Decades before the movie Defiance gripped audiences with its striking account of Jewish resistance in the forests of Belorussia, Tuvia Bielski, the story’s real-life protagonist, wrote a 394-page eyewitness account of his brigade’s activities in Yiddish.
Yet Polish-born sociologist Nechama Tec knew nothing of the handwritten tome when she wrote the 1993 book that inspired the 2008 film. Neither did journalist Peter Duffy when he published The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest and Saved 1,200 Jews in 2003. That’s because New York City’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where the unbound manuscript is housed, did not learn until recently that Tuvia Bielski was its author. The Yiddish script, composed probably at least 50 years ago, was written on three sets of loose paper: two types of now browning oversize paper and European-style graph paper.
At a reporter’s invitation, Tuvia’s youngest son, Robert Bielsky, 52, of New York, recently visited YIVO’s offices and verified that the Yiddish handwriting is his father’s. Earlier that day, two archivists had noticed a similarity between the handwriting of the orphaned manuscript and that of a note signed by Tuvia Bielski kept at the institute, especially when it came to the letter kof. “This is my father’s handwriting,” Bielsky said. “This needs to be on display.”
Now Bielsky and YIVO are discussing plans to have the unbound manuscript translated into English and published. The Bielski family holds the manuscript’s intellectual property rights.
Shortly after new executive director Jonathan Brent arrived last summer, YIVO started seeking a publisher for a different Yiddish memoir, also handwritten by Tuvia Bielski and barely known. After commissioning a private, never published English translation, Duffy had consulted this account but did not rely on it heavily for his own book, since his goal was to create a chronological narrative. (YIVO staffers first saw that translation in April.) The 333-page memoir, neatly handwritten in two bound notebooks, is hand titled Yerusholayim in vald (Jerusalem in the Forest) and hand lettered TUVIA BIELSKI. Kept with the two notebooks is a note signed by Tuvia on May 16, 1955, requesting the confidentiality of two names in the memoir.
YIVO staffers speculate that the longer 394-page version was written by Tuvia first and then edited to 333 pages. Brent says that the unbound text needs a complete assessment; family members and YIVO staff are unaware of a full English translation. Tuvia often wrote letters, said Robert, noting the family has “a collection of stuff,” including letters to his parents from partisans. These could contain clues.
After comparing both manuscripts, YIVO archivist Marek Web described the unbound version as having “a real mamaloshen,” a “Yiddish, rich in expression, vocabulary and not so polished” as the other memoir.
Following Robert Bielsky’s assessment of the unbound manuscript’s handwriting, Brent said he wants to publish this longer version because of its historical significance, calling it “the Ur text” and citing its importance from a historical standpoint. “The voice is a great voice, a powerful voice,” he said. “It deserves to be heard apart from everything else.” Tuvia Bielski “represents something really precious in Jewish history, something that can be built on, to be aggressive and not be afraid of it.”
Only a handful of researchers have examined either the unbound manuscript or the bound one: Neither YIVO’s main library catalog nor the guide to its archives carries a specific entry for either manuscript. Both documents are considered part of a special collection of Holocaust eyewitness accounts, which until last year lacked electronic lists of offerings. So to locate a mention of either Bielski account, one had to sift through card catalogs with 1,921 handwritten cards referring to more than 3,000 testimonies. After microfilming and digitization of the eyewitness accounts began in 2008, an archivist saw a connection between the two documents, which led to a cross-reference and some discussion.
THE BOUND version has a preface by a person named Mittelpunkt and the flyleaf of the second notebook is inscribed T. Bielsky, c/o Miller, 90 Hobson St., Newark 8, N.J., Tel: Wa3 -1041. This address could be a temporary one. Tuvia visited the United States in 1955 and moved his family to Brooklyn from Ramat Gan in late 1956. Tuvia’s youngest brother, Aron Bell, now in his 80s and living in Palm Beach, recalls Tuvia living for a spell in Newark. Their oldest brother Walter had a plastics company near Newark in Linden, New Jersey, and Tuvia’s small trucking firm delivered materials for him, said Tuvia’s son Mickey.
The 1940s and ’50s were transition years for YIVO, too, after its relocation from wartime Vilna to New York City in 1940. Chief archivist Fruma Mohrer said, “People used to walk in [during] those days and just brought things,” sometimes “they dumped them.” YIVO didn’t start a formal accession process till 1964. Without an author, donor or year, the unbound manuscript had been listed in a card catalog as an account of the Bielski otriad or brigade.
While the Bielski brothers are more well known for their toughness as resistance leaders in the forest, Brent said Tuvia Bielski’s account is remarkable for its “definite literary quality” in “pacing, sense of drama, dialogue.”
“He talked to me about memoirs he was writing. I witnessed him writing as a child,” said Tuvia’s daughter Ruth Bielski Ehrreich, 64, by phone from Fort Myers, Florida. “At a certain time at night in Israel he would retire to our dining room and there he would write, after the kids were supposed to be in bed.”
“There’s no question in my mind that my father was planning to write his own book,” said Mickey Bielski, 58, from Fort Myers, “because he told me that he was writing his life story.” Mickey remembers Tuvia writing after they moved to Brooklyn: “I always saw him writing in the kitchen at night, as late as 2:30 in the morning. He had trouble sleeping.”
“He did what he had to do,” said YIVO’s Brent. “He recorded. He knew this was history. His Jewish identity was of great importance to him.” He wrote about a desire to “defend Jewish honor.”
“He had inside of him a historical understanding,” Brent added. “This was not Primo Levi. He didn’t come from a sophisticated literary family. This is the guy who liked working with his hands... nonetheless grappling with these extraordinary events rolling out in front of him.
“In a way it proves Simon Dubnow’s thesis... that the Jewish nation is composed of two things, the Yiddish language and historical consciousness,” said Brent, referring to YIVO’s founder.
“No, I do not recall,” said Nechama Tec, when asked about memoirs written by Tuvia Bielski in Yiddish. She interviewed Tuvia two weeks before his death in 1987. While working on In the Lion’s Den about Holocaust rescuer Oswald Rufeisen, Tec tapped partisans to aid in her research; they urged her to write about them. One book “leads to another,” she said. For Defiance, Tec relied on her own interviews and also a small Hebrew volume published in Palestine in 1946, Yehudei Ya’ar (Forest Jews), a compilation of interviews with Tuvia, his brother Zus and others, written down by Y. Ben-Dor.
“The unbound manuscript in the hands of YIVO is more my father’s words, from his hands, as opposed to Yehudei Ya’ar that was a collaboration,” said Robert Bielsky. He’s read the English translation of the bound memoir: “It talked about where he was, where he came from and where he was going. This is all about him.”
“I was born into this story,” Robert added. “I spoke with my father countless nights about things that occurred. Some of the things he told me I’ve seen in the memoir.”
The 333-page memoir consists of heroic vignettes describing Tuvia’s
narrow escapes; dramatic rescues of Jews from various ghettos;
skirmishes with German forces, rogue partisans and Polish ruffians;
underdog strategies (sticks can resemble rifles at night); and creative
methods to replenish the food supply. Many episodes end with Tuvia
thinking on his feet or sagely arbitrating a dispute within the Bielski
brigade or among allies. Recurring themes are bringing enemies to
judgment and the justness of revenge; yet Tuvia often grants his allies
a second chance. He reflects on his thought process and imagines that
of others; he also incorporates biblical allusions. Not all episodes
conclude triumphantly: Men are lost, poor partisan decisions lead to
some fateful outcomes. But the final scene is 1,200 Bielski partisans
stepping into freedom.
To those who might question how guerrilla warrior Tuvia Bielski could
show such literary style, Robert said, “My father was quite educated,”
a master of seven languages, and his early heder schooling could
account for the biblical references. “When we went to shul together, I
was amazed at the fact that my father never needed a prayer book. He
knew it all by heart.”
Tuvia avidly consumed news, Robert says. “He read Yiddish papers like
crazy,” along with ones in Russian and Polish – “as many newspapers as
he could get.” Plus “he would listen to radio.”
YIVO’S YIDDISH specialist Paul Glasser, who recently translated small
sections of both narratives, has suspected that the bound version was
an edit of the unbound one. He has found at least three passages in
both manuscripts with similar wording, including Tuvia’s description of
the Germans’ June 22, 1941, bombing of Lida, 45 kilometers from his
hometown of Stankiewicze.
Here’s Glasser’s translation from the unbound version: “4 a.m., while I
was still asleep in bed, I heard a loud noise of motors that rousted me
from bed. I went to the window to take a look. Two or three minutes
later, I saw terrible bolts of fire and at the same time heard the
exploding of bombs. I immediately went outside and saw airplanes that
were bombing the train station of the town Lida.
“I happen to meet friends of mine. I ask them why all the running. The
answer is brief: The war has begun! What war? No one answers. Everyone
is confused, and yet everyone thinks that he is the smart one, that
what he knows is a big secret. People are afraid to speak with people
they don’t know and people they do know keep the secret from them. So
what’s the point of asking?
“I have a good bicycle and I ride over to the train station. When I get
there, I see a gruesome, indescribable scene: Hundreds of people are
lying there, beaten, wounded, screaming and moaning, wishing to die...
My heart grows heavy and I turn around and ride back to town. I realize
that the whole town of Lida, which in 1941 had 20,000 residents, is
standing in line to buy things for the next day!”
The family has copies of the manuscripts “mixed in with a lot of other
things,” Robert said. “It’s not a surprise to us. We had it and we had
plans for it. We were planning to publish one of them.”
But after visiting YIVO for the first time (reuniting his family with
his father’s original document) and talking with archivists about the
significance, Robert said the unbound version is the one to publish.
Why? “It’s in my father’s handwriting. It’s longer.”
Duffy has not kept the bound memoir a secret and mentions it in talks
at synagogues, Jewish community centers and book festivals “as an
extraordinary and as yet unrecognized artifact of the Holocaust,” he
said via e-mail. “This guy is an extraordinarily complex individual
that no one has entirely captured.”
Tuvia’s wife, Lilka, who died a couple of years ago, had told Duffy the
bound memoir was in Tuvia’s handwriting. Glasser said he sees
differences between the handwriting of the two manuscripts, adding that
the unbound version relies on “old” Yiddish spellings while the
notebooks incorporate more “modern” ones. Yet Robert and Ruth (who saw
Robert’s photos) said the bound version, though in a neater script, is
in their father’s hand too.
“He had a specific style of writing,” Ruth explained, “the way he did
certain letters. I am looking more at the shapes of the letters... and
there’s a consistency between [both versions].”
A published English translation should be annotated so that “problems
of chronology, place and personal names, etc. could be sorted out,”
Brent said. An introduction “could do justice to Tuvia Bielski’s
personality, ambition and voice, place him in a cultural-historical
context and put him in some kind of continuum with other great Jewish
leaders – because that’s what he was.”