The son of a famed Jewish partisan urged a multiracial group in Newark to remember those who offered “heroism and defiance” in the face of the “indignity and death” of the Holocaust.
Speaking at the 25th annual Holocaust remembrance sponsored by the city of Newark, Robert Bielski recalled how his father, Tuvia, co-led the most effective group of Jewish partisans during World War II.
“From nothing but a ragtag collection of disheveled, malnourished, displaced, and mentally beaten-up people, they turned into the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews in World War II,” said Bielski, speaking April 30 in the grand ballroom of the Robert Treat Hotel. “They were armed, and they mounted fear over the entire region.”
Some 50 survivors and 300 Newark students took part in the ceremony, which included participation by elected officials and local clergy.
Introducing Bielski, Newark Mayor Cory Booker noted how the Bielski Brigade, partisans led by his father and three uncles, operating in what is now western Belarus, saved more than 1,200 Polish and Belorussian Jews from the Nazis. One of them, Ann Monka of Montville, was on hand for the ceremony. The story of the Bielski brothers was dramatized in the 2008 film Defiance.
“Today we are remembering the courage of those who fought back,” said Booker. “Now, nearly 70 years later, there are more than 25,000 descendants of those survivors living in the world.”
In a welcoming address, Newark real estate developer Miles Berger reminded the audience that in addition to six million Jews, the Nazis’ victims included Romany, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other political and religious opponents.
“Using this definition, the total number of Holocaust victims is between 11 million and 17 million people,” he said.
Rabbi Levi Block of Newark’s Chabad Torah Center and Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston assisted in lighting memorial candles.
“In this brief ceremony, we will remember a period of time in which perhaps not all of us can relate personally, but we will remember a period of time that is important to each of us because of what it means in the future,” said Kulwin. “We Jews have a saying: ‘Never forget,’ and the idea of ‘Never forget’ surely applies to every one of us here.”
In a 20-minute address, Robert Bielski captivated his audience with tales of his father recruiting ghetto inhabitants to join a powerful underground force.
“Their aim was to save the lives of as many Jews as possible and destroy the lives of the Germans and all who were out to harm them,” he said.
“They treated their friends benevolently, the neutrals justly, and their enemies were dealt with swiftly,” he added. “The Bielskis never bowed and the Bielskis never wore a yellow patch.”
As he closed the ceremony, Kulwin also reminded the audience of a speech given during the 1963 civil rights March on Washington by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, his predecessor at Temple B’nai Abraham and a refugee of Nazi Germany.
“He said the most evil thing, the most pernicious thing, the most dangerous thing is not prejudice. It is not brutality. It is not hate. It is silence, to be silent in the face of what everyone sees…. When we see enmity, when we see hate, the worst thing we can do is to remain silent,” Kulwin said.
Sponsoring the event, along with the city of Newark, its Department of Neighborhood and Recreational Services, and its public schools were the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, the Berger Organization, Edison Properties, Temple B’nai Abraham, and Manischewitz.