Annual Holocaust commemoration to honor the Bielski Partisans

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This year’s annual Rhode Island Interfaith Commemoration of the Holocaust will take place on Yom ha-Shoah, Sunday, April 23. The event will remember the victims of the Holocaust and celebrate the heroism of the Bielski Partisans, who saved over 1,200 Jewish lives at the front in Belarus from 1941 to 1944.

The guest speaker will be Ruth Bielski Ehrreich, daughter of Tuvia Bielski, the leader of the Bielski Partisans, whose story was featured in the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” and the movie “Defiance.”

During World War II, Tuvia and his two brothers fled to the forest, where they welcomed all Jews to join them, especially those who were too weak to defend themselves.

With Tuvia as their commander, they overcame many obstacles to survive and thrive as a community. Through hard work and determination, they managed to meet the needs of their new village in the woods.

The numerous sabotage missions they conducted against the Nazi infrastructure resulted in Hitler placing a large bounty on Tuvia’s head. Still, despite the constant danger, the brothers were determined that they live life as normally as possible, and as Jews, in their forest home. They laughed, sang, danced, fell in love and even married.

When the war ended, over 1,200 Jewish partisans emerged from the woods.

In the movie, a character tells Tuvia that if you save a life, you have to take responsibility for it.  At this point, the responsibility the Bielski brothers took on has grown tremendously: Close to 30,000 people, living all around the world, most likely owe their existence to these three men.

Ehrreich says, “My father felt that responsibility always. He loved when people from that time would bring their children to meet him. If he were still with us, he would be able to see the children of the children, and those children’s children.”

One of the highlights of the annual Holocaust commemoration is the presentation of the Never Again Award, which recognizes significant contributions to the reduction of anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice. This year the award is being presented to Herb Stern, a past president of the former Jewish Federation of Rhode Island and chairman of the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial Committee.

Stern spearheaded the Holocaust Memorial Project, which took more than a decade to go from dream to reality. The memorial now stands next to Providence’s World War II Memorial, in silent tribute to the victims of the Holocaust.

According to May-Ronny Zeidman, the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center’s executive director, “Herb’s persistence made it possible to have a Holocaust Memorial – like most major American cities – for Rhode Islanders to visit; a place to contemplate what happened and to inspire future generations to make sure that it does not happen again.”

As Stern has said, “It’s the closing of a statement, if you will. It’s something that needed to be done as a matter of course to memorialize those who were lost and honor the survivors still among us.”

The program takes place on Sunday, April 23, at Temple Emanu-El, 99 Taft Ave., Providence. It begins at 4 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

LEV POPLOW is a communications and development consultant who writes for the Bornstein Holocaust Center.