Monday, November 19, 2007

War hero 'stole from Holocaust survivor'

A Jewish wartime hero who helped save more than a thousand other Jews has been charged with swindling a Holocaust survivor out of her Ј125,000 retirement fund.

Oxford don's wife 'sent war hero to his death'
In eastern Europe during the Second World War, Aron Bielski and his three brothers mounted what is widely regarded as the biggest armed rescue of Jews by other Jews.

The exploits of the four, who operated as partisans against the Nazi occupiers from the forests of what is now Belarus, have been chronicled in books, a documentary and a forthcoming Hollywood film.

The brothers’ encampment grew to include hundreds of armed fighters, families, children and elderly.

Historians say the Bielski brothers were different to other partisans in that they made it a priority to save Jews rather than to kill Germans.

No Jew was turned away and they ultimately rescued some 1,200 people.

Now however, Aron, aged 80 and the only surviving brother, has been arrested on charges of defrauding a 93-year-old Polish woman.

Prosecutors say Bielski – now called Bell – and his wife, Henryka, 58, befriended a neighbour, Janina Zaniewska, in Palm Beach, Florida.

They then allegedly tricked their victim, a Catholic who was herself imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, into giving them power of attorney and control of more than $250,000 held in various bank accounts.

Investigators say the couple then offered to take her on a holiday to her native Poland so she could visit old friends.

When they got there in May, they allegedly put her in a nursing home and returned to Palm Beach where they spent nearly all of her money.

Police were contacted in August by a bank manager who wondered why the Bells were withdrawing Ms Zaniewska’s money.

Police eventually found her at the nursing home.

“Thank God you found me,” she told authorities, according to police.

She returned to Florida last month.

Prosecutors have charged the couple with scheming to defraud Zaniewska, exploitation of the elderly and theft.

The charges against the couple carry up to 90 years in prison.

Steven Gomberg, Bell’s lawyer, has strongly denied the allegations and said the old woman was going senile.

He said the Bells were financially comfortable and were simply helping Ms 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,” he said.

He added: “There was nothing stolen. She’s not lost a penny.”

Relatives said they are shocked at the charges against him.

Zvi Bielski, a nephew, said: “I don’t believe it. It’s totally out of character.”

Staff at the nursing home in Poland said Ms Zaniewska “was aware of where she was, what was going on, who brought her here”.

Robert Montgomery, her lawyer, 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,” he said.