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.

Americans fighters in Israel get overdue thank you

Grandfathers and grandmothers looked at the photos on the wall and saw themselves again as young, strapping soldiers, sailors and pilots, far from home andclose to the face of history.
They were the American and Canadian volunteers who had fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1947-1949 and manned the “illegal” Aliyah Bet ships carrying refugees to the Jewish state.
The veterans, their bodies aged but memories undimmed, brought their children and grandchildren to the University of Judaism last Sunday to inaugurate the first permanent West Coast exhibit to honor their services.
Film producer Lou Lenart and attorney Mitchell Flint marveled at the silhouettes of patched-up Mustangs and Messerschmitts from which they “bombed” Egyptian armies advancing on Tel Aviv with hand grenades lobbed out of their cockpits.Norman Zimmerman of Sun City, Ariz., and I saw again the jam-packed refugee ship Pan York, which had brought us from Marseilles to Haifa, despite a United Nations ban on the entry of men of military age.
The exhibit consists of cabinets framing eight large and eight small panels. In documents, graphics and text, the display documents the history of Zionism and American support, arms acquisition, recruitment of volunteers, Aliyah Bet and navy service and Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Abroad) service in the Israel Defense Forces.
One of the panels commemorates the 40 North Americans, among them seven Christians, who were killed in action. Another focuses on the specific contributions of some 450 volunteers from the West Coast, as well as of those who risked prison by smuggling desperately needed arms and aircraft to the embattled state.
The dedication program was exemplary in the brevity of its speeches, and the high spirits of the songs from the 1948 and 1967 wars, presented by vocalist Ayana Haviv and pianist Amir Efrat.
UJ President Robert Wexler welcomed the audience of 200 and said that the exhibit will remind future generations of the linked destiny between Israel and American Jewry.
Yaron Gamburg, Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles, noted that the Machal spirit of 1948 was revived during the recent fighting against Hezbollah in Lebanon, when his office was swamped with calls from volunteers seeking to help Israel.
Max Barchichat, president of the Los Angeles-based Machal West, lauded the service of his fellow volunteers by paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s tribute to the Royal Air Force that “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”Keynote speaker was Dean Ralph Lowenstein, director of the Machal Archives and Museum at the University of Florida, who created the original exhibit at his university’s Hillel House, with the support of the New York-based American Veterans of Israel.
He paid tribute to Jason Fenton, who initiated the West Coast version of the exhibition, Sharona Benami of Machal West and a Yom Kippur War veteran, and Iris Waskow of the University of Judaism.
Some 1,400 North American volunteers, mostly World War II veterans, participated in the War of Independence, and played particularly crucial roles in the nascent Israeli air force and navy, Lowenstein said.
A joyous dedication is usually not the time for critical analysis, but as a combat infantryman in World War II, a squad leader in an anti-tank unit in Israel, and an army editor during the Korean conflict, I ask the reader’s indulgence if I step out of my reportorial role.
Without diminishing the contributions of the volunteers from abroad and the arms “smugglers,” it must be said, first, that it was the Israelis who won the war itself and paid by far the highest price in military and civilian casualties.
Secondly, the role of the American Jewish community was perhaps the least glorious among the 43 nations who provided volunteers,In proportion to the size and power of their Jewish communities, every other English-speaking country sent much larger, and better prepared, contingents than the biggest Jewish community in the world, and it was one of the few to emerge from the war with greater strength than before.
The difference lay mainly in the communal attitude and civic courage of the different Diaspora communities. South Africa’s Jews, and Britain’s to a slightly smaller degree, set up their own selective service systems, complete with physical and psychological testing, and rallied fully behind their young men and women heading for the battlefield.
By contrast, organized American Jewry, fearful of accusations of double loyalty, generally averted its collective eyes and prayed silently that those crazy kids going over would not prove an embarrassment.
Happily, the flip side of this sorry record is that in the last half century, American Jewry has largely left behind the shameful timidity of the 1940s and the Holocaust era. It is my hope that should American Jewry ever face a challenge similar to 1948, we will acquit ourselves with greater honor.

The Other Soldiers

“Do you remember me?” he asked. “I am Semion, the soldier
with the camel. In Berlin, at the Brandenburg Gate, remember?”

I sure did. During the war there were no trucks for his
artillery unit, so several dozen camels were shipped in from Soviet Asia to
pull the guns. Just two made it to Berlin where soldiers found boxes of German
medals, draped them all over the camels and posed for pictures. About 10 years
ago, Semion showed me his picture. I contacted the Los Angeles Times and they
ran a story with a picture of Semion with his humped friend.

Now we met at a day care center where I had come with Yoram
Likhtenshain, a member of Israel’s Aliyah Battalion. Likhtenshain had come to
the United States to raise funds for the Battalion, and was invited to visit Los
Angeles by the Russian Department of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

The battalion is the brainchild of Roman Rathner, a former
major in the Russian green berets — the Spetznaz — who immigrated to Israel a
decade ago, who offered his expertise and knowledge to the Israel Defense
Forces (IDF), and was refused because he was older than 30 — too old. A year
ago he went on the Russian radio and appealed to his former colleagues.

“Aren’t you tired of watching our women and children getting
killed on TV? Don’t you want to do something to help?” he pleaded.

He got more than 500 responses within a week and the Aliyah
Battalion was born. A year later, it has more than 1,000 members and more than
3,500 more have applied. Admission standards are high: battle or anti-terror
combat experience is required as well as previous attendance in military
academies. Surprisingly, more than 50 percent of the members are not Jewish —
they are ethnic Russians, Armenians and Ukrainians who have come to Israel with
their Jewish wives and want to fight for the existence of the Jewish country
that is now their country as well.

Every weekend after work, the fighters leave their families,
get into their cars, buy  gas, pack sandwiches and jugs of hot coffee and drive
hundreds of miles to guard settlements. They patrol from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m.,
hiding in the rocks and brush around the settlements, facing the Palestinians.
They guard just four settlements — two of them near Ramallah and Jenin — but
more than 30 others have asked for their help. Since the Battalion started
operating, not a single settlement they guard had been penetrated by

“We work with the IDF, with the general staff, with Arik
Sharon, with the local military commanders. We are not a militia, not a
guerrilla force,” Likhtenshain said. “We have recently been asked by the IDF to
provide security for Jewish holy places in East Jerusalem,” he added.

The army’s cooperation is more symbolic than substantial.
The Battalion gets no equipment, pay, gasoline, or even food. They get their
weapons from the settlements and turn them in before going home. They drive
without bulletproof vests or night vision equipment, and most importantly,
without any insurance that would provide medical care in the case of injury or
help their families if one of them is killed.

“We are not angry at the army,” Likhtenshain said. “The
economic situation is terrible. There is no money for anything. The IDF simply
can’t absorb an additional 1,000 soldiers at this time. But this is why I am
traveling in the U.S. now, speaking to the immigrant communities here. This is
their fight as well.”

Yoram has spent five days in Los Angeles speaking before
groups of mostly elderly immigrants. He has received contributions from the
veterans of the Soviet Army, from a Holocaust survivor association and from
visits to day care facilities like the one where we met the camel soldier.
There was also a good meeting with a group of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans
at a home in the Valley. Unfortunately, we were unable to arrange meetings for
him with the younger members of the Russian-speaking community, the ones who
work, earn a living and have managed to create good lives for themselves and
their families.

This disturbed me, and I mentioned it when I was asked to
say a few words as we were leaving the rest home.

“I thank all of you,” I said. “I am touched by your response
to Yoram’s story, but I wonder, where are your children? Most of you are far
from secure financially, you can barely make it from week to week, but you have
not forgotten that we, all of us, have an obligation to help. Don’t your
children — and your grandchildren — have the same obligation?” I asked. I could
see heads nodding in agreement.

“Sit down with your children,” I urged. “Talk to them. Tell
them that by skipping just one meal at a restaurant they could write a check
for $50 or $100. Tell your grandchildren that by skipping one movie and a pizza
they could send $15 or $20 to the men who are giving so much more than just

I gave them the address: Aliyah Battalion, PO Box 15268,
Rishon le Zion 75051, Israel. They promised to follow it up, to try and get a
response from the younger ones. Only time will tell if they will succeed.  

Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.