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Son of WWII rescuer recounts ‘defiance’

After more than an hour of calmly discussing how his family saved more than 1,200 Jews during World War II, Zvi Bielski’s voice finally broke with emotion when recounting if his father had any regrets.

“He said, ‘I wish I could’ve saved more,’” Bielski said. “All of the people they saved was not enough for him. But by you coming here today, it makes it a continuing story for us. There was nothing more important to him than saving Jewish babies.”

Bielski was the guest speaker Sept. 15 at the Chabad Center for the 14th Annual Pauline and Philip Piaker Memorial Lecture.

Zvi Bielski, 57, is the son of Zus Bielski and nephew of Tuvia and Asael. The three brothers formed a Bielski Brigade that rescued hundreds of Jews from the Nazis in the Soviet republic of Belorussia. The brothers’ heroic work was turned into a Hollywood film, Defiance (starring Daniel Craig, the newest James Bond), in late 2008.

“Today there are a little more than 20,000 Jewish people walking on the planet Earth who were saved by the Bielski brothers and their aides,” Zvi Bielski said.

The brothers brought their rescued comrades to the forests of the Novogrudok region, where they formed camps that were on the move from the Nazis every five to six months, Zvi Bielski said. The brigade protected itself by killing Nazis, blowing up trains and demanding food from Poles, he said.

“The Bielski group and their fighters’ mission was to save every Jewish person they could,” he said. “They killed people in order to survive.”

Killing Nazis and informants was one thing, but Zvi Bielski said the brothers weren’t afraid to kill others for the good of the group. He recounted how the group was wading through a swamp one night during an escape. Zus Bielski was told that a man had left a woman and child behind.

“The orders were to leave no one behind,” Zvi Bielski said. “The man told my dad that these two people were going to get him killed, so he left them behind. My dad said, ‘Go get them.’ The man said no. He was Jewish but my dad shot and killed him on the spot. He went back, retrieved the woman and child and put them back on the line.”

Zus Bielski and his wife, Sonia, who was rescued by the Bielskis from a ghetto, met the woman and child decades later while traveling in Israel, Zvi Bielski said.

Zvi Bielski complemented his talk with TV clips about his father and uncles. He also showed a humorous side when describing how he visited the set of Defiance in Lithuania. As he stood on a mountain overlooking the valley where filming was taking place, Bielski saw a man to his left, shivering.

“It was James Bond!” Bielski said. “So I said, ‘James, what’s the matter?’ He says, ‘Bielski, my name is Daniel.’ I said, ‘OK, Mr. Bond.’ He was so cold, I couldn’t believe it.”

Bielski also praised Liev Schreiber, who portrayed Zus in Defiance. Bielski said he thought Schreiber was his father for a moment when he saw him from the mountain on the set.

The Bielski Brigade spent four years in the forest. Asael was killed in battle in 1945. Tuvia and Zus and their families eventually moved from Israel to New York City. Tuvia died in 1987; Zus in 1995.

“We’re a regular family that did an extraordinary thing,” Zvi Bielski said. “They stepped up when they had to. … And they despised the Nazis.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08