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Battling Bielskis? All Relative for Barry of Philly

January 15, 2009 By:
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Barry Belsky taps into memories at his bar-stool business in Old City, far from the old city of his family adventures. Photo by Joanna Lightner
The never give in, damn-the-defiant Bielski Brothers of "Defiance" never cried uncle.

But Barry Belsky did.

Of course, he said. Why wouldn't he? Indeed, they were wonderful any time he cried out to them for help as a youngster.

They were, after all, his uncles.

Co-owner of Mr. Barstool in Old City, a family business, Barry Belsky is high-beam proud of how his famous uncles raised the bar on heroism -- specifically, Jewish heroism -- as depicted in "Defiance," opening in the area this Friday.

Tuvia, Zus, Asiel ... in many ways famous as "fathers of Jewish adventure" for their work as pit-bull partisans during the Holocaust, they were nevertheless quiet, self-effacing uncles whose tales of the dark side were relegated to the shadows of memory.

Now, with "Defiance" serving as a depth charge, detonating the dynamics of their work saving Jewish lives in the fearsome forest of Belarus during World War II, their 42-year-old nephew's nachas notches an interviewer's attention as he pulls up a stool -- okay, a chair -- amid many at his Old City site, for new insights into what it means to be deemed DNA-worthy in the Bielski clan.

"Actually, there were nine Bielski brothers -- my father, Joshua, a rabbi, was one of them -- of 11 siblings," says Belsky.

And while the film's focus is on the three who fought in the forest, some of the others had their own battles to endure: Barry's father had been a talmudical yeshiva student "when he was drafted into the Polish army."

Giddyap! It was partially because he could ride a horse -- "an unusual thing for a Jew" -- that he was chosen, relates his son.

That and "they picked out the strong guys to serve."

He needed that strength to survive "being captured by the Nazis, who turned him over to the Russians -- they were allies at that time -- and they sent him to Siberia, where he installed telephone poles."

There was no need for Western Union to send a message -- Joshua's prospects were more cold than hot.

But then, while Joshua was in Siberia, far from the home he loved, his three brawny brothers were digging out of their own holes along with little sibling Aron, who, Barry relates of the sole survivor of the four, he has been closest to over the years.

But memories were a closed case. "They never spoke about their experiences," says Belsky.

"Their attitude was, 'We saved a lot of Jews; let's move on.' "

But, in a way, their attempt to move was paralyzed. "They were tremendous fighters during the war but, after, they didn't know how to channel their emotions. It was a period that people wanted to forget and they didn't like to talk about it."

Talk about being a Bielski ... that was reserved for others. "As a child, if I gave my name to a stranger, and said, Bielski" -- some members of the extended family changed the spelling on arrival in the United States -- "I would often get, 'Are you related to the partisans?' "

It was part question, part wonderment. Yet, the name of the game was modesty. "Uncle Tuvia was the most subdued person," says his nephew with a smile.

And Zus -- a fiery fierceness to take on the godlessness of the Nazis? "He was more outgoing."

Younger Uncle Aron, whose sylvan service as forest messenger is taken note of in the film? "The character in the movie ... that was really him. He was very difficult to get into."

Getting into the movie's myth-shattering moxie was a delight for Barry, who attended a New York premiere at a screening mainly for the Bielski family, "about 200 of us from around the world."

And while the matter of faith is brought up in the film -- the movie, says Barry, is very faithful to the facts -- God is not much of a main character, more of an extra cast aside in casting central to the film's theme.

But in real, if not reel, life? As a member of "the only Orthodox branch of the Bielski family," headed by his father the rabbi, Barry said that God was in the details and the detritus of the life the fighting family had faced.

And the Bielskis grew up religious. "To save Jews ... that is how they served God," says Barry.

The movie serves the heroes well and affords an education now, because "growing up as children of survivors, you don't really understand what happened."

Self-Doubt About Survival
Silence is not so much golden as guilt-edged, with some family members wondering why they survived and others didn't.

What survives the era is a certain strength of deed and purpose that came from their inner and physical power. The film's strength is in its ability to disarm the deluded, who still think of Jews as timid, with no temerity to battle back.

"Why didn't they fight back? They did if they were able to."

But some stereotypes actually are based in truth, adds Barry: "Jews, as you can see in the film, are often professionals, not fighters."

The battle has just started to claim their righteous fame. "Ten years ago, I told my children about their famous uncles, and I took them to Brighton Beach, where there's a memorial to them."

In a way, Barry's kids commemorate their kin by building their own pedestal to them through dialogue -- the film's. "One of my sons walks around all day saying lines from the movie," smiles his father. "My kids feel proud to know who they came from."

Come Friday, the story will be the world's to know. But Barry got a glimpse of what awaits him at the special New York screening, where some onlookers got a peek into the family business. He chuckles of the crowds pressing him for a handshake: "I was like a movie star."

The stars are aligned now for a walk down memory lane; but it's not like Barry needs Hollywood to remind him of the uncles with the rite stuff. The family sees each other on a regular basis, "at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and, unfortunately, funerals."

History lives on, and the Bielski name carries with it, he concedes, "an obligation."

How brave were the brothers? Brave enough, laughs Barry, to have James Bond portray Tuvia. Yes, he concedes, anticipating the very gentile Daniel Craig as his gentle Uncle Tuvia took some adjustments, until he saw him on screen -- when he was stirred, not shaken, by the performance.

From Belarus, with love? "Just wonderful, wonderful," says Barry.

But, then, who better to have than James Bond bond with your heritage? Makes sense to the rest of the Bielski clan, too. Indeed, relates Barry, one of the younger relatives fesses up to a fierce imitation of his ancestry -- with a double-oy twist.

"He goes around saying, when people ask who he's related to: 'Bielski ... Tuvia Bielski.' "  

 

 

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