Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jews of the Week: Bielski Partisans

The Jewish Avengers

Tuvia Bielski

Tuvia Bielski (1906-1987) was born in a small village near what is today Navahrudak, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire). When the German Army occupied the area during World War I, he was called to work for them as an interpreter, since he knew Polish, Russian and Yiddish. After the war, his hometown reverted to Polish rule, and Bielski was drafted to the Polish Army. He finished his service with the rank of corporal, then returned home to work in the family grain mill. When Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, Bielski was called up to fight. His cousin Yehuda Bielski (1909-1994), who had served as an officer in the Polish Army, was called up, too, and was shot in the leg. When SS troops stormed his hospital, he managed to escape. The Poles surrendered shortly after and the Bielski cousins returned to their village. The Nazis arrived there in the summer of 1941 and forced all the Jews into the Navahrudak ghetto. Tuvia, his sister, and three brothers fled to the Naliboki Forest; their parents, and two other brothers, were killed in the ghetto. The wife and baby daughter of his brother, Alexander “Zus” Bielski (1912-1995), were killed as well. In the forest, the Bielski brothers and 13 friends formed a paramilitary group under the command of Tuvia and brother Asael Bielski (1908-1945), launching a guerrilla war campaign against the Nazis. Through a Christian friend, they got a letter out to cousin Yehuda to join them and share his military expertise, which he did after escaping the ghetto.

The Bielski Partisans quickly grew to a force of about 150 fighters, and freed over 1200 Jews (including Jared Kushner’s grandmother) from the ghetto and surrounding villages. They worked to sabotage Nazi plans, destroying 4 bridges, 23 train cars, 32 telegraph lines, and killing nearly 400 soldiers. Their primarily goal, however, was to save lives. (Tuvia’s motto: “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten German soldiers.”) The Bielski Partisans built their entire life in the forest, constructing a school and hospital, bathhouse, bakery, tannery, synagogue, and even a courthouse and jail. The place became known as “Forest Jerusalem”. It had 125 full-time workers who also supplied the Soviet Army and other partisan forces in the area. The Nazis soon placed a 100,000 Reichsmark reward for the capture of Tuvia, and in August of 1943 launched a huge operation in the Naliboki Forest. While they were unable to suppress the Bielskis, they damaged most of their infrastructure, and punished many surrounding villages. The Bielskis ultimately joined forces with the Soviets and helped drive the Nazis out. (Throughout this time, they kept the identity of Yehuda secret, since the Soviets considered Polish officers to be enemies, and would have executed him immediately.) After the region was liberated in the summer of 1944, the Soviets turned on the Bielskis and the brothers fled. Unable to escape, Asael was conscripted to the Soviet Army and died in the Battle of Konigsberg in 1945. Tuvia and Zus, along with younger brother Aron Bielski (b. 1927)—who was only 12 when the war started—made their way to Israel and fought in the new state’s Independence War. Yehuda Bielski was there, too, and was injured in battle yet again. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the IDF. The Bielskis eventually settled in New York, where they built a successful transportation company with a fleet of taxis and trucks. The story of the Bielski brothers was featured in two books, and a Hollywood film, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia.

Words of the Week

It’s the small acts that you do on a daily basis that turn two people from a “you and I” into an “us”.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Bielski Partisans in the Naliboki Forest

Jew of the Week: Benjamin of Tudela

The Jew Who Inspired Marco Polo

A 19th century engraving of ‘Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara’

Binyamin MiTudela (1130-1173) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the town of Tudela, now in Spain. In 1165, he set out for what is believed to be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had a larger objective in mind as well, since this was at the height of the Crusades and a perilous time for anyone to make a pilgrimage, especially Jews. Binyamin wanted to explore all the Jewish communities along the way and to create a detailed map showing the route one should take and where a Jew can find safe refuge on his journey. This would open the door for more Jews to take a trip to their beloved Holy Land. A lover of history and geography, he also wished to leave a record of what the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world looked like in the 12th century. Binyamin recorded all that he saw in his Sefer haMasa’at, “Book of Travels”, also known as Masa’aot Binyamin. His adventures were so popular they were soon translated into just about every European language. Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history. A great deal of what we know about that era, including the daily lives of simple people, comes from his book. Some believe that it was this book that may have inspired another, more famous, adventurer about a century later: Marco Polo. Binyamin’s travels took him to France and the Italian Peninsula, then to Greece and across what is today Turkey to the Near East, then to Persia, back around the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and returning to Iberia by way of North Africa. While in Ethiopia, he describes a large Jewish community, which was a key source of information allowing modern-day Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the State of Israel and the rabbinate. He is possibly the first writer to detail the community of Al-Hashishin, better known as “Assassins”, as well as among the first to describe the Druze. In Posquières, he meets and describes the great Raavad. In Rome, he sees a Rabbi Yechiel, who is an advisor to the Pope, and has “free access to the Pope’s palace”! While in Baghdad, he writes of the Caliph, who is “like a Pope” for Muslims, and that the Caliph is fluent in Hebrew and knows Torah law extensively, though he rules with an iron fist. All in all, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote about some 300 cities. Today, there are streets named after him in Jerusalem and in Tudela, Spain, where there is also a high school bearing his name.

Words of the Week

One day I learned that dreams exist to come true, and since that day I do not sleep for rest. I sleep just to dream.
– Walt Disney

Jew of the Week: Bertha Pappenheim

A Jewish Heroine You Should Know About

Bertha Pappenheim

Bertha Pappenheim (1859-1936) was born in Vienna to a wealthy and religious Jewish family of Austrian and German heritage. Her father was a cofounder of Vienna’s famous Schiff Shul, the city’s largest Orthodox synagogue (later destroyed during Kristallnacht). At 16, she left school to take care of her home and her ill father. Around this time, she started developing psychological and emotional issues and was treated by the Austrian physician Josef Breuer, together with his student Sigmund Freud. Her case (known as “Anna O”) would play an important role in the development of psychology and psychoanalysis. After Pappenheim recovered, she moved with her mother to Frankfurt and the two became big patrons of the arts and science in the city. They helped found Frankfurt University, and built a reputation as generous philanthropists. Pappenheim intensified her studies, started writing, and became involved in politics. She volunteered at a soup kitchen and at a Jewish orphanage. She eventually became director of the orphanage and transformed it into a place where Jewish girls could learn real skills and become independent. Pappenheim wrote extensively on women’s rights and worked diligently to combat the trafficking of women. She founded the Jewish Women’s Association (Jüdischer Frauenbund, or JFB) which quickly grew to some 50,000 members and became the largest Jewish charity organization in the world. Pappenheim also founded numerous kindergartens, orphanages, and refuges for women who had been trafficked or abused. These institutions were strictly kosher and Shabbat-observant, providing warm care, education, vocational training, and religious instruction. Pappenheim collaborated with (former Jews of the Week) Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, and Sarah Schenirer, pioneer of the Beit Yakov movement of girls schools. She wrote several plays, books of poetry, novella, and children’s stories. She also translated parts of the Talmud, Midrash, and Tanakh for women, along with a handful of other important texts. In 1954, Germany issued a postage stamp featuring Pappenheim in their “Benefactors of Mankind” series.

Words of the Week

Oftentimes a man believes he ought to be a leader because he desires to benefit his fellows; this is untrue. He is in reality seeking self-honour, and hides his true intention under a mask of kindness.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)