A nation at war

The best kept secret

Published, The West Orange Chronical, 2000




            For over a half a century, many Eastern European Jews stayed silent about their role during the Nazi-take over.

            This helped foster the misperception that Jews put up no resistance to the slaughter that swept through country after country, destroying not only individual people, but nearly a whole culture.

            "Even we knew very little about it," said Ken Mandel, one of the filmmakers whose video: "The Resistance: Untold Stories Jewish Partisans" has toured New Jersey.

            Oddly enough, the first clue to this larger-than-expected movement came as the result of an obituary in the New York Times.

            "Our executive director, David Garth saw it, and he said it was an amazing story and would make a great project for us," Mandel said. "We thought we knew a lot about the holocaust."

            In researching for the "The Trial of Adolf Eichmann," a 1997 film done for Public Broadcasting System, Mandel and the other members of the Great Projects Film Company, Inc. covered a lot of ground.

            "We thought the trial covered every aspect," Mandel said. "But we didn't know anything about this. We knew there was some resistance. In fact, there was some talk about it at the trial. But we had no idea that it was a widespread we later found out."

            The obituary told the story of three Bielski brothers, part of a family of 12 children who grew up in Stankiewicze, which at various times was part of Poland, Belorussia, the Soviet Union and Belarus. When they saw the invading Nazis, these brothers took up guns and hid themselves in a nearby forest. As the Nazi began to slaughter local Jews, the brothers began to fight back, attacking Nazi installations and getting revenge on those who collaborated with the enemy. Believing that fighting is not enough, the three brothers decided to begin rescuing women, children, the disabled and the ill. Over time, this group began to resemble the legend of England's Robinhood, their bandit community complete with hospital, workshops, a school and even a bathhouse. When the Russians drove out the Germans, Tuvia Bielski and his two brothers Zus and Asael, came out of hiding after having rescued more than 1,200 people.

            Asael died a little time later, the other two brothers eventually came to America. Tuvia died in 1987 and Zus in 1995. And though their tale had been told in a 1993 book called: "The Bielski Partisans" (Oxford University Press), a scholarly work by a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut named Nechama Tec, most people remained ignorant of a movement that had taken place there as well as many other parts of Europe, tales of heroism to which most declined to take credit.

            The Jewish partisans had stayed silent for numerous reasons. The choices people made in the war were never easy. While some chose to resist, others felt they could not. The Nazis tended to murder the families of those that resisted.

            "The partisans didn't want to come forward, didn't want to put themselves above other people because of the choices they made," Mandel said.

            This was not a matter of right and wrong, but rather, people were forced to choose between bad options.

            Fifty years after the war ended, Mandel and others knew this story had to be told finally, and that there was only a limited amount of time left in which to tell it. The partisans of World War Two were growing old, and if Great Projects Film Company wanted to tell their story, the film company would have to track them down and convince them to talk.

            Thus Mandel, a resident of West Orange, and other staff members began to search out threads of a movement that had remained largely a mystery since the end of World War Two.

            Mandel, who produced the film, and Seth Kramer, who directed it, were no strangers to creating moving pieces for television. Great Productions had won one Emmy for previous work, had been nominated for others and had several Academy Award nominations. The film and video company - founded by Mandel and Daniel B. Polin had previously produced television programming that explored subjects of historical, technological, and cultural significance. Previous work had provided them with contacts such Miles Lerman, who was then the director of the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

            "We didn't know it until we called him up and asked about this that he was a partisan himself, and that he had set up a center at the museum for the study of the resistance," Mandel said. "It was tailored made for us."

            Through that contact, the film company staff contacted scholars who helped follow the human links that led to the unsung heroes of the Jewish partisans movement.

            "Names started to pop up as we talked to this person and that person," Mandel said. "We wound up with quite a few names."

            Among those they found in their pursuit to put this story on film, was Aron Bell, who at 70 is the only surviving son of David and Beila, the Bielski parents. Mr. Bell, a retired businessman who divided his time between the Upper East Side and Palm Beach, Florida. Aron Bell was 11 when his parents were rounded up to be taken to the Novogrudok ghetto. He watched from behind a tree as they were put onto a truck and driven off.

            "We found Aron living in Brooklyn," Mandel said.

            Nearly all the people in this film lived in New York or New Jersey -- although three of them lived in Israel.

            While some people did not want to talk about the past, refusing the relive the horrors of that era, many agreed to talk on film.

            The film company sought to find a representative group of people that showed various aspects of the resistance movement throughout eastern Europe, and settled on eleven people ranging from Aron Bell who was 11-years-old when the holocaust began to others nearly 30.

            "All of them were young, most of them were teenagers," Mandel said. "A couple of them had military experience. Now all of them are old and most were willing to tell us what it was like. We wove their stories into a group memoir."

            The stories covered resistance movements in what are now Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

            The stories these people had to tell presented a powerful testimony to human courage and endurance, though the choices people made still haunt their lives. Mandel said the stories in the film and the interviews done in making the film even affected him, making him wonder what he might have done if he had lived during those remarkably trying times.

            One story told in the film recalled a father who was ordered to hang one of his two remaining sons as punishment for a third boy's running away.

            "I'm the father of two boys," Mandel said. "As he's telling me this story, my mind transported me back and I wondered what would I do. How do you pick between two children that you love?"

            This film, Mandel said deals with universal issues and the struggle to make sense out of that time.

            "There people are always wondering about what they did and how they acted," Mandel said. "At a certain point, they had to push that out of their minds. But it is always there, and watching this film, you see that unreel before you. It is still a moving experience, and these stories never lose their power for me."

            No one knows the true number of partisans, Mandel said, nor how many lived or died, though a large number did not survive the war. Yet the impression the stories convey is that the partisans were glad they fought back.

            "All the people we talked to on one hand have led productive lives," Mandel said. "They have children and grandchildren galore. But all of them know they have paid a price."


Published, The West Orange Chronical, 2000



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