Native Son

Oct. 16 – 22, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 36
Native Son
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
by Peter Duffy/sun contributing writer and Connie Cissell/Editor

Peter Duffy, a former Catholic SUN staff writer and associate editor, has recently published a non-fiction book about three Jewish brothers who saved 1,200 fellow Jews from the Nazi genocide, a moving tale of rescue and resistance set in the forests of what is today Belarus. Published by HarperCollins in July, The Bielski Brothers has garnered much media attention — including a feature on Paula Zahn’s CNN show — and won critical praise from reviewers throughout the country. The Chicago Tribune called it “a book with the grip of good fiction and the punch of hard truth.” “As amazing as Schindler’s List,” said People magazine. There has been talk of a Hollywood film, but so far nothing has materialized.

Duffy, 34, worked for the Catholic SUN in 1994 and 1995, during the later days of Bishop Joseph O’Keefe’s tenure in office and in the early days of Bishop James Moynihan’s administration. He traveled to El Salvador and Haiti for the newspaper, covered the pope’s visit to New York City, and wrote many a profile of the distinctive characters of the Diocese of Syracuse.

A native of Syracuse, he attended the University of Pittsburgh and worked at a few central New York newspapers before coming to the SUN. In 1996, he moved to New York City, where he eventually landed a job at the monthly magazine Brooklyn Bridge. In 1999, after the magazine folded, Duffy was invited to freelance for the New York Times, writing feature stories about the people and places of the five boroughs of New York City. He has since written more than 50 in-depth stories for the newspaper. During the same time, Duffy also wrote for New York Newsday, the Village Voice, the Sunday Telegraph of London and other publications.

It was during one New York Times assignment that he stumbled across the story of Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski. The three brothers grew up in a poor corner of Eastern Europe and, when the Nazis arrived in 1941, they fled to the nearby forests. As the extent of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews became apparent, the oldest brother, Tuvia, insisted that the brothers do all they could to save every Jew. “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill 10 Nazis,” he would say.

They offered refuge to Jews who fled ghetto imprisonment for the woods. Slowly, the ragged band grew in size. It moved from forest to forest one step ahead of the Germans, and in a few instances avoided a German onslaught by mere seconds. The brothers also slowly built up a fighting force that attacked German installations and convoys and sought out and mercilessly punished Nazi collaborators.

For the final 10 months of the forest experience, the Bielski unit, now nearly 1,000 strong, settled in a dense forest — called a “puscha” in several Eastern European languages — and constructed a bustling Jewish village, an extraordinary place with tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, gunsmiths. It had a large kitchen, a central square for gatherings, a mill powered by a horse that walked in a circle, a main street, a theater troupe, and a tannery that doubled as a synagogue. And this community existed in the heart of Nazi-occupied territory!

In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Army pushed the Germans out of western Belarus, and on July 10, 1944, some 1,200 Jews walked out of the forest. Asael, the second oldest Bielski brother, was conscripted into the Soviet Army and was killed fighting Germans in February 1945. Tuvia and Zus immigrated to Israel, where they worked blue-collar jobs to feed their young families. In the mid-1950s, both men moved to Brooklyn, New York, just a few blocks from each other. Zus ran a trucking and taxi company, while Tuvia, the great commander of the forest unit, worked as a truck driver, just another poor immigrant trying to make a living. Zus died in 1995, Tuvia in 1987. Their story was largely a historical footnote until Duffy’s book was published this year. The author lives in Manhattan with his wife, Laura, a journalist, and his baby daughter, Eleanor.

The SUN: First of all, how did it feel the first time you picked up your book and held it in your hands?

Duffy: It was an extraordinary experience. After spending more than two years researching and writing this story, it was hard to believe that it would actually be sent out into the world. I felt almost like it was someone else’s book.

The SUN: Did you always want to write a book? Was it a dream or goal?

Duffy: Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to devote lots and lots of time to a single story, to really get to know it well and to tell it with authority. Newspaper and magazine writing is great fun — it’s a wonderful excuse to learn about our world and get paid for it — but nothing beats concentrating all your energy on a single topic.

The SUN: In reading past stories you wrote for The Catholic SUN, it’s apparent that even then you had a style of your own. How would you compare writing a story on the 100th anniversary of a parish and what you recently accomplished? Any similarities?

Duffy: I think you approach every assignment exactly the same way: You search for something to capture your interest. Writing about a 100th anniversary of a parish can be a great exercise in learning how to be a good non-fiction writer. There are a lot of stories packed into 100 years of history — think of all the changes in the church and our world over that time, of the legions of characters that have made up that congregation, of the priests who have celebrated all those thousands upon thousands of Masses. There are great stories there and the process of finding them can teach you a lot about being an interesting writer. Now, I’m talking a good game, but I think my parish anniversary stories from the SUN were probably less than memorable. So do as I say, not as I do.

The SUN: What do you remember from your time at the SUN?

Duffy: I have many great memories of the Catholic SUN. I worked with extraordinarily talented people — Bill Preston, Tammy Conklin, Matt Coulter, Cathy Wenthen and several others — and was able to write about people making our world better. Which is a great aspect of the SUN — you don’t have to devote all your energy to writing about car crashes. Off the top of my head, I am reminded of Father Ray McVey and Unity Acres, which I wrote about a few times for the SUN. I remember covering Father McVey’s funeral at St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse and witnessing a ragged-looking man — presumably one of the recovering alcoholics who were shown such care by Father McVey — wandering up the aisle right in the middle of the Mass, seemingly oblivious to the solemn occasion happening all around him. It somehow seemed a perfect tribute to a man who dedicated so much to society’s forgotten.

The SUN: How long between your decision to write the book and its completion?

Duffy: I wrote the Times story in May 2000 and I began work on the book in earnest in September 2000. I delivered my final draft at the end of 2002 and the book was published in July of this year.

The SUN: To write an historical account the way you have written it — detailed, familiar and as if you were there yourself almost — you must’ve spent a considerable amount of time interviewing people. Where did your research begin and end?

Duffy: I started by interviewing as many eyewitnesses as I could find. I eventually found more than fifty survivors from the Bielski brothers’ wartime group living in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Israel. I also traveled to Belarus and interviewed both gentile allies and enemies of the brothers’ unit. Incredibly, I found many people who remembered the brothers and incidents from the story simply by walking into little Belorussian villages and asking who among the villagers was living during the war. There was nothing fancy about it, about some of my reporting techniques. I also scoured the newly accessible Soviet archives, which in fact contained much valuable information. In Holocaust archives in the United States and Israel, I found testimonies given by members of the brothers’ group who are no longer living and other valuable information. One of my great finds was a Yiddish-language memoir written by Tuvia Bielski. It had never before been cited by scholars and was unknown to even his family. Through these and other sources I was able to piece together the tale.

The SUN: The struggles you wrote about seem insurmountable. After your research, to what do you attribute the success of the Bielski brothers’ operation?

Duffy: First, they knew the countryside like the back of their hand. That knowledge enabled to them eke out an existence in the woods at a time when most Jews were locked-down in the nearby ghettos. They were able to use their gentile contacts in the countryside — people they knew from before the war — to procure food and to learn about enemy movements. They were also strong men, brutal at times, who understood that Jews had little chance of surviving the Nazi occupation if they didn’t arm themselves and prepare to fight. They were smart enough and tough enough to form a military unit that complemented their rescue operation. And it was all held together by the oldest and wisest brother, Tuvia. He was a dynamic and charismatic leader, a man of great sensitivity and towering strength. It was he who would rally the group during its darkest days. “We don’t need to be heroes,” he would say. “Whoever survives this war is the biggest hero.”

The SUN: When we look back and think of the atrocities endured by the Jews during World War II, we don’t often stop to think about the Jewish people who were able to a make it through the almost-annihilation, much less about those who fought back and did so successfully. What did this teach you about history as most of us know it?

Duffy: My major goal in writing this book was quite simple (although by no means easy): to fully detail the brothers’ achievement, to give it its proper telling. It was such an extraordinary achievement — equal surely to the deeds of Oskar Schindler or the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — that I thought simply telling it in its proper context would be enough. The brothers were by no means perfect men but they orchestrated the largest rescue of Jews by Jews during the Holocaust, a feat that perhaps deserves the honor of 100 books (or more). If my book challenges myths about Jewish passivity in the face of Nazi annihilation or whatever else, that’s great. But I simply wanted to tell a story. On a personal note, meeting and interviewing so many Holocaust survivors was an experience that was altogether transforming for me. It was deeply moving to sit with these brave men and women and hear how they were able to survive the worst that humanity can throw at them. That is something that I will always remember.

The SUN: Do you get back to Syracuse often? What do you miss about Syracuse?

Duffy: My mother and father live in Syracuse, so I come back fairly often to visit them. What do I miss? I certainly missed not being in Syracuse when the SU basketball team won the National Championship. I’ve been waiting my whole life for that to happen — never really believing, of course, that it could happen — and it wasn’t quite the same watching the game in New York City.

The SUN: In The Bielski Brothers, you manage to tell us a story that most people have never even come close to hearing about. What’s next for you?

Duffy: I’m not quite sure yet. I have some ideas, but nothing that really bowls me over yet. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll have to do a couple parish anniversary stories and see what turns up.

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