Tag Archives: War of Independence

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: Sammy Ofer

Israel’s Richest Man

Sammy Ofer (Courtesy: www.sammy-ofer.com)

Shmuel Hershkovitz (1922-2011) was born in Romania and raised in Haifa. He grew up by the seashore as his father ran a ship supply shop near the port of Haifa. Hershkovitz himself worked for the Dizengoff shipping company in his youth. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the British Navy and served on a minesweeper in the Mediterranean. He later fought in Israel’s Independence War serving in what would become the Israeli Navy. Hershkovitz was among Israel’s first naval officers. After the war, he worked for the family business before purchasing his own ship to import goods for the new State. As the business expanded and the fleet of ships grew, Hershkovitz changed the name of the company, and his own last name, to “Ofer”. In 1969, the company partly merged with Israel’s largest shipping company, ZIM. It continued to operate under the management of Ofer’s brother, while Ofer himself moved to Europe to start a new shipping business. By the late 80s, his company had a fleet of over 200 ships, and partly owned Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. It later expanded into real estate, banking, and other industries. Ofer became Israel’s richest man, with a net worth of several billion dollars. He shared a lot of that wealth, too. In 2007, he donated $25 million to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, most of which went to build a 2000-bed state-of-the-art underground, bomb-proof hospital. (The facility has now been converted into a coronavirus treatment centre.) The following year, Ofer donated £20 million to London’s National Maritime Museum—the largest private donation to a museum in British history. He gave sizeable gifts to Tel Aviv Medical Center and IDC Herzliya as well, and established the Medicines Foundation to subsidize the cost of cancer treatment for those in need. All in all, Ofer donated over $100 million to hospitals in Israel. He also gave $20 million to build the Sammy Ofer Stadium, the home of Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Haifa soccer clubs and Israel’s second-largest sports facility with over 30,000 seats. In 2008, Ofer was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. His two sons remain among the richest Israelis in the world (though they live in Monaco). Last week, his son Eyal donated 10 million shekels to three Israeli hospitals to help fight coronavirus. His other son Idan gave the largest ever donation (£25 million) in honour of his father to the London Business School, whose townhall has since been renamed the Sammy Ofer Centre.

Words of the Week

Every Jew is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, healthy or ill, young or old. Even if one is destitute or if he has familial obligations, he must still establish fixed times for Torah study.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, 1135-1204 (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:8)

Jew of the Week: Yitzhak Rabin

In Memory of a Great Israeli Hero

Yitzhak Rabin in 1948

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) was born in Jerusalem to Russian-Jewish parents who settled in the Holy Land during the Third Aliyah. He was raised in Tel-Aviv, and at the age of 14 enrolled in an agricultural school founded by his mother, at the same time enlisting in the Haganah defense force. Though originally hoping to be an irrigation engineer, he ultimately decided to stay in the military and fight for the Jewish homeland. In 1941, he joined the Haganah’s elite unit, Palmach, and his first mission was to assist the Allied Forces in the invasion of Lebanon during World War II. After the war, he spent time training new recruits and worked against British efforts to restrict Jewish immigration. At one point, Rabin was arrested by the British and spent five months in prison. During Israel’s War of Independence, Rabin was the Palmach’s COO and commanded its second battalion. He was in charge of the southern front against Egypt, and was involved in the capture of the cities of Ramle and Lod, and the liberation of Ramat Rachel. He was part of Israel’s delegation during the 1949 peace talks that ended the war. He later headed Israel’s Northern Command, and in 1964 was made Chief of Staff, the top general of the IDF. It was under his tenure that Israel planned and executed the miraculous Six-Day War and recaptured Jerusalem. For Rabin, this was the culmination of his military career, and the fulfilment of his dreams. It was time to retire. The following year, he was made ambassador to the United States, serving in that role for 5 years. Rabin was instrumental in getting the US to start selling its fighter jets to Israel, and during his time the US became Israel’s biggest military supplier. He returned to Israel following the Yom Kippur War and was elected to the Knesset. Several months later, Golda Meir resigned and Rabin became Israel’s prime minister. In 1976, he gave the difficult order to plan a rescue operation for Jewish hostages held in Entebbe, resulting in the stunning Operation Thunderbolt. A year later, his Labour Party was defeated in the elections, but Rabin remained in the Knesset, and in 1984 was appointed Minister of Defense. As terrorism from the West Bank got worse, Rabin instituted an “Iron Fist” determent policy, and during the First Intifada was nicknamed “Rabin the Bone Breaker”. Nonetheless, the violence only worsened, and Rabin decided to give peace a chance. He won the 1992 election and returned to the role of prime minister, his main goal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. He signed the controversial Oslo Accords in 1993, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He also worked out the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994. Meanwhile, Rabin was a huge economic reformer, transforming Israel from a state with a more socialist bent to a fully capitalist one. His “Yozma” program encouraged foreign venture capital and led to the development of Israel’s booming high-tech sector. His government boosted spending in education by 70%, and in 1995 instituted Israel’s universal health care system. On November 4th of that same year, Rabin was tragically assassinated by an extremist for “capitulating” to the Arabs. The square where he was shot was renamed after him, as were many other streets and landmarks. Politics aside, very few people have done more for the State of Israel and its citizens than Yitzhak Rabin. He is rightfully remembered as one of Israel’s greatest heroes.

Video: Bill Clinton Describes His “Love Like No Other” for Yitzhak Rabin

Words of the Week

It does no good… to brand one as an “enemy” or “anti-Semite”, however tempting it is to do so even if that person vehemently denies it. It can only be counterproductive. On the contrary, ways and means should be found to persuade such a person to take a favourable stance, at least publicly. We haven’t got too many friends, and attaching labels will not gain us any.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe