During his life and now in death, Tuvia Bielski was many things to many people: a courageous and resourceful leader who helped save more than 1,200 Jews from falling into the hands of the Nazis; a humble man whose monumental achievements have inspired at least two books and the new feature film “Defiance,” starring Daniel Craig.
But for many years, Sharon Rennert knew Bielski by a simple, affectionate moniker: “grandfather.”
“On a person-to-person level, he was just a very loving, emotional man,” says Rennert, 43, a television editor in Los Angeles who is making a documentary film about her grandfather, the remarkable survival mission he engineered and its enduring effect on her family and the families of those whom Bielski and his brothers spared from almost certain annihilation.
Relatives recall that Bielski used to say, “I’ll be famous when I’m dead.” His words were prophetic. Since he passed away in 1987, his story has spread around the world. Underscoring the growing interest, last year the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg opened an exhibition, “Courage and Compassion: The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers,” that will continue showing through February.
That process surely will accelerate with this month’s nationwide release of director Ed Zwick’s “Defiance,” starring Craig, the latest James Bond, as Tuvia, and Liev Schreiber as his pugnacious brother Zus.
For Rennert, researching and recounting the story of her grandfather’s extraordinary deeds have taken her on a 20-year odyssey into her family’s history and to the heart of her Jewish American identity.
While growing up in western New York, Rennert was largely unaware of how Tuvia, Zus and their brother Asael rescued about 1,200 Jews by hiding them in the thick Belorussian woods for 3 1/2 years.
As depicted in “Defiance,” the Bielski siblings persevered through a combination of intelligence, cunning, bravery and a capacity to endure extreme physical and emotional hardships. Refusing to be cowed by the invading Germans, they launched guerrilla attacks and bloody reprisals against the enemy and its collaborators.
“I knew he had done something amazing, but as a young child I don’t think I appreciated it, and I regret that,” Rennert says. “I grew up taking my Jewish identity for granted.”
Rennert knew her grandfather mainly as a gentle, modest figure who drove a taxi, spoiled her and her brother with candy, listened enthusiastically as she hammered away at the piano and beamed with misty-eyed pride when she received her Boston University diploma.
It wasn’t until she read his obituary that Rennert fully appreciated the magnitude of his accomplishments. She then spent three years living with Tuvia’s widow, Lilka, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, N.Y. “I had just finished college, and I was trying to figure out what to do with my life.”
Rennert began questioning her grandmother about the adventures of the couple, who married in the woods during World War II. At first, her grandmother was reluctant to discuss the past. “It was like pulling teeth the whole time,” Rennert says. But gradually Lilka began to open up and, over the years, allow Rennert to start filming the interviews. Their conversations continued until Lilka’s sudden death in the fall of 2001.
A family remembers
That footage helped form the foundation for Rennert’s documentary, titled “In Our Hands,” a phrase that Rennert explains has a double meaning. “They took their destiny in their hands during the war. But then I feel like it’s also in the hands of the future generation to keep telling the stories.”
Rennert, who has her grandfather’s blue eyes, is putting the documentary together in her Santa Monica apartment. A black-and-white photo of Tuvia looks down benevolently from the wall above her editing equipment. Behind Rennert’s desk there’s a “Defiance” poster showing a wary-looking Craig holding a machine gun.
Rennert already has seen “Defiance” five times and plans to attend a screening in New York next week. The first time she saw it, she says, “I couldn’t speak for, like, four days afterward. I had to process it. It’s so overwhelming, but a good overwhelming.
“I think [Zwick] did a beautiful job.”
Gradually, Rennert has been fleshing out her documentary with archival footage and other material.
She interviewed many relatives, including her mother, Ruth Bielski Ehrreich, as well as some of the surviving partisans who lived with the Bielskis in the woods. She thinks she’ll need to raise about $30,000 to finish her documentary, which she hopes to wrap up later this year.
Ehrreich remembers hearing her parents’ stories as a child and the survivors who would visit the family’s homes, first in Israel, then in Brooklyn, to play cards, drink vodka and reminisce. The release of “Defiance,” and seeing the recent flurry of world attention paid to her family’s story, has been an emotionally intense experience, Ehrreich says.
“I think the story is long overdue,” she says, speaking by telephone from her Florida home. “Unfortunately, it’s very bittersweet because my parents and my aunts and my uncles are not around to take part in what I think of as a celebration.”
Other members of the Bielski clan have been moved by the global outpouring of interest to re-examine various aspects of the family legacy. Jay Bielski, 62, one of Zus’ sons, says that “Defiance” accurately captures the differing, sometimes clashing personalities and philosophies of Tuvia, who emphasized saving lives, and Zus, who was bent on taking revenge.
Although he insists that his father and uncle never would have come to blows (as Craig and Schreiber do at one point), Jay Bielski says that Tuvia and Zus’ children and grandchildren have replicated this personality contrast, as if genetically. A New York psychologist, Jay Bielski served in the U.S. Marines and fought with the Israeli army in the 1973 war, and his two sons both trained as Israeli army paratroopers.
Drawing on heritage
“Tuvia’s kids all have good hearts, just like their father,” he says. “We’re more impulsive and brusque, and we act out and we don’t take no . . . .”
“I am so proud of Sharon,” he continues. “She’s got the chutzpah to take the Bielski name and take it to another level. And she’s going to do it in a nice way. My kids would’ve done it through the barrel of a gun.”
In fact, one of the major themes shaping up in Rennert’s documentary is how different members, and generations, of her family have attempted to understand and apply their predecessors’ almost incomprehensible experience to their own vastly different lives.
Rennert’s cousin, Jordan Bielski, 22, an actor, gained an unusual perspective on this when he accompanied Rennert and other family members to Eastern Europe on a research trip and landed a four-second part as an extra on the “Defiance” set in Lithuania, courtesy of Zwick.
“Some of the actors came up to me and, like, gave me a hug and said, ‘We’re so honored to be working with you,’ ” Jordan recalls. “Under normal circumstances, I would be the one who would be star-struck.”
Jordan says he seeks to emulate his grandfather’s flair for diplomacy and his ability to take hold of his destiny by leading an active life. And he’s struck by how his ancestors’ decisive actions decades ago have swayed the course of generations. Today, there are an estimated 10,000 descendants of those who survived in the woods.
Above all, Rennert says, investigating the story of the Bielski brothers has made her feel more deeply connected to her Jewish heritage and affirmed her belief in the need for tolerance and acceptance.
“They could take everything from you,” she says, “but if you hold on to your humanity, you can do anything. They held on to their humanity.”