Nechama Tec

"Defiance: The Bielski Partisans"

(Reviewed by Jana Perskie FEB 15, 2009)

"The Talmud asks why the human race was created as a single human being, as opposed to creating many people at once (like the animals which were created en masse). This teaches us that just as Adam was created in the beginning, and he was the entire human population of the world, likewise we need to look at each individual as if he/she were the entire population of the world. Therefore, when you save one life it is as if you saved the entire world."

I recently saw the film "Defiance," directed by Edward Zwick and starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski. I had read Nechama Tec's book, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans last year and was anxious to see the movie. I was not disappointed, as the film inspired and touched me deeply, just as the book had, although, obviously, in a different medium and in a different manner.

Ms. Tec's book reads more like a social history of the Bielski Brothers and their partisan brigade, which was one of the most significant Jewish resistant efforts against Nazi Germany during WWII. She organized her prose thematically in a scholarly approach, rather than in a flowing narrative. One such theme is "The Formation of New Social Structures." Another is "Building a Forest Community." The author based her well researched book, in large part, on personal interviews which she conducted with surviving partisans, including the charismatic Tuvia Bielski, a former Zionist activist, and a Polish Army veteran who was the brigade's leader. He died in 1987 in Brooklyn, New York, where he and his family had settled in 1956.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Nazis occupied Belorussia where they shot tens of thousands of Jews in Nowogrodek District, (including the cities of Lida and Nowogrodek), and confined those they did not shoot to ghettos. After the Germans killed the Bielski brothers' parents, the surviving sons, Tuvia, Asael, Zus, and young Aaron, attempted to save only their own lives and those of family members and friends by hiding from the Nazi SS troops in the Zabielovo and Perelaz forests. There they formed the nucleus of a partisan detachment consisting, at first, of approximately 30 refugees.

The Bielskis had been a farming family in a small village and knew the region well. In fact, their familiarity with the region and local customs, along with some assistance from a few sympathetic gentiles, allowed them to elude the Germans for some time. When more and more refugees from nearby towns and shtels fled to the forests and met up with the Bielskis, the brothers made it their mission to take everyone in and form a group of partisans whose primary goal was to create a community and protect all Jewish members, regardless of age or gender. No one was ever turned away.

The Bielski Brigade, known as "Kalinin," frequently sent guides into the ghettos to escort people to the forest. In late 1942, a special mission saved over a hundred Jews from the Iwie ghetto just as the Germans planned to liquidate it. The "Kalinin" also raided the surrounding area for weapons and ammunition taken from dead Germans and Russians, and for food, clothing, medicine and whatever else would assist in their survival. Thus the Bielski Brigade differed from other "otriad" or "partisan detachments"' where only men participated and whose primary purpose was to fight the Nazis, although the Bielskis did participate in active acts of resistance

Continuing to grow in number, they eventually formed a permanent base in a swampy, barely accessible region. Skilled workers were organized into groups - millers, bakers, teachers, those who washed clothes, and others who hunted and scoured the area for food and weapons. They built a small school, a synagogue and also developed a court of law. Although there was much suffering from the brutal winter cold, sickness and starvation, these people were free with some hope of survival. Conflict also arose as to their mission - whether to take the strongest men and join the Soviet partisans who actively fought the Germans, or to remain a community in hiding, whose members' primary job was to live, despite the terrible odds. Ultimately 1200 members of the group survived.

Author Nechama Techas, a scholar, writer, and herself a Holocaust survivor, devoted much of her life to studying the fate of European Jewry. She recorded examples of human compassion, resistance, and heroism in the face of overwhelming horror and despair. Drawing on wide-ranging research and interviews with surviving partisans, she reconstructs here the poignant story of those who were given the choice to fight and survive. Most Holocaust victims never had such a choice.

It is difficult to say I "enjoyed" such a book - but I was riveted by it and the story of the brave Bielski Brigade members. However, because of its scholarly style, I do not recommend Defiance: The Bielski Partisans for casual readers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 63 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Defiance: The Bielski Partisans at author's website



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About the Author:

Nechama TecNechama Tec is a Holocaust scholar, her research and publications have concentrated on the intricate relationships between self-preservation, compassion, altruism, rescue, resistance, cooperation and gender.

She was born in Lublin, Poland to a family of Polish Jews, and was 8years old in 1939 when Poland was invaded by Germany. She survived the Holocaust thanks to her life being saved by Polish Catholics. After the war she immigrated to Israel, later she moved to the United States, where she earned a doctorate at Columbia University.

In 1995, she was a Scholar-in-Residence at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. In 1997, she was a Senior Research Fellow at the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In then in 2002, she was appointed by President Bush to the Council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C.Tec also serves on the Academic Advisory Committee at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.

The movie "Defiance" is based on her book of the same name.

She is currently Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Connecticut, Stamford.

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