IT sounds like something out of ancient mythology.

Three brothers living near the edge of a forest witness the coming of an invading army. They arm themselves, take to their horses and seek refuge in the woods they know as well as they know anything.
The enemy arrives and systematically starts killing the long-oppressed minority to which the brothers belong. Horrified and angered, they lead guerrilla attacks against the enemy's installations and exact vicious revenge on local collaborators.

Prodded by the eldest, who is selected as commander, the brothers and a growing number of warriors begin a campaign to save all of their people, including the weak, the young, the old, the sick. Slowly the group evolves into a makeshift forest community with a hospital, workshops, a school and even a bathhouse.

When the invading army retreats, the brothers emerge from the woods -- the saviors of 1,250 people.
This seeming legend is the true-life tale of Tuvia Bielski and his younger brothers Zus and Asael, bold rescuers of Jews in Belorussia, now Belarus, during World War II. For nearly 40 years after their heroism, Tuvia and Zus lived quiet lives 10 blocks from each other in Midwood, Brooklyn, a middle-class neighborhood thousands of miles from the war-ravaged landscape where they battled the Nazis. (Asael died soon after leaving the forest.) Like other immigrants, they struggled to learn the language and sweated to support their families.

Unlike a John McCain or an Ehud Barak, they did not capitalize on their wartime accomplishments, and no book contracts, movie deals, lecture tours or other byproducts of American celebritydom floated their way. Zus, an earthy man who jeered at television Nazis (''pigs and cowards,'' he called them), ran a trucking and taxi company in Williamsburg. Tuvia, the great commander on a white horse, toiled as a truck driver.

Anyone passing them on the street would have had no inkling that the brothers led what historians have described as the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews during the war. Passers-by would never know that the Bielski brothers were among the greatest of war heroes.

They were hidden giants in a city where many gifted people live camouflaged by the trappings of ordinary life. But unlike, say, the immigrant cabdriver who was a lawyer overseas, the Bielskis achieved renown by saving lives, an act whose resonance grows as the number of survivors' descendants increases.

Tuvia died in 1987 and Zus in 1995. Although there was a brief spark of interest in their lives after the publication in 1993 of ''Defiance: The Bielski Partisans'' (Oxford University Press), a scholarly work by a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut named Nechama Tec, the brothers remain anonymous even in death, and even in Brooklyn. No historical markers adorn their homes. A stone honoring Tuvia in the Holocaust Memorial Mall, a small park on Sheepshead Bay, does not mention that he lived much of his life five subway stops away. No one in the Bielski family knew the stone was there until a neighbor told them.

''He would always say, 'I'll be famous after I'm dead,' '' said Lilka Bielski, Tuvia's widow, a regal woman with an expressive face. ''In America, he was a number like everybody else.''
She still lives in the Avenue I home she shared with her husband. Six plaques and medals honoring him hang on the wall in her neat living room. Just above them is a photograph of Tuvia from the 1920's and on the opposite wall is a photograph taken in the forest that shows 30 fighters in military garb, many holding rifles. Most are dead now, almost 60 years later.

A short walk away is the East 22nd Street home of Zus's widow, Sonia. Her memorabilia includes a few plaques, all made after her husband's death, arranged near four framed newspaper articles on the wall of her dining room. By turns spirited and good-natured, she sat at her kitchen table one recent Friday and spoke well into the evening about the war. As the hour grew later, she seemed to grow stronger, more eager to continue.

''There is no family like the Bielskis,'' she said, her voice echoing across the room.

Surviving in Memories

The brothers' memory lives most powerfully in the people they saved, who are spread throughout the world and now number fewer than a hundred. The group has been gathering for functions since the war's end, bonded by their harrowing experience.

Twenty of them collected last month in Valley Stream, N.Y., for a bar mitzvah for two of Zus's grandchildren. While hordes of teenagers danced to the music of 'N Sync and Mariah Carey, their elders chatted with one another, reminiscing about old times.

The women, mostly teenagers during the war and now in their 70's, were outfitted in long strings of pearls and freshly sculptured hair. Many had married older fighters in the forest, men long since dead, and so they outnumbered their male counterparts nearly 2 to 1. One man used a wheelchair, another got around with a walker.

The presence of the Bielski brothers hovered over the event. ''Half of this room wouldn't be here without them,'' said one man. A soundless black-and-white home movie of a 1959 bar mitzvah, in which Tuvia and Zus, already well into middle age, were surrounded by hundreds of war survivors, was broadcast onto a video screen in the front of the large banquet hall, adding a bittersweet touch to the party.

''Even at the last bar mitzvah, there were lot more people,'' said Leah Kotler, 76, of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, pointing out that survivors filled just two tables. ''It is very, very sad. But we expected this in 1942. So this is a bonus just to be alive.''

With little prodding, each survivor told stories of the war, of watching friends and family be rounded up for execution by the Nazis, of escaping the ghetto and searching through the night for the Bielski camp, of surviving years of fear and deprivation.

Charles Bedzow was 17 when he slipped out of the ghetto in Lida, Belorussia, to join the Bielski brigade. ''It was heaven,'' said Mr. Bedzow, a real estate developer who now lives in Montreal. ''We fought the Nazis and we were equal and we found a place where we survived. We were a Jewish brigade and the Germans couldn't destroy us.''

As the number of survivors has declined, the responsibility of remembrance has fallen to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, 10,000 to 20,000 people, who know the war only through stories told over dining room tables.

''I have this unfinished business in a little corner of my being which haunts me,'' said Michael Bielski, Tuvia's oldest son, who at 48 feels the powerful tug of his own link to valor. ''I need the world to know this story.''

Tough Men for Tough Times

The three Bielski brothers, part of a family of 12 children, grew up in Stankiewicze, which at various times was part of Poland, Belorussia, the Soviet Union and now Belarus. The only Jews in a rural village of a dozen families, the Bielskis ran a farm and mill, and in their transactions with townsfolk the strapping young men never flinched from confrontation.

''Most of my brothers were very tough individuals,'' said Aron Bell, who at 70 is the only surviving son of David and Beila, the Bielski parents. Mr. Bell, a retired businessman who divides his time between the Upper East Side and Palm Beach, Fla. He is five feet and a few inches tall, and unlike his powerfully built brothers, he is slight.

''When they were in their teenage years, the neighbors were already afraid of them,'' he said of his siblings. ''As much as they wanted to beat up a Jew, they wouldn't touch any of our family. Even rich Jews didn't want to associate with them.''

Tuvia, born in 1906, was the third son, but he assumed the mantle of family authority after the two older brothers immigrated to the United States. Tuvia and Zus eventually married and moved to nearby cities. Asael stayed home to manage the farm.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, setting off World War II, western Belorussia was ceded to the Soviet Union, which had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler. Tuvia was suspect in Soviet eyes because his wife was rich, so he fled to the city of Lida, where he married a second time. The Soviets were less suspicious of Zus, who was offered an administrative job in his town, Novogrudok, and of Asael, who was given a village council position in Stankiewicze.

Then the Nazis arrived. A massive air and ground attack beginning on June 22, 1941, took the Red Army by surprise and left it badly damaged. Chaos followed. Tuvia and Zus were briefly rounded up by the Nazis and put on a work detail. Sensing what was in store, they escaped and swore never to be captured again. The three brothers sought refuge separately in the thickly wooded forests dominating the Belorussian countryside.

The Nazis wasted no time in slaughtering Jews. Two younger Bielski brothers were shot when they tried to escape. A ghetto of 7,000 Jews was established in Novogrudok, and on Dec. 8, 4,000 Jews were lined up and murdered. Among the dead were the Bielski parents, Zus's wife and baby daughter, and Tuvia's first wife.

Aron Bell, who was 11 when his parents were rounded up to be taken to the Novogrudok ghetto, watched from behind a tree. ''They put my parents on a truck,'' he remembered, ''and my mother asked a Gentile who worked for us if he would get her a pair of boots. This man, who had lived with us like he was a member of the family, said to her, 'Where you are going you will not need boots.' ''

By early 1942, the small group living in the forest near Novogrudok included the three brothers along with young Aron, who lived by their wits and obtained food by holding up peasants at gunpoint. After making tentative peace with the wary Russians, who had assumed control of the forests, the small Bielski group formed itself into a military organization led by the hard-drinking, hard-fighting brothers. Tuvia was commander. Asael guided the armed unit, and Zus was head of reconnaissance.

''They were all six-footers, wonderful, beautiful men,'' Sonia Bielski said. ''And when they were sitting on their horses, the whole world was theirs.''

Mr. Bell added, ''When those three were together, you felt like you had an army behind you.''

From the beginning, Tuvia sent men into the ghettos to rescue Jews and take them to the forests. Young fighters were badly needed, but he ordered the rescue of any Jew, battle-ready or not. ''I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill 10 Nazis,'' he often said.

Lea Friedberg of Flushing, Queens, was living in the Novogrudok ghetto when her parents urged her to head for the forest.

''Six of us went under the wire, like an animal crawls underneath something, late on a dark night in August 1942,'' she said. ''We walked all night. By the time we got to the camp it was getting light. A little group of people was sitting there. I was 15 years old and I didn't know what I was doing and where I was.''

Constantly on the move, the forest dwellers slept in their clothes and lived in small huts dug into the ground, hampered by sickness and lack of food. But they were a community. By October 1942, the group numbered 200. In summer 1943 the group, by then 600, traveled undetected for weeks through Nazi-controlled territory to reach another forest near Novogrudok, where Tuvia hoped to establish a safe, permanent base. But tens of thousands of German troops soon launched an offensive to eliminate the partisans, both Jews and non-Jews. The Bielski brigade trudged far into the forest, navigating through deep swamps.

''We could hear the Germans dogs, and they were shooting over us,'' Sonia Bielski said. ''We were in there for 10 days, without food, without anything. But the Germans didn't want to go in the swamp. Even their dogs didn't want to go into the swamp.''

Once the Germans backed off, the Bielskis set up the camp -- it became known as Jerusalem or Shtetl Bielsk -- where they stayed until the Red Army arrived in July 1944. The population grew large enough to support a small hospital, a tannery, a synagogue, a bakery, a bathhouse and a school.

''It was like a wonderland,'' said Lilka Bielski, who married Tuvia after his second wife died at Nazi hands.

The group stumbled out of the forest in summer 1944 with 1,250 people, most of them working-class Jews who had avoided near-certain liquidation. Only about 50 people were lost during the forest captivity.

''I wouldn't have survived without the Bielskis,'' said Sulia Rubin of Fort Lee, N.J. ''Were they perfect? No, everybody makes mistakes. But they are mine, they are family, I love them.''

Seeking a New Life

The survivors found their former world destroyed and their people massacred. They began searching for a new life.

Asael died later in 1944, after he was conscripted into the Red Army and was killed in battle in Germany. Tuvia and Zus and their wives wound up in Romania. In 1945, the two couples went to Palestine.

They collaborated on an as-told-to book that was published in Hebrew in 1946 and is virtually impossible to find today. But mostly they were family men. Both men had three children, and in 1956, the two families moved to Midwood to be close to relatives. It was a typical American neighborhood of single-family homes, well-tended lawns and Friday night football games, and the Bielski sons all eventually starred on the high school football team.

Tuvia drove a truck for his older brother Walter, who had immigrated to the United States before the war. In the early days, Tuvia's English was so poor he needed someone to sit in the passenger seat to read the signs. Eventually he bought a few of his own trucks, and until he retired in the late 1970's, he could often be found behind the wheel, delivering plastic material to companies in the region.

''It was very hard for him,'' said his son Michael. ''He went from absolute authority -- respect, admiration, loyalty -- to coming to this country and getting a job being a truck driver. I saw this man at age 70 pick up drums of raw plastic material and load them onto a truck, 20 or 30 of them. It would kill me inside that he would wind up his life this way.''

When Tuvia died in 1987, he was nearly penniless. He was buried on Long Island, exhumed a year later and given a state funeral with military honors in Jerusalem.

Zus also blended into the background of American life. He opened a gas station on Kent Avenue in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Later he sold the station to start a trucking company on nearby Roebling Street. He also made a profitable business leasing taxicab medallions.

For both brothers, nothing was more important than the middle-class ideals of a safe neighborhood and good schools. Like most immigrant parents, they wanted their children to have a normal life. Zus's son, Zvi, 47, remembers spying his father watching his Midwood High football practice.

''When I came home,'' the son recalled, ''I asked him what he thought. He said: 'I never felt so proud. I am glad I came to America.' ''

But the war was never far away from their thoughts. The survivors, many of whom settled in the New York area, gathered frequently for formal banquets with speeches and for less formal card games where the vodka flowed freely.

''We became friends for ever and ever,'' said one survivor. Tuvia, an emotional man who teared up when he spoke of the war, especially relished seeing the children of those he saved. ''It was like they were his own children,'' said his son Robert, 42.

Keeping Memory of Valor Alive

Some survivors wrote memoirs of their experience and spoke at Holocaust museums and before Jewish organizations. The brigade was mentioned in books about the Jewish resistance and in articles, mostly in Jewish publications. They were lauded by figures like the Zionist leader Moshe Sharett and by Meir Kahane, the militant founder of the Jewish Defense League, who told one of Zus's sons that the brigade had been an inspiration to him.

Family members also share war stories. A neighbor in Midwood told Zvi how she huddled in an attic to elude the Nazis, her only hope being that the forest fighters about whom she had heard rumors would come and rescue her. One survivor, now a rabbi in Boston, has called Tuvia's home nearly every Sunday since the war's end, just to make sure that everything is well.

But few in the larger society are aware of the story, unlike the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto or the heroism of Oskar Schindler.

''The Warsaw ghetto uprising, because of a set of elements, symbolizes the whole of Jewish resistance to the general public,'' said Saul Friedlander, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has written extensively on the Holocaust.

The Bielski story ''didn't have the same echo or resonance,'' Professor Friedlander said.

''It is subsumed within and under the memory of the Warsaw ghetto,'' he said. ''You never know why one memory stays and another disappears. There are no set rules.''

The Schindler story, he said, was relatively unknown until it was popularized by Thomas Keneally in his 1982 novel and then by Steven Spielberg's film.

Zvi, who followed his father into the taxi-leasing business and lives in his boyhood home, remembers how his father, weeks before his death, grabbed his hand with a bearlike grip and told him to ''remember what I did in the war with my brothers.''

He does. He spends hours discoursing on Zus's exploits, points repeated again and again for emphasis. Bounding out of his chair, he re-enacts a scene from the forest, telling how his father slit the throat of a Nazi he discovered wearing a ring that had belonged to one of the brigade's Jews.

Michael, an investor living in Florida, can also talk for hours but, unlike his cousin, emphasizes acts of mercy over acts of revenge. During a recent conversation about his father, he displayed reams of materials -- testimonials from survivors, scrapbooks of newspaper clippings -- which he examined with reverence. As he read his father's words saying he would rather save Jews than kill Nazis, tears filled his eyes and his voice caught. ''I'm sorry,'' he said. ''This is very emotional.''

''People think of this as a Jewish story, and it certainly is,'' he said. ''But it is not just a Jewish story. It is about unbelievable power trying to crush the helpless. It is about the best of humanity in the most evil of times.''

Some family members hope a film will be made about the brothers' experiences. ''Schindler was a Nazi,'' Zvi said with exasperation.

Various projects are under way. One of Tuvia's granddaughters, who works as a film editor in Hollywood, is seeking financing for a documentary. A survivor, Sheila Garberman of Maple Shade, N.J., provided the details for an 80-page children's novel, ''Escape to the Forest,'' written by Ruth Yaffe Radin and published in March by HarperCollins Juvenile Books.

Mr. Bell's son, Alan, speaks in Jewish day schools in the city. ''Who knows who Michael Jordan is?'' he will ask, as every hand in the room shoots up. ''Now, who knows who Zus Bielski is?''

There is concern about memories fading. ''The survivors are so adamant about passing the story on,'' a descendant said. ''I'm not sure the second and third generation is as passionate.''

In the end, the stories may survive simply because they continue to be told. That was illustrated one evening at the home of Robert Bielski, in Mill Basin. Over dinner, Mr. Bielski spoke of the war while his three children listened.

''Did they have tattoos on their arms?'' asked Taylor, 10.

No, his father said, the people in the concentration camps were tattooed.

After the table had been cleared, Taylor and Ariel, 8, grew restless and wandered into another room to play video games.

But Jordan, 13, a black-haired boy wearing a summer camp T-shirt, stayed and listened. As he shuffled about the room, bouncing a ball, he listened intently, processing a tale that was light-years away from his own life experience. In this comfortable apartment on a safe street, a whisper of history was being passed from one generation to the next.

''I am proud to be his son,'' Robert said of his war-hero father. ''And I want to pass this on to my children so they know.''

He shot a glance at his son and they smiled at each other. ''That's profound, right, Jordan?''