As rare as it is to meet a movie star, perhaps less common is the chance to engage the subject of a feature film. However, for residents of Western Pennsylvania, last week provided several opportunities to interact with Aron Bell, 90, the last surviving Bielski brother.
During World War II, the four Bielski brothers took to the woods near Stankevich, a rural village in the Soviet Union. There, the group created a camp, called Jerusalem, which provided a haven for more than 1,000 persecuted and fleeing Jews. Although their primary purpose was to protect Jewish lives, the Bielski brothers also developed a unit for fighting Nazis.
The brothers’ actions were depicted in the 2008 film “Defiance” in which George MacKay, an English actor who later starred in “Captain Fantastic” (2016) and “Pride” (2014), played the role of Aron, the youngest Bielski brother.
During his five-day Pittsburgh stay, Bell, who changed his name from Bielski after arriving in the United States decades ago, visited six classrooms, spoke at two public venues, including the Ohio County Public Library, and met with numerous individuals throughout the region and spanning into West Virginia.
“I don’t know what the hell they see in me,” remarked the praise-deflecting nonagenarian.
Bell’s visit, which was facilitated by Classrooms Without Borders, provided a unique opportunity to “touch” one of the last surviving heroes of the Holocaust, explained Zipora Gur, executive director of CWB.
“This is not going to be possible in 10 years,” echoed Wendy Goldman, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University who invited Bell and his wife, Henryka, to answer questions from students.
During the CMU session, Bell was offered a range of inquiries, including: “Why did you fight? What was your relationship like with your brothers? Did you keep anything from your time in the forest?”
For more than an hour, Bell parried each question with grace and humility.
“I may look to you like a hero, but I am no better than any of you,” he said. “I assure you, if you were there, you would do the same. The time makes you do it, and with the help of God, you survive.”
For those seeking a historian’s detached account of survival by flight and fight, Bell offered minimal details. Instead, what the “self-educated” speaker of at least five languages said was: “There’s a movie, ‘Defiance.’ Go see it a couple of times; it will explain things to you.”
Goldman’s intent was that Bell should serve an illustrative purpose.
“I would like them to see that this is not just words on a page. This is a person and someone who is here with us,” she said.
Modesty and perspective in the face of acclaim offered a telling tale for those he met.
“I’m very lucky,” he said. “I see the sun. I see the clouds. I am grateful to the good Lord [for] my life.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.