Son of ‘Defiance’ hero to visit St. Louis

Liev Schreiber played the role based on Zus Bielski in the 2008 film ‘Defiance.’ Bielski’s son, Zvi Bielski, will speak in St. Louis on Oct. 26 about his father’s story.

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Filmgoers who were inspired by the 2008 film “Defiance,” the true-life story of the three Bielski Brothers who organized a group of Jewish partisan fighters who fought against the Nazis in the forests of Bellorussia, will have an opportunity to meet and hear Zvi Bielski, son of Zus Bielski, who was the leader of the armed Resistance that save 1,250 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Zvi Bielski, 56, was born in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces. He became a Brooklyn real estate professional, who now spends much of his time these days caring for his widowed mother, Sonia Bielski. The experiences of Zvi Bielski’s father Zus and his uncles, Tuvia and Azrael Bielski, who led the Resistance movement. In addition to remarks by Zvi Bielski, excerpts will be shown from a History Channel program of the true story depicted in the film “Defiance.” The film had Liev Schreiber in the role as Zus Bielski. The Jewish Light caught up with Zvi Bielski in his Brookyn, N.Y. home last week for a phone interview.

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Are your Dad and his brothers, who led the fighters in the forest, still living?

No, my Dad and his brothers, who led the fighters are now all gone. Their younger brother, Aaron, who was a small boy of 12 at the time, and who helped them as a messenger, is still living. Aaron was not a guerrilla fighter; he was a little boy.

How did you and your other family members respond when you first saw the movie “Defiance,” and did you consider it accurate?

Yes, it was considered extremely accurate. We were first of all thrilled to death that the story was being told. We all fell in love with the director, Edward Zwick. That was a big advantage. We were totally impressed with him, not just because he’s made other big movies, such as “Blood Diamond,” “Glory,” and “Legends of the Fall.” That wasn’t the impressive part. What was important was that he ‘got’ the story. With all the annihilation, these guys were not only able to save themselves, but also rescued the 1,250 people they did, and yet thrive in the process.

Was the film inspired by a book or books?

Yes, the book that I recommend is “Bielski Brothers,” by Peter Duffy, in addition to “Defiance” by Nechama Tec.

Did “Defiance” do as well among critics and at the box office as you had hoped?

Yes and no. It’s a two-fold answer. First of all, even after its original 2008 release, through DVDs, it is doing fantastic among people who want to know the story. I have been to about 80 speaking engagements where people (have told me) they never saw the movie at the cinema when it came out, so they go and rent or buy the DVD. When it came out, it did well. The critics mostly liked it, but some said that they wished the movie had been done better because of the unbelievable true story that it tells. Mostly, the response was positive.

Compare “Defiance” with the Brad Pitt film “Inglourious Basterds,” directed by Quentin Tarrantino. That film, which was a work of fiction, also dealt with anti-Nazi actions, and it came out around the time of the release of “Defiance.”

“Inglourious Basterds” was almost a comedy, though a very dark one. You know what, Tarrantino is a great filmmaker. For entertainment, it’s OK. But it doesn’t even compare to ‘Defiance.” I saw “Inglourious Basterds” and I simply saw it as something that was just made up. “Defiance” tells an absolutely true story that did not need to be made up. It was a true, true story. My Dad would tell you that a lot more went on. Keep in mind, that my Dad and his brothers had already escaped the Nazis and went back to save their relatives.

What can you me about your father that the movie didn’t get into?

Dad died at 83. The New York Times had a great obit about his life. Dad was a very happy-go-lucky, wonderful, wonderful, nice, nice man. Not only because he was my Dad; we had some differences, too, like many dads and their sons. My dad came to visit me when I lived in Israel, when I was a soldier. He saw me in uniform and asked me why my machine gun had its safety still on. That was based on his own experience as a fighter. My Uncle Asael, was killed at the end of the war fighting with the Russians. His daughter is still alive and living in Israel. Her name is Assi Bielski, and she is successful, has kids and enjoys living in Israel. Not one brother would have made it without the other.

How did your dad earn a living after the war here in America?

My dad was extremely successful. He ended up owning a trucking company. He also owned a small fleet of Yellow Taxi medallions in New York and some real estate. When I say successful, I am not talking about billions of dollars. He was a very happy, successful man in all ways. He was also very independent and unique. I once tried to impress him with a video of me jumping out of an airplane. After he saw me jump on the film and land safely I asked him for a response, hoping I had impressed him. He took a hit on his cigar and with a smile said, “Well, you had a parachute, didn’t you?” That was Dad, all the way.


The true story of ‘Defiance’ 

WHAT: Zvi Bielski, son of Zus Bielski, hero of the film “Defiance”

WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 26 – Doors open 7 p.m., talk at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: JCC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

HOW MUCH: $10 suggested donation; free to students

MORE INFO: 314-725-0400 or