Blog: Through Testimony

Return to the Forest

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 4:10pm -- rob.kuznia

Contributor: Ariel Bielsky

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 4:10pm

People often ask if I remember the time when I first learned the story of The Bielski Brothers.

The answer is no.

I, like every Bielski descendant, was born into the story of how my grandfather and his brothers were responsible for saving the lives of more than 1,250 Jews -- the largest armed Jew-by-Jew rescue in Holocaust history.

I always knew we were different. I grew up spending weekends with my grandmother, Lilka, a stubbornly regal and tough woman, in Brooklyn, New York. I was only 9 years old when she passed an untimely death. I remember the events that followed so vividly.

It was the first (and last) time that I saw my father cry.

With less than 24 hours’ notice, racing against the Yom Kippur clock, we packed our bags and went off to Israel to bury Lilka next to her late husband, Tuvia Bielski.

I’ll never forget the sound that the gravel made as it was being shoveled over her body; or the way the sky looked as the sun set over Jerusalem.

Dressed in all black, we stumbled into a crowded synagogue where the congregants, singing and praying, silently acknowledged our arrival. Without any exchange of words, they created an aisle for us to walk straight down to the Bimah.

It was as if they were waiting.

It was as if all of Jerusalem were mourning with us.

Missing the sound of her voice on Yom Hashoah this year, I was inspired to watch her testimony from beginning to end. It was in those three hours and 41 minutes that she walked me through the story of her life, just the two of us.

I learned that my grandmother and I were not so different growing up: She and her older brother, Mayer, were the fiercest of allies; both raised with kavod, or honor and respect for their parents.

She was a picky eater and so was I.

I learned about her mother, Zeena, after whom I was named, and how she died unexpectedly on my grandmother’s 13th birthday. I learned that losing her mother was the beginning of my grandmother’s Holocaust, even though the Nazis hadn’t arrived yet.

I learned about her struggle as a young woman trying to navigate life without her mother.

My grandmother detailed the day the Nazis did, in fact, arrive and how her father had dreamt it the night before. It was May 8th, 1942, when they took her from her home, barefoot and in her nightgown.

I recognized the pain on her face, the suffering in her expression, as she shared the harrowing details of her past -- the details of losing her entire family. I had seen this face before -- only now I understand.

I never got to know my Safta as an adult and I never knew my grandfather at all. They didn’t get to read The Bielski Brothers book or meet the famous actors that would one day play them in a Hollywood movie called “Defiance.” They never got to see the amount of honor and respect strangers would have for them all over the world. They weren’t there for my Bat Mitzvah or for my graduations. They never got to see the woman that I have become.

I think they would have been proud.

At the very end of my grandmother’s testimony I was met with a surprise: a video of us all together -- one that I did not remember. I saw myself, a little girl, sitting there on my father’s lap with my brothers by my side. The interviewer asked my Safta what she wanted her children and future generations to carry on with them.

Her response, through tears: “They should always remember, their father, what he did, and try to follow in his footsteps and be as generous and good as he was.”

I always knew that someday I’d make the trip to Eastern Europe to see the sites of where my grandfather and his brothers saved so many lives.

So when I found out that there was going to be a reunion of the Bielski Partisan descendants in the forest, I knew it was my chance to literally follow in my grandparents’ footsteps. I don’t think that’s what my grandmother intended, albeit, it seemed like it was up to me to interpret.

My dad vehemently tried to dissuade me from going on the trip. He insisted that it is still dangerous to be a Bielski in that part of the world. I didn’t take him seriously and found it even more enticing. The fact that my father believed this, I think, speaks volumes to how his own parents raised him coupled with the climate of antisemitism that still exists around the world today.

Not knowing what to expect, I landed in Minsk, Belarus, on July 7th, 2019. The trip was spent with 175 people who exist on this earth today solely because of the heroism of my grandfather and his brothers, Zus and Asael. This number of people was hardly representative of how many other Bielski descendants there are all over the world.

We now number in the tens of thousands.

Together we were transported into the past–– we shared stories, we laughed, we danced, we cried—we remembered the dead and celebrated the living. We stood arm-in-arm as we sang Hatikvah while standing in the very place that gave hope to so many.

Seventy-five years after leaving the forest, after surviving the darkest and most evil period in modern history, what was the certain death for six million others, and after risking everything to save as many Jewish lives as possible, the Bielskis were back.

As powerful as it was to stand in the Naliboki Forest and feel some small approximation of what it must have been like, damp and with mosquitos swarming, I will never truly know what it was like for them.

All I can do is try to be as good and as generous as my grandfather was, use my voice to stand up to any injustice when I see it, accept others for who they are, and use my time here on planet earth wisely and with intent.

Even though there are few living survivors left, their stories continue to live on inside each of us. We are their living proof. We, as the third generation, must think of new ways to spread their light and carry them with us into the future so that we can live happily and freely as Jews for many years to come.

It took decades for my grandparents to talk... and when they finally did, it inspired a new generation to share their story.

And now, we will never be silenced.

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Ariel Bielsky

Ariel Zeena Bielsky is the granddaughter of Tuvia and Lilka Bielski. She graduated from The Fashion Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in Advertising & Marketing Communications and is currently working as a Freelance Writer + Event Producer in New York City. “Defiance” is her favorite movie.

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