A packed audience recently gathered at the Dewitt Wallace auditorium at Chappaqua Crossing to watch The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods, a documentary film based on the lives of the Bielski partisans during the Holocaust. The event was sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York’s Westchester Women chapter in an effort to raise awareness about the remarkable story of the Bielski brothers who were Jewish partisans that survived in the Belorussian forest during World War II. The four Bielski brothers managed to rescue 1,200 Jews in the neighboring Jewish ghettos of Lida and Nowogrodek, the largest rescue effort by Jews for Jews in World War II.
Aron (Bielski) Bell, the last remaining survivor of the Bielski brothers, was in attendance at the event along with several other Bielski partisans.
Chappaqua resident and one of the event chair’s Meryl Lefkowitz has many relatives who were saved by the Bielski brothers. “My father’s family including my grandmother, her parents, brother, sister and cousin were all Holocaust survivors and Bielski partisans. “The Bielskis were close to my family and saved them as well as countless others by creating their community in the woods,” said Lefkowitz. “My grandmother and her brother and sister and cousin are all still alive and to this day they keep the memories and stories alive. We are here (a family of more than 50 of their descendants) because of their determination to survive.” The number of Bielski descendants is approximately 20,000, according to historians.
Lefkowitz’s great uncle Michael Stoll attended the event. His story is featured in the documentary. He was on a cattle car about to be transported to the Majdanek concentration camp from the Lida ghetto and jumped from the train along with his sister, Lefkowitz’s paternal grandmother and her paternal great grandfather. Remarkably they reunited with their mother and other sister in the woods who had already joined the Bielski brigade. “I am proud of who I am and where I have come from. These are amazing people with an unwavering will to live and prosper and an unbelievable story to tell,” commented Lefkowitz.
The story of the Bielski partisans was popularized in the 2008 Hollywood film Defiance starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber. The documentary film featured at the event follows the story of the Bielski brothers a Jewish farming family in the town of Stankiewicze. After the Nazis invaded their town and forced all Jews into the ghettos of Lida and Nowogrodek, three of the Bielski brothers escaped to the nearby forest. At first the brothers focused on just saving their immediate family members but eventually took it as their mission to save as many Jews as they could. With the brother’s farming background and intimate knowledge of the forest, they were able to ultimately evade the Germans and Belorussian collaborators.
Eventually with the help of some non-Jewish Belorusian friends they acquired guns and were soon able to obtain captured German and Soviet weapons and equipment supplied by Soviet partisans. The Bielski partisans actively scouted the Jewish ghettoes and helped several Jews escape. They constantly moved throughout the forest to avoid detection by the Nazis.
By 1943, the number of partisans in the Bielski brigade had increased to 700 Jews, and the Bielski brothers were fearful of the Nazis discovering their base so they relocated to a more remote part of the Naliboki Forest where they remained until their liberation. The partisans formed a Jewish community in this location dubbed “Jerusalem in the woods.” The refugees were organized by skill and they had cobblers, tailors, carpenters, leather workers, and blacksmiths all contributing to the overall well-being of the community. In addition, they even had a laundry, synagogue, infirmary and schoolhouse.
“This story is extraordinary in that the best of human qualities emerged in the darkest moments of history. The unanswered question surrounding the story of the four Bielski brothers whose efforts saved more than 1,200 Jews is how did they create a caring community in the midst of the Holocaust? Millie Jasper, Executive Director of the White Plains-based Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center, said: “It’s remarkable that the Bielski brothers created an environment where each member of the group chose not their personal survival, but the survival of the group.”
Stacey Pfeffer lives with her husband and three young children in Chappaqua. She has written for New York Family Magazine, Kveller.com, Westchester Parents and Inside Armonk. Both of her maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors.