PALM HARBOR — In 1941, as the Jews of Eastern Europe were being massacred by the thousands, the Bielski brothers took refuge in a dense Polish forest filled with wolves, poisonous snakes, swamps and frigid temperatures during the winter.
It was there they staged their revenge for the deaths of their parents, family members and friends.
The horrific actions by the German Nazis turned Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski (approximate ages were 33, 30 and 27 at the time) into guerrilla fighters as well as tender-hearted souls who created a makeshift village in the woods to shelter and protect more than 1,200 Jews.
Five generations later, "20,000 Jewish people are alive because of the work the Bielski brothers," said Zvi Bielski of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Zvi Bielski, the son of Zus Bielski, visited the Chabad of Pinellas County in Palm Harbor on Tuesday night to share some of the brothers' heroic stories as told in the 2008 movie Defiance.
He warned the audience the stories weren't pretty, as the Bielskis made sure those responsible paid dearly for Jewish deaths.
"They survived by killing Nazis," said Zvi Bielski, who would say only he's in his 50s. "They took their heads off and put them on trees so when others came to the forest they would know that the partisans were waiting for them. They killed to save Jewish people."
As they eliminated the Nazis searching for them, they collected their weapons and explosives.
The Bielski Brigade also let it be known that they wouldn't tolerate those who turned in their Jewish brothers to the German occupiers.
On a couple of occasions, they went to Polish homes, killed the families and burned their houses down.
Nothing was taken, Zvi Bielski said, "but it left a sign that if you turn in a Jew, this is what will happen to you."
Tuvia Bielski was Zvi's uncle. In the movie, he was played by actor Daniel Craig, perhaps better known as the latest James Bond.
"He was the commander and most famous," he said. Tuvia Bielski declared they would save every single Jew they could find: "the sick, the old, the young, the rabbi — everybody. It didn't make a difference. That was the goal."
Bielski's father was played by actor Liev Schreiber, whom Zvi thought did a wonderful job.
It was in the forest that Zus met his future wife, Sonja, who was 17 then.
Zus Bielski wanted her to sleep with him, but she negotiated for him to save her parents first from a ghetto. He did and lived to be 83.
Before coming to Palm Harbor, Bielski asked his mother, now 89 and in failing health, for something special to share with the audience.
She thought for a time then said, "Tell them I was a very, very, very pretty girl."
The line drew lots of laughs and Bielski passed around copies of her picture at 17 so people could judge for themselves.
Food was scare for those hiding in the woods, but the partisans eventually built communal kitchens, living quarters, a school and synagogues — even a bakery.
The brothers also met and befriended members of the Russian army.
The Russians loved the Bielskis, Bielski said, for reasons other than that they were both fighting a common enemy.
"One, they were tall, big, strong guys that walked around with machine guns and they knew the area," he said. "Two, they could drink more vodka than them. Third, they had more girlfriends."
Before his death, Zus Bielski told his son he had only one regret.
"I wish I could have saved more," he said.
It was Zus' obituary that ran on Aug. 23, 1995 in the New York Times that would inspire the movie's screenwriter and director to collaborate on the film.
Tuvia Bielski's grandson, Brendon Rennert, 41, lives in Tampa and serves on the board of directors for the Florida Holocaust Museum.
He was there for Tuesday night's presentation.
"I've heard lots of stories all my life from people that the brothers saved," he said.
Raphael Cohen, 70, lives in Indian Rocks Beach, along with his mother-in-law, Mini Friedman. She's 95 and a concentration camp survivor.
He said the Bielski brothers did what no one else could.
"They had the courage to establish a small army to save their own," he said.
Brian Rocklin, 74, of Palm Harbor said the presentation was inspirational.
"It reminds us how precious the freedom we have in America is," he said.
"We have to have the strength and resolve to protect that freedom."