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The Jews of the Forest: The Bielski Partisans
I just finished reading Peter Duffy's The Bielski Brothers. They were three Belorussian Jews who took to the nearby forests as partisans soon after the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and Sonderkommando units started wiping out Jews in their town, including their parents and the wife and baby of one of the brothers.
Not only did they actively resist the Nazis, but by the end of the Nazi occupation, they led an estimated 1200 non-combatant Jews out of their forest hideout, roughly as many as Oskar Schindler saved.
Most of the Shoah literature focuses on the concentration camps, but the atrocities of the Einsatzgruppen units were equally horrendous. In addition to the Nazis the Jewish partisans had to avoid other enemies including anti-Semitic Polish and Russian partisans, local collaborators, Cossacks and even rebellious factions in their own ranks. But they had allies among the local peasants who risked their lives to support them, such as the heroic Konstantin Koslovsky who was declared a Righteous Gentile by the Vad Vashem. They also enjoyed the protection of the local Soviet leader of the partisans, Sergei Vasilyev who was so taken with the Bielski's cause that he later claimed in his memoirs that the Great Patriotic War was fought to defend the motherland and "defeat chauvinism and racism against the Jews". His second-in-command Yefim Gapayev was also a staunch ally.
I was most moved by the humanity of the leader and eldest Tuvia Bielski. Although a fierce and implacable enemy of the Nazis he would often be moved to tears by the plight of the Jews who managed to reach his forest hideout. He struck me as a proto-type of the "new Jew" who not much later went on to establish the State of Israel. Although the term was first used sneeringly by hostile peasants, the Jews themselves came to think of their refuge as Yerushalayim in Vald or Jerusalem in the Woods.
One brother died in combat before the end of the war, the others left Europe first for Israel, and later the US. They had little recognition for their struggle, save one event at the end of Tuvia's life that recaptured the grandeur of his fighting spirit after years of struggling in obscurity to survive financially in a strange new world.
The lasting impressions are two. The Jews were and remain the litmus test for the character of the gentiles. We can commend the righteous few who gave their utmost to help the Bielski Jews survive. The other is that the forces that converge to annihilate the Jews may seem very different superficially but they are motivated by the same ancient enemy across generations and ages. It would be profitable to all of us to ponder why.