The Story Behind Defiance

Nechama Tec's book was a major source for Edward Zwicks' new movie about the Bielski partisans.

Nechama Tec's book was a major source for Edward Zwicks' new movie about the Bielski partisans.

The new year has a slew of intriguing movies.

Eleven years after Titanicwon a record-tieing 11 Oscars, became the highest-grossing movie in history up to that point, and made director James Cameron the self-proclaimed “king of the world,” Leonardo DiCaprio and double-Golden Globe winner Kate Winslet  reunite onscreen in Revolutionary Road, a film about a suburban couple’s failing marriage directed by Sam Mendes, my former eighth grade classmate.  

Mickey Rourke gives a bravura performance as a down-and-out professional wrestler trying to make a comeback in The Wrestler.  And Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire,  a film about an orphan in Mumbai, India, just netted four Golden Globes.

One of the most gripping choices is Defiance, the tale of the Bielski partisans’ resistance to the Nazis.  Starring Daniel Craig, the latest in the long line of actors to play James Bond, the film tells the story of the Bielski brothers’ four-year saga to shelter what eventually became a total of more than 1,200 Jews in the woods, making deals with Russian soldiers and fighting against their would-be Nazi killers along the way. 

The film, which director Edward Zwick said took about a dozen years to make, is based on Nechama Tec’s bookby the same name.  Herself a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, Tec is a retired sociologist who has also written about non-Jewish rescuers in When Light Pierced Darkness and a memoir about her experience as a hidden child, Dry Tears:  The Story of a Lost Childhood.

Tec explains in the preface that she wrote Defiance as a corrective to a commonly held misperception about  Jews during the Holocaust:

“My research about the Nazi annihilation of European Jews alerted me to a serious omission and an equally serious distortion.  The omission is the conspicuous silence about Jews who, while themselves  threatened by death, were saving others.  The distortion is the common description of European Jews who went passively to their death.

“Assuming the dual role of rebels and rescuers, this group grew into a forest community of more than 1200 that distinguished itself as the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews.” 

It is a gripping tale.

Tec vividly describes how the Jews, starting with little but their will and determination, the Jews and led by Tuvia Bielski, eventually created an entire world, complete with workshops, barbers and shoe repairs.  Word spread about the safe haven provided for Jews there, and the people kept coming, many from nearby Polish ghettoes that were being liquidated.

Of course, the world was far from idyllic. 

Tec talks frankly about the dangers and subordinate roles women experienced, about the lice that infested clothes-a grim joke talked about  how coats left alone would start walking-and the occasional descent into barbarism that the movie shows when the Jewish partisans take revenge on three Nazi soldiers.

There are moments of tenderness and connection.  While there were ‘forest marriages’ that sprung up during those years, and while women sometimes did exchange sex for protection, a number of the marriages, including Tuvia’s marriage to Lilka, lasted for 40 years.

Tec also describes the delicate relationships the partisans struck with Russian soldiers, whose support they needed yet on whom they did not want to depend.

Tuvia Bielski is at the story’s center. 

The head of the Bielski otriad, he maintained a certain reserve from many of the others in the camp, but almost always welcomed newcomers, including many people who could not fight, over his brother Zus’ objections.

At the same time, Tec does not shy away from showing Bielski’s less savory sides.  Despite his efforts at fairness, Bielski was susceptible to flattery and did at times play favorites.  He also could be brutal when necessary, seemingly killing a man who disobeyed his authority and turning away as the camp members attacked the three German soldiers.

Tec also shows how, like Oscar Schindler, Bielski was a bit lost after his turn as a hero during the Second World War.  Near the book’s conclusion, she talks about people’s dismay at seeing their stalwart leader driving a taxi and notes that he died feeling slightly disillusioned and unappreciated.

Based on many interviews with survivors from the woods, Defiance is an accessible read that largely follows chronological order and reads far more like a story than an academic tract. At the same time, Tec’s inclusion of a map of the village and discussion of issues like the role and experience of women reveal her sociologist’s training to the readers’ benefit. 

Zwick’s version of Defiance does have some Hollywood-style scenes which some may say detracts from its power.  For those looking to go deeper into this remarkable and previously little-known episode of Jewish heroism and resistance, Tec’s book is an excellent place to start.

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