PW: Your book, The Bielski Brothers, tells of three Jewish brothers who hid in the forest in Belarus during the Holocaust and eventually established a kind of town there with 1,200 inhabitants. How did you first learn about this story?
Peter Duffy: I stumbled upon a reference to "forest Jews" on the Internet and clicked on it, and there was a short paragraph just mentioning the basic outline of the story, and I thought, "That's impressive." I was also taken aback by the fact that I hadn't heard of it.
PW: Why do you think this story is so little known?
PD: I've thought about that a lot. It may have something to do with the fact that after the war the two brothers who survived went to what was then Palestine and would soon be declared Israel and immediately fought in another war. Then, when they came to the United States in the '50s they didn't speak English well. But they're not mentioned in most histories of the Holocaust, and I don't get it.
PW: I'm guessing from your last name that you're not Jewish yourself. Were people surprised to meet a guy named Duffy who was researching the Holocaust?
PD: They were surprised that a non-Jew would be interested in this. Maybe a half hour into the interview, people I was interviewing usually brought it up. But I would say this is the most extraordinary story I've ever heard, Jew or Gentile. When I heard about the story, I never thought, "I'm a non-Jew, and why should I be interested?"
PW: You interviewed many survivors of the Bielski group in order to write the book. How did you track them down?
PD: I initially went to the two widows of the Bielskis who lived in Brooklyn. After that it became a process of "You should talk to this person" or "I heard there's a guy in Los Angeles." I found a couple through going to Novogrudek, the closest town to where all this occurred. One night I was in a hotel there, about to go to sleep, and there was this banging on my door. I opened the door and there was an 82-year-old man with medals on his chest demanding to speak to me. Language problems aside, we eventually spoke. I certainly discovered people who had never talked about the experience.
PW: Who of the Bielskis is still living? What kind of relationship do you have with them?
PD: When I began, the three widows of the three brothers were living, although one has since died. There was also a fourth brother who was young, 11 to 13 or 14 during the war, and he's still alive. He lives in Florida. I am almost an honorary member of the family now. We did so many interviews and they were so willing to tell me these very intimate details of their lives. From the widows to the children to the grandchildren, they are a family to be reckoned with. They are really, really extraordinary,
PW: What do you think the future of Holocaust research is now that we are approaching a period when there will be no living survivors? Is this kind of research a race against time?
PD: I did my research as quickly as I could, and some people died literally days after I spoke to them. I also did a lot of archival work, which is what it's all going to be eventually, but you can't substitute for the memories.
PW: What are you working on next?
PD: Good question. Will I ever find another story like this? I don't think so.