Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
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About this Item
Title: Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication Date: 1994
About this title
The prevailing image of European Jews during the Holocaust years is one of helpless victims under a death sentence, unable to fight consignment to the ghettos, to the camps, and to the gas chambers. In fact, many Jews struggled alone or with others against the terrors of the Third Reich, risking their lives against overwhelming odds for the slimmest chance of survival, or a mere glimpse of freedom. In Defiance, Nechama Tec offers a riveting history of one such group, a forest community in western Belorussia that would number more than 1,200 Jews by 1944--the largest armed rescue operation of Jews by Jews in World War II.
Describing the entire partisan movement in the region, Tec shows that while most forest fighters in Belorussia were rifle-carrying young men, the members of this extraordinary community included both men and women, some with weapons but mostly unarmed, ranging from infants to the elderly. She reconstructs for the first time the amazing details of how these partisans and their families--hungry, exposed to the harsh winter weather, always on the lookout for German patrols--managed not only to survive, but to offer protection to all Jewish fugitives who could find their way to them. Driven by courage born out of despair, they dug wells, set up workshops to repair guns, made clothes, and resoled shoes, supplied services to other guerilla units, and even established a makeshift hospital and school in the forest. Arguing that this success would have been unthinkable without the vision of one man, Tec offers penetrating insight into the group's commander, Tuvia Bielski, and his journey from his life as the son of the only Jewish peasant family in an isolated rural village to his emergence as a leader possessing the charisma and courage to command under all but impossible circumstances.
Tec brings to light the untold story of Bielski's struggle as a partisan who lost his parents, wife, and two brothers to the Nazis, yet never wavered in his conviction that it was more important to save one Jew than to kill twenty Germans. She shows how, under Bielski's guidance, the partisans smuggled Jews out of heavily guarded ghettos, scouted the roads for fugitives, and led retaliatory raids against Belorussian peasants who collaborated with the Nazis against their former Jewish neighbors. Refusing to turn away the weak or the old for the sake of the survival of the larger group, Bielski would warn new arrivals to the forest, "Life is difficult, we are in danger all the time, but if we perish, if we die, we die like human beings."
A scholar, a writer, and herself a Holocaust survivor, author Nechama Techas devoted the last two decades to studying the fate of European Jewry, recording rare but vital examples of human compassion, resistance, altruism and heroism in the face of overwhelming horror and despair. Drawing on wide-ranging research and never before published interviews with surviving partisans--including Tuvia Bielski himself two weeks before his death in 1987--she reconstructs here the poignant and unforgettable story of those who chose to fight.
The prevailing image of European Jews during the Holocaust is one of helpless victims, but in fact many Jews struggled against the terrors of the Third Reich. In Defiance, Nechama Tec offers a riveting history of one such group, a forest community in western Belorussia that would number more than 1,200 Jews by 1944--the largest armed rescue operation of Jews by Jews in World War II. Tec reveals that this extraordinary community included both men and women, some with weapons, but mostly unarmed, ranging from infants to the elderly. She reconstructs for the first time the amazing details of how these partisans and their families--hungry, exposed to the harsh winter weather--managed not only to survive, but to offer protection to all Jewish fugitives who could find their way to them.
Read the Foreword
Writer and director Edward Zwick reveals the challenges and personal significance of making a film adaptation of Nechama Tec's Defiance. Among his extensive film credits, Zwick is best known for his direction of Blood Diamond and The Last Samaurai.
An inevitable rite of passage in any Jewish child’s informal initiation to adulthood is to study, with grim fascination, the grainy, out-of-focus images of hollow-eyed survivors in striped pajamas, the amateur photos of corpses piled high in freshly dug pits, or possibly the 16 mm handheld GI footage of living skeletons clinging to barbed wire during the liberation of the camps. Such grisly iconography of passivity and victimization was, during my childhood, and probably is still today, not only an article of faith, but also a source of secret shame. As an assimilated suburban kid growing up in the Midwest, I had thrilled to World War II stories about John Kennedy and PT 109 (Cliff Robertson in the movie version), the leatherneck marines at Guadalcanal (John Wayne), the flying fortresses over Germany (Gregory Peck), and so many more. In feeble contrast, Jewish heroes were the ancient biblical warriors evoked by uninspired Sunday school teachers--Bar Kochba and Judah Macabee wielding spears and jawbones, or young David with his little slingshot.
So when my friend and collaborator, Clay Frohman, came to me with a book called Defiance, I was skeptical. "Not another Holocaust movie," I said. What was to be accomplished, I asked myself, in telling yet another story of familiar and unspeakable horror, especially when an entire canon of literature, not to mention films both documentary and fiction, have already dramatized it in the most exacting and harrowing detail? What’s more, the greatest historians and philosophers of our time have devoted entire careers to plumbing the roots and magnitude of its evil. What could I possibly add?
But Clay was insistent. Here, he said, was something fresh and utterly provocative. And so, somewhat grudgingly, I plunged into Nechama’s Tec’s remarkable book and found myself deeply moved. That was ten years ago. And the feelings I had upon that first reading have only grown stronger with time. To read of the Bielski brothers and their fight to create a safe haven in the midst of a hell-on-earth evokes in me something utterly primitive and deeply personal, a roiling wave of fear, awe, humility, and admiration. And outrage, too--that such a story was not better known.
Here, clutching captured Schmeisser submachine guns and "potatomasher" grenades, were Jewish fighters whose deeds were as stirring and brave as any I had ever encountered. And what’s more, it was all true. In an age when the term "hero" has been so overused as to become meaningless, the Bielskis remind us that real heroism is not the stuff of comic books. Rather, it is a set of decisions, sometimes impulsive, often made by simple men of whom nothing of the sort could ever have been expected. Their story is not simply one of courage or fortitude in the face of adversity; it includes any number of daunting moral decisions--whether to seek vengeance or to rescue, how to re-create a sense of community among those who have lost everything, how to maintain hope when all seems forsaken. Read more
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