His father, a young medical student, had been killed very early in the war. He and his mother had escaped to the partisans in the forest. Girsh told me that for years all they had to eat in the forest were "twigs and leaves," but they survived.
All Girsh said were "the partisans." I never asked who or where because I didn't know at the time about the Bielski brothers, whose inspired story is presented in the new film, "Defiance."
In New Jersey, Molly Kaplan, with family ties to the focus of the film, shared her story with CentralJersey.com. If it wasn't for the Bielski brothers, she wouldn't have been able to tell that story.
Henia Konopko was a young girl, about 10 or 11 years old, when her brother, Harry, rescued her and his wife, Luba, from a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. He took them to live deep in the primeval forest near the town of Lida, now part of Belarus. There, they hid from the Nazis for more than two years, with the help of the legendary Bielski partisan group.
East Brunswick resident Molly Kaplan said she always knew her mother, Henia, was a Holocaust survivor. But it wasn't until Kaplan was a teenager that she learned the heroic details of Henia's epic struggle for survival.
Truth is stranger than fiction, and the remarkable story of the Bielski partisan group has now leapt from the dustbin of history into the din of popular discourse with the recent release of the movie "Defiance." The film made its national debut in theaters earlier this month. It chronicles the efforts of three Jewish brothers who created a safe haven in the forest where they eventually saved more than 1,200 Jews from the Nazis.
"Brothers Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski took it upon themselves that they were going to save Jewish men, women and children," Kaplan said. "During the Holocaust, there were other partisan groups, resistance fighters — there were Polish, there were Russians. But the thing that was unique about the Bielski group was that those other resistance fighters refused to take women and children.
"It was because of my uncle saving my mother's life, bringing her out to the Bielski partisan group, and because of Tuvia Bielski and his brothers that I'm sitting here today."
The story relates how some 6,000 Jews were marched from the Lida Ghetto on May 8, 1942 and shot, and how Harry was shot in the head only a half-inch from his brain and saved by a Jewish surgeon in the ghetto. He went into the forest, joined the partisans and again went to the ghetto to rescue his sister and wife.
Kaplan's mother Henia - who died in 1993 - had described how they dug out and lived in underground caves in the woods. They were always on the move as the Nazis sent out frequent canine search parties. Harry, nearly 20 then, was part of sabotage activities on Nazi supply lines.
"My Uncle Harry and Tuvia Bielski and his brothers — I taught my kids that those are what true heroes are," said Kaplan.
Henia met Jacob Karp - who died in 1999 - in Israel. He was a Polish survivor. They married and came to America in 1957, raising Molly and her brother Fred in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
From time to time, Kaplan would run into people who knew her mother.
Kaplan said she once met a woman who was is the forest with the partisans, and she remembered Henia not by name, but by her smile.
"I showed her a picture of my mom as a girl, and she told me, "Now I remember her, I remember that smile.' Kaplan said she is most happy when her friends say her three children have their grandmother's smile, and Kaplan finds strength in the fact that Henia was able to laugh and smile throughout her life.
"Despite all the hardships she'd been through, she was always very happy, with a joy for life," said Kaplan. "One of the things she always said to us was that the way they succeeded against the Nazis was not only by fighting, but also by living."
Kaplan once met Tuvia Bielski after a talk at Brooklyn College, her alma mater. She introduced herself saying she was there because of him.
"He was very humble, to him it was no big deal, he wasn't looking for prestige," Kaplan said. "He said "Thank you' and told me he was happy we met. But he didn't perceive himself as having done something so great. My uncle Harry was the same way, and that, to me, is what the essence of a true hero is."
Kaplan hopes that the movie will change the way the Bielski partisans are remembered and said her mother always wanted people to know their story. On her mother's gravestone in Elmont, Long Island, said Kaplan, there are words from the Yiddish "Partisan's Song" that they sang in the forest. The words: "Never say that you are going your last way."
The song says to never give up hope in life, don't ever say that the situation you are in means death," Kaplan said. "The song says that its own lyrics are written in blood. "Yes, you fight back when needed, but you fight back to live, you fight back for life."
Read the complete story and view photographs at the link above.