Tuvia, Asael, Zus and the much younger Aron were four of twelve children based in Stankevichi, Poland (now Belarus), the only Jewish family in the area. After coming under Nazi occupation, the family was sent to the newly established, nearby Nowogródek ghetto.
When their parents, David and Beila and other family members were murdered by the Nazis in December 1941, the remaining Bielski brothers escaped with some of their ghetto contacts to the forests of Zabiedovo and Perelaz, a woodland with which they were intimately familiar.
To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans
Convinced that it was their only route to survival, the brothers and other escapees formed a 30-strong partisan unit, and the eldest brother Tuvia, a natural leader with experience in the Polish military, assumed leadership, with Asael his second-in-command, and Zus heading reconnaissance.
Despite internal opposition, Tuvia insisted that the unit, which was then living nomadically, should extend their protection to any Jew who needed help. In his words: "Don’t rush to fight and die. So few of us are left, we have to save lives. To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans."
The group began to infiltrate and rescue Jews from ghettos, and grew to more than 300 members by the end of 1942. By the time the Red Army swept through the region in June 1944, a community of more than 1,230 was dwelling in a permanent camp in the Nolibocka forest, deep in near-impenetrable swamps, more than 70% of whom were women, children or the elderly. One unit member recalled: "Compared to the ghettos it felt like a heaven. In the woods we were free, that’s all I can tell you. We had freedom."
Another resident of the camp wrote: "It seemed like a fantasy from another world. A kind of gay abandon filled the air. Biting, frank talk spiced with juicy curses, galloping horses and the laughter of children. Suddenly I felt like an extra in a Wild West movie."
The Bielski partisans successfully protected this community despite the concentrated efforts of the Nazis, who offered a 100,000 Reichsmark reward for information leading to Tuvia’s arrest.
the world should know that there were still Jews alive, and especially Jewish partisans
The group engaged in food raids and military missions, including sabotage operations and the execution of collaborators. Tuvia was able to gain recognition as a partisan leader by the Soviets by cooperating at times with Soviet groups, attacking Nazi troops.
Tuvia wrote of his first combat engagement: "It was satisfying in a larger sense. A real spiritual high point – that the world should know that there were still Jews alive, and especially Jewish partisans."
According to the historian Timothy Snyder, Tuvia “probably rescued more Jews than any other partisan leader”. After the war, he moved to the United States, dying in 1987. The exploits of his unit would be depicted in the 2008 feature film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig.