As the Germans were liquidating the Vilna ghetto in September 1943, Abba Kovner and his United Partisan Organization fighters were escaping to the forest through tunnels and sewers. Suddenly, Kovner's mother chanced upon him. “What should I do?” she asked him in desperation. Sworn to secrecy for fear of exposing the escapees, Kovner gave no reply. She returned to her hiding place and was caught and killed; he reached the forest, led a partisan unit fighting the Germans, and is remembered as a Holocaust hero. But the encounter never stopped haunting him. He wondered if he should not rather be remembered as someone who abandoned his own mother to her catastrophic fate.
Jews trying to rescue each other during the Holocaust is a complex topic with unfathomable dilemmas in the unprecedented circumstances into which the Nazis thrust the Jews. From the difficulty to grasp the Nazis’ intentions amidst constant German deception, to the “choiceless choices” they faced, such as whom to try to save and whom to abandon, to the fear of the oft-implemented threat of collective punishment for the actions of any individual and the uncertainty regarding the attitudes of their neighbors and countrymen, rescue by Jews remains a fraught subject.
The story of one family – the Bielous family in Zhetl (Zdzięcioł; Dyatlava) in today’s Belarus – can serve as an illustration. Zhetl is located near vast, dense forests that became centers of activity for Soviet partisans and to which tens of thousands of Jews fled in 1942-1943. When the Germans occupied Zhetl on 30 June 1941, some 3,500 people, approximately two-thirds of the population, were Jewish. The Germans murdered 120 communal leaders on 23 July, imposed numerous harsh decrees on the Jews, created a ghetto in February 1942, and shot 1,000 Jews on 30 April. During the spring and summer, Jews were constantly escaping to the forests, and many prepared hideouts in anticipation of further murder operations.
Yisrael and Hana Frieda Bielous (in their early 60s) and three of their grown children lived in the town – Chaim, a bachelor mechanic; Pesia, married to Zisl Kalbstein, with a four-year-old girl and a toddler boy; and Nehama, married to Mote Zakroiski, also with a toddler son. When German and Lithuanian troops surrounded the ghetto early in the morning of 6 August in anticipation of its liquidation, most of the Bielous family ran to their attic hideout, where several neighbors joined them. Chaim reported to the town square and was sent to the forced-labor camp in Nowogródek.
In the attic, Pesia’s and Nehama’s toddlers began to cry, endangering everyone. Unable to calm them, the adults took the excruciating decision to suffocate the toddlers in order to save the others. Nonetheless, they were discovered: Yisrael and Hana Frieda, Pesia and her daughter were shot, while Zisl, Nehama and Mote all managed to flee to the Lipiczanska Forest and join partisan units.
Nehama was killed in action, while Mote was killed a few days before liberation by a small band of Germans while guarding ailing fellow partisans hiding in a bunker. Zisl joined a different unit, fought Germans, rescued Jews, was drafted into the Red Army after liberation, and fell in battle on 19 August 1944.
And Chaim? He was one of 1,000 Jews in the Nowogródek forced labor camp, and among the 250 still alive in the summer of 1943. Hearing about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on their clandestine radio in a barrack basement, they were inspired to action. Unlike Warsaw, where rescue was impossible in the spring of 1943 and hence was not the main goal, the last Jews in Nowogródek sought collective rescue in the forests. They dug a 200-meter escape tunnel that exited beyond the perimeter fence; Chaim was one of the planners. On 26 September 1943, on an almost moonless night, they fled through the tunnel. More than half survived, but Chaim was killed as he ran from the exit.
The tragic story of the Bielous family includes multi-layered rescue attempts – preparing hideouts; hiding others; organizing escapes; helping Jews who reached the forests; protecting the wounded and ill, and other "choiceless choices." Yet the circumstances created and controlled by the Germans and their partners dictated that rescue would be extremely limited at best. Still, some of these rescue efforts yielded tangible results: half the 800 Jews who fled Zhetl survived, as did more than half the Nowogródek tunnel escapees. Most owed their survival to the initiative, courage and dedication of other Jews. Their determination in the overwhelming maelstrom was remarkable, and in their grappling with inhuman and impossible choices they were, indeed, heroes.
The Central Theme for Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020 was "Rescue by Jews during the Holocaust: Solidarity in a Disintegrating World."
This article originally appeared in the "Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine," volume 92.