The Bielski Brothers | The Killing of Major Denis Mahon


The Bielski Brothers cover

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“Everyone knows about Oskar Schindler and his list, but the heroism of the Jewish brothers Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski has largely been unsung. In World War II, the Russian trio saved 1,200 Jews from death camps by hiding them in a village they created in a forest in Belarus. The village, one Polish survivor recalled, “was like Minsk,” a thriving cultural center.

“This moving account reports how the Jews at the camp evaded both nearby traitors and Nazis, who at one point came after them with a 900-man commando unit.

“The Bielskis, whose parents died in the Holocaust, were forgotten. Asael died in combat, but the other two made it to Brooklyn. Tuvia died in 1987 and Zus in 1995. Their little brother, Aron, once a 12-year-old scout in the forest, now lives in Florida. BOTTOM LINE:  As amazing as Schindler's List.”

People magazine, starred review


“The Bielski Brothers reads like an action novel. And it is some story. Three macho and street-savvy young men — Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski — rise brilliantly to the occasion of extreme crisis by creating not only a viable partisan fighting force in the forests of the Lida-Novogrudek region of Belarus but a ‘forest shtetl, a Jewish village [of some 800 inhabitants] in the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe … a mini-civilization, a small-scale replica of what the Nazis had succeeded in destroying throughout the towns and cities of western Belarus, indeed much of Europe.’ …

“Fast-paced and deeply moving … inspiring in its representation of the heroism of ordinary people.”

Washington Post


“Drawing on the memories of many of the survivors, Duffy's book is a gripping and overdue tribute to the brothers' resourcefulness and courage.”

The Times (of London)


“The precision of Duffy's reporting shows through vivid details that bring his characters and their experiences to life—everything from the bacon the young Bielski brothers kept stashed in their barn because it wasn't kosher to their lives in the woods, where frigid air froze hot soup in their bowls and they had to kill typhus-ridden lice by burning them from their flesh. The result is a book with the grip of good fiction and the punch of hard truth.”

Rebecca Skloot, Chicago Tribune


“This is captivating material. Amid an almost entirely lachrymose historical memory, it is a welcome story of bold, determined and successful resistance.”

Wesley Yang, San Francisco Chronicle


“After writing a magazine article about the brothers, Mr. Duffy tracked down family members and survivors in the United States, Europe and Israel and uncovered documents including Tuvia Bielski's unpublished memoir. He weaves it all skillfully into an engrossing, inspiring narrative, one, however, that is not without blemishes: Obsessed with survival, Tuvia unabashedly wielded power, even killing one of his Jewish rivals.

But the result was that more than a thousand Jews emerged from the Belorussian forest after the Nazi defeat, an incredible victory amid an immeasurable tragedy. Like Oskar Schindler, the Bielskis will be recognized far too late for their valor, but this book should ensure they'll never be forgotten.”

Dallas Morning News


“This is a story about heroes, and Duffy does a masterful job of telling it.”

Publishers Weekly


“Duffy tells their hair-raising adventures well, as they move from wood to wood to escape the Nazis, and finally build a city in the forest, complete with workshops for tailors, leatherworkers and watchmakers, a bakery and forge, a school and infirmary, even a cemetery and a jail. He details the terrible struggles against enemies inside the group as well as out, and does not hide the moral ambiguities of his heroes in war:

“Zus in particular shot first and asked questions after, and even Tuvia killed a fellow Jew in anger at the end. But that end in particular is especially moving. The villagers watch the long line of 1,000 Jews leaving the forest, and ask in disbelief, ‘Are you ghosts?’ And after the end there was a sad lack of recognition for the brothers, two of whom ended their lives as poor immigrants in America. But Zus, at least, didn't change. At 82, in an interview for the Washington Holocaust Museum, he was asked what he remembered about the Nazis. 'I remember they were bastards, ' he said.”

Carole Angier, The Spectator (UK)


“Duffy´s book is an act of restoration, if not of resurrection, tipping the scale to the side of historical rectitude, shedding a steady light on the formidable story of forest Jews too long hidden in the shadows.

“Although Duffy conveys the thrill and travail of their extraordinary act of defiance, he is not loath to discuss the moral compromises and peccadilloes, even acts of moral outrage, the Bielskis occasionally committed. He gives us the full chiaroscuro effect, painting both the hues of light and shadow that constitute a picture of heroism in extremis.”

Michael Skakun, The Jewish Press



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"In a country where much of the past is shrouded in a fog of myth, legend, and mournful ballads, this is a splendid example of the new writing of Irish history. Peter Duffy writes here with admirable exactitude, free of academic jargon, telling all the known facts about a 19th century killing that stands for something much larger. The wider Irish context of the tale is laid out with care and precision, and Duffy casts skeptical eyes upon all lazy theories and easy explanations. Like all good historians, he identifies the moral issues, but does not moralize. In the end, some mysteries remain, as they do in all explorations of the human past.  But in the end, we know far more than we ever knew before."

Pete Hamill, author of The Drinking Life


“Among the million deaths during Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s, there were some that did not fit the pattern of starving families dying as they huddled in derelict hovels, of emaciated men collapsed in roadside ditches, as well as of priests, doctors, and others who had cared for the stricken.

“Those exceptions were landlords and other men of property who were gunned down by rural agitators and angry tenants.

“And among them was the County Roscommon landlord, whose murder is the subject of Peter Duffy's probing account, "The Killing of Major Denis Mahon."

“It is a significant contribution to the literature of the Great Famine, standing alongside Cecil Woodham-Smith's 1962 account, "The Great Hunger," still in print. And Duffy's exploration of the famine years in one community is also a notable achievement in the use of local history to illuminate larger events. …

“A final word about how Duffy, a New Yorker, came to write the book. Both of his great-great-grandfathers had fled Ireland during the famine, and curious as to what they had witnessed, he happened on the story of Major Mahon. His goal then was to explore ‘how relief schemes formulated in the comfort of London . . . actually worked in the stricken communities of Ireland.’ In this, Duffy has succeeded.”

Boston Globe


“Peter Duffy´s intricate and absorbing book “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon” is the story of an emigration scheme that went tragically wrong. Its villain, Major Mahon, had inherited a large estate around Strokestown, next to Ballykilcline, just before the famine. The estate was heavily indebted, having been neglected for years. In the spring of 1847, at the height of the potato blight, Mahon tried to rid his property of nearly 1,000 destitute tenants. Keen to pare costs, he chose an unreliable shipping agent and the cheapest available destination, Quebec. One-third of those shipped out perished.

“To compound the tragedy, Mahon proceeded to evict most of those who remained on the estate. By August, when he sent to Dublin for his “small mahogany case ... containing a six-barrel pistol,” he knew he was a marked man. A few months later, he was shot dead after nightfall as his carriage traveled a country road four miles from his home. His murder was greeted with widespread jubilation; within hours, celebratory bonfires were lighted on neighboring hills.”

Cormac Ó Gráda, The New York Times Book Review


“[Duffy´s] exploration into this devastating period in Irish history is a scrupulously researched and well-presented record. Capably transforms one of the bleakest episodes in modern history into an instructive account of events that have lasting repercussions to this day.”

Kirkus Reviews


“Of the 70 or 80 books I read in 2008, more than a few stand out. I loved … Peter Duffy's histories of the Bielski brothers' heroism, and of the Irish famine.”

Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“During the years of the Great Irish Famine, it is estimated that one million people perished. A staggering number that makes the impression that the story of one death could never succeed in revealing such a huge crisis, which is what I believed before opening Peter Duffy´s “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon.” The murder of an obscure, rural aristocrat sounds like the stuff of historical fiction and not actual events. Yet Duffy has succeeded in telling the story of a man whose demise speaks to the failings of British policy and private charity, the involvement of the church, the influence of economic policy, issues of immigration, foreign reaction, religious strife, local law, underground societies, and the misery of the masses, making a surprisingly coherent story that is equally interested in narrative and history. …

“In focusing on both the successes and failing of Major Denis Mahon´s role in Famine relief, Duffy´s book allows the complexity of this larger history to reveal itself. The bad guy is not the “government” or the collective aristocracy. Both the protagonist and antagonist are one man whose actions – not purely good or purely evil – are traced through letters, newspaper articles, court records, government documents, and police reports. And the events surrounding Mahon´s murder draw in even more perspectives, from a town priest who becomes his rival, to the emergent criminal underworld, Mahon´s underhanded land manager, and “witnesses” lending their court testimony for a variety of dubious reasons. As a journalist, Duffy treats this history in an even-handed and meticulous way, but the delicacy and passion with which he shares his research makes ‘The Killing of Major Denis Mahon’ as engaging as the unraveling of a murder mystery should be.”

The Irish Echo

“Mahon´s death has been a source of controversy ever since. Was it justified? Was Mahon himself committing slow mass murder of his tenants? Duffy (The Bielski Brothers) mounts an investigation, but more importantly, marshals his storytelling skills to render vividly the harsh realities and the alternately heartbreaking and appalling politics of the Great Famine. To Duffy´s credit, his treatment is evenhanded. Yet he does not lose sight of the larger discussion that the blight engendered in Parliament, where powerful factions seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to persuade the Irish to change their ways–particularly, their loyalty to the Catholic Church.”

Publishers Weekly