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Little-known tale of heroic brothers opens at Holocaust Museum

As a child, Brendon Rennert always knew his grandfather was special.

Strangers would wait outside his grandfather's Brooklyn apartment to talk. His house teemed with "aunts" and "uncles" who constantly enveloped him in hugs and kisses. A memorial in Brooklyn bore his name.

Rennert's mother told him his grandfather was famous, but Rennert was a teenager before he fully understood. His grandfather, Tuvia Bielski, was a Holocaust survivor. But more than that, Bielski and two of his brothers were part of a fascinating but little-known chapter of World War II when they hid 1,200 Jews in a forest in Belarus for more than two years. Together, they evaded the Nazis and likely avoided certain death.

Although the Bielski brothers' story has been told in two books and a documentary, it remains widely unknown. But not for long.

In January, the Bielski brothers' story makes its big-screen debut in Defiance, directed by Ed Zwick, who also directed Blood Diamond and Glory. Daniel Craig, the British actor and reigning James Bond, has the lead role of Tuvia Bielski.

And today, an exhibit that focuses on the brothers' exploits opens at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. Museum officials say the exhibit, Courage and Compassion: The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers, is the only one of its kind.

Rennert, who lives in Tampa and helped engineer the St. Petersburg exhibit, can barely contain his excitement. Finally, the world will know about his grandfather's heroism.

"To me, it's one of the greatest stories that have ever been told," said Rennert. "I always get the same look from people when I tell them about it. Jaws open."


Although Rennert, 40, says his grandfather talked little about what happened in the forest, he remembers his stories well. As told by Rennert, his uncle and the Holocaust Museum's curator, the tale unfolds this way:

Tuvia Bielski was one of 11 children in a family of millers in what is now known as Belarus. The family's farm bordered a thick forest. As the Nazis made their way through Belarus, they hauled off Bielski's parents and two of his brothers to a ghetto. Bielski later learned his family had been executed.

Fearing the same fate for themselves, four of the Bielski brothers — Tuvia, Zus, Asael and 12-year-old Aron — fled to the forest. The land seemed dense and uninhabitable to outsiders, but it had been their childhood playground. After learning their family's fate, the three older brothers decided to save as many Jews from extinction as they could by harboring them in the woods.

Tuvia, whose fluency in several languages and physical appearance allowed him to pass as a non-Jew, made frequent trips to ghettos where he implored Jews to flee to the forest. Later, when visits became more difficult, he sent notes telling of freedom beyond the ghetto. His was a fighting force. But any Jew — the old, infirm, women and infants — was welcome. They called it Jerusalem in the woods.

In the forest, the brothers had built a community blanketed by dense foliage and invisible by air. There was a bakery, a blacksmith shop, a tannery, an ammunitions workshop and a bath house to ward off typhus. The inhabitants slept in underground dugouts.

They made their living repairing weapons and providing other services for Russian partisans, who paid them in arms. They took other necessities by force.

The alliance with the Russians protected them from the Nazis, who had no idea how many people were in the forest or their fighting strength. When the Germans did attack, the Bielskis and their allies fought back and retreated deeper into the forest.

In the summer of 1944, German soldiers came upon the encampment as they fled from Russian soldiers. In the standoff, a handful of Jews died, but more than 1,200 walked out alive. The Bielskis emerged as well: Asael joined the Russian army and later died in battle. Tuvia and Zus eventually came to the United States and settled in Brooklyn. Rennert's grandfather, Tuvia, died in 1987, Zus in 1995.

Last year, Rennert and his relatives traveled to Lithuania to see Defiance being filmed. On the way home, the grandson got the idea to create an exhibit to share his grandfather's story with another generation.

The Florida Holocaust Museum was happy to oblige.

"The Bielskis are such a unique story because they weren't only focused on fighting back," said Erin Blankenship, museum curator. "They were focused on saving as many people as they could, and they took in anybody, the old, the sick, children. A lot of other partisan groups turned those people away."

Rennert, who is in telecommunications sales, reached out to family for artifacts. Everybody had a little something — a shirt, a book. The collectibles, along with artifacts unearthed in a dig in Belarus, make up the 50 items in the display. There are also photographs and video testimony from survivors, 29 of whom are still alive.

At a reception Sunday, museum visitors will meet members of the Bielski clan.

Robert Bielsky, Tuvia's son and Rennart's uncle, who has a different name spelling, has seen Defiance six times. He organized the Lithuania excursion and a side trip to Belarus to trace their ancestors' journey. He keeps the names of each person who lived in the forest. They are family.

He appreciates the film and takes pride in his father's heroics, but Bielsky suspects he wouldn't have sought the spotlight.

"What was very important to my father was to see those babies and those children of the descendants being born and grown up because of his feats," said Bielsky, 50, who owns a commercial real estate firm in New York City. "When (he) attended parties like weddings and bar mitzvahs, his satisfaction was to see the children and the grandchildren of the survivors — the regeneration of families that never had the chance to survive."

Hollywood being Hollywood, the movie takes liberties. Tuvia, for instance, didn't die penniless and was not a cab driver, but owned a trucking company, Bielsky said. Still the film lives up to the family's expectations by telling the truth about what happened in the forest.

Now that his grandfather isn't around to tell the tale, Rennert wants to ensure it lives on.

"It's a really great story in every aspect of it," Rennert said. "It's not about death and destruction. It's about life and living. To me, that's the greatest story that's around."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at or (813) 226-3405.

if you go

Bielski exhibit

Courage and Compassion: The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers. Nov. 15-Feb. 22. The Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg. General public, $12; museum members, free. For information, call (727) 820-0100.

Little-known tale of heroic brothers opens at Holocaust Museum 11/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 3:34pm]
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