Dancing with the Remnants
Marking the 75th Anniversary of Liberation from the Nazis with the Bielski Partisans
Nance Morris Adler
Shabbat Shuva 5780
Shomer Yisrael, Sh’mor Sh’erit Yisrael
V’al yovad Yisrael, ha-omrim: Sh’ma Israel.
Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel; and preserve the people of Israel, who proclaim: “Sh’ma Yisrael.
Shomer Israel is one of my favorite pieces of liturgy. I love singing it each Sunday morning that I lead minyan. As a student and a teacher of Jewish history, I know far too much about our remnants and the importance of remembering them. This summer I was privileged to be invited to attend the first ever reunion and gathering of the descendants, and one surviving brother, of the Bielski Partisan brigade. These truly were the remnants – children and grandchildren of the less than 10% of Polish Jews who survived World War II and the Shoah. While we were in what is currently Belarus, Naliboki and Novogroduk were in Poland at the start of the war and the residents of those places would be counted as Poles.
I have taught about the Bielskis – brothers Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron and their partisan brigade – for 10 years – really since I first learned about them at a workshop of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation – and before they were made “famous” by the movie “Defiance”. It is because of this that I was encouraged to attend by the organizer of the event, Tamara Vershitskaya, who is the main historian of the Bielskis and Novogroduk. I have proudly worn my shirt with the image of Zus Bielski on it on every trip I have taken to Israel with my 8th graders, usually on the day we go to Yad Vashem. My students learn about Jewish Partisans and Ghetto Fighters and know that there are Jews who fought back. Never did I imagine that I would be able to visit the Bielski Camp – a place that I try each year to describe to my students, using a crude map that was drawn after the war, and GoogleEarth images of dense Eastern European forests. That I would sit and eat breakfast several mornings, as well as lunch and at least one dinner, with Aron Bielski – the youngest of the four brothers – and become friends with children and grandchildren of Tuvia, Zus and others of the Bielski clan – never ever could I have imagined this. And I am sure that Tuvia and Zus never imagined that I, a Jewish history teacher from Seattle would help their grandchildren hang a mezuzah on a tree in the Naliboki Forest – Forest Jerusalem – in the middle of the site of the Bielski Camp. But this summer I got to do these things.
The city of Novogrudok was multicultural and there were good relations between its Jews and Gentiles. When WWII broke out, it was firmly in the part of Poland that had been given to the USSR in the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. When later the Nazis invaded and came to Novogrudok, neighbors helped neighbors. It was this many years of cooperation and relationships that contributed to the events that followed. The arrival of the Nazis meant that a ghetto was of course formed and the Jews were put there. As time passed and it became clear that the ghetto would be liquidated and what that meant, the leaders in the ghetto decided that something must be done. They decided to build a tunnel. They had contacts outside the ghetto and they knew that if they could get out they could get to the Bielski Camp and have a place to be safe. This history of good relations was evident still today in the welcome that this gathering received both in Novogroduk and in Naliboki. The gathering began on the 75th anniversary and the same dignitaries and nonagenarians with their chests covered in Soviet war medals that were at the commemoration in the center of Novogroduk were present at and participated in the welcoming ceremony for the Bielski reunion. In a land where Jews visiting the sites of their ancestor’s homes often return with stories of stony silence and a less than friendly reception, we were greeted like long lost relatives and friends.
One example of actions of the citizens of Novogroduk is the Kozlowski family who sheltered over 500 Jews over the occupation. When someone was able to get out of the ghetto or was passing from another village or town through Novogroduk to the Bielski Camp, the Kozlowski’s would hide them for a few days until it was safe to travel and then send them on their way. I met Lola Bielski and her two grandsons. As a very young child Lola was hidden in Novogroduk by a Polish family during the occupation. She shared her story with us at breakfast one morning, including photos from an earlier visit when she went to see the house where she had been hidden. The two ladies who worked in the kitchen of the hostel where we were staying were so excited by these photos. They knew the house, they knew the people. They knew the family that had hid Lola. They knew her friend, or at least his children, who had kept her company when she was a hidden child. They were so excited to see the photos and hear Lola’s story.
Back to the tunnel – so the tunnel was dug. It was hard work – hard to dig – hard to hide the digging -hard to hide the dirt. But 203 meters later, they were sure they were past the ghetto wall and were ready to plan the actual escape. 120 people successfully escaped from the Novogroduk Ghetto – it is the most successful escape from a camp or ghetto in the entire Holocaust. They were able to survive because they had help outside the ghetto and a place to go – the Bielski Camp where Tuvia Bielski was known for his policy of accepting every Jewish person -men, women, the elderly and children – into the camp and keeping them safe. Tuvia believed that every Jewish life saved was a victory over Hitler. 100 of the escapees went to the Bielski camp.
At the reunion, when I would meet someone new the usual greeting was “Partisan or Tunnel?” I would answer “Neither.” The person would generally look confused and then ask why I was there. I would explain I was a teacher and had been teaching about the Bielskis for 10 years. This slowly turned me into a bit of a celebrity and instead of “Partisan or Tunnel” by day 2 the greeting was “So, I understand you are a famous American historian who knows everything about the Bielskis.” To which I would reply, “I am sure you have the wrong person.” (Apparently they didn’t) But it was a bit less awkward than being quizzed so I learned to say “well, not quite, but yes.” This at least made me feel like I was no longer crashing someone’s family reunion and more like the second cousin no one met before.
And in reality by this time, I did feel a bit like family. I was staying at the Catholic Hostel in Novogroduk and Aron Bielski and his wife were also there along with Lola and her two grandsons and Bella Bielski Rubin and her two sons and other Bielski relatives. This meant we spent a lot of time together visiting and sharing meals and a few l’chaims. Aron and I had become buddies the first night over l’chaims with the priest. Shahar and Uriyah Rubin and I spent a lot of time talking and they, in my mind, most truly embodied the spirit of their grandparents and the partisans. Shahar lives in the Carmel Mountains in Israel and teaches survival skills. He was clearly at home in the woods and very much in his element here where his relatives had provided a haven for the Jews who could reach them.
Aron spoke to this the first evening – very briefly – public speaking was not his favorite activity. What he said, says a lot about the realities of Polish Jewish life in this area – a Jewish world that was lost and is not really understood today.
“When the Nazis came, our father told us “Go to the woods and live.” And we did. And we survived not because we were the smartest, the most educated or most worldly. We weren’t. We were country folk. We knew the woods. We knew how to take care of ourselves. We knew how to survive in the woods. And so we lived.”
The Bielskis were the only Jews in their village. They ran the mill. The boys ran wild and were – as lovingly described by Uriyah “hooligans” – they survived because they were tough and knew how to get by. Their Polish was perfect without a Yiddish accent. They passed as Polish and were able to move about in the towns and villages finding Jews who needed their help. They were tough as nails and had to make tough choices to protect those in the camps – but also saved 1200+ Jewish lives because that was the right thing to do. We forget that Jews in Eastern Europe were as or more likely to be millers and farmers than urban intellectuals. This awareness is part of what was lost in the destruction of Jewish life village by village by the Nazis.
On the second day we went to the “Forest Jerusalem” – the Naliboki Forest where the Bielski camp was located. On the way there we stopped in the village of Naliboki where we were greeted again like returning heroes. The mayor, the head of the local Communist party, and a troupe of traditional musicians/singers greeted us in the Main Street. The Mayor presented us with a beautifully decorated loaf of bread – the traditional greeting in this area – and the group sang. A downpour began in the middle of this and it did not stop the welcome or the singing. The local villagers were all going about their morning and were also welcoming and friendly. Uriyah joined a group in the bus stop and asked me to take a picture. This “what might have been” snapshot is one of my favorite pictures from the trip. The same troupe welcomed us back after our visit to the Forest and the locals provided our group with a “Partisan’s lunch” which featured local produce and lots of homemade vodka. The head of the local Communist party was preaching love and togetherness of all peoples facilitated by “more vodka” as she worked the room filling (to the top) people’s cups with her peace-making liquid. And yes, I did finish all of mine.
We then moved on in a long caravan of vans and cars and locals who joined in as we headed into the forest. There is a sign at the entrance to where the camp was and I was thrilled to see the familiar map of the camp that I and my students look at each year as I teach them about how developed the camp was – with a bakery, hospital, school and various workshops as well as ziemlankas – underground bunkers covered in logs and branches as camouflage – for living in. I wandered off into the woods on my own as the speechifying went on a bit long – there was a representative from the Israeli Embassy to Belarus there as well as other dignitaries. In the quiet of the woods I wandered through looking for signs of the camp, indications of where bunkers might have been dug into the ground. It was an amazing feeling walking through this place that I have tried to imagine and then describe to my students for 10 years. I reached a point in the path where a tree had been used to make an arch over the pathway and entered a wide meadow. Past this meadow I went off the path and into the woods. I found what appeared, and was confirmed later, to be a small storage ziemlanka/bunker that was still intact. I continued to meander back towards the group and found others exploring on their own as well. These were the children of those whose lives had been saved in these woods and, based on my own emotions, I have to imagine this was a very emotional experience for them.
When I rejoined the main group, many were standing in the deepest of the remaining ziemlanka depressions. Some metal artifacts from the camp had been found and people were looking for others. We then all moved back towards the center of the space where Shahar had determined that we needed to dance. Fiddles were brought out and a circle made. The Bielski children and grandchildren joined in the middle of the circle and danced as everyone else clapped and sang. I was standing next to the daughter of Asael Bielski – born the day he died and named Asaela in his honor. Watching the children and grandchildren of those whose lives were saved in this very spot was an amazing experience. I wept both for joy at their being alive and here and in sadness for those who were not there. The sheer joy in their faces and the sense of vindication and victory over Hitler, the Nazis and their collaborators was overwhelming. Dancing with the remnants of the Jewish community of Novogroduk and Naliboki was a spiritual experience and I felt so blessed to be part of it.
After the dancing Sharon, the granddaughter of Tuvia, wanted to put up a mezuzah she had brought with her. She had brought it on her first trip to the camp years before but the weather had prevented her being able to hang it. I offered to help with the blessing and rituals of hanging a mezuzah and set off with Sharon, her cousin Matty (Zus’s grandson) and a few other Bielskis. They picked a tree to the side of the path and began to look for something to pound in the nails. Before we hung the mezuzah, Matty put on his tefillin and said the Sh’ma. He was wearing them as he hammered in the nails using a thick branch – this felt very authentically “Partisan style” way to hang a mezuzah. I have amazing photos of him putting it up and then Sharon saying the blessing and the Sh’ma. This was also an incredible experience – to be marking these woods, this camp that kept safe 1250 Jewish lives during the Shoah, as a Jewish home was so significant. Lola brought over her grandson to kiss the mezuzah as well. This sense of reclaiming the woods, of making it a Jewish place, of honoring those who lived and died there 75 years before was quite holy to me. It might have been the Bielskis and the other partisans who were physically guarding the remnant here during the war, but the sense of the Divine was clear to me in those woods. They were and are a holy place where the sanctity of Jewish lives was not dependent on the ability to fight or having shown up with a weapon that could be used to kill Nazis. Tuvia made sure that every Jewish life that could be saved, was. Those who joined him and supported this mission did their part to keep safe women, children and the eldery. And the non-Jews who helped, protected, fed, and hid their Jewish neighbors were all doing holy work as well. To be able to celebrate this with the descendents of those who were saved, or did the saving, was truly inspiring.
I teach my students about the partisans to show that Jews did fight back, they resisted and they helped each other survive – what that looked like was not always as impressive as the Bielski camp and the lives they saved, but each act of resistance was done by – to quote Eli Wiesel – those who were “beaten, starved and tortured” and whose ability to resist was almost nonexistent. I want my students to know these stories so they can feel pride. So they are inspired to also be Upstanders and help when they can – even when they themselves might feel powerless. Being able to bring back to my classroom this experience, the pictures, the stories, to tell a boy who made a copy of the camp map for a project last year – “I stood right here” and point to a place on his map and see the look on his face is so powerful. I danced in the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki forest on the anniversary of their liberation – and even though it is not my story or my history – even though I am not “Partisan or Tunnel” it will count as one of the most emotionally powerful moments in my life – a moment when God was close – perhaps even dancing with the remnants as well.