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 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.
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.
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.
In 1941, as the Nazis invaded what was then the Soviet Union, 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 about 1,200 Jews.
“To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans,” Tuvia Bielski would tell his followers.