Holocaust remembrance brings story of ‘Defiance’ to Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island commemorates the Holocaust this weekend with a recognition of one of the greatest Nazi resistance movements of the Second World War.

From 1941 to 1944, the Bielski Partisans hid 1,200 Jews in the forests of Western Belarus. The events were chronicled in the 2008 motion picture “Defiance,” starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber.

Sunday, April 23 at 4 p.m., Ruth Bielski Ehrreich will tell the story of her father, resistance leader Tuvia Bielski, at Temple Emanu-El in Providence.

The annual Rhode Island Interfaith Commemoration of the Holocaust will also recognize Herb Stern, who chaired the committee to construct the state’s Holocaust Memorial in 2015.

Six million Jews, and millions of Poles, Gypsies, gays and others, were exterminated by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945.

In an interview with Eyewitness News, Bielski Ehrreich said there is a popular notion that Jews did not resist deportation to labor and extermination camps across Europe.

“They invited this reputation for going passively to slaughter,” Bielski Ehrreich said. “But this story is one of endurance and resilience.”

“The more personal stories I hear about what happened to people during the Holocaust, the more I realize how unique each story is,” said Senior Rabbi Wayne Franklin of Temple Emanu-El. “Even if we know just a few stories, I would hope that we would understand how cruelly people were treated.”

When the Nazis in 1941 invaded Western Belorussia, then part of the Soviet Union, and killed tens of thousands of Jews, Polish Army veteran Tuvia Bielski and three surviving brothers fought back. With their parents and relatives murdered, the Bielskis took up arms and fled into the woods. They facilitated escapes from Jewish ghettos and joined with Soviet partisans to kill Germans and destroy their infrastructure.

“There was no guarantee. My father never guaranteed anything,” said Bielski Ehrreich. “No one knew how long the war would last.”

In the nearly three years that followed, the Bielski Partisans grew a Jewish community in the Naliboki Forest. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the refugees established a mill, a bakery, a laundry, an infirmary, a school, a synagogue, and a courthouse. Skilled Jewish tradesmen built their wares at camp workshops.

Soviet troops liberated Belorussia in the summer of 1944. With German defeat imminent, the Partisans emerged from the wilderness, reappearing in their home farming communities.

“They thought they were ghosts. They couldn’t believe their eyes,” said Bielski Ehrreich. “Twelve hundred men, women, and children. It was an amazing scene.”

Tuvia Bielski would later fight in the Israel Defense Forces. He moved to the United States, where he died in 1987.

“He rose to an occasion he never thought he would be called to,” Bielski Ehrreich said of her father, whose storytelling to his children was limited over the decades.

“He became the same person he was before the war,” Bielski Ehrreich said.

Bielski Ehrreich has traveled the world telling her parents’ story. Her family visited Lithuania to watch the filming of “Defiance,” under the direction of Academy Award winner Edward Zwick.

“People can relate to it,” said Bielski Ehrreich. “Sadly, it is still happening. There is genocide all over the world. Have we not learned the lessons of the past?”

Bielski Ehrreich argued it is now more pressing than ever that the public has contact with aging Holocaust survivors. Those who were children at the time are now in their late 70s, 80s, and even older.

“There will be nobody left,” said Bielski Ehhreich. “And they’ll be reading from books about the Holocaust.”

But even when all are gone, Bielski Ehrreich said she hopes the Partisans’ story underscores a simple truth about the years of terror in Europe.

“Jews did fight back,” she said.