Photo courtesy of United King Films-PR
Daniel Craig’s steely blue eyes stare down from oversized billboards in Soho and giant posters in Times Square. His eyes are here too, equally blue, piercing the Tel Aviv night. Defiance, his latest movie, is now playing at a movie house near you, no matter where you live….but dont expect to hear “the name is Bond, James Bond.” Craig is portraying one of the Bielski brothers – men so heroic that they make 007 look like a wimp.
Zeus, Tuvia and Asael Bielski were young adults when the Germans overran their small village of Novagrodek in Byelorussia, massacring all the Jews in the area. After discovering that their parents, family and friends had all been gunned down in cold blood, the three men escaped to the woods taking their twelve-year-old brother Aron with them. They had no clear plan in mind except to survive.
Surviving a succession of brutal Russian winters in the wild, living on the run and sleeping in swamps would be daunting enough, but there was more. Living by their wits alone, the young men faced a daily fight for food and warmth and an ongoing battle with the 50,000 plus Nazis assigned to hunt down and kill Partisans and Jews sheltering in the forests. But the Bielski brothers did more than stay alive. In the process they also saved 1,200 other Jews – rescuing them from ghettos, accepting the weak, the sick and the old, as well as young men and women who fought alongside the brothers. As word of their mission spread, desperate Jews, running from certain death, staggered into their camp. All were accepted and given food and shelter.
An underground refuge was hewn out in the forest, complete with bath-house and school, workshops and a shul; makeshift matzot were baked on Pesach. The survivors called the camp “Jerusalem in the Forest” – and the Bielskis were their kings.
In 1944, after countless “food missions”, fearful battles, forest marriages and even births, the brothers and their band eventually walked free when the German army retreated in the face of a Soviet attack. Asael Bielski joined the Russian army and was killed in action shortly afterwards, never seeing the baby he had fathered with his forest wife. Zeus and Tuvia came to Israel, started families and eventually relocated to the United States. They never looked for thanks or glory and their group of survivors quickly dispersed, scattered in Israel and other corners of the globe. Tuvia and Aron rebuilt their lives, raised their families and developed their business. Their story remained a fable for their kids and grandchildren.
Then in 1993, Polish born Holocaust survivor and historian Nechama Tec wrote an account of what had transpired in the forest. Her book, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, was picked up by the New York Times. Journalist Peter Duffy turned the story into a bestseller and director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Legends of the Fall) directed the film which is now on our screens. Craig is Tuvia,. Liev Schreiber is Zeus and Jamie Bell plays Asael.
This movie makes you shiver in your seats, consider this: today there are over 30,000 descendants of the Jews who hid out in the forest, saved by the Bielski brothers. And consider this: many of them, including Asael’s daughter, now live in Israel. And this: some of the grandchildren of the Bielski heroes left their comfortable homes in New York, moving to Israel to join the army and make the country their home.
Matt Bielski is one of Zeus’ grandsons who live in Tel Aviv. Now 25. he grew up hearing tales of courage and survival from his grandfather. “My dad, who was born in Israel, served in the US Marines for six years,” explains Matt, “and then joined the IDF during the Yom Kippur war. I wanted to do my part too.” Eschewing the offer ‘of any car that he wanted’ in place of a khaki uniform and a parachute, Matt joined an elite unit and learned Hebrew as he went along. “I ran when the other guys did and tried to remember what the officer had said,” he recalls, “and somehow I managed.”
‘Managed’ is putting it mildly. Matt received the award of excellence in his unit and was invited to tell his story in Prime Minister Olmert’s succah. “The next thing, an officer of the special forces took me aside and asked me to step into a room,” smiles Matt, “and I thought, ‘hey what’s going on now.’”. All became clear when Ze’ev Bielski, former mayor of Raanana and chairman of the Jewish Agency introduced himself. “He wanted to know if we were cousins,” explains Matt. “I don’t think that we are…but who knows?”
Matt Bielski is now doing an MBA at Bar Ilan University. His younger brother is serving in the army and his sister has also made aliyah. Watching the movie as it depicts the dark, dreaded days and years when the Gestapo aimed to annihilate the entire Jewish people, one can only feel a sense of elation that we have survived to watch the story. That the descendants of the heroes make Israel their home and are fighting to keep it safe only adds to the miracle. As Israel continues to face its challenges, Zwick’s script and faithful depiction of the forest sanctuary fills the viewer with hope. Hope and defiance.