“There is dark and there is light. I chose the light,” said Aron Bell, the last surviving of the Bielski brothers who formed the Bielski Brigade in 1941. In a time when hope was hard to find, the Bielski brothers provided a glimmer of light to more than 1,200 Jews in Belorussia. Following the deaths of their parents, the brothers Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron fled the Belorussian village they called home and entered the surrounding Naliboki Forest. While in the forest, the brothers decided that, rather than just save themselves, they would strive to save as many Jews as they could. Rescuing refugees from nearby towns and ghettos, the Bielskis did not turn anyone away, regardless of age or gender. They formed a forest community, often times referred to as a “Jerusalem in the Woods.” While enduring Nazi attacks, harsh Russian winters and unending persecution, the Bielski Brigade managed to form a partisan fighting force, coordinating raids on Nazi headquarters and collaborating with Soviet partisans. By war’s end in 1945, the Bielski Brigade came out of the woods as the largest group of Jews saved by Jews during the Holocaust.
Today, I am honored to say that I am here because of the actions of the Bielskis. My grandfather, Aron Bell (formerly Bielski), played an instrumental role in the formation and success of the brigade at just 12 years old. I’ve always known that my family has an extraordinary history. There was never a family event that took place without a respectful proclamation of gratitude to my grandfather and his brothers. These acknowledgements came with the understanding that, two generations later, we were all there because of the strength and bravery of the brothers. On October 28, 2013, however, as I sat at one of these events, I felt a much more profound awareness of the fact that the legacy of the Bielski Brothers went far beyond my family. This event honored my grandfather and 15 other Bielski partisans whom one by one were presented with medallions. As the survivors displayed their medallions bearing the words “We Are Here,” I realized that each of these partisans also had their own legacies. The 1,200 people saved by the Bielski partisans almost 70 years ago, number an estimated 20,000 today. The accolades of the brothers can most aptly be celebrated in the thriving and increasingly multiplying descendants of those they saved.
This evening, with three generations of Bielskis present, we will share the story of the Bielski Brothers at Duke. The Coalition for Preserving Memory, a Duke organization dedicated to the memorialization of genocides in the 20th and 21st centuries, will host a screening of the 2008 film Defiance that inspired by the actions of the Bielskis. A discussion and Q&A with my grandfather, Aron, will follow the screening. We invite you to join us for the event in the Sanford School of Public Policy Room 04 at 6 p.m. Dinner will be served.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.