‘Resistance’ was not futile


As one of the very few reviewers who found fault with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” I once wrote that I would have preferred a film based on “Defiance,” Nechama Tec’s brilliant study of the Bielski partisans, which shows Jews not as the passive beneficiaries of a Nazi factory owner’s largess, but as active resisters who picked up a gun and fought back. And, in 2009, director Edward Zwick came to the same conclusion in his own movie, also titled “Defiance.”

Now, Tec, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, revisits the subject of Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany in “Resistance: How Jews and Christians Fought Against the Nazis and Became Heroes of the Holocaust” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

Tec explains that while certain inevitable questions asked by her audiences made her feel “uncomfortable and even resentful,” the same questions have been asked as often by Jews as by non-Jews ever since the Holocaust came to worldwide attention, most notably: “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors?”

As someone who knows the history of Jewish resistance in all of its detail, Tec muses that “these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance.” So, she takes it upon herself to explain the truth in “Resistance,” a study of the unique circumstances in which the victims of the Holocaust found themselves and the courageous ways in which they did, in fact, fight back.

“Has anyone seen an army without arms?” asked Luchan Dobroszycki, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. “An army scattered over 200 isolated ghettoes? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” To which Tec stirringly answers: “This book seeks to answer this question with a resounding yes.”

She traces the charge of “complicity in their own destruction” to Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who famously complained that the Frank family “could have provided themselves with a gun or two, had they wished” and “shot down at least one or two of the ‘green police’ who came for them.” Hannah Arendt reinforced the same harsh view in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she blamed Jewish community leaders who had been pressed into service in the notorious Judenrat for facilitating the Final Solution. 

To rebut these allegations, Tec showcases the varieties of Jewish resistance.  A young Polish Jew named Ephraim Bleichman, for example, stripped the Star of David from his sleeve and escaped into the countryside: “From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t let them kill me,” Bleichman told Tec, “and that I would not submit.” He eventually found his way to a band of 100 or so like-minded Jewish partisans, who possessed only two guns and no ammunitions. Soon, they had acquired a small arsenal and taught themselves how to use the weapons: “I personally didn’t know how to hold a gun, let alone how to use it,” Bleichman recalls. “But the minute we had weapons, we became much braver.”

Resistance necessarily took a different form in the ghettoes, where the Nazis gathered and held their Jewish captives before shipping them off to the death camps. Here, it turned out that women were bettered equipped than men to resist: “Women’s traditional roles as caregivers, housekeepers, and cooks remained essential,” explains Tec. “Deprivation and hunger made those who could procure and skillfully handle food particularly valuable. Thus, in the ghetto, unobtrusively yet consistently, women contributed significantly to survival.”

Some acts of resistance had nothing at all to do with weaponry. Emmanuel Ringelbaum, for example, organized the so-called Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto, a communal effort to gather and preserve a record of the crimes that were being committed against the Jewish victims. “They were racing against time,” Tec writes. “At this stage, unable to protect the Jewish people, they concentrated on saving Jewish history.  This was their act of resistance.”

Tec shows us that the most famous Jewish resisters of all — the ghetto fighters in Warsaw and elsewhere — made a conscious decision to send a message to the world, and to history, through the manner of their death. Escape and survival were beside the point, although they certainly wanted to extract a price in blood from their murderers. “We do not wish to save our lives,” declared Jurek Wilner, one of the ghetto fighters. “None of us will come out of this alive. We only want to save the honor of mankind.”  Writes Tec in one heartbreaking line: “It was a shame that Ringelbaum was not there to witness this transformation.”

Even in the heart of darkness — the death camps — Jewish resistance was alive.  Jewish women who were assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau, including the heroic Roza Robota, managed to steal small quantities of gunpowder and smuggle it out under the false bottom of a specially fashioned “menashke,” a tin soup bowl. Their comrades in the men’s camp fashioned the explosives into the bombs used to blow up Crematoria IV, while others used hammers, axes and stones as weapons against their Nazi guards.

To her credit, Tec digs deeply into this incident and acknowledges that a terrible fate was visited upon actual and suspected participants in the revolt.  One of the moral quandaries of would-be resisters, in fact, was the sure knowledge that every act of resistance would bring down bloodthirsty reprisals by the Germans against innocent men, women and children. Yet we cannot help but thrill at the otherwise heartbreaking scene of the public hanging of Robota and her fellow resisters on Jan. 6, 1945. “The executions themselves happened under a cover of sullen silence,” Tec writes. “Only once was this utter silence broken — by Roza Robota’s cry of ‘Nekama!’ — ‘Revenge.’ ”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Bielski Family, Doc Make ‘Defiance’ Personal


The film “Defiance” told the story of the Bielski brothers, who led a group of partisans in fighting the Nazis and established a self-sustaining Jewish community in the forests of Belarus, but it didn’t show what is ultimately their greatest triumph.

“The Bielski brothers assured the survival in the forests of 1,200 Jewish men, women and children,” Sharon Rennert said. “There are now 15,000 living descendents of these survivors.”

Rennert, a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker, knows the story well. She is the granddaughter of partisan leader Tuvia Bielski (portrayed by actor Daniel Craig in the film), and, together with her mother Ruth Bielski and aunt Brenda Bielski Weisman, she shared some of the family history at American Jewish University recently.

The film brought the story of armed Jewish resistance during World War II to wide popular attention. Before it, individual writers and activists labored largely in obscurity to document the deeds of the partisans and to counter the prevalent picture that all Jews went quietly to their doom.

Now that “Defiance” has left movie theaters, these activists — foremost of which is the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF) — are expanding their efforts to transmit the history and legacy of the fighters to schools and the general public across the country.

Nevertheless, without the movie and its high-powered stars — it was co-written and directed by Edward Zwick and also stars Liev Schreiber — it is unlikely that the intimate recollections of the three Bielski women would have drawn some 400 people to an AJU auditorium for an evening hosted by the Women’s and Holocaust divisions of State of Israel Bonds.

In a plug for the sponsors, moderator Michael Berenbaum, director of AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute, quipped at the opening that “Most of us would have done better [financially] by investing only in Israel Bonds.”

Berenbaum put the role of the Jewish partisans in perspective by noting that most European resistance movements went into full action only after Germany’s defeat became a certainty. Even ghetto fighters, however heroic, generally rose at the point where they realized they were certain to die at the hands of the Nazis.

The unique achievement of the Bielski Brigade was not only to offer early physical resistance, but also to create a haven in the forest for women, children and the elderly.

The unique aspect of the presentations by the three Bielski descendants was to draw pictures of Tuvia, Zusia, Asael and Aron Bielski as ordinary fathers and grandfathers, whose daring deeds went largely unknown.

Most stories (and movies) end with the young warriors exulting in their victories, just as romances wrap up when boy marries girl, not after 30 years of marriage.

In Tuvia Bielski’s case, after the war he lived first in Romania, then Israel, and finally in the United States, where he worked as a New York trucker and taxi driver.

He never quite assimilated anywhere. Though sought out by survivors who owed their lives to him, he hardly ever mentioned his past to his children and grandchildren.

Granddaughter Sharon, who screened parts of her forthcoming documentary “In Our Hands: A Personal Story of the Bielski Partisans,” showed in the film and recalled in her talk a tall, gentle, elderly man with glasses who never bragged but once told her, “Always stand up for what you know is right.”

Ruth Bielski remembered her father, Tuvia’s, largely unknown involvement in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and his attempts to feel at home in the new country.

“My father and mother never really allowed themselves to be happy, because they survived,” she said.

In “Defiance,” brothers Tuvia and Zusia (“Zus”) are shown in frequent confrontations, but in reality they lived near each other both in Israel and New York, and their two families maintained close relationships, Ruth Bielski said.

When Tuvia Bielski died in 1987, he was buried at a Long Island cemetery, but his remains were later transferred to Israel and reburied with full military honors.

Well before director Zwick started filming “Defiance,” Mitch Braff, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco, was startled one day to learn that an old family friend had been a partisan during World War II.

Despite a good Jewish education, Braff had never heard anything about the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis, and he decided to do something about his own and the general ignorance on the subject.

In 2000, he founded the JPEF, which has since produced nine short films, 200 video clips of interviews with surviving partisans and provided speakers to schools and colleges.

He worked closely with Zwick during and following the shooting of “Defiance,” and the two men are collaborating on an ambitious educational classroom program for sixth- to 12th-graders.

Named RESIST, the program is set to kick off in the fall with teacher-training courses at public, private and religious schools, which will incorporate the material in their history and social studies classes.

Currently, Holocaust studies are part of the mandatory school curriculum in California and seven other states.

JPEF collaborated with Clay Frohman, co-screenwriter and co-producer of “Defiance,” in creating the new teacher guide, which does not avoid some of the ethical issues inherent in the partisans’ actions.

At times, the Bielski brothers resorted to stealing, killing and revenge, Frohman noted, adding, “The Jews weren’t always the good guys and the Germans not always the bad guys. In any moment, you could be a good guy or a bad guy. We are all capable of all these things.”

A photo exhibition on the partisans is currently showing in New York throughout April and may come to Los Angeles in the future.

For more information on Rennert’s film, visit www.bielskidocumentary.com.

Additional information on JPEF is available at www.jewishpartisans.org, and the foundation can be contacted at (415) 563-2244, or {encode=”mitch@jewishpartisans.org” title=”mitch@jewishpartisans.org”}.

Bielski Family, Doc Make ‘Defiance’ Personal


The film “Defiance” told the story of the Bielski brothers, who led a group of partisans in fighting the Nazis and established a self-sustaining Jewish community in the forests of Belarus, but it didn’t show what is ultimately their greatest triumph.

“The Bielski brothers assured the survival in the forests of 1,200 Jewish men, women and children,” said Sharon Rennert. “There are now 15,000 living descendents of these survivors.”

Rennert, a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker, knows the story well. She is the granddaughter of partisan leader Tuvia Bielski (portrayed by actor Daniel Craig in the film), and, together with her mother Ruth Bielski and aunt Brenda Bielski Weisman, she shared some of the family history at American Jewish University last week.

The film brought the story of armed Jewish resistance during World War II to wide popular attention. Before it, individual writers and activists labored largely in obscurity to document the deeds of the partisans and to counter the prevalent picture that all Jews went quietly to their doom.

Now that “Defiance” has left movie theaters, these activists — foremost of which is the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF)— are expanding their efforts to transmit the history and legacy of the fighters to schools and the general public across the country.

Nevertheless, without the movie and its high-powered stars — it was co-written and directed by Edward Zwick and also stars Liev Schreiber — it is unlikely that the intimate recollections of the three Bielski women would have drawn some 400 people to an AJU auditorium for an evening hosted by the Women’s and Holocaust divisions of State of Israel Bonds.

In a plug for the sponsors, moderator Michael Berenbaum, director of AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute, quipped at the opening that “Most of us would have done better [financially] by investing only in Israel Bonds.”

Berenbaum put the role of the Jewish partisans in perspective by noting that most European resistance movements went into full action only after Germany’s defeat became a certainty. Even ghetto fighters, however heroic, generally rose at the point where they realized they were certain to die at the hands of the Nazis.

The unique achievement of the Bielski Brigade was not only to offer early physical resistance, but also to create a haven in the forest for women, children and the elderly.

The unique aspect of the presentations by the three Bielski descendants was to draw pictures of Tuvia, Zusia, Asael and Aron Bielski as ordinary fathers and grandfathers, whose daring deeds went largely unknown.

Most stories (and movies) end with the young warriors exulting in their victories, just as romances wrap up when boy marries girl, not after 30 years of marriage.

In Tuvia Bielski’s case, after the war he lived first in Romania, then Israel, and finally in the United States, where he worked as a New York trucker and taxi driver.

He never quite assimilated anywhere. Though sought out by survivors who owed their lives to him, he hardly ever mentioned his past to his children and grandchildren.

Granddaughter Sharon, who screened parts of her forthcoming documentary “In Our Hands: A Personal Story of the Bielski Partisans,” showed in the film and recalled in her talk a tall, gentle, elderly man with glasses who never bragged but once told her, “Always stand up for what you know is right.”

Ruth Bielski remembered her father, Tuvia’s, largely unknown involvement in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and his attempts to feel at home in the new country.

“My father and mother never really allowed themselves to be happy, because they survived,” she said.

In “Defiance,” brothers Tuvia and Zusia (“Zus”) are shown in frequent confrontations, but in reality they lived near each other both in Israel and New York, and their two families maintained close relationships, Ruth Bielski said.

When Tuvia Bielski died in 1987, he was buried at a Long Island cemetery, but his remains were later transferred to Israel and reburied with full military honors.

Well before director Zwick started filming “Defiance,” Mitch Braff, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco, was startled one day to learn that an old family friend had been a partisan during World War II.

Despite a good Jewish education, Braff had never heard anything about the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis, and he decided to do something about his own and the general ignorance on the subject.

In 2000, he founded the JPEF, which has since produced nine short films, 200 video clips of interviews with surviving partisans and provided speakers to schools and colleges.

He worked closely with Zwick during and following the shooting of “Defiance,” and the two men are collaborating on an ambitious educational classroom program for sixth- to 12th-graders.

Named RESIST, the program is set to kick off in the fall with teacher-training courses at public, private and religious schools, which will incorporate the material in their history and social studies classes.

Currently, Holocaust studies are part of the mandatory school curriculum in California and seven other states.

JPEF collaborated with Clay Frohman, co-screenwriter and co-producer of “Defiance,” in creating the new teacher guide, which does not avoid some of the ethical issues inherent in the partisans’ actions.

At times, the Bielski brothers resorted to stealing, killing and revenge, Frohman noted, adding, “The Jews weren’t always the good guys and the Germans not always the bad guys. In any moment, you could be a good guy or a bad guy. We are all capable of all these things.”

A photo exhibition on the partisans is currently showing in New York throughout April and may come to Los Angeles in the future.

For more information on Rennert’s film and the JPEF, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

For more information on Rennert’s film, visit www.bielskidocumentary.com.

Additional information on JPEF is available at www.jewishpartisans.org, and the foundation can be contacted at (415) 563-2244, or mitch@jewishpartisans.org.

Less controversy surrounds this year’s Oscar foreign film entries


ALTTEXT
Scene from ‘Waltz With Bashir’

A record number of 67 countries are vying for the Oscar in the best foreign-language film category, with generally obscure directors from Afghanistan to Venezuela dreaming of sudden recognition in Hollywood and beyond.

Among five entries of special Jewish interest, three deal with Middle East conflicts, one with terrorism in Germany, and one with the friendship between a Jewish and a Muslim family in Morocco.

In contrast to previous years, there have been no acrimonious controversies so far. Apparently all sides have tired of arguing whether the Palestinian entry should be officially designated as coming from Palestine, the Palestinian Authority or the Palestinian territory, and plain “Palestine” has won out.

Nor has any film been disqualified for too much English dialogue, as happened to Israel’s “The Band’s Visit” last year,

The substitute entry for Israel was “Beaufort,” the story of an Israeli army unit during the first Lebanese War, and that conflict between neighbors is revisited by two movies this year.


‘Under the Bombs’ trailer

Lebanon’s “Under the Bombs” depicts Israel’s 2006 invasion to wipe out Hezbollah terrorists and the devastation it brought to the southern part of the country.

The film’s only professional actors play an upper-class Muslim woman, living abroad, and the Christian taxi driver she hires in Beirut to search for her son and sister in a destroyed southern village.

On their odyssey, the oddly paired driver and passenger encounter refugees, puzzled and bitter by the loss of homes and relatives, but Franco-Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi largely steers away from sweeping denunciations.

Some villagers accuse Hezbollah fighters of “stirring up a hornets’ nest” and dislike them almost as much as they do the Israelis.

“This is not a political or propaganda film,” said Aractingi in a phone call from his home in Paris. “It’s a human rights film about people caught in a war they don’t want or comprehend.

“When I was a schoolboy in Beirut, we were taught that Lebanon was a neutral country, like Switzerland. So people don’t understand why they’re being bombed.”

Israel’s entry, “Waltz With Bashir,” is also about war in Lebanon, this one in 1982, but in every other respect the approach and technique are radically different.

Director Ari Folman combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war theme and psychological analysis in the autobiographical story of a traumatized Israeli soldier trying to recover suppressed memories of combat.

Aractingi and Folman have never met, but the Lebanese director said he “loved” “Waltz With Bashir.” He hopes to meet his Israeli counterpart, if both films are among the finalists, although a public meeting might be “politically risky” for Aractingi.

“Salt of This Sea,” the Palestinian entry, is more hard-edged and propagandistic than such skillful predecessors as “Divine Intervention,” “Olive Harvest” and “Rona’s Wedding.”

Soraya (Suhar Hammad) is a young Brooklyn-born woman of Palestinian descent, who learns that when her grandfather abandoned his stately Jaffa home in 1948, he left behind a bank account of 315 pounds in the British-Palestine Bank.

Obsessed with the idea of reclaiming her grandfather’s savings, Soraya comes to Israel, meets handsome young Emad (Saleh Bakri, Israel’s current heartthrob), and when the bank manager tells Soraya that the account no longer exists, the pair get the money (plus interest) by holding up the bank.

Later, disguised as Israelis and with Israeli license plates on their car, the pair visits the grandfather’s home in Jaffa and giddily samples the attractions of Tel Aviv.

There are no scenes of outright Israeli brutality, but the film conveys the Palestinians’ sense of humiliation during airport interrogations, searches at roadblocks and denials of exit visas to study abroad.

The Moroccan entry, “Goodbye Mothers,” by director Mohamed Ismail, is an oddly affecting though somewhat amateurish film that focuses on the close friendship between a Jewish and a Muslim family.

The location is Casablanca, and the time is the early 1960s, when large numbers of Moroccan Jews clandestinely made their way to Israel in defiance of a ban by the Moroccan government.

Both families are portrayed with equal sympathy, and the only shady character is an Israeli emissary sent to spur the exodus to the Jewish state. The film is marred by some wild mugging and overacting, reminiscent of silent movies, and frequently awkward English subtitles.

Germany’s entry, “The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” also looks back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the West German “Red Army Faction” went on a murderous rampage against some its leading countrymen allegedly subservient to American and Israeli “imperialism.”

Amid incessant gun battles, the only comic relief in the high-tension docudrama comes when Yasser Arafat’s men in Jordan try to train and impose a minimum of discipline on the unruly, and frequently nude, German terrorists of both genders.

Director Uli Edel, who lived through the film’s era as a young man, recreates the setting and mood of the time with impressive fidelity.

Some German critics have complained that the film “humanizes” the gang and its psychopathic leader, Andreas Baader. But in an interview, Edel pointed to his long closing scene, which dwells on the senseless, brutal murder of a German businessman.

For the first time, Jordan has entered a film, but “Captain Abu Raed” steers away from war and politics by offering a mellow tale about an aging airport janitor who is mistaken for a glamorous international pilot by neighborhood urchins.

Nine finalists among the 67 competing films will be announced the week of Jan. 12. They will be winnowed down to five on Jan. 22, with the winner clutching the Oscar at the Academy Award ceremonies on Feb. 22.

The Golden Globes award nominations by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which often foreshadow the Oscar picks, include “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Baader-Meinhof Complex.” The two movies are also frequently mentioned as favorites by various groups of film critics.

Also among likely foreign film contenders are Italy’s “Gomorrah,” Sweden’s “Everlasting Moments,” France’s “The Class,” Argentina’s “The Lion’s Den,” Turkey’s “Three Monkeys” and Singapore’s “My Magic.”

“Salt of This Sea” and “Under the Bombs” are considered long shots.

In the Documentary Features category, with a record 94 entries, “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” about the World War II Israeli heroine who parachuted behind enemy lines, has qualified among the 15 finalists.


‘Waltz With Bashir’ U.K. trailer

‘Defiance’ celebrates Jews’ daring acts of WW II resistance


“Every day of freedom is like an act of faith,” says Tuvia Bielski, one of three brothers who led a partisan group battling Nazi troops in the forests of Belarus.

Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) are the heroes of “Defiance,” which chronicles not only their daring acts of sabotage, but also how they established behind enemy lines a self-contained community of a thousand Jewish men, women and children.

Unlike Russian, Polish or French resistance groups, the Bielski Otriad (detachment) had to face, in addition to German soldiers and tanks, frequently hostile local populations, anti-Semitism among “allied” Soviet partisans and opposition by Jewish community elders who feared Nazi mass reprisals.

To make matters worse, there were bitter quarrels about strategy and methods between the more militant Zus and the more idealistic Tuvia.

Nechama Tec, whose book is the basis for the film, has described the Bielski Otriad as “the largest armed resistance by Jews during World War II.” As such, the exploits of the three brothers and their followers have given heart and pride to Jews burdened by the common misconception that all European Jews went passively to their doom.

One who gained new self-esteem was Edward Zwick, who, growing up in the Midwest, felt shamed by the supposed meekness of Jews during the Holocaust.

Once he became a well-established television and film director/producer (“The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond,”) Zwick spent 12 years trying to bring “Defiance” to the big screen.

The long delay was due partly to the reluctance of Hollywood’s Jewish honchos to tackle the subject, but even more by their reluctance to gamble their money on so complex a story.

“Studio chiefs fear anything that smacks of complexity,” Zwick told an Anti-Defamation League audience at an advance screening.

Paramount finally backed the movie, with Craig, the current James Bond star, in the lead. Zwick commented, “My greatest hope for the film is that another 15-year-old boy in the Midwest will see it and never feel the shame I did.”

Abraham Foxman, national ADL director and himself a child Holocaust survivor, praised “Defiance” as the first American film to tell the truth about the collaboration of many Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors.


The trailer

But surprisingly, Foxman was unsure how “Defiance” would be judged by Jewish viewers. “I am not certain whether we are ready to embrace fighting Jews,” he said.

After shooting of the film was completed, a brief media flurry brought some unwelcome publicity.

A Polish government agency, the Institute of National Remembrance, charged that the Bielski detachment might have joined Soviet partisans in an attack on the village of Naliboki, in March 1943, in which 128 civilians were shot.

ALTTEXTThe agency, known by its Polish acronym IPN, deals with “crimes against the Polish nation” and is generally considered right wing. Even in its own brief report, IPN stated that participation of the Bielski partisan in the killing “is merely one of the versions of the investigated case.”

Descendants of the Bielski brothers have categorically denied the charge, as has Mitch Braff, director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (www.jewishpartisans.org).

“For one, it’s been clearly established that no Bielski partisans were in the vicinity of Naliboki at the time of the shooting,” Braff said. “Furthermore, it would have been stupid to kill civilians whom the partisans needed for food supplies.”

Based on extensive research and interviews, Braff believes that between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish partisans, mainly from Russia and Poland, fought the Nazis during the war.

American Jewish University scholar Michael Berenbaum and Braff are collaborating on a teachers’ guide to accompany release of the film and the subsequent DVD.

“Defiance” will open at selected Los Angeles theaters on Dec. 31, before a later national rollout.

Image: Director Edward Zwick, right, with Daniel Craig and Alexa Davalos on the set of “Defiance.” Photo by Karen Ballard/Paramount Vantage

Zwick’s ‘Defiance’ brings heroes of Jewish anti-Nazi resistance to screen


Edward Zwick, director and co-writer of “Defiance,” which dramatizes the World War II partisan resistance led by the three Jewish Bielski brothers, confided to an audience of Anti-Defamation League delegates why he made the film.

“When I was a boy in the Midwest during the early 1950s, we used to play games emulating the heroics of our soldiers during the Second World War,” he began.

But all the time, young Zwick felt a gnawing sense of shame that Europe’s Jews, according to all accounts of the time, had gone to their deaths meekly, without fighting back.

But once he read the amazing story of the Bielski brothers, who not only fought the Nazis, but also struggled with hostile local populations and anti-Semitic Soviet troops, Zwick gradually discovered that there were hundreds of similar reports on Jewish resistance fighters.

“My greatest hope for the film is that another 15-year-old boy in the Midwest will see it and will never feel the shame I did,” Zwick concluded.

After the screening, Zwick, national ADL director Abe Foxman, and the audience engaged in a lively discussion on the film’s impact.

Foxman brought a special perspective to the discussion as a child Holocaust survivor who had actually known two of the Bielski brothers.

For the first time, he said, the film reveals the truth about the collaboration of many Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians with the Nazi conquerors, and exposes the pervasive anti-Semitism among Soviet soldiers.

Surprisingly, Foxman was unsure how “Defiance” will be received by Jewish viewers. “I am not certain whether we are ready to embrace fighting Jews,” he declared.

But judging by the audience applause and comments, Foxman’s fears may well be unfounded.