Karen Sutton

An Unusual Urgency: Connecting the Bielski Family Camp to the Present

Even as staying home is becoming more and more difficult, imagine if we were driven from our homes and villages as was the case by another predator “not long ago, not so far away.” Then, the source of the infection was man-made. However, a particular kind of human was vulnerable to that virus, those having the audacity of having been born Jewish.  Following the German invasion of Belarus in December of 1941, the Nazis murdered 50,000 people while another one million in the Baltic States and former Soviet-occupied territories awaited death.   On December 8, 1941, the four Bielski brothers returned home to find that their parents and 5,500 other Jewish residents of the Nowogrodek ghetto had been herded to the outskirts of town and shot.

Together with 13 of their neighbors in the ghetto, the brothers formed a partisan group, an otriad.  Quickly, forty other young men and women joined them and fled into hiding.  There, in the shelter of the huge Naliboki Forest, they, like us, faced the daily uncertainty of living with death’s hovering presence. Again, like us, the group’s overriding purpose was to live.  But for members, living meant not only giving up the comfort of home, but facing nature in its most brutal form, freezing winters and deadly waves of the typhus epidemic, in addition to the Nazi juggernaut. Today, as other Holocaust survivors have expressed, members of the Bielski Brigade might indicate a relative gratefulness for this current set of circumstances.  Being in contact with one’s family, knowing whether they are alive and well, which is so important to each of us, was next to impossible then.

Of course, both now and during the Holocaust, the need for medicine is ever present.  But, alas, today, we do not have to sabotage a Nazi-held police station to obtain medicine for a typhus epidemic.  Also, today’s victims of the epidemic do not have to be isolated in cold, drafty huts hastily constructed for the purpose of quarantine.  The Bielski Camp built several quarantine bunkers as well as two medical centers for injury and disease. They also had schools, theaters, a bath house, a huge kitchen, a bakery, and even a jail for the purpose of living daily life.

As the story goes, the Bielski Otriad (detachment) quickly grew into a “family camp” of over 2,000 Jews, seven  out of 10 of whom were elderly adults or young children.   These Jews were frantically fleeing the mass shootings by mobile killing forces, and later the liquidation of their ghettos. The German Army swiftly and successfully marched into the Baltic States and Belarus in the months following Operation Barbarossa, June 22, 1941.  For Jews this meant the uncertainty of either being immediately shot or being herded into temporary ghettoes. They quickly learned that relocating to the over-crowded ghettoes simply meant that death would just as likely occur by starvation and disease if not by a bullet.

For us, even as the uncertainty of the future in the days of social distancing and physical isolation turns into weeks and months, we know we are not alone.  No one is being singled out because of his race, religion or ethnicity.  This predator does not wear black boots and come only to Jewish houses.  The Coronavirus has at least taught us that we are all in this together.  Our nation’s leaders along with medical experts on disease compare our status with other areas and assure us that receiving and giving help is the operative mode and should not be prioritized by social, economic or political standing.

So what has this comparison with the past shown us?  First of all, the social distancing designed to stop the spread of the virus has all the conveniences of home.  That is because, for the most part, it is our home, not some forest, sewer, attic or basement.  We have abundant rolls of toilet paper (number one on everyone’s list) along with plenty of food, beverages, books, newspapers and broadcasts, not to mention Zoom and Facebook for staying connected.  The Bielskis have shown us that life goes on even in the most challenging of circumstances.  They have affirmed our Jewish tradition, that the strong and well-off have a responsibility to the weak and needy.   Because of their protection, 1,230 people lived.  But we in our much less challenging circumstances do not have to be heroes to make a difference.  Each of us, by following directives and encouraging others to stay well, can choose to show strength and purpose in the war against COVID-19.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro University, in New York City.
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