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.
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 who was once imprisoned by the Nazis alongside Jews in Poland. 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 where they put her in a nursing home and returned to Palm Beach. “Thank God you found me,” police said she told authorities upon being found there.
The Bells are charged with scheming to defraud Zaniewska, exploitation of the elderly and theft which carry up to 90 years in prison. Their attorney Steven Gomberg has denied the allegations and said the old woman was going senile.
“This whole notion that the Bells sent this poor lady to Poland so they could steal her money is just preposterous,” he said, adding that the Bells were financially comfortable and intended only to help Zaniewska with her finances as her mental capacity diminished.
“There was nothing stolen,” said Gomberg. “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 but said she “told various stories, so one could doubt some of what she said.” Zaniewska’s attorney, Robert Montgomery, said “They stole money from her, there’s no question about that, pretty much cleaned her out.”
Aron Bell did not return repeated telephone messages. Zaniewska’s number is unpublished and efforts to reach her at her condo were unsuccessful.
The Bielski brothers hid in what is now Belarus and were joined in the forest by 1,200 armed fighters and Jewish families who focused on saving other Jews rather than killing Nazis as the majority of resistance groups did.
Relatives said they are shocked at the charges against Aron Bell.
“I don’t believe it,” said Zvi Bielski, 56, of New York City. “It’s totally out of character.”