History of the Bielski Partisans’ Camp in the Naliboki Forest, known as Jerusalem in the Woods

The Naliboki Forest, which gave shelter to more than 5,000 partisans during WWII, is comparable to the territory of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (about 2,400 square kilometres). In 1943, sparsely populated forests, punctuated by small rivers, with huge wetlands and very rich flora and fauna, became home to two Jewish partisan detachments: one numbered 556 Jews and was headed by Sholom Zorin, while Tuvia Bielski led the other, which was twice as large. 

Both were part of the Soviet partisan movement and subordinate to the partisan command of the Baranovichi underground regional committee of the Communist Party. Both were family partisan detachments with a prevailing number of non-fighters – mostly women and children, which made them very different from Russian, Belarusian and Polish partisans in the area. 

However, there was a huge difference between the two Jewish detachments due to the personality and strategy of their commanders.  

The Bielski detachment was organized in June 1942 by three brothers, Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski, natives of the village of Stankevichi, Novogrudok district.  Tuvia, the eldest of the brothers, was appointed commander by his group in August 1921 when it had about 30 people. They named it after Marshal Zhukov. At that time they were located in the Lipichanski forest, not far from their home village. 

When individual groups got organized into the Lenin Brigade in the fall of 1942, the Bielski partisans became Company No. 2 of the Oktyabrski detachment headed by Viktor Panchenkov, a Russian lieutenant. By November 1942, there were 280 Jews with the Bielskis, and by the summer of 1943, they had grown to 500, enlisting Jews who had fled from the ghettos of Novogrudok, Lida, Ivie, Dvorets and other places.

It became possible for two reasons:

  1. the main task Tuvia Bielski had set for himself – the rescue of the Jews – became known in numerous ghettos thanks to messengers Tuvia sent out in all directions; 
  2. the Bielski brothers had many friends and contacts among non-Jews who helped them and any Jew who was searching for the Bielskis in the forest.
    e.g., Konstantin Kozlowski, along with his brothers – Michail and Alexander – saved over 500 Jews by providing food and shelter and showing the way to the Bielskis in the forest. He was honoured as the Righteous Among the Nations of the World in 1994.

Thus, the commander himself, other Jewish partisans, non-Jewish liaisons, and partisans of the Iskra detachment handled the rescue of Jews.

In June 1943, when Jews made up about 80% of the personnel of the October detachment, they were allocated to a detachment named after Ordzhonikidze, a hero of the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). Moreover, they were divided into two groups: a hundred fighters who were assigned to operate in the area of Novogrudok, while all the rest became a family partisan detachment under Tuvia Bielski, Kirov brigade. Tuvia received an order to take his non-fighters to the Naliboki Forest.  

Hardly had they arrived at lake Kroman when on July 13, 1943, the punitive ‘Hermann’ operation began. Its goal was to destroy all partisans in the Naliboki Forest. 

A whole month did they spend in the blockade, part of it on a small hill surrounded by swamps, called Krasnaya Gorka. When the blockade was over, they returned to their old base near Novogrudok, yet were immediately sent back to the Naliboki Forest again. It’s a miracle, that they lost only one person during that turbulent time.

This time the Bielski partisans settled near the village of Kletishche, situated in the very heart of the Naliboki forest. By 1944 their camp miraculously evolved to resemble a ‘shtetl’ (small town) with a central street and various workshops that provided not only the needs of the detachment but also fulfilled orders of other partisans in the area.  

Over two hundred people – seamstresses, tailors, hat makers and hairdressers, saddle makers, shoemakers, watchmakers and carpenters worked under one roof in the light industries building. They repaired watches and weapons, sewed hats and clothes and made shoes, manufactured stocks for rifles and submachine guns, windows, doorframes and other articles from wood. Blacksmiths made upper parts of rifle breeches, a tannery produced soles and other leather goods, a bakery baked bread and provided the tannery with charcoal. Another workshop collected resins from pine trees for the tannery. 

They had a mill and a slaughterhouse where two ritual slaughterers deemed their knives kosher. A sausage workshop made sausages. Soap was made in the soap factory. Finally, there were two hospitals in the camp, where several doctors and about two dozen nurses treated the wounded and sick. They had everything necessary for life for themselves and provided aid and assistance to Russian partisans as well. 

A fighting group grew up to 150 people strong (some women among them), on horseback, operated together with non-Jewish partisans carrying out all kinds of missions against Germans. 

In addition, Tuvia was ordered to arm 100 people from the family detachment and engage them in military missions. Besides, all members of the detachment were obliged to guard the camp. 

At the time of their liberation in July 1944, the detachment included over a thousand Jews from all over Belarus. According to Tuvia Bielski’s estimate1,230 Jewish lives were saved by resistance and thanks to the people and forests of Belarus.