History at the Movies: Defiance

The Edward Zwick film Defiance tells the story of the Bielski brothers–Jews from Belorussia who defied the Nazis by forming a partisan “otriad” (armed brigade), sabotaging the German army and–most significantly–rescuing about 1200 Jews. The three Jewish peasant brothers (Tuvia, Asael, and Zus) refused to enter a ghetto, fleeing instead to the thick forests of eastern Poland/Belorussia. Between 1941 and 1944, they lived in the forest, stealing food (or receiving help) from local peasants, keeping one step ahead of the German army, and rescuing Jews from area ghettos. Unlike other Polish and Russian partisans operating in the region, the Bielskis accepted all Jews, whether they could fight or not. (Photo (copyright Paramount/Vantage but used for the purpose of critical review) via Wikipedia.com)

Defiance traces the first year or so of this struggle, as the Bielskis overcome the initial shock of the murder of their parents by Belorussian police who help the Nazi SS hunt Jews, then work through the many difficulties of creating a life for themselves in the forest and of creating a community of free Jews. The film’s plot includes the struggle over whether to fight Germans or save Jews, the fraternal competition between Tuvia and Zus for the leadership of the otriad, the departure of Zus to join the Russian partisans, a love interest between Asael and and Chaya (a pretty and well-to-do Jewish girl whose parents he saves), several frantic escapes from the Nazis or their local collaborators, struggles with food supplies, a challenge to Tuvia’s leadership from Arkady (one of his fighters), a long march through swampland to a “safer” spot (in real life it was a seven-day journey!) and a climactic battle, in which Zus and his partisans rescue Tuvia’s group at the last minute.

Defiance certainly romanticizes the Bielski brothers’ story. While Tuvia was a charismatic leader, there is no record of him shooting his horse to feed the camp, and his devotion to Lilka, his “forest wife” (to whom he remained married for over 30 years, until his death in New York in 1987) glosses over his sexual liasons with numerous other women during the years in the forest. Many other dramatic moments in the film are ficticious too–mostly composite events based on the stories and situations described in much fuller detail in Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Still, the movie remains a first-rate historical film, because it does portray how “impossible” the survival or Polish and Belorussian Jews was, and because it touches on a number of key issues relating to the Holocaust:

1. Jews saving Jews/Jews resisting the Nazi regime: Many of the depictions of the Holocaust (in film, literature, and history) depict the Jews as helpless victims (“like sheep to the slaughter”). The Bielskis and other Jewish partisan fighters (as well as the leaders of revolts in the ghettos and camps) demonstrate that there existed a whole range of Jewish responses to the oppression of the Holocaust. One aspect of Jewish resistance was simply the effort to remain productive and alive as individuals and as a community. This was reflected in the Bielski forest community (though not fully portrayed in the film) through the diversity of activity there. There were shoemakers, tailors, barbers, leather workers, watchmakers, carpenters, hatmakers, bakers, soapmakers, a Turkish bath, slaughterhouse, blacksmith, tannery, school, metal shop, mill, sausage shop, and a transportation office.

2. Jewish diversity: Often (thanks to the Nazis) we inherit a stereotypical image of “the Jew” (as if there was or is only one kind of Jew) as a culturally backward, unassimilated eastern European Jew. Defiance shows us that there were many kinds of Jews: rich and educated, humble peasants, socialist intellectuals, devoutly religious, etc. Indeed, one of the interesting themes of the film is the upside-down world of the forest community. The attributes and skills of the traditional Jewish elites were of little use in the harsh environment of the winter elements, armed combat, and primitive living conditons. It was, in fact, this reality that enabled the Bielski brothers to marry young women far above their social standing.

3. Indecision in the ghetto: In hindsight, we wonder why Jews who could have escaped the ghettos (particularly the smaller ghettos, where the security apparatus was less developed) would ever have chosen to stay. But the reality was that knowledge of the developing Nazi policy to kill all Jews was only partial, that some dismissed news of the death camps as wartime propaganda, and that centuries of tradition had conditioned European Jews to believe that no persecution lasted forever and that time was on their side. After all, many reasoned, why would the Nazis kill all the Jews when they needed Jewish labour for their war effort. But Nazi policy was not rational on this point, and Jews who remained in the ghettos were eventually rounded up and transported to death camps like Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Chelmo, Sobibor…

4. To fight or survive: A key debate in the film revolved around Zus’s desire to fight Germans and Tuvia’s desire to save Jewish lives. This raises a question that was important not only for Jews, but for the wider world. When pressed by various groups to consider bombing Auschwitz, or at least the rail lines leading to Auschwitz, the Allied military response was that the way to save Jews was to win the war, and that no diversion of resources to other kinds of missions was permissable (even though there were other Allied missions to save the Viennese Lippizaner horses and to rescue art collections from threatened galleries). Tuvia chose saving Jews as his mission, and against all odds, he succeeded. This makes us wonder what else could have been done.

5. Resource scarcity: Jews who did want to fight or even just to escape needed help to gather together resources vital to survival. One of the chief obstacles was their lack of access to firearms, but once on the run, Jews needed food and lodging too. Defiance shows how needy Jews fleeing Nazi captivity were–in this respect, the Bielskis, as Jewish peasants operating in forests and around peasant villages and farms they were acquainted with, possessed advantages most Jews could only dream of. Others had to risk asking for help from Christian Europeans who might just as likely kill them or turn them over to the authorities as aid them.

6. Escape routes: Almost every Jew in Denmark survived the Holocaust, not least because their fellow Danes helped them across the sound to neutral Sweden. Jews in eastern Europe had no options like that. They were hundreds of miles from safe havens–the thick forests of eastern Poland and Belorussia were the one exception to this grim reality. Without that geographic advantage, there would be no Bielski brothers story to tell.

6. Rescue and collaboration: In Defiance we see how difficult it was for Poles or Belorussians (like many other Europeans under various forms of Nazi occupation) to decide how to react to the Nazi regime and its demands. Should they collaborate with the occupying forces, like the Belorussian policeman? That would expose them to retaliation from partsian groups (in this case, the Bielskis and Russian partisans). Should they resist the regime and try to help Jews? That would expose them to the wrath of the occupiers, as the peasant hung in his barn discovered. And for peasants in the countryside, no matter who they helped, both sides would demand (or just steal) provisions. Looking back, it’s easy to judge Poles and other groups for refusing to do enough for Jews (though the highest number of Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Gentiles” is Polish), but in the context they were forced into, every choice held the potential for deadly consequences, and the safest route was to withdraw–to do and say as little as possible.

In sum, while the film Defiance is a somewhat romanticized version of the Bielski brothers’ story, it does not exaggerate the remarkable lengths they went to in order to live as free men and to save 1200 fellow Jews during the darkest days of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Though it is an exceptional story (the “normal” Holocaust story is the story of destruction and death), it illustrates that leadership, courage, and heroic sacrifice could and did save lives during that horrible time.

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