In 1941, three young men — brothers — witnessed their parents and two other siblings being led away to their eventual murders. It was a grim scene that would, of course, be repeated endlessly throughout the war. What makes this particular story of interest is how the survivors responded. Instead of running or capitulating or giving in to despair, these brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski — did something else entirely. They fought back, waging a guerrilla war of wits and cunning against both the Nazis and the pro-Nazi sympathizers. Along the way they saved well over a thousand Jewish lives.
Using their intimate knowledge of the dense forests surrounding the Belorussian towns of Novogrudek and Lida, the Bielskis evaded the Nazis and established a hidden base camp, then set about convincing other Jews to join their ranks. When the Nazis began systematically eliminating the local Jewish populations — more than ten thousand were killed in the first year of the Nazi occupation alone — the Bielskis intensified their efforts, often sending fighting men into the ghettos to escort Jews to safety. As more and more Jews arrived each day, a robust community began to emerge, a “Jerusalem in the woods.” They slept in camouflaged dugouts built into the ground. Lovers met, were married, and conceived children. The community boasted a synagogue, a bathhouse, a theater, and cobblers so skilled that Russian officers would wait in line to have their boots reshod.
In July 1944, after two and a half years in the woods, the Bielskis learned that the Germans, overrun by the Red Army, were retreating back toward Berlin. More than one thousand Bielski Jews emerged — alive — on that final, triumphant exit from the woods.
In the interest of honesty, I skimmed the majority of this book because, well, it wasn’t want I was expected. I had expected more insight into the Bielskis’ life inside the forest. However, Duffy chose to focus on life around the forest, not in it. So much so that it gets bogged down in the details and the Bielski Brothers get the short end of the stick — their story isn’t being told; the story of Jews in Poland is.
And the writing is absolutely boring, except for the prologue, which was very interesting and very well-written compared to the rest of the book. I’m hopeful a more skillful author decides to take on this important novel because it could be very interesting and engaging in the proper hands.
- Duffy, Peter. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print. 302 pgs. ISBN: 0066210747. Source: Library.