Tuvia Bielski

Tuvia Bielski

Death 12 Jun 1987 (aged 81)
New York, New York County (Manhattan), New York, USA
Burial Jerusalem, Jerusalem District, Israel
Plot block 402, section 4, row 19, grave 11
Memorial ID 18496589 View Source
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Tuvia was born in Stankevich, Belarus, in an area that had alternately been a part of Poland, Russia, and Lithuania. He was one of a dozen children born to David Bielski and Beyle Mendelavich, eleven of whom survived childhood. His family owned the local mill. In 1927, he was drafted into the Polish Army, where he served in Warsaw as part of the 30th Infantry Battalion. Tuvia was a natural soldier and leader, and after only six months in the Army was already training new soldiers. He served for two years and attained the rank of Corporal. Some time after he returned home, he was married to a woman named Rivke, whom he had found through the local matchmaker. Upon marriage, the couple moved to the town of Subotniki. Rivke's family owned the largest store in town, and Tuvia now had an important job managing and conducting business for the store. He frequently travelled in the course of conducting business. However, as successful as he was, after the Soviet occupation of their area in the fall of 1939, he was forced to close the store, fearing that he would be persecuted by the NKVD due to his capitalist occupation. He moved to the nearby city of Lida, leaving behind his wife, who would not hear of leaving her family and whom he hadn't been getting along with well recently. Their marriage had not produced any children. In Lida, he got work as an assistant bookkeeper.

While on a business trip, he met and fell in love with a woman named Sonia Warshavsky. He got a divorce from Rivke and quickly began his new marriage to Sonia, though given that it was wartime, they were unable to have an official wedding. When Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia, began on 21 June 1941, he was called up for action, but his second stint of military service was to be shortlived. There were so many bombs dropping that it was impossible for even the commander to know how to orchestrate an attack or the right plan of action, and in the chaos he ordered the men to save themselves and run home. His house was on fire when he returned home, and he and Sonia joined the huge stream of refugees fleeing the city. They ended up back in Tuvia's native city of Stankevich.

Before long, it became clear that that Nazi occupiers were not going to make life easy for the Jewish residents, and Tuvia was determined to fight back and avenge all of the wrongs being unleashed. He had never before run away from a fight or confrontation with an anti-Semite and wasn't about to start now. After the murders of his parents, two of his brothers, his sister-in-law Cila, and his baby niece, he was even more determined to fight back and to save as many of his people as he could before they too were murdered by the Nazis. Together with his brothers Asael and Zus, he was the head of a partisan fighting force in the forests, and carried out many successful attacks against both the Nazis and their local collaborators. He and his brothers also, over the course of the war, got many people out of the nearby ghettoes and into the safety of the forest, where they built a fully-functioning village that was safe from the Nazis.

Several times they had to flee their encampment and relocate in another safe haven in the forest when the Nazis were tipped off to their presence, and lost very few people during the course of these flights, some of which were under fire and on extremely short notice. Their baby brother Aron was also with them in the forests, serving as a scout. By July of 1944, when the Red Army liberated the area, 1,200 people emerged alive from the forest where they had been hiding, one of the largest groups of people rescued during the Shoah. One of the people lost, however, was Tuvia's second wife Sonia. In early January of 1943, she and some of the other members of the group took shelter in the homes of two peasant families. The three people in one of the houses were warned ahead of time by Russian partisans about the approaching Nazis, and were saved, but the people in the other house were all killed by grenades and gunfire. Sonia's sister Regina and nephew Grisha were also among the murdered. Not long after the death of his second wife, however, Tuvia remarried to Lilka Tiktin, who was the stepdaughter of his sister-in-law Regina. Though Lilka was only 17 years old and Tuvia was about nineteen years her senior, they had known one another since 1939 and had grown to deeply care for one another in spite of the large age difference. They would be married for 44 years, until Tuvia's death at the age of eighty-one.

After the liberation of the area by the Russians, Tuvia found work as an electrician, giving power back to the town of Lida. However, he knew that he had gotten on the bad side of the Soviet authorities for having dismissed his partisan fighters before getting official permission. He, his wife, his brother Zus, Zus's wife Sonia, and his youngest brother Aron fled to Vilna in December of 1944, where they got papers to travel to Poland. In Poland they got false documents identifying them as Greeks, and eventually, after travelling down into Hungary and Romania, were able to obtain permission to immigrate to Palestine. His brother Aron wasn't so lucky, and was separated from them in Romania, sent to a refugee camp for young people in Italy, and had to travel to Palestine on one of the illegal transports running the British blockade. The family eventually settled first in Holon and then in Ramat Gan, both suburbs of Tel Aviv. Tuvia initially ran a grocery store, but he and both of his brothers volunteered for the service during Israel's War of Independence in May of 1948. (His other brother Asael had been killed in February of 1945 at Marienburg, after being conscripted into the Red Army.) After the war ended, he worked first as a truck driver and then as a cab driver.

In 1955 he went to New York to receive medical treatment for some health problems he was suffering from, and the next year his wife and their children joined him. His brother Zus and his family also joined them. The families settled in Brooklyn. Aron also eventually joined them in the United States. (Their oldest brother Walter had already been in America since before the war, and one of their sisters, Taibe, had also survived in the woods.) Shortly before Tuvia's death, on 6 December 1986, a special dinner was held in his honor at Touro College. The event was also sponsored by some of the people he had saved during the war. He received thunderous applause, and wept at least once during every testimonial speech given in his honor. He was particularly moved to see the people who had been children and teenagers during the war grown to adulthood and with families of their own, knowing that that group of 1,200 had grown immensely in size. Tuvia passed away at the age of eighty-one, having lived his life as just another unassuming immigrant, doing his job and taking care of his family, never thinking of himself as a hero for having fought as a partisan or having saved over a thousand people's lives. When he was reburied in Jerusalem a year after his death and initial burial in Long Island, he was given an Israeli military honor guard as part of the funeral service.

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