- Tuvia Bielski (1906-1987) commanded a group of Jewish partisans during World War II in the Nalibocka Forest of Belorussia together with his brothers Asael (1908-1945) and Alexander (Zus, 1910-1995) and. Asael served as his deputy while Zus was placed in charge of reconnaissance. A fourth and much younger brother, Aharon (1927- ) was part of the group as well. Before the war the Bielski's lived in Stankiewicze, near Nowogrodek. Their parents, David and Beila Bielski, farmed and owned a mill. In December 1941, after the Nazis murdered his parents and two of his brothers, the four surviving Bielski brothers fled to the nearby forest along with 13 others. Initially, the Bielski brothers attempted only to save their own lives and those of their family members. They fled to the nearby Zabielovo and Perelaz forests, where they formed the nucleus of a partisan detachment consisting at first of about 30 family members and friends. Tuvia Bielski, a Polish Army veteran, commanded the group. Their familiarity with the region's geography, customs, and people helped them elude the German authorities and their Belorussian auxiliaries. With the help of non-Jewish Belorussian friends, they were able to acquire guns. The Bielski partisans later supplemented these arms with captured German weapons, Soviet weapons, and equipment supplied by Soviet partisans. The Bielskis encouraged Jews in nearby ghettos to escape and join them in the forest. Bielski frequently sent guides into the ghettos to escort people to the forest. In late 1942, a special mission saved over a hundred Jews from the Iwie ghetto just as the Germans planned to liquidate it. Bielski scouts constantly searched the roads for Jewish escapees in need of protection. Many Jews hiding in the forests in smaller family groups joined the Bielski group; Jewish partisans serving in Soviet partisan organizations also fell in with the Bielskis in an attempt to escape antisemitism in their units. The stream of Jewish survivors increased the size of the Bielski group to more than 300 people by the end of 1942.
In August 1943, the Germans began a massive manhunt directed against Russian, Polish, and Jewish partisans in the region. They deployed more than 20,000 military personnel and SS and police officials and offered a reward of 100,000 Reichmarks for information leading to Tuvia Bielski's capture. The group feared in part that the local peasants from whom they obtained food might betray them. As a result, the Bielski group moved in December 1943 to what became a permanent base in the Naliboki Forest, a swampy, scarcely accessible region on the right bank of the Niemen River, east of Lida and northeast of Nowogrodek. There the Bielski group created a community. Despite some opposition from within the group, Tuvia Bielski never wavered in his determination to accept and protect all Jewish refugees, regardless of age or gender. The Bielskis never turned anyone away, permitting the creation of a mobile family "camp" -- in effect, a Jewish community in the forest. The group organized the skilled workers among the Jewish refugees into workshops, which employed at least 200 people, including cobblers, tailors, carpenters, leather workers, and blacksmiths. In addition, the group established a mill, a bakery, and a laundry. The leadership managed a primitive infirmary, a school for the children, a synagogue, and even a courthouse/jail. Work groups supplied the camp with food and cleared the land where possible for the cultivation of wheat and barley. At the same time that it saved lives and protected the noncombatants in the camp, the Bielski group carried out several operational missions. It attacked the Belorussian auxiliary police officials, as well as local farmers suspected of killing Jews. The group disabled German trains, blew up rail beds, destroyed bridges, and facilitated escapes from Jewish ghettos. The Bielski fighters often joined with Soviet partisans in operations against German guards and facilities, killing many Germans and Belorussian auxiliaries.
On June 22, 1944, Soviet troops initiated a massive offensive in Eastern Belorussia. Within six weeks, the Soviet Army had destroyed the German Army Group Center and swept westward to the Vistula River in Poland, liberating all of Belorussia. At the time of liberation, the Bielski group had reached its peak of 1,230 people. More than 70 percent were women, elderly persons, and children, who otherwise would have perished under the German occupation. An estimated 50 members of the Bielski group were killed, an unusually low casualty rate in comparison not only with other partisan detachments but also with Jewish groups in the region.
After liberation, Asael Bielski was conscripted into the Soviet Red Army and fell in the Battle of Königsberg in 1945. Tuvia and Zus Bielski emigrated with their families to Palestine. They both fought in the Israeli armed forces during the 1948 war that established the Israeli state. They subsequently immigrated to the United States.