Recently, during one of my weekend library visits I stumbled across a copy of Peter Duffy’s The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest and I felt compelled to borrow it for two reasons. One, over the last several years I’ve read a number of books about the Holocaust, especially how it unfolded in Eastern Europe, and thus The Bielski Brothers looked like a great follow-up to books like Bloodlands, The Book Smugglers and An Iron Wind. Two, since it tells the story of a band of Jewish partisans deep in the forests of Nazi-occupied Belarus I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and that my friends is a good thing, because books about Belarus and few and far between.
Of the 6.5 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, 80 per cent were dead by March 1943. Even though the Nazi’s and their collaborators were able to extinguish Jewish life and culture from Poland to Ukraine, one community precariously remained. Hidden in the forested backwoods of Belarus and led by trio of three all-around bad-ass brothers, 1,200 Jews managed to survive the Nazi onslaught.
Survival would not be easy. Not only would the Bielski brothers and their followers have the German army to deal with, they’d also need to fight a wide spectrum of collaborators from across Eastern Europe including Ukrainians, Belarusians, Cossacks, Lithuanians and even “White” Poles. They also had to contend with the deep-seated antisemitism of not just the local peasantry but also that of other partisan groups. All of this while trying to feed, clothe, shelter and provide safe drinking water for over a thousand people in the forests of wartime Belarus.
In the end, the brothers Bielski and their fighters saved as many Jews as Oskar Schindler and killed roughly the same number of Nazis that died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In his book Duffy does a fine job recalling one of the 20th century’s most inspiring yet overlooked tales of defiance and survival. (Fortunately, in 2008 audiences would be treated to a movie inspired by the Bielski-led partisans appropriately named Defiance staring Daniel Craig of James Bond fame.) Once again, I find myself indebted to my local library for granting me the opportunity to read this rather good book.