By Eli Rabinowitz
I have visited Belarus on two previous occasions, the first in 2012 when I travelled by bus from Warsaw to Brest, Novogrudok, Grodno, Mir and Minsk, and in 2018 to Novogrudak, Slonim, Zhelva, Mir and Naliboki.
My zaida, Nachum Mendel Rabinowitz, was born in Orla in 1887, at that time, in the Grodno guberna, but today, Orla is part of Poland. The Grodno archives remain in Belarus, but difficult to access.
My zaida studied under the famous Rabbi Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik at the Brisk Yeshiva. Nachum Mendel married Chana Herison of Jerusalem, before going to Volksrust in South Africa, and then to Cape Town, where he was the reverend of the Vredehoek Shul for 30 years from 1920 to 1950.
My wife’s large Bloch family were from Slonim and Mir in Belarus.
On my previous visits to Belarus, I was hosted by Tamara Vershitskaya, the curator of the Jewish Resistance Museum in Novogrudok. I met Tamara through Benny Kaplinski of Sydney. Tamara appeared in an exceptional episode of Who Do You Think You Are featuring Natasha Kaplinsky, then a BBC personality. Benny movingly sang the Mourner’s Kaddish in the ruins of Slonim synagogue!
I have no direct connection to the Bielskis, but several factors brought me to this 2019 reunion in Novogrudok and Naliboki:
I knew about the inspiring story from the movie Defiance in 2008;
I had seen the excellent work Tamara had done under the patronage of the late Jack Kagan, and later with Sergei Koval;
I manage eighty-six Jewishgen websites including nine in Belarus;
and Tamara and I went to Naliboki in 2018, where I met Alexander Pilinkievich. I was sold on the idea of attending this unique reunion!
In the interim I built my connections to the Bielskis, via Solly Kaplinski in Israel and through Benny Kaplinski and Eric Borecki in Sydney.
Arriving in Novogrudok on 7 July 2019, we were warmly welcomed at our accommodation at the Catholic Church, where several of us stayed. This included Aron Bell, the last surviving Bielski, with his wife Henryka, Bella Rubin, her two sons, Uriyah and Shachar, and Bella’s sister and family. Nance Adler from Seattle was also in our group. The Catholic priest and staff looked after us, and interesting discussions took place at breakfast time! We attended the full program on the first day in Novogrudok, where the highlights included the inauguration ceremony at the Memorial Wall and the Tunnel Exhibition. We also attended a concert with the participation of descendants of the Bielski partisans.
On the second day, we travelled by minivans to the Naliboki Forest via the village of Naliboki. After an address by Alexander Pilinikievich, we had a tour of the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki Forest. Bella and Shachar Rubin engaged the group in story telling. There was much ruach and lots of dancing.
I fired up the crowd of over a hundred, by playing a recording of the Partisans’ Song, Zog Nit Keynmol, on my iPhone, which they spontaneously joined in, singing in Hebrew!
But for the handful who were in the right spot at the right time, the performance that took our breath away was that of Sevil Ulucan-Weinstein, the daughter-in-law of Asaela, daughter of Asael Bielski, who was born on the day her father was killed!
Sevil’s violin playing provided the powerful message that the Bieskis, the Partisans, and their legacy, have survived.
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