Samuel Zelwin (born Shmuel Zelvianski) came from a well to do family in Novogrudok, Poland. He, his father and his grandfather were all kosher butchers who also raised cattle. Their family was well liked and respected among the Jewish community for their generosity and kindness to everyone.
When the Nazis invaded Poland Samuel and his family were imprisoned in the town’s ghetto. In December of 1941, almost 5000 Jews were marched into the woods. None of them returned. It was at that time that Samuel (Sam) and a few others decided that they would escape the ghetto or die trying. Into the Belarus forests they went, where they joined up with the Bielski brothers who were already forming a resistance group. At the time there were two dozen people in the group.
One of the partisans who caught Samuels’s eye was the red-headed Chaike Duszkin (who became Ida Zelwin) from Korelitz. They celebrated their marriage on February 12, 1942.
Sam, together with some other men in the brigade, were responsible for going out and securing food for the resistors. On one occasion Sam and three partisans stopped into a tavern to have a drink. They sat in the corner of the bar, and watched as two Nazi soldiers entered. After a few drinks, the Nazis began bragging about how many Jews they had killed. Sam and his comrades left the tavern and waited nearby for the soldiers to leave. When the Nazis left, the partisans “took” care of them.
Whenever they had an opportunity, the brave men of the forest would exact revenge upon those who were trying to kill them. That often included the local Poles. The Bielski group tried to bribe a Polish local to help them rescue a Jewish doctor from the Novogrudok ghetto so that he could treat the people who were falling ill in the woods. The Pole told the Nazis about the doctor who they subsequently tortured and killed. When the partisans found out about the betrayal, they paid the Pole a visit. They killed him, his family, and even his animals. They left a note reading, ” If you mess with the Bielskis, this is what happens.”
On one foray to secure food, Sam fell asleep in a field. He was awakened by the butt of a Nazi soldier’s rifle. The soldier asked him in German, “Are you a Jew ?” In a split second he responded that he was. Luck, or perhaps divine intervention was on Sam’s side. The sympathetic Nazi told him to run and let him live. On another trip to secure some food, they caught a wild pig. Who better to slaughter the animal than the kosher butcher, Sam Zelwin? Fifty years later, Sam recalled how good that sausage tasted, the one and only time he ever ate it.
Despite all the despair the family endured, Sam and Ida never lost their faith in G-d. They tried to observe the Jewish holidays and maintain their religious practice. They made a point of trying to help as many people as possible. Years later at their children’ s Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, their fellow partisans made a point of telling their children how grateful they were to Sam and Ida for helping them survive. In 1985 at the Gathering of American Holocaust Survivors, a woman came up to their son Robert and told him that he should have the most respect for his parents and for all they did to help others during their time in the forest.
Sam and Ida Zelwin had two sons, a daughter, and seven grandchildren. Today, their grandchildren have twelve children of their own. That is a total of twenty-two survivors from just one a Bielski Brigade partisan family. They are living proof of the heroism and bravery of a group of people who resisted the Nazis and won. It was all because of Samuel and Ida Zelwin’s acts of Defiance.