Photo: Liquid Library
PALM BEACH, Fla. - In Eastern Europe during World War II, young Aron Bielski and his three older brothers mounted what was, by most accounts, the biggest armed rescue of Jews by Jews during the Holocaust.
The Bielski brothers were acclaimed as heroes, and their exploits were chronicled in books, a documentary and a Hollywood movie coming out next year.
But now, the sole surviving Bielski brother is being called something far different — a con man.
Now 80 and known as Aron Bell, he has been arrested on charges of swindling a 93-year-old woman, a Catholic survivor of the Holocaust. Bell and his wife, Henryka, 58, are accused of tricking the old woman into giving them control of more than $250,000 in various bank accounts.
According to police, the couple then convinced the woman they were taking her on a vacation to her native Poland, and instead put her in a nursing home there, returned to Palm Beach and spent her money, nearly every penny.
The charges against the couple carry up to 90 years in prison.
Bell's attorney has strongly denied the allegations and said the old woman was going senile.
As the Nazis invaded what was then the Soviet Union in 1941, killing or imprisoning Jews by the thousands, the Bielski brothers fled their home near Stankiewicze in what is now Belarus and hid out in the forest, determined to resist, fight and save lives.
The brothers' encampment grew to include hundreds of armed fighters, families, children and elderly. No Jew was turned away. Their partisan movement ultimately rescued some 1,200 Jews.
"To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans," Tuvia Bielski would tell his followers.
Most other partisan groups focused solely on hunting Nazis, killing collaborators and seeking revenge, said Christian Gerlach, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the Holocaust extensively.
"In a way, that's what makes the Bielski unit different," Gerlach said.
Tuvia Bielski was in overall command of the encampment. Asael Bielski mostly guided the brothers' armed unit. Zus Bielski was head of reconnaissance. Aron largely played the role of messenger — he knew the forest better than anyone.
"There are thousands of people who are walking the Earth because of the decisions that him and his older brothers made," said Tuvia's son Michael Bielski, 55, of Bonita Springs.
Asael was killed in 1944 fighting for the Red Army as it moved into Germany. The remaining brothers emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s, settling down in the New York area and mostly working blue-collar jobs until finding success in the taxi and trucking industries. Aron retired to Florida in the 1990s.
'They stole money from her'
Relatives said they are shocked at the charges against Aron Bell.
"I don't believe it," said Zvi Bielski, 56, of New York City, Zus' son. "It's totally out of character. I love him dearly. He's been very close to me. My dad was like his father during the war. I can't imagine what happened."
Authorities said the Bells befriended the elderly Janina Zaniewska, who was once imprisoned by the Nazis alongside Jews in Poland. She lived in the same Palm Beach condominium complex as the Bells.
The couple persuaded her to give them power of attorney over her bank accounts, investigators said.
In May, the Bells flew with Zaniewska to Poland under the guise of taking her to visit old friends, police said. The Bells dropped her at a nursing home and returned to Palm Beach.
Police were contacted in August by a bank manager who wondered why the Bells were withdrawing Zaniewska's money. Police eventually found Zaniewska at the nursing home.
"Thank God you found me," she told authorities, according to police.
Zaniewska returned Oct. 4. Prosecutors charged the couple with scheming to defraud Zaniewska, exploitation of the elderly and theft.
"This whole notion that the Bells sent this poor lady to Poland so they could steal her money is just preposterous," said the couple's attorney, Steven Gomberg.
He said the Bells were financially comfortable and were simply helping Zaniewska with her finances as her mental capacity diminished.
"We have people here, elderly people, in their 90s who are losing their faculties and have financial assets that need to be preserved and unfortunately have nobody else," Gomberg said. He added: "There was nothing stolen. She's not lost a penny."
Ewa Chyra, director of the nursing home in Poland, said Zaniewska "was aware of where she was, what was going on, who brought her here."
"Zaniewska told various stories, so one could doubt some of what she said," Chyra said. "Her moods changed a lot, from euphoria to depression, and her behavior depended a lot on her mood. She can be a very friendly, talkative, witty person ... while she can also swing to the complete opposite, and be aggressive and suspicious."
Zaniewska's attorney, Robert Montgomery, said she "has all her faculties" but fell victim to the Bells.
"They stole money from her, there's no question about that, pretty much cleaned her out," Montgomery said. "She was taken advantage of."
Aron Bell did not return repeated telephone messages. Zaniewska's number is unpublished and efforts to reach her at her condo were unsuccessful.
Peter Duffy, who spent many hours interviewing Aron Bell for the 2003 book "The Bielski Brothers," said: "I'm just not willing to concede that this is actually what happened. It doesn't make any sense."