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Interview with Author Peter Duffy

Aired July 8, 2003 - 20:48   ET


PAULA ZAHN, ANCHOR: The story of Oscar Shindler, the factory owner who saved more than a thousand Jews during World War II is now famous. There are other Holocaust stories not widely known. And one is the story of three brothers who helped save more than 1,200 Jews during the German invasion of the former Soviet Union.

ZAHN (voice-over): In 1942, the Bielski brothers were becoming legends. Tuvia, Asael, Zus Bielski escaped the Nazi roundup of Jews by hiding in the dense forests surrounding their rural village. The Germans killed their parents two brothers, a wife, and a newborn daughter. In the trees, they built an army to fight the Nazis.

JAY BIELSKI, SON OF ZUS BIELSKI: They were able to transform themselves into cold hearted killers. What made them survive there was strength and the ability to fight. And that never stopped.

ZAHN: Over the next few years, the Bielskis helped other Jews escape, traveling through the night to their secret camp. First family, then strangers.

LEA FRIEDBERG, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR: And I was standing there, and I said, oh, this is going to be my life. And so I see the big trees, the sky, and that's going to be our life. But then I said, but wait a minute. But we don't see any Germans around there. There's no ghetto. There's no riots.

ZAHN: It was freedom, yet at a price. Food was scarce. They slept under trees with the constant fear of discovery.

FRIEDBERG: We would hear them. We would hear them talking in German. We would hide in places behind trees, behind -- in the bunkers.

ZAHN: Leaa came to the camp with 17-year-old Sonia.

SONIA BIELSKI, WIFE OF ZUS BIELSKI: I didn't want to go to the forest. My mother said to me you have to go because, if you go away, nobody will know where we are. You better should die in the forest than there at the hands of the Germans. That's what they want.

ZAHN: And in the middle of the forest, Sonia found her future with the youngest Bielski, Zus. S. BIELSKI: And then they said to me like that, will you stay with me?

I said, if you do something for me, I will stay. What you want I should do for you?

`I said you have to take my parents out of the ghetto. They're talking. They're finished in the ghetto. He said, listen, I will try. I am not promising, but he send away two people, not -- one was jews, one was not Jews. They could go into the ghetto. And I had them in 10 days. I had my parents.

ZAHN: Just days later, everyone left in the ghetto was executed.

S. BIELSKI: I would never stay here. I would never have my children and the grandchildren. No, never. These people lived because of the Bielskis.

ZAHN: A 50th wedding anniversary that almost never was. A celebration not just for Sonia and Zus bielski but for Lea and Peshak Friedberg, a top aide to the Bielskis during the forest years. And to the 1,200 who escaped deep into the forest, escaping a past of pain for a future of hope.

S. BIELSKI: We are celebrating that we are free. Celebrating that we are free. That I can see. I have my children. I have my grandchildren. I never dreamed about this.


ZAHN: I'm joined now by Peter Duffy the author of "The Bielski Brothers." The book comes out on Thursday, the anniversary of the day the Jews were liberated from the Bielski camp.

Thank you for dropping by. What a powerful book.

Can you explain one thing to me, how it is these men remained anonymous for so many decades? Why haven't we heard about them before?

PETER DUFFY, AUTHOR: It's really an extraordinary thing. They did something that's easily equal to Shindler or the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and yet were largely forgotten. To save 1,200 people and to bring them out of the forest alive with so much death around them is really a story that deserves to be told. And they came to this country, and the two brothers who survived the war, Tuvia and Zus, came to this country and, they had to support families and were busy and didn't have time to work towards getting the story out. They had to support themselves.

ZAHN: How is it they were able to hide 1,200 people in the forest?

You describe in this book not only did they have to find food, but they set up a synagogue, they had a communial bathing area, and all of this within miles of where the Germans were. DUFFY: They were three brothers who grew up close to the countryside. They knew it very, very well. And when the oldest brother Tuvia deemed the purpose of the group would be to save as many Jews as they could, they went to the woods and used their contacts as best they could, used their knowledge of the woods and their knowledge of using their strength to intimidate those they had to intimidate. And it was really a very, very complex diplomatic as well as fighting organization that they put together.

ZAHN: In addition to saving their own, they also were aggressive fighters.

How many Germans did they kill?

DUFFY: It's -- they killed -- they told the Soviets at the end of the war that they killed 381 Nazi and Nazi allied fighters. Both in -- both themselves and allied with Soviet guerrillas. This is from a fighting force with no guns in the beginning of the war. They worked up to a fighting force of maybe 200 men, 250 men, and they went through the countryside mining railroads, attacking convoys, doing whatever they could. So in addition to rescue we had resistance. It's really not a story you see in a war.

ZAHN: The stregnth in human spirt shines on in your beautifully written book. Thanks for sharing that with us tonight. Good luck on the book tour. Once again, it's just mind boggling they were able to do what they did.

DUFFY: Thank you.


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