Nearly 70 years after Alexander “Zus” Bielski fought the Nazis from a partisan hideout in the Belorussian forest, his grandson has come to Israel to enlist in the IDF.
Elan Bielski arrived in Israel on Wednesday morning from New York, as part of a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight carrying 235 new immigrants. Included in that group are 42 young men and women who along with Bielski will take part in Garin Tzabar – a program that integrates returning Israelis and new immigrants into the IDF as they prepare for service in a combat unit.
Following his brother Matthew, who returned (to the USA) from a stint in the IDF paratroopers’ elite reconnaissance unit last summer, Elan said his grandfather was a major factor in his decision to come and enlist.
“The thought of my grandfather certainly motivates me,” Bielski said on Wednesday, hours after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. “The way he fought to protect his family and his people, I can’t compare it to myself, but it does inspire me.”
Nicknamed “Zus,” the elder Bielski and his three brothers founded what would come to be known as the Bielski Partisans (Otriad)- the largest group of Jewish resistance fighters during World War II – who took on the Nazis and their collaborators while saving over 1,200 Jewish lives.
The partisans’ story, which will appear this fall in a major motion picture called Defiance, is indeed one of courage and resilience.
The Bielski brothers fled the Navahrudak Ghetto in Poland after their parents were killed in 1941, seeking refuge in the nearby forest where they formed a working village of partisan fighters and their families.
Led by the oldest brother Tuvia, a veteran of the Polish army, the partisans conducted raids on occupying German forces and local collaborators, including the Belorussian volunteer police. They are reportedly responsible for nearly 400 enemy kills.
“My grandfather was proud of what he did during the war,” Elan said. “He was already old when I was growing up, but my dad and grandmother told stories about him all the time.”
In one of those stories, Elan’s grandmother-to-be escaped from Navahrudak and found the partisan encampment in the forest.
“She told me that she saw this big, strong guy, who was one of the leaders, and told him that if he saved her family she would be his ‘forest bride.’ That was my grandfather, and he and my grandmother were married after the war.”
Zus passed away in 1995, but left behind a family decorated in military service. Zus himself served in the IDF during Israel’s War of Independence, while one of his brothers fought with the Red Army during World War II, falling at Konigsburg.
Elan’s father Jay, was a US marine, who also served in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War alongside Elan’s uncle Zvi, before Elan’s brother Matthew preceded him in the IDF.
“It really all started with my brother Matthew,” Elan says of his plans to come to Israel. “I saw how much he dedicated to his army service, and I got interested in it as well.” Not only interested, Elan said he was so excited to come, he finished college early to make it here as soon as possible.
“I took 18 credits this summer,” he said. “I literally had my last final on Monday and then got on a plane the next day. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Elan is expecting to be drafted in November, and the thought of following in his grandfather’s footsteps, protecting Jews in their time of need, continues to push him forward.
“It’s definitely connected,” he said. “It’s not exactly what he did, but it’s the same idea.”
Bielski Brothers, Heroes of the Holocaust
Zus Bielski’s son Jay, served in the US Marines and volunteered in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Zus’s grandson, Matthew Bielski, who grew up in the US, came to Israel in 2005 to volunteer in the IDF as well.
This blog post was originally posted on The Double Tapper blog
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