Farmington HillsJuly 24, 2012
Holocaust Center tells of the ‘Defiance’ brothers
By David Wallace
C & G Staff Writer
The 2008 Hollywood movie “Defiance” introduced the Bielski brothers to a wide audience, but for the rest of the story, visit the Holocaust Memorial Center, 28123 Orchard Lake Road, to see the new traveling exhibit, “Courage and Compassion: The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers.”
The exhibit will be on display through Nov. 4. To mark its opening, the Holocaust Memorial Center held a special event July 15 with Sharon Rennert, whose grandfather, Tuvia Bielski, led the efforts to hide more than 1,200 Jews in the forests of western Belarus while waging guerrilla warfare on the Nazis.
The movie starred James Bond actor Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski and Jamie Bell as Asael Bielski. Holocaust Memorial Center Executive Director Stephen M. Goldman said that the Bielskis have a unique place among the partisans who fought the Nazis during World War II.
“Certainly, they intended to hurt the enemy at every turn, whether it was blowing up a bridge or disrupting shipments, that was important, but the Bielskis took this one step further. Their philosophy was that as important as it was to kill a Nazi, it was more important to save a Jew. Killing a Nazi or even a bunch of Nazis would not change significantly the war, but saving one Jew would save the entire future,” said Goldman.
“Those of you that are familiar with the movie ‘Defiance’ know a little bit about the story, but what Sharon really wants to clearly demonstrate is these are people just like us — family, moms and dads. She remembers a grandfather. She doesn’t remember a resistance fighter,” said Goldman.
Long before the Hollywood film, Rennert had been filming her relatives, compiling old interviews and using family movies to produce a documentary about the brothers, “In Our Hands: a Personal Story of the Bielski Partisans,” which she hopes to complete and release within the next year.
“Tuvia, who was my grandfather, was elected to be commander of the overall brigade. Zus was in charge of reconnaissance, and Asael was in charge of the day-to-day activities of the armed men,” Rennert said.
“Their unit was unique from all partisans, because Tuvia encouraged and welcomed all Jews to join them in the woods, including the weak, the elderly, the sick and women,” said Rennert.
The forests were thick and untamed, unlike anything one might experience in Southeast Michigan.
“The density of the woods is something; unless you have been to that part of the world, you just have no understanding,” said Goldman, who compared it to a jungle’s density.
“They ended up building underground bunkers, a hospital, a school, a bakery, a bath house and even a theater,” said Rennert.
Tuvia would not let anyone, including allied partisans, see the full group of people hiding in the woods.
“People just heard stories and rumors about the Bielskis, and this worked to their favor because they were basically credited for way more power than they actually had,” said Rennert.
“They also conducted sabotage missions against Nazi infrastructure, and they had a reputation for taking brutal revenge on anyone who was known to collaborate with the Nazis,” said Rennert.
“When the war ended, over 1,230 Jews left the woods with their heads held high, and they went on to live productive lives all over the world and have created four new generations of over 15,000 descendents,” said Rennert, adding she is “very proud to be one of them.”
She comprehended some things about her grandfather’s legacy as a child.
“One story in particular that I heard about that always left an impression was that I had heard that Hitler had offered something like 50,000 reichsmarks as a reward for my grandfather’s head, and I was always extremely impressed to hear that Hitler was threatened by my grandfather,” said Rennert.
Tuvia Bielski passed away in June 1987.
“My grandmother received condolence cards from people all over the world — people I never met, I never knew about — and that’s when I realized how far-reaching this story went,” said Rennert.
The family loves the film, she said, which is based on a 1993 book of the same name by Nechama Tec.
“We all are thrilled that this film is out, because of these incredible actors that are in the film, and it is now part of popular culture, so this story will forever be out there on Netflix and on (video) on demand for people to watch and to keep learning, and then it provides incredible experiences for me and other family members to travel around the country and tell the story at any venue to anyone who will listen to us tell the story,” Rennert said.
She told the audience about a few differences between the movie and real life — the movie’s fistfight between Tuvia and Zus never happened, nor did the film’s climactic battle — and noted “what girl doesn’t want James Bond as her grandfather?”
The exhibit features many colorful panels telling the brothers’ stories in depth, plus models, a map of an encampment and even Tuvia Bielski’s New York City cab driver’s license.
“There’s a video montage of the family at family celebrations, and I put that together for the exhibit, so I’m pretty proud of that,” Rennert said. “And there’s some excerpts of video clips that I filmed, which are in the little video stations there, and it means a lot that something I filmed is now part of the traveling exhibit and to help keep telling the story to the world.”
Museum admission is $8 for adults with some discounts. Call (248) 553-2400 for details and hours.
Visit www.bielskidocumentary.com and www.facebook.com/Bielski. Documentary for more about Rennert’s project. She would like to get 1,230 “likes” to match the number of lives the Bielski brothers saved.
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