Thinking of Zus Bielski on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Zus
ALEXANDER “ZUS” BIELSKI

One night during the untamed post-Woodstock years living in Greenwich Village, my sister and her husband introduced me to a gorgeous Israeli-American scholar and athlete named Jay, the son of Zus — Alexander “Zus” Bielski, a WWII resistance fighter and star of the film Defiance. Zus along with his brothers Tuvia and Asael formed the “Bielski Brigade,” and in the biggest armed rescue of Jews by Jews during the war saved 1,200 of their people from the Nazis by hiding them in the Naliboki forest of western Belarus, where they built a village.

Bielski brothers
TUVIA, ASAEL, ZUS

Zus became a de facto father-in-law figure for me during the peace-love days of the 1970s as I fled from starvation as a Hearst magazine writer/editor making $125 a week to the fashion runways of New York.

 
Jay Bielski, circa 1971 latest
JAY BIELSKI, photo by Linda Mazur (circa 1971)
Suzan Mazur (right) - WWD, 1978 - Photo by Harry Benson for Geoffrey Beene
SUZAN MAZUR (right), photo by Harry Benson (1978), Women’s Wear Daily

Zus was a towering presence with Russian good looks, penetrating blue eyes and a radiant, slightly gap-tooth smile that flashed a bit of silver. To the Nazis who didn’t think he was a Jew—that smile was deadly. But to me it signaled a great affectionate man, who welcomed me (a shiksa) at his home in the Midwood section of Brooklyn as “Inga!”—Meryl Streep’s character in the 1978 Holocaust television series, who he thought I resembled with or without my Seventh Avenue warpaint.

Really only Anthony Quinn makes sense to me as Zus on the big screen. But with both Zus and Quinn gone, we have Liev Schreiber in the role.

Schreiber, Craig - Defiance film
LIEV SCHREIBER as ZUS (left), DANIEL CRAIG as TUVIA (right)

Dr. Jay Bielski, now a clinical psychologist and the father of four, emailed me saying:

“Schreiber has my father nailed in the Defiance film. . . . Interesting material in imdb.com re Defiance boards. The Poles and Lithuanians with the Belorussians want to sue the Bielskies for murder re the massacre in Naliboki.”

Defiance opened in US theaters December 2008.  It was produced at the Lithuanian Film Studio in Vilnius where Weintraub Productions and Warner Brothers shot the TNT Robin Hood series starring Christopher Lee and Matthew Porretta.

Before meeting the Bielskies, I’d already possessed a powerful sense of the Holocaust from working college summers at  Grossinger’s, the Catskill resort near Woodstock. At Grossinger’s the tattooed who gathered around the piano to sing were not rock stars, though some of those concentration camp survivors who were Jenny Grossinger’s guests did belong to the Park Avenue crowd.

But the Bielskies were not part of the affluent Jewish tribe who frequented Grossinger’s. Despite their heroism, Zus and his family lived a modest life. They settled first in Israel after the war, living near Holon and for a time at Kibbutz Dan. Then convinced that there would never be peace in Israel, Zus took his wife Sonia and children to America in 1956. He did not want his three sons — Jay, Zvi and David — to endure war. (Zvi and David kept in touch with me when Jay left for the Yom Kippur War.)

Sonia Bielski—the former Sonia Boldo—was an educated 18-year-old raven hair beauty at the time she bribed a guard at a ghetto in Novogrudok to get lost as she fled to the Bielski guerrilla camp where she first met her future husband— bearded with bullet belts criss-crossed on his chest. Zus had orchestrated her escape.

Bielski partisans

Bielski Belarus Camp
Area map of Bielski Belarus Camp

 

Bielski Partisan Camp in Naliboki Forest
Bielski Partisan Camp in Naliboki Forest , 1943-1944

Sonia gave her first impression of Zus to D.J. Fricke in “He Took On The Nazis,” a cover story for Our Town in 1995 following Zus’s death. Zus died of cardiac arrest at age 83. He’d had a “bad ticker” for years and on doctor’s orders ate a banana a day.

zus bielski - our town 9-21-95
ZUS BIELSKI, Our Town, September 21, 1995

Said Sonia:

“I never saw a man like that before — I was afraid to look at him . . But as big and strong as he was, he was very gentle.”

She told the New York Times that “she first saw him standing under a tree, a tall, powerfully built man glistening with brass and bandolier. “He was shining.”” Sonia also said that Zus tried to get her drunk with vodka following her escape from the ghetto, but that she bargained for a rescue of her parents from Novogrudok before agreeing to “go with him”.

Years later, Sonia would give her son similar firm advice: “Leave Suzan in the newspapers.”

She may have been right. I never forgot the lessons in toughness I learned from the Belskies when I found myself reporting from a conflict zone.

Sonia and Zus Bielski
SONIA & ZUS BIELSKI (circa 1940s), photo courtesy Bielski Family

Zus saw more death and destruction during the war than Sonia, including the loss of his first wife and infant daughter, his parents and two brothers. But Sonia seemed more scarred.

Nevertheless, she was always a gracious hostess. I remember Seder nights at Zus & Sonia Bielski’s and the perfectly traditional matzoh ball soup, borscht, carrot tzimmes, cholent, kugel and roast beef followed by delicious sponge cakes with a bit of port.

Then there were weekend barbecues where Zus dressed in Bermuda shorts and sandals would saunter over to the grill, cigarette in hand, and nod approvingly as Jay cooked up some steaks.

Zus would occasionally bark an admonishment to his sons—who called him “Pop”—though not in front of me. If I did walk into the room unexpectedly, he’d quickly smile.

There were snippets of conversation at these family meetings about the old days but never an attempt to dwell on their personal suffering. There was similarly a reticence to discuss details of exactly how the Bielskies killed the Nazis. Partly it was viewed as impolite. Partly no one seemed to have pieced together the wartime memories.

Nechama Tec, a University of Connecticut sociologist, took up the challenge of fleshing-out the story of the “forest Jews” for her book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans — “The Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews During World War II” (1993), upon which the Defiance film is based. Peter Duffy followed with his book The Bielski Brothers (2003).

The Bielski Brothers book cover

Tuvia, Zus’s older brother was in his last years and recovering from serious surgery when I first met him. His brilliant leadership was never properly acknowledged in his lifetime and he struggled to feed his family, working as a truck driver in Brooklyn. Tuvia was eventually given a hero’s burial in Israel.

I also knew Tuvia’s son Mickey, who I last saw at his home near the beach in Brooklyn. It was the day the lights went out in New York City, as Jay and I would discover on our drive back to Manhattan.

I never had the opportunity to meet Asael. He died in the Soviet army battling the Nazis in East Prussia after leaving the Bielski Naliboki forest camp.

But I did see the youngest brother, Aaron — who had Americanized his name to “Bell”—a few times at the Bielski Midwood home. Aaron was a teenager during WWII, and post-war operated a New York taxi fleet. He had a young wife and looked prosperous, always dressed in a jacket and wore a silver ID bracelet.

Aaron Bielski
AARON BIELSKI (front and center)

Taebe, who of the siblings reminded me most of Zus in stature, arrived one Pesach in hot pink lycra stretch pants!

Zus too operated a taxi and trucking company, but preferred working out of a trailer in a garage in Brooklyn—where I once visited him—to the rigidity of a conventional office. He did not seek or need accolades for his wartime courage (or for anything else). The triumph of 1,200 of his people was enough.

[Note:  This post  first appeared in 2008 as “Zus & Son of Zus: The Defiance Film” at Scoop Media.]

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