Jewish Partisans Remembered; Their Story to Hit the Big Screen

British actor Daniel Craig stars in a new movie about the Bielski brothers, who saved 1,200 Jews during WWII.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

"Killing a man is like smoking a cigarette," Itzke Resnik, known as a man of few words, was accustomed to say. Resnik, who passed away nine years ago in Canada, was one of the intrepid fighters in the so-called Bielski commandos, a Jewish group of partisan fighters headed by the Bielski brothers who fought the Nazis from their base in the forests of Belarus.

They did not hesitate to eliminate Jewish snitches and collaborators and were responsible for saving 1,200 Jews from being killed in the Holocaust. Their courageous story went untold for decades but later this year a movie based on their tale and starring Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, will hit the screens. The screenplay is based on a book, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," written by Dr. Nechama Tec, a sociologist from the University of Connecticut and herself a Holocaust survivor.

The Jewish partisans were remembered last night, a day before the Holocaust Remembrance Day, at a concert by the Ra'anana Symphony Orchestra. The event was organized by Holocaust survivors and their children. Gary Resnik, Itzke's son, arrived especially from New York.

"Dad was reticent and always refused to talk to me about what happened," he said. "But one time he opened up his heart to me and told me briefly about his and his friends' doings. He was most comfortable in presence of his brothers in arms. They would occasionally meet, drink and reminisce."

Gary Resnik's visit here is not his first. He first arrived in the country 40 years ago to volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces elite unit, Haruv.

"I came here because I heard there were pretty girls, but mostly because I wanted to be a Jewish fighter like my dad was," he said.

After the concert, Resnik met Jack Kagan who told him his father was "one of the most daring in the group." Kagan, a plastics producer from London, is almost 80, and was only 14 when he joined the Bielski partisans.

"I was in the Navahrudak ghetto," Kagan recounted. "It's a city in Belarus of which half its population of 12,000 people was Jewish. It's best known as the place where the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz was born." Shortly after Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis concentrated Jews in ghettos and later labor camps. Kagan twice managed to flee the ghetto.

"The second time, two of my toes were amputated because of the cold," he said. His escape was enabled thanks to ghetto prisoners digging a tunnel dug that also allowed 230 others to reach the woods. "We heard about the Bielski brother hiding in the forest and we joined them.

The Bielskis were the sons of a family of farmers from a nearby village. Brothers Tuvia and Zus Bielski deserted their retreating units in the Red Army and joined their brother Asael who ran the family farm. They were tall, blond and sturdy. From the first instance, they refused to go to the ghetto or wear a yellow Star of David. They fled to the woods together with their families. In time, they were joined by hundreds of people.

During 1943, they formed a kind of shtetl in the heart of the woods; they dubbed it "Jerusalem of the woods." Villagers from nearby areas cooperated with them once they realized the Bielskis were more dangerous to them than the Nazis: When a local farmer turned in a group of Jews that came to ask for food, they retaliated by killing him and his family, and burning down his house.

In 1944, when the area was liberated by the Red Army, a group of 700 Jewish survivors emerged from the woods.

Asael Bielski was killed in the Red Army, but after the war the remaining Bielski brothers Tuvia and Zus made aliyah to Israel. They lived in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon and worked as drivers. Tuvia eventually immigrated to New York where he died in 1987.

"He was a very modest man," Miki Bielski, his son, said. "He told me: 'You'll see that after my death I'll be more famous than during my life.'" And so it was. After his death he was brought rest in a military burial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.