Tuvia Bielski And His Partisans. Heroes Or Common Bandits?

Posted on Czerwiec 18, 2008


In July, 2003, HarperCollins published a book by Peter Duffy „The Bielski Brothers. The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest”. Contrary to Mr. Duffy’s beliefs, expressed in the interview with Paula Zahn on CNN July 8, 2003, the story of Bielski brothers wasn’t forgotten. And, they weren’t too busy to promote their story. His is not the first reference that appeared on the subject. In 1993, Oxford University Press published „Defiance: the Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec. The account based on interviews of former partisans including Tuvia Bielski before his passing away in 1987. It includes photographs, an organizational directory of the Bielski partisan group, a biographical appendix, and a glossary of foreign terms. Ruth Yaffe Radin wrote „Escape to the forest: Based on a true story of the Holocaust”, where Tuvia Bielski and his partisans are mentioned. There was also a documentary film written and produced by David Herman, Soma Productions in1993. And most of all, in 1947, Bielski himself wrote „Brigade in action” published in Israel.
Tuvia Bielski and his partisans
In Poland the story of Bielski detachment „Jerusalem” and Zorin’s „Pobieda” also hasn’t been forgotten, but for the quite different reasons. Peter Duffy has never mentioned the massacre in the village of Naliboki, has he? Including it in his narrative would have made his account a completely different story. But let’s start from the beginning.

The relations between the Polish underground, Polish population, and Soviet and Jewish partisans were complex to say the least. Understanding them is the key to the Bielski brothers’ story.

History of Poland of the last 300 years proves that in times of national crisis, Jews always sided with the stronger even if it meant a betrayal of their neighbours and hosts. There has never been a case of a mistaken identity. Jews stuck out living their lives unbothered independently and separately in their communities in Poland for centuries. When their significant numbers championed Poland oppressors’ case turning against their co-citizens and hosts it always left a feeling of bitter resentment in the common folk memory.

The most recent history is of no exception.

Conditions throughout occupied Poland varied greatly. In some areas, especially in Eastern Poland, which the Soviet Union invaded in 1939, and subsequently formally annexed, the situation was particularly volatile. During the two year’ occupation till the Soviet-German war outbreak in 1941, the Soviets carried out the ethnic cleansing of Poles considered as a potential threat to full annexation of these territories into Soviet Union. Hundred of thousands of Polish officials, officers, soldiers, policemen, teachers, churchmen, landowners, and civilians with their families were sent to Siberian concentration camps. Local Jews were those who actively helped Soviets to round them up. Many thousands of other Poles were murdered. And, local Jews who joined and led NKVD units affected these murders.

Under succeeding occupation, this time by Germans, Poles, had every right to be suspicious of Soviet motives and to expect the Soviets, at any time, to turn against them. In 1944-1950, large parts of Poland were the scenes of a massive and bloody guerrilla war of Russian and Communist against anti-Communist forces. For Poles, the WWII didn’t finish in 1945.

The undivided loyalty of the Soviet partisans was to the Soviet Union, which had sized and annexed these territories from Poland in 1939 and intended to hold on to them. The Soviet partisans consisted mostly of former Soviet soldiers caught behind the lines of the German offensive in June 1941, soldiers that escaped from German POW camps and number of men who were parachuted in during the German occupation to lead, organize and reinforce the Soviet partisan units in the area. The field leadership was made up of NKVD officers and was subordinated to Stalin.

They treated the local population as pawns in the war against Germany and used brutal tactics, which aroused resentment and resulted in German reprisals against this population. Witness testimonies and German field reports from this period, attest to the widespread plundering and terrorisation of the population by Soviet partisans (Ereignismeldungen UdSSR and Meldungen aus den Besetzten Ostgebeiten, Institut of the National Memory [IPN] 1992).

Right from the beginning there was a political, ideological and territorial conflict between the two partisan forces – Polish and Soviet. From the outset, the Soviet partisans operating in North-Eastern Poland had as their task the undermining and destruction of the non-Communist Resistance. To accomplish this they resorted to passing onto the Germans lists of members of the Home Army and other forms of collaboration with the Gestapo, German gendarmerie and the local police.

There was also forced recruitment of the local population, mostly Byelorussians. Soviet partisans were joined by the Jews who escaped from various ghettos. According to David Melster:

The core of the first partisan detachment in the Belorussian forests consisted of escaped ghetto inmates and Red Army soldiers. Jews from the Minsk ghetto made up a significant portion of nine partisan detachments (the Kutuzov, Budenny, Frunze, Parkhomenko, Shchors, 25th Anniversary of the Belorussian Republic, No. 106 and No. 406) and the first battalion of the
208th independent partisan regiment. In the Lenin brigade (Baranovichi [Baranowicze] district) 202 of the 695 fighters and commanders were Jews, in Vpered 106 of 579, in Chkalow 239 of 1140 and in Novatory 48 of 126. Jews composed more than one-third of the partisans in the detachments that fought in the Lida partisan zone. In the Naliboki wood [sic] 3000 of the 20 000 partisans were Jews, many of them in position of command. Incomplete data record that some 150 Jews were commanders, chiefs of staff and commissars of partisan brigades and detachments. („Byelorussia” in Walter Laqueur, ed. „The Holocaust Encyclopaedia”, Yale University Press, 2001).

The fact that the Jews, with very few exceptions, ended up joining the Soviet partisans, who generally had the upper hand, and were treated as the enemy by most of the local Polish population, didn’t make them too many friends. Once again Jews sided with Poland’s enemies.

The only non-Soviet underground military organisation operating in this region was the Home Army (AK), which had to be ready for a fight with both, Germans and Soviets.

That there were Polish retaliations and Soviet counter retaliations was not surprising. Few of the Polish actions, however, were directed at Jews. For the most part, Jews died as members of the Soviet partisan forces. Yisrael Gutman, the director of the Centre of Holocaust Research at the Yad Vashen Institute, conceded:

One should not close one’s eyes to the fact that Home Army units in the Wilno area were fighting against the Soviet partisans for the liberation of Poland. And that is why the Jews who found themselves on the opposing side perished at the hands of Home Army soldiers – as enemies of Poland, and not as Jews. (Israel Gutman, „Uczmy się żyć razem” [tr. Let’s learn to live together], Znak, Kraków, June 2000)

Although no one can deny that Jews in hiding were in a difficult and indeed desperate situation, yet the simplistic and much distorted picture promoted by the Holocaust literature is far from the truth. This picture – of bloodthirsty Polish partisans and farmers, who were eager to collaborate with Germans against the heroic Soviet and Jewish partisans and whose only purpose for existence was to hunt the hiding Jews down is simply a blatant lie.

Historian, Teresa Prekerowa, who was awarded by Yad Vashem for her rescue activities within the framework of the organization called Zegota (The Polish Council for Aid to Jews, run by the Home Army) notes in her essay „Wojna i okupacja” [tr. War and occupation] that when the Jews first started to escape from the ghettos in north-eastern Poland at the end of 1941, they encountered only small groups of Soviet partisans. The Polish partisans formed later. Escapees, as more Jews, especially women joined them, established camps.
Initially, the local peasants, who were not overly rich themselves, were fairly generous in providing food, even though they didn’t have much left after they met the burdensome quotas imposed by the Germans. However, as the numbers of Jews in the forest grew, and demands for contingents (forced contributions) by the Germans and the Soviet partisans were ever escalating, the attitude of the impoverished villagers, who were subjected to these onerous burdens, started to change.

Their first concern was to feed their own families. This had to take precedence before looking after the bands of Jewish escapees. It was also more important for them to meet quotas levied by the Germans on each Polish village. This was literally a matter of life and death for them and their families. Germans proved to treat such contingents most seriously, as they were quite capable of annihilating whole villages as a punishment for not fulfilling them. Little known in the western literature is the fact that the Germans erased from the face of Earth more than 400 Polish villages and towns.

What the villagers didn’t know was that hiding in Naliboki Forest the „heroes” of Tuvia Bielski supported by other Soviet partisans were also capable of such acts.

The virtually exclusive preoccupation of the Jews hiding in forests was not partisan warfare, but scavenging for provisions. They dispatched an endless flow of armed groups into villages to rob the peasants of their food and meagre belongings. The nature and range of the so called „economic” operations, for which Jewish partisans were notorious and which became their principal activities have been described in many memoirs, and even by the Jews themselves. According to the widespread impression of the local population, Jews were indeed the most violent and rapacious of all the forest pillagers. They had the protection of Jews who had been accepted into the Soviet partisans and were engaged in similar raids, of „economic” operations or actions of massive proportions. Even their Soviet allies very often doubted their fighting abilities and regarded them as not much more than plunderers.

Many skirmishes took place, as the impoverished villagers increasingly opposed being systematically robbed of most of their possessions by partisans and forest dwellers. (Yitzhak Arad, „Ghetto in flames”, p. 457). The close association of the Jewish groups with the Soviet partisans also marked them as pro Communist and anti-Polish in the eyes of the local population.

Yet, another reason the peasants hesitated any contacts with people from the forest was because of punitive measures taken by the Germans. Many villages were burned to the ground for their perceived support of the partisans. Their inhabitants were shot or rounded up for slave labour. An assassination or insignificant sabotage operations, like tearing up a railroad track that was promptly rebuilt, caused Germans to extract punishment on the local population. Such was the case near the town of Nowe Œwięciany, where some 1500 Poles were executed by the Germans and Lithuanian police in May 1942. Simply the price of 1500 Polish lives for three German lives-two soldiers and one officer, was far too high to pay. But, the Soviet and Jewish partisans could not care less. They risked nothing. It was not their or their co-patriots’ lives, it was just local Poles.

This brings us back to the subject of Tuvia Bielski and his „heroes”.

One of the earliest and most heinous episodes was the „pacification” of Naliboki, county of Stołpce, Nowogródek province, a village located in the middle of Naliboki Forest (Puszcza Nalibocka), currently part of Belorussia.

The Polish and Belorussian villagers had formed a self-defence group to fend off Soviet and Jewish marauders that robbed them of the food and other possessions. The Holocaust memoirs branded those who attempted to protect their property as anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators.

Yet, they simply couldn’t see any reason for supporting the Jewish bathhouses, lavish lifestyle and synagogues in the forest with the fruits of their labour. Certainly not at the price of starving themselves and their families. Józef Marchwiński, a Polish communist, married to a Jewish woman, for a while acted as Bielski’s deputy, described the life of plenty and leisure led by Bielski’s entourage and his „harem” of well dressed women, all whom the poor Jews branded as the „tsar’s palace”. Another communist wrote that Bielski had been eager to accept into the camp people who had had gold and other valuables, but less likely to take in the poor.

The dire condition of the people in the camps of Bielski and Zorin painted by some Jews are not quite true. In one of his reports, Bielski boasted that his unit had accumulated large quantities of provisions: 200 tonnes of potatoes, three tonnes of cabbage, five tonnes of beets, five tonnes of grain, three tonnes of meat and a tonne of sausages. (Boradyn, „Armia Krajowa na NowogródczyŸnie i WileńszczyŸnie [tr. Home Army in Nowogrodek and Vilnius regions] (1941-1945) p. 80)

In his memoir, a leading member of the Zorin’s group presented a similar picture. Once a week, they even sent food surplus to Moscow by a plane, which landed in a field inside the forest. (Wertheim, „Żydowska partyzantka na Białorusi” [tr. Jewish partisans in Belorussia], Zeszyty Historyczne no. 86, 1988).

The food surplus sent to Moscow must have been taken from the impoverished Polish and Belorussian peasants, as Jews had no fields of their own to tend in the forest.

In Soviet eyes, the main „crime” of the Naliboki villagers was that when in the spring of 1943 the commanders of the Soviet partisans stationed in Naliboki Forest tried to subordinate the village self-defence unit, the Poles refused.

This group of partisans operated in the Naliboki forest

The joint Soviet-Jewish assault on Naliboki occurred in small hours of May 8, 1943. One hundred and twenty eight (128) innocent civilians, including women and children, were butchered in a heinous pogrom that lasted almost three hours. This surprise attack on Naliboki was carried out by the Stalin Brigade, under the command of Major Rafail Vasilevich, with the participation of the Bielski’s and Zorin’s detachments, who reported to him at that time.

The Jewish factions who did most of the pillaging and murdering of entire families were the Bielski’s „Jeruzalem” and Zorin’s „Pobeda” units. Eyewitnesses confirmed later that the majority of the 128 people killed died at their hands. Nearly all of them were killed not in the skirmish, but in cold blood executions. Some members of the self defence group, surprised by the attack, fought back and killed a few of the attackers, but seeing their overwhelming numbers and better armaments they withdrew to the forest.

This was not the end of the Naliboki village misery. Four months later, in August 1943, as part of a massive anti-partisan operation known as „Operation Herman”, some 60 000 German troops arrived and with the assistance of Lithuanian auxiliary forces, attached to the SS and Byelorussian police, rounded up the civilian population of dozens of villages in the area of the Naliboki Forest suspected of supporting the partisans. Some 20 000 villagers were deported to the Reich as the slave labour, many were killed, while their houses were burned. The village of Naliboki was consumed by fire.

In ‚From Victims to Victors’ (p. 125), Silverman writes:

After a few weeks of fighting, the blockade suddenly ended. The German army units had been transferred to Stalingrad. Before they left, they burned all the villages in and close to the forest. The farmers in each place were told to assemble for a meeting and while they were concentrated in one building the Germans set it on fire. Men, women and children in village after village, were burned alive. The Germans wanted to make sure that no one could, or would help the partisans and the Jews again. They tried to make sure that we were deprived of food and supplies.

It would appear that the poor peasants of Naliboki couldn’t win. First, the Soviet-Jewish partisans murdered and robbed them, then the Germans burned their village for supporting the same partisans. They were between a rock and hard place indeed.

The Polish Institute of National Memory (The Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation in ŁódŸ) is currently conducting an investigation into „heroic” deeds of Tuvia Bielski, Sholem Zorin and their partisans in Naliboki. This investigation was opened on March 20, 2001.

According to their report, issued on March 1, 2002, 24 witnesses have been questioned so far, most of them former inhabitants of Naliboki or nearby settlements who had been present there during the attack.

Their detailed testimonies about the course of events under investigation mention the names of some of the perpetrators, several of whom have been identified as former Jewish residents of Naliboki. The witnesses also mentioned the names of Soviet partisans.

The Naliboki atrocity was not an out of character event marking the Soviet-Jewish units.

Similar atrocity, being also investigated by Institute of National Memory, was committed in the village of Koniuchy, township of Bienakonie, county of Lida, Nowogrodek province, at the edge of the Rudniki Forest, where numerous Soviet partisan groups had their bases. Members of these groups frequently carried out raids against the nearby villages and settlements including Koniuchy.

The Rudniki Forest partisans were under the command of the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement in Moscow. The massacre at Koniuchy was committed by a group of around 100-120 partisans from various units, including a Jewish partisan unit of about 50 people strong.

The Jewish partisans in the Rudniki Forest, who had subordinated themselves to the Soviet partisan command, consisted of four divisions: „Death to Fascism” led by Jacob (Yaakov) Prenner; „Struggle” led by Avrasha Rasel; „To Victory” led by Shmuel Kaplinsky; and „Avenger” led by Abba Kovner.

There were fifty partisans in each division, and the four divisions together formed the so-called Jewish Brigade, of which Abba Kovner was the commander. (Rich Cohen, „The Avengers” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

Like in Naliboki and many other places in Poland, the purpose of those raids was to rob the local population of their property, mostly clothing, footwear, cattle and stores of flour. In the course of raids, violence was commonly used against the rightful owners. Again like in Naliboki, villagers driven to desperation formed a self-defence group to guard the village in order to prevent further robberies. The only „crime” committed by the inhabitants of Koniuchy was the fact that they had had enough of the daily, nightly robberies and assaults, and they wanted to organize a self-defence. The Bolsheviks from Rudniki Forest decided to annihilate the village in order to terrorize into submission the inhabitants of other settlements.

For this reason, on the night of 28/29 January 1944, a group of Soviet partisans from the Rudniki Forest surrounded the village. In the early morning, they used incendiary bullets to set the buildings on fire. The escaping inhabitants – men, women and children, were shot down. Most of the village was destroyed.

In this case 17 witnesses were questioned. This group included former members of the Home Army units stationed in the Rudniki Forest and the relatives of the victims.

Some witnesses supplied the names or pseudonyms of Soviet partisans, locations of their units and their numerical strengths. They also confirmed that the largest group consisted of Jewish partisans. These partisan units were commonly called „Wisincza”, from their base location between this village and the Kiernowo lake.
It appears from the depositions that some of the victims, especially the old and infirm, were burned to death in their homes. Those who tried to escape were fired at.

According to the Investigation Reports on Koniuchy and Naliboki, issued by the Institute of National Memory on March 1, 2002, in Koniuchy between 36 and 50 inhabitants, men, women, and children, were killed on the spot, many others were wounded. The survivors escaped to nearby villages.

But according to the perpetrators themselves, approximately 300 of Koniuchy’s inhabitants were killed in this action. It would appear that this massacre of the defenceless people is quite often mentioned in various Jewish publications and presented as a glorious battle of the heroic Jewish and Soviet partisans against Nazis and so called Nazi collaborators, that is, unarmed farmers trying to defend their property. A very curious case of murderers who take pride in their crime. Let’s look at few such testimonies:

The peasants ducked into houses. Partisans threw grenades onto roofs and the houses exploded into flame. Other houses were torched. Peasants ran from their front doors and raced down the streets. The partisans chased them, shooting men, women and children. Many peasants ran in the direction of the German garrison, which took them through a cemetery on the edge of town.
The partisan commander, anticipating this move, had stationed several men behind the gravestones. When these partisans opened fire, the peasants turned back, only to be met by the soldiers coming up from behind. Caught in a cross fire, hundreds of peasants were killed. (See Rich Cohen, "The Avengers", New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, 145)

Of course there was no German garrison in Koniuchy, only peasants from a self-defence group armed with a few rusty rifles. But this „German garrison” sounds good in the memoirs of Rich Cohen. At least it looks like there was a real battle, not just a massacre of unarmed civilians, women and children. The nearest German garrisons or police post was six kilometres away in Rakliszki.

The entire village [of Koniuchy] was laid in ashes and its inhabitants were killed – according to Zalman Wylozny who served in the „Death to Fascists” detachment.
(See Golota, "Losy Żydów ostrołęckich w czasie II wojny œwiatowej" [tr. Fate of Jews of Ostroleka during the II World War], Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, no. 187, 1998, 32. Also Kowalski, "A Secret Press in Nazi Europe", 333-34; also reproduced in Isaac Kowalski, "Anthology on Armed Jewish Resistance 1939-1945", volume 4, Brooklyn, New York: Jewish Combatants Publishers House, 1991, 390-91.)

In „Destruction and Resistance”, Chaim Lazar wrote:

The Brigade Headquarters decided to raze Koniuchy to the ground to set an example to others. One evening a hundred and twenty of the best partisans from all the camps, armed with the best weapons they had, set out in the direction of the village. There were about 50 Jews among them, headed by Yaakov Prenner. At midnight they came to the vicinity of the village and assumed their proper positions. The order was not to leave anyone alive. Even livestock was to be killed and all property was to be destroyed.

The signal was given just before dawn. Within minutes, the village was surrounded on three sides. On the fourth side was the river and the only bridge over it was in the hands of the partisans. With torches prepared in advance, the partisans burned down the houses, stables, and granaries, while opening heavy fire on the houses. Half-naked peasants jumped out of windows and sought escape. But everywhere fatal bullets awaited them. Many jumped into the river and swam towards the other side, but they too, met the same end. The mission was completed within a short while. Sixty households, numbering about 300 people, were destroyed, with no survivors. (See Chaim Lazar, Destruction and Resistance, New York: Shengold Publishers, 1985, 174-75)

The massacre of the population of Koniuchy, including women and children, has been described by Chaim Lazar as an outstanding „combat operation”, of which he was genuinely proud.

So, how many villagers of Koniuchy did the partisans truly murder? Fifty, as stated in the Investigation Report of the Institute of National Memory, or a few hundred, as quoted in the memoirs of the perpetrators? Perhaps, it is a case of boasting „heroes”, self-censure of IPN, or a mixture of both? I challenge any one to name all few hundred inhabitants of one’s native village after 60 years.

In his CNN interview Mr. Duffy describes Bielski’s partisans as aggressive fighters that at the end of the war, reported to the Soviets the 381 Nazi and Nazi allied fighters killed. Out of these 381 „Nazi and Nazi allied fighters” 128 were defenceless inhabitants of Naliboki. At least they were so-called confirmed kill. How many more innocent people did Bielski’s partisans kill nobody really knows. It is not that hard to become „aggressive fighters” against unarmed men, women and children. Most likely Bielski’s partisans were aggressive plunderers, not aggressive fighters. Probably many more peasants lost their lives trying to defend their property. Of course in Jewish testimonies, they all became „Nazi allied fighters” and anti-Semites. This sounded better. There was no glory in murdering defenceless civilians.

Christopher Janiewicz and K.M., Nasza Witryna, 2003-09-02

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