True bravery

In Belarus during WW2 three brothers saved over 1,000 Jews by building a community in the forest. The Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy tells their incredible and unique story.

The brothers were part of a large family of Jews who operated the local saw mill and lived in a community which was mostly Jewish. This area of the world had suffered in the past from being fought over and had changed ownership from Poland to Germany and to Russia – the inhabitants were used to programs and other anti-Jewish activity. When the Germans occupied the area, however, they started a campaign against the Jews which resulted in the death of millions and virtually wiped out the race in the area.

When members of their family were killed the three brothers started gathering up other family members and hiding them from what was going on. As the Germans started to increase their oppression and groups of Jews were taken into the countryside and shot dead the family was soon joined by others. The problem was to get enough food for people, many of whom were elderly and frail, and to keep them hidden. Many of their neighbours were informers and betrayed Jews either out of fear or because it was to their advantage.

The able bodied men formed a guerrilla group fighting against the Germans and eventually, for their safety, they allied with Russian communist groups in the same area doing the same thing – the difference in this group was that they had a large amount of non-combatants and that they were virtually all Jews.

The author tells this story in a straightforward narrative style. He doesn’t hide the fact that some of what the brothers did was cruel and that they ruled their community in a dictatorial way. He shows us the environment in which they were operating and the increasing number of murders by the Germans. The majority of those who survived the war thought that the brothers were wonderful but not everyone agreed and some of what they did was morally dubious. At the end of the war the whole community was faced with the fact that the Russian occupiers were no more sympathetic to Jews than the Germans had been and most of those saved ended up in Israel or America.

This is a story of bravery. At any time the brothers could have abandoned their group but even when it grew large and the communists were unhappy with it they kept their promise to protect their people. It is astonishing what these people did to survive and it is horrific that they had to do these things to survive. This is a gripping book which opens the readers’ eyes to the inhumanity which man can inflict on man and to the humanity which saved a few.

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