Fort Monmouth Holocaust Remembrance Committee.
Helena Flaum of Farmingdale also addressed the audience of nearly 200 to tell her story of escape from Poland.
What distinguished the Bielski partisan group from others was their agreeing to shelter every Jew who came to them no matter their age or infirmity, Bielski told the audience. “The Bielskis were fierce fighters, hunters, and horseback riders who had a touch of Robin Hood and a lot of Sopranos,” he said.
“Before my dad died at age 82, I asked him if he had any regrets in his life,” Bielski said. “He looked at me and said that he wished he could have saved more. The Bielskis did what no other group did, yet my dad died wishing he could have done more.”
Providing food, shelter, and security to more than 1,000 people in the forest was a feat most would have found impossible. “Usually Hollywood movies exaggerate the truth. In this case, they downplayed the magnitude of what my father and uncles did,” said Bielski.
Some of the partisans themselves doubted whether the rescue plan would achieve success. Several of them approached the brothers and said they wanted to break off into a small group of fighters that would not have to gather food for so many. The Bielskis sent them on their way. Ten days later, the group returned, admitting they had made a mistake. “Today our families are still friends,” Zvi Bielski said.
The link between the Bielskis and the partisans continues through the generations. Lisa Eckstein of Rumson, the granddaughter of two Bielski partisans, attended the ceremony to honor her late grandparents, Saul and Helen Schnadow, formerly of Union. The couple met in a concentration camp, and escaped through an underground tunnel. While fleeing, they encountered the Bielskis and joined the group for many months.
“My grandparents had a lot to be proud of,” Eckstein said. “I want to honor them. They kept in touch with the Bielskis for many years afterward.”
Watching the Bielski family legacy come alive in a motion picture was thrilling, said Lola Bielski Kline of Freehold, who attended the ceremony. Her mother was a sister of the famous Bielski brothers.
“I lived with these stories my entire life. We always paid homage to our brave uncles at our family gatherings,” Bielski Kline said. “My grandson Taz is named after three of the brothers, Tuvia, Asael, and Zus.”
‘Retell the story’
Sharing her story of survival did not always come easily for guest speaker Helena Flaum, but it is now an important aspect of her life, especially since she was the only member of her family to survive, she said. Flaum survived the war by disguising herself as a Christian slave laborer at a German work camp. She described the feelings of despair and loneliness that constantly accompanied her.
Dr. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, spoke about the importance of sharing survivor stories. “I pray for long lives for our survivors because we need you to tell that story for as long as you can,” he said. “I urge students to make sure you meet survivors and hear their stories. For second-, third-, and fourth-generation family members: Make sure you know that story and retell it.”
Members of the Jersey Shore Jewish War Veterans Post 125 were present at the event, which included a candlelighting ceremony by 11 survivors, and a musical presentation by the girls’ choir of Mount Saint Mary Academy of Watchung.
Six sailors from Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck also participated, escorting survivors up and down the stage. Survivor Eva Wiener of Neptune helped introduce each survivor and their stories. Susan Rokeach represented the former Fort Monmouth Holocaust Remembrance Committee, and executive director Dale Daniels spoke on behalf of the center.