Robert Bielsky has seen the new war drama “Defiance” 30 times and counting, but it’s a story he could tell equally well sight unseen.
“I was born into the story. I knew everything from the day I was born,” he said.
Bielsky is the Brooklyn-born son of Tuvia Bielski, who, along with his brothers Zus, Asael and Aron, is credited with saving over 1,200 Jews from a sure death at the hands of the Nazis.
After their parents and other family members were killed by the Nazis, the brothers fled Poland in 1941, forming what would be the nucleus of the largest group of Jewish partisans during World War II. In the thick forests of present-day Belarus, the brothers fought Nazi collaborators, saving lives as their numbers swelled.
“They were lucky, they were trying to save their own lives and afterwards, it evolved into saving other people’s lives, because people were accumulating in the woods,” said Bielsky (who changed the spelling of his last name.) “They had to organize in a way that they created a community.”
The film, directed and co-written by Edward Zwick, opened in limited release on Dec. 31. Its wide release is Jan. 16. Tuvia Bielski is played by Daniel Craig, the actor who plays super spy James Bond. Craig, Bielsky said, “is just a regular guy once you get beyond the celebrity. He respected the power of the story.”
(Ironically, Zwick chose Bielsky’s 20-year old son Jordan for a role in the film – as a Nazi collaborator.)
Bielsky, who grew up in Bensonhurst and now lives on Long Island, said his father, a Polish corporal before the war and commander of the partisans during it, was humble. “He never looked at himself as a hero.”
Still, his father was far from ordinary, his son said. “You have to have the survivor gene. My entire family has that.”
When the war was over, a Russian army general is said to have recounted to Tuvia that when he travelled from Moscow to Belarus, “He didn’t see one Jew – meaning they were dead,” Bielsky said. “My father told him, ‘Come with me to woods and I’ll show you 1,250 of them.’”
The partisan fighters have recently been implicated in possible war crimes, and the case is presently being investigated by Polish authorities. Bielski’s family has reportedly denied any wrongdoing.
After the war, Tuvia moved to Israel for 10 years. “He went there for peace and tranquility.”
But what he found was anything but peaceful.
“Once he got there, they were fighting the War for Independence,” his son said. Of course, his father joined the fight, Bielsky said.
From there, his father settled in Brooklyn. He died in 1987 at the age of 81. “He was satisfied that he was able to live his life peacefully. That he was able to grow a family,” Bielsky said.
Inside Holocaust Memorial Park in Manhattan Beach, a stone marker has memorialized Tuvia since 1996. Pauline Bilus, the director of the park’s Holocaust Memorial Committee, welcomed the publicity the film has generated for Bielski’s story. “There will be many more stories that will be told,” she said.
“There is a feeling that Jews did not fight back against the Nazi regime. To a large degree, that’s not true,” Bilus said. “To the best of their ability, some who had the ability and the resources did fight back.”
“His greatest contribution was that he said, ‘I am here to save Jewish lives,’” she continued.