Tag Archives: Holocaust

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: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Rabbi Who Marched With Martin Luther King Jr.

Rabbi Heschel

Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1907-1972) was born in Poland to a long line of Hasidic rabbis from both his father’s and mother’s side. He was named after his ancestor, the Apter (or Apatower) Rebbe. After receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination) himself, Rabbi Heschel decided to pursue secular studies at the University of Berlin. (There he briefly crossed paths with three other future great rabbis: Yitzchak Hutner, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.) While earning his Ph.D in philosophy, Heschel also studied at Berlin’s Reform seminary and received a liberal rabbinic ordination to go along with his Orthodox one. Meanwhile, he was part of a Yiddish poetry club and published his own book of Yiddish poems in 1933. Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo in 1938 and deported back to Poland. He moved to London just six weeks before Poland was invaded by the Nazis. (His mother and three sisters perished in the Holocaust.) Heschel eventually settled in New York. He first worked at the (Reform) Hebrew Union College for five years before switching over to the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary. There he spent the rest of his career as a rabbi and professor of Jewish ethics and Jewish mysticism. Despite working at these institutions, Heschel never identified himself with any particular Jewish denomination, and was himself strictly Torah-observant. His discourses often weaved together Biblical, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic teachings. He especially focused on the ancient Hebrew prophets, and sought to revive their message in healing today’s world. Because of this, he was an active civil rights and peace activist. Heschel famously marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Later that year, he presented King with the ‘Judaism and World Peace Award’. The two formed a very close friendship. Heschel also wrote numerous books, including five bestsellers. These books have been credited both with bringing countless Jews back to traditional observance, as well as opening up the study of Judaism to the wider world. Heschel worked hard to build bridges between Jews and gentiles. He represented the Jewish world at the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, successfully getting the Catholics to formally abandon the belief that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion—and therefore that all Jews are “accursed”—and to remove all prayers derogatory to Jews. Heschel is considered one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century, and remains among the most widely read and studied Jewish philosophers and theologians. Today, the 18th of Tevet, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) with Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Selma in 1965.

Jew of the Week: Mordechai Anielewicz

Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Jewish Combat Organization

Mordechai Anielewicz (1919-1943) was born near Warsaw to a traditional Polish-Jewish family. After completing Hebrew school, he joined the Betar Zionist youth movement, and later Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Anielewicz participated in a Polish military training camp. When Germany invaded Poland, he joined a group of youths who fled east in the hopes of organizing an armed resistance. However, the Soviets invaded the eastern half of Poland, and Anielewicz was eventually arrested and thrown in jail for helping Jewish refugees flee across Romania to Israel. Released from prison shortly after, Anielewicz returned to Warsaw and began organizing a resistance movement. He started a secret newspaper called Neged HaZerem, “Against the Current”. By the end of 1940, Anielewicz was among 400,000 Jews (a third of Warsaw’s total population) forcibly crammed and imprisoned inside the tiny Warsaw Ghetto. Less than a year later, the Nazis started “evacuating” Jews from the Ghetto and when Anielewicz heard reports of mass murder, he called up his resistance fighters. The group attempted to join the Polish underground resistance, but was rebuffed. They risked their lives trying to smuggle and build up a weapons arsenal inside the Ghetto. By September 1942, three quarters of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jews were deported, and 265,000 of them murdered. Anielewicz and his team started building bunkers and tunnels, and stockpiling their homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails. Shortly after, they were able to acquire several rifles and mines, and one machine gun from the Polish underground. They staged their first attack in January of 1943, and managed to free a handful of Jews. This convinced the Polish underground that the Jews could fight, and they smuggled more weapons to the group (with help from the Jewish Military Union, made up of former officers in the Polish army) now calling itself the Jewish Combat Organization. The resistance continued to make serious trouble for the Nazis. When word came that the Warsaw Ghetto would soon be liquidated, Anielewicz wrote a letter to all of its residents to join the fight, writing that “We are slaves, and when slaves are no longer profitable, they are killed.” The Nazis began the final deportation on April 19, the morning before Passover. They sent in 821 SS troops, who were met by 750 Jewish fighters under the command of Anielewicz. The Jews inflicted serious damage, and the Nazis retreated. They returned with over 2000 soldiers and heavier weapons. The Jewish resistance had the upper hand for nearly a week – and at one point even raised up their flag – but were eventually overpowered. More than 56,000 Jews were captured. The Nazis continued to search for bunkers and slaughter anyone hiding inside. They reached the command bunk on Mila Street on May 7th, where nearly three hundred Jews, including Anielewicz, were shot to death, died by suffocation from gas grenades, or committed suicide. The surviving fighters continued to resist until May 16. While the vast majority of Jews perished, a handful of survivors known as the “Ghetto Fighters” later settled in Israel and established a kibbutz. The actions of Anielewicz gave Jews a sense of hope and strength. He inspired countless others both in his day, and in the present day, and became a symbol of bravery and self-sacrifice. The Polish Army posthumously awarded Anielewicz the Cross of Valour and the Cross of Grunwald. This year, the eve of Passover is once again on April 19, as it was in 1943 when Anielewicz and his courageous warriors launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

11 Common Passover Misconceptions

Words of the Week

Regarding the custom of opening the door for Eliyahu on Passover night – don’t think Eliyahu really enters through the physical door of your house. Instead he enters through the doors of your heart and mind.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe

Flag of the Jewish Combat Organization Flag