As the film credits rolled, Jessica Bielski sat perfectly still in her chair and wept. Seeing the critically acclaimed film Defiance for the first time moved her to tears, but at the same time, it thrilled her. Finally, her grandfather’s amazing story would be told to the world.
Growing up, people had often told the New Jersey girl that her grandfather Zus had been a hero. But the full extent of his valor didn’t hit the teenager until she saw it for herself onscreen. Jessica first saw the picture in a special screening for all of the Bielski family at the Jewish Heritage Museum in Manhattan last September.
“We were all crying,” said Jessica, recalling the reaction of her aunts, uncles and cousins who attended the event. “But it was happy at the same time because it was finally on the big screen for the entire world to see. I loved it. It was amazing.”
She has since seen the movie four more times.
The heroism of Jessica’s grandfather, Alexander Zeisal Bielski (“Zus”), certainly is something that deserves to be shown to the world. Zus, along with his brothers, Tuvia and Asael, helped save hundreds of Jews from Nazi extermination. The Bielski brothers undertook one of the largest and most impressive rescue operation of Jews during World War II. Yet, until recently their story has been largely unknown.
In 1941, the three brothers witnessed their parents and two other siblings being led away to their deaths. It was a tragic scene endlessly repeated throughout Europe during World War II. But instead of surrendering or wallowing in pity, these brothers – Tuvia, Zus and Asael – achieved the impossible. They transformed the Nazis’ violent act against them into a heroic and beautiful tale of survival against the odds.
The Bielskis led a small crew of Jews into the forest to flee from the Nazis and local police. By using their intimate knowledge of the dense forests surrounding the Belarusian towns, the brothers evaded the Nazis and established a hidden camp. Then they set about convincing other Jews to join their ranks. As more Jews arrived each day, a robust community for rescued Jews began to emerge, a “Jerusalem in the woods.”
They established an elaborate community which included everything they needed –a bakery, doctor, synagogue, mikvah, even a theater. Enough food was grown in the village to stay alive.
They mounted a guerrilla war of wits against the Nazis. The group, including women and children, ended up killing over 250 Nazis, derailing troop trains and blowing up bridges and electric stations. But their priority was saving lives rather than killing. After two and a half years in the woods, in July 1944, the Bielskis learned that the Germans, overrun by the Red Army, were retreating toward Berlin. On their final, triumphant march from the woods, 1,200 “Bielski Jews” emerged intact.
Today, over 20,000 people – who would have died or never would have been born – are alive as a result of their actions, said Jessica’s mother, Roz Moscowitz-Bielski.
Jessica, 15, as well as her older sister Rachel, 19, didn’t get to know Zus as well as they might have liked because they were very young when Zus died in 1995. The movie is a poignant way to keep his memory alive, said Jessica.
The film catapulted their family into stardom. “We’ve always known the story. But it’s strange to have a whole screen filled with your family,” said Roz.
At Jessica’s day school, where most of the teachers and students have seen the movie, she has received numerous praise and questions about her grandfather. “I feel like a celebrity. People are in awe to meet the granddaughters of Zus Bielski.”
Jessica is the history buff in her family, and has always had a deep interest in Holocaust history. “I saw the books about the Bielski story and began to read them. They were difficult to read although once I started I found that I couldn’t put them down. I had to keep reading about my past.”
She plans to work this summer as an intern at the New Jersey Metro-West Holocaust Council. Her sister Rachel, who is studying business at Pace University, says the movie has also won her some dedicated fans on campus. “Someone said to me, ‘Gosh, you are like Jewish royalty,’” she laughed.
But the most stirring reaction the family has received thus far was the phone call from an elderly man who now lives in Maplewood, NJ. He looked up the family after reading about the film. In his broken English, he introduced himself to Roz. “I wanted you to know that the Bielski brothers saved my life. If it wasn’t for them I’d be dead,” he said. “His entire family had been wiped out by the Nazis,” Roz.explained. “We ended up talking for two hours. I didn’t want to put the phone down.”
Roz has fond memories of her father-in-law.
“He was a gregarious, tall bear of a man who gave out big hugs while smoking cigars,” recalls Roz, who works in special education. “He was a content person and he loved seeing his grandchildren. I liked him very much.”
Zus often spoke about what occurred in the woods and told fascinating tales of survival, she said. “He never boasted of his heroism, only related what happened in a humble way.”
Jessica recalls him telling her that “after the group came out of the forest in 1944, they had no family, so they became their own family. My father describes their bond as friendship like he had never seen. My grandfather, his brothers, and all the survivors they saved became family. They shared in numerous parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs. They never sought recognition for their brave acts. They were so humble.”
After the war, the brothers moved to Palestine, then to New York where the family became owners of a taxi fleet. Zus always had a lot of friends and family around. Every weekend was a party, Bielski recalled. “The survivors became an extended family.”
Zus died in 1995 at age 83.
“It’s important for people to see this film,” Roz says, “and to know what went on during this terrible time in our history and to understand why it should never happen again.”
Jessica acknowledged that her grandfather’s fight for peace came at a great price. “They didn’t choose to be killers. They were forced into it. They took many risks but in the end, they marched out of the forest with over 1,200 people.”
His legacy gives her a heightened responsibility towards her people as well, she added. “Defiance shows us that anywhere you can lend a hand and help someone or do the right thing, your good deeds will not go unnoticed.”