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Posted on on January 30th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (


OP-ED in The Jewish Press.

Posted Jan 14 2009 on…

And yet the slurs continue.

On December 31, Paramount Vantage released “Defiance,” which tells the
story of Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski, three Jewish brothers from a
tiny village in Nazi-occupied Belarus. They formed a guerrilla unit in
the dense woods, created a makeshift village from ghetto escapees and,
in the end, saved some 1,200 Jews from Hitler. The Bielski brothers
have long deserved to be mentioned with Oskar Schindler and the
fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The film, which is based on a book of the same title by Nechama Tec,
has garnered a shower of positive attention. It stars Daniel Craig,
the current James Bond, as the visionary Tuvia, who ended his life as
a Brooklyn truck driver. Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell (of “Billy
Elliot” fame) play Zus and Asael respectively.

The project has also drawn a more negative response.

Although smears against the brothers have long enjoyed currency among Polish
anti-Semites – who can’t seem to decide whether the Bielskis were
simpering cowards or heartless savages – they had not reached the
respectable press until word of the film’s release began to spread.

In June, Gazeta Wyborcza, an important Polish daily edited by
Solidarity hero Adam Michnik, gave prominent airing to the charge that
“Bielski partisans were involved in the massacre of 128 [Polish]
civilians by a Soviet partisan unit in the village of Naliboki in May
1943,” according to an English language translation of the article on
its website.

As a source, the paper cited an investigation being conducted by the
Lodz branch of the Instytut Pami?ci Narodowej or Institute of National
Remembrance (IPN), a Polish government-affiliated body charged with
prosecuting crimes against the Polish nation.

Since the Gazeta Wyborcza article appeared, other periodicals have
followed suit. A Polish “historian” named Jerzy Robert Nowak told
Variety, the daily newspaper of the entertainment industry in
Hollywood, “We Poles are furious. It is a scandal that anyone could
think of making a film casting the murderers who massacred Polish
villagers as heroes.”

On December 31 The Times of London published a story, “Poland Split
Over Whether Daniel Craig is Film Hero or Villain,” which repeated the
IPN accusation and said that some “Poles fear that in telling
Bielski’s story Hollywood has airbrushed out some unpleasant
episodes.” (The piece concluded by pointing out that “several members
of the Bielski family served in the Israeli armed forces,” which the
writer seemed to regard as a damning fact.)

The Daily Mail (of London) followed up a few days later with a story
on Tuvia Bielski headlined, appallingly, “Jewish Savior or Butcher of
Innocents?” It said that “critics” accuse him of “terrorizing ethnic Poles.”

None of the articles noted that the IPN’s accusation is utterly
lacking in solid evidence. It is, in fact, little more than an
exercise in character assassination.

The IPN, which has been investigating the Naliboki incident since
2001, has said that Soviet partisan detachments – which began a covert
war against the Nazi occupiers soon after the invasion of the Soviet
Union on June 22, 1941 – murdered a group of 128 Polish individuals,
mostly men but also three women, an unspecified number of teenage boys
and a ten-year-old child, on May 8, 1943.

In the roughly 300-word description of the investigation e-mailed to
me in 2007, the word Bielski is only mentioned once, in the final
line: “Jewish partisans from Tweje Bielski’s detachment also
participated in the attack on Naliboki.”

Then in June 2008 the IPN issued another statement, one that
backtracked considerably from its previous statement. Noting that some
eyewitnesses claimed Bielski partisans were “among those who
attacked,” it added that the “eyewitnesses don’t say on what factual
basis this statement is based.”

Their statements were “not supported by any other proof, for instance
by archival documents.” (The Soviet documents on the Naliboki attack
do not mention the Bielskis.) The IPN also said that “some historians”
allege the Bielski detachment was involved “but the authors don’t give
sources of this information in their works.”

“So the fact of the participation of the partisans from the Bielski
detachment in the attack on Naliboki is only one of the versions
accepted in the course of the investigation,” the IPN said.

Yet even the Polish journalist who co-authored the original Gazeta
Wyborcza story, Piotr G?uchowski, has come to believe the charge is
shockingly flimsy. In a December 28, 2008 e-mail message to me, he
said he tracked down a Polish war survivor, Wac?aw Nowicki, who wrote
a memoir in 1993 suggesting the Bielski unit was involved in the

The book has been a primary source for Polish anti-Semites wishing to
denigrate the brothers’ achievements. “After a two-hour interrogation
he said to us that he is not sure that the Bielskis were in Naliboki
on May 8, 1943,” he wrote.

Nowicki claimed he was relying on testimony from “Lova from
Novogrudek,” whose words were confirmed for him by “Vanya from
Lubocz,” wrote G?uchowski in a subsequent article for Gazeta Wyborcza.

Here’s the simple truth: The Jewish unit was not “stationed in the
Naliboki dense forest” nor “active in the area” in May 1943 at the
time of the Naliboki attack, as the IPN has alleged.

The Bielski brothers, strapping sons of a miller, hailed from
Stankevich, a speck on the map in a borderland region that has been
part of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia at various points in its
history. After the Nazis and their collaborators began conducting mass
slaughters of the Jewish population, they slowly built a ragtag
community of desperate Jews in the woods where they had tromped as
boys. On the day in May 1943 when the Naliboki attack occurred, the
brothers’ group was located in a forest called Stara-Huta near
Stankevich. It is more than 50 kilometers to the west of Naliboki

It is true that since February 1943 the brothers’ unit (then a few
hundred strong) had been formally integrated into the Soviet partisan
structure, pledging allegiance to a cause that provided cover for its
rescue and resistance efforts. At the time of the Naliboki attack, it
was officially known as the second company of the October Detachment
of the Lenin Brigade in the Lida District. (The official name would
change a handful of times over the course of the war.) All of the
group’s movements were recorded in Soviet documents that now reside in
the archives of the Belarussian branch of the Soviet partisan movement
in Minsk and in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

According to the IPN, the attack on Naliboki village was not
perpetrated by detachments from the Lenin Brigade in the Lida
District. Instead, the IPN said it was carried out by three
detachments from the Stalin Brigade and “partisans from” the Chkalov
Brigade. Both brigades, based in the Naliboki forest, were members of
the Ivenets District.

The IPN didn’t respond when I asked if wandering members of the Jewish
unit participated in the attack, acting under the orders of someone
other than the Bielski brothers and operating outside of their
designated brigade structure. It probably doesn’t need to be stated
that the Soviets were very serious about adhering to lines of
authority. Soviet partisans were executed for violating even the most
minor of regulations.

The Bielski partisans eventually did reach the Naliboki forest, which
may explain why they have become mixed up in this allegation. They
first arrived in August 1943, after it became too dangerous to remain
in the area near Stankevich, only to be driven out by German attack.
Then in September and October 1943 they returned with nearly a
thousand men, women, and children and created a legendary shtetl, an
extraordinary place with tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and

It had a large kitchen, a central square for gatherings, a mill
powered by a horse, a main street, a theater troupe, and a tannery
that doubled as a synagogue. It was well known to the gentile peasants
in surrounding communities like Naliboki village on the forest’s
eastern edge. They called it Jerusalem.

It is an outrage that wartime achievements of this magnitude can be so
casually denigrated. The Bielski brothers were far from perfect. But
what they accomplished in the woods of Belarus deserves the highest of

Peter Duffy is the author of “The Bielski Brothers”
(HarperCollins, 2003).  He writes for The New York Times, the Wall
Street Journal, and other publications.

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