Defiance (Speech At A Congregation)
by Dr. David Herschtal
You’re about to see one of the greatest stories NEVER told; the largest documented armed resistance and rescue, of Jews by Jews, during the Holocaust. The 1200 people saved then, number an estimated 20,000 today. And I would now like to make it personal. By 1957, my mother, Estelle Bielski Herschthal and all of the other Bielski brothers and sisters who survived the Holocaust had moved directly from Europe to America and had been living in Brooklyn with their families for 10 years. However, the Bielski Brothers that led the Partisans went directly to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust, and went to war again, to help establish the State of Israel.
So I was 6 yrs old, 1957, when my Mother told me that her brother Tuvia, a great war hero, would be moving from Israel to America. He’d be our guest for a few weeks and would be arriving later that night. I’d have to give my bed to him, and now share a bed with my younger brother, all three of us crowded into one small bedroom. I was not pleased about this inconvenience and thoug ht, after all, how big of a hero can he be if he has to share a room with us kids? My brother and I were fast asleep when he finally arrived late that night as he was when we left for school early the next morning.
To register my dissatisfaction, I poured baby powder all over the head of my sleeping uncle. As I started to exit the room I was firmly and yet gently stopped and lifted by two steel like arms. I was temporarily paralyzed with fear and was turned around to face a giant white powdered smiling laughing face, who gave me a big warm welcoming hug. We were fast friends ever since. Tuvia’s family and the other remaining Brothers and their families arrived from Israel soon afterward.
Now all the Bielskis and many of the other Partisan families lived within minutes of each other in Brooklyn as one large, mostly happy family. We were close, at times it could seem too close, and did everything together, including observing and20celebrati ng holidays, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings and of course, funerals. At all these events there was a certain protocol. At a significant moment, typically after the blessing of bread and wine, came the equivalent of a blessing, an acknowledgement of Tuvia and the Bielski Brothers for making it possible for all of us to be there.
No matter the significance or insignificance of the event, there was always a respectful proclamation of gratitude to the Bielsky partisan unit. This practice continued well into the 2nd and now present 3rd generation. Tuvia could have cared less about these accolades. He derived his satisfaction from merely observing the thriving and increasingly multiplying descendants of those he saved. As youngsters we were fascinated by the physical aspect of what they did but were mostly lost to the bigger picture.
The Uncles were quite humble and hardly ever spoke of the military aspects of their struggle, and only spoke of them saving Jewish lives. It was their kids or the peo ple that they saved that freely supplied us with all the graphic details of various battles, missions, raids, retributions and even executions. Tuvia would never have any part of these types of conversations. On the other hand, my Uncle Zus, when egged on was all too glad to demonstrate to us kids some of his lethal hand to hand combat techniques. We had absolutely nothing in common with other 2nd generation Holocaust kids as their commonality was their parents reluctance to discuss the Holocaust, whereas for us it was part of our normal discourse and frankly entertainment.
While they played cowboys and Indians, we played Nazis and Partisans. And guess who played the Nazi? I was amazed, while growing up, at how many people personally told me over and over again how they owed their existence to my uncles saving them and their families. Nevertheless, it still seemed like a LOCAL vs global story. Even though there were many articles and books written about the Bielskis, they were mostly testimonials written by fellow Partisans Chaim this or Chaim that. They were not widely read or known.
As time progressed from the 80s through the 90s and the Holocaust was popularized as an academic and cultural subject much more light was shed on the horror that occurred to the 6 million. But The Bielski story was still little known. In fact, I must confess, that some of us, while never doubting the essence of the story, assumed that some of the more implausible aspects of the Bielski story just might be slightly embellished or exaggerated. Well, shame on us!! The tipping point occurred several years after the last of the Bielski Commanders died, when an Irish Catholic NYT reporter named Peter Duffy, wrote a popular and well researched book, published by HarperCollins in 2003, documenting their story and placing it in its proper historical context.
The author had gone back to the then newly opened Archives of the Soviet Union and uncovered detailed records of the Bielski Partisans’ achievements. The Bielski Partisans had some arms and intelligence supplied to them by the Russian Military, including a Russian liason officer who kept records and even some photographs of what they did. The story turned out to be much, much bigger than previously reported. Academicians and historians started paying attention. Articles were written. The press picked up on it and so did Hollywood.
The movie rights were ultimately purchased from another book, hence the name Defiance. Uncle Tuvia and the Brothers who saved over 1200 Jews, now, ironically had their story saved and immortalized by an Irish Catholic reporter and Hollywood. To really understand how this act of Defiance came to pass, you have to appreciate the Bielski family background before the Holocaust. The Bielskis were multi-generational, redneck, hillbilly Jewish farmers who lived on a poor Ponderosa at the edge of a forest in the middle of nowhere Poland, surrounded by a Jew hating populace (anti-semitic is too mild a word).
Mix into the Bielskis, a little bit of Robin Hood and lot of Sopranos, and you can first begin to appreciate their temperament. A recent NYT article described the Brothers as “casually violent, sexually predaceous and occasionally murderous”. I sincerely hope these traits are not hereditary. They were hard drinking and hard living men who were not likely candidates for future heroes . Yet, at the same time, they valued honor, family and a full love of life. They were historically forced to defend themselves and their property as the loc al laws did not protect them.
Their acts of retribution were legendary thus making them locally feared. Once the Nazis controlled their territory it would have been relatively easy to only save themselves, by simply hiding deep in the forest where they grew up. After all, they were expert horsemen, outdoorsmen and survivalists. They were not accountants. But Tuvia and the Brothers risked their own lives, by saving those Jews, mostly strangers, unable to save themselves. And at the same time created a community, often- times referred to as a”Jerusalem in the Woods” that saved their cultural identity. And that’s what makes this story one of a kind. The brothers loved life and were determined to fully sustain it.
They showed us that real Heroes are flawed human beings. They provided a glimmer of light and hope, in a time when there was none. History will hopefully look at the Bielski story, not a corrective to the Holocaust’s 6 million, but rather an inspiring addendum. Future genocides can only be stopped by international cooperation and early government detection and prevention. And while we pressure governments to act, one must ultimately summon, Defiance!
David Herschthal MD