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Bielski brothers' story comes to life through grandson

Once upon a time it was a story shared mostly with family and friends.

Then Hollywood learned of the Bielski brothers, four young Jewish men from a farming community in the former Second Polish Republic who fled into the woods to escape the Nazis, and, in doing so, saved more than 1,200 others they met along the way.

In the recent film Defiance, actors Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay portray the heroic acts of the brothers as they organize and protect a moving community that spent three years — and three brutal winters — running through the forests from the Germans and local collaborators. Seventy percent of those traveling in the Bielski group were women, children and elderly people. No one was ever turned away.

The story will come alive Monday evening at the Yom Hashoah memorial service at Congregation Kol Ami in Carrollwood. The event, which commemorates the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis, will feature a presentation on the Bielskis given by Brendon Rennert, who is the grandson of Tuvia Bielski, the oldest of the four brothers.

"This helps give us a reminder to never forget, a link from our past to our future," said Kol Ami's Rabbi Raphael Ostrovsky, who coordinated the memorial. "Maybe we can learn from our history and possibly avoid this in our future."

Rennert, who consulted on Defiance and traveled to Lithuania during its production, is passionate about telling his family's story for many reasons. He wants to help remind people that even in the face of extreme degradation and tragedy, there were times of bravery and kindness.

"Theirs is such an incredible story of survival," said Rennert, 40, a telecommunications salesman who lives in Westchase. "I want to be able to leave a legacy for my 5-year-old daughter so she knows what amazing will people have to overcome struggles."

Rennert was also instrumental in setting up "Courage and Compassion: The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers," an exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. Community eduction is critical, he said, so that the facts can be passed on even when the survivors are gone.

Ostrovsky concurred, noting the existence of people like Bishop Richard Williamson, a known Holocaust denier who raised the ire of Pope Benedict XVI this year when the pope learned that the bishop continues to deny the existence of gas chambers.

"This makes it more incumbent upon us to remember, study, learn and teach people this is a very real part of history," Ostrovsky said. "We need a reminder about people like the Bielskis and those who ran with them to help keep it part of the fabric of our being."

At the memorial, Rennert will speak about his late grandfather and his own travels back to the Bielski farm, trudging through the same forest and swamp as the survivors did more than 60 years ago. He also plans to show a video that includes footage of the production of the movie.

Rennert will also take questions and hopes everyone will leave the memorial service thinking about the past and the great potential the future holds. He points out that while his grandfather helped save 1,200 people, there are estimates of more than 25,000 descendants from the original camp members.

"I hope everyone will reflect on their own lives and try to make a difference in the world today, because it only takes one person to change the world in a big way," Rennert said.

The Yom Hashoah memorial is sponsored by several bay area synagogues and the Tampa Jewish Federation. It is open to the public. Beginning at 7 p.m. Monday, the free presentation will be held at Congregation Kol Ami at 3919 Moran Road. For information, call (813) 962-6338.

Bielski brothers' story comes to life through grandson 04/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 16, 2009 4:30am]
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