Sunshine Connections: Grandson of ‘Defiance’ hero Tuvia Bielski, in Tampa
I recently conducted an interview in Tampa with Brendon Rennert, the proud grandson of Tuvia Bielski, the commander of the Bielski Brigade that eluded and fought off the Nazis in the dense Naliboki forest of western Belarus while protecting, and saving the lives of over 1,200 Jews for three years during the Holocaust.
My interview with Mr. Rennert was not intended to recount the incredible WWII exploits of his grandfather and two great uncles known as the Bielski Brothers, which is well documented in film, books, articles, videos, and memoirs, but as much to learn about Rennert and his family’s connection to Brooklyn.
Mr. Rennert’s now famous grandfather and several of his great uncles immigrated to Brooklyn before and after WWII. Rennet’s grandfather Tuvia immigrated to Brooklyn in 1955 and lived the rest of his life quietly in the Maywood section of Brooklyn until his death at 81 in 1987. Mr. Rennet’s direct memories of his now famous grandfather all come from Brooklyn.
Currently Rennet works as a Premier Account Manager for CenturyLink, the third largest Telecommunications Company in America. He also works with the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Rennert explained: “Education is my passion; I work with the Museum through school tour groups and speaking engagements focused on my family’s unique role in Holocaust history.”
Just last week the Florida Holocaust Museum kicked off its “Courage and Compassion” Exhibition of historical photos, documents and educational material about the Bielski Brigade.
During the filming of the hit movie “Defiance,” which featured Daniel Craig as Brendon’s grandfather Tuvia, the Bielski family was invited by Director Edward Zwick to visit the production on location in the forests of Belarus.
I asked Mr. Rennert what that experience was like.
“It was humbling,” he said. “We were treated like royalty and when they announced that we were there on set, everything would stop. It was like we were the celebrities. I was so surprised, and of course honored that these superb actors and movie stars paid so much respect to me and my family, the descendants of the characters they were portraying.”
He suddenly laughed, remembering a detail. “Daniel Craig had even put a sign that read ‘Tuvia Bielski’ on the door of his motor coach; he said it helped him stay focused on the character.”
I also spoke by phone with Tuvia Bielski’s daughter (Brendon’s mother), now living in Fort Myers. Ruth Ehrreich recounted the episode with understandable pride at how the characters of her father and uncles (Zus and Asael Bielski) were so respected by these world famous actors.
“They announced over the loud speaker ‘Bielskis on set’ when we got there. There was this mutual feeling of intimidation. We were intimidated by their celebrity status, and they seemed intimidated by the real family. They were genuinely humbled by their roles. Craig said that it was such a big role for him, and difficult to live up to the grandeur of this person called Tuvia.”
Ehrreich said she was touched by how impressed the actors were with the contrast in realities. After a long strenuous day of filming in the forest, the actors and the crews would return to their respective motor coaches or hotel rooms, take showers and relax; several actors told her that’s when it struck them. How did the Bielski Brigade endure the real hardships, the constant uncertainty, day in and day out, of living through brutal winters while fighting for their survival against the Nazis for three years in the same mass of dense forest where they were now shooting the film?
Bielskis in Brooklyn
Walter Bielski, one of Tuvia’s brothers, had immigrated to Belle Harbor on Long Island before WWII in the late 1930s. For a decade Walter sold vegetables and fruits from a wooden cart that he pushed like a wheelbarrow along the streets of Belle Harbor. He lived at 141st street near Rockaway Beach.
As a lot of European emigrants did back then, Walter Bielski changed his name to Bell. Eventually, Bell moved to New Jersey, and with a brother-in-law, built a very successful plastics factory in New Jersey, and a trucking company in Brooklyn.
After their incredible exploits of survival and protecting 1,200 fellow Jews during the Holocaust, Tuvia and Zus Bielski joined the Israeli army and fought with distinction in the Arab-Israeli wars.
Then in 1955 Tuvia traveled to Long Island to visit his siblings who had already immigrated to the states. When Tuvia became temporarily ill, he sent for his mother and his children. Zus and his family also came.
Tuvia and Zus decided to stay in America, and moved into the building projects in Shore Haven, Brooklyn. Then in the late 50s they moved to the Midwood area. Tuvia lived with his family on Avenue I and 12th Street, while Zus and his family moved into a house on 22nd street.
Ruth married when she was 18 and moved with her husband to Rochester, New York. She would return to Brooklyn to visit her father Tuvia and mother Lilka regularly during the subsequent years. Mr. Rennert made those visits to his grandparents’ home with his mother.
Rennert recalled: “Yes, I have a lot of powerful memories of Brooklyn. We visited my grandparents about five or six times a year. I was very young of course, around five years old.
I remember there was always food being prepared. My grandmother Lilka loved to cook. People were always visiting.
Lilka was always dressed well because she never knew when someone would show up. She seemed to always be preparing food for guests in a housecoat she wore over her regular dress. When she heard a knock at the door she would suddenly take the housecoat off, go greet the guests, ask them to sit down at the table, and then serve them vodka and a big meal.”
The “guests” that Mr. Rennert is talking about were usually other family members and survivors of the Holocaust who owed their existence to Tuvia Bielski.
“Everyone was either called ‘uncle…. or aunt….’. It wasn’t until later that I was old enough to realize who they were, they weren’t literally my Aunt or Uncle, they were the people that my Grandparents saved.”
Rennert’s mother Ruth Ehrrheich, who moved to Fort Myers from Rochester six years ago, said about the Tuvia Bielski home in Brooklyn; “Eating, drinking, and talking was a way of life, it was an experience because there were so many people who came to the house to pay homage to Tuvia. We never knew who or when they might drop by, so Lilka was always ready for them, immaculately dressed under a housecoat she wore while she cooked.”
Rennert continued: “As I said, I was very young then, but I remember the ‘Aunts and Uncles’ used to tell me that my grandfather was a great man and someday I would understand…I knew he was special, but for many years I wasn’t able to understand why.”
In the year 2000, nine years before the release of “Defiance”, freelance journalist Patrick Duffy wrote an article about the Bielski Brigade in the New York Times titled “Heroes Among Us.” Duffy was preparing to write his critically acclaimed book “The Bielski Brothers.”
In that article he writes about Tuvia and Zus Bielski in Brooklyn.
“For nearly 40 years after their heroism, Tuvia and Zus lived quiet lives 10 blocks from each other in Midwood, Brooklyn, a middle-class neighborhood thousands of miles from the war-ravaged landscape where they battled the Nazis. Like other immigrants, they struggled to learn the language and sweated to support their families.
Tuvia drove a truck for his older brother Walter, who had immigrated to the United States before the war. In the early days, Tuvia’s English was so poor he needed someone to sit in the passenger seat to read the signs.
Zus opened a gas station on Kent Avenue in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Later he sold the station to start a trucking company on nearby Roebling Street. He also made a profitable business leasing taxicab medallions.
Anyone passing them on the street would have had no inkling that the brothers led what historians have described as the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews during the war. Passers-by would never know that the Bielski brothers were among the greatest of war heroes.
Tuvia died in 1987 and Zus in 1995. Although there was a brief spark of interest in their lives after the publication in 1993 of ”Defiance: The Bielski Partisans”, a scholarly work by Nechama Tec, the brothers remain anonymous even in death, and even in Brooklyn. No historical markers adorn their homes.
A stone honoring Tuvia in the Holocaust Memorial Mall, a small park on Sheepshead Bay, does not mention that he lived much of his life five subway stops away. No one in the Bielski family knew the stone was there until a neighbor told them.”
At one point during my interview with Rennert, he paused, slightly shaking his head as if he had difficultly believing it himself, and said, “Hitler had a price on my grandfather’s head.”
Hitler’s war machine trampled a great deal of Europe during that period in history. In 1941 Germany broke its nonaggression pact with Russia, invaded and occupied the Belorussian area surrounding Novogrudek near the Naliboki Forest. The Nazi soldiers assigned to control the area summarily executed Jews by the tens of thousands, but they were never able to capture or destroy the Bielski Brigade and the Jews they protected in the forest, primarily due to Tuvia Bielski’s compassion and extraordinary leadership.
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