Bringing Bielski Memoir To Print


The Jerusalem Post recently published a lengthy story about a newly discovered manuscript by Tuvia Bielski, the leader of the Polish Jewish brigade that rescued 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust, the largest such rescue in history. To the public, it was a revelation. But it was not to Jonathan Brent, the director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which holds the manuscript.

Brent has known about the manuscript since he arrived at YIVO a year ago, as had the archivist who originally discovered it two years ago during the digitization process of the center’s somewhat disorganized archives. But only recently was it confirmed that the work was indeed by Bielski.

“People [at YIVO] had a suspicion from the beginning that this manuscript was by Tuvia,” Brent said. But it was only after The Jerusalem Post reporter, Marjorie Backman, was tipped off about the document that the final process of confirmation was begun.

“It was only because of Marjorie’s efforts that we were able to confirm” that the memoir was indeed written by Tuvia Bielski, Brent said.

To be sure, the fact that Bielski wrote a memoir about his time as a partisan fighter in the forest — recently the subject of the film “Defiance,” starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia — was not unknown. Peter Duffy, a former New York Times reporter who wrote a book about the brigade, “The Bielski Brothers,” used a shorter, though also unpublished, version of his memoir for his research.

But as Duffy said: “Apparently [YIVO] gave me what they knew they had at the time” — he began his research in the late-1990s — “so I know very little of what’s in this newly discovered piece.”

The newly discovered manuscript — about 60 hand-written pages longer than the one Duffy used, which was 333 pages — had been sitting in YIVO’s archives, untouched, for more than 50 years. It was one of 3,000 Holocaust testimonials held by YIVO, but since the center’s catalogue was not digitized until 2008, it was nearly impossible to find. You would have needed to sort through thousands of documents to stumble upon it. And apparently no one did — until 2008.

“It was discovered through a process,” Brent said. Not long before Brent arrived at YIVO last summer, an assistant archivist was sorting through the newly digitized testimonials and saw that they had not one, but two, possible Bielski manuscripts. “When I got to YIVO, I was told of the [new] Bielski manuscript and that this other one might be connected to the first,” Brent said.

But it was not until late this May that Backman, a freelance writer for the Jerusalem Post, pressed YIVO to finally verify that the memoir was actually hand-written by Tuvia. In order to verify that it was authentic, Backman called Tuvia’s son, Robert Bielsky, who lives in New York, to vouch for his father’s writing.

“It’s no different,” Bielsky said in a recent interview.

A partial translation of both the newly discovered manuscript and the known one — both written in Yiddish — further verified that both documents were by Bielski. Brent suspects that the newly discovered manuscript is an unedited version of the known memoir.

But now the hard part starts. Brent would like to publish the new Bielski manuscript in translation under YIVO’s imprint, in collaboration with Yale University Press. But first he needs approval from Bielsky, who holds the intellectual property rights. In addition, Bielsky holds dozens of his father’s private letters that, for scholars, could provide critical information about Tuvia’s story. Since the Jerusalem Post story was published, Brent has been courting Bielsky carefully, and plans to meet with him sometime in the coming weeks to discuss publishing.

“For me, it’s a priority,” Brent said. “But these things take time.”